Until recently, few game designers self-published their games. Instead, they would choose the traditional route of pitching their games to a publisher. There were a lot of reasons for this, but one of the most important and obvious was the amount of money required to publish a game. Kickstarter has leveled the playing field quite a bit with regard to money, but self-publishing is still a very difficult decision. It was a decision i had to make with Allegiance, and perhaps my thought process will help you decide the right path for your project.
It’s not easy to shift between the roles of game designer, developer, and publisher. Unless a designer has a desire to experience the development and publishing process – or is at least willing to accomplish these to see their design come to fruition – self publishing is probably a bad idea. Consider that a designer will need to develop, playtest, market, work with a manufacturer, and fulfill a game. That’s something few designers will want to try, and fewer still probably should try.
When I started seriously designing my first game, Skirmish Tactics Apocalypse, I also began listening to and reading everything I could about developing and publishing games. A couple of the best resources I came across were the Funding the Dream podcast (by Richard Bliss) and Jamey Stegmaier’s blogposts on the Stonemaier website. I gobbled up every bit of information I could find. And I realized I wanted no part of self-publishing. I just wanted to design. So I pitched Skirmish Tactics Apocalypse to a publisher. It was accepted, I received a contract, and now I’m waiting. And Waiting. And waiting. Maybe Skirmish Tactics Apocalypse will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t.
In the early stages of the Allegiance’s design, I knew I needed to make a decision. The lack of control for the timeline for the development and publishing of Skirmish Tactics Apocalypse drove me crazy. I always knew that publishers could – and often would – adjust game designs, sometimes significantly. I was fine with that. I was ready to defer to the publisher’s experience with regard to those issues. But sitting idly by, and not having direct insight into the process was difficult for me.
Before I go further, it’s probably worth discussing the monetary side of the decision. In general, designers get about 5% of the MSRP for a game in a traditional designer-publisher contract. Some argue that’s not enough, but I figure it’s fair. In reaction to this, I’ve seen arguments that designers should use Kickstarter to self-publish as a way of earning more money for their game. This works for some, as evidenced by successful companies leveraging their Kickstarter success into full time jobs. But it’s rare. Consider, for example, the recent Otters Kickstarter by Michael Iachini of Clay Crucible Games. This successful Kickstarter ended with a profit of only $245 — though Michael does have some inventory left to sell.
For me the issue has nothing to do with money. I design games as a hobby. My job supports my family, and I love my job. I have zero desire to run a game publishing company full time. However, I want to test the water with Kickstarter. I want to see how effectively I can move Allegiance through the full life cycle of initial concept to the hands of players. Allegiance is a perfect test because it has very simple components. If I find the process is something I’m comfortable with, I will use it for more complex projects in the future. Otherwise, I will go back to pitching to publishers.
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