Commercial Development, State of the Art

GMT Games represents the industry standard. There are smaller publishers who do a better job on a unit basis, but nobody moves more good product than they. Over the years GMT have published developer’s reports and interviews but there is no explicit notion of how development proceeds in their shop. When putting up titles for P500 orders, developers will advocate or introduce a design . Whatever GMT is is doing, works. Although my query to Gene Billingsley, the company’s president, went unanswered we have the following from Boardgame Geek:

We tell the developers that their job is not to change the designer’s game or even modify it. It’s to give him clear feedback and let the designer make updates/corrections before a new version goes back to the testers. So the developer running the test process frees the designer to observe, listen, and then work on addressing any issues without the time sink of having to worry about all the interactions of the testing process. During final pre-production, the developers are really useful in helping the designer catch any errors that creep in during the final art/layout process. All in all, developers just make our products better.

So the role is one between a game organizer, catching observations as they rise from playtest, and a production editor. Contrary to popular notions, development isn’t a step between design and playtesting. This is Do-No-Harm development; not Berg’s synthetic-creative relationship.

I’m not sure how much sense it makes to talk about a state-of-the-art in magazine game publishing, if not because comparing them is difficult, given their varying publication schedules then for the logic that they publish games, after all, which are not so different from those that come in boxes on a more stately schedule. If you want to argue that magazine games are rough drafts, I’ll give little argument. If you say that that buyer expectations should be lower, I’ll refer you to my previous argument that the hobby is so crowded that bad games are driving out the good.

Decision Games, the inheritor of SPI’s imprimatur, and presumably some of its production practices, is quite straightforward. At this writing, the following job listing is open:

…[W]ork as a part-time contractor and meet with the Managing Game Developer and Publisher at least once per year. …responsibility for the overall quality of assigned games of a particular type (magazine, mini/folio, or boxed history strategy games, science-fiction themed, or Euro-style), assigned game audience development, direction of assigned Play Testers, and development of assigned game projects. He/she coordinates development efforts through Play Tester reports, progress reports to and discussion with the Managing Game Developer, and the proofing of component/art files. This individual coordinates schedules with and reports to the Managing Game Developer.

Additional duties and responsibilities listed are oversight of game publication process; communication with the design, development, and production teams; and, responsibility over printer’s proofs and freelance proofreaders.

The following is notable:

Ensures audience development from previews and discussion of assigned games during development through responding to game play questions and providing gamer support after publication.

Ummm, yeah. Did you get the memo about the TPS reports?

You had me at part-time with obligatory travel. Intermediary reporting just sealed the deal! Add to that responsibility for customer outreach and advocacy and one wonders what part the publisher plays other than run the presses. It is clear, albeit hierarchical, but also a rather tall order for flat-fee compensation. One can dream, I suppose. There is no mention of matching particular historical expertise to designs. Both of these professional descriptions are centered on coordination and production control, an emphasis different from editor and movie director metaphors. Development is more scut work than top-down direction.

Mark Walker, of Tiny Battle Publishing, is considerably more utilitarian and to-the-point. A recent ConsimWorld Post:

I’m specifically looking for a person who can take what the designer deems to be a completed design, test it, eliminate silly-ass mistakes, such as “Set up on this hex” when “this hex” isn’t on the map, or “conduct ranged fire in the Ranged Fire Phase” when there is no such phase (it’s called a combat phase) or misspellings, poor grammar or mistakes on the counters or any of a million other things. I’m not looking for someone who tries to redesign a design…

Berg’s synthetic notion is out the door. This is production-oriented line editing. An interview at Grogheads suggests that the think-tank model no longer applies in the new golden age, at least at Tiny Battles:

What we don’t do is extensive development. If a designer can’t give us a completed game, we don’t want it. The role of the developer has become greatly exaggerated in today’s wargaming scene. I’ve met first-time designers who don’t feel it is their responsibility to test their own designs. They’re wrong.

This is something much more than Do Not Harm. Call it GIGO, or garbage-in, garbage out. It won’t do to submit grotty boxes of glued-together prototype counters rendered freehand with a few sheets of notebook paper, I guess. Walker wants to turn the presses, certainly, but he seemingly wants more forethought than designers traditionally apply.

8 thoughts on “Commercial Development, State of the Art”

  1. “So the developer running the test process frees the designer to observe, listen, and then work on addressing any issues without the time sink of having to worry about all the interactions of the testing process. During final pre-production, the developers are really useful in helping the designer catch any errors that creep in during the final art/layout process. ”

    There is no doubt that Gene wrote this and believes it, but my experiences (which may be outliers) with GMT have been the exact opposite. I’m listed in 2 GMT games as one of the rules proofreaders, and in both cases, I was recruited, directed and interacted exclusively with the game designer, I couldn’t tell you the developer for either game. As I said, perhaps these 2 designers are exceptions, and I have no idea if the designer or developer was running the actual playtesting, I was there strictly for rules proofing.

