Glenn Drover of Forbidden Games - the Journey: tBR Company of the Week
Currently I am President of Forbidden Games, but my journey in the games/toy space started in 1990 when I was hired by MicroProse, a pioneer in the PC/ Video game industry. My entry-level job was district sales manager for the Midwest based out of Chicago. I was responsible for calling on regional game stores and distributors who sold our games.
I was thrilled as I was a huge fan of the company’s products, and a devoted gamer. Scoring an entry-level job on the business side was not exactly in line with my game-designer dreams, but I was ‘in’, and anything seemed possible from there.
As the video game industry grew quickly in the 90’s from being predominantly populated by small fanboy companies, to large-scale corporate game factories, I was able to ride the wave and learn quickly at companies like Maxis and Activision. My responsibilities grew as well, and I ended my first decade in the biz as a Senior Director of Sales for the Central U.S., calling on retailers like Target, WalMart, Gamestop, Sears, and Kmart, and managing almost $200 million in revenue.
But my creative heart was still tugging me toward game design, so one crazy morning I decided in the shower that I was going to leave my stable corporate job, cash in my stock options and start a board game publishing company. I dried off, got dressed, woke my wife, told her the ‘big news’, and left for the airport. She told me later that when she finally woke up, she couldn’t remember if it was real or some crazy dream.
To any rational person, it would be a crazy dream. Who leaves the stability of a six-figure salary at 35 years old to gamble their savings on a dream? Luckily I had a fairly firm grounding in sales and marketing, a few relationships with some buyers at some large retail chains, and some practical business experience. From there, I set out to fill in the many gaps by doing research before I started in earnest.
Luckily, I met Mary Couzin fairly quickly. She pointed me in the right direction on many resources for manufacturing, warehousing, marketing partners, and people who had been doing this both professionally and as a side-project. She even allowed me to take up some space at her booth at Toy Fair displaying my early mock-box packages, and scheduling a few key meetings. From there I attended a few other trade shows that were focused on our specific game genre (strategy games) where I was able to make key contacts at distribution and retail, and prepare for the launch of our first two games with pre-orders in hand.
The name of that company was Eagle Games. From 2001 to 2006, we published several successful titles, securing popular videogame licenses to board game such as Sid Meier’s Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires III, and selling over 250,000 copies over five years, and had our games in hundreds of independent game stores, as well as Toys R Us, Barnes & Noble, and Target. We even attended the very first CHITAG.
In 2006, I sold off Eagle to new owners to satisfy a bank loan from a regional bank that we worked with that called our line because it was in financial trouble. While this was disappointing initially, it allowed me to jump back into the PC/ Video game industry and further hone my business skills. I accepted a position as the North American Retail Director for a great company called PopCap (Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, Zuma, Peggle, etc.). During my 7 year tenure there, I was able to apply the knowledge that I had gained running a board game publishing company (operations, manufacturing, sales, marketing, licensing), while building my experience in working with major retail chains across the U.S. and Canada. PopCap also showed me the power of ‘casual games’, games aimed at a broad consumer rather than the core hard-core gamer. The scale of that marketplace is simply awesome with the right products.
So, after EA acquired PopCap, and a short stint with EA, I was ready to start my next board game publishing adventure; this time with a product line focused on games that would appeal to a broader consumer. I not only looked at the broad-appeal success of digital games like Bejeweled, but also board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. The key takeaways for creating a line of games that could stand with those titans included:
Great Curb Appeal: They had to look great on the shelf and on the table, and appeal to the broadest possible consumer of games. We immediately sought out talented artists, including one who worked at Disney. We also created a consistent brand look that would allow our games to be merchandised together and jump off a very crowded shelf.
Game Designs that were easy to learn: The games themselves needed to be accessible to almost anyone from 10 and up.
Game Designs that offered a rewarding experience to gamers AND non-gamers. Gameplay had to be easy, but not simplistic. There had to be real depth in the mechanics without too much complexity. This was not easy, but was essential. Based on the feedback from our first three games (Raccoon Tycoon, Railroad Rivals, and Extraordinary Adventures: Pirates!), we believe that we have this dialed in. 20 years of game design experience came in very handy here.
Once we were ready to launch our new line, we needed to address the business side. Here is a short rundown on the solutions that we went with for each requirement:
Human Resources/ Talent: I decided to build a highly talented team, some of whom I had worked with previously. We work with all of them on a contract basis, paying them for their time and contributions rather than hiring them as full-time employees. This allows us to work with the best, while also being very efficient with our personnel and asset development expenses.
