Game Producer Journals: The Jumpstart

In the kickoff for my game producer blog series, I wrote about demo materials for different types of games, defined a few terms, and dove into quickstart design.

Today, I want to talk about jumpstarts. First question: why do you need one? Well, the answer is “it’s complicated”. A jumpstart is one method for obtaining fans of your game and, like any promotional tool, it has its utility. Some people believe jumpstarts deter corebook sales because they encapsulate the game and often have a lower price point. I am not one of them.

Jumpstarts are best designed when they are not conceived in a vacuum. When the jumpstart has a clearly defined goal like: “teach new players how to play our game” or “give existing players a sample of what they’ll find” or “use it as a free, promotional tool to attract all players”. Jumpstarts can be designed with several goals in mind when they’re produced with the understand that anyone–even those players unfamiliar with a publisher or gameline–might pick up a copy.

Like quickstarts, jumpstarts are marketing tools for a gameline. Unlike quickstarts, I don’t believe they’re always necessary provided the corebook teaches players how to play their game. Most corebooks do not have actual play examples, sample dice rolls, a step-by-step outline for a sample campaign, a full adventure, and a full page ad to show where new players should go if they need more information (YouTube!, Twitch, Discord, forums, etc.) Many corebooks, especially second editions, serial games, or collector’s editions, are not designed with new players in mind. Many games are crafted for people who already know how to run a tabletop gaming session.

Jumpstarts are often needed because they serve players who need a different type of game design. Often, jumpstarts employ word conservation by focusing on what players need to know in order to play the game. Jumpstarts are great for a) complex settings b) complex rule sets c) new or debuting rule sets d) games with multiple playing styles e) original settings and d) messaging/visibility showing how the publisher is new-player friendly. Players who have fun with a jumpstart will have more confidence when running the game–and that player confidence is key.

It can be challenging to distill a corebook into a jumpstart. My approach to writing/designing in this form is to empower the player while providing value. I’ve found the easiest design method is to utilize a 3-to-5 act narrative structure, 3-5 non-player characters, and a sample fleshed out location. All games need setting–especially places where the players can hunt, search, investigate, etc.–and a jumpstart helps ground the players in it.

My last post included five steps to producing a quickstart. These are the same steps to follow when plotting a jumpstart with one, major caveat: conceiving a jumpstart requires greater analysis of your corebook’s content. You could repurpose some material for the quickstart. A jumpstart that rehashes all of the corebook’s materials is less useful, however, and you’ll miss out on residual sales–even if the jumpstart’s release precedes the corebook’s.

Lastly, I want to mention that while there’s no “one way” to design a jumpstart, I do believe a good jumpstart provides value. The jumpstart shouldn’t be an exact replica of your corebook’s content–there’s a different type of product for that called a “beta”. Instead, use the jumpstart to frame your corebook’s material so players transitioning from one to the other are confident they know the basics and are eager to learn more.

Game Producer Journals: New Players and 5 Steps to Quickstart Design

Two of the ongoing needs in game production are to retain players and attract new players. In video games, short interactive demos give players the feel and basic functionality of the game. Part-marketing/part-preview, player demos are arguably the best way for them to understand gameplay outside of actual play reels.

In hobby gaming, there’s a number of ways to preview a game before a title debuts ranging from actual play videos to hands on demos at conventions or retail stores. This introduces a lot of challenges for veterans. After a while, it’s easy to associate who’s playing a game with personal interactions online and off. This can skew a designer’s perspective and lend to design decisions geared toward the audience you’ve encountered and not the people who play the game but never contact the publisher. Setting sample data set analyses aside, the people that interact with a publisher are not typically new players, either.

Jump starts, quick starts, convention demos (live, recorded, and in print), and actual play videos work well when they’re designed to attract new players–people who don’t typically interact with your company. Otherwise, you’re targeting players in the same audience at different times. Though existing players and player retention are both incredibly important, new players are crucial to the overall health of the industry. If you’re having trouble understanding why, please remember that gaming is a dynamic industry. New players often become core fans integral to the community in direct and indirect ways.

Attracting new players is a complex process that requires a multi-pronged approach. It is often intimidating to be a new player because they don’t know the culture (of the publisher, fans, and intersecting micro-communities) or the linguistics on top of not knowing how to play that game. These are barriers to new players that can be resolved in multiple ways, but doing so requires intent and knowledge of both community management and basic marketing techniques.

This process is easier for new games that don’t have previous editions attached and becomes increasingly more challenging the older the game (or property) is. These legacy games (Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Dungeons and Dragons) are more complex to manage because of their multi-year, multi-edition spanning history. Each edition that debuts, which is healthy for a publisher to consider, has a core audience and the potential to welcome new players. If the game is primarily being played solely by legacy players with few to no new players added, then over time the core base will shrink.

