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Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company

Part II: Makin' Games

by Patrick Sweeney
Jun 11,2002



Behind the Curtain

Part II: Makin' Games

We left off last time with the basics of starting a small press firm under way while I pondered just what games this new game company would be producing.

Since we are still time-traveling here as we catch up to current events, please bear in mind that I made these decisions concurrent with establishing the company back in January. It's not as though I founded a game company with no idea what games I'd be publishing, after all.

Before I can think about what, however, I need to think about when. The when may help determine the what. Don't worry, things get clearer shortly.

I know I want to release my first game in time for the summer convention season. Publishers love the summer con season for, among other reasons, direct sales. Direct sales are wonderful because you sell your books for full retail price. And, except for con expenses, you keep it all. Sometimes that means you break even. Sometimes you even bring some money home. Either way, it's better than losing money at a con.

Most publishers sell most of their products to distributors, which means selling at wholesale prices. For most roleplaying game companies - that is, anyone lacking the muscle of Wizards of the Coast or Games Workshop - that's around 40 percent of the suggested retail price. That's right. The publisher gets paid 40 percent of the price stamped on the book. After all, the distributor and retailers have to make money, too. Their cuts have to come from somewhere.

Now, since publishers turn some kind of profit even selling at 40 percent of the cover price - or else they are in the wrong business - you can imagine how happy they are to collect full price through direct sales. So does this mean you should bypass your local game shop to buy all your books from your favorite publisher direct?

Please don't. If I do really well at summer cons and via website sales, I might sell a few hundred copies of my first game direct. I can realistically expect to sell a thousand or more copies through distribution. See the difference? Also, many more people will see my games in their local hobby game shop than will stumble across it on a website somewhere.

But retailers won't order a game if no one's buying it at their stores. And distributors won't buy games that retailers don't order. So it's much better to support your favorite publisher by buying his or her games at your local game store, if you have one.

Now I have my sights set on a release in time for at least part of the summer con season. There are two big national conventions, Origins in July and GenCon in August. The other key con of the year is the Game Manufacturers Association Trade Show, or GTS, in March in Las Vegas, Nev. This is a pros-only show for retailers, distributors and publishers. You don't sell anything there, but you try to catch the eye of the people who will be ordering your games in the future. Then there are various regional conventions, of which I'll attend only the local ones. Unfortunately, most of those take place in the spring, which means I'm unlikely to have my game ready to sell at them.

I know I don't want to release my game at GenCon in August. First of all, that's pretty much the end of the summer con season. If I'm going to hurry up and get a product out this summer, I want to get more out of it than one convention's worth of direct sales. But there are even more important marketing considerations. A lot of games get released at GenCon, including some by companies with much bigger ad budgets than mine. My game could very easily get lost in the crowd at GenCon. Also, most retailers order less product in August. Many of their customers are saving their money to go to GenCon. In fact, many retailers are probably saving their money to go to GenCon, too. I need to maximize orders for my first game, not depress them, so releasing in August is out.

Now another factor comes into play. The biggest distributor in the United States is Alliance. If I want Firefly Games to be a success, I simply must be carried by Alliance. That's all there is to it. Alliance and its sister company, Diamond, which sells to comic shops, put out catalogs. You must begin soliciting orders for your product at least four months before your release date to get into the Alliance and Diamond catalogs.

It's already January. If I work fast, I can have a product far enough along that I can start soliciting in March. Four months out from March puts me at a July release date. If I make it July 1, then I can have the books ready in time to sell direct at Origins and at GenCon. Starting solicitation in March also means I can promote the game at GTS in Las Vegas in late March, putting it in front of the distributors and retailers who will be ordering it a couple of months later.

