[This post is part of a series! Click here for Part 1 and Part 2 respectively]
First, in the comments on my last post, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.
It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.
I’ve gone back and edited part 2 to add both of these concerns to my post.
Lastly, Rachel Kahn – the artist and creator of By Crom! – linked me to a talk that she gave about her experience of self-publishing as an indie comics artist. It’s not games, obviously, but she covers a lot of useful topics that still apply to game publishing, so it’s definitely worth a listen.
So far I’ve covered the thinky stuff about why you should consider self-publishing and common cognitive pitfalls to avoid. I’ve also talked about the economics of various distribution models and the pros and cons of each approach. However! I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room – crowdfunding! Nor have I talked about alternative content models and creative partnerships. So I’m going to do my best to address those three topics in this post.
I know that this doesn’t exactly make for scintillating reading, so this is the last post in the series and after this I will return to more entertaining things.
Economics of making the thing
It is literally impossible to possess all of the skills needed to make a polished and professional game without needing the input of another human. If you are fantastically lucky, you might be one of the rare humans who can also make art and do layout in addition to writing and designing a game. However, you will always need a human that isn’t you to edit your work.
Yes always. You are legit not capable of editing your own work because your brain is an asshole and will lie to you about what is actually on the page.
So at the very least, you will need to find an editor. Depending on your skillset, you may also need a layout person and an artist. (Sometimes artists can do layout as well. But in my experience, it’s far more common that these would be separate people.) And of course, any editor, artist, or layout person capable of putting out professional-quality work is going to want to be paid for their time.
With that in mind, let’s look at different options available to you. Although it’s worth noting beforehand that generally, the less money you’re willing to spend, the more time you can expect to spend yourself.
1) Shoestring everything yourself
Admittedly, this is a lot easier if you are an artist or layout-capable person yourself. However, it is possible, and is something I have done in the past.
First, you’ll need an editor. If you’re trying to avoid needing to pay people, consider your network of friends. Do you have any friends who are competent editors? English or Journalism majors? Compulsive grammar nerds? Ask if they’d be willing to edit your draft! A lot of the time, friends will be willing to trade favors for favors. Can you help your prospective editor move? Provide free babysitting? Something else tedious and time-consuming?
Be creative – friends will be a lot more flexible in what they’ll accept as compensation. Just make sure not to screw your friend over by not following through on your end of the bargain. Few things sour friendships faster than screwing over someone in a business arrangement.
Next, artwork. Are you an artist yourself? Cool beans! Congratulations on being a lucky human! If not, however, don’t despair. The Prismatic Art Collection is an excellent collection of RPG stock art featuring inclusive and diverse artwork by a lot of fantastic artists.
If that doesn’t meet your needs, consider getting creative. If you can’t draw, are you any good with a camera? Consider using photography instead of illustration. J. R. Blackwell’s work on Heroine is a fantastic example of how well this can work out.what this can look like.
Lastly, layout. It is possible for the layout-inexperienced to do their own layout, but you need to be prepared for the massive time expenditure this will entail. How long do you think laying out your book will take? Great. Now quadruple that estimate. And maybe double that estimate. Essentially, you’ll be teaching yourself a new skill, and that takes time.
That’s not to say it’s impossible! If you want to go that route, grab several of your favorite game books whose look you want to emulate and crib (without plagiarizing!) from the elements that make those books pleasing. This will require trial and error. Persevere! (On no account, however, should you attempt to do this using any Microsoft product. Period. That way lies madness and despair.)
1a) Shoestring everything but art, source art cheaply
If the Prismatic Art Collection doesn’t fit your needs, stock art can be an inexpensive alternative – although it’s important to note that you’ll be sacrificing specificity if you go this route; you may need to go with something that approximates what you were looking for if you can’t find something that precisely fits what you had envisioned.
There are artists doing some really interesting things with stock art collections on Patreon; typically in exchange for becoming a patron you gain access to an artist’s stock art library. My favorites that I’ve seen are Kaitlynn Peavler, George Cotronis, and James E. Shields. However, with more artists joining all the time, it’s worth taking a look at who else is doing similar projects to see whose art you’re most attracted to.
