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PRINT ON DEMAND – the state of custom deck publishing for prototyping and publishing in the micro-run format

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Traz's picture
Joined: 04/06/2009

Posted this on LINKEDIN, thought I'd share here as well. ;-)

As the number of game designers seeking micro-runs explodes, the availability for quality Print On Demand [POD] printers for playing cards has not even begun to keep pace. In a world of supply and demand, the scales are tipped excruciatingly heavier on the demand side than the supply side.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am defining 'micro-run' as 1-10 decks. A standard deck is usually 54 cards, typically set up in templates of 18 cards. Though not everyone uses this model, it is generally safe for designers to anticipate this as a standard.

Each printer has different templates – from single card setup to complicated 18-up models. I use the word ‘complicated’ advisedly, because some people have mad computer skills and have no problem with the 18-up templates, while others [like myself] find them very difficult to use. If you ask, you may find that some POD printers that use 18-up templates will work with you if you deliver them single card artwork – but you definitely have to check with them first.

There are two main problems in working with POD printers. Customer Service and Uniformity of Standards.

FIRST: Customer Service. This is as wide and varied as you can possibly imagine. It ranges from the extreme of a box I ordered over a year ago which has never materialized, to companies that state upfront they do not offer help via telephone, to others that answer the phone every time you call and have a question. These extremes are important to recognize because the only thing consistent about the POD business is the INCONSISTENCY.

To be fair, the stark reality is it’s difficult to create a business where you’ve got a hundred clients beating on your door, eating up your employee’s time with questions, but who – in the end – are only going to purchase perhaps five custom printed decks. With an average cost of $4-$5 per deck, there isn’t much incentive for the POD printer to spend much time working directly with clients if they want to keep their virtual doors open. Even dealing with a hundred designers who only order five decks a piece – we’re only talking a total gross revenue of $2500. Not much left of that after you take out overhead, employees and cost of materials.

It’s no wonder that demand is overwhelming the availability of suppliers – and why there is such difficulty in dealing with those suppliers. Once someone gets the equipment to do POD, reality hits hard and fast as mini-run orders pile up quicker than you can fill them.

The first casualty always seems to be customer service. You quit answering the phone. Why? You don’t have the time [you’re busy filling orders]. It eats up any profit you might hope to make in the future [employees answering the phone aren’t cheap and it’s not going to do you any good to work for free or at a loss – you can’t keep your doors open for long that way].

Reducing interaction with your clients makes economic sense in a cottage industry like this – except that is the POINT of a business like this – to offer micro-runs at the lowest possible price. The minute you raise the price is the minute the business goes elsewhere because your competitors are undercutting you all the time hoping to make up the difference in volume. It’s a vicious cycle that is being very slowly worked out as new faces are trying to elbow their way into what may eventually become a very lucrative market.

The kinks are real in this fledgling industry, and the dust has yet to settle on who will be the winners and losers. Indeed, the dust has yet to settle on the best way to develop a business model to take advantage of the fast growing demand to service the needs of the expanding ranks of freelance game designers.

The corollary is the book publishing industry. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to get your novel in print it would cost you a fortune [because the barriers to getting manuscripts accepted with established publishers were – and still are - insane]. With the advent of POD for books and the e-reader, getting published has become not only very easy, it has become virtually affordable for everyone. The result? Nearly any would-be author can get anything published [note I didn’t say anyone could become a bestseller...]. Now there is a burgeoning specialty industry with at least a dozen major players catering to budding authors who will never sell more than a dozen copies of their books. But - they are being serviced.

The introduction of POD for playing cards [and slowly other game components], is creating the same opportunities for game designers. Ten years from now, I predict you will see the same levels of service for game designers as there is today for authors. For right now, only the ground work is being laid - the pioneers are still working out the kinks.

SECOND: Uniformity of standards. This is as much a problem of the newness of the industry for the publishers as it is for the consumers. Submission formats are varied – it’s almost like watching the early days of the HD DVD wars. Blu Ray won in the end – does anybody even remember the competition? Formatting issues for deck submissions won’t be as drastic as that – we’ll see a number of different formats settle in just as we see a number of different formats have evolved for e-readers.

But until that day arrives it will be interesting to watch how things shake out.

