5 October 2020 | 14 Comments
I’ll cut right to the chase: If you enjoy managing all of the different people, companies, and assets on this list, self-publishing might be fulfilling for you. If, however, game design brings you the most joy, working with an established publisher may be a great fit.
There’s a collection of articles related to this topic here under “Start Here,” but today I’m consolidating the core points and considerations into a single post.
Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
- You’re running a business. This isn’t necessarily a pro or a con, though it is a LOT more work than just game design. If you’re like me, you might genuinely enjoy the daily puzzle of logistics, operations, project management, marketing, etc. It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily good at all of those things, but I enjoy the challenge. It means, though, that game design is a small fraction of what I do.
- Creative control and freedom. If you’re in charge, you can try to make anything you want, including games that traditional publishers may not consider. I used the word “try” there, though, because you’re still beholden to consumers. Sure, you could make a $1000 game with life-size penguin miniatures, but if no one backs it or buys it, you’re in trouble. It’s exciting to be your own gatekeeper, though.
- You bear all of the risk. It’s your company, your money, and your customers. The risk is all yours. If you fail–and you will fail in varying degrees along the way–you’ll suffer the consequences. I’ve made many, many mistakes during my Stonemaier Games journey, and while I don’t like making mistakes, I enjoy the challenge of finding better ways to serve our customers and to bring joy to tabletops worldwide. Does that type of pressure drives you too?
- Crowdbuilding and relationships. As a self-publisher, you’re responsible for building a crowd and establishing relationships in the industry. You’re probably starting from scratch, while a publisher may already have a large mailing list and connections to dozens of distributors.
- The possibility of more money…but you also pay for everything. Yes, self-publishing can potentially result in more revenue than earning royalties as a designer. Though that revenue probably won’t end up in your pocket, as it goes to the company (marketing, logistics, manufacturing, etc). Ideally it will eventually be enough to cover a salary for you. For sake of example, I don’t earn a royalty from any games I design, but Stonemaier Games does pay me a salary, and I own most of the company, so if we have a good year and cash on hand, I earn a modest year-end distribution.
Pros and Cons of Working with a Publisher
- You can focus solely on game design. If you love designing games and you don’t want to run a business, this is the sweet spot. Though, to be clear, designing a game–bringing it from idea to fully playtested product–is still a lot of work. My published games so far have taken between 8 and 18 months to design.
- You might not hear back. Some publishers actively accept game submissions, but you may not hear back from them for months. I don’t think any publisher wants to keep you waiting, but it happens.
- Gatekeeping. I mentioned above that you are your own gatekeeper, and that’s true–nothing is stopping you from designing a game. If you self-publish, you’ll likely Kickstart your first game, and the gatekeeper role shifts to your backers (hundreds or thousands of people). If you submit to a publisher, however, a very small number of people will decide if they like your game or not. It can feel great if they say yes, but the odds are somewhat against you.
- Less creative control/freedom. If you work with a publisher, you’ll definitely have less creative control than if you self-publish. Though most publishers will respect your voice in matters of theme, art, development, etc. Plus, it’s like you have your own personal shark tank of experts who are highly invested in making your game as successful as possible.
- You don’t pay for anything, but you may make less money. Art, graphic design, manufacturing, shipping, marketing…the publisher is responsible for all of those expenses, not you. And unlike self-publishing, you’ll actually earn a royalty on sales (for Stonemaier, this is 7-10% of revenue). However, unless your game is highly successful or if you have multiple mildly successful games, those royalties are unlikely to add up to the equivalent of a sustainable salary.
Those are the core points that come to mind. What other considerations would you like to add?
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