Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish Board Games or Not?

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To get the Start to Finish series going, I’ve spent some time discussing games, game development, and the amount of careful messaging that is needed to create and sell a great game. At this point, you may be beginning to have some healthy doubts about the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing a game. After all, if you self-publish, you are responsible all these decisions and their results!

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The Start to Finish series is intended to help you self-publish a game for the first time. Yet that’s not the right decision for everybody because there are so many factors to consider. Self-publishing could totally kill the magic of game development for you, depending on what drew you to it in the first place. My guide will be handy whether you self-publish or go through a publisher. But it’s time for you to ask yourself a big question:

Do I really want to self-publish?

Let’s pro/con both options…

The following excerpt was originally from Is self-publishing your board game a good idea?

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. Conforming with genre standards is less of a priority. You can take big risks and do strange things. Marketing doesn’t have to be your first consideration. 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. Just do it because you can. 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 and playtesting. You go find the art. Promotion and Kickstarter are your jobs, as is shipping. Accounting and taxes fall within your responsibilities. 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: Long-Term Trends

In just the last five years alone, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, and other lesser crowdfunding platforms have continued to grow. Crowdfunding is more popular than it has ever been before, which is great because this is one of the most popular ways to produce indie board games.

On top of that, eCommerce sales are continuing to grow at an even faster rate than the board game industry. Selling games directly to the gamers is more possible than it’s ever been.

Of course, at the same time, indie board games are getting a lot better. Production values have massively improved in the last five years and board games are outright fancy these days. With fancy components and artwork comes a high cost, meaning that there are while there are fewer explicit barriers to self-publishing, there are far greater implicit barriers to self-publishing. Gamers just expect more.

There is a silver lining to this. Board games are showing up in all sorts of unexpected places. Gift shops, boutique stores, and even churches. It’s my opinion that self-publishers on a tight budget may not be able to compete with other hobby games on Kickstarter. They may, however, be able to make the best educational game about Utah’s state history for local schools. Micro-markets like this are growing.

Traditional Publishing: Long-Term Trends

Traditional publishers have been more heavily using crowdfunding in the last several years. I expect this trend to continue. This is because crowdfunding feels a lot more legitimate than it did ten years ago. Backers practically treat Kickstarter like a store.

Traditional publishers are a lot more capable of handling the ever-increasing production values of hobby board games. However, this comes at a cost: eliminating bad ideas. That means publishers, who are already selective, are likely to be more selective in the future. That means they’ll have increased leverage, and may offer even less favorable terms to designers.

That may sound icky, but don’t simply write off the traditional publishing route. Running a business is hard work, and it’s not something you should do lightly, no matter what the current trends.

Bringing it All Together

As you can imagine from the above, the decision to self-publish or not to self-publish is an incredibly personal one. A lot of people don’t consciously realize that it is, indeed, a choice that you have to make. I write with the intention of speaking specifically to self-publishers, because that is what I know, that is what I’ve done, and that is what I like. Yet either path could lead you to obscurity or fame, destitution or wealth, happiness or misery. You have to know your own motivations and make your own carefully considered decisions.

Everybody wants freedom, or they at least think they do. The decision to self-publish comes down to one question: how much responsibility are you comfortable taking to make games? There is no wrong answer to that question.

The beauty of this is that you don’t have to make a decision today. By being aware of the alternatives, you’re already in a good situation. As you’re designing the early versions of your game, you’ll get a sense of what you like and what you don’t like about making games. When it’s time to start thinking long-term, then you’ll have to make the decision to self-publish or not.

9 Ways to Avoid Despair and Move Forward After Failure

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This is the last of four articles in the Failure Recovery series on Start to Finish. My own recent failure to launch a board game in 2018Highways & Byways, is what inspired this detour from the originally planned articles. I think that a frank discussion of failure – what it looks like, the consequences, and moving forward – is really important for new creators to learn.

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Failure is brutal. Nobody wants to fail. Nobody sets out to fail. Yet when we take on projects that are bigger than we are able to complete with our skillsets and resources, failure becomes part of life. Success often comes from what you learn from a string of failures. That’s why today, I’m going to talk about nine ways you can avoid despair and move forward after failure.

Step 1: Focus on diagnosing the failure.

I talk about this in more detail in How to Diagnose Failure & Move Forward as a Board Game Developer. Long story short: map out your process, work backward, and see where it broke down. This is good for your rational business interests, but I think it’s also good for coping, too. For me, I found it much easier to analyze business problems than to handle the raw emotion of Kickstarter failure in the week or two immediately following the cancellation.

Step 2: Make a plan to fix the failure.

This is also covered in the previously linked article in Step 1, but it bears repeating. Having an action plan based on careful analysis of what went wrong can make you feel like your failure is useful. I believe that failure is most painful when it is not given meaning. When given meaning, failure becomes bearable. Once it’s bearable, it can be useful and perhaps even motivating.

Step 3: Let it hurt.