Between the convention schedule and the requirements from Alliance, I'm pretty much set on July 1 for my publication date. It turns out that, in hindsight, I made a small mistake here. Most publishers set release dates at the end of a month, because many retailers don't order a new game until the month the game is to be released. Setting the release date at the end of a month gives you time to adjust your print run when those johnny-come-lately orders arrive at the beginning of the month. By setting a July 1 release date, I will have to go to print without knowing the exact number of orders I'm going to have. But it's not a disaster; just something I'll do better when I set future release dates. Let's continue with the story.

So, July 1 it is. Working backward from that date, I want to send the book to print in mid- to late May. Printing takes 4-6 weeks, so I want to give myself a little cushion in case something goes wrong. In order to meet a mid-May print date, I need to send the book to layout in late April. It's going to be a small book, so layout won't take too long.

Of course, I need the edited text and interior art before it can go to layout. I'll set a deadline of March 1 for the text, so I know what to promote at GTS, and a deadline of April 1 for the interior art. Again, this leaves me some extra time in case something goes wrong.

Finally, I need a color cover. I want the cover before I start soliciting in March - remember, I still need to convince retailers and distributors that I'm serious about meeting my release date. Having the cover ready before I even announce the product will help show them that I'm on track. Besides, it's much easier to promote a product when you have a cool-looking cover to show off. I'll set a deadline of March 1 for the cover, too. I don't have much wiggle room built into this deadline, but I have to give the artist a reasonable amount of time to do the work. I'll just have to trust the artist to come through for me.

By the way, most publishers (including me) advise that you have your first product, and preferably your first three products, ready to print before you ever even announce your company. If I follow that advice, though, I'll completely miss the summer con season, which means I'd be better off launching the company in spring 2003. It might be wiser, but it's just too far away.

It's going to be hectic to start the company and get a game out by July. But, hey, it's me. I can do this. And I'm not exactly starting from scratch, anyway.

Now I just need a game. I'm not stupid enough to have started a game company without any ideas for games, of course. It's just a matter of picking the right one to do first, then figuring out who to hire to do the writing and art.

I've already narrowed it down to two choices in games. Both meet my basic criteria of appealing to core gamers "plus." As I noted in my first column, one of my goals for Firefly Games is to look beyond the core gamer market to other niche markets, so each of my games will appeal to core gamers plus another group.

The first is a fantasy roleplaying game aimed at children and non-gamers as well as the core gamer market. Other than that, I'm not going to say too much about this one; I'll be producing it in 2003 so I don't want to give too much away too early.

Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat is based on an idea I first pitched to another game company years ago, but which it never pursued. It's a fighting game inspired by giant monster movies, such as Godzilla, King of the Monsters and King Kong. Players create and play giant monsters, either original creatures or re-creations of classic movie monsters. They can either use foldable cardstock figures that I'll include with the game, or, better yet, toy monsters.

I've been working on the fantasy game in between freelance gigs since fall 2001. But it's shaping up to take more work than I think I can do in time to meet my aggressive production schedule. I don't want to rush this one. One of the reasons I began Firefly Games is to give this game the treatment I think it deserves, so rushing it into print defeats the purpose of starting my own company in the first place. The clincher is that it looks like the fantasy game may turn into a 48- or even 64-page book. I simply have to start off with a smaller, 32-page book. A smaller books means fewer words - freelance writers often are paid by the word - less art, less layout, and smaller print costs.

Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat isn't written yet, but I know exactly how to write it. I've been kicking the idea around for three or four years, after all. And I know it can be done in 32 pages. Also, demo games using toy monsters are going to be hot! Finally, it's less of a risk than the fantasy rpg. I know most gamers are also giant monster movie fans. In addition, I can pull in monster movie fans who are non-core gamers. I know there are hundreds of Godzilla fan sites on the web, and the fans of these movies are as obsessive about monsters as gamers are about games. So it definitely meets my criteria of appealing to core gamers "plus," probably even more firmly than the fantasy rpg does.

