Where to manufacture?
Most game manufacturers encounter this question as they enter the field. It’s easy to be scared of dealing with a foreign country, the language barriers, and the unknowns involved with doing so.
Let’s look at the surface differences.
Manufacturing in the US
You have the advantages of language commonality, locality (you can usually go talk to the people if you choose carefully and are lucky enough to be living near a manufacturer), quality control, and low shipping costs. Well…low if you go pick up the stuff yourself. Potentially free shipping if you have a pickup truck or van.
Downside is, you pay for American labor and American material costs. Americans don’t normally work for $267 dollars a month, which was the highest monthly minimum wage in China (in 2013); probably the wages for the guy assembling your game. I’m not making moral judgments here; unlike America, Chinese law requires that local minimum wage be high enough to be “sufficient for their daily needs.” Regardless, labor costs in the US are roughly four times as high.
Manufacturing in China
You have the advantage of low cost. In fact, if you manufacture in India (with Playing Cards of India, for example) or Germany (perhaps with Ludo Fact), you still have the advantage of low cost. The downsides are language barriers, lack of direct quality control, shipping expenses (and time), and import duties.
Regarding language barriers, I’ve talked to a couple of people who’ve dealt direct with China; they said that language was not a barrier. Some companies are definitely better than others; I’ve read that WinGo and Shenzhen Senfutong have good English skills, and NingBo does not (see links below). Talk to them and see who you like. Language isn’t really a problem, and many of the Chinese manufacturers have US reps now. But, as one of my good friends said, just to make sure, reiterate everything three times when talking to them to make sure they’re doing what you want them to do.
Quality control; this isn’t as big an issue as you might think. The printers in China (and the US) will generally send you samples or proofs prior to rolling the presses. This costs a chunk of postage when coming from China, and will take longer, but it’s part of the process.
Shipping; If you find a cheap American manufacturer, chances are good that they are just a middle man job-shopping to China and will tack on a 10-20% premium on your cost and overcharge you for postage (direct experience here), so if you talk to American printers, ask them if you can pick it up from their factory instead of paying shipping costs. This will nail down where it’s being made. I paid 75 cents a deck for a 3-ounce card game through a middle man manufacturer; others have paid roughly $1-$2 for shipping a whole board game. Not surprisingly, almost all of the shipping cost is incurred by shipping cross-country in the US. It isn’t unusual for the postage from China to be $200-$300 to our coast, then $1000 to move the pallets cross-country using a freight-forwarder. I don’t know if it’s physically possible to pick up your pallets of games off the dock, dealing with customs there, but if anyone has done this, I’d love to hear about it.
So, to sum it up, it’ll cost you more to ship from China, but less to manufacture by quite a large margin. I’ve heard off-the-cuff comments that it only becomes cost effective to manufacture in the US if you’re printing more than 5000 copies. Not necessarily because it’s cheaper, but because it will drive your cost-per-unit down low enough that you can make a profit even while printing in the US. Cost-per-unit from China goes down with quantities too, but the cost-to-ship-per-unit is nearly a fixed price, so at some point it starts driving the price. It’s a balancing act.
Samples from the Chinese printers will cost a lot more in shipping too, and there will be a much longer shipping lag-time between countries. You might have to wait for a month after the printers are done before you receive your goods, and (at least in my case) 10% might be a lost due to shipping damage. It obviously is cost effective to print in China; most small game companies do it at some level, but you lose the speed, comfort, and lower shipping costs of dealing with a local printer. What do you want out of your manufacturing experience?
You’d probably like to see some actual numbers though, wouldn’t you?
Two Monkey Studios (Matt Cocuzzi) wrote a great piece Manufacturing Run-down for Influence – comparing a number of Chinese, American, and German manufacturers, their prices, their weaknesses and strengths, as related to the production of their Kickstarter game “Influence”. This has an amazing amount of pricing information in it. Go read it.
Another great and informative article was posted by Brent Povis on BoardGameGeek, which he calls A Primer for Self-publishing. It has a lot of excellent financial data on hidden costs and shipping costs when dealing with China, along with technical data dealing with file formats, packaging, trays and such.
At one point I’d intended to mine these articles of all their useful information and puff up my posting. But these sources were so well written I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
At Alibaba, you can find a huge list of mostly Chinese companies, though there’s a sidebar where you can select what country you want to look at. Based on something I read, I think it’s also possible to put in a request for quotes; one guy said he got 8 bids in a matter of days on some game parts he needed when he submitted his RFQ.
I also maintain a good-sized database of manufacturers and artists at my Jolly Games website. If you’ve dealt with a company who isn’t on the list, let me know and I’ll add them.
James Mathe’s Site
James Mathe also maintains a list called Hitchhikers Guide to Game Manufacturers. It has a lot of qualitative ratings on the companies listed there, both Chinese and US, based on experiences of people who have actually used them. There’s a lot of good information on his site.
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4 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
Great article! I’m sure others agree with me that it’s really a plus having you as a contributing author to League of GameMakers.
Great Article Tom! I’d love to see more like this!
I am writting from France.
Just patented WATERGAME : how to manage and protect waters (drinking, industrial, irrigation);
To win, you have to be the most clever in management, strategy ans psychology.
Could I send you the PowerPoint of my creation for your revew and opinion on : does that seem to you a nice stuff ? Then if you would have to decide, what would you do to professionalize the stuff and have it edited and marketed. What role could be yours in the process? What costs would that suppose? And any other topic of interest…
Hi, Michel. I would rather you did NOT send me a Power Point of your creation; I’m not in the business of marketing other people’s games, and I’m much too busy to get involved in more projects than I’m already involved in. I would advise joining a group of local game designers in France to work out your design process, and perhaps visiting Der Spiel in Essen, Germany in October to develop some business contacts. If you have a great prototype, you could demo it to companies there. If you don’t have a good prototype, make that first and play-test the hell out of it with your game group; that’s always your first step.