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Game Design and Self-Publishing– Resources for Aspiring Game Designers

November 26, 2008 | | Comments 0

Byron Collins of  “Collins Epic Wargames” wrote an excellent article on the difficulties of getting a board

COLLINS EPIC WARGAMES

COLLINS EPIC WARGAMES

game published, as well as some great advice and resources from someone that successfully published their own board game creation.

Normally I do not re-post material from elsewhere on the web, but I thought this article had so much useful “crunch” in it for aspiring board game publishers that I asked Byron for permission to reprint it. Read on for his thoughts and warnings about publishing your own game.

You can also read my interview with Byron about his company  at this link:

Interview with Byron Collins of “Collins Epic Wargames”

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

This post is intended to document some things that I have learned along the way as we near the release of our first game, Frontline General: Italian Campaign Introduction, and approach Gen Con, our first major convention to promote the game and its introductory version. By reading this, you’ll see some of the steps that I had to take in order to be taken seriously and in order to get a product out into the market. Hopefully there is some information in this post that you can use as a prospective designer or self-publisher. It is a mixture of advice, good practices, and lessons-learned that should prove useful if you are serious about developing and selling a finished game product in this competitive industry. Rather than taking our game to a publisher, we are the publisher, and we will also be selling online and conducting some face-to-face sales at trade shows- so that is the angle of this post. Publishing and all that is required is something I am constantly learning more about- so I do not pretend to be an expert in the field (or any field for that matter). Attempting to self-publish has allowed me to learn more about what is required of the game industry. The post is written from the point of view of a designer and publisher in the United States. I do not receive any kick-backs for recommending particular sites or products.

The post is broken into several sections beginning with Finances & Expenses, Setting up a Business, and then progressing to Game Design, Play testing, Web Site Development, Advertising & Promotion, Copyright & IP Protection, Self-Publishing, Support Structure, and finally, Release & Sale. At the bottom of the post is a list of links to resources and even supply sources that may prove useful.

Finances & Expenses
You WILL spend money. Be prepared for that. The amount you spend is dependant on the design and how far you take the design. If you are trying to sell to a publisher, you will spend less than if you are trying to produce a run of games for sale yourself. Structure your business / development finances separate from your personal finances. Use a BUSINESS checking account, not your personal checking account. This is good practice to ensure that you can track all that you have put into your designs financially. When it comes time to file taxes, keeping your business finances separate from your personal finances will benefit you greatly and help you stay organized (and help you claim deductions for expenses). Keep all receipts, purchase orders, and invoices. Track and manage your inventory. And as with most things, the more that you can do yourself, the cheaper things will be- but keep in mind, you are not just spending money- you are also spending time, which is more valuable. For instance, if you know nothing about web design, it may be more cost effective to pay someone to develop and manage a web site for you. This may be more expensive in cash spent, but cheaper in time spent. Carefully consider the things you must do throughout the design and decide with each whether it’s best for you to do it- or to pay someone else to do so. Learn and use appropriate software to track your finances and very carefully consider against taking on much debt in any early stage. I highly recommend learning and using Quickbooks Pro or even Quicken Deluxe, etc. A link to the Intuit web site is provided in the resources section.

Setting up a Business
I recommend that if you sell your game or designs or produce them or pitch them to another company in any way, you have a business structure to sell through including a business name. If you are in the United States, check your state and local government’s web sites for helpful information on setting up a business. From the simplest of business structures to the most complex, learn about each and decide what is best for you. Sole Proprietorships are the simplest, but offer less flexibility if you need to raise money for your business. SPs also offer limited protection of your assets compared to other structures. Limited Liability Corporations are more complex and require SCC filings (and annual fees with the state) but they offer better separation between Personal and Business finances and matters, and better protection due to the limited liability nature of the company. A company such as this exists as its own entity. Incorporated businesses have higher costs, are much more complex, and require annual meetings, SCC filings, and more.

