Maybe You Want Not To Publish

Whether or Not to Publish an Indie Game

Dreamation is a game convention I go to every year in New Jersey. You probably know about it because you’re either one of the people I saw there or because you know me and know that I disappeared for four days a couple of weeks ago. It’s a pretty cool thing. They make indie designers extraordinarily welcome, giving us food and beds, a really sweet place to sell our games, and lots of friendly and positive space to play in. I can’t thank them enough, and they seem to feel that we bring a lot to the con. It’s the kind of symbiosis that you hope for.One of the annual events is a roundtable discussion of peoples’ game designs. Usually its run by Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen, but Jared bailed this year, leaving it to Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue to play Luke’s foil. They did a stellar job, joining Luke in asking perceptive questions to help people refine their ideas, offering solutions of their own, and keeping the room positive and focused.One of the things that I noticed about this year’s Independent Publishing Roundtable was that it was frickin’ crammed with people. My first year, there were maybe a dozen people. Then it was two dozen. This year it was maybe 50 or 60 people. That’s really excellent. It’s a lot of fun, we get to hear people’s excited ideas and encourage folks to make art. It’s a blast.But it means that we have to ask some tough questions of ourselves when we start thinking about this game we’ve got designed. Here’s a list of these questions. I think that, if you’re thinking about designing, publishing, or selling a game, you should make sure that your answers are really your answers and not based on flawed — and potentially demoralizing and expensive — assumptions.Consider what you’re making when you’re making a game.

Is this something that solves a problem you have when playing with your friends?

Do you and your friends enjoy playing with this?

Does it invoke a new way of looking at play?

Consider if you want to publish your game.

Do you want to share the experience you have at the table?

Do you want to be subject to critique, useful and otherwise?

Do you want to learn about writing, editing, typography, and the other technical aspects of publishing?

Consider whether you want to sell the game.

Do you want to make sure the game fits a particular market niche, and are you willing to alter it to fit a niche?

Do you want to make decisions about pricing, costs, distribution, and printing?

Do you want to make a profit selling your game?

Don’t just go down and blithely say “yes” to everything. Think about them. And you should take longer to think about each question than the last. And lemme tell you a cold, hard reason why.

I showed up at the Forge booth in 2004 with Under the Bed. There were, if I recall, 31 other games for sale there. I sold 40-some copies of UtB, a quirky little game about toys and children that had a funny way of making adults cry. That’s the year The Mountain Witch came out. It sold 92 copies.

Last year, the Forge/IPR booth had over 100 games for sale. I believe the top seller sold 40-some copies. I don’t remember who that was or what their game was, but I have no doubt that it sold a lot because it was good.

I’ll say that louder: The best-marketed, best-designed, best-sold game sold fewer than half as many copies as the top sellers in the two previous years. You, as a potential publisher, now have a lot of competition. It’s friendly comptetition, to be sure, and your friends will all help you sell your game as much as you help sell theirs, but it’s a crowded booth. You want to make sure your vision of your game is served by what you’re doing with it. So consider these possibilities:

You have a game that is fun to play with your friends and at cons. Play it with them! Have a great time! This may not need to be published. Playing with people and having fun is, after all, what this endeavor is all about.

You have a game that will interest a very particular niche: fans of another particular game, for instance, or enthusiasts of an unpopular genre, and should therefore invest as little as possible into the production of your game. PDFs, backpack trades, and an enthusiastic Wiki community might be a direction to look.

You can’t answer some key questions above and should wade in slowly, figuring out your answers as you go.

You have a brilliant mechanic, setting idea, or situation, but you haven’t really figure out how the rest of the game works, and are using a system based in assumptions that require questioning. This is a heartbreaker and it’s called that because other designers see the brilliant part, but see the rest of your game as holding back your brilliance.

You may resent the compromises you have to make in order to make your game a commercial success. You really don’t want to resent something that’s supposed to bring you joy.

