Steps To Publishing a Game – Part 1

For where we’re at as a publishing company, it’s important to break down the activity of making a game down to the small activities that build up to the total, and I’m going to share my thinking in this post.  Being both the designer and publisher in my case, it can be hard to separate one from the other.  However, I don’t necessarily want to publish everything I design, and definitely want to publish games that I don’t design, so I need to figure it out.

While I did provide the game design for Cage Match! and I intend to do the same with Watering Hole, I do not provide the graphic design, art or printing & production, so I’m going to discuss everything from that standpoint.  If you can do the graphics and/or art on your own, you’ve got a leg up on me!

For Geektopia Games, at least, the basic steps are:

  • Game concept
  • Game development
  • Art direction
  • Production & Shipping
  • Marketing
  • Sales

I consider the first 3 items to be creative elements.  The final 3 items are business elements.  For now, I’m going to consider these 2 parts to each be roughly 50% of the game publishing process, but most publishers consider creating the game to be more like 20% and the business aspects to be more like 80%.  I haven’t figured it out yet, but a lot more time and effort go into making the game ready for printing, that’s for sure, but the business aspects require know-how and capital.  Note that all of this is true even if you go to Kickstarter.

Here in part 1, I’ll cover the creative parts.

Game concept

A concept here means a working prototype of a fun, unique game.

This is where game designers generally stop, and start shopping around, but it’s where publishers begin.  If you’re looking for information on how to design a game, perhaps I’ll do a post someday, but there are plenty of resources for this already.  Try Brandon’s blog or a book like the Kobold’s Guide to Game Design.  What I do, in a nutshell:  I collect game ideas , and get inspiration everywhere.  I have a dozen or so.  Most of them will never get any development, I figure, but I can’t tell you which ones will and which won’t.  They’re kind of like kernels of corn and every now and then, one of them “pops” and I start fleshing it out.  For example, I had an idea for an ice-cream-themed game based on an old NPR piece that I heard.  One day I’m at Target, and I see a bag of colored popsicle sticks and pop!  I know what I want to do.  I’m still working on that one.

For too many people in too many endeavors, they stop at the idea.  The idea is only the beginning.  Then the hard work starts.

By this point, you’ve already got a pretty good idea, a fun heart of the game, a prototype, and have done some play testing to validate that it works.  Watering Hole is at this stage.  Some day I’ll write an entire post on how to get to this stage, but I’ll share a few tidbits here:

  • You have to be coming up with game ideas all the time, drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere.  I have a dozen or so ideas on the burner and every now and then, something I see makes one of them pop, and then I pursue that one.
  • When you think you’ve got a a fun heart of the game, build your prototype.  Build a cheap one from card stock or invest in some meeple and components from thegamecrafter or meeplesource.  I cover this in detail in this post.
  • How far the game is along when you commit to developing it can vary.  For a really great, really unique concept, the game could be only 50% done or even less.  Alternatively, for a game where you fight zombies, it would need to be more like 80% done, enough to show its various differences from all the other zombie fighting games out there.

Now, at this point, you have the option of shopping your design to publishers, and depending on who you are, that’s exactly what you should do.  There are some specific reasons I’ve chosen the self-publication route:

  • Business & marketing skill: I’m a digital analyst these days, but I have a MBA and was a corporate marketer for 10 years.  Managing $10 million marketing budgets and spending most of it on TV isn’t quite the same as digital lead generation, but the overall marketing principles of targeting an audience and positioning a product are the same.  I also know a ton of business people and marketers who I can lean on for advice.  When it comes to marketing my own products, I’m as qualified as anyone to do it.
  • The thing that established publishers have that I don’t is access and distribution.  They can put out a game and be in game stores where I have to build that network from scratch.  I could picture Cage Match! on the shelves of Target and/or Walmart, but I’m not sure I can get a meeting with them.  I’m so old that my friends don’t have friends working for those places anymore — that’s where they worked early in their careers.  So I’ll have to hustle to make some inroads on distribution, wish me luck.
  • Pipeline of products: I have a bunch of other games I want to publish besides Cage Match! I can afford to learn with this one, and then apply to future projects.  Maybe after this, I’ll decide I’d rather not do it myself and concentrate purely on designing and working with other publishers, but I doubt it.
  • Access to funds: Even if you’re going to Kickstarter for the majority of your funds, going to Kickstarter is generally no longer a low-cost venture to begin with.  You need to spend money on a page, including a video, and on marketing at a minimum.  If you’re not prepared to spend some money on these things, you might consider finding a publisher who will.  We are not going to Kickstarter, which actually means we need a bit more funding than a typical Kickstarter.  We have 2 big things in my favor:  1. It’s not just me, it’s me and 5 other guys, plus I have family helping back this venture.  2. I’m no spring chicken and neither are my friends and family members.  Some people I know have even been really successful, and some of them are the ones who’ve been encouraging me to make original games for years now.  We can come up with some capital without sticking our necks out, too far.  Now, in case you’re thinking “oh it must be nice to have access to money,” I’ve already mentioned twice in this post that I’m not young.  I’d much rather have embarked on this game-creating journey some 20 years ago, when I didn’t have any money or any access to it.  Life is full of trade-offs and there are plenty of downsides to being older but one upside is that I know where to round up a few bucks.  I might as well leverage that age-related advantage.

