It Takes a Village (to publish an RPG)
Batman had Robin and Alfred. Buckaroo Banzai had his Hong Kong Cavaliers. Even Doc Savage had his support team. Why should you have to publish your RPG alone? As it happens, it really does take a (tiny) village to publish an RPG. Not all are deeply involved, but boy, they'd better be there when you need them.
We'll cover who you need here (outside of a psychiatrist-- why do you want to publish an RPG anyway?) Besides the holy trinity (Writer/Artist/Editor), you'll need playtesters, a moral support team, business people, marketing help, sellers, advice people, and a few to shoulder labor onto.
Now, one characteristic of many villages was that religion was an important part of daily existence. Whether this is the case now is not our point-- we're not here for sociologic or religious debates. But, we will use the religion motif to illustrate our production of the game, from concept to playing. And ultimately, you need a build a church to deliver the message to the masses. Let's build it!
The Holy TrinityThe Holy Trinity produces The Game. This is the root of the company, the Product around which everything is focused. It is, for a company, only part of the picture. A single game, while beautiful, just sort of sits there and doesn't do much. It needs to be taken to the printer, then somehow gotten out to the masses. But it does all start with the Game. And the game is produced by a writer, a game designer, an artist, and an editor.
The Writer and the Game Designer can be one or separate people. Ideally, they should be separate; the two skill sets are sufficiently different. But smaller companies often neglect this and have one uberhero creating the work. In all cases, they are the ultimate authority for the system. They provide the Word and the Way of the game.
The Artist is, in many ways, their agent for reaching people and for clarifying the message. The Artist enhances the words with visualization and makes the concept more accessible, more alive. They create the image people will get into their heads when they think about The Game. In a good team, the Artist and the Writer share ideas and concepts and filter their work back and forth.
The Editor is the oft-neglected 'glue' that keeps everything together. The editor ensures that the messages of the writers and artists are not lost. Editors don't just proof works, but actively suggest directions, rearrange sections, request new material, and ensure that there is a balance between the amount of words and art. And it's an axiom that no writer can edit their own works, so even a one-person studio needs to get an editor at some point, if only freelance.
And if we go past the first game, you'll see that a company is actually many games from one source. The Trinity can make the product, but each game or game line is in many ways their own separate trinity. So we need to look at how your start-up can produce lots of games.
Perhaps your SF game is God/Writer, Jesus/Artist, Holy Ghost/Editor. As a game line, it has its own 'feel' and its own underlying structure and ethos. Meanwhile, your Fantasy game might be Brahma/Writer, Vishnu/Artist (incarnating the work, as it were), Shiva/Editor (i.e. the destroyer). Again, it has its own very different approach to the matter.
Alternately, if you keep all your game lines to a tight degree of similarity in look and feel (think "HackMaster" versus "SpaceMaster"), then your "trinities" are really more like splinter churches: Catholic versus Protestant, say, if they have strong differences. Episcopalian vs Lutheran, if they are very similar.
The One Above
The important point here is that each game line is in many ways its own entity. If a given individual game is made by a Trinity, then there must be an entity above them, providing definition to the cosmos. This would be the Line Director, a luxury that all companies should have. In the holy trinity scheme, the Line Director is a meta-entity ensuring that each sub-project has its own functioning Trinity.
A Line Director doesn't actually write (if they do, they have to switch hats and become the Writer as described above). Instead, they plan out which books a given line will do and what topics to cover. They determine the mix of core rules, supplements, adventures, and accessories that a given game will have. Then, they assign the tasks and harrange people to ensure everything is delivered on time.
The Line Director is part of what separates a Game from a Company. The game, while fine, cannot exist on its own. It needs a Company to produce it and get it to the masses. The Line Director provides structure to get multiple games done.
Besides, it's always flattering to tell Authors they are God, and then to tell Line Directors they are above God. So the ongoing analogy within this column is very useful for freelancers looking to gain work, too.