Sales Channels: The modern marketplace for consumer packaged goods is very rich with opportunities and pitfalls. How should a new company sell their products? Via traditional brick-and-mortar retail, via distributors, direct to consumer via a webstore or Amazon, or online via one of the new Crowd-sourcing platforms? I decided that the best answer was ‘all of the above’. Each of these channels fills a valuable role and fits well into the life-cycle of each product:
Stage 1) Kickstarter: Kickstarter is a great platform for funding a new product while simultaneously building awareness via initial marketing. It also allows a publisher/ designer to have a very accurate look at the actual demand for the new product, which means that the first print-run can be estimated much more accurately than in years past where existing pre-orders and consumer excitement was not always possible. This is our current Kickstarter: Lizard WizardThe Magic Age in the Land of Astoria
Stage 2) Specialty Game Stores via distribution: This channel allows the publisher to effectively gain shelf space and access to core gamer fans, and some family game consumers. The scale is small, but targeted.
Stage 3) Retail Chains: Chains like Barnes & Noble and Go! The Gamestore currently carry a fairly deep selection of board games. They are a good second stage of brick-and-mortar shelf presence for products that fit their target market and have proven popularity.
Stage 4) Amazon: Amazon is a great pathway for direct-to-consumer sales, but must be supported with fairly aggressive marketing to ensure success as there is very low level of ‘accidental discovery via foot traffic’ in digital retail similar to what products get via shelf presence in the chain retail channel.
Stage 5) Mass Retail: For products that are a good fit for the mass consumer, and have the potential for a high rate of sell-through, the Mass Retail channel can be very lucrative. Chains like Target, Wal-Mart, and other regional superstores can offer huge sell-through rates. The risks here are also huge. Loading in the inventory necessary to fill their stores and have enough in reserve to fill initial sell-through restock carries a substantial cost. If the product doesn’t perform, buyers at this level are required to seek immediate Return Authorizations or Price Markdowns that can easily put a small publisher out of business.
Marketing: Effective marketing needs to mirror each of the channels where your product is being sold.
Kickstarter: Focus on Social Media advertising that can drive targeted consumers to your campaign. Working with key influencers in the board game ecosphere is also essential. We currently work with over 30 previewers who have their own audiences, as well as a dozen game-focused Facebook Groups.
Specialty Game Stores: Trade and consumer shows seem to be key here. Building awareness among the core retailers, distributors, and consumers is critical to building your fan base and driving demand in this channel.
Retail Chains and Mass Retail: is all about channel marketing and merchandising opportunities that your partnership with the buying team will create. Work closely with your buyer to secure endcaps, circular ads, and any other in-store promotions that may be available. This channel is about real estate; the products with the best real estate win. ‘Big M’ marketing is an expensive option, but can have a huge pay-off in this channel.
Amazon: Similar to Kickstarter, you need to utilize digital media to drive consumers to your listing. Owning the Brand Page for your products is also essential to maximizing the ROI on your advertising.
Operations: Managing a global supply chain that includes overseas manufacturing, transoceanic shipping, warehousing and fulfillment to consumers, distributors, and retailers on several continents, is incredibly complex. To tackle this essential requirement, I contracted with an expert who was already running his own game publishing business. I offered to pay him a dependable monthly consulting fee for 2/3 of his time. He would continue to run his own venture 1/3 of the time, and manage the operations end of our business (including trade shows) during the other 2/3. This arrangement worked out well for him as it allowed him to continue pursuing the ‘upside’ of publishing games, which can be very speculative with ups and downs, while reducing his risk via the dependable income from helping us. Through this win-win arrangement, he prospered while Forbidden gained immediate access to an expert who already had relationships with key players in the global supply chain.
Manufacturing: When I started Eagle Games in 2000, we initially worked with U.S. manufacturers for printing, components, and assembly of the finished goods. Eventually, we also added production in Europe to manage demand from there (North America and Europe are the two largest markets for boardgames currently). Chinese manufacturing had started coming online as a cheaper alternative, but there were huge hurdles to overcome: language barrier, quality, and risk of not getting what you paid for. Fast forward to 2020 and Chinese manufacturing is the pinnacle of quality, competitive pricing, and access to almost any component. Communication can still be challenging occasionally, but has improved in a quantum leap with most reputable Chinese manufacturers having a U.S. sales contact that can address any issues that may come up.
Project Management: Modern Games are often complex in design and development, require a ton of art assets and graphic design, and can have many components that need to be developed and produced. Managing the process from concept to finished product is extremely complex and requires good planning, budgeting, and execution.
So here I am, 20 years after starting my crazy adventure, still banging away designing, developing, producing, selling, marketing, and delivering my games. I wouldn’t have it any other way.