Thursday, April 03, 2003

Games People Play IX
At the end of January, one of my co-workers at Fast Company, Joel Janney, released a board game he and his wife produced themselves. Lights… Camera… Action! is a high-energy movie trivia game focusing on what Janney calls "movie moments." Media Diet talked to Janney about what people remember about movies, the role movie moments play in popular culture, and what he learned while making a board game independently. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Media Diet: Tell me a little bit about the concept behind Lights... Camera... Action!

Joel Janney: This all started with what kinds of games I like to play -- and the fact that I love movies. Computer games are usually solo activities or may involve one other person. Board games are highly social -- and this game in particular is very interactive. It is more fun with more people, and it requires a lot of eye contact and immediate feedback. Laughing with a group is a lot more fun than laughing by yourself.

That's why going to the movies is such a great experience. It's a bonding thing, a communal sharing activity. Watching movies at the theater is a communal activity that is really important to most people. Parts of the movie industry freaked out about VCR's and big TV's because they thought people would stop going to the movies. They don't get it. People go because they would rather watch the movie in the company of a few friends and 200-plus strangers then watch it at home. It's a bonding experience.

Lights… Camera… Action! could easily be made into a computer game, but that's not what I got into this for. I got into it because I think an awful lot of people would have a great deal of fun playing the game with other people. If it's successful, I'll feel great because we make money while putting a smile on a lot of people's faces. That would make me happy. It also stirs interest in movies as people hear quotes from movies they haven't seen. I love the movies.

MD: You've said that a couple of times now. Why do you love the movies so much?

JJ: I love the movies because I love life, and the movies are about life. The thoughts and feelings and emotions one has when watching a movie are easy to share with others who have seen the same movie. People can talk about things going on in a movie, whereas they would feel uncomfortable talking about those same things going on in their own life. Movies are stimulating and engaging.

MD: How did you come up with the idea for the game?

JJ: I originally created a rough version of this game with a friend several years ago. The look and feel was completely different, and the game had different rules, but the "movie moment" concept was the same. One game company wanted to see the prototype, but they shot it down. They liked it, but they eventually decided that although they liked the game, it would take them into a different market (the mass market rather than the specialized market they were used to). They didn't want to be competing against the big players there.

MD: How did the idea develop from talk to action? What made you take the step to actually make the game yourself?

JJ: It's always nagged at me that I never gave it a full shot. My wife and I talked about it and finally decided to go for it. She wasn't working, which made it difficult money-wise but allowed her to devote each day to the many issues that had to be dealt with. We were both bored and looking for something exciting and stimulating to work on -- and here was something I believe in strongly and feel passionate about. It just got to the point where I had to give it a try.

MD: Are there other movie-related games available? What kind of market research did you do to identify competitors and so on?

JJ: Yes. We looked all over to see what was out there. Why still make the game when there are other movie games out there? Three answers: One, this game is different because it's all about "movie moments" -- it's not about memorizing facts or trivia. Movie moments have a strong emotional element. When you remember them you re-experience the emotions you associated with that scene. That's not the same as remembering who won Best Actor in 1969.

It's also different because of the three levels -- you get three chances to name the movie. The great majority of players answers most of the movie moments after all three clues -- good players get more of them off the quote, of course. So there's a reward for being better at it, but it's not so hard that players, particularly when working in teams, get stumped frequently (It's not a lot of fun to play a game where you don't know any of the answers).

Also, the marketing and promotion is different. I believe that movie games have not taken advantage of their marketing opportunities Besides, the fact that there are successful movie games out there does not preclude our ability to be successful with a different game.

But the short answer is that what makes this game different is the much higher level of emotional involvement you get from playing this one. There tends to be a lot of laughter, and it's loud and raunchy in a way that trivia games are not. Simply put, it's more fun.

MD: It might be good to expand a little on the concept of movie moments. What makes a good movie moment? Why do they resonate so strongly with people?

JJ: A good movie moment usually comes from a movie that has staying power within popular culture. The moment is a memorable one within the film -- almost always because it's representative of what the film was about or representative of one of the characters. It's a parking lot moment. If you hear people talking about a movie they've just seen, their discussion is usually limited to half a dozen or so of these moments from a movie.

MD: The game includes 800 questions. Are they from 800 movies? How many movies did you and your wife watch to develop the questions? And fess up: Did you refer to any movie quotation books or other resources?

JJ: They're from about 350 movies. We rented DVD's and watched the movies, for three reasons. Quote resources that are out there are often inaccurate, and it was very important to me that we get the quotes right. Secondly, part of what makes a movie moment is what is happening on the screen -- "Get off the babysitter," doesn't sound like much of a quote if you haven't seen Risky Business, for example. We also needed to see the scene in order to write the scene descriptions. Some of these movie moments were created by me and a friend several years ago in the original version of the game. We rented the movies for those also.

It didn't take long, because we thought we were going to have the game out before Thanksgiving. We crammed it in. On a normal day, my wife Laura would watch three movies and write down many quotes for each and the times on the DVD clock. I would come home from work and pick the ones I liked and rewatch to check for accuracy -- and so I could write the scene description. It was utterly exhausting and went on for about 10 weeks I think. We got a lot more done on the weekends.

MD: If your wife would watch three movies on a weekday, how many did you two hit on a weekend?

JJ: We only have one DVD player, so not many more than that. The player was basically playing a great majority of the time. Our life was watching movies for awhile there.

MD: As you developed the list of questions, did you try to keep a diverse mix of genres and eras?

JJ: The 350 movies range from Citizen Kane to Spider-Man. The game is definitely weighted more to the last 10 years, and those are weighted more to the last five. Still, tons of movies are pre-1990. We have lots of classics. For the most part, we focused on popular movies and popular actors -- movies people would know.