The ChurchOur church is our primary way of getting the holy product out to the masses. We'll separate our functions into sacred and secular. "Sacred" in this analogistic context is "that which gets the game played", while "Secular" describes "company functions that are required to get the product sold".
Oh, and you should incorporate your Church... err, Company. It's typically under $200, you can do the paperwork yourself or go through a service, and it means that you and your prospective team gain two advantages:
Company Owner secularThe first Secular item is the Company Owner. This is someone who is totally separate from the actual game. To them, the game is (and should be) simply a generic item they publish to make money. They don't care what the game is. It's just a product.
In fact, The Company Owner is a bit of required nonsense that any game company should have. Ideally, this is not the Writer, not the Artist, not the Line Director. It may be best to have the company owner not even be a real person.
The reason a fictitious company owner is useful is because they absorb all the blame for failures and serve as a repository for excuses. People hate the art? "The owner said he wanted T&A, I just delivered." Writing sucks? "The owner didn't contract the book until late, so we were rushed." Production was shoddy? "The owner cut corners on the printer".
Poor, poor company owner.
Layout sacredThe Layout Editor (or Layout Staff, oh, we should be so lucky) are the divine interpreters of the Trinity. The Trinity produce their great works, but Layout puts them all together into the final packaged form that the masses will then behold.
Sometimes, one of the Trinity will incarnate into mortal form to create the layout as well. And this is well and good, but it does take a heck of a lot of time. Good layout and graphic presentation is a professional skill and should not be undertaken lightly.
For example, the above paragraph used basic, standard HTML layout.
ruins the message one is trying to get across.
Least you think I'm exaggerating, there have been mock awards given to (mostly magazines) for things like "most number of fonts for a single table of contents page" and the like. Layout is like being an auto mechanic: you have hundreds of possible tools, and yet for any given task you use only 2 or 3 of them.
Layout is the true 'interpretation' of your holy Game into its final form, and should be skimped on only at great risk.
Playtesters sacredThese are your Disciples. Their job is to debate the Word and the Art with you. They both bask in the wisdom of your game, and also provide skilled dialog critiquing it.
Unfortunately, you have to listen to them. Hard as it is on the ego, many (though not all) of their comments are valuable. Indeed, playtesting is suitably rich to warrant its own article.
Blind Playtesters sacredThese are the blind masses that you seek to convert to the Way of Your Game through direct missionary work. You give them the game and leave. They give you a report. I've covered this before in earlier columns and I'll have a column on Playtesting in Depth someday, but for now, take my word on this. Find a decent GM, give them the rules with no briefing, let them recruit players and do the whole game (character creation through debrief) solo.
You absolutely have to have an independent set of eyes and minds playing your game with no guidance from any of the creators. This is what makes A Good Published Game different from House Rules. It's not the concepts, the genre, the themes. It's whether any idiot can pick up the book and actually play the darn thing as written.
Enough said. Now sing (to the tune of '3 Blind Mice').
Number One Fan sacredThis oft-overlooked role is terribly useful after the first few weeks of your publishing venture. When you are starting to worry if you'll ever see print, when your anxieties are taking over your dreams, when you are despairing over whether you can ever resolve that last hurdle... that's when you call your Number One Fan.
Your Number One Fan can be your mom, your spouse, a good friend, one of your playtesters, Gary Gygax, your parole officer, or a licensed therapist. But it's very important that you know someone out there believes in you.
The corollary to this is "Don't be shy". Let your family know what you are doing. Let your friends know what you are doing. Don't let your game publishing be a dark, hidden secret. It's going to take over your life anyway, so you really can come out about it.
For every person of goodwill, there are a hundred naysayers. So you may have to tell 100 people about this before you find that golden nugget, that person willing to say "Wow, I'm impressed!". Keep that person. Marry them, if you can*.
*the owners of rpg.net do not officially condone the breaking of same-sex anti-marriage laws per se in pursuit of this venture, but hey, it's your life! Hmmm... come to think of it, we do condone a little civil disobedience from time to time.
