When you’re a game designer, you have a big choice to make if you want your game published: do you want to pitch the game to a publisher, or do you want to self-publish?
Keep in mind that nothing is forcing you to go down either path with each of your designs. After all, not every design should be published, whether they’re fun or not.
Differences Between Being a Game Designer and Game Publisher
Game designers tend to submit a viable, if imperfect idea of a game. It doesn’t have to be complete or polished, but it should be fun to play and mechanically sound. Being a game designer doesn’t cost all that much money, and the majority of your time is spent designing and playtesting your games. However, most game designers will need to identify publishers and convince them to sign and later publish their games.
On the other hand, publishers are responsible for all aspects of the final product, including the final design of a game. There are a lot of costs associated with being a publisher, and these have to be paid before you can start selling your game. There’s also a wide variety of tasks for a publisher to complete if they want to be successful.
Life Cycle of a Signed Game
One of the goals of designing a game could be to get the game signed; that is, get the game under contract with a publisher. Getting a game signed doesn’t mean that the game will ultimately be manufactured and sold, but it’s a step in the right direction.
A game design usually starts out with a game designer that has an idea for a game. They’ll proceed to make the first copy of it, then they’ll playtest and iterate on the game. At a certain point, the game designer will feel like the game is ready to be pitched to publishers.
The game designer should do some research into publishers to find one that’s a good fit, then set up a meeting and convince the publisher to sign the game. This process can go very quickly or take years, depending on several factors: how good the game is, how much of a fit for the publisher(s) the game is, and how much networking the designer has done.
Once a fit has been found, the publisher will make a contract, the designer and publisher will discuss it, and the game will (potentially) get signed. Depending on how the publisher works, this could be where the designer is now done!
Designer Involvement After Signing
Each publisher is different and may ask the designer to be involved in a variety of ways. The designer might be expected to playtest, help with marketing, help with game updates, or a number of other tasks to make the game reach a publishable state and become a hit after the game development is complete.
Sometimes the game designer is not asked to be involved at all after the game has been signed, and the game could end up being completely different from the game that was originally signed. The theme, mechanics, and components can all change once a game is signed unless the contract says otherwise.
Some publishers have in-house game developers that take over the game’s development, and they may or may not involve the designer. The game designer may be asked to participate in weekly playtests or simply asked to give their feedback at major milestones in the development cycle.
Life Cycle of a Self-Published Game
When a game designer is self-publishing, the process starts off in the same way as when a game is designed but intended to be pitched to a publisher. There’s still the initial game design, playtesting, and iterating to create a great game.
However, instead of deciding to find a publisher, they’re waiting for the game to be good enough to start commissioning art. The game will need graphic design and illustration, which usually means paying two or more artists to work on your project. Art direction is vital and creating a game that both looks great and is functional takes effort. Heck, art direction can easily be its own full-time job!
The self-publisher also needs to do all of the marketing and social media for the game. This is important to let people know that the game exists and to build hype. Advertising is also an option, but it’s an additional cost.
A manufacturer will need to be found for the game, and funds for the first print run will have to be raised through crowdfunding or another source. Crowdfunding (such as running a Kickstarter campaign) is certainly a viable method to bankroll a print run, but it requires a surprisingly large amount of time and effort.
After the game is manufactured, it has to be shipped from China, then sent out to anyone that bought it. This process tends to take a few months and—surprise!—often comes with a hefty price tag attached.
Once you finally have the game in your hands, it’s time to sell it! This process can fluctuate widely depending on whether the publisher has access to distribution channels and whether they can sell to a bunch of retailers at the same time or if they have to sell directly to customers and retailers.
As you’d most likely guess, the list of skills a designer needs is typically a lot smaller than that of a publisher.
Skills Needed for a Game Designer:
Game Design and Playtesting to make a great game
Networking to find a publisher
Graphic Design and Video Editing/Production to make all of the relevant information in your game easy to process, as well as and convince a publisher to sign the game with a sell sheet and/or video pitch
Skills Needed for a Game Publisher:
Manufacturing and Fulfillment
Taxes and other Business Skills
Yep, there are far more things in the latter list than the former! In fact, the latter is comprised of such a wide variety of skills that one person is rarely successful at them all. This is why a publisher might be made up of several people or include contractors. Contractors can be a great way to fill in skill gaps.
Pros of Being a Game Designer
The biggest positive of being a game designer is that most of your time should be spent designing and iterating on your games. Since most of what you do is game design, you’ll need fewer skills and you’ll spend less time on non-game-design work. You’ll also have fewer upfront costs, as most of your costs will be based on how much you want to spend on making prototypes for your game and how much you want to spend on conventions. Some designers don’t travel for conventions, they just network online, so you can really minimize your costs. And an initial prototype can be nothing more than cut up paper and/or pieces pulled from other games you own!
Another nice thing is that if a designer’s game gets published, they’ll earn money! Unless, you know, the contract is really bad…
Designers also get a lot of positive recognition for their games. If the game is great, people tend to think that the designer did all the work. If the game is bad, they typically blame the publisher. Pretty sweet, huh? Heck, many people don’t even know game developers exist!
Cons of Being a Game Designer
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sunshine and roses when you’re a game designer. Game designers might not be involved in their game’s development, and the published game could be completely different. If you have your game published, it may even become something you hate! The designer doesn’t always get a say in what changes make it into the final product, so this is definitely something for designers to think about.
While the designer does get a check when people buy their game, they typically get a percentage of the selling price of the game, which is rarely enough for them to quit their day job.
Also, everything happens on the publisher’s schedule, so a designer might have to wait a while for their game to be published. Sadly, sometimes this wait ends without the game being published at all.
Finding a publisher to sign your game can definitely be difficult and often involves a lot of rejection. It’s not easy or fun to deal with publishers that don’t think your game is a fit, regardless of the reason, and it can quickly become overwhelming.
Pros of Being a Game Publisher
When you’re the publisher, the end game will be exactly what you want it to be. You’re in charge, at the helm of the ship on the sea of game design, so you get to make the decisions. Everything will be exactly the way you want, within reason and finances, of course. Game publishers can also earn more money than the designer if things go well.
Cons of Being a Game Publisher
When you’re a game publisher, there’s not much time, if any, for game design. There’s so much more to a game than the design and not all of it is fun to do. You also have to wear a lot of hats and have a lot of skills. A lot more of your energy will be spent going between all the different tasks that you have to do instead of just focusing on one main task.
Even with all of that time and effort, there’s no guarantee that a publisher will make money. If you make the wrong decisions as a publisher, you may be stuck paying a lot of people a lot of money, including the storage facility that’s full of copies of the game you aren’t selling. Or maybe you’ll be lucky and it’ll just be your garage and closets bursting with unsold units.
Furthermore, while publishers do get some positive feedback from their customers, a lot of that tends to go towards the designer, while the publisher deals with most of the anger that customers have. This also includes any issues, such as missing pieces, misprinted components, and typos in the rulebook.
Which to Choose?
Should you be a game designer or a game publisher? That answer is really personal and can also change as time goes on. There are aspects of publishing that might sound terrible, but you might end up enjoying it. You certainly wouldn’t be the first to want to be a game designer until you learn more about the industry and become a publisher. There’s no one right answer!