Your other option is to license stock art from a big stock photo site and then modify it yourself. One great example of this is Apocalypse World – Vincent Baker did traceovers of photos he found on stock photo sites and the end result is fantastic. Going this route will also represent a significant time expenditure! Because I can guarantee that you’re going to spend a fair amount of time on trial-and-error before you settle on something you like.
2) Assemble a team of freelancers, do a KickStarter to raise the funds to pay them
Increasingly, this is what the face of game publishing is looking like. If you go this route (and I’d say any project over about 20,000 words, you should definitely consider this as an option), look at what it is you need that you’re prepared to pay for.
Then go recruiting people to fill those needs. Pitch the project and explain what you want to hire them to do, then ask about their rates and availability. (Availability is important! Putting together a team of awesome people who can’t start working as soon as the campaign is over is going to lead to massive delays and headaches.) Add all that together and that’s your creative budget.
I have more to say about KickStarter, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
3) Creative partnerships
The middle ground between option 1 and option 2 is a creative partnership. Say you have a project that you want to do, and you have about half of the needed skills. Consider shopping around for a creative partner who has the skills that you lack for the purposes of entering into a creative partnership in exchange for a mutually agreed-upon split of the profits (usually 50/50).
A great example of this is my partnership with Josh Roby on Princess Charming. Josh wanted to write a series of books for children; he was capable of handling writing, layout, and production logistics. However, he needed someone to do art as well as character and setting design. So he pitched the project to me and we became partners on this project. And it worked out really well for me! I did a bunch of fun (albeit time-consuming) art things, and then gave them to Josh and didn’t have to think about it anymore while he did all the work of turning them into physical books. Sucker.
If you go this route, it’s super important to put down in writing who is expected to perform which tasks and what the desired timeline is going to be. It’s also very important that you work with someone you can get along with, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time interacting with your partner. Don’t be tempted to partner with someone who rubs you the wrong way simply because you like their work, because trust me – that will never end well. Also, consider working together on a small project as a trial run before committing to working on a large project with someone who haven’t partnered with previously. It’s no fun discovering halfway through that you like your partner as a person but they drive you crazy as a collaborator.
You will need to figure out how to monetize the thing you want to make and plan accordingly. Consider signing a contract as to how profits will be split and how and when royalties will be paid to the person not receiving the monies. It is absolutely vital that you be on the same page with your partner about money things.
Serial content: Patreon
Everything that I’ve said about self-publishing so far has been predicated on the idea that what you are looking to do is sell a game. But maybe that’s not what you’re after, and maybe you’re open to alternative content models? So here I’m going to divert a little to talk about Patreon, since it would be a massive omission to not talk about Patreon as a way of funding game content.
Patreon is a great way to create small serial content; with traditional publishing models you can invest hundreds of hours in a project before it’s ready to publish. Patreon helps level out the revenue stream by providing income for content delivered in smaller, manageable chunks.
Most people use this to create content in discrete, self-contained chunks. Josh Roby uses Patreon to create “steampunk ports of call”, which are basically steampunk mini-settings. Mark Diaz Truman is using Patreon to create a monthly ezine called the Fate Codex.
Some people, like Caitlynn Belle and Topher Gerkey use it to fund the creation of small game projects. However, it can also be used to fund the development of larger projects; Quinn Murphy has been using his Patreon to fund the development of Five Fires – a hip hop RPG. You can also release games by the chapter, as this Patreon for the development of a Mexican RPG about killing angels. (I know I’m not doing it justice with that description, so please do check it out.)
Alternatively, some people use a per month model to fund the development of a larger project, or to enable more nebulous, hard-to-quantify work such as activism. Avery McDaldno is a good example of this; she makes games, coordinates events, gives talks, and does all sorts of awesome gameish things.
(And of course, because I’m bound to leave someone out here, it’s worth checking out this list of RPG-related Patreons over on RPGGeek.)
It’s worth noting that generally if you’re just starting out in game design, you should consider sticking to a per-content model rather than a per-month model. Without a proven reputation or established audience, a per-month model can be a hard sell; there are too many great Patreons out there to ever be able to support them all. You need to make potential patrons feel secure about seeing a return on investment, and a per-content model is a great way to do that. If you don’t create content, they don’t pay you anything! You’ll also need to invest effort in promoting your Patreon. Simply creating a Patreon and waiting for the money to roll in isn’t going to work. At all.
