indie game development by J. Walton
There’s an SG thread about things you wish you did differently when publishing something. Here’s what I came up with:
0. I would have gotten to know people who were indie publishers BEFORE I published rather than after, so I had people I could call up and ask questions. If you don’t have the personal cell number of a successful indie publisher, maybe you don’t know one well enough yet.
1. I would have gotten a business account at my bank (which I now have) first thing, before doing anything else, so I could keep income and expenses for my publishing activities complete separate from my personal accounts. This is especially critical later on when you’re doing your business taxes.
2. I would have taken care of other business-related activities way earlier too, like getting state and city business licenses.
3. Before I had any products ready to go, I would have set up spreadsheets to track purchases through all the different methods I used (“backpack” sales, booth sales at various cons, IPR direct sales, IPR retailer sales, IPR convention sales, PDF sales through my website, Lulu print sales, Lulu PDF sales, PDF sales through DriveThur/RPGnow, etc.), since all of those have different expenses and I made different amounts of profit off each one. That’s a lot of work, but it’s critical and is one of those things nobody really talks about.
4. Having set up the spread sheet and run some estimated numbers through it, I would have been careful to price my book so that I made at least some profit off each one of those outlets. As it was, I lost money on IPR retailer sales for a while, maybe even for the duration that Push was available in print.
5. I wouldn’t have printed books through Lulu, despite it being relatively convenient. I know some publishers that still use them, but it’s not really competitive, cost wise, with getting a short run of 200 or so copies through an actual printer.
6. I would have had a schedule where I printed the books months before I actually needed them for GenCon. First, it’s good if folks have at least a month or so to read and/or play your game before you launch it at a big convention, so there’s folks there who can run it besides you. Second, it prevents last minute deadline rushing that can leave you with a product that you’re not satisfied with later. Better to put out a solid game the first time then back-track and apologize later. If you’re putting out your game in, say, January or Feburary (a great month to release a game), it’s clear you’re not rushing it just to have it for GenCon. If you’re launching at GenCon or some other big convention… maybe your book isn’t actually ready to go yet.
7. I would have had a flat, up-front payment to contributors and not split profits later. Promising people money you don’t yet have is kinda bullshit and it means that you have to keep sending them checks for a potentially infinite amount of time into the future, until you decide to let the book go out of print (which is ultimately what happened to Push, not un-coincidentally). While it may seem the “fair” thing to do for the folks that are helping you out, it’s WAY more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Ryan recently had a post where he mentioned the option of trading shares of later profit for editorial work. DON’T DO IT. Pay some money just so you never have to work with someone again if they turn out to be a jerk. Everyone I worked with on Push was awesome, but it was still too much of a hassle to count profits and them split them 6 ways.
8. I edited Push, so I can’t really talk about editing so much. It’s been a popular topic lately, though, so I feel like I should say something. Here’s the thing, a good editor is more than just some dude you hire to read your game and tell you where it sucks, in the same way that a good layout guy doesn’t just walk away with your text and come back with a fully finished PDF. Editors get into the guts of what you create and are collaborators in what you ultimately produce, so make sure that they’re somebody that you want to have a partnership with and trust to stick with you until your project is done. I know more than a few indie game designers who thought they had a deal with an editor and then shit happened and they ended up having to do it themselves or find other people to help. Heck, that’s how I ended up editing part of Blowback for free. Also, this stuff about “getting what you pay for” with editing is
editor-serving drivel.* Paying more won’t always get you a better product. When is that ever true? Paying less or expecting things for free won’t get you a better product either. The only way to make sure you get good editing is having a strong relationship with someone who is willing to give you the kind of help you want and need. Whether you’re paying them or not doesn’t matter. You can pay someone a bunch of money and still get shitty editing (or even no editing, if they take your money and walk). Hiring an editor does not absolve you of the responsibility of publishing a unclear or poorly written game. You don’t get to blame them later when there are still problems. You still ultimately have to decide when your game is ready for release. And that can be without any editing. Really, the idea that every game needs an editor is also editor-serving drivel.* What happened to our punk-rock, DIY spirit? Release whatever you want, just make sure you’re willing to stand up and take responsibility for your creations, whatever they look like. If they’re a photocopied, stapled thing that you wrote in 6 hours and sell for $10 a piece, power to you.
9. I would have made sure the games were consistently fun to play before publishing them. There’s are a bunch of ways to do this, but mostly it involves playing your game in the spirit it was intended — not to break it, not to see if extreme situations are covered by the rules, just to have fun and enjoy it. What Ben’s anti-playtesting rant got right was that playing your game a whole bunch won’t magically show you all the problems it has and offer you clear solutions to them. Sometimes you’ll play a game a bunch, it’ll still be mediocre, and you won’t be sure what the problems are and how to fix them. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t publish that game (yet or ever, depending on if you figure it out later). Also, if nobody wants to play your game with you, you should either find people who do or maybe not publish that game. If you had no audience, who are you going to sell it to or (if it’s for free) who’s going to play it?
10. I would think very carefully about conventions and make sure that they made sense for my budget and aspirations. I wouldn’t have done a convention just because it felt like I was supposed to or that’s how things worked. Better yet, I would have gone to conventions just as a regular con-goer before deciding to pay a bunch of money to attend as part of a booth.
11. I wouldn’t have bought any art before the text of the game was final and ready to go. I still probably have several thousand dollars worth of art for products that may never exist. I’ve also sent hundreds of dollars to artists who never ended up delivering the goods, so this is another place where working with people that you have stronger ties with — or, at least, who act professionally — is much better.
12. I wouldn’t release “press releases” or made any kind of announcements about the future availability of products before they were at the printer. Definitely don’t take pre-order money from people before the final PDF is ready to be sent to the printer and you have a clear sense of print costs and everything else. Otherwise, how do you know what to charge or how long it’ll be before the books are ready?
I’m sure I can think of more, but those are the first dozen things.
EDIT: * an unfair characterization that I regret, see the next post.