The Velocity of Customization

22 February 2018 | 36 Comments

It’s been a while since I bought a computer. Around 5 years ago I bought a very powerful, custom-built, Velocity Micro desktop, and it’s held up really well.

Recently I was thinking about how we buy computers compared to other products. For every computer I’ve purchased in the last 20 years, I’ve gone to a website, clicked on a starting model, and custom selected every component:

This concept is so integral to the process of buying a computer that I consider it standard. But as I reflect on it, especially after 6 years in the game publishing business, it’s kind of a miracle that this level of customization is so normal for computers. For almost every other product, customization is an extravagance.

Kickstarter kind of crosses over into this realm, which backers able to choose from an array of rewards and add-ons, but it’s still a far cry from level of customization we’re offered when we buy a computer. Especially since Kickstarter add-ons are typically in addition to standard components–they don’t replace them, leading to higher costs for the backer because they’re paying for both the standard and the upgraded component in many cases.

So, just for fun, I want to ask the question: Is this level of customization viable for tabletop games?

This is purely hypothetical, of course. Imagine, for a second, a game you want to buy. You go to the publisher’s webstore, click on the game, and you’re presented with a variety of drop-down menus that show options like these:

  • 60 realistic resource tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron (+$20.00)
  • 60 custom wooden tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron (+$7.00)
  • 60 wooden cubes representing wood, brick, grain, and iron
  • 60 cardboard tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron (-$4.00)
  • 0 resource tokens (-$6.00)

As you can see, there’s a “standard” version (which would be available from a variety of retailers as usual), and you can modify it based on your taste and budget. Maybe you want to spend more on special resources, or maybe you already have resource tokens and want to save money.

When you place the order, the publisher assembles the game per your specifications on site and ships it within a few days. Your copy of the game is built specifically for you.

Of course, there are some complications:

  • The publisher would probably want to pursue some level of standardization across the company, which could work well for companies that design games in a consistent world, like Red Raven Games and Level 99 Games.
  • At the same time, the publisher would still want each game to feel unique in terms of the components, and some of those components require a heavy investment (miniatures, metal coins, custom dice, etc). There’s the risk you might invest in thousands of components that are never selected by consumers.
  • Manufacturers are very efficient at packaging the same game over and over. In this model, for non-standard copies of games, the publisher would be sourcing the components from their manufacturer, but they’d take care of assembly on site.
  • There’s an increased risk of packing mistakes happening when each game is customized.
  • The cost of shipping empty boxes is quite high, so they would probably need to be shipped flat and assembled on site, which requires special equipment.
  • A publisher would need to centralize the assembly in one location, resulting in high shipping costs for international customers (though they could still buy the standard version of the game locally).

I must admit that this is a bit of an outlandish idea, which makes me marvel even more that computer companies are able to offer such levels of customization. That said, a company like The Game Crafter is almost set up in such a way that they could do this if they partnered with a publisher for specific games.

What do you think? Are there other industries I’m forgetting where customization is standard?

Also, if you’re curious, I posted my current top 10 games list on my personal blog yesterday.

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36 Comments on “The Velocity of Customization

  1. I’m waaay late to this conversation. I run project management for a Sign Wholesaler who produces every sign to customer spec. We spec jobs out by square foot first (standard template) then allow for customization in every regard. Maybe a customer wants their sign to have blue trim (edges) we have several stock colors, special order colors and paint options allowing for exact color matching. This carries over to every element of the sign allowing for the possibility of a pretty basic sign with white letters saying “Brewery” or a completely customized sign with logos, a digital print, color changing LED…the works.

    What allows us to do this so effectively is our ability to wholesale. Our customers are sign shops, not mom and pop shops. They know about signs, we just produce them. There appears to be a gap in the industry here in the states for a company like this. A wholesaler (manufacturer) that can create custom orders for the game company (you) to then deliver to the end customer (player).

    Example1: You collect custom orders from the players on kickstarter and order 25k boards, 2k custom tokens, 23k standard tokens, etc. Then assemble them yourself.

    Example2: You send the wholesaler a Purchase Order for 2k of option 1, 14k of option 2, 9k of option 3. They assemble them, box them and send it off to you.

    As I’ve been searching for the right companies to produce my board game i’ve run into these obstacles myself. There is no one stop shop. I might have cardboard cutouts produced here, miniatures produced elsewhere, so and so forth. Seems like the Board Game industry needs someone (US based) that can both quote a product, mass produce and allow for custom ordering so designers can be designers and not have to learn manufacturing as well.

    Just my thoughts on how similar our industries could be in the future.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences in this realm, Zakery! In this scenario, Example 2 is how the industry currently works (Panda, for example, is essentially a one-stop shop for that purpose, but not in the US).

