Late this past August, I was hit with the kind of enquiry most professionals, I believe, dread.
Here it is. In full.
First off, thank you for taking the time to read this. So, I have an idea for a table top game and am clueless on how to proceed with it. I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to get such a thing published? Also if this is the wrong place to ask this question, I apologize, and could you please point me the right direction?
Why do we dread such notes? Not because we don’t wish to help. We do – we really do. To me, helping people avoid the mistakes I’ve made is one of the most useful services anyone in a creative field can provide. But enquiries like the one above are so very open-ended. Entire books can be devoted to the subject – and not just ones filled with pretty pictures, either! You know: real books. The ones with tiny Times Roman-ish fonts you’ll intend to read in bed and then ignore. Because they don’t have pretty pictures.
In a bit of a punchy mood, though, I came up with an answer to this – of sorts – and on Twitter, to boot. Seventeen answers, to be precise. Well, 17 steps, really. Traditional-publishing steps. Self-Publishing (see step 9) and Kickstarter are entities unto themselves. So, assuming traditional routes are the way you’d like to go, here are the original tweets:
- STEP 1: Make a playable prototype of your game.
- STEP 2: Playtest the HELL out of it. Not just with family and friends. Most importantly, with people with no vested interest in your sanity.
- STEP 3: Keep playtesting it.
- STEP 4: No. Seriously. KEEP PLAYTESTING THE DAMN THING, until you’re SICK of it. Then playtest some more.
- STEP 5: Go to gaming conventions. Talk with people who own companies. Ask them about their submission process. Buy them beers.
- STEP 6: Hey! Look! There’s some free time! Just right for some more PLAYTESTING!
- STEP 7: Work on more prototypes to send to companies. Make these the best you can.
- STEP 8: Unless you want to FOUND your own gaming company.
- STEP 9: YOU DO NOT WANT TO FOUND YOUR OWN GAMING COMPANY!
- STEP 10: Is it a day ending in “Y”? Time for more playtesting.
- STEP 11: Send out your prototypes. Follow the companies’ submission guidelines TO THE LETTER.
- STEP 12: No. Really. TO THE LETTER! If you can’t follow THEIR rules, why should they trust yours?
- STEP 13: Be prepared for rejection. Do not let rejection break you. Rejection happens.
- STEP 14: Accept some of the criticism. It’s nothing personal. Some may be hooey, but some may do you good.
- STEP 15: Do not get defensive. NO, JUST DON’T. Send out polite, professional “Thank you”s. Hope they are willing to keep in touch.
- STEP 16: Send out more prototypes. Set up more playtests. Did someone say “PLAYTESTS”?
- STEP 17: Repeat until you get accepted, or start working on your next game.
While these may have been sent in a silly moment, I do believe there is at least a touch of truth in them.
I thought I’d expeand a bit on the original tweets. I’ll probably expand on them again in the future, Lucas-like as I am. A hundred industry pros would most likely come up with a hundred different lists, so don’t take my little tweets as gospel, for goodness sakes. But I hope you find something useful, scattered about them, should you wish to design a game and try and get it published.
PUBLISHING YOUR GAME
A Silly Little Primer in 17 Simple Tweets, Expanded.
STEP 1: Make a playable prototype of your game. This need not be the prettiest thing you’ve ever made, but it needs to be clear and it needs to be playable. The rules need to make sense. The parts need to work. Does it take cards? Print out some cards. Does it need a timer? Buy a timer. Do not spend a huge amount of time or money on this step, but spend them wisely.
STEP 2: Playtest the HELL out of it. Not just with family and friends. Most importantly, with people with no vested interest in your sanity. Your family and friends will tell you how clever you are. Strangers will tell you if you’re wasting your time. Both sorts of feedback are important: only the second one is vital.
STEP 3: Keep playtesting it. You cannot believe how important playtesting is. No, really – you cannot!
STEP 4: No. Seriously. KEEP PLAYTESTING THE DAMN THING, until you’re SICK of it. Then playtest some more. Playtesting is not pleasant. It is not meant to be. People will pick holes in your game. The nastiest editor you have ever had is nothing compared to playtesters picking apart your precious game. With one game, I prepared for feedback by listening to books on tape of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, just so that I remembered other people indeed had it worse. I am not making that up. I wish I was.
