STARTING AND GROWING YOUR GAME PUBLISHING BUSINESS
So you’ve decided you would like to publish your own game, and if everything goes well, maybe some others! Congratulations, you’ve made the choice to become an entrepreneur!
Scared yet? Starting and running a small business can be both frightening and equally rewarding. There is a lot to consider and quite a few steps to take before you even get to the sales portion of your business however.
1. STUDY BEFORE YOU START
Don’t leave your day job just yet. If you are currently unemployed and wanting to set up as a board game publisher to get an income, I’d advise you to think again as you will need to be able to sustain your efforts for quite a while without any money coming in before you have even a faint hope of earning some money.
There’s a joke among board games publishers (and airlines, and probably a dozen other businesses) that can often hold true:
“How do you make a million dollars in board games publishing ? You start with two million and know when to quit!”
Of course there is money to be made eventually, but being successful as a board games publisher requires a very good knowledge of the market, and that isn’t something you can learn in school. So you will have to school yourself, and it will take a long time. Give it at the very least a year or two. You can take short cuts, but you will pay them in expensive mistakes. Sometimes very expensive mistakes.
By keeping your job for a while, you’ll be able to study and learn in your free time and think through your business plan thoroughly, vastly increasing your chances of success!
While you’re studying, take the time to build up your experience with board games. Build your board game culture as it were. Yes, you’ve been playing board games for some time now; probably since you were a little kid. Now that you intend to become a professional, you need to build up an extensive knowledge of board games. This will allow you to understand what different kind of games exist, how they work, and enable you to make decisions on whether a game is worth publishingt. It will also help you determine whether a game is original or resembles existing games, and if it covers the problems often present in those existing games. It will also help you become familiar with different game styles, some of which you may not yet be aware of. And the big bonus is that it will be fun! Don’t limit yourself to your usual games either. Expose yourself to all different game styles. This will allow you to better understand what kind of games you want to, or are willing to publish and what you want nothing to do with. At the same time it will help you better understand the market and player experiences encountered by these games.
If anything, just ask. Ask questions of anyone and everyone in the gaming industry, and those who play games. The more questions you ask, the more answers you will get. The more answers you get the more informed you will be!
Get involved in your local community. This may go without saying but your local gaming community is a massive wealth of knowledge. You will need to be able to contact gamers on a regular basis during the learning process and again afterwards for playtesting and polling purposes. Don’t fool yourself in thinking that playing and meeting with people over Internet will do: it won’t. You require face to face contact.
Get involved in the global community. The internet makes the world a much smaller place, and online communities are a huge part of that. These provide a good place to get information about trends, opinions, and the general ‘feel’ of the market. Players online also post a lot of useful info to understand how they receive games that are put on the market and can be quite vocal about their likes and dislikes. They also post a lot of useful resources such as strategy articles, player aids, erratas, etc. Once you publish your own games, they will get the same kind of treatment, so you should know what to expect.
Learn about the Market. The board game market is huge. However, you need to get to know it better as a whole and then have a good look at the different facets of the market. Board games have a huge Niche factor. And there are Niches within Niches. Get to know them and how they relate to the games you’re thinking of publishing and you will better understand the market you’re entering. Once you step out of the realm of mass market games (think Monopoly), you have entered a Niche. It may be a big niche, but it’s a niche nonetheless. It is important to understand these niches as it will affect how you communicate and market your games. Targeting your communication will be more effective if you understand your niche. once you understand the sub-market you want to address with your products, you can research them and tailor your products to fit within that market.
Keep in mind that the games market is constantly shifting. Stay updated and adjust your plans accordingly, even if this means dropping an entire product line if its no longer relevant. You have to constantly research the market. Adapt or die.
Spend time in retail. Find out the requirements of different kinds of shops; what they sell, how they sell, how they stock and display their products and what kind of packaging is used for what kind of stores. What kind of customers do they cater to? What are the price ranges? Ask the retailer questions; what makes a game easy or hard to sell, what do they like in a publisher, do they like to deal with publishers or wholesalers, etc. Ask the customers questions! What are they looking at, what grabs their attention, etc.
Look at the mass-market retailers (grocery stores for example). They are probably not your market, but they are worth looking at as a comparison. Look at the big box chain stores, such as Wal-Mart, Toys’R Us, etc. These are specialized retailers and carry relatively few game products, but have them in high volume. Look at your friendly local game shop (FLGS); some sell only games, others sell games along side other products like comics and collectibles, models, etc. Most are small operations with low quantities but a huge selection of items.
Visit online stores. These are a category of their own as they have different operating procedures and expenses. They offer a different shopping experience than your traditional store but they often get their games directly from publishers instead of distributers/wholesalers in order to get a better price. Competition between online stores (and between online stores and FLGS) is huge and can vast price differences. Understand the reasons between these price differences.
