How developers and publishers change games

(sometimes not for the better)

You may know that it is rare that a game is published in exactly the form (rules mechanics, wording, board) in which it was submitted. Or to put it another way, publishers often change the designer's game.

This is not so different from the book publishing business. Books are often changed by editors, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In the better (from the writer's point of view) cases, the editor asks for changes, and the writer makes the changes in a kind of compromise, hopefully with the result that the final text is better than it was before. In other cases, the editor rewrites or cuts parts, and the author is left with a fait accompli (whether he knows about it before it's published, or does not). The situation is no different when someone writes an article for a magazine. In fact, changes are more likely in magazines, owing to space considerations.

These changes can happen in the movie business, too, though it's less common.

On the other hand, imagine if a classical composer let someone else modify his symphony, then have it published! No way! Movie composers often use arrangers; however, the arranger works at the direction of the composer, and the composer has the final say.

Why changes in games? It's the publisher's money, after all, and they (ought to) know their market and their marketing plans better than the designer. On the other hand, the publisher (or developer, see below) may indulge his own interests or agenda even though the result could be a lesser game. But in games we often have a third hand involved, that of the "developer".

At an Origins 2004 panel discussion, Jim Dunnigan, who thought it likely that his company SPI had more or less invented the notion of a game developer, said the developer was (and is) akin to the editor of a book or magazine. He said SPI thought that the historical experts who do most of the work on a simulation might not be good at the details of making it a good, understandable, playable game, hence the designer might do 80% of the work and the developer 20%.

Of course, I'm sure there are times when the developer does a lot more than 20%, and many times when he or she does less. In the best cases, development amounts to "two heads are better than one". But that's why I rely on extensive playtesting and ask questions of the playtesters.

There are some very expeienced developers. Good developers can make a weak game good, and occasionally can make a good game excellent. I'm an experienced designer (you should see the many games I've designed and playtested but not yet found publishers for), so I am leary of the less-than-very-experienced developers. Moreover, I don't design simulations, I design games (that sometims represent historical situations) from the get-go.

With that introduction, I'll describe my own experiences of many years ago.

When I design a game, I intend to do 100% of the work. If I submitted to publishers games that were 80% done, I'd have a dozen in submission now, instead of none. I am not quite a perfectionist, but I hate to have anything I've done changed--I've actually had magazine editors change my correct spelling so that it was INcorrect--without my full knowledge and consent. I suspect that some game designers have similar views, but many others (especially beginners) are so thrilled to have a game published that they don't worry about details.

My first published game was Swords & Wizardry, a fairly elaborate fantasy form of Stratego that was published in Britain. The publisher had three "historical" games of this sort in its line (Stratego was not one of them). Unfortunately, the developer (who did not give himself a by-line for developing) changed one rule to conform with the standard rule in those other games, and that crippled S&W. I did not know this change had been made until the game was published. He later acknowledged the error, and the game was not very successful.

My second game was Valley of the Four Winds. As I worked closely with the owners of Games Workshop, who published the game, and as I designed the game to reflect a short story they had written, and as they helped playtest it, there was no separate developer, and no problems at all, from my point of view. The game is regarded as a classic, and I hope someday to have it reprinted, though the situation (a game based on a short story that was written to publicize a line of miniature figures!) is pretty unusual.

Somewhere along here I had a book of Diplomacy variants, Diplomacy Games and Variants, published by a small publisher in England. As the owner was present during playtests, and the editor was a personal friend who wasn't a Dip expert, this was published exactly as I intended. Someday I will make this available as a PDF.

Back in America, Dragon Rage, a "microgame", was published by Dwarfstar. The developers made several good suggestions, and we worked closely together (as closely as possible when they were in Texas and I was in North Carolina). If things had worked out differently, and if Dwarfstar had not been bankrupted by its parent company, I might have gone down there to work full time with them. I believe we were in agreement on the final form. The largest change I can recall is adding a second gate to the city, and if I am able to have the game republished, I will change nothing, though I'll make one suggestion that players might try.

Finally, Britannia was published in England long after I had moved back to this country (Avalon Hill told me games of that era didn't sell, but published it once it was a success in Britain). The again-uncredited developer worked on the game for two years after I submitted it. The developer was the same man who'd worked on S&W, and perhaps remembering that put a lot of effort into it. One change was made in the board (adding one area, I think by splitting Mercia), and a few changes were made in the rules. Most notable, the mix of nations for the four player was changed a little. I had some input into this, but by this time I had "left the hobby" (for computing) and was content with whatever changes were made.

I should note that the Avalon Hill developer wrote to me asking questions about the rules, but as I actually had never read the published rules or played the published version of the game (sometimes ignorance is bliss, and there was nothing I could do about any changes), I am pretty sure I did not reply to his questions--I truly had no idea, and as I said had been away from the hobby for several years. Unfortunately, I've discovered this year that in the end wherever a change was made between the Avalon Hill and original English version, AH got it wrong.

I am now much older than when these games were published, and much more well off financially--and in some ways more well-known as a designer, because of the success of Britannia. So my position will always be that, if I cannot agree with a change, I will withdraw the game rather than have it published "wrongly". And I will see the final proofs to make sure no changes just happened to "slip in". A published game represents ME, and I want it to be a good representation.

Lew Pulsipher