Designer Diary #8: What are the Odds of Publishing your Game?

Designer-DiarySeriously, folks: What are the odds of getting your RPG on the market—of getting your game design (RPG, board, card, whatever) not just on the shelves, but selling well? The short answer? Not very good, but don’t give up on your dreams yet! There is hope . . . and many things to consider. This post will be slanted toward RPG’s, but there are plenty of applications for other sorts of games and other industries.

Although I don’t have hard facts to share, I can offer my observations from years of monitoring the game industry as I continue to design RPG material, board and card games, and talk with pros and aspiring designers. And of course from trying to get my foot in the door on occasion with my own projects.

This is a big topic, so I’m going to do it in 2 parts (maybe even 3, but maybe not back to back unless you request it, as many come here to hear about the Cosmoverse, my fiction and my approach to game design—okay, maybe “many” is the wrong term here), but I’m going to just touch on a few things. And then if you have questions, or think I’m nuts, or when I find time to post a bit more on it, we can tackle some other very relevant aspects in future posts and the comment section (please feel free to use the comment section!) Frankly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic—what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? Let’s roll!

Part 1: What are the Odds?
There are numerous factors that go into sorting out who succeeds at anything. What are the odds I’ll cover them all? Not good! (I’m not trying to write a novel here.)

From what I’ve seen, most game designers who are actually trying to get their work published (many are not), have little success. This is for many reasons. First of all, it’s terribly hard to put out a decent RPG, board or card game. It’s much easier to just do some house rules for an existing game. (If you think it’s not that hard, then chances are that’s what you’ve been doing—house rules. No offense, of course!)

Making a good RPG requires that a designer not only has a solid grasp of what’s already on the market and has played a variety of games, but has invested time in studying game design and the industry itself. There’s a lot to be learned, and so one of the many things I do is semi routinely visit various forums to get a sense for what gamers enjoy and are griping about.

Putting out a good game requires more money than most non-pro designers have. Good art both helps attract attention and keeps a potential consumer around long enough to find out if the product is any good. There’s many products on the market or that were on the  market that I wouldn’t touch with a 10′ pole because of bad art (and I know from talking with others that I’m far from alone). It is for this reason that I’ve spent thousands on art for my projects (and I’m a pro artist myself—but I can’t do everything and there’s always better artists out there). At the very least, you need to be able to pay a good cover artist and allow for a few better than decent interior pics.

You need a good editor—seriously don’t get a decent editor. Get a good one or just skip publishing and play with your friends who might not care about editing as much. Yes, editing is that important! I’m also not alone in quickly setting an RPG down again and not returning to it if it was poorly edited.

All games requires loads of playtesting (I said “of course” because this should be obvious, but I’ve known many designers that think playtesting means having your friends playtest, but proper playtesting goes far, far beyond you and your friends). Bad RPG’s don’t require any of this, but I’m really talking about designers who are actually trying.

Even great roleplaying games don’t have a huge chance of success unless they are attached to a big name in the industry, as the market is littered with RPGs. Yeah, a great many of them are just plain bad games with maybe one or two cool ideas, and/or are simply rip offs of D&D or some other game. While I really think you ought to know how to play the grandfather of all roleplaying games, sometimes D&D can actually be a detriment to good roleplaying design (one because they have done many things sub par, and two because D&D works, whether you like it or not, and once you know how it works, it’s not always easy to think outside of that old, worn box).

The reason I said you should know the industry is because you don’t want to make a game just like games that are already out there, especially in a saturated niche. If you don’t know what games are on the market, and how many games work, you’ll be hard pressed to put out a game that has better odds of success. You might just be reinventing the wheel, or making a game that doesn’t address what gamers are actually looking for.

There’s so much more to putting out a great, RPG than having a great idea, and far more to being successful. You can open a restaurant that serves the best Italian food ever, but if you don’t advertise it effectively, manage it well, present it well, open it at the right time in the right location, with an optimal menu at the right prices, well it just might crash and burn (restaurants in my area struggle to stay open if they aren’t a known chain). Like running a successful restaurant, merely inventing a product and putting it on the market isn’t enough—that’s just Step 1!

With games, you’ve often got this guy with some pretty nifty D&D house rules and he and his friends like ’em and get the notion that they are going to compete and beat D&D at their own game. Very rarely does this amount to much. You are competing not only against the latest version of D&D, but every single version that came out previously. Even WotC is competing for previous fans and grognards. How refreshing it is for us indie game developers who don’t have to worry about pleasing that fan base who will be comparing today’s D&D with yesterday’s!

We can start fresh, try new things, and we don’t have “suits” looking over our shoulder. Of course those suits help provide the finances to get things done too. Traditionally the best games usually come from the guy or gal sitting at their home computer—such work usually isn’t adorned with fancy art and wonderful editing—that comes later, if they get lucky.

The big companies are usually too scared to risk straying off the main path, especially if they are nursing a fan base who isn’t always keen on changing the status quo, so that gives indies a chance to do something great. (You only have to look at the movie makers to know this is true. Hollywood is very fond of remaking movies so they don’t have to risk a new venture. TV show concepts that seem to work well just keep getting recycled to the point of Ad nauseam. Where as some indie film makers are doing some really original stuff (of course there’s a lot of trash too), but as far as games go, some indie designers are the real movers and shakers, breathing fresh air into the hobby, introducing some really cool concepts. We still need the big boys though, as they help bring in new gamers onto the scene.

I’m not just making this stuff up, I’ve chatted with reps from several of the major game publishers out there. It has been a few years, but from my experience, things haven’t really changed much. They openly admitted the best ideas usually come from non-pro aspiring artists, writers, game designers, etc. But since we have less money, time, etc., it’s hard to get stuff done and then get noticed.

But for finances, we’ve got Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, etc.!  Crowdfunding is NOT the cash cow many think it is (I know I’ve said this before, but so many still don’t get it). We can find success in designing games (let’s not forget to have fun along the way—if we made a great game, we can still play it, whether it gets on the market or not!), but we need to proceed with caution, keep our eyes wide open, use common sense, and have realistic expectations (and in some cases, have a very patient spouse!)

So, that’s the long answer. It’s far from exhaustive (though this blog post might be—sorry it’s long!) In the follow-up post, I’ll discuss transparency, NDA’s, building teams, and more on improving your odds. Whether that post comes next or down the road, depends on feedback.

Btw, If you haven’t been following along with my publishing company, QT Games, at my forums or on facebook, check it out! I’ve been meaning to put together a newsletter to help people keep up-to-date, but I’m a month or so off from starting that. So be sure to check out the facebook page! I also use it to announce cool Kickstarters that other creative types are doing (helping people accomplish their dreams is fun!) Cheers!

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About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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