Saturday, 31 October 2009

Interview with Jackson Pope of Reiver Games

Before I moved to Plymouth, I lived in the beautiful northern metropolis of York. While there I had the fortune to meet Jackson Pope through the local gaming club, we both shared a love of boardgames (and drinking beer) so got on well. Jack had just started selling his handmade game ‘Border Reivers’ under the ‘Reiver Games’ name, over time the business grew and he had a hit with ‘It’s Alive!’ (a fantastic game and one that I had the honour of helping playtest). When I moved to Plymouth we kept in touch and a couple of weeks ago, I went to visit him for a weekend of gaming and geekery at Reiver Towers. Jack is now running Reiver Games full time and while staying there I took the opportunity to ask Jack a few questions about life as a full time games designer and publisher.

I began by asking how he got started in game design.
About 8 years ago I played a game that went on for too long, 36 hours too long. At the end of it a completely random event took the guy who was winning into last place. You’ve just invested 36 hours in a winning strategy, the last thing you want is an event outside your control to suddenly put you into last place. I began thinking that a) I didn’t have time for 36 hour games, and b) I wanted to come up with a game that was less random and would play much quicker.

So you decided to come up with something yourself?
Yes, I’d always been a keen gamer, but to that point, most of my efforts had been in making bits of computer games. The amount of a working computer game you can make in your own time is about a thousandth of a working computer game, whereas I thought I could make a boardgame and get it be a finished product. Over the next three years I worked on a game which eventually became Border Reivers. I was very happy with it but I put it in a tupperware box and left it on my shelf.

A couple of years later I came back to it and thought ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got a working finished game here so I might as well do something with it’. I worked out I could make 100 copies, largely by hand, and sell them over the internet and hopefully make a little bit of money, so I did and 11 months later I’d sold them all! During that time someone else had sent me another game, which became It’s Alive. I made 300 copies of that by hand and sold them over the internet in 11 months, at that point I took the mad decision to quit my job and try and do it full time.

I knew you at the time of the It’s Alive! submission; I remember we played it and were both instantly struck by what a great game it was, though it needed a little spicing up in terms of theme. I really liked It’s Alive! right from the start, but I thought the theme of collecting different coloured candles wouldn’t sell, so I approached the designer and asked if he would mind me publishing the game with a different theme (collecting different body parts to build frankensteins monster), I was fully expecting him to say ‘No’, but he said ‘Sure, why not?’ I wet ahead and It’s Alive! became flesh. I made 300 copies by hand, inlcuding the boxes. Again they sold really well and at that point I though ‘I could sell 1000s of copies of this game.’.

So what was the tipping point in turning it from a hobby into a full time business?
I’d received a bunch of interesting game designs form various people so I hoped I’d be able to continuously get games that I’d be able to sell. Obviously I‘d had no experience selling to shops or distributors at that point.

So you were receiving submissions from people that had seen your games and been reading your blog?
Thats right, I’ve been blogging on Creation and Play for three years now, most people initially heard about me on there or on BoardGameGeek, publicising my game. I’ve now had 150 submissions; some good, some awesome, some not so awesome.

So what is a Reiver Games game? It’s Alive! and Border Reivers are very different, what is the common factor between them?
I’m interesting in publishing games that I think are really good. I don’t think they have to be the same sort of game, i’m not just looking to publish ‘this sort of game’ in six different flavours. It doesn’t matter what kind of games they are, if I think I can sell them and I think they are good then i’ll go for it, whether it’s similar to what i’ve done before or not.

You focus on boardgames, (Eurogames or Gamers’ Games), how far are you prepared to shift towards mass market games?
To be successful with a mass market game you have to do a large print run that you can get them manufactured very cheaply. I don’t have the capital or the interest or the industry contacts to do that so I’m mostly interested in smaller games. I’m prepared to shift a little to do light fun ‘filler’ games or light wargames, but I’m not looking to do the next trivial pursuit or monopoly.

So you’re not prepared to compromise on quality. Where do you place the balance between the perfect game and the game that will sell well?
If I cant sell it then it not worth me making it, I don’t have a huge amount of industry experience so when I make a decision, I may be right or wrong. I look for a game that I love, and if I love it then I hope I’m not the only one. I hope that my taste in games is not so esoteric that I’m the only one that likes it. Ideally I will sell all the games, or at least enough to break even, otherwise I’m just throwing money away. Theres so much competition in the market that if I put out a game that is just ‘good’ i don’t have the marketing budget so that t will sell despite only being an average game.

