The boardgame conference in Oulu

I’ve been busy, obviously – editing and laying out a genealogy of my paternal family line, mostly, but also some other stuff, such as participating in an interesting boardgame conference in Oulu this last weekend. Some notes follow – this might interest any and all Finnish game design and development people out there.

Backstory

Jussi Autio is a game designer and publisher from Oulu, the head honcho of Tuonela Productions. Jussi is a fair guy – he’s taking a much more traditional tack to living the legend (read: wasting your professional career in games) than I do, but we’ve always been able to speak eye-to-eye about the idea of gaming as valuable culture, something that needs to be fostered and developed on our own terms here in Finland.

Jussi invited a bunch of people to a mysterious “boardgame conference” in Oulu, promising a schedule of discussions about the difficulties and solutions to various challenges game development faces, mostly stuff in the publication phase like dealing with distribution and whatnot. Here’s a Finnish overview from the Finnish Boardgame Association forums. I didn’t require much convincing when I heard that travel expenses would be covered for the most part by the Finnish centre for economic development (a totally bureaucratic thing, don’t ask) – I’m always happy to visit Oulu, a city with first-class accomodations and classy people. In fact, I knew little more than the time and the place before the conference happened, as Jussi played it pretty close to the vest.

The conference

As it developed, the meeting involved 14 small press boardgame designers and publishers from all around Finland. Apparently Jussi and Timo Multamäki – the other manager of the event – had sent invitations to some rpg designers and larger boardgame publishers as well, but those ignored the event, so it was just a line-up of boardgames small fry (and myself; I could debate either side of the issue as regards my credentials as a boardgame designer). This proved to be a positive thing; I suspect that there would not have been nearly as much consensus on key points if the event had a wider and more dissimilar field of participants.

The key elements of the conference were thus:

  • Jussi and Timo had called us together to deal with the difficulties a small boardgame publisher faces. The prominent theme was to generally look for avenues of cooperation in design, development, production, distribution and marketing Finnish boardgames, all of these being fields where a larger cooperative entity could cause significant synergy for everybody concerned. The difficulties were considered with gravity; I especially liked Timo’s photos of what happens when you order a printing of your game to be shipped to you on a standard pallet, and the Chinese transport agency decides to load your pallet into the shipping container with another pallet of ball bearings on top of it.
  • In reality Jussi and Timo had a ready-made answer to the conundrum: we should form an association of Finnish boardgame developers (or rather, non-electronic game developers in general, to not close rpg designers and such out of it). Such an association could then act efficiently in promoting its members as an united front, while also enabling exchange of information and coordination of larger projects and various forms of financing. An important example of cooperation would be a common booth at Spiel Essen; another would be increased cooperation in late development and playtesting; a third would be common marketing in the form of a web site, a print portfolio and other such joint endeavours.

The conference decided to go with the general agenda, so we spent the entire Sunday hashing out the details of this association idea. The official papers were also drawn, so I’d except the association to get registered with the appropriate agency in a couple of weeks. I won’t list all the details here, interested parties should contact Jussi, who was chosen to be the chairman of the association’s board. It’s definitely an interesting project, anybody involved with non-electronic game development in Finland should at least take a look at the plans and other papers developed in the meeting.

Points of contention

From my point of view the conference was very cooperative, which is a good sign for the future of the aforementioned developer’s association. Most of the people present had very similar concerns, goals and values, so most discussion was just a matter of laying out the whole issue and then hashing out the optimal, logical solutions. This is not to say that there was not room for critique. Some points were debated quite lively, while on others disagreement was intractable enough to make such debate unnecessary. For example:

  • At first there was quite a bit of discussion about cooperation in game distribution. The idea was that the association could hire a common salesman for its members, for instance, and arrange coordinated warehousing and shipping among its members. The problems of this approach were also hashed out – conflicting arrangements and uneven utility among members, loss of objective credibility and so on. Ultimately it was decided that this angle would be set aside for further development later, perhaps in a more commercial way altogether.
  • The conference was mostly unanimous about the need for a collective NDA that all members would sign. This would allow them to share information about game ideas, business ideas and other sensitive details in a way that mere trust would not allow. As a committed proponent of free culture I had to refute this point completely on my own part; I would not have part in a secrecy contract that only has a punitive purpose against the chance that some day a signatory would have to break faith and disclose received information – how on Earth could I know in advance that all such disclosure would necessarily be unjust? This didn’t slow down the proceedings, as it was pretty clear that I was the only hippy indie style guy in the conference, and gaining any sort of mutual understanding on something like this would be easily outside of the purview of a weekend conference – we just agreed to disagree, and I consulted the developing association out of general interest for the rest of the event.
  • A theme that sparked plenty of discourse was the issue of conformance in brand management: the association will have to find a compromise over which brands they’ll be developing and how. “Finnish boardgames” seems like an obvious brand for the association to develop on its website, marketing materials and convention presence, but a powerful and consistent brand that actually carries a meaningful message will also require conformance guidelines – in effect, you have to pick and choose the games, designers and publishers that are good enough and on-message enough to bring consistent value to the brand. It would be a tough choice for a new association to focus its marketing efforts on only a subset of the games represented by its members, so it’s unlikely that brand management will get too authoritarian here.
  • A final issue before the association was officially formed was the question of membership – who would the dozen founders like to have join the new association? Some folks preferred an association of production companies, but this was dropped due to how many different roles various participants had in their companies – some didn’t have their own companies at all, for instance, preferring to licence their games to others to publish. The issue of new developers was also addressed: while high membership fees would aid the association financially at the beginning, they would also ensure that anybody less than certain about his commitment to game development would decide to pass on the association and rely on less formal support networks at least until they’d succeeded with their first products. Ultimately the founders agreed that the association would be for individual people working in game development, and the joining fee would be 50 euros, with a subsequent 20 euro annual fee – enough to ensure that only moderately serious developers would be interested, but not so much as to prevent independent developers without company backing from joining.

As I mentioned above, I didn’t ultimately join the association myself. I did promise to consult on a few things, though – this seems like a nice project, even if its benefits do not equal the angst I’d get from that NDA. At the end of Sunday we’d hashed out the establishing meeting of the association, the formal rules and everything else needed for registering the association, so if all goes well the Finnish Boardgame Developer’s Association should be off to races soon enough. We will see what becomes of it.

My night schedule

One might imagine that I’d sleep after a long day sitting at a conference, but as I was camping with my friend Olli in the suburbs, the Friday and Saturday nights were actually mostly spent in idle speculation about Glorantha, that great work of 20th century fantasy literature. Olli convinced me for now that the tri-partite cosmology in recent Glorantha publications is a Godlearner artifact, so I suppose I’ll drop that part from my own research on the subject for now. (I’m not quite convinced that this was what Olli intended for me to learn, but that’s what I came back with anyway.) Olli also told me that interpreting Gloranthan supernatural cosmos as subjective to the local cultures and other subjects in the setting is a most grave heterodoxy; we didn’t quite have the time to properly address why and how this explanation then seems to have so much explanatory power, but maybe we’ll continue on it some other time. I was sort of planning that I’d buy Olli’s copy of the new Sartar sourcebook for Heroquest from him, but the poor guy hadn’t managed to get one yet (aside from the pre-publication special edition he wouldn’t part with, that is). I guess I’ll try again once Olli gets around to buying more copies of the book, assuming that I don’t have some reason to visit a game store myself in the near future.

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2 Responses to “The boardgame conference in Oulu”

  1. The Tuonela line of card games « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] Tuonela line of card games 29.3.2010 — Eero Tuovinen One of the highlights of the boardgame conference in February was that the local game publisher Jussi Autio invited us to check out his game store. Tuonela has […]

  2. Vipinää Essenin pelimessuilla tänä vuonna « Roolipelitiedotus Says:

    […] lautapelikehittäjät Ry on tämä kevättalvella perustettu pelisuunnittelijayhdistys, jonka puuhamiehiä ovat Jussi Autio ja Timo Multamäki. Nimestään […]


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