Business License. You will need a business license. This is typically granted through your locality. If you operate out of your home, be prepared to go through a home inspection process, and be prepared for locality restrictions and conditions placed on your ability to conduct business due to having a residential address. Localities typically are very scared of constant delivery trucks and shipments (traffic) from your home which others could complain about. A home-based business, esp. for the prospective game designer, is the cheapest option versus renting office space and is typically best for designers working by themselves or with a small team. Most localities require you to renew your business license annually (with a fee).

Fictitious Name. If you want to operate under a different name, such as in our case “Collins Epic Wargames”, you’ll most likely have to file (and pay) for the right to conduct business using a fictitious name through your local court. All that is required is typically a form and a small fee. You may then use your company name on all correspondence, products, web sites, accounts with others, etc.

Federal EIN. Get a federal EIN (Employer Identification Number) in the name of your company even if you will not be immediately employing anyone. This is used on many application forms including business checking services, merchant account services (accepting credit cards), etc. A link for more information on EINs is provided in the resources section.

Sales Tax. Make sure that if you plan to sell your game as a retail item to other residents in your state that you register with your state to collect sales tax. Rates vary and some require application fees- some don’t. Sales tax is always passed on to the consumer and listed separate on all receipts. You will then have to file monthly with the state to document your sales (and pay the sales tax on them). If you sell and ship items out of state, those who buy them are not subject to the sales tax of your state. Keep in mind that if you go to an out-of-state trade show (such as Gen Con), you must register to collect sales tax in the state of the show and report any earnings after the show.

Game Design
You most likely have several game design ideas or even partially or fully completed designs and so I cannot tell you how to design a game- that is up to you- but I can pass on some resources I used along the way regarding the next steps. Whatever your personal level of experience and/or skill with design, I’ve found that innovation goes a long way. Time spent on the rules and mechanics and components is time WELL SPENT. I’ve also found that if something doesn’t work, fix it now- don’t wait for 10 other people to tell you it doesn’t work. Test EVERYTHING. Test it well. And if you get stuck, look to the advice of others, don’t just give up. Bounce rules or component graphics off of people you trust. Meet graphic designers, and ask them for help in critiquing your design for readability and aesthetics. It’s been my experience that many will do this for free. The Geek offers a great mixture of people and resources and many of us will help you out. There are also other sites specifically dedicated to game design. So don’t be afraid to approach a more well-known designer or other users and ask advice on something. In fact, the more connections you make now, the better off you are in the long run for questions that will inherently arise. I routinely ask (but not to the point of annoyance) a well-known game company’s owner different industry-related questions. This has been extremely helpful for me to know someone who is already in the industry and can offer industry-specific advice.

Software. An investment in graphic design software (if you are planning to design professional-looking components yourself) is money well spent. I spent a lot of money on the standard version of Adobe Creative Suite CS2 which includes Illustrator CS2, InDesign CS2, and Photoshop CS2. These programs may seem daunting to learn at first- but there are training books and resources out there, good help files, and other users in the Adobe community who can help you out. If you want your design to really stand out- use professional software. And if your design goes to press in any form, you will be glad you did. Most printers work with this and similar software and are generally pleased to hear it when you say you’re working in Adobe Illustrator, etc. They know the software well and can also help you tailor your component designs to be ready for printing when the time comes. This software also allows conversion of component sheets, rules, etc., to PDF which is extremely helpful if you plan to sell or offer your game for download via the web. I use Illustrator extensively for Component design and layout, InDesign for Rules and a game newsletter that I produce, and Photoshop occasionally for other graphics. Check out adobe’s website for more information on their software (link in resources section).

Help and talent of others. Look to the talent of others. If your final game will include a map and associated map artwork- consider hiring an artist to accomplish the creation of that map based on your sketches or ideas. (However, use your sketches or ideas to ensure the game works before you hire an artist). You will either pay an artist up front for this work or you’ll pay them royalties on sales- but typically, one-time fees are preferred by artists—in case there are no sales. I’m not speaking for all artists certainly- some prefer royalties. There are plenty of accomplished artists on The Geek. The map artwork for my game(s) is done by Mark Mahaffey, whom I found on BGG. His work is incredible and I don’t mind plugging his abilities in this thread. A link to his page is listed in the resources.

