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On Rushing to Publish

I feel like I’ve said this a lot, but it’s time to say it again:

If you rush to publish for Gen Con, Origins, or in general, and you don’t have much experience at publishing games, you’re asking for a distaster and do not respect your audience.[1]

That might sound like hyperbole, so let me break it down.

Part one: Questioning Conventions

If your first exposure for your new game or game company is at a large convention, and you buy a booth, you’re looking to sink a lot of time & money into a daunting prospect:

  • Think of the few hundred dollars that booth will cost you. That’s just the starting price, before you get into amenities like padded flooring (seriously, get that), displays, stands, banners, etc. Some of that’s reusable, like the displays and banners, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still an expense.
  • Only selling your game at a booth is a weak way to make sales happen. Running demos at the booth can help, but running games on the schedule or in free-play means is how you generate critical interest. That interest doesn’t just translate into sales at the con — it gives people who play confidence in running the game at hope, as well as something to talk about on social media. So, if you’re just at a booth the entire time with few games going on, you’re wasting your manpower.

You can get away with this if you have built up a community around your game, company, or personality. When you have people who intentionally go to your booth as a destination, or you have other people running your game, then you’re more likely to be successful. However, if you’re truly launching your game at a convention, you don’t have any of that stuff.

Instead of launching at a convention, launch well before one. This is the age of social media, so your best way to get critical exposure is to show something that everyone in the world can see. Have a free downloadable taste. Run games on G+. Be on Twitter and all that. It’s like having a booth at a convention, except: it doesn’t cost a fuckton of money, you can sit down, and when you want to take a break, you don’t need to ask someone else to cover your booth.

Then, if your game’s taking off, you’ll know if a booth at a con is a good idea for you.[2] You could have a follow-up thing, either a supplement or another game, at that con. Or just be there to promote your awesome idea.

You can buy into a booth with people, so that you have time to go run your game (or, I don’t know, eat lunch). Or you can go with a consignment shop like Indie Press Revolution, and let them handle your game’s sales while you do the real work of getting people interested.

Part two: Rushing to Publish is Bad

Here’s what happens when you put yourself in a situation where you choose between:

  1. Skimping on playtesting, editing, and layout because you have a cool idea and the hubris to get it out at the next major convention.
  2. Taking your damned time and making something that won’t be mocked or shat upon by the community.

My credentials on this subject: The Dresden Files RPG. We got mocked for years about how long it took to make it, but a fuckton of critical acclaim & awards tells me that the time was worth it. So if you tell me “No, I need it done for Origins,” you’re really telling me “I’m am amateur and I care more about pretending that I’m a game publisher than actually being one worth a damn.”

When you go to print (or to PDF release), that’s a permanent record of your accomplishment. If your game sucks, if it’s poorly edited, if it looks like crap, you don’t get to take that back. You fucked up, and you let the world see that. And you were happy to charge good people money for your slapdash book. People will remember that.

So if you’re happy to look like an asshole to your potential audience, keep on with the rushing. The world totally needs more hastily made shit that’s not worth the cover price.

Don’t Rush for Conventions

If you combine these ideas, then you know that you shouldn’t rush at the expense of your book, and that launching at a convention when you’re an unknown is a weak prospect, then you have the option of “hey, I can take a few extra months and also release it online.”

Yes, yes you can do that. If you’re relatively unknown, better to make a strong splash that an quick, weak one. And even if you’re not, better to make good products than show that you don’t care and put something weak out.

– Ryan

[1] If you have a strong, existing brand, much of this doesn’t apply because you are a destination and people will already be interested in you. Of course, by then you probably know what you’re doing right, and don’t need this post.

[2] If your goal isn’t to be a publisher, but just to engage in the party that is “we’re all game publishers,” and you have money to blow, go ahead and disregard this but on not launching at a con. You might have a fun time. (But don’t you disregard the second part.)

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12 Responses to On Rushing to Publish

  1. I’d say that taking six years to make isn’t a luxury that most designers have. And while Dresden rocked pretty hard, I’ve seen many more games “in playtesting for ten years” that stunk to high hell. In fact, that’s one of my first red flags when hearing someone talk about their game.

    I think releasing at a convention definitely has its pros and cons. Face time with fans is really something you can’t replace (and it’s different than, say, a Hangout.) Conventions also allow you to sell to the mythical gamer that isn’t tied to social media. Shockingly, there are lots of those gamers. I tend to take a two-tiered approach with both.

    Also, there’s no Barcon on Twitter.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      David,

      For one, you do realize I’m not talking to someone in your position, right?

      I’d say that taking six years to make isn’t a luxury that most designers have.

      Sure. And to be fair, Dresden didn’t take six years. It gestated for a bit over two. (It was announced years before that, and they work on Spirit of the Century was going on.) Most of the hit games in the small press land that I’ve seen took around the same amount of time to be finished: Fiasco, Apocalypse World, etc.

      “Playtested for ten years” is a way I can tell that someone is making a poor game (as much a flag for you as for me), but that’s a topic for the future.

      Face time with fans is really something you can’t replace (and it’s different than, say, a Hangout.)

