Sunday, September 27, 2015

Self-Publishing Isn't a Hobby. It's a Hob.


Some people say they do their best thinking in the shower. I, on the other hand, am only nominally awake in the morning. My wife knows not to tell me anything important because I’ll forget it. And if I want critical thinking in my first half hour of being awake, I’m talking to myself. Like a crazy person.

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"Heeeeeeeeeere's Dougie!!!"
So one morning, I was talking to myself about how stressed I was with some things going on with being a publisher. I’ll spare you the full details, but at one point, I told myself, “You started this as a hobby, but now you’re treating it like a hob. No, not hob. Job. Well, not a job exactly. Because you’re not really making any money…”

And then it hit me: “hob” is the perfect way to self-publishing. Making games started out as a hobby, but it ended up like a job. Just, you know, a job that doesn’t even pay as well as forced labor in prison. And that was the moment that crystallized everything for me: I don’t want to publish games anymore, even ones I’ve designed.


But if I was making up to 93 cents an hour working on games!? Woooweeee!

The first game I designed came to me in a dream. I woke up earlier than usual and rushed downstairs to frantically type an email to John (the co-designer of Gothic Doctor). That was exciting. That was fun. But two days before my shower epiphany, I woke up at 4 am on a school day, unable to fall back to sleep, too anxious about getting back to my lawyer about a contract she sent me two weeks ago that I just hadn’t had time to look over between messaging backers about why Gothic Doctor last project was going to be a few months late while simultaneously asking them to support another project I was helping some friends with. Sound like a good time to you? Then, by all means, be a publisher!

There are only so many hours in the day – and, more importantly, there are only so many brain cells in my head.  Any attention I have to spend figuring out profit margins for a game to decide if I can print on 310 gsm cardstock is energy that I can’t put into figuring out the best thematic solution to a problem in a game.  Any time I have to spend designing a Kickstarter page is time that I can’t spend playtesting a new idea.

And here’s the bottom line: if you’re not going to make any money anyway, shouldn’t you enjoy the time you devote to games? Shouldn’t it be a real hobby rather than a hob?

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Playtesting is FREEEEEEDOOOOOOM!!!
As a caveat, I don’t want people to think that the Gothic Doctor Kickstarter wasn’t a rewarding experience. It absolutely was. Interacting with backers was great. Working with AdMagic was awesome. That summer was fantastic – but it was a lot of work. I had to stop doing the 24 hour contests on BGG that I loved so much to focus on Gothic Doctor. I had to shelve all of my designs for the month of July, and then I was exhausted for most of August. Over the course of a 22 and a half day campaign, I worked 278 hours, 26 minutes. That’s an average of 12 hours, 22 minutes per day - and I even took one day completely off. If I spent that much time designing? That’d be at least one really strong draft of a game - maybe two.

So what’s the solution? It’s easy: get someone else to publish your games for you. There are people who actually enjoy doing it, like Gil Hova or Jason Tagmire. Maybe you’re one of those people who likes that sort of thing. But you don’t have to be.

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You know...if you're a masochist, that's cool, I guess.
There is, I think, only one good reason to self-publish – and a lot of bad ones. Listed below are those reasons – and my brutally honest responses to them.

I’m going to self-publish because established publishers aren’t interested in my game.
Then your game isn’t good.

Publishers know a good game when they see it, and if they pass on yours, they’ll tell you why. (JR and I recently pitched a game we’re working on to a publisher. In their rejection, they gave us fantastic feedback about what to improve in the game.) If you show it to a lot of publishers and none of them want it, well, then it just isn’t good enough to put out. Playtest some more – and incorporate the feedback they’ll almost definitely give you.

I’d love for someone to publish it, but I don’t know how to get the attention of publishers.
Then you don’t know how to get the attention of the gaming community to run a successful project.

Assuming that you’re going to crowdfund your game, you’re going to need to do more outreach than you have possibly imagined. I spent eight months grinding to get the word out about Gothic Doctor before our second campaign. It would have been far, far less work to go to conventions, send emails to publishers, and set up meetings with them than it was to run a Kickstarter project.