One entry into the market is Shari Spiro’s AD MAGIC. A newcomer to POD micro-runs, Shari and her crew from New Jersey are NOT new to the card printing industry – they’ve been doing this for 20+ years. When I had my cards for EXPRESS LINE printed back in 2008, Shari was doing small runs – but from a different perspective. The small runs back then [and still available] are for special events like weddings, company promotions and such. Standard faire was primarily standard playing card decks with options for family pictures and such. AD MAGIC also was happy to do complete custom jobs with larger print runs, but the pricing was prohibitive for the game designer looking for prototypes or micro-runs. AD MAGIC no longer has this problem due to new presses and technology, but at the time my EXPRESS LINE game was a headache. A definitely non-standard 183 card deck and only 100 decks for the run. It cost me more than I wanted to pay, but that was how it needed to be. Unlike today, back then the pricing was reasonable given the competition – because the POD phenomenon hadn’t taken hold. I came back to her last year to get a quote on a KICKSTARTER project when she informed me she had jumped into the POD world, “and were there any small jobs I needed doing?” More on that later.

Why did I shell out back then, and why did I call her back for a quote recently? The customer service is above and beyond – anytime I call with a question somebody answers the phone. For EXPRESS LINE, Shari and her crew held my hand every step of the way and the end product was nothing short of gorgeous. I was able to submit my entire deck of 183 cards as individual files by sending them on a CD and their art department turned it into a work of art. It’s important to note, in addition to top flight service, AD MAGIC only prints on casino quality papers.

More established in the POD world, but approaching service from the opposite end of the spectrum, THE GAME CRAFTER is honest and up front about their customer service – there are no phones for you to call. They have numerous tutorials, and a vigorous forum/chat community that employees frequent, to compliment their Do It Yourself setup on their website. I fought with that website [reformatted/updated only this month] to try and access their services, but keep getting caught in a loop I couldn’t get out of – thank goodness for the support forum that helped me jump the larger hurdles. Also, if you post comments on places like the BOARD GAME DESIGNERS FORUM, someone from TGC [including the owner!] will come by and attempt to answer your questions. Their setup works for the vast majority of those who are not as computer challenged as I, which is evidenced by the plethora of games successfully printed by them. They do not offer casino quality cards, but they don’t charge casino quality prices either.

Truth in advertising, I recently lost touch with my previous POD printer and have gone over to THE GAME CRAFTER for my micro-run needs. But when I have a need for larger runs that need casino quality, I’ll be back to knocking on AD MAGIC’s door. Different companies for different needs.

One player that is regrouping in the emerging game design POD industry is GUILD OF BLADES. While they pioneered in the field, their templates were the hardest to work with. They ran into conflicts both with the bottom line and their retail side of the house which has been booming for them. GUILD OF BLADES has suspended their card printing temporarily and decided to go another route. They are in the middle of a 5 year effort of CREATING their own printing equipment to jump back in. Lessons learned for Ryan and his crew have given them confidence that within the next few years they will become the frontline resource for the armies of aspiring game designers clamoring for more options.

Lastly I’ll mention Steve Jones at BLUE PANTHER. He stands rather unique by offering a base cost of $50 [it goes up from there depending on the amount of components you need] to craft your game in its entirety. Not JUST a prototype, but one that will receive loving care. One of the few places where you can receive full and complete service for your game from specially created components to cards to a wooden box. Steve works a lot in woods [including boxes] with a new laser cutting process, and does work that nobody else in the industry does – including cards – though cards are not his focus. In fact, Steve will accept your cards done somewhere else and package them with the rest of your game. A family based operation, Steve answers his own phone and will work with you personally.

These four represent the extremes of business models currently out there, the realities of the emerging industry and how different companies are finding their own niche. I note that I have had contact with all four at one point or another.

Getting back to the topic – I think I see a vehicle where POD printers can make a difference [and help their bottom line]. I see micro-runs and KICKSTARTER as natural partners that might just be the answer to the standardization [as far as that is possible] that is lacking at this stage of the industry.

Game designers need micro-runs to get their designs into the hands of playtesters [first] and the buying public [in limited numbers]. Usually this means taking your game to a game convention, and selling a few copies. You might get a few more sales from listing your game on BOARD GAME GEEK and perhaps your blog [note that THE GAME CRAFTER is setup to sell your game FOR you on their website], but these venues aren’t going to allow you to generate sales in the numbers POD printers are looking for.

That takes something else. Advertising is the obvious way to go – but very few designers can afford that. Word of mouth might get your game to take off, but this isn’t going to happen for more than a handful of games every year – there are too many other games clamoring for attention.

Let’s face it. If you can’t afford to go the whole hog and print in large numbers, you aren’t going to have the money to advertise. You essentially have two directions you can take.

ONE: sell to your local audience [and to a larger audience on THE GAME CRAFTER]. Friends, family, your social network and at game conventions you can get to.

TWO: get your design noticed by one of the big publishers and sell/license it to them.