      You need to make those fans happen. Now, I didn’t say “don’t go to conventions” — I go to a lot of conventions where I don’t sell or work a booth. Instead, I’m free to be mobile and meet many more people than I would if I was stuck behind a booth no one knew where to go or why to go. In fact, the reason that people keep hiring me or are interested in buying my stuff is because I do conventions and meet people.

      That’s not the same as buying into a booth when you don’t have a fan base. There are cheaper and more effective ways to get a fan base that then makes a booth worthwhile. You and I could do a booth and rock it. I’m not talking to us.

      – Ryan

  2. Agreed wholeheartedly.

  3. We went for a booth at Gen Con a little soon. I’m happy with how things turned out but it was a big gamble. We rushed our first book a small bit. I remember a somewhat manic editing night where Austin and I sat in the middle of Kit’s kitchen and restructured the whole text. It all worked out, but it very nearly didn’t.

    But it’s hard not to do something like that when you have to plan on the convention six months ahead of schedule. Not having a game in time was a real worry. In fact, we sort of expected to have two games instead of the one. Estimates suck that way.

    If I had it to do again, I’d wait until the next year. The resultant rule: if you don’t have a single print copy by the time you need to sign up for the convention, don’t plan on going as an exhibitor. Attend? Demo? Sure. But not vend.

    We skipped Gen Con this year because we weren’t totally ready to print the next game and didn’t want to be in the same situation again. I’m convinced we will be going to Gen Con as a vendor again eventually, because it was awesome – exhausting, but awesome. However, I think we’re far more likely to be cagey about the how.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I also know that you guys were fairly successful in that first year. So, what did you do to get people aware and interested in you as a first-time publisher?

      – Ryan

  4. We kind of got a sweet spot in the Gen Con new exhibitor program – a corner booth. Also, we had a different visual style I would now characterize as “we’re winging this”. We had two to four people in the booth at any given time and all of us were pretty enthusiastic, so there were a lot of random passers-by that I think just wanted to see what we were about. And there was a lot of outreach before the convention on Story Games, on Twitter, and basically anywhere we could to get people to come by.

    By far the biggest contributor to success was *running games*. This was something we discovered two days into the con. A big chunk of the games we sold came from people who had played in the couple of random games we ran on a lark. I think any future adventure at a con will be coupled with heavy game running. (It sounds obvious now, but it caught us surprised.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And we’re talking two people out of a four-person team (three of whom could run the game), right?

      – Ryan

  5. Jason Pitre says:

    I am very much in the target audience for this, and I agree with your post almost entirely. I am personally targeting a spring printing of my game, in part so that I can ensure that I can get my alpha fans their copies of the book early in the Con Season. I wanted to run many new releases, like “Our Last Best Hope” or “Curse the Darkness”, at GOD. Unfortunately, because of printing problems and a tight schedule I couldn’t get the book early enough to run games.

    For the new designers, many of us spend an inordinate amount of time on our first projects for a good reason. We fully realize that we don’t have the necessary skills/experience to produce good products, but we also realize that much of our reputations will be based on our first game. If I released Spark after 1-2 years of work, it would have been a colossal and embarrassing failure that would have sunk me as a publisher.

    So yes, take the time to do it right, and don’t rush it to a con when the game isn’t ready.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I swear I’ve written about all this before, but you point out another problem with con season: everyone wants in on it, so there’s a high volume of stuff. After Gen Con, I might take home fifteen games, of which some sit on my shelf because I only have so much time to read. Contrast with a time that isn’t so saturated.

      I’m also talking to the person who doesn’t bother spending even a year making something, who is so starved for recognition that a slap-dash book is put together.

      – Ryan

  6. Yeah, me, Kit, Austin, and Allie. It was actually super great having Allie there because I think it increased our approachability with women, and she’s actually better at pitching the game than any of us, and having the artist for the game at the booth got a lot of engagement.

    Austin and I both ran games – one at Games on Demand, and one for a group of friends that swelled into about ten people (we split into two groups.) It was boss. This year I ran one episode of BH which was fun, but kind of got derailed. It’s just amazingly difficult to socialize, and play, and also run stuff. So that’s another point: going to a convention as an exhibitor is totally different than simply attending. I vastly underestimated the required time-in-booth.

  7. Carl Klutzke says:

    I understand and agree with your points. However, I find that without a sense of urgency–without a deadline that has consequences–I can fiddle around with the same game indefinitely, and I’ll get out of bed to start working on it each morning a good half hour later than I would otherwise. At my day job it’s pretty easy to stay motivated: if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. But for game design, my delight in making a game for others to enjoy, with dubious prospects for any financial return on investment, isn’t always enough to keep me on task. Do you have a recommendation to combat this? (Other than the obvious: “Take up a different hobby.”)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Carl,

      I’m certainly not against deadlines; I’m against deadlines that are ridiculous and create crap games and disappointing situations for both their buyers and creators.

      If you’re going to shoot for a convention release, then you should be working, early on, with people who understand what that means and listen to them about it. Then you might succeed at your goal, if your goal is just to have made a thing.

      For more on that rather than this post’s topic, I should collect my thoughts and make that a future post. Certainly big enough to be one.

      – Ryan