You’ve mentioned previously on your blog the difference between a good game and a great game...
What I need is a game that somebody sits down and plays and says ‘That is absolutely awesome, I need to buy that!’, not ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty good game, lets play something else’. So how easy is it to spot a game that provokes that reaction? It something I’m working on! Though I think I’ve played enough games to know that if I play a game that i think is awesome, then other people are going to think the same. I get a few games that are interesting enough, and with a bit of work they can be awesome, so I’m prepared to put a bit of effort in to bring them up to that point. If I get a game that has nothing special about it; if it’s the 30th game I’ve seen that week on medieval trading in Europe and it an average game then I’ll probably say no.

From all the submissions you receive, what is the most common mistake game designers make?
Making a game I can’t play; if components are missing or so badly made I can’t use them, or if the rules have been sent previously by email and not included in the box, then I get it out to play and can’t because I don’t know what the rules are!

Do you get a lot of clones of popular games such as Monopoly and Carcassone?
A lot of the former, not so many of the latter; generally if someone knows Carcassone, the games they are going to come up with are going to be interesting enough to be different, whereas if all someone knows is Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk, then there’s a good chance that then game they send me is going to be Monopoly with different cards and a different shaped board. Those sort of games come out all the time and they probably sell tens of thousands of copies, but if you’re Hasbro, you can afford to take a gamble on that, unfortunately I’m not Hasbro and I cant do that. That’s probably the most common failing I get in game submissions, they’re not the type of game that I want to publish. They’re not necessarily a bad game, I’m just not interested in doing them.

You’re going to Essen soon, the highlight of the gaming calendar, you were there last year, what’s that like?
Essen is like nothing else, you get 150,000 gamers, mainly German families and game geeks. The people who come from further afield are generally hardcore gamers, people from Europe, Australia and the USA. It’s amazing, at the weekend it’s so busy you can hardly walk around the busiest halls, you just have to follow the crowd.

How is the experience as a trader?
You spend 4 days solidly playing your games, over and over and over again and you’ve got to be enthusiastic about it. Everytime you sit down to play you have to be like ‘This is the best game ever, how cool is this!?’ It gets a bit difficult after four days of playing! It’s really really hard work, but it’s great exposure, a great place to meet people in the industry and you can earn an awful lot.

What did you learn and what will you be doing differently this year?
I’ve put more effort into advertising my games beforehand, last year I mentioned on BGG I was going, but I didn’t put a huge amount of effort into it. This time I’ve put more money into advertising, letting people know where I’m going to be including a lot of German websites, trying to hit people that are going and trying to raise awareness of my games. Hopefully the more people that come and play, the more people will like the games and the more people will buy them.

When making those first handmade copies of Border Reivers did you ever image you’d get to this point?
No! Ha ha! All I was trying to do with Border Reivers was achieve something to say ‘look what I’ve done’. I thought it went well, and it was pretty cool, but I didn’t think it was a viable business. getting It’s Alive! out and getting good feedback from it changed things. I realised I couldn’t design all my own games but if I could find good and interesting games I could run it as a company and that made a big difference.
What advice would you give to someone who said ‘I want to run a Boardgames company’?
The biggest thing is to test your games, test them and test them and test them. A lot of people come to me with a game that they’ve made and played with their friends and family who don’t to hurt their feelings and they all say it’s great. But unless you’ve got 4000 friends and family, that’s not going to cut it. You need honest feedback telling you how good a game really is, without that you can’t make an objective decision about how good the game actually is.

So if all goes well at Essen, what are your plans? Where do you see the business going? Bigger than Games Workshop?
I’d like to get the company to the stage where it can pay me a decent wage and maybe employ a couple more people. If I could get to the size of Fantasy Flight I’d be delighted, I’m not interested in the Games Workshop business model, I would’t want ten thousand Reiver Games shops around the world that only sell my products. Just being able to pay myself a decent wage would be a good start!

Any other thoughts?
Buy lots of Reiver Games, they’re awesome!

You can read a full review of how Jack got on at Essen on his blog, Creation and Play and visit the Reiver Games site to see all the fantastic games currently for sale.

All artwork copyright Reiver Games.

1 comment:

Shelexie said...

Really nice write up! Thanks for the link. I am headed there now to check out the games.