Front runner sacredThis is "the person people want to meet at Cons". There should be a person associated with your company. People shouldn't say "Company X sucks!" They should say "I worship Peter Adkison*" Much as we suggested having a Company Owner for internal scapegoating, you should have a Front for PR coups. Only in this case, you want to be able to occasionally show said Front at Cons, so try to get a real person.
You may not be able to have this luxury, but it's a useful goal to aim for. Someday, with lots of work, one of your writers, artists, or even the fictitious company owner can be that rare person that people travel to Cons to see.
Chosen strictly for illustrative purposes. The owners of RPGnet neither condone nor condemn the worship of WotC staffers.
Noisy Nethead sacredThis is the noisy one shilling you on the net. You want one, maybe a handful. The idea here is that you do not really have enough time to track all of Usenet, all the various web forums, and all the RPG email lists. But a devoted yet rational fanatic can and will do this, because they have the time and it is fun.
Cultivate a relationship with one. You need to do this covertly, so they can 'keep it real'. This means you won't actually compensate them, give them free stuff, or even acknowledge their existence. No, instead, you have to do a base and insidious campaign of using them.
The textbook way is to use inconsistent reinforcement, occasionally through proxies. In this, you praise the individual you wish to cultivate, but only occasionally. You also make sure to be nice to them in person (at Cons and such), without ever really making them seem important. And you never have any real relationship with them.
Here's an example. Say there's a cheerful fellow named B.A. Judas who gives a good review of your game on Usenet. On your website, mention "Oh, and check out rec.games.frp.beastiality, B.A. Judas mentioned our Product, "Ripper"'. You've started a reinforcement pattern.
Now, B.A. emails you saying "Wow, you mentioned me! Hey, since I reviewed one of your items, can I get the newest one for free?" You politely answer, "No, that would seem like we were buying your integrity, it's not our policy to do so." (Meanwhile, you're shoveling 50 review copies out to every freelancer out there in desperate hope for 1 or 2 quotable bits, but that's another story).
Next, you have to get people to help at a Con, so you put out a call. B.A. volunteers. You turn him down (don't want to damage his street cred), but then act really nice to him when he visits.
B.A. then decides to start an email list for your game. He asks for official permission. You turn it down. He's puzzled. Do you want to support his grassroots work or not? Maybe he just hasn't hit on the right idea! He keeps trying.
And so it goes. You milk the poor pitiful wretch just to get a bit of free publicity. It's so tragic.
Oh, okay, if you don't have time for mindgames, the next best plan is to make them your official NetRep Volunteer, give them a free copy of everything new as it comes out, and tell them you expect them that, since they are part of our Company now, they probably shouldn't post reviews or such. Instead, you just want them to keep track of Usenet/forums/elists and "correct any misunderstandings or errors that misinformed gamers might post about us". Their evangelical zeal will then take over.
A good net rep will:
In short, they create buzz and debunk the inevitable ill-informed rumors of your early demise. In return, they get free product. Eternal vigilance has its cost and all that.
Reviewer in your pocket sacredThis is related to your Nethead. With the Nethead, we'd biased them by making them an Official NetRep, so they no longer can do reviews with a clear conscience. Fortunately, only 9 people in the world actually do clear, unbiased game reviews with a clear conscience, so ethically you're in the clear with this next plan.
What you want is to find a fan of your game, and shovel review copies at them. In turn, they will submit glowing reviews to all the free or paid, online or offline review publications. Encourage them to use pseudonyms. Make them mimic a grassroots campaign of love for your game. Of course they will do the occasional 'neutrally favorable' review to hide their true propagandating nature. Think of reviewers as apostles. They've passing on your Word, in their words.
In short, apply the same tactics that computer game companies use to promote their products. It isn't terribly ethical, but it is part of business. Normally I wouldn't have suggested such a course, but so many people responded to my earlier column with lines like "a business owner should make money in any way that doesn't break the law" that I decided to write this section just for them.
Aren't they special?
And no, I won't tell you who I think the unbiased freelancers are. And we'll stop with the cheesy footnotes now. You know what they say: once is chance, twice is coincidence, the third time is schtick.