  2. The company I work for is in the exhibition industry, and my role is actually to help build a customizable ordering system.

    I agree with so many of the comments already made, Fertessa’s is the one that resonated with me most.

    I have been privately hoping that The Game Crafter would do this for the games published on their site, but knowing firsthand the work that goes into it, I don’t imagine it will happen anytime soon based on their scale.

    For the board game industry as a whole, however, I would hazard a guess that there will be more of a movement for this level of customization within the next five years. And it gets me excited!

  3. I think it comes down to modularization. Computers can be fully custom because the parts are all standard to work with each other. I can get an Asus motherboard, Samsung hard drive and corsair ram etc. You also see this in bikes where I can get a giant frame, shimano gears and tektro brakes. The reason this would be so much harder in board games is that I can’t use my scythe pieces to play Terra mystica, so the market for the premium version is much much smaller. Sram can put out gears that cost many many thousands of dollars knowing they will work with every different manufacturer frame, not just giant.

    1. Chris, I think that you make an excellent point. For some products, there is an architecture in place. Everyone know what components go in to the product, and what the interfaces are. Sometimes the architecture allows for variation (e.g., how many volts to expect), but you can swap components in and out, and the component you swap out can be used for another order.

      There isn’t such an architecture for games.

        1. If the inserts are customized then they’re not really modular? Can I use my scythe inserts for Terra mystica? I can definitely use my Samsung hdd from my old pc in my new one.

          Possibly a set of “wood” tokens could be used in many different games I guess, but “oil barrels” less so

          1. Ok, let me rephrase that: customizable. If you get foam parts in bulk,like you get card sleeves, then any game can get inserted .

            The whole purpose of Vinyls, cassettes, CDs, DVDs and recently smartphone cables was to be exact the same size so that any brand could fit your player/phone. Or plugs. Or bottle openers, fill your product here.

            It is difficult to find two games with compatible cards or minis (apart from expansions) ,but accessories are easier.

  4. I have seen people buying multiple IKEA Kallax shelves and adjusting them according to their walls.

    As for Crowdfunding options, I won’t speak about addons but something unorthodox. I recently had a similar thought about component Stretch goals, but as REPLACEMENTS to the original (retail) print run:

    Using the example you suggested above, Let’s say you offer

    60 cardboard tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron at Funded goal
    60 wooden cubes representing wood, brick, grain, and iron at 1st Stretch goal
    60 custom wooden tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron at 2nd SG
    60 realistic resource tokens representing wood, brick, grain, and iron at 3rd SG

    The key to this, is that each time you offer the upgraded versions but removing the previous ones. Why?

    For starters, you make Kickstarter’s rewards more exclusive.
    Then it’s the cost that it is not fully added, but replaced as a small increase
    Also the weight from the less components reduces shipping costs.

    It is the same with heavier cardboard for mats and tokens, they replace the old ones and you don’t get 2x punchboards. Or heavier cards, or linen finish cards, or that shiny letter font on the box cover. They all replace the 1st offer of the creator.

    **Note that those were not 4 different pledge tiers, so you customize your reward. Those were achieved but the effort of all backers, as SGs, for the same amount of money as original pledge.

  5. If the game company produces games that use the same components they could package the new games without the like components and allow customers to purchase their level of standard to premium components as they wished and throw a packaged set into the box or ship separately or use components they already have which could make the game cheaper.

    Ex. Customer has many meeples of various colors already. The new game requires a number of colored meeples. Customer chooses to buy the new games without meeples and uses their own. Another customer wants a premium set of metal meeples and chooses to make the purchase seperately. Specialized components could be offered at different levels and sold separately. The stand alone game would come with everything.

    I hope I stated that correctly.

    Hey Lisa, my brother sells kitchen cabinets!

  6. My brother-in-law sells custom kitchens. Here’s an industry that wouldn’t exist without this business model! What if the customization was part of the game? I’m only thinking of this because I’m playing Charterstone, lol. My rules and my story are laid out as the game progresses in Charterstone… what if the game components could do this? Each story progression comes with new components… and you could choose paper, wood or metal for each stage. I know it’s out there but my brain went there, so I thought I’d share.

  7. From what I understand, each of Tesla’s cars are customized by the purchaser. Far from industry standard but there seems to be a growing market for it

  8. “The surprising thing about computers is that bespoke is standard rather than a luxury version of them, I think.”

    Unless you buy direct from HP at which point trying to work out how to change anything in your setup is a none starter.

    I think the boardgame equivalent of the computer analogy would be more like someone offering ‘504’ but you chose the game experience you wanted, the level of ‘deluxness’ and the bits were put together and shipped to you.

