How to Approach a Publisher to Publish your Game

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HOW TO APPROACH PUBLISHERS WITH YOUR GAME DESIGN

So you have created a board game and want to get it out to the growing masses of tabletop gamers out in the wild.  How the heck do you do it?

There are several ways you can choose from to go about getting your game to print. One of those ways is to make it yoursel/self publishing. This, of course, involves high financial risk, potential disappointment, and a huge investment in your time to advertise, promote, manufacture, package and distribute your game.   This path is great if you want to start a business and be a successful entrepreneur, because a successful game can make you a lot of money.  However, it can also lead to you burning out and ending up with a massive debt if things don’t go right.  Self publishing obviously is not for everyone!

Another, potentially simpler and less risky way you can get your game out there is to have someone else do all the work, take all the risk, pay you royalties, and free up your time for the next design, playing game prototypes while drinking beer with your friends!  Oh, to dream, right?  But wait; it’s possible!  Which path you choose, of course, comes down to how much work you are willing or able to put into it and what risks you are willing to take in the realization of your game.

This article will delve into that second method.

So, you’ve decided that you want to drop the risk and financial outlay and try to get your game produced by a publisher-manufacturer. How do you proceed?

There are a lot of do’s and don’ts, so let’s get down to it.

When to pitch your ideas and how to go about it

Deciding when to start pitching your game is always tricky. First, you must realize that a game design can be endlessly tweaked, and from a certain standpoint the design is “never done.” Recognize as well that even if you think the design is “perfect” a publisher may not see it that way and will almost certainly make changes to the design of the game during their development process.

That having been said, your design is ready to begin pitching when it has gone through extensive blind playtesting and has been revised and developed to the point that you feel the game is the best it can be. In the end, it’s your call and there is no right or wrong answer.

Be prepared for rejection!

First and foremost, be prepared for rejection. Some games get rejected several times over before they end up being published. It happens. You need to have a thick skin, and pay close attention to comments made by the rejecters. They usually know their business; if they didn’t they wouldn’t be in business still!

Contact through email

One way to get in touch with a publisher is to contact them electronically.  Find publishers that accept design submissions electronically (search publisher websites or e-mail them if you must), fill out their submission requirements (usually a brief synopsis of the game, why it is unique, and list of components) and then wait for a response. If you get a positive response, they will likely ask for a prototype to test.

It can be quite difficult to properly pitch a game to a company via email, especially if you have no name in the industry. There’s a standard list of things NOT to do. Here are a few of them;

  • Don’t tell them how great your game is – They will decide this on their own when they play it.
  • Don’t state how all your relatives and friends love your game.  This is completely irrelevant. Relatives and friends are notoriously bad about giving you honest feedback.
  • Don’t be secretive about the game for fear of “theft”.  Lack of details about your game will send red flags up; it indicates you’re going to be hard to deal with, and it doesn’t get them interested.
  • Don’t bring up money.  If they are interested (after they play your prototype), they’ll typicall offer you an advance and royalty (or try to buy it outright) using their own judgement.
  • Don’t insist on an NDA (NDA = non-disclosure agreement). If you’re trying to convince a manufacturer to look at your game, you want to make it easy for them.
  • Don’t send your rules or a PDF of your game unless they ask for it.
  • Don’t discuss packaging, distribution, manufacturing or anything else.  Stick to the game itself.

Of course, there are also a list of things you absolutely must DO;

  • Be clear and precise about your concept.  Do not write a letter that tries to keep all options open (“You can change and develop this as much as you like!”)
  • Give a brief overview right away highlighting the one or two most important points that (in your opinion) set your game apart from others.
  • Explain the game in a way that they can make an informed decision.  Do this is less than a page.  Give them enough of the rules that they can imagine game play and tell them about anything unique that will sell the game.
  • Be professional. Have someone proof read your email or letter. Obey the rules of punctuation and grammar. Why do this? So the company doesn’t think they’re dealing with a moron. Include one or two pics if relevant.
  • Make your email uncluttered and accessible.  A good clean letter gives a positive first impression and keeps the readers attention.  KEEP TO THE POINT!
  • Enclose an envelope. If you send a letter (you know, those things that are on paper and go into these fancy boxes and then get delivered by someone carrying a bag!), enclose a self-addressed-stamped-envelope for a reply.
  • Include a Return Box.  If you end up sending the game to a company, include a self-addressed return box.  If you don’t it’s quite possible they won’t return your prototype to you!

Remember that when a game company makes the decision to look at your game, they’re going to read the rules and playtest it at least (maybe ONLY) once. It’s going to cost them a few hundred dollars in labor costs, if not more, just to look at your game. Obviously then, it’s not a decision they make lightly when they read your email and decide to look at your project.  Because of the costs and risks involved on the publishers side, expect rejection; game companies get a lot of submissions in a year, and unless yours really stands out somehow, it won’t make the grade.

Of course, once you’re already on a talking basis with the company, and they know you in the industry, you can email all your pitches with a high degree of trust between parties.

Direct Contact at Conventions

The direct, “in person” pitch relies on contacting publishers (after finding out if they are even accepting submissions) to arrange a face-to-face meeting at a gaming convention where you can show off your prototype and talk directly with them about your design and its merits. If they like what they see, they may ask for the prototype on the spot, or for you to send them one at a later date.

  • Timing is everything!  Don’t approach a manufacturer’s booth with your prototype when they’re busy. When they aren’t busy, ask if there’s someone you can talk to about pitching your game. Make an appointment. They might ask what the game is about before committing to this; be prepared to give a 1 minute explanation that’s interesting, otherwise they might not give you that appointment.
  • Be Prepared to Demo your game for them.  They might decide they want to play it on the spot; be ready for that. Likely they won’t play it all the way through, but they might like it enough to say, “Yeah, send that to us. We’ll look at it in more detail and if we like it, we’ll send you a contract.”
  • This is a good time to ask about what terms they generally offer. Advance plus royalties? Some companies may not pay an advance; this, unfortunately, often leads to situations where the company can sit on your game for years, then decide they don’t want to make the game after all. You get nothing, and they hold up your design for years.
  • Discuss Intellectual Property, if you must.  If you insist on having an NDA, you could mention it in your meeting. They might say they don’t do that. It’s your choice if you want to back out at that time or not. Keep in mind that they can choose to do the same.
  • Make sure your prototype looks good!  Spend a decent amount of time on your artwork; it doesn’t have to be professional, but at least make the tokens and board and cards pretty. Decent graphics add a lot to how the manufacturer views the game.

Conventions are one of the best ways to get a larger publisher interested in looking at your game. You get to meet the people you may be dealing with in person and make an impression.  It works. It’s a good way to deal with companies and get fast feedback on whether your game is publishable or not. At the same time you get to see exactly what’s selling well in the industry.

Regardless of which pitch approach you use, it can be very useful to put together a “sell sheet” for your game. This should be a brief 1-page (single side) overview of your game. The sell sheet should list the game’s vital statistics (number of players, playtime, theme, primary mechanics, etc.), a BRIEF narrative of what makes the game unique, a list of the components, a photo or two of the game, and a note about the amount of blind testing or other special feedback you’ve received.

Should I contact multiple publishers!?

Discussing your game with multiple publishers at the same time can be a messy matter; and the best practice is to be honest and upfront with your efforts at publication.

Basically, it “may” be okay to contact multiple publishers with a general letter of interest or meet with multiple publishers at a convention. However, once a single publisher has requested a prototype and they are more interested it is polite and professional let any other publishers you may be in contact with know about it and to not have multiple prototypes in review with multiple publishers. That’s a BIG no no. Publishers spend a lot of energy evaluating a game and it’s completely unprofessional to have them spend their energy looking on your design just to pull the rug out from under them and go with another publisher. Don’t do it. Ever.

How long do I wait for a response?

Publishers are busy and response times can vary enormously. If after submitting your idea initially you haven’t heard back in month or so it is usually pretty safe to follow up with an inquiry about whether they have had a chance to look at your idea, and if not what their approximate timeframe is.

If a publisher has requested a prototype, it is usually good to ask them what their timeframe for reviewing it is up front. They may say that they need a few months to review it. They may in reality need even longer. Regardless, after any specified timeframe has passed (or after a few months if no timeframe was specified) sending a courteous follow-up e-mail is perfectly acceptable to see what the status of their review is.

In any situation reviewing your design is usually not a top priority, so be patient. If you decide after an extensive period of time with no reply from a publisher to try your luck elsewhere, BE SURE to contact that publisher and let them know, preferably giving them a window of time to respond, otherwise you risk running into the situation described above where two publishers are both looking at a design and one of them is going to come away upset or insulted, quite possibly ruining your chances of ever getting a game published.  Publishers and designers talk to each other and word gets around.  Be polite!

Pitching your Design

There are some key things that publishers are looking for when evaluating a design concept. Whether you are pitching a design in person or via email, these things are important to highlight in your pirtch.

Marketability+ Audience Alignment : What is unique about your game that will make it stand out in the market? This is intrinsically woven into the need to understand the target demographic for the game and what that audience might be looking for next. You need to be able to build a case for why someone would buy your game (from an unknown designer) over a comparable established game from a successful designer. Know your market and your competition and be able to speak to it, highlighting why your game is unique and worth looking at.

Compatibility : Does your game fit in the publishers catalogue? Don’t try and pitch a cutesy abstract kids’s game to Fantasy Flight Games. Know the publisher, and the types of audiences they focus their marketing around.

Profitability : Publishing games is expensive and risky business.  A publisher may totally love your game concept and everything about it but they might decide they are not going to be able to make a profit or even break-even producing it because of component costs. Different weights/classes of games have typical selling points that the market will bear, and your components need to align with that bottom line reality. Be aware of how components are used in your game and make efforts to minimize the amount of components, particularly complex ones, that your game requires.

General Interest and Pre-Publicity : If you can point out non-biased instances where your game has already shown potential market interest or publicity that may be worth mentioning as part of your pitch. If you have feedback from designer conventions, other publishers, or known boardgame reviewers/personalities, that can be helpful for demonstrating interest. If you have made the game available as a PnP or Print-on-Demand and there are sales from that it may be worth mentioning. Keep in mind that some publishers prefer things to be kept quiet and in-house when it comes to accepting games. In those cases, an established public presence for your game may turn some publishers away, but at the same time it may make others take notice and be interested!

Almost there!

Once you have enticed a publisher with your game, pitched the design to them, sent them a prototype and they’ve decided to sign on, then you get into the fun world of contracts and negotiations.

publisher will continue to test and change the game before going to printing, maybe even things such as re-theming or changing major mechanics in the game. From their point of view they need to make a product that will sell enough that they won’t lose money. This is a fact of the business. How much or how little  you, as the designer, continue to be involved in the development process has to do with how the publisher prefers to operate and your ability to be constructively involved in the process and willingness to let go of control over your game.  Some publishers may not want the designer involved at all and others may be happy to have the designer involved provided they make meaningful contributions and don’t throw up roadblocks. Regardless of the specifics, most contracts will stipulate that the publisher has the final word on desig. If you aren’t comfortable with that, don’t sign the contract. You need to realize that in doing so you are not likely to get a different result with any other publisher. If you have faith in the publisher you are working with let go of your feelings, sign the contact and be helpful.

There are a lot of other details to contracts that need to be considered. A few things to keep in mind when negotiating a contract include:

  • How long does the publisher have to bring the game to market before the rights revert back to the designer?
  • How are rights to expansions, foreign language editions, or licenses to other publishers stipulated in the contact?
  • What about rights to spin-off products?
  • Does the designer gain any special rights or benefits (i.e. have your name on the box, be able to purchase discounted copies to gift to people, initial copies, signing bonuses/advances, etc.).

At this point it would probably be a good idea to involve a contract lawyer.  It’s going to cost you money, but you can be sure you’ll get the best contract you can and not walk away feeling you got ripped off.

** Compiled and edited from multiple sources with some original content.  This guide is not meant to provide any legal or professional advice.