The $1000 Test
I have to be honest - I think more people should self-publish their games. Not because you have the skills, or the time, or because it's profitable. None of that. But, because it's thrilling, satisfying, a constant learning experience, and hard. And speaking of satisfying, I think the trials and tribulations of self-publishing are far more satisfying than flying to conventions, awkwardly chasing publishers, pitching, and waiting months for a no, or even better, just silence. Neither a yes or no, just silence.
But, so many people go from 0 to 60 MPH and try to become an overnight Asmodee. That, my friends, is silly. While driving to work, I started thinking about advice I give to new designers. Often, I tell people to start very small and design a limited card game with few extra components and few rules.
Well, why not take this approach and apply it to publishing? My proposal is that you set aside $1000 to publish your first game. This will teach you how to work within a budget, plan, think about everything, and begin to anticipate the challenges of being a publisher. It'll teach you to use a spreadsheet. It'll teach you how to design with the business and costs in mind.
But, before we get to the specifics, let's wipe that shocked look off your face. $1000? For an experiment? Yeah. If you want to be a publisher, you need to get some skin in the game and $1000 is a paltry entrance fee. That's setting aside $84 each month for a year, which is expedited by buying fewer games (video or tabletop), and cutting out other expenses. If you can't lose $1000, you can't lose $5000, so let's just stop right here.
Let me put this another way. A flight to Gen Con in August would cost me approximately $500. You might be closer, but unless you live in the city of Indianpolis, travel isn't free. Hotels for four days? That's many more hundred dollars. Food? Yup. Finally, a four day pass to Gen Con is $110. And, that assumes I don't buy any games? That's easily $1000 right there. Why mention Gen Con? One of the best ways to get signed is to attend a convention like Gen Con and pitch there. It's far superior than email (in most cases). Therefore, being signed is also not free if we're being honest.
I'm not trying to be a jerk, or uncle moneybags, but this is the first bandaid to rip off. Either figure out the sticker shock or walk away!
One more caveat: this isn't meant to be a conclusive look at expenses. I'm not talking about the cost of gas to buy office supplies, the cost of ink to print cards, and so forth. It also doesn't include the cost of tools like Photoshop.
Let's get into some rough costs.
For this, I think you should plan for a game that is 54 cards, a small box, a small one page/folded rule sheet, and very limited additional components (some wooden cubes, coins, that sort of thing).
Illustrations: One of the first lessons you need to learn is how to stretch your budget for art. Your first thought may be to have a unique illustration for every card, but perhaps you can instead re-color an illustration multiple times. I did this when I illustrated York. I commissioned a Cavalry, an Artillery, a Commander, a Scout, and Infantry, but then had four colors made of each. To do the colors cost effectively, work with the illustrator to ensure you have a simple element, like a banner, or shirt, or weapon, that can be easily isolated and recolor-ed.
Another thing to do is choose how to simplify the piece. Limited or no background? That'll help. Reduce complexity up front and do so by communicating your budget from the start.
Finally, consider which cards can be just text. Yes, it's lame, but amazing games like Merchants and Marauders have whole decks that are just text based cards. 6 Nimmt has very little art. Coloretto is one piece of art with six re-colors. This is your first game, so scale it back and design your game such that it will be okay to have limited art.
You also need to clearly define the number of revisions. With your budget? Very few! That means you need to have a really clear style guide. You need to define the assets, how they will appear, how many you need, and you need to do so before art starts.
You also need to be willing to be patient. The classic triangle is cost/time/quality. Well, you will definitely lose speedy turnaround.
Let's set aside $400 for this. This is wildly low, but I'm challenging you to create five VERY simple assets. And, yes, be prepared to re-use one for your cover.
Graphic Design: This is one of those areas where I suggest you roll up your sleeves and learn to do what you can. I think this is one of the most under-utilized disciplines in games, but you can TECHNICALLY make due without a professional, or at least the heavy lifting of one. If you create a simple, basic game, your needs for their services will reduce.
Take advantage of services like Game-Icons.net to get consistent, quality icons. Pay for a month of an Adobe subscription to do layout after using free services like Google Drawing to use layout during prototyping. Or, use an open source free graphics program. What I recommend is you hire a graphic designer to help you choose a font, create a card frame, and some basic graphical touch ups. Basically, hire them for a handful of hours to do some spot checks on your cards to freshen them up and add a little quality.
Let's set aside $150 for this. Again, wildly low. You'll have to find someone willing to help you.
Rules Editing: For this, I went straight to professional rules editor Dustin Schwartz. I'm just going to let him speak:
"There are two different levels of editing that I do: proofreading and copyediting. For both services, the rate is predicated on the number of manuscript pages (i.e., multiples of 250 words, rounded to the nearest).
Proofreading = $5/manuscript page (with $50 project minimum)
Copyediting = $25/manuscript page (with $250 project minimum)
Proofreading is the type of thing that any editor worth their salt does, no matter what industry or material they specialize in. Looking for obvious spelling errors, grammatical faux pas, goofy sentences, keyword consistency.
Copyediting is much more involved — hence why I charge 5x for that level of service. At this level, I effectively rewrite the rulebook, to whatever level is required. Sometimes this is just tinkering with troublesome paragraphs, sometimes it's moving large chunks around so that the whole thing reads more effectively, other times it's writing in new content."
Dustin's prices don't quite work for a really tiny initial project. But, let's say you dedicate $150 to this.
If you're interested in working with Dustin, visit his site.
Like graphic design, this is an area I highly recommend you roll up your sleeves and learn to do the work. You can practice writing rules all the time. You can do this by writing rules for Texas Hold 'Em Poker, Tic Tac Toe, and more. Re-write the Monpoly rules from memory or the Risk rules.
Preview Copies: Let's say you send three copies to previewers to get the word out. Padded mailers are a few bucks each if you buy them at office supply stores, or about $.50 if you buy them in higher bulk. It's right now about $5 or so to send a game in a small padded mailer via the United States Postal Service. So, mailer, shipping, and the game, let's say it comes to about $15 per copy to mail. So, let's round this up to $50.
Proof Copies: You'll probably need to buy a copy or two for yourself to test and exeriment. Let's be conservative and say two. Let's say that's about $20.
For purchasing the cards, I'm recommending DriveThruCards.com. I've had a great experience with them and think they make high quality cards at a great price. I believe their prices were just increased to $.09 per card (non-bulk). This puts a 54 card deck right around $5. It's about $3 or so for them to mail it, and another $2 to add a clear plastic case or tuckbox.
You've already spent almost 80% of your budget. That leaves 20% for...a little more on illustration? Adding another previewer? Improving graphic design further? Perhaps you decide to write the rules yourself and add more to something else? Perhaps you go from 6mm cubes to 10mm cubes?
There are so many possibilities, but you always need to think through the lens of customer appreciation. Will it make the game more fun? Will customers appreciate the addition? I'm challenging you to work within an incredibly tight budget with ridiculous constraints before you bet the farm. You can put this game up on DriveThruCards.com for sale, or even take it to Kickstarter, or perhaps sell it at a local con (which is probably a few hundred bucks, which you can maybe make room for if you cut all of the graphic design budget...).
I think you can be a publisher. I think you should be a publisher. Willing to bet $1000 to try?