Gaming - In General
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May 21, 2008, 12:48 pm

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Mourngrymn (2x)
Michael Jotne Slayer

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So You Want to Publish a Game


Quote: Alec_Shadowkin I am very much interested in learning how to go about getting something rp-oriented published. I know there are a few of you here who have been and I would be appreciative if you could explain what type of stuff has been published and how you went about getting involved with it, i.e. finding a publisher, etc…

For those that don’t know, I have worked in the "biz". I have done playtest, sales, convention demos, writing, shipping, office work, the works. I have worked for Big Companies and some small ones. (My credits are a bit dated, but the basic info does not change.)

If you want to "break into the biz", don’t. Go get a real degree and a real job that pays real money. Unless you get lucky (and write the next BattleTech or Vampire), you, as a professional game writer, are going to be making as much money as a non union retail clerk. Though the perk of doing what you like and travelling to cons, does make up for the amount of macaroni and cheese you will need to eat. You will not get rich, but you will eat regularly.  Of course, don’t quit your other job at any time during this process until you are well established.

If you do it anyways, find out the submission requirements for a company you like, see what they are looking for, and submit it. Many companies do not accept "outside submissions", so you may have to get to know the people inside the company personally (and not be caught as a stalker) before you can submit anything. If you submit things they are not looking for, your submission will probably never ever see the light over a desk. Once you have done a product or two, you might be in a position to try new things.

Most companies are not in the position to buy new game systems (and associated worlds). So if it is a new system you want to promelgate, then go into your business yourself or get some serious blackmail material over someone who controls another company. If you just want to publish material, then learn D20 and go for it.

if you are more serious about this…...
And the holy three, which is now two as one has met demise. (If you can make it there, you can actually make it.)’s design area. (friendly, but less helpful)
update 05/21/08  Lots of small game publishers hang here.

In addition, don’t forget about getting barcodes and ISBN numbers (if you are printing hard copies) or a licensed version of Acrobat (if you are producing PDF).

You and your group will need to learn how to write to publishable level. You will need to learn how to set up a page. You will need to have a huge amount of art to support the book. You will need to get a business license, set up your financial records, your tax records, and inventory control.  If you and your group can’t do this, stop now until you can.

You will also need to know how little you are not getting paid until product is finished. Will your people stick with it?

Some questions from previous posts.
How many of you have actually published physical books, and do you recommend the experience? I’ve gotten some quotes and such from a few printing houses, and it all seems fairly daunting… not to mention, of course, expensive as hell.

Well duh. It if was easy and cheap every Tom, Dick, and Reginald would do it. Remember you get what you pay for. So, if you think a cheap looking game book would sell, give it a try… it is only money after all… I would recomend a print on demand solution.

Also remember that your productiton costs (including any money to pay for artists, writers, etc) should come to 35% of the retail cost of the book. So a $20 book comes out to about 7 dollars to pay for everything. Todays round of $30 to $40, about 14 to pay for everything.

Do not forget advertising costs! Books which are advertised in print media (Wizard, Dragon, etc) sell better than those that don’t.  If you can’t do that much capital, try online ads/ impressions.

If you can not go to The Gama Trade Convention, then do not try a print game. If you can not go to that, plus GenCon, Origins, and one to three regional conventions, for three years or so, you are going to be a small print hasbeen in no time. Plus out all that cash/ credit.

I am not trying to be a hard ass. I want you to know the realities going in. You do see the amount of time, effort, and money this requires.  It is easier to write a game, than it is to actually sell enough of the game to actually be worth it (economically speaking).

And it is not that easy to write a game, from start to finish, that is complete and engaging to other GMs and players besides you and your friends. The internet is littered with the bones of those who thought it was "easy".

When do you think it become reasonable to publish a physical copy of your book?
Compared to the days gone by… oh yah. You can actually get a hardbound book for a reasonable price. Ten to fifteen years ago, that would of been five times the cost you are seeing and would of required a minimum print run of 5,000 to 10,000 units. These days, you can do it for a mere 1 to 3 thousand.

These days… try the PDF route… see if people like it and are willing to buy the PDF. If it seems to fly… roll your dice and hope for the best. Print on Demand is do-able these days.

Recouping your start up costs is easy to figure.  Take those costs, divide by how much you make per PDF, and that is how many downloads/ purchases it will take. Then go talk to some other people at companies selling PDF games… see how many units they have sold.  Think about if you can do it.

So that 14 dollars per unit must pay for the physical manufacturing cost, art costs, all your office costs (computer, paper, phone, fax, website hosting), housing all the product you have in stock (Print on Demand is expensive, but limits these costs), and all the various licensing and taxes- at minimum!  Look at your costs for the year (including travel and advertising), divided those costs by 14 and that is the number of units you need to sell to break even. If you have enough cash to weather it out, divide that number times two, for the number of units you will need to sell in three years.