Don’t do anything you’re going to resent. This is your creation, the fruit of your metaphorical loins! Don’t sell it out because you feel like your idea isn’t as valuable if you don’t sell a lot of copies or you want to play instead of formatting a PDF. Do what is right for this game, for you, right now. Being an independent developer means that you can make those choices for yourself. Don’t make the same choices someone else made just because they made them. Their circumstances were different. Make your own choices for your own art.

0 thoughts on “Maybe You Want Not To Publish”

    1. Joshua,
      I have a million questions! I have two things going on right now:

      1) I like designing RPGs, and making a living doing that sounds cooler to me than making a living doing anything else

      2) I’m already designing a game to satisfy my own roleplaying desires, and I’d gladly publish and sell it if it was marketable

      So, my first question is, when you have an idea for a product, how do you go about figuring out whether there’s an unserved niche in the market for it?

      Thanks,
      -David

      1. I can maybe help you answer that question for yourself. Luke Crane is really good at this, and Malcolm Craig is a professional marketer, so maybe I can get one of them in here to say more intelligent things than I, but here’s my stab:

        The first thing *I*’d do is listen to my pitch. Is this something that I’d want, given only that pitch? Obviously, it’s hard to be honest with yourself about that, so you’ll have to ask other people, too. Listen to what they say.

        So, let’s hear your pitch! I know it a little bit, but gimme three sentences (no run-ons!) that explain this game.

      2. Josh may be bigging-up my marketing credentials a little more than they deserve, but here goes:

        1) Enjoying designing is great, but will you enjoy publishing? That is (as Josh points out) a totally different kettle of badgers from just designing the games.

        And wanting to make a living out of it? I think some very, very serious thought is required before going down that avenue. making a living from games design is, to put not too fine a point on it, ridiculously difficult. Even with outstanding sales (in small press terms), you’re going to be hard pressed to make the same money that you would in a fairly average job. We recently posted the 2007 sales figures for the various folks who are part of the Collective Endeavour over in the UK, that might give you some idea of expected sales.

        2) If you’re writing a game to satisfy yourself, that’s wonderful and the best way to start! Is it marketable? I don’t know. Even the most heinously bad game will sell a handful of copies over its lifetime.

        Is there an unserved niche for your game? Does there need to be? I don’t think that you need to look for a niche for your game, just design the game that you want to play. Cold City certainly didn’t go looking for a niche, it’s something I never even thought about when designing and publishing the game. Certainly, it could be fitted into a niche, perhaps ‘Cold War games’ along with Spione. But finding a niche isn’t, to my mind, that important. What’s more important is: what is cool about your game? What really enthuses you about it?

        But how can you market yours?

        I have to say, that I don’t know anything about your game at the moment, so all of this is very general stuff. Guys like Fred Hicks and Luke Crane are the past masters of this, they’ve got it down to a really fine art. But here’s my take on it:

        a) The elevator pitch: if I can’t get what your game is about in 25 seconds of non-waffle, then I’m not really going to be interested, as a member of the buying public. Have a quick fire pitch that really encapsulates what your game is about. If you can’t get one, then you either need to:

        i) See if you can ask other people to come up with one for you.

        ii) Is one developable? Or, is my game a bit fuzzy and difficult to pin down? If this is the case, maybe you want to go back to basics and think about the game itself, in very fundamental terms.

        For Cold City, my pitch is “It’s a game of hidden agendas, trust and monster hunting in Berlin, 1950”. That’s it, no more. If people are not taken by this, then chances are the game isn’t for them and neither side has wasted their precious time or money. If they are, then cool, they might want to now a little more about certain aspects of the game, then you can go in to more detail. But don’t overload in the first instance.

        And don’t mention other games in your pitch! Especially don’t mention other games in a negative light!

        b) Market before release: Talk about the development on games fora, mention it on a blog or webpage, get people interested long before the game is actually released! People are your best source of marketing. If you can get people interested and, more importantly, get them to become advocates for your game, then that is a huge advantage.

