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Subject: Lessons from a new self-publishing games maker rss

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Walnut Games
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Hi all,

I’ve recently published my first game (Take The Kingdom, from Walnut Games), and I thought it would be useful to share my experiences so far. In getting to this point I’ve drawn on some excellent postings already noted on the BGG forums, most of which are pinned at the top of this particular forum.

But as many of these are US-focussed and written by acknowledged experts in the field, what I’m adding here are the experiences of a British one-man band with no previous business experience at all, who’s learnt everything from scratch (sometimes the hard way). Like most people, I’ve been playing games since I was little. I had my first game idea in 2014, and had been slowly working up prototypes, testing it with friends etc for a couple of years since then. It was only in February of this year that I decided to actually get on with starting up a company and make this into something real. So it’s been 8 months of concerted effort, plus a lot of casual thought before then, to get to the point where I have a physical game to sell.

I had three main goals in getting this going:
1. See one of my games become a real, professionally-produced thing
2. Learn how to run a business (having had no exposure to this before)
3. Maybe, eventually, make a little bit of money out of this.
Two out of three achieved so far, and there’s plenty of time yet for the third…

Design
I’ve read numerous threads on BGG debating how illustrators and designer should be engaged and I know this is an emotive topic. For my part, I did not have £5000 to spend on design, but I also didn’t want to engage the cheapest student out there, for a whole range of reasons. Peopleperhour.com was a great compromise, allowing me to pay a reasonable rate for a professional illustrator to end up with a result that we were both happy with. I would just add (knowing how much the perceived “going rate” for illustrators has been argued) that having put out a proposal for 30+ small illustrations, the quotes I got back ranged from £50 to £5100, so I hope us non-artists can be forgiven for not being sure what the going rate is!

I did look seriously at the Deviant Art forum, where there’s some amazing talent on display, but I wasn’t convinced it had the process around it to guarantee that someone would deliver what you are after (others may have had a good experience there though). My first prototype deck for TTK was done on Powerpoint and cut out by hand. By version 3 I did my own illustrations to make it a bit more realistic for testing. Versions 4 & 5 were produced by GameCrafter (see later), and all the later versions used professional illustrations as well. I also employed a small amount of DTP help for the rules booklet – again from peopleperhour.com.

Testing
I know everyone involved in making games understands this, but I would just underline the point – you can never test your game enough, nor with too many people. I had another game idea based on Nuclear Deterrence, which I was convinced was going to the best thing ever. Unfortunately testing quickly proved that it was (a) unwinnable, (b) over-complicated and (c) properly boring 😊

But more positively, there’s no better feeling than getting good feedback from real players, and you know you’re on your way when that happens. Also, don’t be afraid to change things, even if it was the seed that got your idea started – as the old Jewish saying goes (something like), if six people tell you that you look sick, lie down…

Production
This is quite tricky if you’re not on a big budget, or if you’re not confident that your game is going to take off. Most small-order printers are prohibitively expensive (certainly using a UK-based printer was out, as their prices were more than I could ever charge at retail). All the big printers won’t get out of bed for less than 1500 copies, which was more financial risk than I was prepared to face, so the middle ground was The Game Crafter, which will produce small numbers at a reasonable price. They’re absolutely great for prototypes and testing; my personal view is that the production quality isn’t quite what I’d want it to be for retail, but they were my only realistic option for Take The Kingdom. In my experience, they’re also frankly hopeless when it comes to customer service, taking 3 days to reply to any email and rarely answering the question I’ve asked – but they are definitely a great way (the only way?) to make your game a reality, so on balance I would recommend them. If I get to the point of doing a bigger production run, I fully expect to use Panda Games (produced in China but QCed and brokered in Canada). There’s a couple of UK companies that were fine for a one-off prototype (Ivory Graphics and personalisedplayingcards.com) but they didn’t fit the bill for a medium-sized production run.

For the record, I pitched the game to one major games company (which I may blog about in the future) but decided based on their feedback to self-publish, and I’m very happy with that decision so far.