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Or just walk out into the desert and scream until a publisher comes along. That's more likely than funding a Kickstarter without an established community behind the game.
Easy for you to say. You’re a published game designer. People pay attention to you. I’m a little guy. I can’t get their attention like you can.
First off, I’m not a big deal, but thank you. That’s kind of you to say. Second, yes, you can. Just go to conventions. Talk to people. Be nice. They’ll pay attention to you, too, as long as you’re not weird about it.

The great thing about the gaming community is that even the big names in it want to play games – and everyone loves to try a great game they haven’t played before. So just ask. Sometimes they’ll be too busy – but lots of times, they’ll play games. That’s why they’re in this very-not-lucrative industry in the first place.

I want to keep total control over my game. I don’t want some publisher who doesn’t know it as well as I do changing it into something it’s not.
I was that way with my first game, too. If you’re dead set on total control, then this might be a reason to self-publish – but not a really good one. Choose a publisher you respect, and then act on that respect. They’ve probably been doing this quite a bit longer than you have, and if they think the game might be better another way, it really might. When Chris Kirkman told me something needed to be changed in my game, I believed him. When Tagmire told me to work on some things in You’re Fired, I did. And in both cases, the games are better because of it.

I don’t want to get such a small percent of what the game makes.
As Cardboard Edison pointed out the most common amount for a designer to get is 5% of the wholesale cost of the game per copy sold. On Gothic Doctor’s initial printing and distribution, we’re going to lose quite a lot of money, at least in the short term. We’ve already spent more than the Kickstarter made on artwork, printing, promotion, and shipping. If we got 5% of what a publisher wholesaled the game for, my wife would be much, much happier with my investment. That said, if the game is successful and we sell through the extra copies we had printed, we’ll do better than breaking even. Still, I think taking 5% would still have been more profitable.

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Yo, I know that feel, Monopoly Dude.
I want to see what it’s like to self-publish a game.
That curiosity right there is, I think, the only reason to self-publish.  Maybe you’ll like it. Some people thrive on stress and pressure. Both Jason and Gil enjoy the process, and I respect the heck out of them as publishers and designers. You might be like that, and, honestly, you’ll never know until you do.

But once I did, I decided to quit my hob and go back to my hobby.

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FREEEEEEEEDOOOOOM!!!
Now, I’ve done both.
At UnPub 5, JR Honeycutt and I had the chance to show Chris and Darrell Louder UnPub: The Unpublished Card Game. It wasn’t complicated. We said, “Hey guys. We made this game. We’d like to show it to you for 15 minutes.” We played it, they liked it, and they signed it. A few months later, they did a Kickstarter for it, and enough people liked the idea that it funded. It wasn’t complicated. It was difficult. It was fun. And it was a heck of a lot faster than doing it myself.

More recently, I pitched You’re Fired to Jason Tagmire. He liked it, and it’ll be coming to Kickstarter through Button Shy Games in November. As I said earlier, his suggestions have made the game better, even for a game I feel very passionately about.

So, as I’ve said a few different times in a few different ways in this article, maybe my path of being a designer only isn’t the path you want to take. I just wanted to remind anyone like me that it’s a path you can take.  Gaming doesn’t have to be a hob. You can keep it as a hobby if you want to.

Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic Doctor, UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're Fired (which is coming to Kickstarter from Button Shy Games in November). He has other designs in the works, too - because that's what designers do. When Doug's not designing, writing articles, sleeping, or playing Star Realms on his phone, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on The Scarlet Letter and "Master Harold"...and the boys at the time of publication. You can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.  

Update: Based on some feedback from readers, I should clarify what I mean by my assertion that if your game is good, a publisher will publish it. I'm not saying that the first publisher you show it to will take it - and I'm not saying that no good games are self-published. What I mean is that, eventually, if your game is good, you'll find a publisher who wants it (with one possible exception addressed in the next paragraph). It might be the tenth publisher - because the game might not be a good fit for the other publishers - but almost all good games will find publishers.

The exception - and a very real consideration for publishers - is whether or not the game is profitable. Most of the time, good games can be profitable. However, a game with very high printing costs due to crazy components might not garner any publishers' interest, even if it's great. I imagine, though, that a publisher would tell the designer that in their rejection. All of the rejections I've gotten have come with very good reasons.