There are a few ways to go about getting your game to print. One is to make it yourself. This involves high financial risk, probable disappointment, and a huge investment in your time to advertise, promote, manufacture, package and distribute your game.

Another way to go is to have someone else do all the work, take all the risk, pay you royalties, and free up your time for the next design, playing game prototypes while drinking beer with your friends. Ah, the life!

This is about the second path. The first path is great if you want to start a business and be a successful entrepreneur, because a successful game can make you a lot of money. But you’re more likely to crash and burn with a $20K debt load. Much of the financial risk has been reduced to near-zero thanks to Kickstarter since you can presell your game, but it’s still an awful lot of work manufacturing and promoting it. It all boils down to where you want to go with your company and the risks you want to take.

Back to the article; let’s say you’ve decided to try to place the game with some publisher-manufacturer. How do you proceed?

I’m most familiar with two techniques; emailing and demoing at cons. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts to each of these, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Be prepared for rejection!

First and foremost, be prepared for rejection. Wiz-War, now one of my most profitable games (now in its 8th edition) was rejected five times way back in 1985. It happens. You better have a thick skin, and pay attention to comments made by the rejecters. They usually know their business. I think I changed Wiz-War every time I got it back from a company. It’s a better game for that.

Contact through email

It’s hard to pitch a game to a company via email, especially if you have no name in the industry. There’s a standard list of things NOT to do. I’ll mention a few of them here;

  • Don’t tell them how great your game is

    They’ll decide this when they play it.

  • Don’t state how all your relatives love your game

    This is irrelevant. Relatives and friends are notoriously bad about giving you honest feedback (unless you have a bunch of cutthroat game designer friends like I do – it helps to have a designer circle). It also makes you look like a newbie.

  • Don’t be secretive about the game for fear of “theft”

    Lack of details about your game will send red flags up for them; it indicates you’re going to be hard to deal with. And it doesn’t exactly excite their interest. “I’ve got this cool game, you want to look at it? I’m sure it will be a best seller.” Into the round file with your letter!

  • Don’t bring up money

    If/when they’re interested (after they play your prototype), they’ll usually offer you an advance and royalty (or try to buy it outright).

  • Don’t insist on an NDA

    (NDA = non-disclosure agreement) Some folks will argue with me on this point, but once again, if you’re trying to convince a manufacturer to look at your game, you want to make it easy for them. If you’re already well-known in the industry, you can probably get away with asking for an NDA. Put yourself in the manufacturer’s shoes, reading your email demanding an NDA. Do I really want to deal with this guy?

  • Don’t send your rules

    And don’t send a PDF of your game unless they ask for it.

And on the flip side…

  • DO explain the game

    Enough that they can make an informed decision. Try to do this in less than a page. Tell them enough of the rules that they can get a good mental image of game play. If there’s something unique about the game that’s going to sell it, mention that.

  • DO act professional

    Have someone proof your email or letter. Obey the rules of punctuation and grammar. Why do this? So the company doesn’t think they’re dealing with a moron. Include one or two pics if relevant.

  • Enclose an envelope

    If you send a letter, DO enclose a self-addressed-stamped-envelope for a reply. I imagine nobody bothers sending letters anymore, in which case this is irrelevant.

  • Include a Return Box

    If you end up sending the game to a company, include a self-addressed return box. I dealt with at least two game/puzzle companies that wouldn’t return my prototype because I didn’t include a stamped return box.

Remember that when a game company makes the decision to look at your game, they’re going to read the rules and playtest it at least once. It’s going to cost them a few hundred dollars in labor costs, if not more, just to look at your game. So it’s not a decision they make lightly when they read your email and decide whether to look at your project. They also incur the risk of you being some nutcase that’s going to sue them because you submitted a game about Dragons the same year that they happened to put out a game with a similar theme (this is where acting professional helps a lot). So expect rejection; game companies get a lot of submissions in a year, and unless yours really stands out somehow, it won’t make the grade.

All that said, it wasn’t my preferred method when I started out. Once you’re already on a talking basis with the company, and they know you in the industry, you can email all your pitches with a high degree of trust between parties. But my preferred method was to haul a bunch of well-tested prototypes into a convention and find a company who wanted to look more closely at them.

Direct Contact at Conventions

  • Get Your Timing Right

    Don’t approach a manufacturer’s booth with your prototype when they’re busy. That will just irritate them. When they aren’t busy, ask if there’s someone you can talk to about pitching your game, preferably during some 5-15 minute period after their booth closes up for the night. Make an appointment. They might ask what the game is about before committing to this; be prepared to give a 1 minute explanation that’s interesting, otherwise they might not give you that appointment.

  • Be Prepared to Demo

    At your appointment, be prepared for a detailed 5-minute explanation of the gameplay. They might decide they want to play it on the spot; be ready for that. Likely they won’t play it all the way through (depends), but they might like it enough to say, “Yeah, send that to us. We’ll look at it in more detail and if we like it, we’ll send you a contract.” Here’s a sample of a basic contract. I’ve had contracts over ten pages long, however.

  • Discuss Terms

    This isn’t a bad time to ask about what terms they generally offer. Advance plus royalties? I actually had the misfortune with one company to find out after they accepted my game that they didn’t pay an advance (which is subtracted from eventual royalties, usually); this, unfortunately, often leads to situations where the company can sit on your game for years, then decide they don’t want to make the game after all. You get nothing, and they hold up your design for years.