  2. Really interesting, Ron. Proofreading games is very, very difficult. Part of what I’m trying to show is that they remain a cottage industry, even with publishers as successful as GMT. And it is far better to express an ideal and not to follow it, than it is to reinvent the wheel with every project. Standardization has benefits as obvious as they are large. Another example I might have cited is Against the Odds, who have specific submission guidelines ( They save themselves a ton of work! With this exception,wargames publishing is neither fish nor fowl. We’re still recovering from the DTP revolution of the early nineties…

  3. When GMT asked me to work on Colonial Twilight, I got a developer assigned to me once I had worked out the basics of the game. Well, not “assigned” so much as, “well, we have this guy, who has worked on this and that in such and such a capacity, he might be good but do you have anyone else in mind?” And that was fine with me, because no one had asked me that sort of question before.
    Things went well and more or less as Gene envisioned it in the above. He made up a Vassal module and taught me how to use it (something I did not know before), we worked through a bunch of test games ourselves and ironed out a bunch of points – he was very forward with suggestions and definitely improved the game over what I had at the beginning.
    From then on it was wider playtesting and discussing the results with the testers on a Google group; he would alter the Vassal module people were using for testing as we went along. After a while he had to hang back and took less of a role, because real life intervened in the form of his second child (originally, he was going to write the ‘bot for the game, something I had no interest or ability in, and that went sideways until a brilliant Finn stopped his work on Cubano Invierno and saved the bacon, for which I am grateful). So I ended up doing a lot of final proofreading and checking and approving of art etc. that he might have done, including rewriting and formatting the rules per the GMT style guide which eventually came my way.

    On the whole things went well, and the way I think they ought to go every time (except for babies arriving to distract us).
    And I’m pleased with the final product.
    But it took 2 1/2 years.

  4. Probably the time it takes to produce a game is well longer than that for a book. I think, too, good games influence on a longer wavelength than applies for books.

    1. Certainly it can take a very long time.
      But sometimes I want my games to come out in 48 hours, like Ukrainian Crisis.
      It’s like jazz, man…
      *snaps fingers*
      Get it quick, get it done, worry about get it right later, meanwhile you have put a sandbox together for people to explore….

      Good games influence game designers, I’m not so sure they influence players the way good books can influence both readers and writers.
      And there’s an awful lot more money in books.

      1. Within the, ahem, dialectic of games if you’ll permit me to get all po-mo about it, influence proceeds on a literary model. That is, good game designers struggle against strong precursors, just as poets and authors do. They have to identify differences and productively efface them. When I say “games” take a long time, I mean more than just a design. The reception of a game is part of the game, too. Which means indulgent games, those that aren’t meant to be played more than two or three times, have very limited influence. Most are still laboring in the shadow of 1970s monsters. Unless, like you, a decision has been made to open games to other sorts of conflict. I can think of at least two long-range (and inter-related) tendencies in wargames. The arrival of Pol-Mil games is the crest of a very long wave that will continue to unfurl for decades. Chaotic injection, or temporary suspensions of the regular course of play, seems to have reached full amplitude in the mid eighties. There are other axes but typically they don’t get set up in forty-eight hours.

        Games which merit prolonged player attention are also part of “what makes a game”. If a culture of mastery can come up around them, you have a powerful thing indeed. As I said in the post, I don’t like separating magazine games from the ensemble, partly because it is unfair to the consumer, or because it lets the publisher off the hook for development, but mostly because it indulges the worst instincts of designers. The promise of “development” is mostly a pretext fo the creation of a game for which nobody really wants to bear the responsibility for injecting into the culture.

  5. Forgive me, I post on one of your blog entries, and then I don’t come back to see what others have said for a couple weeks.

    I totally agree that game design/development is a cottage industry. Given the economics of game publishing, I am not sure HOW to standardize portions of the design side. There is money for designers and possibly developers, but beyond that, what? The very best playtesters and proofreaders in the land MIGHT get paid with a free game, but that is all, and hardly the basis for standardizing, let alone elevating, the industry wide skill level.

    1. Curatorial maintenance is not growth. And I think the cottage model is ripe for change. There is more demand for good games than first-edition printings allow. We’re all familiar with not being able to buy a GMT title, owing to the throttling that P500 introduces into the publishing cycle. Yes, I understand P500 minimizes risk. It also minimizes opportunity. New printings of a new edition of Twilight Struggle sell out quickly. There are no or few copies to be had at FLGSs, so people turn to the secondary market, destroying any profit GMT might have realized. This has to change. Why?

      Because of the “no money for anyone” problem. Solve that and a good part of industry still doesn’t understand how to support (or exploit) new designs. So you get grotesque games like NWL. The production machine can’t work efficiently or at scale if production works differently every time a decision has been made to publish. I think the key is implied throughout this series of articles. Decent development, playtesting, and publishing depends to a large extent on physical proximity. But, as I’ll conclude in this series, I think right now the right move for designers is to take SPI-like development out of the equation. The best way of avoiding your design being given the awful treatment 3LW received at DG is to give priority of submission to publishers fully who have a demonstrated record. But take the time to be sure your game is fully developed and playtested first.

      I suspect most designers do this anyway. Prospective designers, rather than bemoan local conditions, should work to improve local conditions. Do you see the potential snowball effect? I’m frustrated with this meek acceptance that everything be just good enough. Because, eventually but surely, that meekness is drawn by capillary effect all the way into game play. “Games are in competition with video games, wah, wah, wah,” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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