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Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company

Buzzing Along

by Patrick Sweeney
Jun 25,2002



Behind the Curtain

Part III: Buzzing Along

Now that I've organized the company and signed freelancers to work on my first game, it's time for me to start promoting Firefly Games along with Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat. My purpose is twofold - I need to persuade distributors and retailers to carry my games, plus begin getting the word out to consumers.

In most industries, the traditional way to promote a product or company is to buy advertising.

Newspaper, television and radio ads are right out for an adventure game. It's just too much of a niche market to make mass media advertising worthwhile unless you have a Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering on your hands.

This leaves magazine ads, which can be more closely targeted to your market.

But magazine ads typically cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Also, only a handful of magazines focus on adventure games and most of those are devoted to a particular game system, such as d20 products. I don't have the money to buy ads anyway, so I'm going to have to find other ways to get the word out.

Fortunately, there are a lot of low- or no-cost marketing tricks that game publishers can employ.

First off, I have my own website at www.firefly-games.com. Back when I began organizing the company in January, I hired Mark Arsenault of Gold Rush Games to design an official site. I acquired hosting services from Cedant for $7.95 a month. By mid-February, Mark has finished the site design and I'm ready to get it running.

Obviously, I'll use the website to post information on upcoming releases, progress updates, notices of convention appearances and other promotional efforts. I'll also put up background information on the company as well as ordering information for its products. In time, I want to add retailer support in the form of free downloads of promotional fliers or other materials.

I plan to update the site on a weekly basis, if not more frequently. I have four months before Monster Island actually hits print, so I need to keep people interested and keep them coming back to the site. Otherwise, they could easily forget about the game by the time it finally comes out.

This is going to take a lot of time on the webmaster's part, so Keith Sears, owner of Heraldic Games and webmaster for the Game Publishers Association, agrees to take over those duties from Mark. Keith adds his own touches to the site over time, including a message board created in June. The message board doesn't get a lot of use at first, but it's hard for fans to discuss a game they haven't seen. The important thing is that it will be there, ready for comments and discussion, when the game comes out in July.

I also set up an official Firefly Games e-list on Yahoogroups.com. The lists are free, though you have to put up with advertising inserted in the emails. I'll provide updates and special bonuses through the list, such as exclusive previews of artwork available only to list members. Of course, these are intended to get more people to join, since the list is a lot more reliable way to disseminate the latest news than hoping people remember to stop by the website every so often. Again, there's not a lot of activity on the e-list to start, but that will change once people have the game to chat about.

Now I just need to direct people to my site so they can discover all these cool features. I can do a lot of this online, too. There are plenty of websites devoted to game industry news, and they all take press releases.

The Game Publishers Association, of which I'm a member and associate director, has a great list of game industry news sites. I use the list to send out my press releases. Writing press releases is fairly easy - I've certainly read enough in my full-time job as a newspaper copy editor. You just provide the necessary information as clearly and concisely as possible. My press releases are actually a little wordy, but I'll work on paring them down as I go along.

In mid-February, I send out my first press release. Appropriately enough, it announces the creation of Firefly Games. I disclose the distribution deal with Gold Rush Games and fulfillment through Tundra Sales Organization. As I've noted before, I'm trying to build retailer and distributor confidence in Firefly Games by showing that I have my act together. I'm also sure to include the site address for www.firefly-games.com along with contact information for me and Woody at Tundra Sales Organization.

In early March, I send out another press release announcing Monster Island. I send out a few more press releases as time goes by, but I try not to overdo it. I don't want Firefly Games to get a reputation for sending out a press release every time someone sneezes, after all.

For Monster Island, fan sites devoted to giant monster movies - particularly Godzilla and friends - are another great venue for informing people about the game. Of course, this isn't an accident. I've always intended to sell it to monster movie fans as well as gamers. By sending press releases about the game to the owners of Godzilla fan sites, I can get them interested in the game and possibly get them to put up notices on their sites to further spread the news.

I spend several hours collecting email addresses from various sites in March, and hire the nephew of a friend to dig up some more. In all, I send press releases to nearly 100 people running monster movie fan sites.

There are plenty of small things I can do online to promote Firefly Games, too. I create .sig files for my emails along with my posts on RPGnet, the Pyramid discussion boards and other gaming forums. They all include my site address along with a blurb about Monster Island, so every post is another advertisement for the game.

Keith designs a banner ad for Monster Island, and I sign up for a banner exchange program at RPGHost. Every time someone views an RPGHost banner on my site, I get credit toward putting my banner up on someone else's gaming site. But I have another trick up my sleeve.

I've been collecting dozens of monster movie quotes for Monster Island. Keith creates a randomizer that displays a different quote each time someone views the www.firefly-games.com site. Aside from being a cool gimmick and something fun for visitors, it racks up credits in the banner exchange program. Every time someone hits the refresh button on their web browser to get a new quote, I get one more credit toward showing my banner elsewhere on the web.

I'm not finished yet, though. I contact Sandy Antunes of RPGnet to propose a Monster Island-related contest in April. It's all part of my plan to build excitement toward the July release date and keep people interested in the game. Sandy agrees to the idea, and we run a joint contest in which people submit their own giant monster ideas using a form on RPGnet. The winner gets his or her monster published in the game, plus a free copy of the book.