Using Product to Attract New Players

One product that can help reach out to new players is a quickstart. Here’s where it gets fuzzy: the words “jumpstart” and “quickstart” are often used interchangeably, even among publishers. I asked Matt M McElroy, the Operations Manager for Onyx Path Publishing, what the difference was. He said that: “Jumpstarts are more robust, and are basically starter sets in book form. Quickstarts are very light introductions with some marketing attached.” The jumpstart can also serve as a quickstart and often does, which is partly why the terms are swapped so often.

Going forward, I’ll use the word quickstart to mean “a short standalone marketing product designed to demonstrate the core rules and feel of a game” and a jumpstart as “a robust starter set for a game that includes an adventure, characters, etc.”

Quickstarts are almost always free and are treated as a marketing expense; jumpstarts can be free, but are often not due to the costs involved. Often, jumpstarts must hold more perceived value for the consumer than a free product because of the cost.

Designing the Quickstart

Designing a quickstart is one-part game design, one-part marketing. I personally feel that game designers shouldn’t develop the quickstart’s outline by themselves. This task is something the publisher and marketer should be involved with for a few reasons. They typically 1) know their core fanbase 2) have a rough budget in mind and 3) know how to brand their game. Who works on the quickstart, in particular, is less about skill and more about perspective.

Step One: Identify Your Audience

How a team is set up to handle production won’t matter unless the publisher has a clear idea of who the quickstart is for. Typically, that answer is one or more slices of an overall audience. Just saying “new players” is pretty generic. New players who like “X” system can be too specific if that fanbase is small or insular.

To figure out audience, I recommend reviewing a minimum of five similar products produced by different companies. In this way, you establish a marketing baseline for your game by analyzing what others have already produced.

Step Two: Determine Your Message

Once you have your audience in mind, you can then brainstorm your message. Saying “we have the best game evah!” is not a good message and, quite frankly, is challenging for engagement. Rephrase that to be: “here are the reasons why this title is the best game of its kind”. Then, list the reasons.

Unpacking my last statement, here’s what my rephrased statement means:

    * here are the reasons – you’re presenting the meat of what your audience needs to know in order to purchase your game.
    * why this title – you’re focusing on revealing more about this game and not previous editions, similar settings, etc. This keeps your focus on the present.
    * is the best game – you’re acknowledging the hard work that went into making your game. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you created.
    * of its kind – you’re acknowledging this game has its own style/feel and will be compared to other games in this vertical regardless of publisher.

Codifying these reasons will force you to think about your game from the perspective of someone who’s never heard of it–which is typically the hardest audience to write for.

Step Three: Identify Components

While an outline is valuable and typically follows next, I feel that quickstarts necessitate a different conversation before it can be finalized. Components are key elements of a game that are important to the audience and messaging.

Items might include:

    * Ad for the corebook
    * Sample player character
    * Sample NPC
    * Highlights of gameplay: damage, advancement, combat, investigation, social conflict, player vs. player, success/fail, etc.
    * Condensed setting
    * Iconic art
    * Flash fiction or character sketch
    * Corebook chapter preview
    * A DM-facing section
    * Sample adventure hooks
    * Sample loot
    * Sample equipment
    * Sample map
    * Mini-scene
    * Gameplay examples
    * Graphs/icons of dice rolls
    * Full page ad for company (with links to social media, streaming channels, etc.)
    * Ad for upcoming products or Kickstarters
    * Interview questions with the producer/developer
    * …and more!

I recommend that this stage occurs without a clear page count or product spec to freely allow for brainstorming.

Step Four: Outlining

This phase is where the nuts and bolts shape the quickstart. I personally believe a sample layout here is crucial, because knowing how many words are on a page will impact the outline. Once the production parameters are known and a page count is determined, then content can be assigned on each page.

Here, it’s also smart to figure out how you intend to distribute your quickstart, because that will affect its intent and budget. Saddle-stitched and digital quickstarts are the two most common types and are used for different reasons. Printed quickstarts are great for conventions/retail distribution and may attract people who have never heard of that game or publisher before. Digital quickstarts can do the same thing, depending upon where it’s offered and what the perceived value is.

If you’re on the fence during the outlining phase and find you’re adding more information, you might want to consider a hybrid jump/quickstart that you can charge for. This is the perfect step to make this decision!

Step Five: Production

Following this, it’s time for production to begin. I would treat this product just as you would a gaming supplement by hiring a writer who can simplify setting and rules into a condensed space. Less is usually more. The quickstart is a slice of what your game is all about and why it’s unique. I would absolutely lean into that to best inform potential players.

If you’re worried about art, I agree with your instinct. People make decisions to buy games for all kinds of reasons and mentally associate gameplay with emotions that are invoked through their experiences. Art can invoke emotion and is important to their impressions of value and setting.

Lastly, you might get to this point and realize you don’t know how to market your game. That’s okay! It’s for this reason you’ll want to plan a quickstart even if you don’t go through with production. The elements you decide during this project further shape how you want to present your game. If you need to stop and rethink a detail, that’s a good thing to happen early on.

Thanks for joining me and good luck!

Monica Valentinelli >

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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