Some Start Up Thoughts

At the suggestion of most excellent design peer Brett Myers, and in light of the publisher of Farmageddon declaring bankruptcy, I wanted to write about business today.

In the past, I've written some basic Kickstarter Advice, as well as some basic advice on game development and production. Today, I'm going to talk about how I've been pursuing the business of being a publisher. I'll share bits about my journey to date, little pieces of advice, and will discuss hopes for where I'm going.

I'm going to discuss some philosophical notes and discuss some specifics. Scroll about to find what you seek!

Keep this in mind throughout. As a publisher you are:

  • Designing and developing games. This is the fun part! It's a tiny part.
  • Producing games (art, graphics, manufacturing). This is the expensive part.
  • Selling and marketing games to distributors and consumers. This is the intangible part. You're building your reputation and relationships.

Huge, massive disclaimer: You can find exceptions and counters to everything I'm saying. Only Sith and idiots speak in absolutes, and there is no one right way to conduct oneself in business. In many cases I've thought about the alternatives.

Listen and Learn First: I've wanted to publish games for years now, arguably since I started messing around with board game design in 2010. I've worked for a massive game company for years and I have a great desire to be an entrepreneur and do things my own way. However, I knew I didn't know enough about board games, design, the market, and publication to do this.

Barriers to entry are falling down every day. It is easier than ever to start a business. Do not let this mislead or fool you. Stop, listen, and learn first. I have a 4+ year old spreadsheet filled with links to articles, questions and answers from quiet conversations, names of artists, graphic designers, review sites, manufacturers, and distributors.

I'm going to tell you right now -- if you're just starting out, you are not a good enough designer. You are not smart enough. You do not know enough. Even if you've read every post by Jamey Stegmaier, and that is a killer start, you should also watch Kickstarter for a few years. Observe the trends and "what good looks like." Ask people which manufacturers they used to find out which ones are good and which ones are bad. Go to Gen Con and have a drink with the owners of Panda, or other publishers. Listen and learn. Take it slow. Board games aren't going anywhere.

Establish yourself as a known good: When you launch your first product, you are asking everyone to take a huge risk. You are asking everyone to trust you with money. They can already do this with literally thousands of other avenues, so it's a huge first step. Therefore, you need to establish yourself as a known good. This is a multi-year process. It is slow, and it sucks. You need to start now.

There are multiple ways to do this. For me, I chose blogging as my first path. I wrote on my blog Exiled Here for a few years before launching Hyperbole Games 3 years ago. My intents with this is purely to establish myself as someone who is knowledgeable and cares about design. This has the effect of eroding sand in the grand Canyon. It's a multi-year process, but it has paid off. Part of the reason I gained an audience with Portal (which led to York getting signed) was my blog. Other publishers have agreed to meetings with me. My Twitter presence has grown because of it. Do people think I'm Eric Lang? Or Stefan Feld? No. Absolutely not. But, it gives me something to point to that says I care and I've been caring for years.

I also think you need to have something published. This is insanely difficult. I showed Farmageddon to probably a dozen publishers before 5th Street signed it. I worked on York for 2 years before Portal signed it, and it will probably be 4 years total before it is released. Sol Rising is 2 years old at this point. Hocus is over a year old at this point. Quality development takes time. It then takes time to convince someone they should take on your game. It then takes time for them to finish it.

You need to put a down payment on yourself. You need people to know they can trust you. I did this with a blog, with a relatively open development process, with slow networking, and with other published titles. Figure out what works for you and start today.

Have a crystal clear idea of who you want to be when you grow up. By this, I mean you need to know your goals for being a publisher. These should be directly tied to your financial expectations. If you want to make money, stop. Right now. Full stop. You will need a highly successful evergreen title (insanely difficult) to do this. Which requires great skill and luck. You will need cash flow to print enough copies, at enough quantity, and sell through, in order to stay afloat. This takes a really long time.

My strongest suggestion is that you keep your day job, set money aside to do this, and run it like a hobby. I'll compare it to the advice I hear when I go to Vegas -- don't gamble expecting to win. See it as the money you're spending for entertainment. I see that as sound advice, and I don't gamble, because it's not fun for me. But running a little board game operation? That is fun and it is worth the money and time I will probably lose.