Of course if you have the Trust Fund to burn, just go for it.

How does the whole distribution thing work? Do you basically get a distribution house/company/whatever to take the copies of your books and place them in stores, like a kind of talent agent?

Nope: You need to find the distributors (the same people who usually wholesale comics in an area). You have to convince them that your game is worth it: demostration calls, free samples, business lunches/ diners, and bribes (I’m not kidding). They place you in their catalog and you see if local store owners are willing to order it (figure an average of 1 order per store in a given region… if the distributor only supports 40 game stores…. well you get the math). They order from you. You need to give them hard copy in under 2 weeks. They purchase those from you at 35% of list price. (who sell to game stores at 50% list.. who sell to us at list). They pay you back in 60 to 120 days for the units they bought. Then you wait to see if anyone re-orders.

UPS is your friend at this point.

Any more questions?
If you get lucky… a book distributor will pick your book up.. that is the big unit number sales.

Do not forget Canada, Australia, UK, and Europe. They like rpgs too. Sometimes you can get a grant from the US gov to subsidize your sales there (That darn trade imbalance is good for something).

Get the bar code and the USBN number. Most places will not sell your material without it.

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Comments ( 24 )
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November 9, 2005, 13:13
There you go again, Moon, sucking the fun right out of everything.
Ancient Gamer
November 9, 2005, 13:17
'Tis always ugly when dreams hit reality with a earth shattering boom.
November 9, 2005, 13:19
Hey, well, y'know, the boom wouldn't be so earth-shattering if Moon had a touch of tact...

*CaptainPenguin has called the kettle black*
November 9, 2005, 13:19
I have tact. This is the posting with "tact".

I have been listening to people say "I want to make games" for 20+ years. To be honest, I have been one of them. I got lucky. I have floated around the edges of the industry since then. Most of them have crashed and burned. People don't realize that this is work, hard work, and that they are not going to make a great deal of money off of it.

In most cases, everyone thinks making a game is easy. It is not. It is long, hard work. Those of you who have created a world setting here knows how long and how hard that was. Yet, you could not publish that setting yet, because you would need to add maps, equipment lists, some better expressions of what the people are like, some notes on how to run the game, and so on. You know, all those things that most people want when they run a game. These are some of the boring parts.

Everyone can come up with a great idea for some game mechanics. The internet is full of pages full of "THE NEXT GREAT GAME" which is nothing more than an outline and a wide eyed business to be. When you are going through a few dozen rules about how to parry with a weapon, how to jump, the process for making art, the mating of two odd species and how those combinations turn out, it gets boring. Writing a game is not fun, nor easy. It is a ton of work. And this is just throwing a few hundred hours at the process.

Making the game is easy. Running the business is really hard (relatively speaking). There were many REALLY GREAT GAMES that were lost to bad or poor business practices. You can still find gamers who love this EPIC OLD GAME. If you get a copy, you find that you love it too. Then you ask, "why didn't this take off". The answers vary, but range from... the company went out of business, the owner got a divorce and decided to reduce his income level, it was a great company for three years- then it fell off the face of the Earth, to they only printed 300 copies.

RuneQuest (the original good competitor to DnD, whos background has been reborn as HeroQuest), The Fantasy Trip (on whos cold, decaying corpse GURPS was built... but if it has not "died" GURPS would of been 150% better and what everyone is playing instead of D20), Empire of the Petal Throne (Tekumel)- (with four runs with different companies (and different game systems)), Traveller (the original defining science fiction rpg), Fringeworthy and Bureau 13 are all examples of GREAT GAMES who lost the business side of things... and now have been lost (or nearly lost) to the vague mists of history. And these are the famous ones.You might of heard of these. There were dozens of less well known games through out the decades from Villians and Vigilantees to StarLord to Albeido. Great games lost to business presures.

That is why many game designers have decided to go indie. To write their games, set up fan sites, and then not charge for them. They don't have to worry about money and distribution. Of course, almost nobody has heard of their games and they have sunk hundreds of hours into something for the sake of "The Art", but they are kind of happy. *waves to his friends*

Business is not for the faint hearted. Most businesses fail. I have seen people throw away college funds, their kid's college funds, the court award that was supposed to support their medical bills for the rest of their lives, and a lot of money on some game related business ventures. Some of these ventures could of been saved if they actually had planned their business better. If they actually paid their sales tax (and avoided suspended jail time and bankrupcy). If they realized that this was work... a lot of work with very little pay off.

