SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: The following article has some name-dropping and a fair amount of humblebrag. It also has some information and stuff. Consult your doctor before swimming with a shark.
The big, exciting news of the week in the gaming world is that Tabletop has been picked up for a second season, which also goes nicely with this Saturday being Tabletop Day. The effect that Tabletop has had on the gaming industry cannot be overstated. While drawing any conclusions about the hobby game industry as a whole is a tricky proposition at best, there has been some evidence from various sources that more people are buying board games (and some RPGs) as a direct result of the show, and there are statistics like the number of views on the episodes that demonstrate that there’s a lot of people out there who are interested, in some way, in games.
I have a very small part in Tabletop, as my game Get Bit! was one of three games featured in their casual games episode. Or to put it more accurately, it’s not false modesty to say that Tabletop would have been a huge success without my game, but Tabletop has made a significant impact upon my game’s success.
With that in mind, I get asked relatively often how it came about. It’s not a story that I think is duplicatable for other game designers (though I’ll tackle that question specifically later), it just might provide some insight into how it all came about, and how having some advantages plus working hard plus getting lucky can lead to some pretty cool things.
A Brief History of Getting Bit
I designed the game that would become Get Bit! somewhere in the neighborhood of 2005-2006. That’s a whole story on its own, including its publication in 2007 by a very small game company that I was working with at the time: practically self-publishing, though with none of my own money. 500 of that original edition were made, and there were a few production issues. It also was very expensive to produce: each one of the plastic swimmer guys cost around $.60-$1 each to make, even before the cards, box, etc. were made, effectively putting it out of reach of distribution in game stores.
That meant there was a few years in there that my primary method of promotion for the game was handing the game to people at conventions. The most effective- in terms of marketing and getting the word out- were handing it to game reviewers like Tom Vasel and Scott Nicholson. There were other times when I’d just hand it to gamers at a convention who I knew wanted one. (Remember, they weren’t in distribution, so ordering from the website was really the only way to get it, which is certainly a barrier.) In this time, I was also looking for a publisher who could make the plastic swimmer dudes (and a shark!) and also get the game into distribution.
March 2010, the first PAX East. I was down to my last few copies of the original edition of Get Bit! while the new publisher was still getting things going. This was the first con where both Wil Wheaton and I would be in the same place, and I knew he was a fan of this very blog, so I wanted to meet him.
Phil recounted their meeting on the first day, and then we stood in line for one of his signings, which produced the picture to the right. There was a certain amount of geek-outing (to my surprise, this was a mutual geek-out, not just me gushing about how much I enjoyed his work and his writing.) At the end, I gave Wil a copy of Get Bit! and said it was my game, and I just wanted him to have a copy. Simple as that.
I didn’t hear anything from him about the game after that, and that was OK. Like the other times I gave the game out, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to hear back about it. I didn’t even blog here about the meeting (too busy blogging to brag), as cool as it was.
September 2011 saw the Kickstarter to produce the brand new edition of Get Bit! in larger numbers, to get into distribution finally, adding a (completely non-infringing) shark, including a rulebook that I actually wrote, and adjusting a few other production issues. Production for Get Bit! had already been in progress but the Kickstarter allowed the whole thing to get funded for a larger run, and did well enough to make the Sharkspansion a reality, my favorite way to play the game.
February 1st, 2012. I was at home, when a direct message on Twitter popped up:
Would you give me your number so I can call you? It’s about Get Bit. -@wilw
That’s a message that will get my attention.
That phone call is when I would find out about Tabletop. This was before the Geek & Sundry channel (or indeed, any of the crop of YouTube-funded channels) would be announced at all. This meant keeping it a secret, despite wanting to shout it from the top of the Internet rooftops.
Wil explained that he wanted to feature some lesser-known games (mine certainly qualified under that label) and how much he enjoyed Get Bit! There were some logistical bits of course: since this was an official production, the publisher had to sign off to agree to appear on the show.
I knew there wouldn’t be an objection, but getting the paperwork figured out while the publisher was in China overseeing the next print run lead to no small amount of anxiety on my part and some running around the house. Additionally, the current print run funded by the Kickstarter was totally sold out, so there weren’t any extras at the company to send over. This necessitated dropping two of my last personal copies (along with some Sharkspansions for good measure) into a Fedex box and overnighting it to California.
Then after that, it involved waiting. And not telling anybody. Did I mention waiting?