(And of course, Patreon is still a pretty new platform, so it’s hard to say definitively that these are your only two options. Who knows! There might be other exciting things people are doing that I’m not aware of!)
There are two main crowdfunding platforms for game content: IndieGoGo and KickStarter. I’ve written previously about why I use KickStarter and why you should too, but tl;dr is that IndieGoGo’s ethics leave a hell of a lot to be desired.
Anyhow, this section isn’t going to be about logistics – because there are a ton of people who have written voluminously about the logistics of running a game KickStarter. I could probably do an entire roundup post of KickStarter advice, and now that I think about it I really should. (Hmm.)
Anyway, most of what’s out there is written from the perspective of people who are running REALLY BIG CAMPAIGNS. So here is some perspective from the opposite end of the scale.
Budget, budget, budget
It can be a bit daunting figuring out exactly how to put together your budget, so for illustration here is my budget for Ruined Empire. It does not include an editor! Make sure you don’t omit that.
YMMV, naturally, but this is a pretty good overview of the stuff that you should be thinking about. (Plus editing.) You’ll note that I’ve included payment for myself in my budget. ALWAYS ALWAYS DO THAT. KickStarters are a huge, huge job and you don’t want to wind up going through all that effort essentially for free.
I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, so I put this together using magic formulas to do the math for me. But if spreadsheets aren’t your thing, maybe check out these KickStarter budget calculators I found here and here? (I’m afraid I can’t vouch for their effectiveness in depth, but they looked useful when I was checking them out.)
KickStarter will be your lord and master
Running a KickStarter is like having a baby. No matter how prepared you may think you are, you aren’t ready at all. There will always be tasks that you hadn’t anticipated doing. A KickStarter is like a hungry, angry baby constantly demanding your attention.
Sound annoying? It is! And stressful! And time consuming, if you’re doing it right!
There is no replacement for KickStarter in that it can enable large projects that would otherwise be out of your reach. I would never have been able to put together Ruined Empire in a format that I felt would do it justice without KickStarter. However, KickStarters are a huge time and energy sink. Expect to be able to run 1 per year when you’re starting out; even the really experienced single-person publishers I know only manage 2 per year.
Make sure that your KickStarter revenue and expenses are in the same calendar year
This is actually something covered in pretty much all “mainstream” advice, but it’s important enough that I’m going to say it again here.
I didn’t do that with Ruined Empire and it’s kind of fucking over my taxes. Whoops.
Pay your damn freelancers
The big companies get away with screwing freelancers with unfavorable terms, but you should aspire to a higher standard. Half payment up front and half upon completion of work is a reasonable standard, and paying your freelancers promptly when you determine that their work is the final draft with no further changes needed will endear you greatly to them.
I could say more but I won’t
I know there’s more that I could say about KickStarter, but I’m going to hold off on that until after Ruined Empire and do a detailed post-mortem of that, since it’s the closest thing to a traditional game product I’m probably ever going to publish. Until then, to the Google!
So how much money can I make?
On my previous post, I got asked how much money you can expect to make selling RPGs. But that question is kind of impossible to answer for a number of reasons. To quote myself:
It depends. What kind of game are you trying to sell? What is it about? Is it something with broad appeal, or a weird little niche thing with limited appeal? How polished is it? Is it a standalone product or a supplement that requires another book to play?
How long have you been working on building an audience? Are you part of a community of gamers/game designers who can help promote your game? Have you been going to conventions to run your game? Have you been making an effort to get your games into game retailers?
I can’t give you numbers. Game design is like ANY business in that you have to put time IN to get money OUT.
So that is what I leave you with, my lovelies. I can’t promise you great fame or riches, all I provide here is a roadmap of what self-publishing can look like and how to get there. However, self-publishing is a business, and like any business you can’t expect the money to come in by itself. Businesses take time and effort sustained over years in order to build – they’re not something that just happens overnight.
Still, I hope that writing at such length (!!!) is helpful at demystifying the publishing process.
 John Harper is seriously amazing.
 Note that these numbers are in $USD, while the campaign itself funded in $CAD