Some movies may have been popular at the time but have no staying power. Few people ever rent them, they don't show up on cable, and no one watches them anymore. They're forgettable. Those movies didn't make it. We also paid a lot of attention to not necessarily using the obvious quotes, but trying to find quotes that played off one of the themes of the movie or a main character.

MD: Did you and your wife learn anything about the kinds of movies you like and dislike?

We'd never seen Citizen Kane before and loved it. I thought it was revered for it's technical innovations, but the story and acting were also great -- in addition to the directing. There were plenty of other movies that were surprises. Two that stand out for me were Breakfast at Tiffany's (which I'd never seen because I thought it was going to be a repetitive light romantic comedy, and they're everywhere) and Saturday Night Fever (which stunned me because I thought it was just a dance/party movie, and I loved it).

MD: What do you think the best quote in the game is? Surely you have a favorite.

JJ: "That's part of your problem, you know, you haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies."

MD: Um, what movie is that from?

JJ: It's from Grand Canyon, spoken by Steve Martin, who is playing a movie producer. I think it's an underrated movie and a good rental. It's a bit of an obscure quote but I love it.

MD: When you reached the point of actually designing and producing the game, how did you learn how to do it? Are there companies that will produce a game for you?

JJ: We learned on the fly. We advertised for a graphic designer and picked from over 200 applicants. We worked with her closely on picking design. And we had all kinds of problems I don't even want to go into. Laura had to individually lay out 800 cards in Quark. We called all over for printers and game board and box makers. We talked to a lot of people. In the end, we used a broker for the printing and another company to make the box and board. We didn't get terms or credit from either. Companies that would do it for us weren't economical and required much more units printed.

MD: In the design and production process, what aspects of game making surprised you?

JJ: Just about everything, not knowing anything previously. Formats of files, the fact that colors on screen vary dramatically from printed colors, the many things that can -- and often did -- go wrong when something is going to press, the expense involved at all levels. It was a nightmare. And now we have to collate the cards by hand ourselves because the collating machine would have added too much cost. There are 400,000 cards. I definitely had not thought about that.

MD: What were some of the decisions you had to make? What were some details you decided not to include that would have been nice?

JJ: Originally, we only wanted to print 50-100 copies and not offset print them. Instead we were going to use a substandard printing method that wouldn't look that great just to see if people who bought the game were really into it. We spent a lot of time looking at options before wising up and going with offset color. It would have been nice to finish the box to protect it better. And it would have been nice to have thicker cards.

Most important, though, I thought the game needed to stand out. People need to notice it, and that means it can't look like anything else. It looks like a movie game, and if you see it from a distance you'll either recognize it if you've seen it before or be intrigued enough to check it out. But these are all purchasing decisions. Once a certain number of games get out there, all that really matters is word of mouth -- does it create a buzz, do people talk it up to their friends so that their friends want to buy it?

MD: With what the game cost to make per unit, how did you determine what the retail price would be?

JJ: Trivial Pursuit is $35. Most games are $25-$35, and quite a lot of those are $30-$35. That's where we got our price point, not our cost per unit. We're getting pretty low margins right now because of the limited print run.

MD: You could have easily self-produced a game with less-expensive and -impressive design and production values. Why not make the game more of a DIY cottage industry? Do you plan to market the game widely? How does one get distribution for a self-produced game?

JJ: We wanted a product we could be proud of. We didn't want to have to apologize to people and say, "Hey, we'll make it nicer if this takes off." Because then, if it didn't work out, I would just wonder if we should have gone all out. I wanted to take a full swing at this, not bunt. Yes, we want to market widely eventually. How does one get distribution? The hard way, a little bit at a time. And I wanted this to be a board game -- not just cards in a box, not on the computer -- because I believe in the communal sharing thing, people laughing in groups together. That could still happen with cards, but the board makes it more substantial and more likely to attract a group to sit around and dedicate time to play it. I also think the board version is more fun if you invest about two minutes to learn the rules (They're pretty basic.), and the board version allows people who aren't that good at it to have as much fun as the experts. That is very important.

MD: You must now know more about the game industry than you thought you ever would. What are some of the more interesting things you've learned about making and selling games?

JJ: A lot of games come out every year. A lot. And many of them invest more money than we have to get started. There are some good Web sites I referred to, but I largely didn't listen to them -- though I still recommend reading all about it before diving in. Most of the Web sites focus on standard methods of distribution (meaning stores), not Internet sales.

MD: So what resources would you recommend people check out? What was most useful for you?

JJ: What's been most useful to us has been finding the right people to work with. That may sound like I'm evading the question, but it's really important. Here's an informative Web site.

MD: What advice would you give people who might be interested in making their own game?

JJ: Be sure that you really want to do it.

MD: Why do you say that? Were there any moments when you doubted whether you wanted to do it?

JJ: No, but it was a lot harder and a lot more work than I thought it would be. There were also a lot of scary moments where problems came up and we were not sure how we would fix them, or if we could. If you're only into it 80%, you're going to find it very easy to give up when the inevitable roadblocks appear.

MD: You named the company Georgie Games after your dog. What does Georgie think of the game?

JJ: He definitely isn't happy. He doesn't like all the boxes and cards in the house and doesn't like change of any kind. He can tell we're stressed, and he'd rather we had nothing to do but sleep with him all day.

One thing George has really liked about the game, though, has been the frequent trips to the video store, where the staff recognizes him and always gives him a treat. Another is that my wife is home all day with him instead of at a job.

MD: What's his favorite movie?

JJ: He does a good job of keeping his emotions to himself when watching a film.

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