As you refine your design and create a nice looking prototype, don’t be afraid to change your design after you think you are done. This is just something that must be done in most cases, and usually is required after some extensive play testing. My particular game Frontline General went through FOUR complete re-designs over a number of years before I was happy with it enough to have non-in-house play tests and promotions.

The main point of advice I can provide is be CONFIDENT and DEDICATED in your design work. If you have a passion for this (and most designers do), it will be apparent in your finished products.

Play testing
There are many ways to play test your game. Start in house. Consider expanding to a local game shop on ‘open gaming nights’. They welcome the traffic to their store (generally) and you’ll also usually find some enthusiastic players interested in trying something new. Later, as things are more refined, consider ‘calling for play testers’, screening them based on a list of questions you ask them, and offer them incentives to test your game. Send it to them for free. For my company, play testers get a free game, a lifetime discount on any future purchases with us, a special “Play tester” title in our game forums, and recognition/credit in the rules, all for playing the game, returning a survey, and looking for bugs/broken aspects. Personally, once they see the rules, it is my policy that they are not ‘proofreading’- in other words, I’ve already had other people who are not play testing proofread my rules for grammar and spelling errors. I feel that once you get this far, your rules should not have any glaring typos and you should already have caught any major grammar mistakes. Not having to proofread & play test will also allow play testers to focus more on the task at hand- testing the game and its rules- rather than looking for minor things that you can easily find with a thorough proofing. After the play test process is complete, or even prior, you may want to consider hiring a professional editor to ‘trim’ the areas that need trimming (if you can stomach it and afford it).

Web Site Development
Web sites level the playing field. What I mean by this is that YOUR website can be as elaborate as ‘the big guys’ if you choose. You can spend a lot or a little money on web site development. You can do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. Rather than starting with the design or design software, start with finding a host. Consider a variety of companies for business web site hosting and go with the one that suits your needs the best. Go with a host that offers free trials, free website statistics, and/or free domain name registration or search engine listings, etc. As you increase features, cost per month also increases.

Web Hosting. I’d caution you to figure out what your needs are up front- and also- go with a business hosting solution- not free personal hosting. In fact, most personal hosting sites will not allow business websites to be placed on their servers. Often, free personal and free business hosting services are plagued with limitations (such as lack of PHP support) and advertisements that you really don’t want appearing on your front page. Another word on hosting—ALWAYS read the fine print. Ensure that you know all costs up front and that you are ready to launch a site. In my company’s particular case, I used the website that I developed for about 2 years without a shopping cart or other features that I didn’t need and successfully used the site (and still do) to promote Frontline General and host game-preview newsletters during product refinement.

Traffic Statistics. Statistics are very important. As traffic flows to your site (by your promotion means) you’ll want to see what pages are being viewed and what pages are not, as well as how referrals are working for you (what sites are sending the most traffic your way?). Statistics also give you a good indication of how many people are really interested in your designs. Pay attention to the numbers and use them to your advantage.

Web Design Software. Often, business web hosts will provide you with straightforward, mostly-visual, web design software (such as NetObjects Fusion, for example) for free or very little cost.

Advertising & Promotion
The biggest challenge aside from creation of the game is getting word out to potential players about your game. One of the best avenues to do this is through your game or company’s website, through ON-TOPIC forums on general gaming sites (BGG, for example), through gaming news websites using press releases (see resources), and if you are willing to purchase ad space- through banner ads on gaming-related sites or ads in magazines, e-zines, etc. Advertising is very important if you intend to sell your game yourself. Form a budget for advertising up front and use free-routes initially and then just prior to release, purchase ad space that you can afford, and even consider attending conventions such as Gen Con, Historicon, Origins, Little Wars, etc. Announce your attendance at these conventions and be prepared to be engaging. Consider offering an ad-exchange on your own site. Word of mouth and in-person promotions such as at a local game shop or trade show are great for making contacts and for getting feedback on your promotion efforts and your product. The contacts you make may be future customers, future play testers, or future retailers of your game. Find out who plays at your local shops and what they play. Offer to demonstrate your game to them if they are interested or arrive ready to set up and play on open gaming nights. Be prepared to answer questions and be prepared if people do not like your game. Smile and acknowledge their gaming preferences and then politely move on.

