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Soapbox: About the Industry

Startup Fever

by Sandy Antunes
Feb 04,2005


Startup Fever

by Sandy Antunes

There are just two important questions when deciding to 'go pro' as a game creator:
  1. Will it pay the bills?
  2. WIll it drive me mad?

Back when I was running a business (RPGnet), I was also working full time. We reached that point in start-up success where we simply couldn't keep up with growth. So my wife and decided we needed to sell the business in order for the business to remain strong... we had become the bottleneck. Having helped with other start-ups, I find this happens a lot-- success can be more difficult than failure!

While most of my side of the family are wage slaves, I have a sister-in-law who makes films, a mother-in-law who started a bakery, and a cousin-in-law who basically co-invented then sold Claris Organizer for a bundle. Two of them reached the point where they sold their businesses... one because it had gotten two bid, one because they were offered gobs of cash. The third is still chugging, but enjoys her work.

I've also dealt with, well, a lot of economic failures, many of whom dusted themselves off and started anew. After all, failing with a business isn't a character trait, it's a reflection that building a business is hard and also requires luck.

With game start-ups, the most common story I hear is "I have to spend all of what time I have doing business, so I no longer get to create-- but I went into this to create."

So, suggestions herein for doing _any_ creation venture as a job.

1) Get a partner who isn't a creator, but loves accountancy or financial work.

2) Then get another partner who isn't a creator, but loves marketing or sales or just simply schmoozing. Now you have a team.

3) View being a publisher as being a game, an interactive simulation. You are roleplaying yourself as a businessman, and the goal is to win by conquering 'the market'. Let the operation of the business itself bring you satisfaction, regardless of what you produce.

Here's my quickie quiz for the prospective start-up:

a) If your business grew enough that you had to hire freelancers to write everything and a line editor to decide what to publish, would you still want to be the publisher of it?

b) If you like producing products of 'type A' and hate working on 'type B' items, but suddenly you realize you could make a fortune by ditching all your 'type A' stuff and making a really sucky, lame, derivative piece of garbage of a 'type B' product that _might_ make you lots of cash if you could keep doing it for five years, would you switch?

c) Do you want to have fun, or make money?

If this all sounds like a sort of Achilles' choice, it probably is. If you can answer 'yes', 'yes', and 'make money', run your own business.

If any are 'no', though, well... if you're a creator, create. Design games, write, etc. Spend the time you'd normally be doing revenue models and contracts and taxes, and instead use it to network, submit your work to other publishers, et cetera.

One publisher said that James Earnest told him specifically "don't send me ideas, publish them yourself" (wow, a 3rd party quote... my research is shoddy, yes?). But a creator also wants to have fun. So you figure out what 'fun' is for you. Is it building a business, or being the lead designer? Thing of 'running a business', 'designing games', and 'being with family' as a "pick any two" choice.

You could do all three, but you'll have to think different for that. For example, Chris Clark owns a web press and can do small runs at good cost, allowing him to, I think, succeed in all 3 (biz/design/family). Ken Whitman finds investors so he can staff up and do marketing from square one without risking his house. I know two companies that basically were underwritten by the founder or spouse and could go into debt $X before having to decide whether to continue. There are other interesting and inventive approaches, most of which end up trading money for time, or cleverness for money.

You always have options. Creators can freelance and brand themselves, instead of building a company. People who love the ebb and flow, the rush of business, are the ones well suited to starting companies.

Do you want to be "X Games" or "X Game Design"?

If you have any measure of success, there's also the studio option. If 2-3 handful-of-games-out publishers team up, they are now a studio like The Game Mechanics and can use their combined track record to more effectively shop ideas to other publishers. Now, not everyone is a WotC alumnis like TGM, but still, the studio idea time and time again makes sense-- share the work and have more time for creating.

Unfortunately, issues like 'ego', 'control', and 'business sense' factor in here, again because "creatives" often have a hard time approaching things "businesslike".

Fact is, I wish there were more studios, and less companies, so that creators could create and actually make money. For that matter, I wish there was a studio I could join, instead of always approaching third-party publishers with individual pitches. But I'm a smart enough businessman to realize I myself shouldn't create one-- because then I'd never have time to design! I'm caught by my own advice. And pitching may take time away from creating, but it's a lot less time than running my own business takes.

This all sums up into the recurrent bit of ignored advice I often repeat: if you can't convince one company head your game is worth publishing, why do you think you can convince an entire market that it's worth buying?

So your options remain to self publish, be in a studio, or freelance. All requires work, one requires business acumen, one needs a strong reputation, and the third is inconsistent. None provide stability. So... which is the most fun, for you?

