Self Publishing vs Working with a Publisher (KS Lesson #275)

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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14 Comments on “Self Publishing vs Working with a Publisher (KS Lesson #275)

  1. Excellent blog post Jamey! I recently have started looking for a publisher to work with on my game. Originally I wanted to self publish on Kickstarter in order to make more money. But, as Elizabeth noted, I’m sure I would be able to sell a lot more copies of my game if I went with the right publisher.

    I would much rather sell a million copies for $1 each than 10,000 copies for $10 each.

    Now it’s a matter of connecting with the right publishers and doing a solid pitch.

    Keep up the great content!

  2. Both are fairly easy to do and check that box. You can make a game with some rules and a way to win. Design complete. You can print on demand and sell it on The Game Crafter or Drive Thru Cards or on Amazon and you’re published! Sweet.

    To be a GREAT publisher, the set of skills you need as a person or team is vast. You can’t strive for perfection… there’s too much to perfect so you have to prioritize and accept that some things won’t get done or won’t get done as well as they could be with more time. Although the work you do as a publisher isn’t THAT bad, it’s not as fun as designing a game for most people. The market changes so much so fast that “taking it slow” and publishing a game over many years probably won’t work out so well for you. You have to commit a lot of time to it in a short span.

    To be a GREAT designer, you’re trying to perfect a smaller set of skills. You can really focus on those things like finding the fun, finding the balance, and empathizing with players. Most of the work you do as a designer is actually pretty fun and you can take your time with it. Your game will probably be better in the end if you do take more time, in fact.

    Those are just the things I’ve learned about doing both for the last 6 years. For me, I design games because it’s fun. I publish games to learn more about business. But that’s just me.

  3. I think one of the big pluses of self-publishing (or trying to, at least) is how much you learn. Yes, it’s a huge amount of work, and yes, the buck stops with you for everything, but that also means you have to collaborate with lots of different people with different skills and experience, and you get to understand the entire ecosystem of games. Even if you go back to ‘just’ designing, you’ll have a far better idea of how it all works. And a lot of that can then have a direct and positive impact on your designing, because you understand what components cost, what will affect shipping, when to get skilled professionals in versus doing it yourself, and much more. Plus everything you learn about running a game business is transferrable to running any other kind of business in the future, which may open all kinds of doors that you can’t even see yet.
    But it is a massive amount of work : )

    1. This is a good point. I used to be an architect and some of the best architects I worked for/with were those who had done construction at some point in their past (doing that and seeing first hand how a building is assembled on site is very different than designing how you think the building should be assembled). It ultimately makes you a better architect (or in this case, designer).

  4. The “more money” is also extremely dependent on how many copies you can sell as a DIY publisher vs by going with an established company. As an obvious example, I make a lower percentage of each copy of Wingspan than I would have made if I had self-published. However there’s no way I would have sold more than a few thousand copies (very optimistically) on my own. Stonemaier invested seriously in art and development, and brought huge resources to the table in terms of reputation and a pre-existing audience.

    1. “As an obvious example, I make a lower percentage of each copy of Wingspan than I would have made if I had self-published.”

      A parallel here is Scythe, which I designed and published at Stonemaier Games. I don’t earn any percentage of each copy sold on Scythe because I don’t earn royalties on our games. Ultimately Scythe has benefited me financially, as it contributes to the general pool of Stonemaier Games revenue, but technically I earn a 0% royalty on Scythe units sold even though I publish it. So my percentage of each copy would definitely be higher if I was just the designer and another company had published Scythe. :)

      1. There is still some gray areas in Wingspan that have made my family quit playing twice now after I paid 60 for it. Question 1 – if you keep getting good forest birds, and fill your forest, can you swap new birds in? (There are birds worth many more points) Question 2 – why was pacing not really considered? The game plays very slowly if for example you need food. Eggs are 3x as easy to get as food without bonuses. Question 3 – what happens if you fill your board completely with birds? (It seems like the rounds were cut to 4 to make sure this never happens.) We filled a board up and attempted to keep playing but there was no need for food, eggs maxed out quickly, and no need for bird cards. Wingspan does not know how to finish big, so the rounds were shortened. In a game called, Zoo Tycoon, you could develop a habitat that won grants, public prestige and unlocked other more rare animals. Thats how Wingspan could have gone.

