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Publisher vs Distributor

11 replies [Last post]
Joined: 01/28/2017

Please excuse the naive question :)

When we started designing games we thought the route would be, once we have a game idea thrashed out:

Self publish (kickstarter) or publisher

The deeper I get into this I realise that actually I don't see the value of the publisher to us. That role is what we are doing ourselves (the design, playtest, production).

Do publishers actually pick up ideas? If I think of ourselves as very very early stage fledgling publishers, we have a stack of ideas and not enough time/money to develop them all. Ideas from other people just aren't that interesting to us.

What we actually need is really distribution and fulfilment, and heavy marketing that I know we have to do ourselves to get anywhere.

Now it could be that I'm more used to "making things" so this is more natural than it might be for others, who find it more natural to "design things" ie ideas, mechanics etc. I also have quite a lot of project management experience that I am likely taking for granted but....

I'd love to hear other opinions - from publishers who do actively look for ideas (do they really exist?), people who are more experienced in handing over to a publish or other people just generally steps ahead of us on this journey.

ElKobold's picture
Joined: 04/10/2015
Established publisher can

Established publisher can make sure that your game has a 3K first print run instead of 1K printrun (or no printrun at all).

Established publishers have connections with distributors and large marketing budgets. That ensures that those 3K boxes will be in stores and not be collecting dust in your garage.

They pay production costs and take all the financial risk in case the game doesn't sell.

Provided you can handle all the above yourself, then yes, you don't need a publisher.

And yes, there are publishers actively looking for _games_. No one is looking for "ideas". Ideas are worth nothing, really.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Some advice

When you SELF-PUBLISH you are putting out a NEW "Game" probably from an un-heard of designer. The misconception is that you will sell 1,000+ game sets... The reality of FIRST TIME Creators is that you should expect about 100-250 backers.

It's also not an issue of Project Management, it's an issue of having a talented Graphic Designer ready to RENDER the Kickstarter page and do DAILY updates with different STRETCH GOALS, artwork to make the page look professional, etc. So you definitely need a 100% Graphic Designer who can handle the overall look of the KS page.

Next you need someone with a business acumen who can articulate the PROPER information regarding the game. You need to know your GSM counts and chipboard thickness as well as VAC-TRAY knowledge to be able to fit everything into the right box. Getting the proper quote is very important because realistically most Chinese Manufacturer quote HIGHER prices knowing that many game are only going to be KS-ed. And therefore the margins are not the same as with traditional distribution.

Having said this, a Publisher can handle all the KS-ing, production and Graphic Design. They also have an EXISTING "Fan-base" to promote your game to... We connected with over 1,500 backers and got about 1,000 for our game. The Publisher has also taken over the entire DESIGN PROCESS for the game (in our case over 500 cards all with Artwork and Story blurbs).

Think about Jamey Stegmaeir who has a Fan-base of 17,000+ gamers. When he releases a new game - he targets his backers ... but also GROWS his Fan-base.

If you want to be a PUBLISHER, it's going to take SEVERAL games before you make it. What this means is that it's a question of pumping out games on a steady basis and gradually grow your own Fan-base.

As a "Game Designer", I'm fairly aware (going through the process with "Tradewars - Homeworld") that the whole Publication is NOT FOR ME. I'd rather work on new designs and expansions for our game. The more people that get involved with our game, the better the outcome for me. So I don't want to worry about manufacturing and freight shipping and port fees and fulfillment houses/warehousing, etc. My publisher worries about all those details.

I personally work with their Developer (Joseph Pilkus) and their Game Manager (Mike - who does a whole lot more than just graphics) an we discuss what can be done, budgets, sales points, etc. In addition to playtesting via various groups around the USA (Washington, Virginia, Pensylvania, Florida, etc.) where we can get some collective feedback. We also talk about expansions, artwork, schedules, etc.

But I don't need to oversee this - Mike handles and manages the schedule.

If YOU have NOBODY as of TODAY on some kind of MAILING LIST, do yourself a BIG FAVOR and do something to start getting e-mails of people. Because if you have NOBODY, your KS-odds are not in your favor. Like I said expect 100-250 backers without any sort of Fan-base.

So while you said you have everything a Publisher has to offer... I caution you to be more aware of the situation. OLG has over 1,700 Twitter followers and over 7,000 Likes. That's a GOOD start, like I said we got about 1,000 backers on our KS.

You may WANT to be a Publisher and Self-Publish all your OWN game ideas... But the point is you don't have any Fans to back up your ideas. It's a process ... not instant gratification. And it can be very costly, requiring investment in artwork and talented Graphics (sometimes 3D models too...) There's no road to "INSTANT SUCCESS"... it's a process.

