Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can we characterize tabletop game publishers? Hard to say.

This post was precipitated by a question from a reader regarding how often or how persistent he should be in trying to get an email response from a publisher, after initial contact.

What it has become is an attempt to describe, up to the point of my limited knowledge, what tabletop hobby game publishers are like and how they work.  I don’t know all the publishers, of course, and in particular I’ve never had any contact with German publishers.  Yet I think I can tell new game designers some things that might help them understand how the industry works.

I’m going to divide publishers into two groups in several ways, recognizing that whenever we try to do this for any collection of items, people, or groups, there are going to be exceptions and in-betweener’s.  Nonetheless it helps understand the broad outlines.

In a sense, hobby game publishing is almost inevitably a hobby.  The most important thing to say is that many tabletop game publishers in the United States started out as or are still self-publishers.  Not many people get into tabletop game publishing to make money because that’s difficult to do, although it does happen.  As with game shops, the joke runs, “how you make a small fortune in the tabletop game publishing industry?”  “Start with a large fortune”.  Even one of the largest publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, began in the game industry as a self publisher; they actually started out in the comic distribution business but when that business imploded nationally they published the owner’s game Twilight Imperium as a way to stay afloat.  Virtually all the little game publishing companies we see began as self publishers.  In some cases, as with Fantasy Flight, they later get into the business of publishing games designed by people outside their company.

Martin Wallace was a teacher for many years, but is now a full-time designer and publisher.  He makes more money when he publishes a successful game himself, rather than license to another publisher, through his company Treefrog (formerly Warfrog if I recall correctly).  The publisher takes the risks, so the publisher reaps the bulk of the benefit of a successful game.

Another way to look at this is that most of the owners of tabletop hobby publishing companies have full-time non-game jobs, that is, they are not depending on the publishing company to provide their living.  I don’t go around asking these folks if they have full-time jobs, but one learns gradually.  Frequently when a publishing company provides a living there is only one full-time employee, the owner.  For example, Zev Schlasinger before he sold nonetheless-prolific Z-man Games, and (I’m told, I don’t know first-hand) Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.  Yes they have part-time employees but that’s a lot different from having a group of full-time employees.  The other cases of full-time employment come when it’s a really big company like Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast or Fantasy Flight, or a middling company like Mayfair.

In a few cases the principle people in a publishing company are also game shop owners, as with Valley Games and GameSalute.  So they have (or had) a full-time job but it’s a full-time job in games.

The men who run GMT have full-time jobs (there may be an exception now at GMT).  For example Andy Lewis, who is their acquisitions person and the “face” of the company, is an engineer and makes a lot more money as an engineer than from his game company.  Steve Rawlings, owner of “Against the Odds” Magazine, has a full-time project management job.

This is not exceptional in creative fields.  Few classical composers can make their living from their composition, most of them are teachers and sometimes performers.  Philip Glass, who is arguably the greatest living classical composer, once worked as a plumber to support himself.  Most novelists have full-time jobs.  Even one as prolific as fantasy and science fiction writer Glenn Cook, who at one time was writing three novels a year, worked full time at General Motors until he retired.  Few painters or sculptors support themselves through their work.

Most of the game designers who make a living at game design are employed by the very largest companies such as Hasbro/WotC and Fantasy Flight.

The larger companies tend to specialize in certain kinds of games.  Hasbro has mass market games, their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast has Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and some fantasy-related boardgames.  Paizo has RPGs especially Pathfinder.  Mayfair publishes many games but what makes them really go is that they have the American license for Settlers of Catan.  Fantasy Flight publishes fantasy and science fiction games that positively drip with atmosphere, but many of their most well-known games are licensed from movies or video games, such as Doom and Starcraft, and developed internally.  Britannia did not fit their M.O. in 2006, and even less now; but the owner likes the game, and he wanted to reissue it.

Many hobby game publishers with several employees are “virtual companies”, that is they don’t have a single location, their full-time and part-time employees are scattered throughout the country.  GMT and Mayfair are examples.  On the other hand the really large companies like Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight have main locations where most of their people are, as do many other kinds of businesses.  In any case, there is nothing like “Silicon Valley”, Austin, TX, or Raleigh, NC as locations where many video game studios congregate.

The Original Question
Now what does this mean for someone who is trying to interest a publishing company in one of their game designs?

