Don’t Pee in the Sandbox…
I have worn many hats in my days, from retailer to publisher, from designer to project manager, from e-book distributor to Kickstarter fulfillment, from trainee to consultant. I decided I’d share some of the knowledge I’ve garnered over the years in hopes of setting some standard or best practices in our small hobby industry. Maybe reading this it will also help you see things though the eyes of your business partners and understand why they do what they do.
A typical path a game takes to reach a customer these days would be:
Designer → Publisher → Kickstarter → Manufacturer → Fulfillment → Distributor → Retailer → Consumer
- Create an LLC and don’t do this under your own name. It’s simple and not very costly. If things go south, you have a way out without losing your assets.
- Check out my free ePublisher Guide ebook I wrote some years ago. It’s still very relevant.http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=17585
- Make sure you have some operating capital to survive if your first game isn’t a huge success.
- Your game needs to be in a “blind test”-ready state before submitting to a publisher. This means that out of the box, reading the rules someone can play the game.
- Don’t submit to a company that doesn’t make games like the one you made. That just wastes everyone’s time.
- First try to find a publisher to work with before you consider crowdfunding at Kickstarter. Yes you might have a bit more control and higher initial profits, but retailers do not support many crowdfunded games. In fact many actively avoid them.
- Don’t send the same prototypes to multiple publishers unless they agree that it’s acceptable.
- Don’t harass a publisher. Contact them once a month at most.
- Attend prototype events like http://www.Protospiel.org and http://www.UnPub.net
- Make appointments to meet with publishers at conventions, don’t just hit them up at the show.
- Please read: “Courting a Game Publisher – DO’s and DON’Ts”http://www.jamesmathe.com/courting-a-game-publisher-dos-and-donts/
- Provide exceptional art and graphic design in our games. Don’t have your buddy or family member do it. Pay for a professional artist.
- Make usable box inserts that allow for expansions and especially card in sleeves.
- Use 2mm chipboard when possible as it’s not much more expensive.
- Make sure the box is roughly a standard size and shape. 12”x12” square or 12”x9” rectangle for example.
- Make sure your box is at least 2” deep so it can stand on end on a store’s shelf.
- Make high-quality games that use production upgrades to create a more intuitive gaming experience (i.e., custom tokens instead of generic cubes)
- Don’t mix landscape and portrait cards in the same deck of cards.
- Don’t sacrifice style for functionality. Make fonts readable and not overly fancy that are hard to read.
- Include a way to keep score in the box. Sounds simple but some forget this. Expecting players to find paper or dice is not acceptable.
- Counters & tiles should be double-sided. They look cheap and require flipping if they are not.
- Use a proof reader outside the development team to review your manual.
- Invest in good cover and back art and designs. Don’t use boring human portraits.
- Back of your game box should show a picture of your game in action so a retailer can point at it and give a sales pitch or quick explaination of the game.
- Don’t use paper money in your games. Cardboard chits or even cards are a better choice. Paper gets damaged easily and seems cheap to the consumer.
- In your manual, use many pictures and diagrams plus a full image of setup at the beginning of the game. This image is a good place to call out all the components.
- Don’t keep using these overused themes: Cathedrals, Farming, Zombies, Build Castle, Mediterranean Trading, etc.
- Use full size cards if they are to be held in the hand. Make sure all they need to see is visible in the upper LEFT as most people fan their cards this way.
- Make sure your books and manuals follow some standards for layout, check out another one of my free ebooks here: “ePublisher PDF Creator” http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=18370
- 10,000 feet to making a game http://www.jamesmathe.com/10000-feet-to-publishing-a-board-game/
- Price our games reasonably. $10-20 for single deck card games, $30-45 for party games, $50-75 for heavy gamer games. $99 is about the limit consumers will pay for a huge game.
- Deep discounters are out there and there is little you can really do about it. Some companies have tried to use Minimum Mark Up contracts, but if you do that – make sure you’re actively enforcing that. Small companies will not have the clout to manage that.
- You don’t have to love it, but using the distribution system is still a must these days. Retailers do not want to direct order from you and are not interested in your solicitation calls.
- Meet delivery promises, make sure you build in a few months for issues that will arise.
- Provide retailers with PDF versions of the game or rules for free if they want them.
- Publish only special games, not mediocre games.
- Make games that provide memorable moments and vast replayability.
- Make games that scale well for a wide range of players (our general goal is 2-5 players)
- Thoroughly playtest (in person and blind) every game you release
- Don’t rename common things just for theme (like the discard pile)
- Make sure you define tie breakers in the the rule. Even how to break the ties of the breaker.
- Include a method for choosing a start player in the manual.
- Color blind test all aspects of the game. Make use symbols/icon to help as well.
- Make sure the game theme fits the mechanics and audience.
- Know the audience your company wishes to cater to. Don’t try to please all gamers. Pick a niche within the niche and attempt to shine.
- It’s a small industry so networking with others is very important. You can’t hide in your room and expect to do well.
