Cool Table, Rocket Cats in Space, The Candyman Can, Camp Friendship, BEARanoia

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I’ve been designing games for the past three years – and some of them are even pretty good. But I have yet to seriously pitch or publish any of them. Why? If I think they’re good, and others do, too, why aren’t I doing anything with my work?

After a lot of soul-searching, I realized that I was trying to do both – to have my cake and eat it, too. Pitching and publishing. Hedging my bets between getting a traditional publisher and self-publishing with assistance from crowdfunding.

I would spend so much time reading and researching – learning how to run a Kickstarter, compiling lists of publishers, even obsessively reading the League of Gamemakers. I was getting nonstop advice, and acting on maybe 5% of it. In short, I wasn’t willing to take that first real step and commit.

It’s classic analysis paralysis. Every move seems like a viable one.

With the notable exception of Tabletop Deathmatch, I have yet to take any major steps toward getting a game published, or publishing it myself. But recently, my husband and design partner Pete and I decided to set goals for ourselves, including deciding, finally, what we’d do with all these games we’ve amassed. Here are some of the big questions we asked ourselves:

1) Is this game straightforward or does it have unusual components?

2) Are we okay with this being rethemed and changing dramatically before being released?

3) Would we be willing to start a business for this game?

4) Do we have space to store and fulfill games, and if not, do we think we could raise enough to cover those costs too?

5) Do we already have some interest in this game we can leverage?

6) Could this viably be published in an alternative way?

Knight Shift

We figured out, game by game, what we really wanted to do with it. And in 90% of the cases, for us, that was traditional publishing. We both feel more comfortable pitching our games for awhile, maybe a year or two, and then seeing if the time is right for a Kickstarter or whatever the next generation of crowdfunding may be if needed. We identified a couple of our games that we think are particularly good candidates for a traditional publisher, and are throwing ourselves wholeheartedly behind these options. We’re finally thinking like gamers – figuring out a strategy, and pursuing it.

And that additional 10% of our games, where finding a traditional publisher isn’t going to work? Well, expect a very small Kickstarter coming soon. Hey, we don’t always take our own advice.

I feel like I’m not the only way stuck in this purgatory between self-publishing and pitching. Who else is here with me? What questions do you ask yourself to make up your mind? Or maybe, for you, it’s not a binary and there are more than two options (I went through a crazy “art games” period that led to some very interesting ideas)? Let me know what you think in the comments.

I want to know what considerations you take into account when you decide what to do with your games. Or maybe you haven’t decided at all, and we can talk it out! Let’s do this.

Jasmine Davis

Jasmine Davis is a writer and game designer in Pittsburgh, PA. You can find Jasmine’s own thoughts on her website, read her thoughts on other people’s games at Play Unplugged, or check out her latest designs at PlayPBJ.com. You can also follow her on Twitter – she’s @athingforjaz.

18 Readers Commented

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  1. Luke Laurie on May 11, 2015

    You touched on these in your list, but they might be thought of a little differently, so I’ll pose them as new questions:

    7. Are you OK with a publisher making your game better? Will you be ok with the publisher improving your game with their experience in the market, their knowledge of components, and their critical evaluation of your design? Will you then be able to accept that the design you put forward in the first place was not as good as you thought it was? In all likelihood, they’ll be able to sell more copies than you ever could.

    8. Are you OK with facing rejection more often than acceptance? If you seek out publishers, you will get rejected, most of the time, for most of your work. They don’t want it. It’s not right for them, and sometimes, its not good enough for any of them. People go to kickstarter sometimes to gain a false degree of acceptance – people are willing to put some $ behind almost anything, but that won’t always translate into your game really making a niche in the market.

    9. Are you OK never having time to design again? If you got the KS route, you may end up putting the vast majority of your time into running the business that you’ve created, and far less time on your creative pursuits.

    For me personally, it’s not a question. I want to be a designer. I think that I COULD do self-publishing, but I think that real publishers can publish my games better than I can. Do they want to re-theme my work? Make changes? Sure. And I’m ok with that, I can work with people and negotiate. I want to keep designing.

