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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

All About the Benjamins

by Mike Martinez
Nov 21,2003

 

Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez
mike@spacebuckler.com

All About the Benjamins

In this column, I've talked a lot about the ideas and writing that's gone into my first game release, Spacebuckler, coming out in just about five weeks. Needless to say, we're all very busy getting the last of the writing and illustrating done, our playtesters are starting to take a look at the game (a little late, thanks to some FTP server issues that threatened to eat our game whole), and we're starting to gin up some layout stuff.

Seems like a lot, doesn't it? Believe me, it's overwhelming. I feel guilty for even taking a night off to go see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with my wife. (That movie, by the way, has exactly the kind of feel for nautical warfare that I'm hoping for in Spacebuckler.) There's a ton of work to do and I desperately want to meet our deadline, self-imposed as it is.

But there's a whole other aspect to publishing a game that we haven't really touched on yet. By publishing a role-playing game, you are essentially going into business for yourself. Sure, you can write a game, but how are you going to get it into people's hands? How are you going to let people know it's out there? And do you have enough time, energy and capital to bring it all together?

Business Basics

In my "real" life, I'm a business journalist. So perhaps out of all of the things I've written in this column, I'm actually qualified to write about this. And there are some basic things you need to know if you want to turn your game idea into a publishable book and, thus, a business.

You need a good product. We've spent column after column on writing your game, but the game "product" is much more than your brilliant prose. You need illustrations, charts and layout. You need an editor, like every writer does. You need playtesting. You need every little thing that goes into a book and makes it great. Just look at the latest hardcover from Wizards of the Coast - that's what buyers are picking up off the shelves right now. Naturally, as a small game publisher, there's no way you can have 500 color illustrations on glossy paper. But you do need to pay attention to art, design and layout.

I'm fortunate - one of the college friends I roped in on Spacebuckler is both an artist and a desktop publishing whiz. And I have another volunteer artist submitting stuff all the way from Belgium. I'm handling mapmaking myself, which is going better than I thought. I think we'll have a nice, clean product. Is it Wizards quality? Hell, no. But it doesn't look or read like it was slapped together by teenagers.

You need to make your product available to buyers. Great, so you have a nice looking, well-written game. Now what? You have to get it to gamers. That's where the real business decisions start coming in. You generally have two options - distribute your game electronically via the Internet, or print and distribute your game to brick-and-mortar retailers. For Spacebuckler, since it's our first game and we have next to no capital to invest, we're going to sell PDF versions of the game on RPGnow.com, an online superstore for independent games. There's no cost to set up an account and start selling - instead, James and the rest of the good people at RPGnow.com take a 20-25 percent cut of sales, depending on the level of service you want. (The extra five percent for Gold membership is totally worth it, by the way.)

Don't expect to make a huge amount of money selling online. First off, you simply can't charge hardcover prices for PDFs. Spacebuckler will probably sell for $9.99, which will make it one of the more expensive games on there. And if we sell 200 copies, I'll be thrilled. But, it's cheap and it gets us out there.

The other option is to print you book and try to sell in retail stores. I hope you have a lot of capital - a bare-minimum of $3,000 to $5,000, from what I've seen. Plus, you and your game will have to be "accepted" by a fulfillment house, a company that helps warehouse, ship and market your game to retailers. Given the breadth and depth of games out on the market, those fulfillment houses don't just accept any game handed to them - they're investing in your product just as much as you are, and they want to make smart investments. Companies like Osseum Entertainment and Impressions Advertising and Marketing seem to be the most popular among small game companies. These two companies are specifically targeted at getting independent games into the sales channel, and from what I've heard, they're good people to work with. They'll even give you feedback on your game if they don't accept it.

But again, your game really has to be good enough, and you'll need some pretty serious cash to get things rolling. And it also helps to have a plan...

You need a plan. If you want to publish a game, you are, in essence, a small business. You're in good company, too - the last estimate I recall was that there are four million small businesses in the U.S. alone. Obviously, people make it work. And they do that with a business plan.

A business plan lets you map out how you expect your little game company to grow over a period of time. It can show you how much money you'll need, how much you expect to earn, and at what point you'll be able to afford to expand. Even if you're just doing one or two publications, you should still sit down and figure out your expenses and how much you plan to earn.

With Spacebuckler, we're very lucky. We're an all volunteer shop, from the editorial process to art to layout. (My two main cohorts will get a cut of the sales from RPGnow.com.) Two of us have free access to computers with Photoshop, Quark and the various Adobe Acrobat products we need. The money we make on the core setting book can thus be reinvested into our supplements and, possibly, a print run down the road.

And that's the other thing...supplements. Is your game idea worthy of a game line? We've already announced our first three supplements, which brings us through next summer. We have plans for many more, if all goes well. A business has to be sustainable, which means you should always have fresh sources of income so you can maintain cash flow once everyone has bought your first book.

There's a lot more to drawing up a business plan than I can go into here. I'd suggest heading over to Bplans.com to get a better idea of what you're in for. I've used that company's business planning software before, and it's really quite good. Check it out.

Finally, let people know you exist. Marketing...such a dirty word. But if you want people to buy your game, you need to do some marketing. You can really get creative with your marketing, and there's a lot of options available to you...which is why we'll wait until the next column to talk about it.

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