- Many games are bought on faith of a brand/company. So spend some money on branding, which usually means attending conventions and running some online ads.
- Print ads are only good for branding once you have the money to spend on them. They are not a good choice for a small publisher.
- If you choose to use crowdfunding, realize that you will alienate some retailers.
- You products should always be sold at full MSRP on your own website. If you don’t believe in your own MSRP value, then there is a larger problem.
- Conventions are a pain and rarely make any money, but are a necessity for a serious publishing company. Your consumers want to know you’re taking your business seriously.
- Consider providing convention support with free games for prizes.
- Help retailers find demo teams in their area to show off your games on their game nights.
- If you choose to sell mostly direct and not use the distribution system, at least still provide a path to allow for retailer support and discounts though you directly.
- Provide all stores and customers a product at the same time. Do not release to other channels at different times.
- Launch party support helps promote the game, provide exclusives.
- Retailers love promotional materials, but flyers are not enough.
- Store demo copies should be provide at 25% of MSRP or free with a case or just send a scratch and dented copy to use.
Read my blog: “Kicking & Screaming” http://www.jamesmathe.com/kicking-screaming/
How to make it retailer friendly
- Offer proven retailers (at least in the USA) exclusives and demo kits
- Ship on time and to retailers the first week (if not first).
- Stores are used to 45-50% off MSRP plus free shipping and you should offer them that.
- The biggest complaint from retailers is the out-lay of money for the time it takes you to produce the game. So offer them a way to “pledge” their support without paying up front. Problem is Kickstarter does not really allow this – so you have to work this out offsite. You cannot for example put a $1 pledge up with the intention of more being paid after the campaign is completed. You need to direct the retailer to another page on your own website with infromation on how you want to handle getting them a commitment of the game and the stretch goals and exclusives.
- Allow local customer pickup so that the retailer will actually help promote your product by getting people to commit through their store to buying copies of the game. A sort of pre-order pull-through marketing.
- Try using the Springboard Local Support program from Game Salute. Http://www.GameSalute.com
Overseas shipping: Two ways to handle this better…
- Allow for group purchase of around 5 copies at a discounted shipping rate. Sure you eat some shipping costs, but the backers on the other end will work hard to get other locals in their country to join them in a group purchase.
- Find a company willing to help you with fulfillment to the EU. This can save your customers a lot and you only eat a couple hundred in VAT and Pallet delivery charges at most. Many more EU backers (the second largest group of backers) will jump on board this way.
(more of what you can do to keep from being burned)
- Get pricing quotes from several manufacturers you trust.
- Ask their turn around time
- Most require 50% up front, but this is negotiable after your first game.
- Ask them to provide a shipping quote
- Don’t let the Manufacturer do any product testing, get it done in the USA if you’re selling games for younger kids.
- Make sure they store the games in a climate-controlled facility and dehumidify the boards before packaging.
- Make sure they use real card stock (with layers called grey-core and such) and not just art paper.
- There are high quality Print on Demand (POD) companies these days you can use for short print runs, such as DriveThruCards or TheGameCrafter
- Manufacturers I personally trust without question: http://www.PandaGM.com and http://www.LudoFact.com
- 10,000 feet to making a game http://www.jamesmathe.com/10000-feet-to-publishing-a-board-game/
- Since distribution no longer attempts to promote our products, help smaller companies get more exposure.
- Keep pallet/flooring fees reasonable.
- Game Salute: Provides convention support, direct sales, and minimum mark up protection. Only works with 1 major distributor.
- Impressions Advertising: Provides access to the most distributors throughout the world.
- Publisher Services Inc (PSI): Can (if you’re lucky) provide access to main stream retail outlets.
- Alliance Distribution: Flooring: Can help with shipping out your crowdfunded project and sell on consignment.
- Amazon Fullfillment: Can help with direct sales and fulfillment of crowdfunded projects.
- Don’t make exclusive deals with publishers! This is why I think exclusive deals in distribution suck: http://www.jamesmathe.com/exclusive-deals-suck
- Picking errors kill sales. Some distributors are worse than others. Hire good staff.
- Stop expanding your “net pricing” products which charges you more than your standard discount.
Major USA Distributors:
- ACD Distribution
- Aladdin Distributors
- Alliance Game Distribution
- Diamond Comic Distributors
- GTS Distribution
- Mad Al Distributors
- Premier Hobby Distributors
- Southern Hobby
- WarPath Games Distribution
- Help pull-through sales by pre-ordering small publisher products from distribution as they are almost always under-ordering product which then causes delays for restocks and lost sales.
- Train your staff in the games you sell. Nothing worse than the staff member who’s an MTG fan who knows nothing about the board games in your store.
- Greet all customers and don’t stereotype. For example, don’t ask a girl in your shop what their boyfiend plays.
- Provide game play space and clean bathrooms.
- Provide store rules and enforce them. Ask the stinky people to bathe & use deodorant.
- Provide an events calendar online and/or in store.