    • Jasmine Davis Author on May 11, 2015

      Luke, your #7 is so important! That’s a big factor in why we want to pursue a publisher. Yes, we could put many of our games on KS (and I actually LIKE the business end of things), but I want my games to be their best possible versions, with expertise backing up their development, art, design, distribution, etc.

  2. Norv Brooks on May 11, 2015

    For me, Luke’s #9 is what keeps me networking, entering contests/speed dating rather than self publishing.

  3. Christina on May 11, 2015

    I think I’ve finally admitted to myself that I don’t have what it takes to be a full-on publisher. I’ve got no problem working with printers, doing graphic design, or trying to do marketing/pr stuff, but trying to arrange distribution and having the financial foresight to weather a shipping delay, hidden cost, or just plain poor launch is enough to give me a headache.

    But the thing that makes me question myself every so often is that we have had good games on the shelf for years that are just not what a publisher would want to take on (2 player only, abstract, oversaturated market, zombie/elf/robot/pirate/alien/ninja/gunslinger mashup theme that we’re not willing to change), so they gather dust while we focus on pitching others. It always makes me feel like we should do SOMETHING to get them out in front of people, but even a “little Kickstarter” is a huge amount of work in my experience.

    I guess my ideal scenario would be to run a Kickstarter, but team up with a small publisher and have them split the risk/work with me.

    • Jasmine Davis Author on May 11, 2015

      Christina, part of what scares me about pitching is what you’re talking about – what to do with games that just wouldn’t be interesting to publishers today. But I feel like those games aren’t dead, they’re just hibernating. (And hopefully, I reach a level of success to get some of the “weird” stuff out there!)

  4. Teale Fristoe on May 11, 2015

    A couple of alternative solutions for those more artsy games are print-on-demand (The Game Crafter, Drive Thru Cards, etc) and print-and-play. I’ve released free PnPs of some of my games to let people try them before pledging for the Kickstarter, and I’ve been surprised to see a vibrant and enthusiastic community of PnPers out there. Make sure you add your games to PnP geeklists if you go this route!

    • Jasmine Davis Author on May 11, 2015

      Teale, yes!! We’re actually figuring out how to do that with one of our “artsy” games – we’re thinking about selling the game board as a poster (like, that you’d hang on your wall) and then offering the cards and components as PnP on our website for free. So like, you spend $15 and get this fun art piece that OMG also happens to be a game.

      Of course, we’ll see what actually becomes of this idea. 😉

  5. Al Leduc on May 11, 2015

    I try not to worry to much if my games get published. Just the act of designing them makes me a better designer. Yeah, it’d be nice if they saw the light of day, but work I put into them wasn’t wasted as long as I grew my skills and can produce even better games later.

  6. lokinb on May 11, 2015

    I run an Ebay business, Now I do, but for a very long time I worked for someone else,.
    It was not until I got laid of that i got my butt in gear and started My business. I sell games and miniatures and vintage toys and just about anything else I can get my grubby little hands on..
    My best advice is take all those games off the shelf dust them off and go pitch them and anything else you have to who ever will listen. You will fail, you will get rejected, You may even be laughed at and criticized, but you will most importantly Learn.
    You will learn the failure and the success then you will have gained the knowledge to pitch the games to new people or to go and rework some of your games and then re-pitch. What kept me from starting my business for years was fear of failure, it was not until I had no choice , due to no job, that I had the nerve to try, loosing my house and not feeding my family scared me more than failing at business,.
    Now we are in year three and still counting.
    Go and do it take the risk fall on your face get yourself up and try again.
    Good luck and I wish you all the success you dream of..
    Lokinb
    My Ebay store if you want to look around.
    http://www.lokinb.com

  7. Paul Becker on May 12, 2015

    What I’m currently doing is creating games with the expectation of self-publishing them… and then getting in contact with publishers to tell them about the game and ask if they are willing to give any input, or just to talk.

    The thing I like about doing it this way is, that “having a publisher” subliminally gives me permission to be sloppy with my prototypes (i.e. with art, etc.). By going forward with no expectation of my game being picked up, I know I have to do everything myself and I’m better motivated to make sure everything is exactly how I want it to be.

