Last night, at our usual game night (whereupon I inflict all kinds of prototype board games on fellow game designers and expert playtesters) I brought something I call a “proto-game” – not quite something I could call a full game, more of a proof-of-concept to see if there’s anything there from a core idea, and with the minimal components needed to test it out.
I liked how it went, it had some fun moments, and could definitely be developed into something more playable with a bit of development in making a bunch of cards. However, afterward, I was pretty sure the game would be unpublishable. Which lead to the question: what makes a game publishable?
First, I am looking at this from the point of view of a freelance game designer. There’s lots and lots of reasons a game publisher won’t publish your game: that doesn’t make the game unpublishable. It’s more me deciding which games that are worth my development time, and further down the road, if any amount of development would produce a game I think I could sell to a publisher. There are plenty of games and game concepts that I could just put on a website for free (which is totally cool), it’s just not considered “publishing” for these purposes.
Not Enough Depth Compared to What It Would Take to Make
I primarily design games on the light to medium weight. Even then, I try to design games that provide engaging experiences and tough decisions. If I make a game that has a fun concept, but just doesn’t seem like it could go the distance and be something people would want to play multiple times, that can be one sign. However, the bigger issue is when you factor in what it would cost to make the game. If it’s a game that would only be interesting for a few games, but would require hundreds of cards to work properly, I’d put that in the unpublishable pile.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a game like Love Letter and similar microgames. The ratio of amount of gameplay embedded to number of components is fantastic. That is a game that needed to be published.
Components Too Elaborate and Other Logistical Concerns
Your game may involve a handcut board, hundreds of cards, a leatherbound journal, custom miniatures, funny dice, and a custom app. Some companies can get away with it, and those games certainly do exist, but it raises a much higher barrier. Again, if the gameplay doesn’t stack up to needing all those parts, it’s probably going to be unpublishable (and a heck of a project to prototype it in the first place.)
Likewise, if your game requires difficult logistics (sometimes this is involved in card layouts, specific shuffling methods, having to balance components precisely, etc.) then it’s an extra barrier to publication. My game last night wasn’t too extreme (it would have worked better in an app), it just contributed to that feeling.
Difficulty Finding an Audience
While I prize innovation quite a bit in game design, there are some games that break with too many conventions or expectations to really be publishable. For example, my friend James has a wonderful adventure game with elements of strategy and hand management. It also has a mechanism by which you spell out words from the cards in your hand in order to “cast a spell” and then you try and explain to the other players what that spell would do. It’s a lot of fun… with the right group. It’s the kind of game that you could never play in a competitive setting though because it would need an outside, impartial judge of what’s acceptable.
You can also push a game into unpublishable if it requires a very specific audience or skillset. If it can only be played effectively by people with advanced math backgrounds, it’s going to be a challenge.
All That Said…
Even if a game is unpublishable through traditional channels, it doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Just the opposite, really. A game concept that is unpublishable can be refined and altered, or used as inspiration for another game entirely, or as a piece of a bigger experience.
Or even if there’s no way to save it, it’s a useful exercise for game design practice. For me, trying out games like that helps clear out the idea and make way for other ones without ever wondering if the idea is viable. Like many other skills, game design gets easier with practice. Your goal doesn’t always have to be a publishable game: your goal can just be to become a better game designer.