Eduardo Baraf: Theme is a Product

Eduardo Baraf is the head honcho over at Pencil First Games, having published many critically acclaimed titles and helped out the community at large with his YouTube content and guest posts online. His product, Herbaceous, even made the Reviewers Game of the Quarter this Spring. I asked Ed to write this guest post about how he got into the specific niche of serene theming in games, and he graciously accepted.

You still have a few days left to support Eduardo Baraf’s latest game, Sunset Over Water, on Kickstarter.

“So, Ed, Why Herbs?!”

Fine question! Perhaps I should answer with another question: “Why NOT herbs?!”

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of my career making games. I’ve made them independently, in a work-for-hire studio, in a successful development house, and at an IP juggernaut – Disney. As I said, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of my career making games, but I was not always making games targeted for me. I still have scars from doing quality assurance on the Atari lineup. One, 12-hour shift on Dora the Explorer changes a man…

Back when I was a student at the University of Michigan, I made “my” game. It was an old-school, top-down, RPG based on a campus: Crisis Wolverine: Insurrection Green. MSU was a demonic force trying to take over the college, and only the students could stop them. The Jock was the Fighter, the Sorority Girl the Red Mage, the Goth kid the Black Mage, and Johnny Foreshadow, the one-eyed android, set the stage. It was EPIC.

Once you’ve made “your” game and you’ve made dozens of commercial games, you get to the point where you can be passionate about something that isn’t all about you. A game is a game, but it is also a product with an audience. You can certainly make the game YOU want to play, but you can also make the game YOU want to play with your family, or that you hope OTHER families will play. You might even be more objective when creating something that isn’t quite as close to your heart.

When I saw the incredible herb art from Beth Sobel on Facebook, I immediately knew that they should be in a game, because, again, “Why not herbs?” I can think of hundreds of games with Dragons, but none with Dill. I can think of tons with Towers, but none with Tarragon. You get the point. Taking another step, if I was going to make a game with herbs, I knew that it ought to be a game that you could play with your grandmother over a cup of tea. More of those games deserve to exist, and I knew the people who could help me make it happen.

Your Game is a Product Whether You Like it or Not

Unless you are hiding it under your bed or handing it out to friends, your “game” is a product whether you like it or not.

Often I see game designers focused on their game and gameplay, which is an excellent place to start, but less frequently do I find creators then switch to looking it as a product. Once you start thinking about your game as a product you need to start thinking about the market and the buyer/audience for that product. Making that transition is one of the keys to success on Kickstarter and beyond. You want to know who’d be interested in the type of game you are making, why, and how to communicate the value proposition to them.

This message was on full display with Herbaceous when I launched it on Kickstarter and as it reached retail. There is a large audience of gamers dying for fresh and welcoming content. It isn’t about to push Gloomhaven or The 7th Continent out of the way, but more than enough to run a successful Kickstarter and drive into retail. Everything about the Herbaceous campaign was meant to be welcoming, easy to understand, and a simple decision for you or someone whom you’d love to bring into the gaming fold.

While Herbaceous flowed from a serendipitous moment, Sunset Over Water came from a team that set out to make on another welcoming game. Heading into Sunset, we knew we wanted to make a fresh game, but at the same time leverage and build on the audience we tapped into for Herbaceous. Again, if you headed over and looked at the Sunset Over Water campaign, you can see how we are drawing a line to those people. It comes up in the campaign video, structure of the page, video coverage, etc. It was quite exciting to have such a clear target in mind when bringing together all aspects of the game. We’re thrilled with the results and are confident people will love it.

So Should We All Run Down Micro-Themes?

Nah – I’m not saying that. I’m merely saying that the world is full of incredible themes and incredible audiences who are hungry for content. The trick is to identify them and understand your game as a product. Who’s going to like it, why, and how will you market to them? Often you can see missteps too, trend following games (fantasy, Minis, Party) or games that are great but have theme/audience mismatches. There is a lot more that goes into product planning and marketing than you might think. I highly recommend you think and talk about it with your team early and often.