    Another area just starting to get this bespoke offering is miniatures, Hero Forge offer a design website where you pick and choose the character you want to build and then they 3D print it and send you it.

  9. I think it’s an interesting idea, but one that I think a lot of publishers would be wary of taking on. Since the burden of the customization is likely to fall to them and not the manufacturer as you stated. As a consumer, I would love this option, even if it was just for inserts. I can’t count how many times I’ve opened a game box to find 2 flimsy pieces of cardboard and nothing else, with a ton of components just loose. Being able to pay an extra $5-10 for an insert that would hold everything and make setup easier would be worth it to me. Plus this might offer some interesting trending data to publishers. If everyone is paying the extra money for an upgraded insert, perhaps they would consider just making them a standard and charging a little extra on the base price of the game.

  10. Kind of reminds me of doing some board game purchases from Cheapass Games old website prior to the huge surge in board games in the last 15 years. Neat model for a student with little disposable income, you could pick a game or two, check the components against ones you already had, and easily add some bits needed to your order. Later, they started doing higher quality publishing of their more popular games (Kill Doctor Lucky, etc) so there was a good range for people.

  11. Reason it’s standard in computers: Most manufacturers aren’t building from within a factory, but are (larger or smaller) stores that build them bespoke. As such… The service they’re offering is just putting the parts together on your behalf, and sometimes able to get them cheaper than if you ordered the parts yourself and put it together yourself.

    Which is absolutely standard… For more high end luxury products, or ones that have to do things on a 1:1 basis by default – I think most of the game table companies offer it, as do most kitchen places.

    The surprising thing about computers is that bespoke is standard rather than a luxury version of them, I think.

      1. :-) Dorothy… At least 25% of the above mentioned women are not…on second thought…my skates, my bikes… Ha! Jamey, bikes are another industry where this happens. Thanks Dorothy for reminding me. (For skates I replace wheels and bearings but I cannot buy them in my preferred set up…) Scratch that 25% remark though as I do do this with my bikes, And I am extremely picky at that even.

  12. Didn’t Niké do this? You could (or can) go online and build your preferred shoe?

    Lego had something like that maybe over a decade ago. You could build something online, it was pretty cool. 3D, having access to all of the blocks and it was free.
    But, if you wanted you could buy your own design. Lego would even throw in the manual of how you built it. And again, maybe they still do have this.
    Cool idea, as it is very hard for a parent to resist buying the masterpiece their kid just spent hours on creating.
    If it doesn’t exist still (I haven’t checked) maybe they ran into the same problems as described above…

  13. I actually had a tangental conversation with a publisher friend about third party services offering upgrades to a game.

    How would you feel, Jamey, if another company offered an upgraded version of Scythe. It’s the exact same game, just made out of chrome (or something) and costs $300? Would you consider that plagiarism?

    If so at what point is the line drawn between what is “too far” and what is acceptable. I would guess you wouldn’t care if someone sold upgraded resources (more “upgraded” than what you already offer). But what if someone sold an alternative board. Too far? What if someone sold an alternate combat mechanic pack? Or alternate set of supersized mech minis?

    How much can a third party offer as upgrades before it starts infringing on your IP? I know this has been a little dicey already with custom insert company’s. Curious to hear your thoughts

    1. That’s an interesting question, Evan. If it’s the exact same game under the same name, it would absolutely be a trademark and copyright infringement.

      However, I love third-party companies that make cool stuff to enhance our games (special meeples, custom inserts, apps, etc), and I can see how there’s a fine line. I think the key for me is that the stuff I create is still necessary (and that they make it clear that unofficial accessories are unofficial). That is, people can’t piece together a complete copy of Scythe using third-party accessories.

  14. I think that is a very interesting idea, and as you’ve said, Kickstarter is already exploring that in a ways. I believe also with sites like TheGameCrafter, designers have the option to present incomplete games, or games missing components for the sake of price. So I think the demand is definitely there, for consumers to buy their games a la carte, or with all the works.

    Biggest issue would be produciton of unique pieces, as you mentioned. I would think it’d be viable to have a goat set for custom pieces. Kind of like with Kickstarter, so other consumers could see, ok when the demand/buyers reach this number, this option will be available. For example, if a company set 1000 orders as the goal for a custom set, or the money equivalent of 1000 orders, then people could see that, yes they can select the custom set option, but that option would not be ready for production/delivery until the goal was met. And they could choose to be patient or go with the more generic options.

    I think one company being bold enough to do this, and doing it successfully would spawn competition. And competition refines ideas beyond what was originally imagined. So I don’t think your idea is far-fetched. This is the era of on-demand. I just think it will take time to come to fruition.

