The Board Game Design Course

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Game Design

When you should pay for game design content (and when you shouldn’t)

Not too long ago, I chimed in on a Facebook post about Protospiel Online, which was the virtual version of the live game design weekends that normally happen throughout the year, and the discussion quickly went into the cost and benefits of the event.

My stance was that I am more likely to attend and value something (in this case, a ticket to an event) if I have put down my hard-earned money on it.

There were questions about the value of free content, what an event like this was worth, and a whole host of other inquiries.

It led to some good discussions and understandings of various opinions on these matters.

It also got me thinking about how we sometimes take things for granted. We’ve become conditioned to expect to get so much for free (blogs, videos, advice) without even thinking about it. But, as creators, there comes a point where we must understand that our time is valuable and we can’t make a living off of doing everything for free.

Looking back on this, I felt it would make for an interesting article. So, let’s go down the rabbit hole and see where we end up!

The importance of free content

While I feel it is important for people to be compensated in some way for their time, whether they have done some graphic design work for you, volunteered at your booth, or helped out in one of numerous ways, I very much do also believe that producing free content and helping others, especially those who are just starting out, is very important.

Heck, I wouldn’t be writing a blog on game design every week, doing free trainings every month, sharing lessons learned on my Kickstarter campaign, or answering people’s game design questions if I didn’t think this was valuable. I absolutely want to help others, as I had to figure this all out myself for the most part, and I want to make it easier on new designers.

I’ve also consumed lots of great and helpful free content over the years, including James Mathe’s blog and Jamey Stegmaier’s Kickstarter Lessons Learned. So, if I were to say that every piece of content made should be paid content, I would be a hypocrite. I have definitely benefited from this myself.

It’s also one of the things I love about the board game design community. Everyone is so willing to help each other out. A rising tide raises all ships.

But does mean that EVERYTHING out there should be free?

When should you be willing to pay?

While I love Jamey’s blog and have learned a lot from his free content, I also gladly paid to pick up his Crowdfunder’s Guide book. Sure, I could have just read over his Kickstarter Lessons again and again, but this book curated all that content into one resource, put everything in an order that flowed seamlessly, and he added a lot more details about the campaigns that he ran and why they were successful (along with additional lessons he learned). For me, it was well worth the price.

In my recent Kickstarter campaign, I was fortunate to get a ton of free reviews (some reviewers even came to me!). But there was one I paid for. When you can put your game in front of someone’s audience of almost 100,000 subscribers, I feel this is worth the investment. But I’m also going to be sending a free copy of my game to all the other reviewers as well. It’s just a small way to say thank you to those who helped push my campaign forward and find potential backers.

There’s also a myriad of free virtual playtesting groups online. So, why would anyone pay good money for an online Protospiel event?

For me, I’m willing to pay for the experience.

You can watch a movie at home for free. There’s nothing wrong with that. But many are willing to pay to see a movie in the theater.


They are paying for the experience. They also want to be among the first to see that movie and don’t want to have to wait. They’re paying for some exclusivity.

Similarly, people can play games in the comfort of their home or at a friend’s house for free. So, why on Earth are tens of thousands of people flocking to Cons (ok, not this year, but there’s a whole other reason for that) and paying good money (including travel and accommodation expenses) to play games year after year after year?

Again, it is the experience.

Attendees can meet up with people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. They can pick up that hot new game. They can sit in on demos of a game that looks awesome and they otherwise might not have heard of. The reasons go on and on. Some people justify going by making this their vacation. They value the event and are willing to pay for it.

I’ve been to plenty of free design nights at local game stores, board game cafes, and people’s homes. They’re free and they happen quite regularly. So, why in the world would I spend hundreds of dollars to be away from my family for multiple days to attend a Protospiel???

As my good friend and oft co-designer Sylvain says, “One Protospiel is worth more than 20 Snakes & Lattes (a local board game café) game design nights.”

You’re going to play your game with lots of new people.

You’re going to have the opportunity to talk and learn from many other game designers.

And best of all, you’re not going to be under the pressure to try to fit in just one playtest of your game in a short 4-5 hour window at an event (which many designers feel). You have a whole weekend, usually 3 full days, to playtest your game multiple times with different people, or break out a number of your own prototypes that need some attention. Plus, the games are often better, as the people who attend these events are more serious about their games. All this in a much more relaxed environment.

That’s something I’m willing to pay for. Maybe not every single month, but I love attending Protospiels whenever I am able.

Still, it’s not exactly the same as the real thing

Now, while an online Protospiel isn’t exactly the same as a real-life Protospiel, the organizers have done a fantastic job automating the server, providing a “Coffee Talk” area for socializing, and staffed the entire event 24-7 with moderators to help you find playtesters. Not to mention the design challenges, opportunities to talk to the press, scholarships for those who can’t afford the cost of a ticket (inclusion), and donating proceeds to charity.

For me, these features set Protospiel Online way apart from your average virtual playtesting group.

Everyone has to decide for themselves what an event like this is worth and whether they just want to attend the free events instead.

That’s totally fine. Many options are available to everyone, regardless of where you live and what your situation is.

For me, the experience and feeling of being welcomed, always being able to find playtesters, having an opportunity to chat with other designers in a relaxed environment, and multiple days dedicated to playtesting are enough for me to feel that an event like this is worth the price.

What other reasons would you pay for content? Please hit the comment button below and let me know!

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