        Many people are wary of designers ‘shilling’ their games. But an enthusiastic advocate of your game is a precious, precious thing.

        c) Point ‘b’ leads into this point: For heavens sake, don’t spam! I’ve seen a lot of cases where people with a game to talk about pitch it in the most tangential discussions on forums, mailing lists and so forth. Blatant, unreasonable shilling just provokes ire. Talking about your game appropriately is good. Again, Fred Hicks is a master of this. He talks in a friendly, open way about his games, doesn’t push them hard.

        d) Let threads mature: If you see that a thread has started on a web forum about your game, don’t run in there like a bull in a china shop! Let it develop, let other people post and provide their input. This is especially valuable if people come in and, independently, provide positive feedback about the game. After the thread has matured, after there are some posts there, then chip in with a friendly acknowledgement, thanks to those who have posted, answering questions, offering to answer more questions.

        e) Reciprocal advertising: Talk to other people who design games, maybe they might want to put an ad in the back of your book if you offer it to them? And then they, or others, might offer to put an ad for your game in the back of their book. This kind of reciprocal advertising is pretty common in small press games and not only serves to publicise your stuff, but builds positive relationships and networks of people who work together.

        f) Support: From the get go, support your game. Whether it’s having a forum where people can ask questions, to downloadable one page mini-supplements, to just generally making yourself available, support is a key thing.

        g) Play sells books!: More than anything, play sells books. get people to write up actual play threads for your game, link to them from your website, comment on them, give feedback and answer questions. Good AP is really valuable. And run your games at conventions, or get other people to run the game for you.

        Er, that turned out a bit more lengthy than I imagined! And I’ve only scratched the surface. I think we’ll be able to talk more once you’ve responded to Josh’s questions and stuff.

        Cheers
        Malc

  1. Malc,
    Thanks for the (b)-(g) suggestions, I’ll stash those away and definitely act on them when I’m ready!

    Your “make the game you want to make, then worry about whether it’s sellable” advice makes perfect sense for my current game (seeing as how I’m already making it); but for later projects from scratch, wouldn’t it be better to have some awareness of the market before I put in too much effort on an un-sellable game?

    Or do you just think that savvy marketing can get people to buy anything, regardless of whether they already wanted what it offers?

    Joshua,
    The pitch as I presented it to a prospective playtester last week:

    “You play an average person venturing into your choice of uncharted wilderness areas at the edges of medieval civilization, often to encounter the supernatural and learn secrets. You do this in such a way that it feels like you the player are really there, experiencing this environment and acting within it.”

    But lemme try to do better.

    I dig the Cold City pitch, it hints at a setting (1950 Berlin), genre (“hidden agendas” says intrigue), and activity (monster-hunting)… and maybe a “point” (trust) too? Definitely enough to make me want to know more, all in the 9 words after “it’s a game of”.

    So:

    “It’s a deeply immersive game of regular people discovering secrets of supernatural menace along the borders of medieval civilization.”

    Hmm. Maybe a bit of a run-on… Here’s a second version that separates the run-on into 2 sentences and adds a 3rd that might help to distinguish this game from others:

    “It’s a game of regular people discovering secrets of supernatural menace along the borders of medieval civilization. It’s deeply immersive. The players choose each secret they’ll pursue.”

    How’s that?

    Thanks,
    -David

    P.S. I’m aware that “deeply immersive” will be completely misleading to some folks, but hopefully brief reader investigation will clarify what I mean.

  2. Last year, the Forge/IPR booth had over 100 games for sale. I believe the top seller sold 40-some copies. I don’t remember who that was or what their game was, but I have no doubt that it sold a lot because it was good.

    There were two top sellers at the Forge/IPR booth: Steal Away Jordan tied with Dogs in the Vineyard.
    Is it because they were the best marketed, and best designed? Dogs is incredibly well known, one of the best designed games out there. I’m going to keep my opinions about Steal Away Jordan to myself, because I’m incredibly biased. But I can honestly say I didn’t do much to market it before GenCon, and it’s hard to say how many copies I sold from demoing at GenCon. My guess is lots of people bought it because they’d heard about it and went looking where they knew they’d find it. Word of mouth marketing goes a long way for indie publishers.

