Is self-publishing your board game a good idea?

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Philosophy

Today, I’d like to challenge one of the most fundamental assumptions of this blog: that self-publishing your board game is the best way to go. While I certainly like the self-publishing route and found it empowering, just as many people might find it to be disempowering drudgery. There is no single right decision when it comes to self-publishing or not. Consider your motivations and think carefully about which choice lines up the most with what you want.

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Let’s go ahead and take a brief and brutally honest look at the reality of both sides.

Why Self-Publishing is Great

Without a doubt, the most compelling reason to self-publish your board games is the fact that you have complete creative control. You are not forced to make any edits to your work for any reason. You do not have to conform with genre standards. You can take big risks and do strange things. You do not have to prime your work for marketing and you do not have to bend to the will of companies which have their own standards and norms.

As an individual creator or a creator within a small, independent group of creators, you’ll be able to connect with others on an individual basis. You do not have to run your ideas across a company before talking to others. You can simply just do it. You can reveal as much as you want to reveal, you can completely open your game up to the public, or alternatively, keep everything hidden. People will know you by your name and not just as someone with Asmodee, Stronghold, or some other publishing company.

When it comes to money, you’ll get all of it if you work alone. If you work within a small group, you’ll walk away with a much bigger share than any publishing company would be willing to offer you. Even if you sell less, the profit margin is much, much higher.

Why Self-Publishing Sucks

Though you might be walking away with a higher percentage of the profits, the odds of making a profit are pretty slim. In fact, you’re a lot more likely to sell a lot of units if you go through a publisher. Even if you make less money per unit, you could still come out better when you’re not trying to sell the game alone or in a small group. Selling is really, really hard. It takes a lot of time to learn and it’s an entirely separate discipline from game development or any other responsibility that you will handle on a regular basis.

If you self-publish, there will be enormous demands on your time. This is true for solo developers and small groups. You do the game development. You do the play testing. You go get the art. You promote the game. You run the Kickstarter. You ship the units. You do the accounting. You pay the taxes. You are quality assurance. You are customer service. Most of your time will not be spent designing.

If the time and money issues don’t give you pause for a minute, consider the high odds of failure. Publishers might reject you, but they won’t let you publish total garbage. Your game can still flop if you go through a publisher, but it’s a lot less likely because publishers don’t want to take chances on things that probably won’t succeed. Nobody can stop a self-publisher from failing.

Why Publishers are Great

Going through a publisher may strip you of some degree of creative freedom, but it will free up a lot of money and time. Publishers handle the marketing, the selling, and often they cover the art, too. You have to spend money making a nice prototype for publishers, sure, but you don’t have to get deep into the behind-the-scenes business processes. Going through a publisher will give you the best chance for your work life to be “me and my game.” They take care of the grittiest work for you.

On top of taking care of the ugliest work and doing it better than you ever could with your limited time, the publishers will probably sell more than you would alone. Publishers have all sorts of vetting mechanisms in place that keep you from going to market with a bad game. Once you jump through their hoops, your odds of having a successful game are much higher than if you self-published.

Why Publishers Suck

Of course, the cost of having a company swing the full weight of their art, marketing, and selling staff behind your idea comes with a hefty cost. They’ll ask you to make changes. You won’t get many chances to comply, so if you don’t make the changes, they probably will for you. You have to sacrifice your creative control to some degree when working with a publisher because they have certain business practices that predate you. They are bigger than you – that’s the key thing to remember. They don’t have to listen to you, and they’re probably better off if they don’t.

However, don’t assume you’ll get to the point where they ask you to make changes. Your odds of outright rejection are very high. You’ll probably have to ask multiple publishers if they are interested. Sometimes it’s because your pitch is bad, but sometimes it goes beyond you. Publishers play by their own rules, and it’s often in their best interests not to disclose all the rules that they follow. You have to watch them, make your best guess at what they want, give them a great pitch, and be okay picking yourself up in the probable event that they’ll reject you.

Let’s suppose that your game does take off after you avoid rejection and make extensive changes. You won’t walk away with much cash. In fact, it’ll have to be a Pandemic or Ticket to Ride sort of blockbuster to really, really line your pockets. Then again, you might still be better off than you would be self-publishing.

Self-publishing and going through a publisher come with their own unique benefits and struggles. I hope that by laying everything out here in stark, simple, honest text helps you make the decision that is right for your life. There are more options available to us than most people consider. It is from making informed decisions that we can become the best possible creators we can be.

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Self-publishing vs. going with a publisher is a very personal choice.
  • Self-publishing gives you total creative control, a high share of the profits, and the ability to connect with people earnestly one-on-one.
  • Self-publishing comes with a lot of demands on your time, a ton of work, a high chance of failure, and less time spent developing games than you might hope.
  • Going through a publisher gives you a better chance of success in the market, more time, and takes care of non-development tasks.
  • Publishers will force you to change your work, if they don’t outright reject you. Then they’ll take most of the profits if you succeed.

What is your board game worth?

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Economics is a head-spinningly complex field, but you have to understand at least a little of it to successfully pitch an idea. Specifically, you need to be thinking about how people determine what’s valuable. The way you value your game is way different than how everybody else will.

Photo taken by 401(k) 2012 and posted to Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0, License, Source)

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Game developers are emotionally involved with their projects, but you have to put that aside sometimes to see what other people see.

There are a lot of different lenses through which you can view board games. Even if you do all the art and play-testing yourself, you’d have to have your game manufactured and retailed before it’s played and resold. From the time your game is conceived to the time it is manufactured, retailed, played, and resold, the value of your game will change constantly depending on who’s holding it and what it means to them.

Think about everything that goes into a game from the creator’s standpoint. Your game will take a lot of time and emotional commitment to create. That means you’ll value it higher than anyone else in the world will. You’ll have to spend at least some money on the testing phase (research) and some more money on the art and sampling phase (development). Once you get all the R&D done, you’ll have to pony up some cash to have the game printed. For a creator, a game’s value is measured in time and emotional commitments, research and development costs, and manufacturing costs – before it even hits the shelves.

Once the manufacturer has your specs, they’re valuing your game, too. They see it as raw parts: cardboard, plastic, wood, paper, and ink. They have to start factoring in labor and the overhead that comes with running a print shop, like keeping the lights and heat on. To them, the value of your game is what you’re paying for it minus the parts, labor, and a portion of their overhead. To a manufacturer, your game is valued physically more than anywhere else.

Offset Printing
This is your game according to the print shop. Photo taken by Ms. Tharpe and posted to Flickr. (CC BY 2.0, License, Source)

You might directly sell your game, but it’s likely that you’ll want to get in some stores, too. Once a distributor or retailer has your game, the value of your game changes again. They value your game by the profit they’ll make off of it. They pay you 30-40% of MSRP – very seldom more than that. Then they mark this up significantly and sell it to customers that way. They value your game in terms of the amount of money it will make them, how much shelf space it will take up, and – if you’re a real hot shot – whether it will bring people into their store. To retailers, your game is one among many.

Let’s talk about customers now. When they see your game on the store shelf, whether that be a virtual or brick-and-mortar store, they’ll almost definitely see two different prices. The first being the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) set by you and the second being the actual sale price for when the retailer inevitably ignores your silly suggestions. To them, the value of the game is the sale price, MSRP be damned. Then depending on your customer, it might be their fourth game or their four hundredth game. Some gamers are looking for something fun to play with a few friends and some gamers are collectors looking to fill a niche in their collection. Collectors and social gamers have different senses of value, but they ultimately both want to create good memories. Some gamers hang out with their friends and some gamers just like having a little bit of everything. The value of your game to a customer once the box is open is in the memories you create, if you’re doing well. If you’re not, it’s primarily in the cost of the game and how much they can get trying to sell it used on Amazon for less.

Board Game Shelf
This is your game according to your customer. Photo taken by rachel_pics and posted to Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0, License, Source)

A non-customer has a different picture of your game’s value. It’s not a pretty one. If someone doesn’t care about your game, that means your game has no value to them. Don’t waste your time trying to sell a board game to a non-gamer. In fact, don’t even waste your time trying to sell your board game to someone who dislikes the genre your game falls under. If you give someone a game and they never open it, then it can’t create memories. It has no value. It’s just a paperweight with a Board Game Geek listing.

Value is extremely subjective. Fit is everything. 

Yes, spend all the time you can making the best game you can. Try to sell it for as much as you can without scaring people off. Spend as little on R&D and manufacturing as you can without compromising quality. Just realize that your game is at its most valuable when you give it to people who see it as valuable. Value is not an intrinsic property to games. It’s created when you give it to the right person. Target the right audience. Find retailers and distributors who either specialize or are actively looking for games like yours. Find manufacturers who are used to making games like yours. Don’t just find a random one and make an unusual request.

You cannot change the world alone. You cannot change the industry alone. You can make a great game and give it to the right people.

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Value is extremely subjective. Fit is everything.
  • Put aside your emotions and try to see your game as others see it.
  • For a game developer, a game is time and emotional commitment plus R&D and manufacturing costs.
  • For a manufacturer, a game is the profit minus the labor and raw materials.
  • For a retailer or distributor, a game is whatever they can make on markup.
  • For a gamer, a game is all about the memories they create.
  • For someone outside your audience, your game is a paperweight.

What’s the point of board game reviews?

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One of the most jarring experiences for new game developers is the process of getting their game reviewed. Oh, the pain of sending your precious brainchild to someone to publicly judge! Drama aside, it truly is difficult at first because you have to identify reviewers, send prototypes, make sure your game is ready enough, cross your fingers, and hope they like it. Sometimes you even have to compensate the biggest names for their time and effort.

Courtroom Gavel Judgement
This court finds the board game…not playable!

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This is a lot to manage, so it begs the question: why are game reviews such a big deal anyway? To many of you readers, the answer is obvious, but I don’t like leaving assumptions unexamined. As you learn the difficult trade of board game development for the first time, it’s especially important to ask yourself “why” and be persistent in your questioning until the questions of “why” are followed by “because” and a specific reason.

Game reviews build trust

Would you spend $50 on someone you don’t know? Probably not. Well, at least I wouldn’t, because I’m a total tightwad in the wallet department. You can’t expect people to spend money on your game if they don’t have a reason to believe it’s going to be good.

There’s a lot of ways to suggest that your game is going to be good. You can release a free PNP version. You can give it gorgeous art. You can tell stories of your relentless play-testing process. You can keep a dev diary. But let’s be honest here: there’s no proof like social proof. There’s no better guarantee that a game is going to be good than someone playing it and saying “it’s good.”

A few good reviews will make it much easier for you find your first few hundred fans and get ratings on Board Game Geek.

Game reviews save time

Folks are busy. Your average board gamer is somewhere around 30, which means they’ve probably got a full time job (which is typically closer to a 45-50 hour deal than the elusive 40). They might have a significant other or kids. They’ve probably got social obligations.

Wall Clock

How much time can potential buyers squeeze out of their day for a stranger? The answer is “not very much,” even if the will is there. And again, you’re probably a perfect stranger to them and don’t have their trust yet. Reviewers save them a bunch of time and give them a rough, approximate understanding of what your game has to offer.

Reviews are great marketing, even when they’re not good

When they’re good at what they do, reviewers connect with their audiences, even if their audience isn’t very big. Don’t write off a reviewer based on subscriptions or web traffic. Look for engagement – comments, likes, conversation, and social media traffic.

If they don’t like your game, that’s fine! Their fans might talk bad about you, but a handful might still check you out regardless. A good reviewer will tell their fans what a game is like, even if they didn’t enjoy it.

Game reviews establish communities

People tend to form communities around common interests and dislikes. Reviews are all about talking about interests and dislikes within a narrow range of discussion. That tight focus makes for lively discussion, and it helps spread the word of your game.

Game reviews help you hone your skills

Reviews are primarily a service to board game fans, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them, too! Board game reviews are a valuable source of information on how design decisions you make are received. If something slips through your playtesting, it might very well be caught in the review stage. By then, it might be too late to make corrections to your game, but it will allow you to create a better second game.