Published on April 29, 2022. Last Updated on May 1, 2023.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this question…
So plenty of people have made a game, and they reach this fork in the road. They know there’s a lot of pros and cons, but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. This one decision will affect the rest of your game’s life cycle, so it’s a pretty critical one to get right…
The two most common options: crowdfunding or pitching a publisher
There are a couple other doors to consider (and we’ll get to them), but for most designers, these are the two main paths.
Door #1: crowdfunding as your own publisher
Let’s start with crowdfunding – and it’s worth mentioning that my goal with this post is not to describe the entire process of crowdfunding, just the reasons for choosing (or not choosing) it for your game.
Pro: having complete control over all aspects of the game’s development, production, marketing, and sales.
Naturally, this means taking that control, either by doing the work yourself, splitting it up amongst the other designers, or hiring others to do the work for you. The buck stops with you.
Pro: the profit ends up in your pockets.
This assumes, of course, there is any, but it ends up in your pockets once everything is said and done. Remember to account for your taxes!
Pro: you move at your timetable.
If that’s ‘as fast as possible’, that’s your choice. If you want to have it ready for a specific convention, event, or your birthday, you can work towards that. If you’re in no hurry, that’s another choice.
Pro / Con: your sense of success is yours to define.
I’m going to list this one as a Pro and a Con, since what ‘success’ is will be different for everyone. For some, ‘Funding’ or ‘overfunding’ might be good places to start, especially if you have expansions to your game already lined up…
Pro / Con: you are running a full-time business.
Again, this has pros and cons, but running your own business can run the full gamut of emotions. It will be a LOT of work, and I’ve yet to hear any indie publisher say it was less work than they expected.
Con: the cost overruns come out of your pockets.
Just as the profits flow into your pockets, if there are any issues with the budget or unexpected expenses, that’s your responsibility. It’s prudent to add in a bit (or a lot) of wiggle room to your budget to cover increased costs or other contingencies.
Con: it can be a ton of work.
A lot of designers either haven’t learned or are just unaware of how many steps there are to making a game. Stonemaier wrote a great post to educate the press, but really it’s a great introduction for anyone. A book I’ve recently reviewed goes into more detail as well, along with plenty of advice on doing it yourself from a publisher’s perspective.
Con: It’s more competitive than ever before.
More money is being raised across more projects, but it’s harder to make your game stand out.
Door #2: pitching publishers
Long before the concept of crowdfunding came into existence, pitching a publisher was the way to make a game. (The only other option was to print a ton of copies yourself and on your own dime, store them in your garage or basement, then hope you could sell them all.)
Pro: Publishers have the relationships, distribution, manufacturing expertise, and business savvy so you don’t need it.
They’ve (probably) done this a time or two before, after all. They’ll also handle all of the business side of things and pay you your cut. All you might need to do is show up at a con, play your game, maybe sign a few copies, or give some input on the game they’ve developed. The relationship is different based on the publisher and designer, but it’s one that may last for years.
Pro: you’ll have time to focus on designing games instead of all the business stuff.
All that business stuff takes a ton of time, so not needing to spend the time / energy on lots of stuff the publisher will work on means more time to design and be creative.
Pro: Less upfront money needed.
You’ll need to spend some money (see one of the Cons below), but you’re far less likely to lose money after signing a game to a publisher.
Pro / Con: a publisher is likely to change the game’s theme, components, mechanics, etc.
It’s listed as both since these changes are likely to make it a better game than the version you submitted to them. It will also make it a different game, and while most publishers will run the changes by you, they’re also typically going to have the final say at the end of the day.
Con: Pitching a publisher takes some effort.
Making sell sheets, videos, researching publishers, attending cons, and actually showing them your game all take some energy and effort… not to mention a bit of money. There are plenty of free or cheap programs to make videos, and some shortcuts to make researching publishers easier, but it still takes some effort.
While it’s possible to do remote pitches, going to real-world conventions creates opportunities you just won’t have in the virtual world.
Con: plenty of competition here as well.