Over time, you may have an evergreen. Gamelyn has the Tiny Epic series. Crash has Council of Verona. Plaid Hat began with Summoner Wars, and I wager Dead of Winter will be that. For Portal, that's Robinson, Neuroshima, and probably Imperial Settlers. For Steve Jackson, that's Munchkin. Fireside? Castle Panic.

I'm making assumptions and guesses, but many of these companies have been in business for years, delivered failures, or less successful titles first, and every step they take is still a very expensive risk.

Have crystal clear expectations of what board games will render unto you. Expect very modest success, at best. If something incredible happens? Be ready to take that leap if you so desire. But, don't start from the ledge.

Our goals? Deliver small, low cost niche games designed by us. Make games that we want to see, that others probably won't license. We want to get to the point where we make money to continue to fund this hobby.

Have a secret power. This sounds like obnoxious marketing speak, but I sincerely believe in this and think this is the best way to describe it. You might have heard Alex Blumberg discuss this with potential investors on his Startup Podcast. By secret power, I mean that you need to have a reason to exist in this business. Other than "I want to be my own boss," why are you here? What do you do really well? What do you bring to the table?

Seek to satisfy a niche, or a certain audience, and do so in a way that is distinctly you. Look to your favorite publishers, identify what they do best, and think about that for some time. Then, look to less successful publishers. What do they do badly? What are they lacking? Find your secret power and work against it.

It is very difficult to have a competitive advantage, but very easy to mislead yourself into believing you have a competitive advantage. Some things that aren't competitive advantages, include art and nice components. Don't mislead yourself into thinking these two things, which just cost money, distinguish you significantly. Your brand can become a competitive advantage, but this takes years of good products and good customer service.

What is our super power? What do we do well? Josh and I are very strong developers. He has experience developing games for GMT. I've worked as a professional video game developer for almost 10 years. We have a love of tweaking rules, testing, and developing strong products. I think that's our secret power. Josh also has an intense wealth of games. He's been playing seriously for 30+ years, all types, and has a collection of over 3000 games. The dude is an encyclopedia.

We don't have a competitive advantage. One day, I hope brand can be one.

Editor's Note: Per Nick's comment below, I've revised this to be more clear. I've tried to mix a few too many concepts into this section. My apologies for the shoddy writing.

Reduce risk. This is a classic of business that is so easily overlooked. Or, you can lie to yourself about what you're reducing. When you're first starting out in the business, identify as many ways as possible to eliminate risk. I would argue, even at the expense of profits. Here are some of the ways Hyperbole is reducing risk:

  • We're working with a manufacturer that is known for customer service, quality, and guiding people, especially new publishers. We did not price compare much - we did not want to screw up, so we went with that manufacturer.
  • We will probably take the most expensive, but simplest shipping solution, to reduce hand offs and potential missteps.
  • We are more or less not offering stretch goals. Why? They add unpredictability and chaos to the product. We're going to offer a great product, at a great price, and that's more or less it.
  • We are using Kickstarter. Not so much for the money -- although that'll help reduce risk -- but to gauge demand and use a platform to accept payment. It's very expensive and difficult to do direct sales. We'd rather not invest in that yet.
  • We're publishing a very small game. Hocus, right now, is 100 cards, tuck box, and a small folded rule page. No tokens. We want this to be as low cost for us and our consumers as possible.
  • We aren't licensing work from other designers. We aren't comfortable with the basics, so we won't bring someone else, or their work, into our fold. If we go down and screw up? We're hurting others. We will be our own guinea pigs first.

Deliver everything before the next. This is simple. Deliver product A before you sell product B. This is mostly an issue in the era of crowd funding. Clear off the books. Eliminate your debts. Then, move forward. Use every previous product to bolster the chances for success of subsequent products.

Remove deadlines for your first project. Set goals and milestones, but do not set hard and fast deadlines for your first project. You need to be ready and willing to delay things for the good of the game you are making. If you need more testing? Do the testing. Artist not ready to hire? Wait for her. If you work with a deadline breathing down your neck, especially while you're learning and doing something for the first time, you, your product, and your bottom line will ultimately suffer.

That is a lot of philosophy. Let's discuss some specifics. 

Get a manufacturing quote early.  I've been conversing with our manufacturing partner for almost a year now. Why? I wanted to know as soon as possible whether Hocus was something we could publish or not. Early in the project, we made a decision to redesign the game, partially to remove all components that weren't cards. This was a massive decision we couldn't have made as easily without this knowledge.