If someone has a full-time job and is trying to run a game company in his “spare time”, or when someone is the only full-time employee for a company of any magnitude, they are going to be really busy.  When I see him at conventions I always try to tell Zev (Z-Man) how amazed I am at the large number of quality games he published despite being the only full-time employee.  And not surprisingly it has always been difficult, at least for me, to get Zev to respond to email.  If you know really busy people in any field you know that talking with them directly, or on the phone, is a lot more effective than email because when someone doesn’t have much time it’s often email that gets ignored or forgotten.

It probably helps a lot sometimes to live near the publisher.

Hobby Trends
In recent years several trends have made it much more difficult to get the attention of most hobby game publishers.  One is that there are so many games published that even the established publishers can have problems getting attention from “consumers”.  In the book publishing world this translates to selling fewer copies of each book, so the book publishers have to publish more books (and more are published every year).  Another trend is that there are a lot more people designing decent games, just as the standard for what a decent game is has gone down.  Decades ago the idea was that any game you bought should be good enough to be played many, many times.  Now the standard is a game you buy is at least okay if you play it a few times, that is, the buyers themselves don’t expect to play a game more than 3 to 5 times.  It’s (a lot) easier to design a game that meets that criterion.

You may not agree with me there, but what’s indisputable is that there are so many game designs being submitted to the publishers that they are inundated.  This can lead to very long lead times before publication and it can lead to publishers saying effectively “we don’t take submissions”.  For Hasbro itself this means that Mike Gray has a list of about 300 designers who he is willing to deal with directly, and the rest have to find a Hasbor-approved agent.  An agent is going to take part of your remuneration (if you’re published) in return for his work.  But Hasbro requires them because the agent can weed out the many, many obviously unsuitable submissions before Hasbro has to deal with them.  One or two of the German publishers have done the same thing.

A publisher may also refuse to take outside designs because they have an in-house staff to design games.  Many of the Fantasy Flight games are designed in-house (and remember they started out as a self publisher).  So are most of Wizard of the Coast’s.

Kickstarter influence?

Remember the inquiry that started me along this path?  My correspondent wondered if the advent of Kickstarter would cause publishers to be more attentive to game designers.  I suppose he thought of this in terms that Kickstarter ultimately provides more competition for publishers, though he didn’t say.  My response is that many of the successful Kickstarters are run by established publishers themselves, and that unknown people are quite unlikely to succeed in raising funds through Kickstarter.  It’s the known people, the people with track records, who are more likely to succeed.  When you see stories about huge Kickstarter results it usually involves a known quantity and often involves an individual who is well known in the game community.

In any case, with hundreds of games being published each year the addition of a few dozen more from Kickstarter is insignificant.  Existing well-known publishers are inundated with submissions, so I don’t see Kickstarter making a difference in how they treat wannabe designers.  It may mean that even the existing publishers publish a few more games because there is less risk in a Kickstarter published game than in a normal game.  Kickstarter enables the publisher to gauge the demand as well as to raise money.  In fact I suspect gauging the demand is sometimes more important than raising the money.

Whether Kickstarter will ultimately fail as a funding source, perhaps when some high-profile projects fail to deliver, is an open question.

Self-publishing has always been an alternative to established publishers for game designers, but it is much easier now than in the past.  That’s especially true if you go the POD (Publish On Demand) route that requires little or no money up front.  Thegamecrafter.com is the granddaddy, but there are others such as www.superiorpod.com . Desktop publishing is becoming popular as well.  Remember, though, that when you become a self-publisher, you may end up spending much more time on publishing and marketing than on game design.


I hope I’ve been accurate in my descriptions above (which are entirely from memory).  And I hope this gives you a better idea of what the landscape is like.  It is not easy for any designer, let alone one without a track record of success.


brettspiel said...

Steve Jackson Games has several in house, full time staff.

TC said...

Nice article! Perfectly reasonable explanation of the expectations a designer can have. Though Kickstarter makes the barrier to entry lower, it is still tough to put yourself on the line like that.

It's also good to note that this is one of the only industries where publishers are generally amiable towards other publishers and happy to promote "good" games no matter who creates them. That's the part I love the most after setting off on this designer journey.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Lest it was not clear: even someone with a track record, such as I, is regularly ignored when trying to get in touch with publishers by email. Believe me.