We get 80+ entries in the three weeks the contest runs, and I wind up choosing Komukade, a monstrous giant centipede created by David Thiele. The terms of the contest give me the rights to all the submissions, so I'll use the others to create a free download of even more monsters to place on the Firefly Games site once the game comes out.

I also contact Sandy about, well, this column. I think people might find the ongoing story of the creation of a new small press company interesting, and it's another great way to get people talking about Firefly Games. Sandy likes the idea, so I write up the first column in May and we go from there.

I have plenty of online promotion going on, but it's going to take more than .sig files and banners to spread the word. What can I accomplish outside cyberspace?

Gaming conventions are, naturally, an excellent way to promote games. Along with igniting some buzz about Monster Island, demo games at conventions will help me playtest the rules.

I'll attend DunDraCon in San Ramon in February, Fanime Con in Santa Clara in April and KublaCon in Oakland in May to talk up the game and run demos. They are all within driving distance, and I'll share hotel rooms to save money. Plus, I'll make Fanime Con a one-day trip so there won't be any hotel expenses there.

The first demos I run, at DunDraCon, are a little drab. The toy monsters look great, but using a hex mat for the ground and construction paper cut-outs for scenery bites. I buy a green tablecloth along with some plastic trees and boulders. I still use brightly colored construction paper for lava pools, swamps, quicksand and geysers. I also stock up on new toy monsters, dinosaurs and action figures.

The demos at future cons look great and attract a lot of attention! The players love the game, and lots of people stop by the table to see what's going on. My hunch that Monster Island was going to be a great game to demo seems to be paying off.

But those efforts are directed at customers. This is good - it generates future sales and excitement that just may persuade a retailer somewhere to order the game when it comes out. My other priority has to be promoting Monster Island directly to distributors and retailers. After all, if they don't order it, then the excitement isn't going to matter much - people won't be able to find the game to buy it.

The key industry con will be the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas in March. This is a pros-only con where distributors and retailers check out new or upcoming products. This is a crucial opportunity to get Monster Island in front of a lot of people whom I hope to persuade to order the game. I won't be able to attend, but Woody Eblom, who handles my sales through his Tundra Sales Organization fulfillment house, will be there.

While I'm confident that Woody will do a good job, I'd have liked to attend myself. It never hurts to make personal contact with people. But the company finances won't support such a trip, and I doubt I can swing the vacation days from my full-time job in any case.

I'll have to do what I can to make Monster Island and Firefly Games stand out at GTS anyway.

I want some promotional postcards to hand out at GTS and other conventions. We can also do a mass mailing to distributors and retailers in May to remind them to order Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat. After researching prices at several custom card printers online, I pick www.4over4.com. I will buy 1,000 cards for $169. With shipping, I'll pay around $180 total.

The color front of the postcards will feature a mockup of the cover, while the back will have some details and ordering information for the book. Since these postcards are to be mailed, room will have to be left for an address sticker and postage. Mark Arsenault agrees to design the postcards for me and send the files to 4over4.com for printing. Since the cards are being printed right before GTS, I'll have the printer ship them directly to Woody's hotel room in Las Vegas. That way I can be certain they'll arrive in time to hand out at the show.

Shipping directly to hotels at conventions is something of a tradition for game publishers, by the way. You always plan to have your products, promo materials or whatever ready weeks in advance, but it rarely seems to work out that way.

Woody winds up handing out around 300 cards at GTS. We mail 200 more to retailers and distributors in late May, at a postage and handling cost of around $50. We also offer lots of 25 cards to retailers to remail to targeted customers or hand out at their stores. A few retailers take us up on it, so there go some more cards. I hand out most of the rest of the cards at Fanime Con and KublaCon, two Bay Area conventions I attend in the spring. I have fewer than a half-dozen left by the time I'm done.

Postcards aren't my only promotional option. There also are posters of varying sizes, buttons and t-shirts. These tend to cost a little more, though, and I'm operating on a tight budget - particularly since right now these would be freebies. Very few people are going to buy shirts or buttons promoting a game that doesn't even exist yet. I can revisit these once the book comes out, however, if Monster Island looks like a big enough hit that I'll be able to recoup my costs by selling them at conventions or online.

I do pay Woody for a full-page, black and white ad in the Tundra Sales Organization newsletter that will be handed out at GTS. This is in addition to the normal product listing, so I pay a little extra for it. Between the postcards and the newsletter ad, I'm fairly well-covered for GTS.

In May, I decide it's time to get some business cards. I go to Kinko's and order 250. It costs me about $40, but I could have saved half that if I'd brought my own design and just had them print it for me. This is another case where doing things in a hurry costs you - if I hadn't remembered that I needed business cards three days before going to KublaCon, I'd have had time to come up with my own design and saved myself $20 or so.

While I've been attending conventions and promoting the game, my freelancers have been busy producing the words and art for it. It's time to start putting Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat together and sending it to print. But that's another column. See you in 30.

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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
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