  • Discuss Intellectual Property, if you must

    If you insist on having an NDA, you could mention it in your meeting. They might say they don’t do that. It’s your choice if you want to back out at that time or not. Keep in mind that they can choose to do the same. I remember years back dealing with TSR and signing something from them that said, basically, “if we happen to publish something that looks like your game after reviewing your game, you can’t sue us.” I don’t remember what the legal document was called, but I can understand it; they are constantly designing dozens of games with all sorts of themes and mechanics, and the odds that there’s going to be some overlap between your game and some design of theirs is going to be very high. See my prior article, “Those Bastards Stole My Game!” for more about this.

  • Cave Troll prototype
    A prototype for Cave Troll
  • Make sure your prototype looks good

    Spend a week or two on your graphics; it doesn’t have to be professional, but I assume you have access to a color printer, free graphics software, and full-sheet labels and cardstock; make the tokens and board and cards pretty. Decent graphics add a lot to how the manufacturer views the game. It’s not mandatory, but it improves your odds quite a bit.

Over the years, I’ve pitched games face-to-face to an awful lot of game companies at conventions, and these encounters resulted in most of my sales. I’ve seen Bruno Faidutti hauling around a handcart full of prototypes at Essen doing the same thing. It works. It’s a good way to deal with companies and get fast feedback on whether your game is publishable or not. Also, you get exposed to what’s selling well in the industry. It can’t hurt to know your competition.

Stay tuned for my next entry on what to watch for in contracts. It’s a tricky subject!

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Tom Jolly

Game Designer at Wiz-War, Drakon, Diskwars, Cavetroll, Vortex and More

Electrical engineer, writer, game and puzzle designer. I’ve an interest in physics, space travel, fantasy and science fiction, hiking, bad jokes. I enjoy having a pint or two with friends on occasion, usually with games involved.

5 Readers Commented

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  1. Norv Brooks on May 12, 2014

    Tom, I really like this article. Would this provision in the Agreement cover if Action Figures were manufactured & sold? “If the Work will be sublicensed pursuant to Commencement of Commercialization, Author will receive 33% of licensing fees or royalties paid to the Licensee by the Sub-Licensee.”
    You mention that one benefit of an Advance payment covers the issue of a Publisher just sitting on your game and maybe even end up not publishing the game. If you’re as of yet an unpublished designer and the publisher is not a major publisher with existing budget, would this provision give you some protection without an Advance? Termination criteria: “a. Licensee shall fail within a period of two (2) years to sell or manufacture any of the Work.”

    • Tom Jolly on May 12, 2014

      First and foremost; I AM NOT A LAWYER. So, any suggestions I give here should be run by a contract lawyer, because I haven’t had to take any of these things to a court yet. The phrase sounds pretty good to me, however. The whole issue with sub-licensing is that the person or company doing so is acting as little more than the middleman in some cases. They aren’t actually doing any of the work of publication. The obvious modifier here is that the company might have done an edition of your game, spending heavily on the promotion, and THEN sublicensed the work, thus the 66%. This is obviously a very negotiable figure. But, you’re jumping the gun on my next article!

      Termination criteria is good, but you can get bit by that, too. For one of my games, they printed 100 copies via POD, thus establishing that they had “published an edition”, and tying the game up contractually for another 2 years. Either way, termination criteria is good to have in a contract, along with an advance, even if it’s a small (say, $500) advance.

  2. Henry Jasper on May 13, 2014

    Tom, this is a really great article giving excellent information and ideas for budding designers in approaching publishers. Having set up and indie-publisher last year and gearing up to bring our second game to Kickstarter later this month I would definitely agree that designers would be wise to think twice before jumping straight in. Publishing involves lots of hard work, long hours, endless PR, negotiation and putting yourself on the line – doing all this leaves very very little time for actually designing and making new games. Looking at this area is really important and I’m actually in the process of writing this up from a publisher’s angle on my own blog on too – I’ll post here in the comments once it is online.

    It might also be worth bearing in mind that the advice above is more geared towards approaching Publishers rather than Manufacturers (who often aren’t interested in talking with individuals until they can see you have a significant backing (ie KS campaign, or other funding) behind you).

    Amazing resource though – Re-tweeting it as I type!!

    • Tom Jolly Author on May 13, 2014

      I guess I should have defined “manufacturers” a little more concisely. I tend to think of “Game Publisher” and “Game Manufacturer” as synonymous.

  3. David Miler on June 24, 2015

    Great post and I’d add a subset to that first route of doing it yourself. As you pointed out, Kickstarter reduced that financial burden and the game designer can also reduce the logisti8cs of making a game themselves. This is only limited by that person’s resourcefulness and time.

    Time is big but can be manageable and that’s also affected by your aspirations. I don’t care about getting into retail or making a living on a couple of games.

    My games are tiny, use fairly easy to obtain components, and take minutes to assemble.

    This is a very small operation and I don’t claim to have “the way” but if you want to share games you’ve come up with, this is a reasonable path. I can’t quit my day job but even 8 months after the Kickstarter, I make enough to pay for a couple of lunches a week and that perfectly fine with me.

    Define your own success and do it! Too many people gave incredible ideas for games, get intimidated by trying to find a publisher, and never share them with the world.

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