There are many manufacturers: Panda, WinGo, Grand Prix International. Email them and request a quote. Be sure to specify:

  • Quantities. Minimum is typically 1500, but this varies. Price breaks are often at 2500 and 5000 and 10000 copies. But, this also varies.
  • Measurements. Use metric if printing in Europe or China.
  • Component Quality. Linen? Matte or gloss finish? Thickness of card?
  • Time frame. When do you plan to do this?

Determine a shipping solution. There are basically 3 options for you. Generally speaking, from China:

  • Pay your manufacturer to handle shipping from door to door.
  • Pay a shipper to pick up the game, get it to the docks, get through foreign customs, cross the ocean, get through domestic customs, ship to your door.
  • Your manufacturer gets the game to the docks and handles customs. You then pay a shipper to cross the ocean, handle domestic customs, and get it to your door.

There are great companies like Dimerco with whom you should speak to gain a quote.

Know where you're shipping, how you're going to get products to customers, and figure out the solution that fits your budget, risks, and expectations.

Shipping is the silent killer. Think about it very deeply. Speaking of, you also need to figure out how you're fulfilling the games to customers. Stonemaier Games has a lesson on how to offer competitive worldwide shipping. This may or may not work for you. It won't for us.

Will you warehouse the games on your own? Or pay someone else to do it? Did you budget for the boxes or mailers? What about bubble wrap? What about the ink and paper to print labels? Think about all of these little details and plan ahead.

Allow plenty of lead time for your art team. It will often take a few months to book illustrators and graphic designers. If they are good, they are busy. If you want something done RIGHT NOW, be ready to pay for it.

Do not hire an art team until you're ready to do so. Be ready to pay for quality. I actually wrote about working with artists in the past. My favorite way to find artists is to ask for recommendations from other publishers or artists, or to follow their Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. You can learn a lot about someone by watching their work.

You can also look at games you like that are already published and contact the artist.

I think good illustrations are insanely important for looking like a AAA game and competing on a store shelf. I think good graphic design is insanely important for accessibility and people enjoying your game. Pinch pennies here at your peril.

Observe your competition. It is foolish to lead yourself to believe you can successfully charge for your game what you want to charge. You need to be competitive with similar games. When pricing Hocus, we looked at games like Diamonds, Red7, Abluxxen (Linko), Star Realms, and Farmageddon. Why? They all play with about 2-5 players in about a half hour and are often card only games. That helps us recognize our price point.

Don't design a $15 game with $30 components. Design a $15 game with $15 components.

Determine the business organization that works for you. This depends on how you want to handle your accounting and your state laws. Hyperbole is currently an LLC, as I wanted to separate the assets from my personal ones, but due to the complexity of laws and fees in California, I may change it to sole proprietorship in the future.

You need to examine your local laws, preferred tax structure, and liability risks to determine what works best for you. When you do this, I recommend you work with a service like Legal Zoom, or find a friend who can help you. It can be very complex.

Track all of your expenses and have a separate business account. Know what you're spending, with whom. I recommend you hire an accountant for your first go of things, especially if you live in a bureaucratic nightmare like California.

Have a website. You need an online presence. I hired a friend to design mine built upon a blog platform. In the future, I will probably do something more robust to sell games directly from my site, present games in a gallery more effectively, better drive people towards a mailing list, and more.

Be careful to invest in everything before you're ready. Three years ago I basically needed a blog. In a year or two? I'll need something else. Invest carefully as needed.

Have a logo. This goes on your business card, which you need at conventions, and will go on your box. It will also be on your website. It needs to be legible, clear, distinct, and professional.

Prepare hype and buzz for your game. Identify the blogs, reviewers, and sites that will cover your game well. You don't want to send a strict euro to the Ameritrash blog! Contact these writers as soon as possible. Months in advance! Do NOT email them 2 days before you need a review. It will take a week to get it there and 2-4 weeks for them to play your game. They aren't machines. Allow plenty of lead time, contact writers, and be prepared to mail them a copy.

This will often cost money. Budget against that. You probably also want to buy ads for places like BGG. That will also cost money.

Prepare for customer service. Copies of your game will be shipped in a mangled state. Will you replace them? A few copies of the game will have printing errors. How will you replace these. It's key to note your manufacturer will probably send you extra copies and spares. But, this is a cost you need to account for.