2. VISIT CLUBS, CONVENTIONS AND TRADE SHOWS
You need to get out and meet the players. They are your potential customers. Understand them; their motives, likes and dislikes.
Game groups and local clubs are a good start. They are small and you can meet everyone, make friends and learn how they play. Conventions and trade shows then allow you to get a broader view of that community.
Find out how games are recommended, by players, to players. Most of the time a game is played or purchased based on advice from other players.
3. TALK WITH RETAILERS, AUTHORS, PUBLISHERS AND DISTRIBUTERS
Volunteer to help a retailer for a few days. Meet authors, publishers and designers at conventions and trade shows. Ask if t hey have time to talk and hang around at a quieter time after their busy schedule. Most professionals are willing to share information and give advice. Ask questions! They want your games to be better just as much as you do, as they will quite possibly be the ones selling it at some point. Some publishers are very competitive and secretive, but overall there is a friendly collegiate atmosphere to the industry. Publishers are colleagues and they’re all in it together.
The game publishing industry is huge, but small at the same time. There are, relatively, few people professionally active in the publishing business compared to other markets. Most of them know each other, often by first name, even if only from meeting at conventions. Most of them realize t hey will never make huge amounts of money but are in it because they have a passion for games and they love the relaxed, friendly environment of the gaming business. You will need to somehow fit into this small, connected community. Get in there, get to know them. You will benefit from their advice and experience, opportunities and contacts. Games are a people business when it comes down to it.
4. BUILD YOUR CONTACTS
As you research and learn you will meet a lot of people. Make sure to use that opportunity to build your contacts database. Add everyone! That intern you met at a publisher that you helped with a question may be the head of marketing or accounts manager a few years later. He may come to you with a new game he made. You never know!
Professionals that should be part of your network, no matter what;
- Clubs and Playtest groups
- Printers, factories and agents
- Customs brokers and logistics providers (shipping)
5. CONSIDER THE PROFESSIONS REQUIRED
There are all kinds of different skill sets required to work on any one board game. No one person can be good at all of them. A publisher should never try to fitll every role, but rather act as a coordinator of these talentsin order to produce a board game.
A (non exhaustive) short list of professions you’ll encounter (from concept to product in retail);
- Game Designer – the starting point. The person with a game ready for publication.
- Designer Agent – acts as a smiddleman between publishers and authors
- Graphic Artist – fine arts, photography, typography, etc
- Game Developer – Someone who can analyse the mechanics and balance, take a prototype, remove anything not required and look at ways to expand the game or variants.
- Accountant – your time is better spent on the games than on the numbers.
- Lawyer – Yes; you need one.
- Media – They will get the word out about your game(s)
- Webmaster – Someone to set up your website, keep it online and secure and make it evolve with the current trends.
- Community manager – Interacts with the customer base
- Logistics provider
- Distributer – the link between your game and the retailer
- Fulfilment Agency – part logistics, part distrbuter. They sell and ship your games and handle special needs
- Retailer – Both FLGS and online. These are your best source of feedback and the public face of the industry
- Events Organiser – someone to get your game(s) to events and show them off
A good publisher will know what he can and wants to do in-house and what to outsource.
6. THE BUSINESS PLAN
Starting a business from the ground up is a rare and exciting opportunity. You will need a business plan. There are plenty of sources of information on how to build a business plan, so we won’t go into too much detail on that here. Your local business organizations and government agencies are a wealth of help and information on the topic, so be sure to seek their advice!
Some points to consider;
- Location, location, location – Where you operate from will have an impact on your business, from ease of access to outsourcing, cost of rent, and more.
- Study Business laws and taxes – Find out everything you can about business laws and taxes in your location. If you plan on operating globaly, you may want to get an idea on how the laws interact.
- Office and Warehousing – Compare prices and locations. Compare the space available and the amenities nearby. Do you need your own warehouse? In any case, you will want some professional space to operate out of if you plan on being a legitimate publisher; and no your garage will not cut it.
- Logistics – consider the costs of logistics. Shipping from factory, to warehouse, from warehouse to distributer/consumers. Truck, train, ship, air? Where are you going to store the product before shipping?
- Local community – You need to stay in touch with gamers while developing games. You will need playtesting and feedback. The bigger the community, the greater the options.
- Growth – Consider growth options when considering everything else. If you set up as a small business with no options for growth (for example, in a small 10×10 office) and suddenly your business grows you will have to relocate, which will cost money. Know what your plan is when you reach 2, 5, 10 and 20 employees. Plan for when your storage needs grow from 2 pallets of games to 200 and when that time comes you will not need to scramble.
- Define your production and logistics – How will you produce your games and get them into your customers hands? Will everything be in-house? Will you outsource as much as possible? Plan to reassess this on a regular basis.
- Define your business identity – What will your business be to the public? What kind of games will you publish? What is your target audience? Where will your games be sold? Will you produce in only one country or are you willing to outsource? Do you want to be eco friendly? Do you want all of your games to be specialized?
- Name and Brand – Your business needs a name. Make sure it’s available. Copyright and Trademark your name and logo, but don’t be paranoid about it. Make sure your name works internationally and is not rude or offensive in other languages and cultures. You need a good logo that works in both color and black and white and can be blown up or shrunk to any size as required. You should have a company motto that sums up your identity.
- Editorial line – What your company will publish and what it stands for. This can be as simple as “We only publish space themed games” or it can be more complex.
- Short and Long Description – Even if it is not public, you need to write up a short and long description of your company, its business plan and its editorial line to give you a baseline to compare your results to over time and to help communicate about your business identity and values.
Now, go and take a good hard look at your business plan and challenge it. Do some basic research. Start off with a SWOT analysis (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). There are a number of market analysis tools. Investigate them and check out some marketing books.
Show your business plan to other professionals and ask for feedback. Talk about it with your banker and investors. Make sure your numbers are realistic. Do NOT use your friends, family and anyone not familiar with the board game business for this! You need relevant, professional experience here.
Setting up as a board game publisher and making it your source of income requires dedication and commitment. Once you start to grow, so will your customers and business partners’ expectations. You will need to run your business professionally. This is first, and foremost, a business venture, not a hobby. You will probably end up having much less tim to play games than you ever did once you start your business.
You need to be a legitimate business as well. If you intend to sell games, make sure you’re legit. Follow all the rules of law for businesses in your jurisdiction. Register with the appropriate government agencies and pay your taxes. Once you’re on the right side of things here a lot of other things become easier, such as creating contracts with authors, artists, distributers and manufacturers as a company instead of as a person. It can also provide you with some amount of personal protection in legal actions (which of course you hope never happens, but it’s always a possibility). Get LOCAL advice as each country, and each jurisdiction will have its own complex set of laws and regulations.
7. CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’RE AN ENTREPRENEUR!
Congratulations. You’ve followed everything above and you now have a registered, legitimate business. Now what?
This is something you will be asking yourself regularly. Your job will change as your business grows. Ultimately, your job is to work on your business, making it grow and evolve, fixing shortcomings and improving efficiency. This is in addition to working the business (doing the day to day work, taking orders, following up on production, advertising, etc).
At first, you will have to do everything yourself with little time to actually work on your business. This is where all of your prep work pays off since you will have already spent time working on your business before you even started! Once things get going and start to grow you can delegate some of the tasks to staff and you can work more on your real job; working ON the business. Don’t get caught up in daily operations so much that you are no longer managing the business. This is a real trap and can cost a lot of money in the long run from lack of analysis, lost opportunities, etc.
You will need some sort of funding. The best source of funding is your own money. You will then not owe anyone and have full freedom running your business. Perhaps you can get some funding from family and friends. Be sure to manage the risk you take by committing that money to the business. Only use money you can afford to lose. Never, ever use a mortgage on your personal property or other important personal assets. If your business fails you will be devastated!
If you are using money from a third party make sure to have a contract stating exactly what they can expect and what you are liable for. This is where a lawyer comes in handy. A good contract defines your level of liability and the funders level of implication in your business.
Remember, you fund a company, not a game. Crowdfunding platforms are all the rage right now, opening up new avenues of funding. However, these are best suited to specific projects and not to fun da company start up!
Hiring staff once you’ve grown to that point is another consideration. Wages are a recurring expense. Only hire when you must and make sure you can support these wages. Never hire on a permanent basis until you are profitable. During a start-up you should be able to do most of the work yourself or by managing freelancers and temporary work for specific tasks. Fire if you must. If someone is not doing the job or is not the right person for the job, let them go as soon as you can. This is a tough thing to do, but you can not afford to keep someone unfit for the job.
Plan for the long term in growth. Keep your plan current and updated, evolving over time to adapt to changes in your market and in your staff size.
Set goals and deadlines for evaluation. You need these to allow you to assess your success (or failure) and provide new baselines to use as a guide along the way. Have some short term goals (publish game X) and some long term goals (grow to 5 employees) so you can see your progress as you move along.
Have a plan.
Continually reevaluate your business practices and goals.
Always stay on top of market trends. Always be learning.
Be fair and reasonable.
Know when to quit. If it’s not fun and it’s affecting your personal life, you should reconsider your approach or even the business.
Some helpful resources for Publishers;
The Game Publishers Association – A forum for publishers in the game industry, providing assistance and a network of other publishers to share knowledge, experience and resources.
GAMA (The Game Manufacturers Association) – Non profit trade organization serving the game industry. Promotes the interests of all involved in the game industry.