Business Cards. Very important at trade shows and useful at local game stores. You may print your own or you may want to have them professionally printed. There are a variety of websites that specifically provide this service and produce incredible results- typically better than you can produce at home and on higher quality paper. I’ve listed a few in the resources section. Use a two-sided business card design. The front is fairly typical with contact information, web address, etc., but uses the back to advertise. When recipients flip the card over, they should see some quick concise text and/or graphics that promote your services or products. For more information on two-sided business card design, visit the GreatFX website listed in the resources section.

Newsletter. Consider releasing a monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly newsletter or e-zine with previews of your games. With Frontline General, I spend a LOT of time writing historical articles based on WWII research, tying those articles to my game, and then offering the newsletter for free. I also provide content such as interviews with veterans, game combat examples, rules previews, component previews, and more. This was (and is) VERY time consuming. But worth it. I provide newsletter subscribers the new editions first, via e-mail, before wide release on the web. After about a week or so, I send out a press release to various game news sites with a link to the PDF. This has proven highly successful. After twelve editions of the newsletter, Frontline General News, has driven approximately 40,000 visitors to my website and helped get the word out about the upcoming game. Writing the newsletter and receiving so much positive feedback is also a huge motivational factor and has not just driven interest in my game up, but has also driven me to complete the design.

Copyright & IP Protection
Though it’s not very easy to protect a game design, most people out there designing games are not in the business of stealing designs- esp. the big names. Your / their reputation is on the line. If you are self-publishing (via web or otherwise), consider registering the copyright on your rules and game components. You have copyright on your intellectual property upon the moment of creation, but registering that copyright allows you greater protection in a court of law in cases of infringement. Typically registration requires 1 copy of the game to be sent to the Library of Congress if published, along with an application fee. This has inherent advantages and does not cost an unreasonable amount- just the fee. For more information, read about copyrighting games in the US on the official government copyright office website.

Self-Publishing
For this section, I am assuming the game is a game with printed components. If you are considering self-publishing your game via the web or otherwise, I highly recommend the method I am using for this, but this is certainly not the only way- just one way. First offer a free version of the game (an introduction) to see how well the game is received. Offer it for download from your site via PDF for Print & Play. See how it goes. If you need to make any changes after this wide release, make them before producing a large print run. Just prior to the release, consider registering the full game for registered copyright protection. Tailor the game for home printing and offer a printing / trimming guide for players. Specify which papers and techniques you recommend and support any printing issues that arise. Ask for feedback from players who are playing the intro version. Take the feedback into account prior to a large print run.

Small Print Run. If you want to produce a small run, you will most likely have a hard time finding printers who work in small quantities (without astronomical charges). Printing is expensive. But in the modern world of desktop publishing and cheap home office printers with excellent quality, you may consider doing a home-based print run of, say, 100 games or so. This can be just right for trade shows where you want to demo the game and offer some for sale as well. My advice- choose a home office printer wisely. Look at total ownership cost, cost of ink, cost of maintenance, cost of paper, and buy in bulk whenever possible. This goes not just for paper, but for dice, storage bags, etc. Everything that you include in your game- buy bulk and save money whenever possible. And make sure that if it’s a supplied item like dice- that you shop around and consider several suppliers. The web is the best resource in the world for this- you can find virtually anything you need by doing a little research. I’ve provided a couple links for dice and bags.

