Brotherwise Games: Chris and Johnny O’Neal

Brotherwise Games is an LA-based board game publishing company founded by Chris and Johnny O’Neal in 2012. Since then, the “Brothers Wise” have become one of the tabletop industry’s biggest indie success stories. In this episode we discuss working with family, tips for game marketing, working with influencers, and what publishers are looking for in games. I’m super excited to share this episode with you—there’s so much to learn here. Enjoy!

“We actually set up a bet—the famous Brotherwise bet—who could make the first playable prototype of a game?”

We start the episode by discussing how these two brothers entered the gaming industry together. Chris and Johnny talk about their initial bet to see who could design a playable game first. This is an excellent lesson because it creates a competitive deadline for finishing a prototype. Johnny and I also discuss our time working on a game called Redakai and how marketing works in the gaming industry.

“I think that’s what good publishers do: they take good games from good designers and make good experiences with them.”

Brotherwise recently published Night of the Ninja, a social deduction game that I designed with the Stone Blade Team. I’m biased, but I think the end result of the partnership was an awesome game. In this section, we talk about how the game went from being designed at Stone Blade to being published by Brotherwise and then marketed to the public. You’ll learn why Brotherwise decided to publish the game. If you’re thinking of pitching a game to a publisher, there are a lot of useful tips here.

“If you want your game to get in front of people, building some relationships with people who are out there showing off these games is an important thing to do.”

In this section, we talk about building relationships with influencers. We talk about consuming the content that people out there are making in regards to game design. When you find an influencer who likes the kinds of games you’re making, then reach out and see if you can help each other out. They may not be interested, but again, it’s not about immediately having them make your game public, it’s about building a relationship.

“Learn how to work with passionate people. Passion is the number one predictor of someone’s success, but only if that passion can be harnessed.”

In this section, we discuss what it’s like to run a company and develop projects with a family member. We go on to talk about building a company, building partnerships, and working with passionate people.

“We started the retailer program for Brotherwise because we really like local game stores, there are a lot of them and it is where we do the majority of our business. […] The game stores are still really, really important to us—the sense of community they foster in any location and the idea that someone can go in there and get recommendations.”

Online sales are a big part of selling games these days, so I wanted to know what Brotherwise’s perspective was on the role of local game stores. In this section, we discuss just how important they are to games, game development, and marketing.

“Kickstarter is great PR, but a publisher will have distributor relationships, they’ll have retail store relationships, they’ll have a player base, they can push that game better than a new person on the scene can.”

I ask Chris and Johnny for advice they would give to up-and-coming designers. They discuss the pitfalls of trying to become your own publisher versus finding an established publisher to develop a game with. There’s a lot of wisdom in this section for anyone who’s on the road to finishing their game and thinking about the next big step!

“The number one reason I reject games is that they’re not for us.”

One of the lessons I teach in the Think Like A Game Designer course is to research your publisher before pitching to them. Here Chris and Johnny tell us about what goes into their decisions to publish a game or reject it, and most of the time, it’s not because the game is bad, just that the game doesn’t fit their catalog of games.