        Thanks Jamey. Sincerely, Chris (the deck builder guy who tried to convince you that in realtime your sword is not always available even in your hand. The enemy could be behind you or out of sword range. A deck gives you available options in this situation.)

        1. While this isn’t at all a post about Wingspan design, I’ll answer briefly here. Let’s keep game design discussions to the corresponding pages of this website or the corresponding videos on my YouTube channel.

          ” Question 1 – if you keep getting good forest birds, and fill your forest, can you swap new birds in?”

          No, you can’t. Limitations are important in game design.

          “Question 2 – why was pacing not really considered?”

          Pacing and flow were considered.

          “Wingspan does not know how to finish big, so the rounds were shortened.”

          That’s not a thing. We tested different lengths for Wingspan, and we decided on a length that allowed players to build and use an engine without overstaying its welcome.

  5. As you allude to Jamie, you need to know yourself; what am I good at and what do I enjoy? If you can get a good handle on that, that’ll tell you where you need (or don’t need) help. If something doesn’t seem appealing, chances are delving into it won’t suddenly make it so.

    You also have to gauge your desire and ability to learn new things; that’s another key. If you relish taking on the role of managing marketing, manufacturing, shipping and fulfillment logistics, etc, you don’t need to be an expert on those things right away but you’d better enjoy learning new things and be good at doing so.

    I’m working on designing a game for a company but I’m also overseeing the entire project – and thankfully I have lots of experience doing that in other industries and know from past experience I’m good at (and like) keeping all those cogs turning and in sync. But if you’re in doubt, I’d say it is always better to shoot for more modest goals initially and don’t take too much on. Better a small, modest victory than being crushed under the weight of too many lofty goals.

    And as a last point, depending on how you’re doing this and what your timelines look like, you might not even need to make that decision right away. Perhaps you can afford the time to research some of those other aspects outside of game design and find out how much they interest you and how difficult/easy they look to you to manage.

    1. Mike: Thanks for your comment, and I wanted to highlight your point about timing. I absolutely agree that you don’t need to decide up front if you’re designing for self-publishing or for a publisher, as either way you’re trying to make something that (a) is fun for you and (b) will be fun for a lot of other people.

  6. I’ve actually been thinking long and hard about this recently. Basically, if you have designed a game that you want to get out there into the world, you have two options: form a company, or pitch your game to one. Now, yes, forming a company means I get to pocket more of the proceeds, but even then that’s not going to amount to quitting my day job (not that I want to). As with any creative pursuit, until you’ve proven to yourself that you can do so reliably and at an income level you’re comfortable with, quitting your day job is not an option.

    I went to school for business (prior to my electronics degree). I’m not worried about my ability to set up business accounts, file legal paperwork, etc. But there is one esoteric thing nobody tells you about. When it’s your company, when you’re in the driver’s seat, there’s no one else to light a fire under your…, to hold you accountable. If you sluff off on your 9-5 there’s someone you have to answer to, but not when it’s your company.

    One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I basically run on emotions. Fortunately, I get excited pretty easily. But lately all the exciting parts of the project are done and I’ve been left trudging through the mud. I find myself second guessing core parts of this project, like should I make a company or pitch the game to one. Going it alone is scary, and I’m having trouble keeping things moving forward. I don’t think I want to do this alone.

    1. Yeah, I can relate to that… and I guess you need to be clear on what is exciting. I find game design exciting but I also really enjoying running my company (in another industry) where I have to stay self-motivated and deal lots of little day-today hassles, logistical issues, contractor and supplier issues. It sounds like for you, that stuff is both less fulfilling and holds more anxiety, so maybe finding a publisher or partner for that side is where you need to go?

      1. Thanks. I might just be at an impasse. I do have an artist friend of mine who specializes in web marketing and animation working with me. He usually charges his customers up front, so that automatically places our game on the back burner, but I’m starting to worry he turned the burner off. I’m working on rewriting my manual to fit a PnP release that I want to do as a guerilla marketing campaign (since we don’t have any money until after we sell the game through kickstarter), but knowing the project is an afterthought for him is sucking the wind out of my sails.

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