Failure hurts. It really, really does. That’s okay. Disappointment, pain, and frustration are part of the human experience. It is unavoidable and you can ask Buddha if you don’t believe me.

It’s okay to let it upset you, take it personally, and be frustrated. If you need to take a day off, do it. If you need to take a week off, do it. If you need to sulk, sulk. You obviously don’t want to succumb to the siren song of self-pity for too long, but you need to release your emotions so that you can move forward. Bottled emotions are painful at best and dangerous at worst.

For me, the raw emotional upset of the Highways & Byways campaign didn’t hit me until the middle of April. This was after I had cancelled the campaign, made a Plan B, and started executing a pivot. For some reason, it was after doing all these things that I was most comfortable processing the pain.

Perhaps for you, feeling the pain will come before you can take action. Perhaps it can come many months later. No matter what: don’t feel bad about feeling bad.

Step 4: Look for the silver lining.

Should you find yourself succumbing to the siren song of self-pity for so long that you risk being dashed upon the rocks, it’s time to take a step back. Positive things come out of failure, even though failure seems devastating. It’s like a forest fire in the sense that it destroys a lot of trees, but creates fertile soil from which stronger, better trees can grow.

For example, when Highways & Byways failed, I had a better understanding of the need to do market research. That’s a clear takeaway, but what most people don’t see is that it cleared up my calendar since I wasn’t busy running a campaign anymore. I was able to focus on doing more things I enjoyed in game development. Furthermore, it instantly broke me of my bad habit of working alone – one of the most dangerous things you can do in business.

Even if you fail fantastically in a public place, it’s probably not a complete wash. You’re probably walking away with more knowledge, more experience, and perhaps even more resources. Even when you feel bad, there is probably something that can make you feel better.

Step 5: Keep some perspective.

Just about everybody who is successful has experienced setbacks. I could list examples of CEOs and athletes, but it’s cliche and you’ve heard it. That’s because it’s true and you’re no exception.

Think about the difficulties your heroes must have faced to get where they are. The path to success is not an easy one. It’s special because it’s uncommon and hard to reach. The scarcity of success is what makes it sweet, so acknowledge the scarcity.

Step 6: Start something new.

Nothing cures the sting of failure like starting something new. In fact, this is what Hayao Miyazaki – creator of the movie Spirited Awaysuggests for escaping disappointment with past projects. I find it personally to be true as well. Nothing cures your frustration and desire for self-pity quite like hard work. You still need to carefully balance your workload so you can stay healthy for the long road ahead, but excessive downtime after disappointment is a recipe for disaster.

Open up your heart to pursuing passion again. Try something new. Work hard to make something beautiful. Just be smarter about it next time, like I know you will.

Step 7: Build a dream team.

It’s dangerous to go alone. When you work alone, it’s really hard to recover from a failure. If a team of five launches an unpopular product, that’s okay, because they can likely create something new within a short period of time. Someone working alone may take a year or longer to recover.

For that reason, the period of time that passes right after a failure is the perfect time to build a network and find teammates. Together, you all become stronger and you can make better games as a result!

Step 8: If you’re still stuck, take a break.

If you’ve been grinding away for months or years on end, it’s easy to get stuck in the same ruminative thought patterns. Even the sting of failure is not enough to break repetitive thought patterns sometimes. Only time and distance can do that.

If you’re able to and it’s appropriate, take a short break after a high-profile failure. Do the immediate damage control and take a few weeks to sort out urgent crises. Then go to Hawaii. Or at least reconnect with some friends or family.

Step 9: If you’re still stuck after a break, seek professional advice.

If you’ve recently suffered a setback and the steps above haven’t helped, then it’s time to call in the calvary. By that, I mean any qualified professional who can help you see a way forward. That might mean a career counselor, a therapist, or maybe even a life coach.

The point I’m making here is that if you are frustrated, disappointed, or anxious and you feel deeply in a rut, it’s okay to reach out for professional advice. In fact, it’s more than simply okay – it’s smart!

This is the end of the Failure Recovery series. We’ve covered how to diagnose failure, move forward, recognize common pitfalls, save your reputation, and resist despair. I hope these articles have helped you recover from a recent failure, prevent failure, or lose your fear of failure.

Do you have a good way of coping with failure? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear it 🙂

Passion isn’t a Pitch and 6 Other Ways to Misunderstand Board Game Kickstarter as a Marketplace

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I’ve made my fair share of mistakes while building this business. I don’t sweep them under the rug. In fact, I even pulled apart the broken bits of my failed Kickstarter campaign for my understanding and published them online for public benefit. Being able to analyze and move forward after failure is critical to your success and a big part of getting your game from Start to Finish. This is part two of four in the Failure Recovery series.

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Today, I’m going to be covering six really common ways board game Kickstarter campaigns fall apart. This is based primarily on my observation of Kickstarter as a market in 2018, not necessarily how it was in the past. The market is shifting and maturing, moving inexorably toward large companies with established intellectual properties. That’s not a bad thing – it brings more people into the hobby board game world we enjoy! It definitely changes how you have to approach the business, though.