    My guess is the top sellers were these two games because people went to the Forge booth specifically to find games they’d heard about. Consider also that last year at GenCon there were several other places to get self-published games, including many of the same titles from IPR (like Dogs). Perhaps in the end, Dogs sold close to as many as Mountain Witch did in its first year.

    Joshua, when you first went to sell your game at GenCon, where else could people buy independently published games, and do you think The Forge/IPR booth was as well know as it was last year?

    Not only is there a lot of friendly competition, more people seek out independently published games. There’s a nice big bit of marketing already done for you.

  3. Your “make the game you want to make, then worry about whether it’s sellable” advice makes perfect sense for my current game (seeing as how I’m already making it); but for later projects from scratch, wouldn’t it be better to have some awareness of the market before I put in too much effort on an un-sellable game?

    Make what you’re called to make! *Then* figure out if and how to sell it. Vincent’s got a bunch of free games on his site because they weren’t things he could sell yet. One of them, over the last five years or something, has turned into In a Wicked Age. It’s taken a lot of thought and sketches to get it there.

    Free games are ignored at worst. At best, they’re publicity *and* the pieces you’ll use later to make a better-constructed game.

    Malcolm’s g) is really important! Get people playing, irrespective of whether or not something is a commercial product. It’s hard to get people to play if they’re not paying (go figure) which makes the Ashcan model really valuable. Something can remain in Ashcan form indefinitely, don’t forget. Sometimes, it’s a stepping stone.

    “It’s a deeply immersive game of regular people discovering secrets of supernatural menace along the borders of medieval civilization.”

    I dunno. This is the best one, I think, but it still doesn’t sing for me. There aren’t really any pictures in it. As a player, what am I into? It’s the sense of discovery, right?

    “Supernatural Menace” is maybe what needs to be unpacked.

    I wanna talk about another challenge, too: making a living making games. I make part of my living making games, but then again, I don’t make much of a living. I love designing, publishing, and even selling, and still, I sell a couple hundred books a year. There’s not a lot of gravy, frankly. My sales have increased dramatically since GC 2007 due to my re-edit, but that was a lot of work. And Shock: is a pretty successful game. I just don’t want to be giving illusions of solid gold rocket car ownership.

    Julia, totally. I thought maybe Steal Away Jordan was the top seller, but I didn’t have the numbers to check since I wasn’t there last year. So let’s look at why it did so well:

    1: It’s unique. It does stuff that no other game does. It’s got a powerful and controversial subject and deals with it in a unique way.
    2: It’s marketed well in the way that works well for us: lots of public discussion including enthusiastic support of your local RPG scene.
    3: It’s precisely the kind of thing a lot of Narrativism enthusiasts go for: a serious moral issue, coupled with human drama.

    My guess is the top sellers were these two games because people went to the Forge booth specifically to find games they’d heard about.

    I think so, too. It might not feel like it, but you did a lot of legwork before you got to Gen Con.

    Not only is there a lot of friendly competition, more people seek out independently published games. There’s a nice big bit of marketing already done for you.

    Yeah! It’s true! But those people doing that marketing have to be genuinely enthusiastic about the game. If my pitch is, “Heroic fantasy … done *right*!” then I’m not going to be able to get the rest of the people at the Forge booth excited about it, and they’ll be selling The Shadow of Yesterday instead.

    Steal Away Jordan sold like it did because it’s good and you were able to communicate that.

    As for the other indie publisher booths, there were a few now and again at previous Gen Cons. Never anything with the energy of the Forge. We did what we could, the Ashcan Front did what they could, Burning Theatrics did what they could, and we’re all learning how to make stuff work. We’re all folks who have graduated from the churning cauldron of the Forge (to mix the shit out of a metaphor), and we don’t have nearly the recognition that the Forge does. Not within a thousand miles of that.