Last thing I wanted to mention -- perhaps the most challenging aspect of all is "discoverability" or PRODUCT AWARENESS. Even if you have had an amazing KS, you got to go further in spreading the word about the game. And this is a process that could take several years. You KS in 2017, the game is made and release in 2018, people start to play and you've got exposure for 2019... What happens NEXT is what matters. Is your game still HOT -- are people still playing it... Does it have enough "juice" to encourage more "expansions", etc.

Just some thoughts... Cheers.

Joined: 01/28/2017
thanks for advice both -

thanks for advice both - really useful insights in there.

there are two large blocks of work in game production that I can see:

1. game mechanics design and balance (including playtesting)
2. marketing

(re actual design, production or even offshore shipping and fulfilment - that to me is project management, though your definition may vary. In all honesty this is becoming the "easy fun bit". Business acumen is also a component - true - again something we should hopefully be able to cover.  )

The second is the main focus of your comments - the community building aspect and I believe you are right.

My challenge is that the numbers you mention arent really that big.

17,000 fans - most of which are other designers I would bet, is chicken feed compared to the international audience you are targetting. In return for that exposure - and to be fair, lots of other useful things - you do give away a lot of equity and control. That said I am drawn to the print run numbers!

Its very early days for us and we are learning superfast - we have done very little marketing as yet other than attend one show so I'm looking forward to going through that process. It's possible I might come back and completely agree with you.

I do believe that boardgames, certainly in UK/EU are a growing, thriving industry and with tools like KS, and ever shrinking international boundaries, what better environment to try things in.

JohnBrieger's picture
Joined: 11/04/2016
what is your goal from designing.

I'm also pretty new to the industry with nothing released yet, but I've signed two games to publishers, so I'm just very slightly ahead of you in the process.

For me, deciding to pitch publishers vs self publishing was about deciding what my goals are for designing games.

  • My #1 goal – get as many people as possible to have fun playing my games.

and placing my games with publishers instead of self publishing was the best way to do that.

I think of my core skill is as designing experiences, making objects that provide those experiences, and analyzing how to improve those experiences (In my day job, I design experiences for the retail stores of a large retailer).

However, making crafts, art, prototypes is NOT the same things as full scale production and publication. To self publish, I'd need to be running a whole business, not just doing the parts of design I really enjoy – making games, assembling prototypes, and running playtests.

Even using contractors for most of that work (which you likely should be doing) requires a lot time and of knowledge of the market and process. Self publishing also means I'd be unable to pursue as many games per year, as I'd be tied up doing work on each game well after the design was done instead of moving on to the next title.

It's also about risk: the chances that you mess up somewhere along the way are huge. Hiring artists and graphic designers, doing promotional work, getting review copies and choosing reviewers, spending your marketing budget wisely – it's easy to spend too much money or waste money at each of those stages. Knowing how much to print, choosing a manufacturer for the game, setting your price point for your kickstarter or addons, There are a million little things that can go wrong. And even after the game has shipped – how are you selling additional copies? Can you place the game into distribution chains or retail stores? are you selling direct? are you going to end up with a bunch of copies you sell at a loss just to move them? Lots of small publishers have lost money even on successful KSs because they miscalculated just a few costs or didn't anticipate a failure point

So for me it's a tradeoff: I give up four things I care about:

  • control over art direction
  • control over graphic design
  • control over component quality
  • a larger stake in the profits

and of those things, I can certainly provide input to the publisher if I think they are making poor graphic/art choices (though ultimately it is their decision and not mine).

But I get the following benefits:

  • Close to zero financial risk
  • access to distribution and retail right away
  • time freed up to work on other games
  • don't need to do customer service directly
  • don't need to manage parts of a business I'm not interested in – fulfillment, design for production, manufacturing
  • don't need to market as heavily (I do still do some)

You asked if publishers are looking for ideas – they are not. But they are looking for complete, well-tested games, and if you have one of those, you will definitely be able to at least get some meetings. One thing thats pretty wonderful in the boardgame industry is even most of the big players will take a meeting with you if you want to talk to them at a convention. + The UK indie publisher scene is growing leaps and bounds.

I can only speak from my personal skillset, but placing games with publishers is the best option for me. I've signed two games so far this year, and may be able to sign 2 more before the year is out. Were I focusing on self publishing, I think I could really only be doing about 2 game a year max, possibly only 1 if it was a bigger game like Mars Rover. When those games come out at the end of next year and early 2019, maybe I'll be saying something different, but for now, I like focusing on designing games, not running a board game company.