Know the Rules
As a UK person I’ve had to learn about EU kitemarking, VAT, Corporation Tax, Company Incorporation, web hosting and much more. That’s been fascinating and is all part of the journey – but if I’d known at the start how much stuff I’d need to learn, comply with and pay for it may well have put me off. I decided to be VAT-registered, as otherwise I would be writing off import tax paid on the products I have had made overseas. The downside is that I need to charge VAT which pushes up the retail price by 20%. Other things that I (perhaps naively) never realised I’d need to consider:
- Safety (ie are your products a choke hazard, poisonous, flammable etc)
- Premises (if you work from home then you need to think about stuff like your home insurance, public liability insurance etc)
- Bar codes, company information (all that bumpf on the underside of every game that no one ever reads – but without it, there’s no game (so it turns out)

None of us get into producing games for this – we’re all looking to make something that people enjoy, and to see our ideas turn into reality. But don’t forget the boring stuff either or your idea could be dead in the water.

Time & money
There’s no point in being optimistic when it comes to design & production – I tend to always look on the bright side, but I’ve had to manage myself into being more realistic. Everything costs loads and takes ages. I think the main thing here is to be clear with yourself about the scale of your ambitions – if you just want a couple of units that you can play with friends and family, that’s great – if you’re planning on going toe-to-toe with the biggest games, then plan your time and budget accordingly!

Everything costs more, and takes longer, than you think it will. My family had to keep reminding me (as a naturally busy and impatient person) that all my deadlines were basically self-imposed and that I just needed to let things take their course. This is good advice in keeping you sane, but also:

Chase everything, all the time
Much like buying a house, things tend to stand still if you’re not chasing people up. I found this particularly with shipping (for larger shipments you would expect to use a freight forwarder to take care of this but for a shipment of less than a pallet I had to negotiate customs, UPS, ParcelForce and Amazon Fulfilment myself). For me, that’s all been part of the experience of learning how business etc works, but it’s quite a faff, particularly if all you want to do is make lovely, fun games.

The future
I’ll write more on this another time – it’s still very early days and I’m sure there are many more hurdles to overcome, but that’s all part of the fun and the experience. Over the next year I’m expecting at least the following:
- My first Kickstarter campaign for a new board game
- My first end-of year company tax return (aaaagh!)
- My first games fair as an exhibitor
It’s all been enormous fun so far and I’m very much looking forward to the challenges ahead!

Happy gaming,

Ian
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Kai Herbertz
Germany
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Welcome to the wonderful world of game design & publishing, Ian! It all rings very true and I am glad to hear that you decided to get a VAT registration, as it is a huge advantage in the long run.

Keeping my fingers crossed that things are going well for you and looking forward to reading your next posts. Which game convention are you planning on attending? My guess would be the UK Games Expo, since you are from the United Kingdom. I was there this year in June (EDIT: I orignally wrote July, but meant June...) and can wholeheartedly recommend them - they have a discounted mini booth for first time exhibitors, so you can test the waters without investing too much money.
 
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Walnut Games
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Thanks for your message Kai - I'm probably going to start at Birmingham, there's a big Expo there around end May. Then if that goes well (or in fact if it goes badly I'll look at the big July one. It's frankly a terrifying thought being an exhibitor but again, all part of the journey, right?

Ian
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Bojan Prakljacic
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Thank you. I'll see to it to never self-publish anything.
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Kai Herbertz
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Walnut Games wrote:
Thanks for your message Kai - I'm probably going to start at Birmingham, there's a big Expo there around end May. Then if that goes well (or in fact if it goes badly I'll look at the big July one. It's frankly a terrifying thought being an exhibitor but again, all part of the journey, right?

Ian


Yeah, sorry for the confusion, I actually meant June and not July. It might even be the same convention you are thinking of, as it is at the NEC, very close to Birmingham.
 
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Tony Zhang
China
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Good post!
You, as a self publisher, did much hard work. Hope everthing next goes well.
Would you attend Essen Spiel 2017? You can visit our booth # HALL 2 C-152 to have free charge booth. You can use our booth to have play testing, show your games, talking, etc. Our company name is Lijia Game Production Co., Ltd., a direct and professional factory to produce miniature, board and card games located in China. Please don't hesitate to visit my daughter Lily when Essen.

Tony
Head of operation
Lijia Game Production
 
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steve cave
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Hey!

Thanks for posting this! I'm a bit behind you - I've got my first game, it's tested, it's pretty, it's awesome, and the next step I'm gonna take is Kickstarter... which is daunting... it sounds like you jumped right at trying to get your game in stores? Is that right? How did you / or have you been trying, to do that?

Also, you mentioned the barcode - YES! I have been wondering where on earth you get that from. I mean, you can't just make one up, right? Where do you get them from?

Thanks again for posting this! I'd love to hear more about how stuff goes with you.
 
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