    We’ll see if this pans out, but I think I’m developing a few relationships with a few publishers, and if nobody bites I’m (hopefully) prepared to do it myself. But then again I’m still kind of a newbie so I might be taking the wrong approach here.

    • Jasmine on May 13, 2015

      Paul, this is a cool idea. Have you actually been able to talk to anybody?

      • Paul Becker on May 13, 2015

        Yes.

        As I’ve backed various Kickstarters from established publishers, if I find my game to be relevant to theirs or a good fit for their company overall, I’ll talk to them and mention the game. Or, I might just ask them if they have advice for a budding designer (although I use the word hesitantly, because until I’m published, I’m no more a “designer” than the guy with the novel he’s been working on for the past x years is a “writer”).

        Some will just wish me good luck, but so far two have pretty much said they’d consider publishing my game, even though (by design) I never actually asked them.

        The first one was over a year ago now, and we ended up keeping in touch for more or less the whole year (we still email each other every once in a while), and I was able to pick his brain a ton during that time. I’d actually say that’s one of the biggest things that got me to where I am today.

  8. C. Nicholas Stock on May 12, 2015

    You can get the best (and worst) of both worlds by working with publishers that use kickstarter, like Eagle/Gryphon, Tasty Minstral, or Dice Hate Me. A lot of these publishers like designers who remain active in the process of promoting and funding their game, but also take care of a lot of the publisher duties that can make self-publishing via kickstarter a ton of work.

  9. Jon Fromm on May 12, 2015

    I’m glad you mentioned the AP factor. I have a game that is mechanically 90% complete. I’m inclined to power through play testing, pitch the game to a publisher, and let them sort out the art and final component counts. However, in very attracted to the risk/reward of self publishing. Because of that I’m constantly worrying about piece counts, graphic counts, potential stretch goals, and promotion. While I’m learning a lot (feels like progress), the actual progress on the game has plateaued. I’m guessing this is a rather common problem. Hopefully a little soul searching with the questions above will help!

    • Jasmine on May 13, 2015

      Jon – I think you really hit on something! When you’re researching, looking up prices, worrying about components, etc, etc, it FEELS like work and progress, but really, it’s just taking time from progress in other places. It’s almost like productive procrastination until you figure out where you’re really at.

      Good luck! Let us know what you wind up doing. I’m so fascinated by everyone’s journeys.

  10. Lewis Pulsipher on May 12, 2015

    Video (screencast) Are you a game designer or a game publisher?
    https://youtu.be/qG6dKzvj3Hw

    Another reason to be reluctant to have someone else publish a game is that publishers sometimes screw them up, sometimes “royally”. Many long-time designers have stories of such. Keep in mind that many boardgame publishers started as self-publishers (even FFG, after their original comic distribution business went down because of a change in the industry), and many others started as re-publishers of games originally published elsewhere. Don’t assume there’s a lot of expertise there, because there may not be, but they will probably take care of the publishing side better than you would.

    Nonetheless, I don’t want to be a publisher, I want to be a designer, and if you self-publish you become a publisher.

  11. Aaron Wilson on July 29, 2016

    I’ve only been designing board games (with a sense of commitment) for just over a year. I’m going to Gen Con for the first time and pitching a game for the first time next week. I’m expecting rejection but good feedback and I’m ok with that (still super nervous.) But I decided nearly right away that I don’t want to publish anything myself. I really enjoy playing games but even more so designing, inventing, iterating and trying new mechanics for my own games. Making that decision was easy for me. My non-gamer friends often ask me when I’m doing a Kickstarter. There’s an expectation from people (not in the know) now with making board games and it’s that you just go do a kickstarter yourself. And I think that’s because they see the big million dollar funding for popular titles so that’s where the money is, right? I always have to explain: I’m a designer not a publisher. I love making games. I hope someday that the games I make will sell but ultimately I just want to make the most smooth, fun and elegant games possible. Because THAT is what feels good about it to me. Creating a masterpiece. So you really do have to soul search and know what motivates you. What is it exactly that impassions you to make games? If it’s money or fame, you have a long tough road ahead of you. If it’s for the love of creating and shares experiences then let the other guy do the publishing. Either way, keep doing your thing.

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