So.. if you want to get into the biz... Writing for companies is the best way to do this. Someone else is taking the risk and doing all the hard work. Sure you are in someone else's shadow, but you are getting paid (a little) and get the glory and prestige (that you can... but when a fan is gushing at you... it is almost all worth it).

Hang out on the sites of a company you want to work with. Check out their submission guidelines. Work on something they need, not your magnus opus. Get to know these people and feel comfortable with them. Then write. Write like your life depends on it. Then actually finish it.

Then you can get into the biz.

Slowly build upon your "success". Keep submitting. You may not become Monte Cook, but you might be recognized at gaming cons.
November 9, 2005, 13:20
The wonderful world of Freelancing. I was going to write more upon the subject, but I then I found all of this...

This is generally useful to Strolenites, so I swiped it for the article's section.

But if you are serious about this... here is a series of articles on Freelancing in the gaming industry.

You could also check out The gaming world's most successful Freelancer.

Does this have more tact for you Cpt? It is certainly more supportive.
November 9, 2005, 13:20
Someone Asked me to explain the links....
GAMA is a non-profit trade association dedicated to the advancement of the hobby game business. Our mission is to promote the general interest of all those involved in the business of games. We do this by providing trade and consumer shows, bringing positive attention to the industry, and investing in membership programs that advance hobby games into the mainstream as well as providing benefits for our members.
The Game Publishers Association is a professional organization of publishers and manufacturers in the adventure and family game industry. Our mission is to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, offer mutual support and assistance, further the entrepreneurial aims of our members, and collectively promote our companies, industry, and hobby.
Mission: Maintain and strengthen the nation's economy by aiding, counseling, assisting and protecting the interests of small businesses and by helping families and businesses recover from national disasters.
This website is filled with great information about businesses

And for the creation side of things.
First, Strolen's is great to work out the generals of a background. Yet, publishable products are normally held to a higher standard. So, if you want to forge your setting to the desired level...
RPG net has a strong developer community as well. It is filled with well meaning amaturs and some professionals. Search the back of the forum, it holds some real gems.

If you are serious about game design. Then The Forge is the place for you. If you can't make it there, then you are ill equipped about your design and probably will not finish it.
Lots of small game publishers hang here. They have a development forum.

And there is also another thread here... with similar info...
November 9, 2005, 13:21
Having just - as in, one week ago - self-published my own game system, Flame of Edrith online (on lulu), I can confirm what Moonhunter has been saying: it is a lot of work. And bear in mind that I've just done the easy part - I haven't done anything to do with publicity, marketing, distribution, and so on (I also am likely to have sales numbering in the single digits: however, it does allow me to buy a nicely printed copy for myself). When I decided to do this, I had a detailed and comprehensive system which I and others had been successfully playing with. It nevertheless took well over 100 hours of work to turn it in to the kind of thing that was fit for other people to use and work with. For anyone thinking of doing the same, here's a checklist with all the major things I needed to do:

1) Clarity
Everything must be explained and made clear so that a stranger who is reading the manual will understand and be able to use it. You can't just use some weird convention "because you and your friends no how to interpret those tables; it's easy when you know how."

2) Consistency
Consistency in everything - not just the rules but in naming conventions, punctuation, etc. Is a spell "Raise the Dead" in one place and "Raise Dead" elsewhere? Are your skill names written "Carpentry", carpentry, "carpentry" or Carpentry? If you already have full consistency I take my hat off to you - it not it will take a lot of work.

3) Completeness.
Do you have rules for how far you can jump? How about flying, horse-riding, climbing, poisons, stealth? Admittedly, some game-systems allow more room for GM improvisation and have less specifics - but if some parts of a system are explained to this level of detail, all parts of it should. In other words, don't have detailed rules for climbing but not for jumping!

4) Fully integrated
Do you have any "cool spells" you invented that are high powered, expensive and that no-one has ever used? Meanwhile are "normal spells" (e.g. Fireball) detailed with exact descriptions of their effect? If so, either get rid of the "cool spells" or else put them on the same level as detail as the others.

5) Magic
Is your magic system really stand-alone without you there to explain exactly how it works? Things to think of include of are how long to spells last, how far away can they be cast, how many people can they be cast on, what area to they affect, etc. You may not be using a spell-based system, but these issues will still need to be addressed in some way or another.

6) Breach of copyright issues
Have you taken, for example, a spell that you really liked from a fantasy series? Well, if you're making your work publish, you're going to need to either get rid of that spell or else change its name and effect sufficiently that it's no longer recognisable.

7) Game balance
After having made all these changes, is the game still balanced? Check.

Four of my friends spent 20+ hours each proof-reading and I spent quite a while myself as well. There were a huge number of errors, typos and even the odd unfinished sentence (and my English spelling and grammar are fairly good). Given that each person found a lot of errors no-one else found, I'm sure there are still some left in there.

9) Formatting.
A small job, but it takes time. You need to make sure you have consistency in title sizes and fonts, that you're not starting a section on one page while the heading is on the page before and so on.

For anyone still thinking of doing all this, I can assure you that there is a huge sense of satisfaction when you've finished, even if only one or two people who you've never met actually read it.

Also, providing you're not interested in making it big and breaking in to the real games industry (which, as Moonhunter has said, is much much harder), lulu (link below) is a very good website. It was set up by the guy who invented the Red Hat version of Linux and allows you to publish things (you must do all the formatting); people can then purchase either a pdf or a real book - lulu handles all the security and money side of it. Even if no-one other than you (and people in your gaming group) buy a printed copy it doesn't matter because it is free: they just take 20% of your royalties every time you sell something. If you're more serious, it could always be combined with a personal website or other advertising - I think some people do use it that way. And, if you are hoping to make it big one day, getting your system in to a form where its fit to be made public is at least one big step on the way.

November 9, 2005, 13:21
having had a conversation with Strolen and Moonhunter about this. I feel I can post my comments here and be relavent.

1st) Iain, congrats. I will go look for it today when I get a chance and will probably purchase it just because.

2nd) I myself am in the same situation as Iain here. I have spent years of my time writing and designing my game system. Everything I post here is just fluff on the surface and me just throwing out ideas I don't know where to put in my system.

I have over 325 pages of material that has been formated for printing in two book, 250 for the core book and the other 75 for the other book. I have spent money on artwork and will probably spend some on editing and a format into PDF for printing as well. All in all I have spent enough money on this to pay for a new entertainment center in my home. Why am I doing this? I know I will not be the Gary Gygax, which I have spoke with him on the subject of my game and he said he liked the basic idea but would charge me a small fee of $75.00 an hour to give a complete review. Which I calmly thanked him and then almost threw up.

I am doing this for me and me alone. I want to see a hardbacked version of something I did sitting on ym shelf with all the other games I have bought (With Iain's soon to be among them). I am doing it for self satisfaction for the simple statement of, I have accomplished this, have you? Not to be an ass about it but to say I did something.

I have seen what the industry does, it isn't pretty and it is a very hard place to navigate. I will produce my system through lulu as well and I do have plans of taking it to Dragon Con one year to see a wider scope of what people think. Will I expect it to explode and thousands of people to buy it, no. I don't. But After all is said and done, I do it for myself first and the business second.

Come to that conclusion for yourself or it probably won't work. Going over to only half of those sites that Moon put up will show you hundreds of "GREAT GAME IDEAS" that make it nowhere. Do a google search of 'Free RPGs' and see all the unknown games out there you never knew about and no one ever will because the writers tried to make something grand but the hardship of the real business wasn't working for them. There are thousands of those games on the internet, not to mention all the games that have sites that are not up anymore.

Take Moons advice, freelance your work first to get into the business. Stop by the companies websites and post. Do PDf's of your work and put them on for trials to see if people like them. Reality is you won't make money. I've come to that conclusion. I am doing it for the betterment of my own will.

Thats my view.
Ancient Gamer
November 9, 2005, 13:22
The fact is that:
A) Every GM dream about publishing at one stage or another.
B) Every GM considers his own system the "bestest of them all"
C) There are a kazillion GMs
D) Ultimately, Game Quality is irrelevant! (Everybody knows the best games are those created by indie GMs). In the end, the big bucks talk. There might come "one game to rule them all", but at the moment that game is owned by Hasbro, a toy manufacturer, and that is that.

In spite of all our talent. In spite of all our great imaginary tales. We are beat by a toy company.

Me? I'll probably still tweak on my system, in norwegian. But I will also post setting related stuff here on Strolen's! I get terrific ideas from reading your stuff and hope you do the same. In the face of the evil giant only open source works!

And last, but not least: A cynical comment I often hear, but not one that I necessarily share:
"The world doesn't need another fantasy RPG"

Together we are strong!
November 9, 2005, 13:22
From the ashes steps up AG with advice of the sage and then disappears back into shadow...
Voted Mourngrymn
November 9, 2005, 13:51
I rarely give out a 5/5 vote. And while this isn't a submission text it is a very good article on what to do and what not to do. For anyone interested in doing it. Everything written here is 110% correct.
Voted Ancient Gamer
November 9, 2005, 15:03
A great asset to any wannabe RPG author. I could do the same for the Computer Game Industry, should anyone so desire. (Advice on what to learn and which jobs to apply to get a foot inside the business)(No, I am not an industry insider. I just know all about it)
Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
March 29, 2006, 11:12
When I saw Alec's question thread in the forum I thought "Moon's gonna be all over this". And thus thought became truth. But it's great to see what a simple question can spawn.
Voted Murometz
January 5, 2007, 12:13
Voted dark_dragon
February 8, 2007, 10:14
This seems like really sensible advice from everybody, and I personally know people who could do well to read this, and take it in. I'll be sure to point them here.