The Odd Fox
The Odd Fox's picture
Joined: 01/19/2017


I appreciated your response and think you hit some nice points here, especially regarding your tradeoff/benefits. I've gone back and forth on this very topic and feel I'm gravitating more toward the path you described.

Joined: 01/28/2017
JohnBrieger wrote:I'm also

JohnBrieger wrote:
I'm also pretty new to the industry with nothing released yet, but I've signed two games to publishers, so I'm just very slightly ahead of you in the process.

I'd put that miles ahead of us :) - its all talk until there's a printed game on the shelves!

Thanks for the input guys - it was deliberately a bit of a controversial post to see what people saw as the clear holes in it and you've made me think about a number of things.

John - your post in particular was really insightful as I think you've touched on a few points where we share an outlook (but also highlighted things that I enjoy which you clearly do not). Net end result - we should focus on the things that energise and excite us and find different routes to the other pieces. And as you say - there's undoubtedly a trade off at some point. As I think about things more I am coming round more to the idea of using experienced people for certain aspects and am coming round to the idea of a publisher if there's a good alignment.

I'd be interested if you can share anything around typical profit share arrangements (without compromising any agreement you have) either in reply or pm me if you prefer not to make public as that side of the industry we haven't reached discussion around yet.

ssm's picture
Joined: 04/06/2017
Something that can be added

Something that can be added to John's list of Benefits is that once you have a couple things signed/on shelf, there is usually a much faster track to get the next one in front of a publisher, and that is true in any industry.

JohnBrieger's picture
Joined: 11/04/2016
Profit and Agreements

Without talking about the specifics of my personal contracts:

Royalties: You can expect to receive somewhere between 3%-8% of the price of a game wholesale per unit sold, and likely the same percentage on merchandise or add-on content. Note that for most games, the publisher will be selling the game wholesale at around 40% of MSRP, so a 35GBP game at 5% of wholesale is netting you about 70p per copy. If the publisher is going to kickstarter, they are getting a higher percentage of the profits, but depending on how your agreement is worded, you may be getting 5% of that higher selling price as well.

Profit sharing: It's rarer in the industry to structure a game contract based on profit, and most of the time, you shouldn't do it unless you really trust the publisher. It's very easy to make the "profit" from a game shrink into other aspects of the publishers business, such as marketing or warehousing spends. Better to base contract on selling price, wholesale price, or net invoices. That being said, I have one acquaintance who has done very well on a profit share contract, though his game went to three print runs.

Advances: Some publishers pay them, some don't. I was offered an advance on one game that was roughly the 1000 unit print run's royalties. So I'm going to see additional money only if they can sell more than 1000 of the game. I'm not picky about advances as I try not to spend TOO much money on prototype development and shipping protos to testers.

There's a wealth of great info about contract structures over in the cardboard edison reports page.

CaledonianGames's picture
Joined: 12/02/2021

This comment was editing due to the nature of the comment which said to ignore the other comments participating in thread instead favoring only one member's contribution.

This is a forum open to all and the opinions of each and every member are of value. Disregarding comments are left up to the OP (Original Poster).

The Professor
The Professor's picture
Joined: 10/25/2014
Such encouragement

Why would you post this comment in the thread as it surely doesn't advance the conversation.

I greatly appreciate the time and energy that so many designers have expended to share their stories and experiences, among which I certainly include John. In a like manner, I'm thrilled to have assisted many folks along this exciting, creative journey.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
An update as KS has changed too!

questccg wrote:
When you SELF-PUBLISH you are putting out a NEW "Game" probably from an un-heard of designer. The misconception is that you will sell 1,000+ game sets... The reality of FIRST TIME Creators is that you should expect about 100-250 backers...

The KS landscape has changed dramatically over the years. Whereas before you could easily get 100-200 backers the FIRST TIME, nowadays it's hard to even get 20-50 backers interested in your "indie" games.

It's a struggle and KS is no longer the "fertile ground" it once was for the "making of dreams" and success of independent projects.

Now KS focuses on LARGE Company Campaigns like CMON which have over 50+ projects and netting more than $50M worth of support. The bottom line is these are the projects that are getting the "Projects we love!" and not your "indie" game that is trying to make $10-$25k worthwhile of monies...

So just a bit of a change in the possible outcomes. I am personally pulling out of KS and finding other avenues for my designs.

Best of luck(?!) with your game(s)!

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