Public Relations secularBy now, you should see that we've suggested several roles that fall into the Public Relations school of thought. My favorite anecdote illustrating the difference between Promotion, Publicity, and Public Relations goes like this.
The only-partially-facetious suggestions for Nethead and Reviewer are to encourage you in public relations. You want to have PR in addition to traditional Marketing and Sales work. The basic relationship goes like this:
A good example of PR is simply responding to all email inquiries to your company. The responses can be canned or written by hand, depending on the traffic. But anyone that emails you or your company should get a response within a week. Even if their email was off topic ("Hi, you make a dinosaur game, do you know where I can get tickets to the World Cup?" "No"). Be polite and be prompt. You'd be surprised how many companies neglect this.
Another good bit of PR is to keep your website updated. Nothing worse than visitors seeing "Sourcebook X will be out in August '99!"-- if it's already December 99. By keeping it up to date, you project the appearance of a well-run, clueful company.
When it comes down to it, people prefer to do business with companies that they like. By being courteous and efficient, you increase the customer retention. It's that simple.
Sales secularSales, for a game company, means selling your game to distributors and retailers. This may seem odd-- don't you want to sell to customers? Well, you can do direct web and internet sales, and of course you want to sell to Cons.
But you want to have a Sales Guru on the staff (or outsourced, to Wizard's Attic or Tundra) specifically to handle distributor and retail sales. Retail sales is partially dealing with those retailers who order direct. But primarily it involves making sure that retailers get promotional material that you feed to them through distributors.
So let's take a look at distributors. Your sales person will need to:
Remember that selling a game isn't just "You ordered a copy, here it is". To sell a game, a gamer has to see it and perhaps get a few questions answered by the retailer. The retailer, in turn, has to know about the game-- and even know that it exists. This means the distributor has to have been motivated to tell them about it. The distributor will only tell the retailers if they think the retailer will order a lot of it, because the only way the distributor makes money is through retailers ordering from them.
So the distributor will generally only carry products which already sell well, or which they are sufficiently convinced will be a good seller. This is where your sales guy comes in. He has to sell the distributor hard enough that the distributor pushes the product to the retailers. And, there has to be enough support (PR, Marketing, and Sales blow-through to the retailer) that gamers in the shop clamor for it from the retailer.
Many companies also sell direct now, particular through the web. In this case, they are also acting as de facto retailers, and you should consider that as a possibility. This means you'll need a Direct Sales person (more like a clerk, at that point; your website is your storefront and so your Webmaster is doing the real customer sales work).
There you go, sales in a nutshell.
Marketing secularMarketing builds awareness of your product. It's one of those topics worth a column of its own (and if you thought Sales was a mess...) Within the context of this column, we'll simply emphasize that you need to have a marketing plan and an advertising budget in order to have a successful product.
Lawyer friend (or someone who plays one on TV) secularYou desperately need to find a lawyer. Not "a friend who got sued once", or "someone who has read a lot of books", but a bona fide lawyer or law student. They don't have to be licensed or certified in your state-- in fact, if you're a cheap startup, it's an asset if they aren't.
Most lawyers have ethics (hard to believe, and I'm not going to pin down just what those ethics are, but they got them). And they have all sorts of laws that prohibit them from practicing outside of their sphere of authority.
So, for example, someone licensed in California usually cannot practice law in Maine. Or someone who is a public defender cannot practice law on the side. There are all sorts of conflict of interest requirements. This doesn't mean that they can't, strictly as a friend, agree to look over your sample contract or print contract or such and give you advice.
Well, actually, it often is forbidden to them. Which means they will do it, but they:
So in a twisted way, hitting up a friend for unofficial legal advice sidesteps that nasty 'do I have to pay you' debate. They are off the record with it, you're not obliged. But their wealth of information will help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls and give you a better than even shot of having something reasonable legal-worthy.
The real answer, of course, is to hire an actual practicing lawyer who is allowed to practice in your state and work on matters pertaining to your business. In some ways, though, you want that as a second stage. Do the best job at coming up with what you need first (either solo, or with your lawyer friend), then only pay a by-the-hour lawyer to proof and repair your best-guess work.
