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Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company

Part VI: End Game

by Patrick Sweeney
Sep 24,2002

Behind the Curtain

Part VI: End Game

Paden: See you around.
Emmett: I'll be around.
Silverado, 1985

This column wraps up Behind the Curtain, at least as a monthly column. I've always intended it to be a limited-run column. I set out to describe the creation and early days of Firefly Games, a new small-press company in the adventure game industry. In the past five columns, we've looked at establishing the company, promotion, designing and producing a game, and conventions. That pretty much covers all the bases.

I really appreciate all the comments and feedback on this column, both public and private. I'm glad that people enjoyed it and found it somewhat useful.

Of course, Firefly Games goes on. I am preparing to send my second product, Escape from Monster Island, off to the printer. This is a sequel to Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat with expansion rules for fighting armies and smashing cities. It's written by David Pulver and myself. Look for it in October.

I have more products planned for 2003 and even a few already lined up for 2004. I have several new tabletop fighting games similar to Monster Island in the works, along with a roleplaying game aimed at younger players and an RPG setting. I'm not going to discuss the details of my upcoming games until I start soliciting for orders, though. In the past year, I've seen a lot of duplication in products in the game industry. Normally, I'd just chalk it up to parallel development, but lately it seems as though every time I turn around three new products covering the exact same topic are being announced for release within a few weeks of each other. So I'm going to keep my own plans under my hat for awhile.

I can say that I am leaning away from extensive product lines - well, the tabletop fighting games might be considered a product line consisting of games with similar rules systems but covering various topics and genres. I have too many ideas to pursue, and not enough time, to get sucked into supporting a single game with endless sourcebooks. Given that sales tend to drop on each subsequent supplement to a game line as topics become less relevant to the broadest number of players, it's just not a place that I want to go for the first few years of Firefly Games.

Overall, though, I'm just going to keep plugging along - planning, designing, producing and promoting new products, going to conventions, and looking for new niches or opportunities to explore.

Some may yield occasional new Behind the Curtain columns as I dive into some new aspect of the business, such as licensing, but this seems a good point to bring the regular columns to a close.

I've focused primarily on what I did to establish, promote and run Firefly Games in this column. For my last column, I'm going to talk a little about the things I did not do - and wish I had.

I wish I'd established a demo team program early on in the process. I had intended to do so, but I really wanted to find a demo team coordinator first in keeping with my oft-stated goal of finding experts to do expert work. While I talked to several potential demo team coordinators, I couldn't find someone willing to take on the challenge. And, let's face it, I wasn't offering a paid job or anything. It's going to be awhile before Firefly Games can afford to hire me, let alone employees. In between the various tasks of running the company and working on products, I just didn't have time to start a demo team program myself, so it got pushed to the back burner.

Why a demo team? Simple - the best way to sell games is to get people playing games. Doubly so for games like Monster Island. I never ran a demo of Monster Island at any of the four conventions I attended with the game that did not have players cheering or laughing and spectators crowding around the table. Not one. Demos are the ideal way to sell Monster Island -- and not just to customers. As I noted several times, I also have to sell retailers and distributors on the game. Demos can do that, too. Retailers want to sell games, after all, and Monster Island demos sell games better than anything. If a retailer, who may or may not stock the game, sells two or three after a demo, chances are they'll order at least another one or two to put on the shelf.

Demos also are a great way to spread the word about Firefly Games products. No matter how much promoting and marketing I do, there are going to be retailers - let alone customers! - who just haven't heard of Firefly Games. Or perhaps they heard the name but never had time to investigate. A demo team program that brings local volunteers into their stores to organize and run demos brings Firefly Games to their attention better than any catalog listing or advertisement I can imagine.

While I've done fairly well by Firefly Games in terms of sales and exposure anyway, I've probably missed some sales and some opportunities by not having a functional demo team program ready to go.

I wish I'd found a business manager. The permits, licenses, taxation and paperwork side of running even a small business - a very, very small business - like Firefly Games is more than I counted on. Actually, this particular oversight isn't as critical. I didn't really need a business manager too badly until a couple of months ago, once I started selling product to wholesalers and on direct orders. I've done fairly well at keeping on top of things until now, but I can already tell that things are going to slip out of control if I don't take some action soon.

If I was running Firefly Games full-time, I'd just bite the bullet, buy some business accounting software and learn how to do all of this myself. I probably still could, but, first of all, that's not in keeping with my theory that I need to focus on what I'm best at - creating and promoting games - and not distract myself trying to do things I'm not good at, like sales or accounting.

Second, if I'm probably not going to get rich running Firefly Games - and I'm probably not -- I'd better at least be having some fun with it. Fighting my way through accounting programs isn't my idea of fun. This is a real business, and I intend to run it like one, but I'm also going to enjoy myself. If you aren't having fun, what's the point?

Besides, finding someone who knows what they are doing to keep my books may be a better indicator of my seriousness about Firefly Games than trying to muddle through it myself.

I regret not going to the Game Manufacturers Association Trade Show, or GTS, in Las Vegas in March. I can't say I wish I'd gone, because it really wasn't possible in terms of my schedule or finances. Even so, I think I missed a priceless chance to spread the word about Firefly Games to retailers and distributors. While I did have a presence at GTS through Tundra Sales Organization, my fulfillment house, nothing beats meeting people face-to-face to sell them on your company and your products.

Despite a few regrets, on the whole I'm quite happy with how things have turned out after the first nine months of existence for Firefly Games.

I've established a presence, albeit a small one so far, in the industry. I've shepherded my first release through production to publication and strong initial sales. I've laid a foundation for future growth by recruiting excellent talent in terms of positions within the company and freelancers. Other publishers, admittedly also small-press ones, are approaching me about strategic alliances or consulting work.

The financial side is less rosy, but I never expected to turn a profit right away - particularly factoring in summer convention expenses. I'd be close to breaking even so far without con expenses, but then again conventions fuel sales and exposure, so perhaps not. In any event, I'm going to need to have several products on the market, including some at higher price points, before Firefly Games has a chance of becoming profitable. I'm still building the company, and building a company costs money.

Despite my tendency to shoot for perfection, on balance that's not bad for a company formed in January.

In the end, though, here's what it boils down to for most people in the industry - whether businesses or vanity presses, small-presses or big corporations, novices or veterans:

I played roleplaying and other adventure games for years. Then I started writing games as a freelancer. The whole time, I thought about how I'd do things if I were in charge.

Now, I am.

Can't beat that. See you around.

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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

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