Now it's time to start sorting out what sort of book to make Monster Island. A 32-page book fits my budget and business plan. Fortunately, it also makes good sense for the game. This is a "beer-and-pretzels" game; something fast, fun and a little goofy to break out when someone can't make it to your weekly RPG session. Furthermore, it's a game about giant monsters beating each other up, not a hyper-realistic, historically accurate simulation of a World War II battle. A dense tome of complex rules just doesn't fit the concept. Also, I need to keep the suggested retail price, or price point, below $10. This is an impulse buy, and customers are generally less impulsive when it comes to items costing more than $10. I can price a 32-page book at $9.95 and still make some money, so it works there, too.

Actually, I'd really like to make Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat a digest-sized or a 6"x9" book. It would be handier while playing, and would also fit the concept of a small, simple game. But that's going to mean less room for rules and text - I want a rules-light game, but probably not that light! Also, retailers generally dislike non-standard books because they are harder to display. If retailers dislike a book, they may not order it. I need all the orders I can get.

I'm going to stick to monster vs. monster fights on Monster Island for this game. Fighting armies and crushing cities will require more rules - see the size and price point decisions earlier. The more complex this game looks, the less of an impulse buy, "beer-and-pretzels" game it becomes. I'll save armies and cities for a follow-up rules expansion, which I'll release in September. Initially I call this sequel book Monster Alert, but when I'm describing the premise to folks at the DunDraCon game convention in San Ramon in February, I realize that Escape from Monster Island is a much better title.

First I have to produce Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat, though, so let's get back to that.

I am going to use the Action! System rules as the basis for Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat. They are free, and I helped design the core system so I already have some ideas on how to adapt the rules for monster smackdown action. I've already decided that Firefly Games won't be doing d20 products. I don't have anything against d20. There are a lot of d20 products flooding the market, however, and a lot of new d20 companies. I'd be taking a big risk of being lost in the crowd or dismissed as just another d20 startup if I went this route. In addition, distributors and retailers are being very picky about new d20 products. Overall, as a brand-new company I'd just rather not compete in that arena.

I also know that I want to generate some intellectual property for Firefly Games by building a backstory and some characters - giant monsters -- into Monster Island. One part of my business plan involves using Firefly Games products as IP incubators. The entertainment industry is always on the lookout for new worlds, stories and characters. Creating worlds, stories and characters is most of what we do in the adventure game industry. I can't claim credit for the concept of using your games to build IP for potential future licensing, but it's a strategy I endorse and intend to follow.

So I want to build some IP into all of my products on the off-chance I can swing some licensing deals in the future. For Monster Island, that means creating a backstory about the UN Science Alert Corps protecting humanity by imprisoning dangerous giant creatures on Monster Island. I need to put some pre-generated monsters in the book anyway for people who don't want to take time to create their own, so I'll give the monsters names and histories. It makes the game itself more entertaining for people, plus builds a foundation for potential spinoffs such as a roleplaying game set in the world of Monster Island or possibly even licensing deals. Now, I'll admit that the chances of anyone wanting to make a Monster Island movie or comic book based on my game are almost non-existent, but if the game does well there might be interest in a toy line based on the original monsters from the book, for example.

Finally, I want a color cardstock insert of cut-out monster figures for people to use while playing the game. I'll include rules for playing with toy monsters, which is definitely how I'll do demo games, but I want people to be able to play even if they don't own any toy monsters.

I know what I want from Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat. But I have a problem. I don't think I'm going to have time to write it myself. I agreed back in December to take a freelance writing contract with Steve Jackson Games, and now I have an April deadline. I'm going to have to hire a freelance writer to do Monster Island for Firefly Games while I go off and work on my own freelancing job. It's bad timing, but I agreed to take the contract and I don't want to leave people in the lurch by backing out at the last minute.

I'll also need to hire a freelance artist to create the color cover, interior illustrations and the figures for the cardstock insert.

I'm going to need some contracts. Contracts are an essential part of the publishing business, small press or not. Most freelancers, quite rightly, insist on them. And contracts are crucial to the publisher, because that's how he obtains the rights to what the freelancer produces. You can't publish what you don't own. Or, it's at least a very bad idea.