Mistake 1: Emphasizing passion instead of the game.

Kickstarter started in 2009 as a way for people to fund their passion projects. That may not have been the intention of the company from the get-go, but that’s how the site was interpreted by the general public. For a long time, emphasizing your passion for the project while simultaneously pitching it was a reliable way to appear human and receive funding.

I’m not so sure about that anymore. Don’t get me wrong: passion is a beautiful thing. Passion will see you through difficult times, make you more charismatic, and give you a compelling story that people can rally behind. However: passion isn’t a pitch.

When you make a board game today, you’re on the same platform as CMON and other very high-profile publishers who can reliably pull more than one million dollars per campaign. These companies are very rarely mom-and-pop shops like old-school Kickstarter. They make a lot of money because their products are carefully crafted for the audience, their pitches are extremely strong, and the games are good.

Your game’s fit for the market is more important than your passion. So many indie creators, myself included, emphasize passion to the detriment of the product itself. Passion needs to be at the root of your product. It’s not a selling point.

Mistake 2: The game lacks a hook.

Because Kickstarter is so crowded these days, you need to catch each backer’s attention in a few seconds. The only way your game can survive in this environment is to be a good game and a good product. Good games have clever themes and mechanics. Good products are made for audiences using hard data to figure out what people like. If people like sci-fi and fantasy, you give them sci-fi and fantasy. If people like worker placement, you give them worker placement.

That’s only the beginning of making a good product, though. Even something as ideal for Kickstarter as a $20 fantasy worker placement small box game needs something to catch people’s eyes. It could be great components, a unique rule, or really special art. Your hook can be lots of different things, but it needs to be both tested with your intended audience and strong enough for people to identify your game as “the one with…”

Mistake 3: Poor price point.

An overpriced game won’t sell on Kickstarter. This concludes Economics 101, hope you enjoyed the blog, sign up for my mailing list and Discord

But seriously: you need to pay attention to people’s purchasing patterns. A poor price point doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making your game too expensive. You can make games with an awkward price point that people aren’t buying at the moment. At the time that I am writing this, the campaigns I’ve seen succeed the most are expensive games or light games that are at or under $25. Much of what is in the middle is struggling.

Kickstarter is a giant open data set. Use hard data to figure out what price point core rewards are going for on successful campaigns. Try to match that price point.

Mistake 4: Poor components.

Lackluster components won’t necessarily sink a board game Kickstarter, but they won’t do it any favors. Having custom meeples, miniatures, or something creative and eye-catching helps a lot. In a lot of ways, it functions as a hook.

For better or worse, board gamers sometimes equate components with value. Do some research on Facebook or Board Game Geek to see what components gamers find valuable. You’d be surprised how often manufacturing price and perceived value don’t match up. I did one poll where wooden cubes scored higher than cards on value, despite cards costing three times as much to print and requiring extensive art creation.

Mistake 5: Poor art.

You have a few seconds to catch people’s attention. Art needs to not just be good in traditional artistic terms, but also good for product design. While there are a number of ways you can ensure your art is well-made from a tactical and technical standpoint, the most important thing to remember here is: test your art with your audience.

It’s impossible to know what art will resonate with people without running it by an audience. If you have a Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram account, try using those sites to see what people think of your art. If your art receives far higher engagement than your typical posts, that’s a very good sign. Every single art piece should ignite passion and interest in others. Otherwise, you could run into a situation where your game isn’t eye-catching enough to stand out in a crowded market.

Mistake 6: No reviews.

There are still some Kickstarters out there that go live without reviews. I don’t believe reviewers are the gatekeepers that they used to be, but it’s still a gigantic red flag when a campaign has no reviews. (Product-market fit, I believe, is more relevant than reviews, but I spent basically five points on that already.) You need social proof and reviewers act as testimonials to the quality of your product.

You need to print a few copies of your game from a print-on-demand supplier to send to reviewers. Thankfully, it’s easier than it’s ever been to get started with the actual printing process. For that matter, you can reach out to the majority of small reviewers by Twitter DM. The cost is relatively low compared to the rest of your project and the consequences of not having any reviews are too severe.

Mistake 7: Treating Kickstarter as the endgame.

Last but not least, one of the biggest strategic business errors you can make on Kickstarter is to only think about Kickstarter.

Sure, if you’re just making a single board game because you really want to see your name on a box, thinking about the Kickstarter campaign alone is fine. If you’re purely pursuing a passion project and don’t have your eye on distribution, designing other board games, or running a sustainable business, then you can treat Kickstarter as the endgame.

But if that’s not the case? Well, whether you’re trying to design a bunch of games, make passive income, or build an enterprise, your journey will not end with a single Kickstarter campaign. You won’t just fund and, POOF, all your dreams have come true.

In short: don’t just build a board game, build a business.

Board game Kickstarters can be complicated to run. Hopefully by spelling these common pitfalls, you can avoid them and fund successfully. Recognizing pitfalls is a great way to avoid failure.

If you have any additions to what you see above, please let me know in the comments 🙂