Alternative Themes with Andrew Russell Birkett

Posted by Daniel Zayas January 18, 2018 in Advice

Andrew Russell Birkett has been an industry colleague for some years now, and he has produced a few games with what you wouldn’t really consider as standard theming. From Cul-de-Sac Conquest to his upcoming project, Ruins of Mars, Andrew really has an eye for creativity. His latest game, Supernatural Socks, fully displays that commitment to alternative themes, so I invited Andrew to discuss briefly the creative process that goes into theming a board game.

You can support Supernatural Socks on Kickstarter here.

How many times has laundry been taken out of the dryer only to find that somehow a sock had disappeared? This has led to the age-old question: where do these socks go? This dilemma led to the creation of Supernatural Socks, a light and silly set collection game for 2-4 players that plays in 15-30 minutes. This is Atheris’ third game, and so far they’ve all had quite quirky themes. As a writer, I enjoy coming up with clever and unique themes. I have simultaneously wondered if these themes would appeal to our audience and distinguish Atheris Games from other publishers. Should unique themes be developed or are publishers better off avoiding quirky themes?

Before deciding how to theme my games, there are a few things I do.

Get Feedback from Potential Customers

There is a lot to take into account when deciding how to come up with a theme for a game. Though mechanisms also matter, a game’s theme can potentially cause it to falter in the same way weak mechanisms would. Since deciding a theme is so essential, a publisher must do some substantial research.

When I was coming up with Atheris’ first game, Cul-De-Sac Conquest, the idea of a game about neighbors trying to annoy their neighbors out of the neighborhood sounded funny to me. It was a massive shift from the war game I was initially going to work on with a few friends. I told my co-designers my theme idea, and they liked it. However, even though we were excited about a retheme, we knew our customers would have to like it as well.

As a company, it is great to create a game that the owners love and enjoy. However, every company needs customers in order to stay in business. Creating something that fits too small of a niche might never be able to see the light of day. We posted about the theme in some of the board game Facebook groups. The reception to the game idea was overwhelmingly positive, so we decided to proceed.

Will Theme Allow for New Mechanisms?

Some game themes might be considered unique only because no other company would be willing to utilize them – potentially for good reasons. Not all game themes would allow for exciting mechanisms while also staying true to the theme.

This is not easy. Creating mechanisms that feel thoroughly intertwined with a game’s theme can be quite the challenge, especially for developers who wish to make clever themes. However, matching mechanisms to the theme is necessary for games that look to standout based on their clever storylines.

Do the Mechanisms and Art Style Reflect the Target Demographic?

A publisher at some point must decide if the mechanisms and the art styles would fit the game. Additionally, a publisher needs to know if the target demographic would purchase it.

As an obvious example, if I’m trying to appeal to kids, then I should keep the artwork PG. Though, if I’m targeting an adult audience, I can afford a considerable degree of violence and other graphic content. As a company gets more granular about the data of who their customers are, they can learn surprising insights into things to do and things to avoid.

So, Now What?

Once I know there is demand for a clever theme, know that the game mechanisms match, and know my target demographic would like the product, I’m done, right? Wrong.

Though I have likely taken a lot of time and invested considerable energy into the project already, I evaluate whether the theme is holding me back from creating more thought-provoking decisions within the game. This is usually worked out via playtesting.

I also determine if the niche I’m filling is large enough or if I could potentially retheme the game to serve a more significant market and add substantial sales revenues.

Finally, I determine if the game theme is something that fits within the gaming catalog I hope to have one day. If I become well known for any particular type of game, it might be difficult for me to branch out afterward.

What I Know Today

It is a difficult decision deciding on a theme. There is a lot of analytics and research that can be done. However, as with most things in life, no one has perfect information. There is a lot of guesswork involved with the process, and even during or after campaigns, it is incredibly difficult to accurately determine the “what if” scenarios of how well the game could have done with alternate themes.

For my current project, I have created a simple Facebook ad, and it has out-performed any other ad I’ve ever run for engagement. The cost per engagement is quite a bit lower and a large reason I believe contributes is that people know what it is like to lose socks and they relate to it. This makes people want to talk about the game or share it with their friends.

Atheris may never know for sure if we chose the right theme for this game. The campaign is still in progress and is not guaranteed to be a success, but we genuinely love the game and after going through the above practices, I felt compelled to publish it. The vote is still out. What do you think about creating clever themes?