I'm going to keep saying this, but it pays to know people. Mark Arsenault of Gold Rush Games sends me some copies of his standard contracts. I just change the names on them to match my company and revise the terms to fit my own desires, and now I have some blank contracts.

So what are my standard terms going to be?

I offer 3 cents per word for freelance writing, though I'll go higher for "name" authors if I can afford it. This is about average for small press companies, as far as I can tell. Some d20 publishers offer a little more because they know they are going to sell a lot more books. Standard terms for Firefly Games are 10% on signing the contract, 25% on acceptance of the draft and the remainder after publication. Like the rate, these terms are changeable depending on the project and the author. If I'm paying more than 3 cents a word, I may have to defer more of the payment until after publication - when I have some income from sales to make those higher payments.

Some publishers pay royalties, generally around 3% of suggested retail price per book sold, instead of flat rates. But this requires a lot of record-keeping and accounting that, as a small operation, I'd prefer not to deal with. Also, my first few books probably are not going to sell well enough to make a royalty worth more to the author than a flat rate.

Flat fee or royalty, this is for all rights to the work. The writing becomes the sole property of Firefly Games. I don't want to have to re-license my own games, characters or settings from the authors later if I want to re-release or re-use them. It's probably not very equitable to the author given the low pay, but it's normal in the industry.

For art, I pay $100 per page of black-and-white interior art. Covers are negotiable with the artist and can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. It will be a while before I'm paying more than $1,000 for a cover, though. This is also fairly standard for small press publishers.

Publishers normally buy first publication rights to artwork. Artists are more reluctant to give up all rights to their work, and they expect more money if they do.

I hire Bruce Harlick to co-author Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat. He'll write the Filmography I want in the back of the book, and help create the rules. Bruce worked for Hero Games for many years, and is now a freelance author. I know he loves giant monster movies, so he's a perfect choice for the project.

I hire Bryce Nakagawa to do the artwork. Like Bruce, he's a friend who has worked for many game companies, including doing the art for the Brawl: Catfight card game from Cheapass Games. Bryce agrees to do the color cover, interior artwork and art for the monster figures. To save myself some money, I'm going to have Bryce do the figures in black and white line art. I'll have Mark Arsenault color them on the computer in-house.

I shoot contracts to Bruce and Bryce in the mail. I send two signed copies; one they keep, one they sign and return to me for my records. I also exchange emails with Bruce for a few days to generate an outline for his writing. The outline tells Bruce what I expect to see in the book and makes sure we cover all the bases. Of course, he has input into the outline as well. I'm hiring him as much for his ideas as his writing, so ignoring his suggestions would be silly.

Bryce receives his outline in the form of an art list. This is a list of the 16 or so interior illos I want for the book, along with a cover concept. It details the sizes and general description of each illustration. The implementation of each description is up to Bryce. He's the artist, not me, though if I really hate what he's done I can ask him to try again. Here's an excerpt from the art list:

2. An illo of an albino giant gorilla grappling with a winged pterodactyl-like monster on the edge of a cliff. The gorilla is trying unsuccessfully to rip the wings off its foe, while the pterodactyl-like thing chokes the gorilla with its long tail.

Naturally, I also seek Bryce's feedback on the art list. Most of his creative input is going to come out in how he turns my somewhat vague descriptions into the finished illustrations, however.

Now that Bruce and Bryce are hard at work on their respective jobs for Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat, I need to start doing my job - promoting Firefly Games and Monster Island. It's time to go public. But that's another column. See you in 14. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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  • Part VI: End Game by Patrick Sweeney, 24sep02
  • Con Game by Patrick Sweeney, 28aug02
  • Part IV: Quite A Production by Patrick Sweeney, 25jul02
  • Buzzing Along by Patrick Sweeney, 25jun02
  • Part II: Makin' Games by Patrick Sweeney, 11jun02
  • Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg