My 2 Biggest Challenges as a Publisher

22 January 2018

I always stumble over this question: “What are the biggest challenges you face?”

The “you” refers to Stonemaier Games, and the person who poses the question is usually in the financial field (advisor, accountant, investor, etc).

It’s a great, valid question, and I think it’s one that all creators, entrepreneurs, and publishers should be able to answer. Not only is the answer beneficial to the person who’s asking it, but it’s also helpful for me to look at my company from this perspective.

So today I thought I’d try to fully process and answer this question for Stonemaier Games. My answers may be quite different from yours, but hopefully you’ll derive value from this introspection.

The 2 Biggest Challenges Facing Stonemaier Games

Time

Time is such a precious resource, and there’s never enough of it. This isn’t just about my time, which, given the amount of time I like to work each week, is actually quite abundant. Though there are weeks when I don’t get to spend any time on game design.

Time is also a challenge for all of the independent contractors with whom I work. Every game is dependent on the schedules of the playtesters, proofreaders, artists, and graphic designers. I can encourage, motivate, and incentive, but in the end, I’m at the whim of the many talented people who make our games balanced, clear, and beautiful.

It’s also a challenge for two of the most important companies we rely on: Our manufacturer (Panda) and our freight shipping company (OTX). A game can easily take 3-4 months to print, and then another 1-2 months to freight ship from China to our warehouse. A lot of the decisions I make would be a lot easier if I could push a button and have 1000 copies at our warehouse the next day!

Money

The cash flow cycle for a board game publisher is crazy. We invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a game, and we don’t see any revenue from that game until several months after it’s released. I’m not saying the system is broken, but it means there are times when we’re flush with cash and other times when our bank account is greatly depleted.

This is compounded by the fact that we’re constantly printing more games. You might think that Scythe has been profitable for Stonemaier Games, but really it’s just enabled us to make more Scythe.

By far our biggest expense is manufacturing, followed by freight shipping and taxes. We could make more games–and perhaps we will be more conservative in the future–but if you make fewer games, you also have fewer games to sell, which results in less revenue.

The challenge of money has been a major reason why it’s taken so long for Stonemaier to offer full-AI digital versions of our games. I simply can’t afford to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a game that might take years to program (and may not ever make back that money). Fortunately we have partners now for Scythe and Viticulture who are able to invest in those games, paying us a small royalty on the back end.

I think some companies solve the cash cycle issue by running Kickstarters, taking on bridge loans, seeking investors, two approaches I respect. We haven’t gotten to the point where either of those methods are necessary, but that may change in the future.

***

Stonemaier Games faces other challenges, of course, but almost all of them connect back to time and money. There are others too, but as far as I can tell, we’ve already addressed them and found solutions for them.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your profession?

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29 Comments on “My 2 Biggest Challenges as a Publisher

  1. These factors are one of the main reasons why I have been leaning more and more towards submitting my designs to publishers in the future rather than using crowdfunding. The logistical and administrative work load is almost obscene. I have so much respect for anyone who chooses to publish, it’s almost like taking on a second job. Publishers, I salute you, you’re making my life as a new designer much easier. :D

  2. You hit this one right on the head! Especially as a start-up publisher the two biggest hang-ups are Time and Money. The game I am currently working on is just a simple card game, but yet has been a 5-6 month process so far. and still has another 6 months to go before its hopefully funded and delivered.

    It was also nice you brought up how you are at the mercy of your independent contractors. I have an artist that is doing amazing art for me, but with being over in Asia there is no way to hold them accountable and communication is normally delayed. something that could normally take 2-3 emails and then be worked on that day can get stretched out to a week or so before anything can start getting done.

    -Cody Thompson

    1. Cody: I can completely relate to that. While I love working with different people around the world, I’ve really had to learn to be flexible about their schedules (and sometimes cut the relationship short if it’s simply taking too long).

  3. Totally agree. Also as a Designer/Publisher, if I had to pick two, it’d be the exact two you’ve picked, and for the exact same reasons.

    One thing that’s helped me with the Time challenge is accepting the fact that I don’t have to do it all. Coming up on the 10-year anniversary of making my first game, it’s a big relief looking back at that game, when I did absolutely everything, and comparing it to my upcoming releases, where I’ve done a lot, but not all. It’s imperative to get the right team together to support this, but when you do, Time gets spent managing the work of others, not trying to do it all on your own.

    On the Money challenge… I paid for my first game’s production out of pocket (crazy, right?) because it was done in 2008, before Kickstarter was used for games like it is now. Kickstarter has greatly helped me on the Money challenge by helping pay for some or all of a game’s production. This brings its own set of challenges but I think they’re worth dealing with overall. One example of how it changes things for you as a publisher is– instead of answering to just yourself as a sole investor (my first game, paid out of savings), you’re now answering to every backer of your Kickstarter, now hundreds of other people who expect something from you. If you can handle the pressure of that, and follow through on everything the campaign promises, then Kickstarter can help you face the Money challenge too.

    Best,
    Byron

    1. Byron: I really like this: “accepting the fact that I don’t have to do it all.” That’s something I’ve been learning more and more, though somehow, even with increased delegation, I still end up working the same amount each week. :)

      1. It’s hard for me as well. I’d say my workload on myself remains about the same- because even if I delegate something out or get some help on some aspect, I fill up that ‘free time’ with more work I can do on other things. Ultimately, if I have time, I fill that time with more work. We need to get a beer.

  4. Hi!
    I am the “Christian Lemay” that asked you last week on your FB live “how do manage to balance your time between your “job” as a publisher and your game design time?”
    I am a publisher too, and I also design some of the games I publish.

    My company is Scorpion Masqué (French for Masked Scorpion). We are based in Montréal. We exist since 2006, but since we publish mainly party games, we are mostly known in the French market (France + Belgium + Québec) and not on BGG, where gamers prefer “bigger games”.

    The first struggle is, as you may expect from my question, to balance time between designing and developing our games and the management of the company. I have a little family and I decided long ago that I would not work more than 40 hours per week (except when I attend fair and that I am out of the house anyway). Scorpion Masqué is doing very well, so I have less and less time to do what is important (and fun!): games…

    Second is the growth. Our sales passed from 250 000 can $ to more than 1 000 000$ can $ in the last 4 years. To continue growing, I have to find the right people to help me sell games in foreign territories. But a person who works well in this area is not cheap. The problem is not cash flow (I have this chance!), but just to make sure that it is still business wise, that this person does break even with the money he or she brings in… This might come also with another graphist, an office not in my basement…
    Growth is a much bigger challenge than I expected!

    1. Christian: Thanks for joining the live chat! :) And congrats on the growth of your company–that’s fantastic! I can definitely relate to the challenge of time and the cost to hire the right people.

  5. It is crazy how you can have such popular great games, high in the charts and be in this situation. The video game indie equivalents like Edmund McMillen (super meatboy) have over $30 million dollars cash after tax.

    If you just compare the charts (nothing else) of board games with video games then Stonemaier should bigger than any video game indie. Scythe is number 8 of all time and Viticulture Essentials is 22. That is higher than any video game indie has gone in their field. But the board game market must be so tiny compared to the video game market. To have such a big hit, and be in such a position to receive the same return as maybe Downwell (small mobile game) is worrying and depressing.

    How much do the giants of board games make? The lifetime of Carcassonne has sold 10 million copies. That is about $350 million. That is what Candy Crush makes in 3 months.

    1. Gerald: Yeah, video games typically require more (sometimes a LOT more) in up front cash, and some ongoing expenses like server space, but every digital game you sell after the first requires no further investment or lag. It’s like the opposite of a board game. :)

      Carcassonne has an MSRP of $35, so the distributor price is $14. It probably costs about $6 to make a copy of the game, so that’s about $80 million in profit.

  6. Focus – my weakness is taking on too many projects, getting distracted by short-term things, worrying about other people’s problems instead of focusing on the task at hand, and letting myself wander off onto tangents instead of clearing my to-do list.

    It’s the bane of my existence.

      1. In an address she delivered at a local high school graduation, former award-winning chemistry teacher Joan Beardsley—who generously collaborated on my first science board game during the last year before her premature death from multiple myeloma—urged the graduates to embrace “hardy habits.” Now, with my 88th birthday rushing at me, I’m convinced that Focus is the most important Hardy Habit for continued productivity in old age, assuming you’re lucky enough to be spared physically-caused mental deterioration. Money matters matter less, and The Challenge that looms largest, as Time maddeningly speeds up, is getting that last project out the door before your biological clock runs out.

        1. Dorothy: Thank you for sharing! That makes sense to me, and I’m realizing after reading your and JR’s comments that focus is a big challenge for me too. On most days I feel like I’m pulled in dozens of different directions, and sometimes I just need to pick one thing, focus on it, and do it well.

  7. Jamey,

    IN any enterprise, yu need to have enough of and balance the requirements for Time, Talent, and Treasure. While as you mentioned, Scythe has proven profitable…even if that means you produce more Scythe, hopefully, it’s also been able to (along with Viticulture), to provide you with a degree of financial security. Time is always referred to as a precious resource and it’s one that starts running out almost immediately. Fortunately for you and Alan, you’re surrounded by an incredible team of talented individuals who will gladly work hard to make your brand not only successful, but one for which they can have great pride.

  8. The hardest challenge of becoming completely self-employed is marketing. My family moved and it’s been difficult to establish myself in a new market. When I worked for a large institution, they marketed for me. Selling myself is a horrible struggle. I would rather just give away my services. It’s also risk vs. reward: I have greater earning potential, freedom and control working for myself but I give up security teaching for a university. I suppose that it would be the same for your company – maintaining control or giving control to a larger corporation for more security.

    1. Jon: Thanks for sharing your biggest challenge!

      That’s true, if another company bought Stonemaier Games, I would have to give up a certain amount of control (though it depends on the arrangement).

  9. Time and Money, huh? Can’t relate. ; )

    100%. I might list Time as both #1 and #2, and Money #3, even when we’re tight on cash flow.

    I teach my students often about this.
    “Time is your most valuable resource. You can’t put it in a bank, or under your mattress and ‘save’ it. It’s going to be ‘spent’ whether you like it or not. …so what are you going spend it ON?”

  10. Definitely agree with Time and Money. Probably something that has affected us is People. Finding the right People to work with, hire, to fit in to the company has been difficult. It’s tied to Money because sometimes we think we find the right person but don’t have enough money to afford to keep them from other industries. Interesting topic. Thanks.

  11. Don’t have a wife or kids :).

    My time breakdown is roughly the following:

    Total hours in week: 168

    Things I can’t really change:
    Sleep: 56
    Work (inc lunch): 45
    Work commute: 7.5
    Getting ready for work (breakfast, packing lunch): 5
    Dinner time routine during week: 5
    Total 118h
    Remaining time: 50h

    It takes a minimum of 15h/week to maintain a healthy marriage.
    Wife time: 15h

    Then I need to spend time with the kids on the weekend. They’re awake for 12h per day and I can’t really escape for more than 1h.
    Kids time: 22h

    That leaves 13h/week for doing other stuff.

    I go to a play testing group one night per week which goes for 3h.

    So I have 10h per week for everything that I want to do, including games design and anything recreational. Usually I’ll spend anywhere between 0h and 5h per week on games design/play testing. Mostly at night after the wife has gone to bed.

    Then again, I’m not a publisher. My game design time is pure design work (creating prototypes/spreadsheets etc…).

  12. Hi Stephen,

    That is a scary breakdown, but it’s true. Those hours can’t really be reallocated, unless you have a mega hit on kickstarter. But Jamey could probably still get married and have kids doing a full-time 50 hour week of game design (a cut of 30 hours), but almost 0 free time. If you want more harsh reality (with a perhaps helpful tip at the end), then read on.

    Play testing is also part of game design (learning from others), so it adds up to 8 hours per week. 8 hours x 52 weeks is 416 hours per year.

    What takes you 1 year is equivalent to 5 days for Jamey. What Jamey can get done in 3 months would take most people 12 years to do, time wise.

    It is said that you need 10,000 hours before you become an expert at something. At 416 hours per year it would take 24 years to become an expert. That goes for anyone who dedicates 8 hours per week to their interest. Most people are too exhausted to do that.

    You might be able to increase the time if you great a theme that your wife loves. Then you two can work it together a bit, you might be able to take 2 or 4 hours from the Wife time spending time with your wife and doing game design. The same goes if you create a family theme, then you can involve the children in discussions and play-testing with them. And a family game theme doesn’t have to be childish as children love Ticket to Ride and Quadropolis.

    1. You’re absolutely right. And I think that’s one of the reasons the medium is in its infancy. We’ve had too few masters over the years because it’s not economically viable!

      The comparison is different though. Jamey has publishing and marketing commitments, so his real game design hours per week isn’t anywhere near 80h. I thoroughly agree though that working full time on something gives you a lot more time to master a craft than doing it in your spare hours.

      The thing is, if you’re single and without kids, even if you’re working full time, you can devote a huge number of spare hours per week to design and play testing. Even with kids, you can hustle 10h per week (2h per day Monday to Friday) and still have plenty of time for your family.

  13. Time is also a challenge for all of the independent contractors with whom I work. Every game is dependent on the schedules of the playtesters, proofreaders, artists, and graphic designers.

  14. Wow….this was an amazing thread! Everyone in this thread is speaking directly to me.
    I am in the middle of my 3rd Kickstarter right now: Lucky’s Misadventures.

    I have been making games since I was in grade school. I decided to publish after my Dad died in 2010. Time and Cash Flow have always been the biggest challenges.

    I am an exec in a high tech company which affords me the luxury of being able to cover the cash flow issues during the lean times (but I still need to make ends meet).

    People hear that I have a hobby game company and they ask “when are you going to retire?” I always tell them…for every $3 I spend, I make $1. They are always surprised by that !

    I’m not sure what my point is here….but trying to juggle a full time job, a game company and being in the middle of that KS desert made the point of this thread personally relevant: time and cash flow.

    Thanks everyone,
    Jay Meyer
    Great Northern Games

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