    Perhaps in the end, Dogs sold close to as many as Mountain Witch did in its first year.

    Maybe! I dunno. We’ll have to get Vincent over here to find out.

    But look: the chances of your game being this year’s Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard, or Burning Empires is directly proporionate to the efforts you’re able to put in *in the long run*. The Mountain Witch was in production and a constant topic on the Forge for two or three years before it hit the stands. Dogs in the Vineyard had Vincent’s entire community to work off of. Burning Empires did likewise with Luke’s enthusiastic community.

    Being a bestseller takes a lot, and you have to find satisfaction in the whole process for it to come out in the black both financially and spiritually.

  4. Joshua,
    Don’t worry, I haven’t signed the lease on the solid gold rocket car yet.

    As for satisfaction in the whole process, I guess I’ll find out!

    What about your re-edit boosted your sales? (If that isn’t a total tangent here.)

    What’s your approximate profit margin per book? (Not factoring in “cost” of your time spent.) I dunno how much $ “a couple hundred books” equates to.

    Re: my game:
    You are correct about “sense of discovery” being what the players are into. I’ll see if I can think of a better way to pitch that. (Know of any other games that have pitched this well?)

    “Supernatural menace” basically means that learning about the supernatural involves encountering dangerous, creepy, anti-human badness. As opposed to, y’know, talking to human wizards, or making friends with fairies or some such.

    Perhaps “dangerous, creepy, anti-human badness” needs a more distinctive description?

    1. 1.1 is selling substantially better than 1.0. It’s because it’s easier to read, for one thing. It probably would have been smart to release it as an Ashcan to get that shit sorted before I had crabby customers who were, after all, eager for what I was selling. It’s also still selling pretty well because 1.1 was in itself a publicity boost. I’m not sure what lesson to take from that.

      Games make me something like $4k a year. I can’t assemble the correct numbers off the top of my head because they’re separated into a couple of different sources, but I think that’s about right.

      A copy of Shock: at my doorstep costs about $6. When IPR’s cut and a retailer cut come out, that yields me about $11 a copy. IPR direct sales are a few dollars more for me.

      “Dangerous, creepy, anti-human” is a really good phrase. Much more evocative than “Supernatural menace.” I don’t care if something’s supernatural — this is fiction. Anything can happen. And I don’t care if it’s menacing something I don’t care about. But “Dangerous, creepy, anti-human” is menacing *me*. That’s good!

  5. I think Dogs’ GenCon sales go 2004: 40 (it would have been more but I sold out); 2005: 90-ish; 2006: 90-ish, 2007: 60-ish (40 out of the IPR booth, 22 out of the Playcollective booth). Maybe GenCon sales are a good measure, maybe not.

    Games make me around $10,000 a year. Dogs in the Vineyard sells around 700 copies a year, and my other games not nearly so many. In a Wicked Age is going to make this year kick last year’s ass, though – it’s already made me a couple and a half grand all by itself.

    If I were single and renting a place with housemates, right about now I’d be quitting my day job. I’ve been building a body of games and serious brand identity – consciously, despite my casual demeanor – since 2003. So even if your games do well, I’d still look to 5-10 years out before you could rely on them for the bulk of your income.

    David, about your pitch: I’m drawn to “deeply immersive,” myself, but I’m all set to be burned by it. I’m not buying it sight unseen. If you promise me deep immersion, you better have some striking techniques to deliver it, and they better jump out at me when I flip through the book!

  6. I think Dogs’ GenCon sales go 2004: 40 (it would have been more but I sold out); 2005: 90-ish; 2006: 90-ish, 2007: 60-ish (40 out of the IPR booth, 22 out of the Playcollective booth). Maybe GenCon sales are a good measure, maybe not.

    Games make me around $10,000 a year. Dogs in the Vineyard sells around 700 copies a year, and my other games not nearly so many. In a Wicked Age is going to make this year kick last year’s ass, though – it’s already made me a couple and a half grand all by itself.