Until next month,
Sandy, freelance

Appreciation to the GPA elist, where I first published a version of this column 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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All Soapboxes

  • See What Sticks by Sandy Antunes, 06jan06
  • Simple Gifts for Pre-Gamers by Sandy Antunes, 09dec05
  • Col vs Blog by Sandy Antunes, 04nov05
  • Running a First RPG for Kids by Sandy Antunes, 07oct05
  • Making It Pay by Sandy Antunes, 02sep05
  • The Hazards of Non-Combat Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 05aug05
  • Just-in-Time Pre-order Hell by Sandy Antunes, 01jul05
  • Cassandra's Industry Report by Sandy Antunes, 03jun05
  • Fiction or Non-Fiction by Sandy Antunes, 05may05
  • I am not a Storyteller by Sandy Antunes, 08apr05
  • A Better Job by Sandy Antunes, 01apr05
  • Advice For Working Writers by Sandy Antunes, 04mar05
  • Startup Fever by Sandy Antunes, 04feb05
  • Why Blogging is Lame by Sandy Antunes, 07jan05
  • Being a Pro Writer by Sandy Antunes, 10dec04
  • Viral Marketing Invitational by Sandy Antunes, 05nov04
  • The 24 Hour RPG Challenge by Sandy Antunes, 08oct04
  • A Decade of Distilled Advice by Sandy Antunes, 03sep04
  • Go Ahead, Hit Me! by Sandy Antunes, 06aug04
  • Promoting Yourself by Sandy Antunes, 09jul04
  • 10 Hurdles to Selling Your Game by Sandy Antunes, 11jun04
  • Let's Team Up! by Sandy Antunes, 07may04
  • Beyond Role and Pla(t)y(pus) by Sandy Antunes, 08apr04
  • Slow Improv and the Post-Kilgallon by Sandy Antunes, 05mar04
  • Paradox Redux by Sandy Antunes, 06feb04
  • Mad Scientists and the Kilgallon Paradox by Sandy Antunes, 09jan04
  • It's Not Your World, It's Mine by Sandy Antunes, 05dec03
  • Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers by Sandy Antunes, 07nov03
  • Eigentesting by Sandy Antunes, 09oct03
  • Atomic by Sandy Antunes, 05sep03
  • Is Writing a Commodity? by Sandy Antunes, 06aug03
  • Designing Amidst the Tides of Gaming History by Sandy Antunes, 08jul03
  • Buy This Book by Sandy Antunes, 05jun03
  • Hobbies by Sandy Antunes, 08may03
  • The Websites That Wouldn't Die by Sandy Antunes, 10apr03
  • The Path to Atrocities by Sandy Antunes, 06mar03
  • Cattle Mutilation: The Game Design by Sandy Antunes, 06feb03
  • Gaming With Children by Sandy Antunes, 09jan03
  • How To Be An Industry Poser, Part 1 by Sandy Antunes, 05dec02
  • all i game with, i learned from kids books by Sandy Antunes, 19nov02
  • TCG: The Total Cost of Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 10oct02
  • Game Publishing & The Law by Sandy Antunes, 06sep02
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Sandy Antunes, 01aug02
  • Buying Time by Sandy Antunes, 04jul02
  • April 10, 2002 13 New FAQs
  • March 1, 2002 Give Me A Closet
  • January 2, 2002 Let's Go Shopping?!?
  • December 13, 2001 Conflict, Ethics, Winning, and Money
  • November 13, 2001 Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!
  • October 16, 2001 Leadership and D&D
  • September 4, 2001 Leading Industry Site Reports Secret: Sex Sells!
  • August 7, 2001 Any, Anyone Can Be an Internet Success-- Why Aren't You?
  • July 3, 2001 Fine Print, Part U
  • June 5, 2001 Fine Print, Part I
  • May 8, 2001 Pushing Limits
  • May 4, 2001 RPGnet State of the Union special feature
  • April 6, 2001 The Other Magic: Niche Hobbies and Other Markets
  • May 9, 2000 Running a Business as an Old Style D&D Party
  • April 14, 2000 First to Market
  • March 20, 2000 Labor Pains
  • February 15, 2000 One Trick Pony
  • January 6, 2000 Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for Business
  • December 14, 1999 Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs
  • November 2, 1999 Why Editors Lie
  • October 5, 1999 How to publish a quality game, accept criticism gracefully, and lead a happy life: Pick Any Two
  • September 7, 1999 It Takes a Village (to publish an RPG)
  • August 3, 1999 All Gamer Money Isn't Equal
  • July 6, 1999 Tides of Cash Flow
  • June 1, 1999 Ad-itudes
  • May 4, 1999 Who, What, Give me a Guiness
  • April 6, 1999 The GAMA Trade Show '99
  • March 2, 1999 Roleplaying would have saved Millions
  • February 2, 1999 Games That Won't Suck
  • January 5, 1999 Dangerous Games
  • December 1, 1998 Making Gamers the Old Fashioned Way
  • November 3, 1998 The $1K Company
  • October 1, 1998 So You Want to Start Your Own Company...
  • September 1, 1998 Holy Grails and Marching Morons
  • August 4, 1998 Gamers Must Die!
  • July 7, 1998 Profit versus Prophet
  • June 2, 1998 Acquire! Acquire!
  • May 5, 1998 Power
  • April 21, 1998 The GAMA Trade Show Report, Part 2 (eventually)
  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
  • March 3, 1998 Culling the Herd
  • February 3, 1998 Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company
  • January 6, 1998 Double Feature (Us and Them/A Clash of Images)
  • December 2, 1997 "How to Scam Games for Free"
  • November 4, 1997 "Women in Gaming?"
  • October 2, 1997 "Fear of a Gaming Planet" (Welcome to the RPG ghetto?)
  • September 2, 1997 "Rush" (fame and adoration in lieu of pay)
  • August 2, 1997 "For the Money" (convention mating rituals)
  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

    Other columns at RPGnet

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