Ian: Nice one! It will probably end on my shelf too...

I do it for myself first and the business second.

Mourngrymm, I think that you are absolutely right. Sometimes, you become richer by doing something for its own sake.

Publishing an independent RPG, video game, book, or even a boardgame from scratch definitely falls into this category, as do starting your own company, and a plethora of other ventures.

Its a tough Journey which has to be done because of the journey itself rather than the rewards. Climbing K2 has never been easy, and there is no reward, only punishment should you fail.

Neither is spending months out at sea on your own circumnavigating the globe.

The people who manage these things have never come out of it with a pot of gold, But yet, I believe that each and every one was richer in a more meaningful way.

As Mourngrymm said, as long as you understands this, You should go for it, otherwise, I think you should be ready to come out of the other end sapped of all strength and will.
October 24, 2007, 13:21
Updated: Changed Links that were dead. Sob! The site is gone.
January 26, 2008, 0:55
But the sub remains. Good stuff here. Food for thought.
Voted Kinslayer
May 20, 2008, 18:57
Like all good advice, I am going to give what I failed to follow: quit. Quit now while you are behind. Don't look back. Realise that the fantasy of starting your own game company belongs in an rpg, itself.

Game design is like all writing (or singing, or acting, for that matter) in that most people think that they can do it, but very few people can do it well. Also just like acting, writing, or singing, it is never obvious to the person doing the game design just how horrible they are at it. Everyone else can tell you are really bad, but you never can. Fail.

If you want to run a successful business, do so. If you want to make games, by all means, please do so. Just don't get the two confused.
Voted Silveressa
May 20, 2008, 19:48
Nice advice, and presented in a clear no-nonsense manner that doesn't try to pretty up the hard truth about how difficult making your own (published) rpg truly is.

Also, $75 an hr just to have Gary Gygax, do a more in depth review? My cousin is a lawyer and even he doesn't make more than $55 an hr for a consultation. *shakes head in bafflement*
May 21, 2008, 13:00
Bow your head. Mr. G is dead, so that is not happening any more.

First, I also think he never did it. I think it was put in place to stop fanboys from coming up and saying, "Please look at my game and tell me what you think." He said,"Sure, but I want 75 a hour for reviewing and it will take a minimum of 4 hours". This would quiet most wannabes quickly.

Two, it would be like Perry Mason or a Supreme Court Judge reviewing your legal work. So there is something to say for that.

Three, we saw Lejendary Adventure and Castles & Crusades, so it may or may not of been a "bargin".
June 6, 2012, 16:36
It's been a few years since I last read this and there's another small piece of input I feel compelled to add as a footnote to the concept of publishing your own rpg material:

"When fun becomes work and your favorite hobby is now viewed as a source of potential income, the enjoyment can quickly disappear from the hobby."

I've been friends with a few people (who will remain nameless) that have taken their love for RPG's and turn it into a semi profitable source of income. I've also seen a lot of the "spark" and enthusiasm disappear from their games/ideas because of it.

It's extremely hard to look at your adventure/world/items from a "fun" point of view when you are hoping to turn a profit from them. It's also hard to enjoy the hobby if you're immersed in it on a daily basis with the objective of making money. (You get burnt out on gaming and cease to be able to enjoy RPG's as a way to unwind and have fun/de-stress.)

Granted this isn't always the case, but it is a risk one should bear in mind when looking to turn their hobby into a job; the sacrifice may not be worth the profit margin..
Voted Kassy
June 10, 2012, 15:43
Adding to favourites.

December 1, 2012, 1:48
Voted valadaar
January 31, 2014, 11:12
A great submission, and topical.

I am bookmarking this one.


Random Idea Seed View All Idea Seeds

       By: Iain

Walking through the alleys of the docks district of town, you hear an old, mad beggar calling out for alms. He claims to be a god, cast out from heaven and stripped of his powers. The party passes, tossing a few coppers to him. In thanking them, the madman refers to incidents in their childhood or distant past which would have been all but impossible for him to know.

Ideas  ( NPCs ) | February 2, 2004 | View | UpVote 1xp

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