Accountant (or someone who... you get the idea) secularI'll be straight with you-- I like accountants. Accountants have a lot less restrictions on what they can do than lawyers do. Accountants are generally cheaper. And accountants can handle 90% of the paperwork you throw at them. A decent accountant is the best investment you'll make in your company.
Want to incorporate? Study up on it and then talk the paperwork over with an accountant, not a lawyer. Lawyers don't start companies, they protect them. Accountants start businesses. Bad accountancy, likewise, will close your business quicker than anything.
Plus, when it comes time to do taxes, you'll want an accountant that has a clue on what you are doing. Cultivate a good accountancy relationship. Put aside some money to visit them each month and do a quick check of your books. That is, your financial books, not your game books-- though if they like your game, hey, bonus, free account friend!
Print Broker secularA print broker in this case is someone who can point you in the right direction. Printers have their own lingo and printing standards. And, the printer is always paid first. You don't want to screw up here. Fortunately, groups like the GPA and such are happy to provide recommendations on printers.
You should also cultivate a professional friendship with someone who has published a game book. Such a mentor (or, if not as formal as a mentor, a mini-mentor, or 'mintor') can tell you their experience in printing, things to watch out for, and ways to keep costs down. Note that even Lightning Print (a much-praised printing-on-demand printer) has added criteria in order that they can focus on printing and not have to hand-hold 1st-book publishers that didn't do their basic research.
So, do your basic research. That means: finding at least 4 printers (e.g. LPI, Quebecor, Whitehall, and one that is local to you), comparing print quotes for different size runs, finding out what formats they take, seeing samples of their work on game books (the mix of text and art makes it essential that they have print experience), figuring out what shipping and/or currency exchange differences bring the final tally to, and finding out what their turnaround times are.
And understanding what they mean by bleed, what paper weights really mean, whether there are extra trim fees, how the covers and binding work, what size folds they do, what screen they use, what dpi your work should be in, and who pays for extras. Plus a host of other terms which, quite frankly, are different for different printers. A good printing book can give you an idea for most of the terms, but remember that it's not the printer's job to tell you everything. They will do exactly what you ask, and if you didn't ask, say, for them to specifically not mangle the middle pages, they will cheerfully mangle away.
For magazine publishing, by the way, that's an entirely different area handled by different printers. I can personally recommend the Small Publishers Co-Op for inexpensive small runs, and people are welcome to use the forum below to make their own suggestions.
Web Designer secularThe WWW is now a required part of business. You have to be on it. Not because "everyone else is", but because it helps you cultivate and build a fan base with a reach far beyond your local area. And if you sell direct via the web to customers, your web site is also your retail store.
Note that web design is one of the business that we do to support RPGnet, so we do have our own view of this. And that view is this: as with editing and layout, web design is a specific skill. Outsource if you aren't proficient.
Faithful Investor secularThis is purely optional, highly desired, and nearly impossible to find. But we had to mention it. It'd be so nice if the game industry was like internet startups. As it is, there are several ways to get investors (cold calls, startup garages, partnership with existing media, grants, and hitting up your startup partners). Each has its own culture and its own methods of approach. And they all require business expertise and much time, making this a full-time job.
Remember, not only do 80-90% of new companies fail, but investors know that number as well as anyone. They want you to prove you are in the top 10% before you start. Or, failing that, that your company is a risk that might have an enormous payoff (a tricky proposition in the game publishing niche).
If you want further details on this, feel free to contact me by email. I will, of course, quote you an outrageous consultation fee with no guarantee of success. If you work really hard and are successful and you get investors by applying the methods I describe, I'll take the credit. If you don't succeed, I'll blame you for not applying yourself hard enough. Consider that a short introduction into the world of big business. And see, it was all virtual! You didn't lose any money! Of course, you didn't make any money, either.