When I went to Essen 2018, I recall someone mentioning that around 1,000 games were being released on sale for the first time at the four-day con. This didn’t include the other games available on sale, of course – if you were to buy all the new games and play two games a day every day for the entire year, you still wouldn’t have played them all by the time the next Essen came around.
Granted, Essen is the biggest event in the world, and publishers have a great reason to launch their game there… but this is still just one event. This also doesn’t include the dozens to hundreds of games being crowdfunded every month. It’s an absolutely wonderful time to be a board gamer, but standing out in a crowded market is harder than ever.
Con: your game operates on their timetable.
Unless they’re a big name, publishers rarely release more than a few games per year. Anecdotally, I’ve been told some publishers will release specific games for specific conventions. COVID and all the shipping crises have led to their own issues, and the result is delays all around. Some of those will affect you however you publish your game, but working with a publisher means considering their timetable as well.
Con: Rejection sucks.
This isn’t a publisher’s fault, obviously, but they’ll say ‘no’ a lot more than they’ll say ‘yes’. No easy way around this, except to know who you’re pitching and what you’re pitching them.
While crowdfunding and pitching a publisher and going the full self-publisher route are the most established options, there are a couple of emerging options that don’t always get the attention they deserve, especially from newer designers.
Door #3: the Game Crafter
For those not in the know, The Game Crafter is great for making print-on-demand professional-quality copies of your game in quantities from 1 to 1,000. Between the contests and communities, it’s established itself as an excellent place to share, make, and sell your game.
The thing that’s lesser-known is their Crowd Sales option. They handle the manufacturing and shipping, they give you the platform and have some audience… Whoever’s interested in the game can buy it, and they’ll get it without worrying about whether your game ‘funds’ or not. Put another way, it’s a low-risk way of dipping your toes into marketing your game and build up your fanbase for future games.
The biggest con is that your game will be more expensive on the Game Crafter vs. traditional manufacturer. Exactly how much more is up to the components (there’s a great development challenge here – how can you use the cheaper components without changing gameplay?).
Door #4: DIY
This is an option a new Facebook group is beginning to explore. They’re called the Small-Batch Game Publishers Group, and their goal is to “explore simpler, smaller, more sustainable ways to fund, manufacture, and sell games.”
While the group is still new, there’s already a lot of conversations and buzz around it. The biggest pro thus far seems to be the control you take of your game (similar to crowdfunding), right down to the materials you use. You probably won’t be outsourcing this to China, since the MOQ (minimum order quantity) is usually 1,000 or more. The biggest con thus far seems to be the potential to spend more time creating / assembling / shipping the copies of your game.
Door #5: Print-and-play
Print-and-play games are having a moment right now. Although they’ve been available for a long time as PDF files sold online, the success of Voyages (12,876 backers that pledged £52,648) established a new model for selling print-and-play games. They often require very few components, other than the printed sheet, and are cheap.
Opting to crowdfund comes with some of the pros and cons of crowdfunding (notably, you’ll still have to market the offering and ensure the final design looks great), but lets you bypass the manufacturing, distribution and shipping. Your funding goal can be much lower as a result, and all you really need to do is ensure your backers receive their print-ready file.
The main limitation here is a fundamental one: your game can’t ask for too much assembly. Sure, there are a few enthusiasts out there who will love the challenge of crafting everything, but the more cards or other things that need assembling, the less likely it’ll actually get made and played. Voyages (and others that have come after it) works brilliantly because all you need is the sheet and some dice.
The 8 questions to ask to help you decide
- Do I want to start a business or make a game?
- How important is it for me to have control over the various aspects of the game?
- Do I have some upfront money to invest in my game’s art, marketing, etc.?
- Do I have a good sense of the skills I have, and can I find / hire the help I’ll need?
- Can I explain (or create) the art this game will need?
- Do I know how much I’ll need to raise, and how many backers I’d need to fund?
- Am I ready to build a community and get them excited about my game?
- How will I define success for my game?
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Over to you
Which options have you considered? Comments are open.