How will you handle the email? Who will be handling it? Be sure to remember that in 2015, a good experience -- or a bad one -- goes a very long way. Someone can and will Tweet about their experience. I see publishers get publicly shamed (fairly and otherwise) all the time.

This is one of the best ways to create lifetime customers. If you invest properly here, you will have devoted fans. It's also one of the easiest ways to join someone's personal blacklist. I recommend you think about this and invest in your future.

Recruit and reward testers. We made the decision to spend several hundred dollars (ongoing) to print and mail copies of Hocus to testers all over the place. Why? We want people to know we're serious about blind testing and as a result, we've had quite a few great testers emerge.

We will send them free copies of the game and credit them in the rules. This is what we can offer right now. Over time, I hope to build a network of reliable testers and reward them in better ways. To do this, we need success and budget to allow for such things. But, it is in the plan, and it'll pay off dividends. Plaid Hat benefits from this. Stonemaier benefits from this. Foster great testers and cling to them for dear life.

If your game isn't tested extensively with multiple blind and local groups? Stop everything and start there. Don't move another step forward until you know you have something viable. It doesn't need to be finished. But, it needs to be decent and viable. You need external validation.

End

Hopefully this is useful for someone just starting out. If I'm wrong, or you disagree, please clarify below! But, remember, there is no single way to do this. Each of us will customize our decisions to our business needs.

In the end, be patient, move slowly, do not expect to grow rich, and do everything for the right reason. Seek to make great products. No, even better, seek to be the publisher you want to buy from. What is your ideal company to support? Become that.

Comments

Are you reading my mind?! I've seriously been cogitating on this for a while now. Thank you much for sharing, Mr. Rodiek. Hocus is looking great and I can't wait to see it when you're ready to publish :-D

You said:

"Josh and I are very strong developers. He has experience developing games for GMT. I’ve worked as a professional video game developer for almost 10 years. We have a love of tweaking rules, testing, and developing strong products. I think that’s our secret power. Josh also has an intense wealth of games. He’s been playing seriously for 30+ years, all types, and has a collection of over 3000 games. The dude is an encyclopedia."

This is not a competitive advantage either. It's too replicable. There are lots of people with the same qualities. A competitive advantage is something that can't be reproduced by others (like facebook's network effect, etc). One of the reasons board games is such a difficult field to run a business in is that almost no one can find a real competitive advantage. And one of the reasons so many of us are in the business is we fool ourselves into thinking we own such an advantage when we don't (I work in the board game industry. Wishful thinking is endemic, I think because most of us working in the industry came to it from a place of passion rather than a place of business). One thing that IS a competitive advantage is having an evergreen bestseller, because such games propagate by themselves once they reach a critical threshold of sales. But that's sort of begging the question, because it doesn't help you figure out what to do before you have such a best-seller.

You're totally right, and I'm mixing a few things here. Super power and competitive advantage. No, that isn't a competitive advantage. Absolutely. It is our super power, but again, it isn't unique.

That's poor writing on my part and I'll go edit it to clarify.

Okay Nick, that section should be more clear now. Again, sorry for my crummy writing.

Thanks David!

Grant - this is a great post. Thanks for sharing. Your philosophical comments certainly ring true for all businesses, not just board game ones. But this certainly sums it up: "do everything for the right reason."

Have a great day!

Cheers,
David

Great post. Joey Vigour turned me on to it, and it echoes some of my own thoughts on getting started as a self-publisher. Thanks for phrasing it, and strongly so.

One of my favorite quotes here, "It is very difficult to have a competitive advantage, but very easy to mislead yourself into believing you have a competitive advantage." Indeed.

Here's do doing it for fun/passion, and connecting with others in our same boat!

Excellent post here and thank you for sharing this Grant. All of your suggestions and advice are right on par, and so incredibly true. I really hope any aspiring board game publisher reads this, and takes all of what you've said into serious consideration.

I think the more prepared new designers/publishers are, the better it will be for everyone. There are a lot of people trying to make a business out of this, but just don't understand the breadth of it yet. People think of games and think it must be easy or simple, but it's not. You've got to understand the business and the market, and understand it very well. There are so many facets of the business, and I think you've done an outstanding job of summarizing it all.