    If I were single and renting a place with housemates, right about now I’d be quitting my day job. I’ve been building a body of games and serious brand identity – consciously, despite my casual demeanor – since 2003. So even if your games do well, I’d still look to 5-10 years out before you could rely on them for the bulk of your income.

    David, about your pitch: I’m drawn to “deeply immersive,” myself, but I’m all set to be burned by it. I’m not believing it sight unseen. If you promise me deep immersion, you better have some striking techniques to deliver it, and they better jump out at me when I flip through the
    book!

    1. Vincent, thanks for those numbers. It’s about what I feel is right, too. I’ve had some frustrating times as a publisher, but things seem to be getting slowly better, and just maybe I’ll be able to spin this into a larger proportion of my income over the next few years.

      Incidentally, you’re doing something I’m not, which is designing your games to appeal to an existing, recognizable segment of gamer society, then give them new experiences they crave. I can’t maintain an interest in that market and, as a result, I sell a lot fewer games. Dave, I suggest that you consider this when looking at these numbers.

      David, about your pitch: I’m drawn to “deeply immersive,” myself, but I’m all set to be burned by it.

      Thanks for articulating that! Yes!

      David, make sure your game *works* to do this. Get some solid con playtesting! I’ll definitely sign up if it’s somewhere near me. The techniques you promise have been promised before. Make sure they’re the real deal!

  7. Neat! Thanks for the figures, guys.

    Vincent, how would you describe your brand identity? Does it consist of a writing style, cover art, a studio logo? I could guess, but I’d be more interested to hear what’s most important to you.

    Joshua (or Vincent), how would you describe the “recognizable segment” of gamer society that you see Vincent serving? Is it people who liked a specific other game or games? People who use a certain internet forum?

    I would hope my game would appeal to a lot of people who liked playing their own hacks of D&D but couldn’t get the immersion and “player guidance of what gets played” that they wanted without a prohibitive amount of work. (Not sure where to find that group on the internet…)

    As for my own “immersion”, the first page of my Immersion Rules chapter has a thorough disclaimer of “what these rules are good for” and “what these rules are NOT good for”. I expect a lot of potential buyers to read that and go, “Nope, not MY kind of immersion.” As for whether it succeeds at its aims, I think it does, but much more playtesting is needed.

    Joshua, can I throw out some revised pitch ideas and possible titles for the game? I don’t want to discourage others from enjoying this thread by overloading it with my personal goals.

  8. “Don’t do anything you’re going to resent.”

    Right. That makes perfect sense. It isn’t always hard to see though. When Matt and I published Panty Explosion, we did so on a $100 budget. That was how much we were willing to invest,a dn we thought that was what we were willing to lose. We took some pre-orders and sold some PDFs and books through Lulu, and that gave us the money to print our first 150 copy print run, which sold out super fast. So we THOUGHT we were doing good, and in a way we were.

    What neither of us saw was what the book was costing us physically and mentally. We were exhausted and emotionally drained. I spent a year promoting and pushing my game like a mad man (to great success), but at the end of that year I realized that what I had to show for that year was sales numbers, but no meaningful creative output. Realizing I had gone a whole year without creating anything really meaningful forced me to re access what I was doing, and eventually led to what I feel is a more healthy approach to my creative life.

    Anyway, sometimes the costs aren’t as obvious as we think they are.

    Jake

  9. David: Vncent, how would you describe your brand identity? Does it consist of a writing style, cover art, a studio logo? I could guess, but I’d be more interested to hear what’s most important to you.

    Check this post out, it’s in the current RPGnet thread about In a Wicked Age. I fucking love that post. That guy DOESN’T LIKE my games and they’re taking up space in his brain and he’s posting about them online. He’s inviting people to reflect on my games as a body of work, analyzing them for deeper similarities than “about Jesus.” I should send him flowers.

    So it’s plain old name recognition and reputation. The most important component of my brand to me is the content of my games, both the subject matter and the gameplay. When people say things like “well it’s a Vincent Baker game so you can expect [whatever],” that’s my brand identity.

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