So it was a couple of years ago now, but I did establish my own LLC for this venture.  It’s been well worth the $2-300 I spent on it because among other things, I can write a lot of game-related things off as business expenses, such as prototypes, components, conventions, and even board game purchases.  All of that is business now.

Know your goals:  Why make a game now?  Are you trying to make money, build your brand, fulfill a request?  It’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t spend at least a little time thinking about where you want to go.

Know your market:  Why are you making this game and who are you making it for?  It can’t be for everyone.  Even if your market is hobby gamers, it’s good to narrow down it down to the exact type of gamer you want to make a game for.  Do they really need this game?  Do they already have it?  Is this the type of game your company would make well?

Assuming the above questions are answered in a positive way, you go forward.  For Cage Match! it’s fairly obvious that we’re targeting gamers who like MMA or MMAers who like games.  We looked around and we don’t think there’s another game like it.  By making it a fast game, it can also fill a “filler” category to appeal to more gamers.  I looked around a bit but didn’t see a company that exactly fit what I was looking for, though there are a couple where I think some version of it could work.  One of those companies, I talked to for a while before deciding to publish myself, the other, we’re currently discussing a potential partnership.

Game development

I see development as the process of taking a game from the concept stage to a marketable game, ready for professional production.  It’s about tailoring the game for the right audience.  This includes the market positioning, overall tone of the game, and some aspects of art direction and game design, especially the user interface.

I mentioned above that the game might be as much as 80% done but even if that’s true, the last 20% matter a lot.  This is where you get into not only the game play, but the User Interface and how, exactly, the game presents.  You’re going to do more play testing here, possibly even survey players on each aspect of the game to see if you should keep as is, tweak it, or lose it altogether.  This would be the next step for Watering Hole.  We spent a solid year on this for Cage Match! which is too long.

I think true development of Cage Match! started after I figured out that less is more, and re-configured and re-positioned the game.  Instead of being a game that captured nearly all the nuances of mixed martial arts combat, targeted towards the most hardcore mixed martial arts fan and hardcore gamer, I reconfigured it to be a game that simulates a MMA fight in a fast and friendly way, targeted towards more casual fans of MMA and board games.

Part of the commitment to game development is that it is at this point that you’re going to need some professional graphic design skills — that is if you didn’t have them for your prototype in the first place.  If you’re pretty savvy with GD, you can do it yourself and it’s a little bit less of a commitment.

What I did from this inflection point in the Cage Match! process was to improve the game’s UI, reduced its footprint, and streamlined some of the mechanics.  All of this is something I should have done a lot faster, but I’m new to this.  Those who know me through Epic Duels know I can look at a deck, either mine or somebody else’s, then figure out how to streamline and simplify it so that it plays better, and I’ll get there with board games, too.  In this case, I should have figured, “ok if we’re going for a more casual game, then we make it even smaller, even faster and take out as much as we can” before committing to any artwork.  I did figure it out, just took a while.

Art development

I’ll just distinguish that art is not the same as graphic design.  We’re now talking illustrations and uniquely created game pieces, although the latter of which may be created by your graphic designer.  Up through the development process, you can just use stock imagery and if your graphic design skills are decent, you might be able to do all of this on your own.  At some point, though, you will have to bring in an artist, and I think that point is one of the last on your journey towards production.  Good art costs good money, and once you’re in your’e committed.  You don’t want an artist burning time on anything that you’re not definitely going to use.  For Cage Match! we did burn a lot of extra graphic design time on what are now “old” versions of the game, but at least we never changed the art that was created for us.

I’ve managed creative agencies as part of my marketing career but I don’t know that there’s any amount of great skill or talent required to manage art.  It helps to have a good eye, something that I don’t really have, but Dystopia Matt, also in our company, certainly does.  You probably have an idea of what you want already, but you also have to be open to what another person can bring to the table in terms of creative vision.  Don’t be shy about asking the game community for artist recommendations, as that’s how this industry works.  Make sure you talk to at least 3 artists, and don’t be afraid to shop around until you’re sure you’ve found the artist you want.  The good ones book up way in advance so you need to be ahead of that, or stay patient.  A few other notes:

  • The cover is obviously the most important thing, and you may even commission a different artist for that.  For Cage Match! the original cover artist, Eric Quigley, offered up 3 concepts and I had the guys in my company take a look.  We came to a consensus to the current version.
  • Ultimately, we worked with the Ok Art StudioSebastian Koziner and Rocio Ognenovoch are a husband-wife, graphic design-artist team, who both like martial arts.  They’ve got an extensive resume, came highly recommended, and have totally lived up to their reputation.  I gave only broad strokes of what I was looking for for each of the 12 characters, and Rocio really brought them all to life.  There wasn’t a single one I was disappointed in, though I did give feedback and direction through a couple of drafts, sort of the standard process.
  • Rocio also revised Eric’s cover to better match the art style of the rest of the game, and we agreed that the character on the box would be one of the 12 characters of the game — Diego, as it turns out.
  • Matt’s understanding of the color wheel actually was instrumental in finalizing some components of the game with a more gritty feel than where the graphic designer and I would have otherwise landed.
  • If you’re going to Kickstarter, I personally wouldn’t have all art complete.  If this were Cage Match! I’d probably only have art of a couple of guys and a couple of girls, 4 out of 12 total, plus the cover.  For Watering Hole, we likely will go to Kickstarter.  I’ll have maybe 4-6 of the patrons illustrated, but not commit and spend on all 80 patrons and the rest until we know we’re going to print.

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