Preorder System? If things go well, offer the ‘full version’ for sale as a preorder at a slightly discounted rate over full retail price (this will encourage preorders). Take enough preorders to cover the cost of a print run (some companies typically set this mark at 500 preorders). Once the preorders are at the mark you set, you should have enough money to execute the print run. Sub out the printing to an experienced printer who will meet your needs and requirements (determine all of this up front). You’ve now sold 500 games and made enough money to afford printing of about 1000 or more depending on your preorder price and production costs, without going into substantial (if any) business debt. Now promote and sell the remaining 500 games. If you do a preorder system, be sure that you follow applicable laws for sales and product delivery. Generally, it’s best to only take payment on an order once the order ships. This can keep you or your company from getting in trouble otherwise. In other words, don’t take anyone’s money until you are sure you can deliver a product to them in six weeks or less. After the initial run, if another run is warranted, and demand is high, go for it.

Packaging considerations. Think about everything you’re going to include in the game and find sources for it all. You’ll most likely need: Components, a board (mounted?), dice, a box, box art, storage such as plastic bags or inserts, and whatever else your design calls for. Find a box manufacturer who can meet your needs. Since this is a game and considered a toy, be sure that you meet all government safety requirements- esp. if it is intended for children. Label as such if you have small parts, and list a suggested age on the box.

GGIC. The Greater Games Industry Catalog is the standard list of game products available on the market today. This catalog is sent to distributors and retailers who are looking to stock their shelves. This catalog is full of advertisements for new and existing games, and contains a wealth of listings and retail prices for just about everything available that’s gaming related. The GGIC also maintains a standard list of manufacturers. To get a manufacturer’s code, make sure you have a product that you’re actually making, and request a code be assigned by them for your company. This, in addition to some non-descriptive digits after the code, can become your game’s ‘part number’. You can list your game(s) in the GGIC for free I believe, though for better exposure for a new game, you may wish to purchase a full or half-page ad to get noticed.

Bar coding. Ever wonder how to obtain a bar code for your products? Standard international GS1 bar codes are most often required by distributors if you will be selling through distribution (and not just direct selling on your site). The link to the organization that controls all GS1 barcodes is provided in the resources section below. This carries an expensive initial cost and a renewal cost each year. Just to set up and be assigned a company code costs over $700- and that’s just for 1-100 bar codes. Creating the bar code after registration is accomplished using the software tools they provide. Digital versions which can be placed on your individual products are then most-easily created by third party companies who specialize in this work and cost around $10 each. Make SURE that you need bar-coding before you go this route. If you are selling your games by yourself, or just via the web, you may not need a bar code for your products. If you are self publishing and selling through distribution, you will most likely need bar-coding capability. However, if you sell your game to a publisher, they will most likely apply their own barcode to your product.

Box Art. Your packaging will make or break sales. A game presented in a zip lock bag with no box or box art is not going to sell as well as a game in a nice box that can be reused for storage. Work with the box manufacturer for templates for the lid and bottom of the box wraps. Typically, these templates are provided compatible with the software you use, such as Illustrator. Simply create your box art within the template (or pay an artist to do so), send to the manufacturer, and they will use specialized machinery to glue/fuse the wraps to the lid or box bottom. Very cool stuff. You receive the finished boxes which you may then package your game components in. Consider shrink-wrapping after all packaging is complete for a finished look.

Supplies. Check the resources section for some links to suppliers of bags, dice, boxes, etc. I do not list printers- there are too many out there who provide printing services. Do a search and you’ll be amazed. For selecting a printer, do consider what they normally print- some printers out there specialize in printing games and game cards or boards.

Support Structure
Once your game is available in any form and people are playing it- make sure that you have an adequate support structure in place for the inevitable rules questions and general inquiries. A web forum for your game is a great place to start. Free forum software is available from a variety of software designers and companies, and then there’s the professional software, with many more features. I personally went with professional software by vBulletin and have been very pleased in all respects with their product. Others exist though- so shop around. Installing the forum can be challenging but once it’s up and running, it’s fairly easy to manage. Forums can be a great way to support the community playing your game(s). Otherwise, e-mail support and posting of FAQ’s are quite useful as well. Bottom line- if you release a game but don’t support it- what does that say about your dedication to your designs? Create the support structure up front because trust me, you will have plenty more to occupy your time near release. If you do not want to create your own forums, you may want to consider asking a game site (such as Consimworld) to host a forum for your particular game.