STEP 5: Go to gaming conventions. Talk with people who own companies. Ask them about their submission process. Buy them beers. True story: Out of the Box discovered Apples to Apples when its inventor, Matt Kirby walked up to our booth at Origins, 15 years ago. Face-to-face in this biz is hugely important. Remember to be professional about it. Don’t be a hanger-on: you’re trying to get some leads in an industry: leave the fanboy/fangirl stuff at home . But do try and start-up civil conversations with folks. If a pro gives you some of their time, be respectful of it. They’re giving up precious moments they could be using to make a living, or to hang out with seldom-seen friends. This is where the “buy them beers” helps.
STEP 6: Hey! Look! There’s some free time! Just right for some more PLAYTESTING! There is not a single game on earth that cannot be improved. Not one.
STEP 7: Work on more prototypes to send to companies. Make these the best you can. We’ve had some awful prototypes submitted to us at Out of the Box. We’ve had some gorgeous ones. But as long as the rules and components are clear, we’ve played them all. Don’t spend a huge amount of money on this step, though – clip art is your friend. Still, a good pretty game will make people want to try it out a lot more than a good ugly game will.
STEP 8: Unless you want to FOUND your own gaming company. One of the first things I ask people, when they come to me for advice, is “do you want to make a game company, or do you want to make games?” These are two very different things.
STEP 9: YOU DO NOT WANT TO FOUND YOUR OWN GAMING COMPANY! At least, in the vast majority of cases, this is what I have found to be the case. There. I have just saved you thousands of dollars. Maybe tens of thousands of dollars. And untold angst. You are welcome.
STEP 10: Is it a day ending in “Y”? Time for more playtesting. One important thing to remember in playtesting: do not help playtesters with the rules. Do not try and prod them into directions you believe are the “fun ones” for gameplay, or push them into a play style “as the game should be played.” If your rules do not lead to them playing this way on their own, there is a problem with your rules.
STEP 11: Send out your prototypes. Follow the companies’ submission guidelines TO THE LETTER. What’s that? You didn’t realize companies have submissions policies? They do, you know. All it takes is a simple Google search. Atlas Games. Steve Jackson Games. Steve Jackson Games Again. Out of the Box Games. Etc., etc.
STEP 12: No. Really. TO THE LETTER! If you can’t follow THEIR rules, why should they trust yours? And look, this should be self-evident, but get to know the game companies, and the kinds of games they make. Do not send your brilliant, massive Collectible Card Game idea to a company that makes wooden block games for kids 6 and under. And don’t re-invent the wheel. The world does not need another Fantasy Roleplaying Game. I once had someone hound me – hound me – to publish their fantasy RPG though Out of the Box Games. You’ve heard of Out of the Box Games, right? the Party Game And Never Ever Not Once Roleplaying Game Ever company? Yeah. I thought you might have…
STEP 13: Be prepared for rejection. Do not let rejection break you. Rejection happens. I can’t think of a single person who’s become successful in comics or games who never got a rejection. The difference between those who make it and those who don’t is that the ones that make it try again.
STEP 14: Accept some of the criticism. It’s nothing personal. Some may be hooey, but some may do you good. The same goes with playtesting feedback. Some comments are terrific: you just want to hug the people who made them. THEY GET IT! THEY GET YOU! Other comments are just awful – folks have missed the point completely, or they just want to add their stamp to the game, even when it’s not needed. Trying to tell the difference between Helpful and Unhelpful feedback is one of the trickiest parts of developing your game. Often, your gut will be the decider. Plus more playtesting, of course.
STEP 15: Do not get defensive. NO, JUST DON’T. Send out polite, professional “Thank you”s. Hope they are willing to keep in touch. Remember Mr. “I Sent a Fantasy Roleplaying Game to Your Party Game Company” a few tweets back? Yeah. You should have seen his invective-filled rants (there were many more than just one) when things didn’t go his way.
STEP 16: Send out more prototypes. Set up more playtests. Did someone say “PLAYTESTS”? There are differences of opinion as to whether you should submit games to multiple companies at the same time. I tend to think this is fine, as often companies are swmped, and may not get back to you for months. Years, sometimes, if you’re really unlucky. But even once your game is out the door, keep playing it, keep refining it.
STEP 17: Repeat until you get accepted, or start working on your next game. Hell, get started on your next game now. You’ve got the time, right? I mean, unless you don’t have a playtest set up…