Booth Workers, Booth Weasels, and Booth Bait secularBoothies (workers, weasels, and bait) are the temple prostitutes who serve to encourage the masses to enter your church. At conventions, you have these plucky servants working to bring people over to your table to look at your great Game. Their motivations can be diverse: for love, for recognition, for money. They don't even have to really be into your Game-- they just have to sound like they are.
They are there to drum up enthusiasm and promote sales, and to create happy customers. Now, some churches might take exception at using the term 'temple prostitutes' for this, and that's fine. Boothies have many forms.
"Workers" are those who believe in the cause and help out manning the Con because they are good and just. "Weasels" are those who help in return for free games, bragging rights, or to further their own freelance agendas. And "Bait" are either hired models or (if you're lucky) really attractive Workers and Weasels who function as eye candy, drawing the clueless from great distances so they can fall into the snares of your Workers and Weasels.
I've got to make a board game of this stuff, someday.
A Church of One?If you are the single-person company, you may be fulfilling the roles of the Trinity as well as Line Developer yourself, and also be the Company Owner. If you do everything else, you will rapidly become overburdened and burn out, and your company will die an ill-deserved death.
The Rule of Four Hats can help you. Simply put, no one should have more than 4 roles in a company. Breaking this rule encourages burnout and stagnation. Remember, you aren't just starting something, but you want to run it for the long haul. What seemed easy to do in week one is a lot harder two years later, if you haven't distributed the workload.
Dividing the above into four hats, you still need a small coterie in order to effectively be a publisher. Not all positions are full-time, fortunately. Some are recurrent (sales every week, marketing every month), some are impulsive (layout is only when a book is nearly ready), and some are constant (PR).
Fortunately, you aren't starting from scratch. Let's assume you're a GM running the game you created. Well, for starters, you have your bunch of playtesters-- the people you game with! So use your player group as a playtest group and as your core staff.
At least one of them has to have a talent that is useful. And if your game is as good as you believe, they aren't just players-- they're believers. They believe the game is really, really great. So you can use that evangelical spirit to get things going.
Or, put another way, if they like playing the game but don't want to help, you might have to reassess the game's worth. Not everyone who plays should be fanatical about it-- but your original core group of players has to be. They've gotten the straight Word from the source itself! If they aren't inspired to go out and hock their children to print it, who will be? Someone who picks up the book in the store? I don't think so.
You want a recipe for a very stripped down but highly effective company? Start with a Game Designer who can Write, and is willing to be the Line Developer. Drag in an Artist friend who can also do Layout (both being visual work), or an Editor friend who can do Layout (both being detail-oriented work). Have a fictitious Company Owner. Your Playtesters are your current gaming group, and Blind Playtesters are recruited at the demo area of your local gaming store. Your mom is your Number One Fan.
You decide to push your artist to be the Front Runner, and let your editor handle Public Relations. You'll recruit a Noisy Nethead after you first publish and get a fan base, and likewise, will worry about cultivating Reviewers later. You outsource Sales to Wizard's Attic or Tundra, and you let your editor come up with the Marketing plan. You find a Lawyer friend among your relatives or schoolchums and get a recommendation for a good Accountant. You tap the GPA list for Print Brokering advice. Your artist also does Web Design (bonus!) so you're set with that. You skip getting Investors because it scares you. Your starting trio (you, your artist, and your editor) will handle Booth Work for the first few Cons, until you have a fan base to get weasels from.
How many people is that? Mostly, three. You all will be busy, but you can do it. Share the profits equally, for god's sake. The 'I made the product, I should get the most' attitude flies in the face of honest business. As structured above, one person makes most of the content, another does the visual styling for the whole company, and the third handles the public face.
We have a core trio (words, images, and details), each of you handling several hats. Your writer is also the game designer and line developer. Your artist is also the front runner and layout (unless the editor is the layout person), and also does the web design. Your editor does public relations and marketing. Smaller one-shot roles will be recruited from the fan base. Sales and accounting are outsourced. Schmoozing gives you legal and printing advice. You all work the Cons.
Congratulations, you have a real company!
Until next month,