The ongoing pandemic has proved to be a challenge for businesses around the world. Indie tabletop game developers, however, have had to deal with some unique logistical challenges that didn't affect their video-game counterparts.
It's not easy to be an indie developer, whether you're working in video games or tabletop games. You'll either be working by yourself or as part of a small team, relying on vendors and contractors to fulfill aspects of your project that you simply don't have the manpower to do yourself. Indie video-game developers will have to handle programming, art, music, and more, but all of these things can be done over the internet.
Indie tabletop developers, however, don't have it quite so easy. It's much more difficult to work on a physical product in the midst of a pandemic, much less get it into the hands of your customers. I took the time to speak with a number of game developers at Play NYC 2021 in the tabletop, escape room, and arcade game markets about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their business thus far -- and how it's changing the game going forward.
The Challenges of Pandemic Playtesting and Production
The first step for a new indie tabletop game is playtesting. That typically involves one-off or hand-drawn game pieces, a rough draft of the rules, and many hours of playing an in-development game with people around a table. As you might expect, this has gotten a little more difficult over the last year and change.
Indie tabletop developer One Method Monkey has already released a few indie tabletop games (such as Hero's Crossing and Hey Cutie) and is currently working on a new game called Knockout Punch. The playtesting process for its next game, however, is a little different than how things have been done in the past.
"Playtesting is way harder - platforms like Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator are great, but they just can't compare to the feedback and insight you get from watching people play live," One Method Monkey's Brian Sowers explained. "Since so much of designing a board game is playtesting and iterating a million times, that added friction makes the whole process a drag."
Other developers I've spoken with were fortunate enough to have all of their playtesting done before the pandemic kicked off, so they haven't had to adapt to these challenges just yet. As Sowers explained, however, Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator are not quite the same, and this may prove to be a challenge - especially for the newer indie tabletop devs on the scene.
Gem Blenders is a card battle game that's all about powering up your four heroes for battle as much as possible.
Manufacturing and Shipping Indie Tabletop Games Has Gotten Harder
Manufacturing in some sectors of China (and Asia in general) faced shutdowns for several months at the start of the pandemic. While things have gradually opened back up, there are still concerns over shipping products internationally. New safety regulations and other logistical issues mean that costs have gone up in many cases, and some indie tabletop devs have had to adjust.
KinSoul Studio - developer of the alchemy crafting game Alkemia: Destiny's Recipe and the tea-brewing game Steeperseers - has previously used Chinese manufacturers to make its games. Increases in shipping costs, however, have caused this company to consider other options.
"Currently we have used two companies in China and are planning to reuse our latest one," Matt from KinSoul Studio explained to me. "However we are going to look into avoiding expensive shipping by getting our games produced closer to home. We will see how that goes."
"International shipping costs are so steep that it's hard to swallow passing those costs onto our customers. And the costs are so variable that we just can't make any promises about rates now that we can reliably stick with by the time game manufacturing is complete." - Brian Sowers of One Method Monkey
One Method Monkey is also considering shifting to domestic manufacturing to avoid the increasing costs of international shipping, and other indie tabletop developers have said that they will evaluate their options going forward. Surprisingly, some of these game developers have decided to go in the other direction entirely. Giant Fox Studios' party card game Batsu, for example, has moved its production from a domestic manufacturer to an overseas manufacturer - it's still cheaper to produce it outside of the United States despite higher shipping costs and the potential for delays.
International gamers are losing out, too. Indie card game Gem Blenders has effectively given up on international shipping for the moment due to increased shipping costs.
"Gem Blenders has been lucky enough to not have many issues with delivery of our products to customers during the pandemic," the game's developer Sam Lebryk said. "That being said, we are restricted to U.S. customers due to extremely high costs of shipping internationally. We have received interest from Europe and would love to expand into that market and other international markets; however, we do not see that as feasible in the near future."
Move38's Blinks faced unique challenges in the tabletop gaming space during the pandemic, owing to its use of electronic components amidst a severe worldwide chip shortage.
One of the more interesting cases in terms of shipping and manufacturing is Blinks, a tabletop game created by Move38. This game uses interlocking hex-shaped game pieces with electronics inside to mesh together and play dozens of different games. Manufacturing such a unique product had the challenge of increased labor and parts costs, but Move38 managed to adapt - albeit at a cost.
"In an effort to deliver products safely and reliably, we worked with two third-party logistics companies," Move38's CEO and Founder Jonathan Bobrow told me. "This transition started out seamless, but later revealed some major hurdles including international shipments that were stuck in transit for 80 days and a company that didn't clearly communicate this information to us. In the beginning of 2021, we hired our director of operations and now handle all shipments in-house, making sure we can deliver the best customer experience possible."
That wasn't the only shift that Move38 had to make. As an electronic product, Blinks depends on using microchips to make its games work. The ongoing chip shortage has resulted in Blinks getting a redesign under the hood much quicker than it had originally planned.
"Electronics, or more specifically microchips are in short supply," Bobrow said. "Due to limited availability of our processor, we decided to silently upgrade our product with a more widely available and compatible alternative part. We had planned to make this upgrade, but not so quickly. This upgrade will come sooner to customers and reduce the multiplier that we saw on our processor from ~600% down to ~200%. I consider this a win-win."
Convention Cancellation Chaos
As you probably know by now, pretty much every major in-person gaming event was canceled in 2020. Video games managed to adapt by hosting virtual events, but the indie tabletop scene wasn't quite so lucky.
"I laugh now when I look at the trailers I had put on the videos from early last year that included all of the about two dozen conventions we were going to attend to promote [Mission to Planet Hexx] that were eventually postponed or cancelled," Move Rate 20 Games' James Fitzpatrick told me. "This included a lot of first-time visits to big conventions such as Gen Con and Origins Game Fair."
This was doubly frustrating because we actually started the year very well. Mission to Planet Hexx was one of seven games chosen for the 2020 PAX South Indie Tabletop Showcase, and we made it to PAX East, the Granite Game Summit, and Totalcon 34 before everything got shut down."
Fitzpatrick further explained a reality of gaming conventions for indie tabletop developers - you lose out on the casual audience that might pick up a business card and buy your game later after seeing an in-person demonstration. Steepseers and Alkemia developer KinSoul Studio, for example, managed to open up an online store, but getting eyeballs on its products on its own website hasn't been easy.
"[Conventions] being our primary way of selling and delivering products, our moving of product has slowed dramatically. We are still able to fulfill online orders through our website without much issue. The problem has become getting customers to the site." - Matt, Kinsoul Studio
Giant Fox Studios faced a different sort of challenge. The card game Batsu is based on a live Japanese-style game show of the same name in New York City, and Giant Fox Studios was making a healthy amount of sales of its card game adaptation after every show. When the pandemic kicked in, the show was shut down as a nonessential business - and that meant that Giant Fox Studios' only physical sales location for the card game closed down, too.
"We first started selling the game at the show's gift shop in November 2019," said Jaime Fraina, founder of Giant Fox Studios. "It was going great and we were getting a few sales at each of the 10 shows they did each week, but the pandemic caused that to come to a screeching halt. We quickly set up an online store and tried to get more visibility to the game digitally. In August 2020, we ran a successful Kickstarter that got 600% funded and allowed us to continue working on the game, we wouldn't be talking about it right now if it wasn't for those backers that supported us last year."
Beat the Bomb Shows How Escape Rooms Had to Innovate
My focus thus far has been on indie tabletop devs, but they're far from the only small companies that have been affected by the pandemic. Escape rooms, too, have been affected in a similar fashion due to their very nature of being an in-person activity.
Beat the Bomb is a unique hybrid of escape rooms and video games where players are challenged to solve a series of puzzles before a paint-filled bomb explodes. Players are provided with hazmat suits to protect their clothing because it can get pretty messy if things go awry. As one might expect, the shutdown of nonessential businesses forced this company to innovate.
"We were shut down for six months mid-March 2020, through mid-Sept 2020," Beat the Bomb's CEO Alex Patterson told me. "We had to institute COVID-safety protocols upon reopening in mid-Sept, which required us to learn and keep up to date daily. We were limited to 25% of our legal occupancy from mid-Sept 2020 until May 2021, which impacted our revenue-generating ability."
Things have gradually recovered for the company - Beat the Bomb is now doing more business than it had in the summer of 2019 — but there was a period of uncertainty where it was running well below capacity. Something had to be done.
"All in all the pandemic — while very difficult - truly pushed us to innovate and take some of our longer (five years out) ambitions and begin working on them immediately since the 'day to day' of running our immersive digital game rooms was put on the back burner (read: literally was shut down) for half a year." – Beat the Bomb CEO Alex Patterson
A simple virtual game called Fauci's Revenge was created as part of a fundraising drive for first responders, ultimately raising $7,000 for the first responders at NYC Health & Hospitals according to Patterson. The creation of this game proved that the developers had the chops to make online games, so more resources and time were poured into trying to provide a similar cooperative escape room experience over the internet.
"The philosophy of our games (both location and virtual) is to require all of the players to actively work together to accomplish an objective as a team," Patterson explained. "In many ways it is easier to demand great communication when players are playing remotely. We can show each of their screens different content, and force them to work together to accomplish an objective. Many of the lessons that Beat The Bomb teaches - such as that we are all in this together, that everyone needs to participate to help out, that we must [overcommunicate] with one another to ensure we are all working as one - these are the very lessons that society has needed to learn to fight [COVID-19]."
Beat the Bomb's efforts hadn't gone to waste - it's had countless corporate clients playing these cooperative games in the intervening months and provided a critical source of revenue during an especially difficult time for businesses. The company continues to operate these virtual games and is working on integrating them into its in-person experience, ultimately creating a wider pool of available entertainment products.
Those innovations extended to the physical game, too. With its doors temporarily closed, Beat the Bomb donated its entire stock of 6,000 protective suits to places where it could be put to better use and has since sourced a reusable, washable suit for its in-person games.
BumbleBear Games and the Changing Arcade Landscape
While indie tabletop developers and escape room proprietors were able to adapt to the pandemic, there's one segment of the gaming world that had an especially difficult time with adapting: arcade games.
Tabletop games have their own fair share of manufacturing challenges, but arcade games are on another level altogether. Custom electronics, a monitor, the controllers — some of which are unique - and the cabinet holding it all together make for a pretty pricey product: A single arcade cabinet can retail for thousands of dollars. One of the developers I spoke with at Play NYC is BumbleBear Games, a company that specializes in making arcade games.
"With a lack of [arcade] customers who are open for business, we decided to do a project for home [via Steam]. Our hope is that the game ZOMBEEZ will work just as well as an arcade game as a home game. Up until this point all our arcade games are arcade exclusive, it will be interesting to see how this impacts the game both in sales and player reception." Nik Mekros, BumbleBear Games
There is no Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator for arcade games. BumbleBear's Brian Lee tells me that sales effectively ground to a halt - with bars and arcades closed, no one was buying new arcade cabinets. Of course, BumbleBear had its fair share of problems sourcing components for its cabinets, too.
"We've had difficulty sourcing parts, especially from Asia, and dealing with inconsistencies with vendors," Joshua DeBonis told me.
"[We've mostly had] mostly global supply chain issues, we've had to change capacitors and components for our input/output boards due to low supplies," Mekros added.
BumbleBear has been fortunate enough to avoid problems with the spike in lumber prices - it had a supply of wood on hand - but the company is still facing a ton of logistical challenges.
"Inventory has been sitting and incurring huge storage costs," Lee explained. "Our factory workers can't produce because we aren't selling, and when we starting selling/manufacturing again we will need to re-hire, re-train, and take extra time to get back up to a normal production speed. Parts from overseas are back-ordered for when we do start again. Products (like monitors) that have been discontinued need to be replaced, and now they are already halfway through their own product life cycles, meaning we will have to spend time on researching new parts, and that research effort will only last a few months before we have to research and test new parts again."
Out of everyone I've spoken to, BumbleBear Games may have been hit the hardest. There were no overseas manufacturing concerns - BumbleBear manufactures its arcade cabinets in the U.S. It did everything right and still faced some serious troubles due to factors outside of its control. These problems ultimately caused it to shift strategies and create its first non-arcade game based on one of its existing properties, although nothing is certain.
Rising to the Challenge of an Uncertain Future
I spoke with pretty much every single indie tabletop dev at Play NYC (along with the escape room company Beat the Bomb and arcade game developer BumbleBear Games). Not everyone experienced the same problems - some developers had increased shipping costs or delays, and others were surprised to see their products delivered on time with no major changes in price. One developer, in particular, managed to put a positive spin on the change in the tabletop gaming landscape.
"COVID actually had a positive effect on our designs," Noel Gussen of Panda Hawk Games told me. "It allowed more time to focus and tweak shelved ideas. We developed and tested two new titles and had virtual meetings with a major publisher."
There were nonetheless some common themes between all of these developers. Several expressed hesitancy about launching new Kickstarter campaigns or debuting new projects for fear of losing money on ever-changing shipping and manufacturer costs. Others had concerns about their back catalog for similar reasons - reprinting an older game might not make financial sense under these circumstances.
What is clear, however, is that every single one of these game developers was forced to adapt to circumstances outside of their control. Some had a harder time of it than others. Others still are facing an uncertain future. Whatever they may be working on, they share one thing in common: They are game developers, and game developers succeed by innovating and adapting no matter what the world throws at them.