Small Games and Large Games

I've had a thought bouncing around my head lately. Mostly because I'm aiming to focus on a larger game as my next project, whereas all my past games have been smaller in scope.

I don't know that this is terribly practical info, per se. It won't tell you how to approach your next game, or even what size game to work on next. But I think it is accurate and has certainly been a factor in my game design journey, even before it had formed as a conscious thought in my head. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, either, but I thought it a useful nugget to write down.

That thought?

When you are first starting out with game design, small projects are good, but they are not attractive to publishers until you have published a larger game first.

I'll bet you could think of some games that break this mold. But I think this is largely true for many designers, especially if going out to conventions and meeting with all kinds of new people is hard for you to do (considering that personal connections are so valuable in this industry). Personally, I go to the conventions, but have a really hard time connecting with a lot of people. I'd much rather find a few people and get to know them a little better, but even that is really hard for me.

This idea of the weird dichotomy of small and large games has a few implications, and may help explain why, in the board game industry, it is commonly understood that the first game is the hardest to publish.

The first segment of this seems like common enough knowledge. When you are first starting out with game design, small projects are good. Not that everybody knows it, but as soon as you jump onto a game design forum with your big idea for a great game that's going to be great because it's so cool, inevitably you will hear some people recommend that you table that idea, and start with a small project.

It's also common wisdom in other businesses and hobbies. Start small. Baby steps. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Chew your food 24 times. Maybe not that last one. But the point stands. If it turns out that board game design isn't for you, you haven't wasted much time. If it reels you in like it has so many others, it gives you an early win that will keep you designing more and more.

As I said before, I have pretty much only designed small games so far. Personally, I love small games for their highly focused experiences. There is also tons space to try new things in small games, because the core experience is pretty much the entire game. Big games need a lot of familiar systems in order for a player not to get overwhelmed, but in a small game you can experiment to your heart's content, because players only need to learn the one thing.

But despite this, I haven't had any bites from publishers (yet). I'm also not counting my self-published title, SysHack, because third-party publishers don't, either. It succeeded on Kickstarter, sure, but not to such a degree that it would turn other publishers' heads in my direction.

But let's think of this in another field: programming. Small projects are absolutely essential to getting good. Building, say, a Chrome extension, is a neat project, but nobody will pay you money for the benefit of using it. What people need and what they are willing to pay money for is the big programs: Word, Photoshop, etc.

And so it is with board games: Many of the big name designers' defining successes were with a big game. Matt Leacock has Pandemic. Antoine Bauza has Takenoko. Friedmann Friess has Power Grid. It's not to say they don't have smaller games. They do, and those games are often great. But it's not what made them household names (or, as household as a game designer's name can be).

Again, this isn't a terribly actionable thought. Other than having a vague idea of practicing by making fun small games. And by all means, if you are constantly getting great feedback on a small game and it's nice and unique and refined, pitch it to publishers who may want a small game like yours. Sometimes that works.

But if you find yourself short on publishers who are interested in your small games, maybe think about if you want to make a big game to build the case for your smaller games.