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Publish or Perish?

by Greg Costikyan

Say you've got a great new game. And let's assume, for the moment, that you've got the skills to turn it into a polished, professional product. What do you do next?

You really have only two options: you can submit it to existing publishers, or you can publish it yourself.

For some reason, would-be game designers often have the notion that self-publication is a good idea. I say "for some reason," because the idea sounds very odd to me. Novelists don't automatically assume that publishing their own work makes sense; why should game designers?

Let's look at the question more closely.

Self-publication can be a route to success. It has several advantages. First, if your game is a simple, mass market-style adult boardgame, you'll have problems finding anyone who'll even look at it. If you call Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers, they'll tell you that the simply do not work with outside designers. This is, in fact, a lie; they frequently use outsiders. But they only work with people they know; they don't want to be bothered with the time, hassle, and expense of wading through thousands of game submissions from people who really don't have any idea what they're doing. And, please, most would-be game designers really don't; at least 90% of the games I've seen from unpublished designers have been complete dreck.

So unless your mother's brother's second cousin twice removed is a secretary at Milton Bradley, or you're close personal friends with Sid Sackson, you won't get your foot in the door. Self-publication can be a route to eventual publication by a major company; if you publish yourself, and the game sells well -- even if it only sells well in your particular region of the country -- it may attract the notice of a major publisher. Particularly if you keep knocking on those closed doors. The Games Gang (publishers of Pictionary, among others) is especially good about looking for successful products from designer-publishers.

This is not a problem, incidentally, in almost every other branch of the gaming field. Most computer and hobby game publishers are very much open to freelance submissions. But their distribution channels are also more open to start-up companies -- so publishing your own computer or hobby game is easier than publishing your own mass-market game.

But let's look at some of the disadvantages.

First, don't kid yourself that you can publish your game part-time. If you intend to publish your own game, realize you are starting a company. You have a million things to do before your first copy is ready for sale, even assuming the design work is done. You need to get someone to execute the graphics. You need to get someone to paint the cover. You need to get someone to print, mount the board, die-cut the counters, buy the plastic, copy the disks, bind the books -- to do all the manufacturing jobs connected with publishing your game. Remember that a game is not like a book; most games contain many components. And few manufacturers are set up to do gameboards and cards and rule books and dice... In fact, the few companies which can do the whole job will also charge you a premium, since they're supplying an extra service -- production oversight -- in addition to simple manufacturing. In all likelihood, you'll find yourself dealing with several vendors. And, for each component in the game, you'll be soliciting bids from several manufacturers -- because, after all, you'll want the best quality at the best price.

And, since you've never done this before, you can expect to screw up somewhere along the line. The printer for the color work will misunderstand an instruction from your graphic artist, and the colors on the board won't be quite right. The counters will be mis-cut slightly, so that some numbers are sliced in two. The box-wrap will be skewed, so the illustration doesn't appear precisely in the center of the front of the box... You are well advised to budget a certain amount of money for fixing errors.

Suppose you've got all your components. You still need to assemble the games. You have two alternatives: you can either sit there and assemble them all yourself, or you can contract this out. One of the most cost-efficient ways of handling assembly is to get institutions for the blind or mentally retarded to do the job. You had better be on site when they do it, however, or you're likely to run a high error rate.

And then you have to shrink-wrap the games.

And then you have to warehouse them. You can keep them in your garage, if it's big enough, but keep in mind that this means you'll be running a warehouse: every few days, you'll have to go out, prepare a shipment, call UPS, and get them to pick up. Or, you can find a contract warehouse that will do the work for you -- for a fee.

Your work doesn't stop there. You need to put advertising together, place ads, design and publish promotional materials -- like flyers for distributors and retailers, posters, shelf-talkers, demo-disks, catalogs. You'll need to find out how to contact retailers and distributors; you'll have to cold-call a lot of people you've never even heard of before, and you'll have to be willing to fly to Dallas on a moment's notice if a major account shows interest in your game. You'll need to attend trade shows, keep in weekly or monthly touch with your distributors, make sure that every order is promptly filled, and see that your accounts are billed with equal promptness. And you'll need to keep accurate books, so you know how much you're making or losing -- and will be able to calculate your taxes with accuracy.

The point is this: if you intend to publish your own game, you are starting your own business. And you'll need to handle all the myriad details that any business involves: manufacturing, sales and promotion, warehousing, accounting, order processing, customer service. You'll have to be willing to spend hours tracking down a lost shipment, and worrying about how to get Toys R Us to take you seriously (you should be so lucky).

If you got into this because you wanted to design games, then you've made a serious mistake. Because you won't be spending your time designing games. You'll be spending it running a business.

And keep this in mind: 90% of all new businesses fail in the first two years. The proportion in gaming is, if anything, higher. Is this really what you want to do?

The answer may well be yes. Running a small company may be your dream. And it is certainly true that the distribution net, especially in hobby games, is far more open to new companies than in virtually any other field. But remember that, unless you've already been running a small publishing firm, you have a million things to learn. And the odds are stacked against you.

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© Copyright 1996 by Greg Costikyan.