YOU Are Going to…
Geek & Sundry would be unveiled in stages at a few conventions the months following. Fortunately, one of the early ones talked about Tabletop and mentioned that Get Bit! would be one of them. During those early announcements, I found out that my friends at Looney Labs would also have a game featured, so I was able to compare some notes with them.
I fully expected it to be a while before the episode featuring Get Bit! was included, based on the timelines involved and a few other rumors.
Instead, it was the third episode.
It so happened that I was at a game convention when I saw the preview following Settlers of Catan, and also found out it would be alongside two other casual games that I absolutely adore: Zombie Dice and Tsuro.
Two weeks later, there it was. Let’s just say I didn’t get much work done on that particular Friday. I would feel safe calling it a thrill to see my game played on a platform seen by so many people. (Since then, it’s also appeared on Ottawa Morning Live and even briefly unnamed in Good Morning America.)
Faster Than Your Friends
Anecdotally, the “Tabletop Effect” has meant more sales, particularly from FLGS, for games featured on Tabletop. Get Bit! appears to be no exception. However, it IS an exception in one way: it wasn’t in stock (between printings) when the episode dropped, so anyone who wanted to run out and buy it most likely wasn’t able to. (There were some copies available through Amazon, which the episode linked to, but the overall distribution in stores definitely struggled.)
Most of the other games featured have a larger, established game company behind them. Additionally, Get Bit! might be the most difficult-to-manufacture game out of any of the ones already featured because of the plastic swimmers. Keeping it in stock seems like a challenge because of these factors, though I’ll admit that as the game designer and not the publisher, I only have limited insight into a lot of those inner workings.
I’m not complaining though: while Get Bit! definitely had its fans prior to Tabletop, there’s definitely been a big boost. I’m sure it’s been a factor in translating it into 4 different languages for international editions (which lead to a game of the year nomination for the French edition), as well as winning the Origins Award for Best Children’s, Family, or Party game.
On top of all that, I occasionally get to hear from families who play with their kids (to be honest, I never thought of it as a kids’ game while developing it, what with the limb removal and all), a fixture of game nights, and game designers I admire playing and enjoying it. I also see a lot of swimmers posed in various ways: I’ve said before that the pieces are the best part of the game.
Tabletop is a great show, and a great boon to hobby gamers and the hobby game industry everywhere. Even if my game weren’t featured, I’d still think this. It’s a big deal to me personally and a mark of pride. It doesn’t mean that I can quit my day job (or stop designing new games). It’s just one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.
I’ll close with some:
Frequently Sharked Questions (OK, that one is a stretch)
How do I get my game on Tabletop?
I don’t really know; I’ve laid out pretty much everything I did above, and I’m pretty sure that’s not repeatable. I know I’ve seen Wil at shows being handed piles of games (a terrible fate, indeed, to be handed piles of free games.) I would be surprised as Season 2 gets rolling if they haven’t already figured out what they want to feature, and/or develop a process for submitting games.
Why don’t they feature [my favorite game]?
From what I’ve heard, some games just don’t film well, or don’t fit well into the format. Also as explained above, my game is one of the smallest (in terms of print runs) to be featured, and that lead into some problems, so I suspect that they want to make sure that a game is able to be stocked well enough too. None of this (like the rest of the article) is insider knowledge, just my best guess from what’s been said.
Are you mad they got the rules wrong?
Not really: like the other episodes, I think hardcore game folks are more upset about it then the game designers or other people involved. It really isn’t an indepth teaching show, it provides an overview, which makes it easier to read the rules later and understand how the game is played. I’m confidant that if you buy Get Bit! you’ll probably read the rules instead of trying to learn entirely from Tabletop.
That said, there’s a rule that prevents one player from getting stuck in the back, and the episode does demonstrate why that rule exists…
Can you tell Wil Wheaton [X thing]?
Maybe, random person asking this question. But I probably won’t. He’s a busy guy, what with making more Tabletop and recalibrating the deflector dish and whatnot. He’s super nice though, and has twitter and a blog that you’ve probably heard of. Maybe try there?
What games do you most want to see on Tabletop?
Avoiding anything self-serving, Werewolf would be pretty great, though you’d have to get at least 9 celebrities in a room. (I heard The Resistance was happening in the new season, which will be slick.) King of Tokyo is a recent favorite that I think would work really well in the format. More RPGs would be good: Dread seems ideal, since it has a very obvious central piece to focus on. And my super nerdy wishlist would be a Leverage reunion over a session of the Leverage RPG.
What’s been your one take away about the whole experience?
If you’re a game designer, give away your game to people you think will like it, no strings attached. You never know what will happen.