Alumni Report: The Play’s The Thing

As part of the build-up to the launch of Game Chef 2012, we’re checking in with a number of recent Game Chef “alumni” to see what their post-contest experience has been like and how their games have continued to develop. Today we spotlight Mark Truman and his Game Chef 2011 entry, The Play’s The Thing.

Tell us about your game.

The Play’s The Thing is a storytelling game about actors who want to rewrite the Shakespearean roles they’ve been given. You and your friends tell the story of an acting troupe that is scheduled to perform a new play, but the troupe has a lot of disagreements about how that play should go. While the “playwright” might present you with a classic Shakespearean folio, you’ll use your imagination and wit to craft new events and excitement out of old stories.

What state was your game in at the end of Game Chef, and where is it now?

At the end of Game Chef, I had completed about 3,500 words of the final game. I had the core mechanics written down, but I didn’t have a lot of instructions beyond the basics. In other words, it was playable… but just barely. I knew it needed a lot of work before it was ready to be turned into a final product.

Today, The Play’s The Thing is a Kickstarted, edited, and published roleplaying game of about 20,000 words. I not only expanded the basic play instructions, but also added new information about how to run a great game and 5,000 words worth of play summaries to make things easy on playwrights who want to run the game for their group. The response from our backers and customers has been overwhelmingly positive.

We were very lucky to have a successful Kickstarter for the game late last year, and the $5,692 we raised not only helped us release the game as a PDF, but it also made it possible to do a fairly large (500 copy) run of printed books. We signed a deal with Alliance last year as well that will put copies in stores across the country. In addition, we’ll be selling them via our website soon and at northeastern cons like PAX East. It’s been a dream come true.

What have you learned over the course of the game’s development?

The development process has taught me more than I could have imagined. Everything from editing to layout to budgeting has taxed my resources and made me think hard about the decisions I was making. I have a bit of small business experience, but this was a brand new industry (publishing!) and it was often hard to know if I was making the right choices.

That said, it has been an amazing experience. Kickstarter really let us connect with people who were interested in the material (50% of our backers found us through Kickstarter), and their advice and contributions have been invaluable. The money was useful to get the game done, but I think the community is even more amazing. I was a huge fan of Kickstarter before I did The Play’s The Thing but I’m an even bigger fan now.

At the same time, I’ve found that budgeting is really tough. Publishing doesn’t have huge margins, and you’ve got to keep an eye on your costs or you can end up in the red pretty quickly. For example, we offered to send books to teachers if we hit a certain goal. That got the community excited, but we didn’t really think through how much the shipping was going to be to fulfill that obligation.

In short, I’ve learned how powerful a community of fans can be, and I’ve learned to think through the promises I’m making in advance.

What are your ultimate goals for the game and how close are you to meeting those?

My ultimate goal for the game was to produce a great looking, solid book that would put my new company, Magpie Games, on the map. I’m not sure if we’ve made a big splash yet, but I’m definitely proud of the book. It’s hard for me to believe, but it looks like a real roleplaying game! That I wrote! I couldn’t be more excited.

At this point, it’s time for us to start promoting and marketing the book to people who didn’t back the Kickstarter. That process is a lot more difficult, and we’ll have to learn all new lessons to make that happen. In the meantime, we’re looking at launching our next Kickstarter project, Eternity, in May 2012, and hope to see a lot of the same community support us in the new game.

What advice would you give to other Game Chef alumns who are thinking about developing their game further?

Find great partners. I was so lucky to have John Wick edit the book and Daniel Solis do the layout. These are amazingly gifted people, and they made the book look and read so much better. And, of course, I had my partner, Marissa Kelly, doing all the amazing art. The book looks great because of these people, not because of me :)

It seems obvious, but it’s always worth remembering that the team you collect to bring your book to the market makes a huge difference. If you want to create a top quality game, talk to people who have done it before and see what kinds of advice they can give you. If you’re lucky enough to get some funding through Kickstarter, make sure to budget some of that money to hiring awesome people!

What would you tell folks thinking about participating in Game Chef for the first or second time?

My first piece of advice is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the done.” The only reason I was able to finish my Game Chef project was because I made some compromises and turned something in on time. I could have spent another month working on the game, but I cut things I loved to get it in the right shape to enter the contest. A week is a tough challenge, and time is absolutely your enemy.

That process is a great learning experience for what you have to do if you want your game to see the light of day outside of the contest. You’ve got to make tough decisions and keep the chains moving to get the game out of your head and into the hands of your audience. Time is an even bigger obstacle out in the “real world.” Game Chef is a great way to practice those skills!

More information about The Play’s The Thing is available online here.

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