Those who have followed Nothing Sacred Games for its nearly four year existence know it’s been in the murky world between design studio and publisher that many small game companies find themselves in. With crowdfunding money alleviating risk, more accessible manufacturers willing to work on small projects, and a plethora of useful information to help guide you through the whole process, it’s never been easier to sidestep the slow and often painful process of pitching to established publishers and just publish your own games.
But like many growing board game companies, I now find myself at a crossroads. I’ve successfully released two games, Corporate America and Shadow Throne, and a third, Birds of a Feather, is right around the corner. But changing circumstances and shifting priorities are making me question the status quo (something I love to do here at Nothing Sacred Games) and rethink self-publishing for the near future.
So today I thought I’d discuss the pros and cons of self-publishing versus finding a publisher. At the end I’ll spend a little time discussing my particular circumstances and what my plans are for my next couple of games.
The Path of Independence
Self-publishing offers many benefits, and it’s never been easier. Here are some of the reasons you might want to pursue the self-publishing route.
Creative Control. This was a big one for me, especially for Corporate America. When you’re publishing your own game, you don’t have to worry about anyone making changes, big or small, to your baby. Of course, you still need to produce something that other people will actually like, so the board game community might play this role to some extent, but for the most part you make the calls on everything from mechanics to art and theme.
Fast Track. Don’t get me wrong–self-publishing takes a really long time. But going through a publisher can take much longer. You don’t have to wait to hear back from publishers only to be rejected during the pitch process, or for a publisher to sit on your game while they work on their other many projects, or for them to fit it into their release schedule rather than your game’s schedule. When self-publishing, you can push that launch button whenever you feel comfortable.
Jack of All Trades. When you’re self-publishing, you do a LOT of different things. You’ll be designing, you’ll be coordinating with contractors and other businesses, you’ll be making calls about art, you’ll be fundraising, you’ll be shipping games around the world, you’ll be selling your excess games as best you can. This can be a downside, but it can also offer a lot of great learning opportunities, and can be a good fit for those of us who get bored doing the same thing all the time.
More Money. Don’t get me wrong… you’re not going to get much more money. But for first time designers, you can only expect pennies per copy sold when you go with an established publisher. If you’re self-publishing, you get to keep ALL the profits! (Which again won’t be much at all.)
Emerge from Anonymity. Having a reputation going into a self-publishing endeavor doesn’t hurt, but it’s not necessary. The same is true for pitching to a publisher, but publishers receive pitches from random yahoos all the time, and they’re far more likely to give someone a chance if they already have a name in the industry. Self-publishing can be a great way to make yourself a name, making future projects that much easier.
The Path of Cooperation
Wow, self-publishing sounds great… why would anyone choose another route? Well, let me tell you.
Helping Hand. I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes other people are better at certain things than you. With a publisher, you’ll have more eyes on your game, and more specialists making sure the details are just right. Whether it’s development and balancing, art and graphic design, or marketing and distribution, publishers can help pick up the slack when your skills aren’t up to snuff.
Well Oiled Machine. Many publishers have experience bringing games to market, and that means they’ve learned lots of tricks to make the process more efficient. You’ll probably have fewer bumps in the road if you go with someone who can point out the potholes before you encounter them.
Built-in Audience. If a publisher already has a game or two under its belt, it can leverage that fanbase to give new projects a nice boost right out of the gates. This is an especially nice benefit if your game fits well with the product line the publisher has already been building.
Less Time. You may not get paid as much, but you will spend much less time bringing a game to market if you’re just doing the design and not everything else. Even if the game eventually takes longer to release, you’ll have spent less of your own time to the project.
Now, it’s important to note that there are many different publishers out there, and they’re all unique. Some of them will offer more of these benefits than others, so when you’re looking for a publisher it’s important to consider what you want from them and whether they have a track record to show they can deliver. Working with the wrong publisher is almost certainly worse than self-publishing.
A Path of One’s Own
These pros and cons are very much on my mind as I contemplate the future of Nothing Sacred Games. I’ve always thought of myself as a designer first and a publisher by necessity, so I feel confident that I could go in either direction.
I started self-publishing for a number of reasons. Corporate America is a special game, and I wasn’t willing to risk losing creative control over it. My goal in starting Nothing Sacred Games was to explore the possibility of being an indie game designer, and that meant I’d need to make more money that I could as a first time designer. I was very excited about tabletop games and wanted to learn about the whole process from start to finish. And I’m frankly an impatient person, and I wanted to do all of those things immediately. All of this made self-publishing an obvious choice for me.
But I’m in a different place now. Even though I’ve made money on Corporate America and Shadow Throne, I haven’t made close to enough to support myself. I think I’d need to release 3-4 games a year to do that, which is simply outside my ability at this point. Instead, I’ve picked up contract programming work, and in a couple of months I’ve already made as much as I did from two years of slaving over Corporate America. It’s tough to argue with that kind of payout.
At the same time, working more means I have less time to dedicate to tabletop games. A publisher handling some of the responsibilities, and therefore saving me a lot of time, is becoming more appealing and more necessary.
After having explored all of the aspects of tabletop game creation, I’ve also discovered I’m better at some than others, and I enjoy some more than others. For me, it’s all about the game, the vision, and the player experience. Worrying about every little detail, managing a team of people, coordinating with other companies, and selling the game to customers are all aspects that are less appealing, and that I’m frankly weaker at. Having help in these areas would not only result in more successful games, it would result in me enjoying my job more.
Finally, while self-publishing has taught me a ton about the industry and game creation, I still haven’t experienced working with a publisher to make one of my visions into a reality. I’m interested in seeing the whole process from a different vantage point.
For all of these reasons, I plan on shifting away from self-publishing, at least in the short term. That doesn’t mean Nothing Sacred Games will never publish again. In fact, I still have hopes that Shadow Throne: Shifting Shadows comes to Kickstarter before long. But it does mean my focus will no longer be on bringing games all the way to market, at least for my next few games.
This November, I will be traveling to Texas for BGG.Con, my first large national convention. In addition to seeing lots of friends (including many I know only through the internet), playing lots of games, and making sure everyone knows how awesome Birds of a Feather is, my priority for the event will be finding publishers for three projects.
First is The Second Age of Sorcery, a game I discussed in great detail in a recent article.
Second is Trellis, a simple but beautiful game I have been developing over the past few months.
And third is Corporate America. That’s right! After being out of print for nearly a year, I’m hoping to bring the game back with the help of a publisher who can improve the presentation and bring the game to more people who would love it. I frequently get questions about where to find a copy of the game, and I really hope that by this time next year I’ll have an actual answer!
All three of these games are awesome, and there are publishers out there that would do great with them. Do you think you might be that publisher? Let me know and let’s start talking!
I know finding the right publisher and working with them to bring a game to market is a long, slow process. Even so, I’m excited to dive into the next era for Nothing Sacred Games, and I hope to have good news to share with you soon as I delve yet again into the unknown in game creation!
I would like to thank my generous patrons, whose support and encouragement have made this article possible.