    1. That’s a really interesting idea to use some sort of pre-order or survey system to help determine the quantities of each component. That could significantly decrease the risk I was worried about.

  15. While still in hypothetical land I think this could be possible – though you would need to design the end product with this in mind –

    It could be feasible to sell a product without a box and sell each set of components separately in tuck boxes or even shrink wrap. Have an “all in” option that gets you standard everything, but from that you can buy, not buy, or upgrade something. The traditional box would be an upgrade, but not necessary and could create a very attractive price point for price sensitive customers.

    It does make me very curious if people would opt out of a box/insert for significant savings?

    You would of course have extra picking cost when shipping due to multiple items- but if you set up a whole business model around this you could adapt to different customer demands — “this type of upgrade is more often purchased that this one — we’ll manufacture/stock more” and stock certain levels of the most common customization.

    It might be hard to be viable as a one off experiment, however.

      1. That’s a good point – but again its about how you structure your company.

        I know you put a high emphasis on art/quality component games – its part of your brand and its certainly important for the way Stonemaier is structured. You want a nice shelf presence and a lot of people appreciate and support that model.

        But given how strong the DIY community is in the hobby tabletop world… I think a different kind of “brand” might also find a good fit. Don’t want a box with art because you take everything out and reorganize it anyway (which many do)? Save 30% (or whatever it is)

  16. Whoooo boy, there would be a lot of potential for errors as every combination of items has to be either its own SKU, or has to be hand-packed by a human, meaning:

    – the base box has to be packed separately, and those custom components (or standard components) have to be included in separate packaging and shipping together OR
    – the box has to be opened, packed with the correct set of things, then resealed to be shipped OR
    – the box has to remain unpacked until the order is ready, then packed and sealed for the first time

    All of those suggest a significant error rate (with the associated downstream consequences, notably dollars and time lost to customer service and shipping).

    But yeah – I think we’re approaching this level of customization with third party vendors doing the bulk of the work. I buy a unit of game (barring other options, it comes with a known component set) and I can customize it as I see fit.

    I think this is ultimately a better model for the end user, since I can buy those things from a central source who presumably specializes it, rather than paying (de facto) for every publisher I’m interested in having to learn for themselves (at significant opportunity cost and investment) how to make the custom components I’m interested in for their exact game.

    Just thinking about how many different shapes and die sheets come in every game makes me wonder how a given publisher would approach these things and not lose their minds, especially small publishers.

    It seems like the correct end model is for third-party companies to specialize in this, then *hopefully* partner with publishers to offer “official” component upgrade kits that are copublished (in whatever way that means for those two companies).

    1. That’s a great point about the box, JR. Boxes are the one replacement part we don’t offer because of the reasons you mentioned–it’s incredibly inefficient to ship an empty box.

      And you’re right, third-party companies do aspects of this already, and they do it really well (Meeplesource, Top Shelf Gamer, Broken Token, etc).

  17. Jamey – I think there are a couple of things that make this especially tricky for the tabletop side of things, some of which you addressed. Having a low error rate with assembly on something like this is vital, otherwise your liability on parts replacements is potentially huge. Even when you’re just adding to a base game copy instead of subtracting, it doesn’t take much for the number of SKU’s to become overwhelming. For a recent campaign we fulfilled, there was a base game, an expansion, five unique promo packs, a component upgrade kit, two different sleeve add-ons and two different card upgrade add-ons. That’s a good amount to juggle and creates a lot of potential for problems!

    That being said, it seems plenty of restaurants like Pieology, Chipotle and of course Subway have been able to make the customization model work pretty well for them. I think it’s certainly expected for food!


    1. Alex: That’s an excellent point about error rate. Even with standardization, Stonemaier Games still fills thousands of replacement parts requests a year, and I can only imagine that rate going up if each game is custom assembled.

      Custom food! I can’t believe I forgot that. That’s a brilliant example.

  18. I love that idea, but I don’t know the starting price point for a board game gives publishers that flexibility. Computers, I wouldn’t think, sell at the same volume and have a higher price point to start with in order to allow for that flexibility. What’s the Gross Margin on a single board game? Then compare that to a computer.
    Cars do that as well, and the GM, I think, allows for it.
    And there is a clothing online store that is somewhat doing that as well – can customize length of sleeve, individual measurements instead of a size, add pockets, change sleeve length, etc… eshakti, I believe.

    1. Katherine: Typically board games are priced at 5x or 6x manufacturing cost. So, a game with a $100 MSRP costs about $20 to make. That margin seems huge, but the reason it’s not very big is that distributors buy from publishers at a 60% discount. So in that example, the distributor pays the publisher $40 for the game, netting the publisher $20 in profit before all other costs are considered (freight shipping, taxes, sunk costs like art, etc).

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