Release & Sale
You may be selling through a web store, through distribution, through a retail store, or face-to-face sales at trade shows. Whatever the method, talk up the release. Advertise that your game is about to hit the market. Stand behind it and back it up on all levels and answer any questions that you are asked- especially from potential customers and players. When it’s finally available, take a deep breath, send out the press release, and be prepared to support the game.

Credit Card Processing. If you do not process credit cards, think of how much business you will be losing. This is perhaps the most convenient way for your customers to pay you- so I highly recommend considering the capability to process cards. Look into credit card processing and all associated expenses of a merchant services account prior to wide release of your product. Services abound and they typically carry monthly charges, transaction charges, and fees to purchase a terminal (though some provide a terminal for free). Consider a wireless terminal that may be taken to trade shows. The up front cost may be worth the convenience. Once you choose to process cards, make sure that you do it securely. Web Stores (shopping carts, etc.) can provide this service built in. Check with different service providers up front and read the fine print to get a true sense of the total cost. If you don’t want to open a merchant services account, you may want to consider other routes such as PayPal or even E-bay auctions for sales. A lot of this will depend on the volume of sales you expect to generate.

Shipping. Commercial carriers like UPS and FedEx offer convenience for shipping. In fact, if you use the business software that I mentioned, printing out labels and tracking shipping is integrated right in the software through your choice of either carrier. Consider your location, the supplies you’ll need to package and ship your products, and the cost associated with shipping. Typically, shipping costs are passed on to the customer and vary greatly with their location. Web Store shopping carts will generally calculate all of this for you before you receive payment from a customer.

If you’ve made it to release and you are assembling the game’s contents or even manufacturing it yourself, then this is an exciting time. Celebrate and enjoy it. Take pictures and document the process. Pass on what you’ve learned to others. You’ve brought a game into a competitive market.

Good luck!

Resources and links

Financial software – Quickbooks Pro
http://www.quickbooks.com

Business Structures – IRS Website
http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=98359,00.h…

Federal EIN – IRS Website
http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=98350,00.h…

Board Game Design – Board Game Design Forum
http://bgdf.com/tiki-custom_home.php

Professional Graphics and document creation – Adobe Creative Suite
http://www.adobe.com/products/creativesuite/

Map Design & Artwork – Mark Mahaffey
http://www.west2productions.com/Mapology/_NEW/index.htm
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/user/West2

Business Web Hosting
http://www.earthlink.net/hosting/index.faces
http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/webhosting/
*Do a search for ‘Business Web Hosting’ in any search engine for more

Web Traffic Statistics
http://www.google.com/urchin/index.html

Website Design Software
Netobjects Fusion http://www.netobjects.com
Dreamweaver by Adobe http://www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver/?promoid=BONSG

Business Cards
http://www.greatfxbusinesscards.com/
http://www.vistaprint.com/

Copyright and IP protection
US Copyright Office http://www.copyright.gov/
Fact sheet on Games http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html

Bar Coding
http://www.gs1.org/

Game Manufacturer’s Association- Great Resources
http://www.gama.org/resources-and-aid

Supplies – Boxes, shipping supplies, bags, packaging
http://www.uline.com/
http://www.prestarpackaging.com

Supplies – Dice
http://koplowgames.com/
http://chessex.com/

Credit Card Processing
http://www.quickbooksmerchantservice.com/

Game News Sites
www.consimworld.com
www.wargamer.com
www.tabletopgamingnews.com
www.purplepawn.com
www.gamingreport.com

Trade Shows and Conventions
http://www.originsgamefair.com/
http://www.gencon.com
http://www.historicon.org/

My Games
http://www.frontlinegeneral.com
Frontline General: Italian Campaign Introduction
Frontline General

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About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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