Anybody seeing the similarities between game publishing and book publishing? Good catch. Hence my predictions for the game publishing POD industry following in the footsteps of the book/ebook publishing POD industry. We are on the ground floor watching it unfold. Who will rise to the top? I see four major options here:

ONE: lowest cost
TWO: best customer service
THREE: best quality product
FOUR: the best combination of the above – FOR YOU

Back to AD MAGIC. Their Customer Service and quality of product are second to none that I am aware of. Their price? Not the lowest at $135 for five standard decks. Understand that a ‘standard deck’ is 54 cards where the designer had done all the artwork – an added incentive for working with AD MAGIC is their ability to help you with your artwork. Most of Shari’s competition [there are only a few] charge right around $4.50 – but that is for an ‘acceptable’ quality card stock [which is completely functional for most designs]. If you don’t need casino quality, THE GAME CRAFTER can pop you out decent decks at a price affordable to anyone, but you have to be able to navigate the hurdles of uploading your completed artwork.

At this stage, game designers on a shoestring have limited choices to make. If I’m only going to need a couple of prototype copies for playtesters, I have affordable options. If I have that rare shot at pitching my deck to a serious publisher, for $135 I can deliver professional grade goodness. See the four options [and contact the four companies mentioned] above to see where you best fit in.

Who will emerge as the front runner? That remains to be seen. It’s going to be a long process, just as the book publishing POD industry has had to go through. The good news is, we’ve seen that sector standardize, and while the options are varied – the results are clear and fairly predictable. Hold on for the ride, kids. We’ll get there.

Joined: 03/11/2013
Thank you for this topic, i

Thank you for this topic, i learned too many difrent things. But i am new around these consepts so i do not know what is "casino quality".. Since i want to make a TCG. My imagination goes like : casino quality = high quality holo-foiled cards with layered holo foils like part of the card is textured holo and part of the design is just colored holo foil :O

But if you are just talking about poker-deck like games then i understand what you mean by casino quality..

Joined: 11/13/2012
He means casino quality to be

He means casino quality to be the quality of the cardstock it's printed on. As far as I can tell it has nothing to do with what kind of art you print on it. Holofoil will just make it cost more.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Poker quality cards

abdantas wrote:
He means casino quality to be the quality of the cardstock it's printed on. As far as I can tell it has nothing to do with what kind of art you print on it. Holofoil will just make it cost more.

I agree with Abdantas, it probably means the quality of the cards (cardstock, print process, etc.) is at par (same quality) as casino poker cards. Cards used in games take a lot of *abuse* when played with (especially when shuffling). You need good, no GREAT quality cards to be resistant to chipping and cracking. That is why poker cards are die cut, to reduce the amount of chipping at the corners of the cards.

Take sports cards (baseball, football and hockey) as an example: most are SQUARE no rounded corners. Why? Because the owners don't play with them as they do CCGs or other card games (read NO shuffling).

Traz's picture
Joined: 04/06/2009
no prob

My buddies are exactly correct. Not having your cards printed on casino quality cards used to be a problem before the advent of the card sleeve - but that has solved a number of problems.

But, if you'd like a more direct way of telling the difference, it's easy. Go to TOYS-R-US [or just about anywhere nowadays] and buy a deck of genuine BICYCLE brand poker cards. Then buy any deck of standard playing cards that are *NOT* BICYCLE brand at your local DOLLAR STORE.

BICYCLE brand cards are 'casino quality'. Stuff you normally get at the DOLLAR STORE is usually sub-standard.

The cards you would get from most POD printers that do micro-runs, like THE GAME CRAFTER, are somewhere in-between and are what I refer to as 'acceptable quality'. They will shuffle just fine, but won't stand up to the punishment casino cards will - which is where card sleeves come in. With card sleeves, acceptable quality cards will last just as long as casino cards if you don't riffle shuffle them [which is not required with sleeves].

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
The Game Crafter

Traz wrote:
The cards you would get from most POD printers that do micro-runs, like THE GAME CRAFTER, are somewhere in-between and are what I refer to as 'acceptable quality'. They will shuffle just fine, but won't stand up to the punishment casino cards will - which is where card sleeves come in. With card sleeves, acceptable quality cards will last just as long as casino cards if you don't riffle shuffle them [which is not required with sleeves].

Someone who has used *The Game Crafter* cards has told me that a prototype he created a couple years back still looks brand new. Something to do with a clay coating on the cards (which is part of their process). So I am being told that TGC cards are superior in quality and match up with *casino* cards.

Obviously the question is how many times has he used his deck during the past 2 years...

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