This is the first in an occasional series about things that look very clear with hindsight but which were definite mistakes and/or blindspots when I started designing games. Can you spot yourself doing any of these? Let me know in the comments how you’ve dealt with these issues.
Today - trying to be a designer-producer-manufacturer-illustrator-graphic designer-distributor-marketer-influencer-customs official. It’s fair to say when I started out as a game designer about five years ago, I didn’t really know what that was, and I certainly didn’t know what it wasn’t. Like most people, I got into game design because I played games, and I had an idea for a game of my own. Not just any game, oh no, this was the best game ever and I was certain that no-one had ever thought of anything like this before. Just like yours.
Having spent a bit of time making prototypes, testing and tweaking the game, I thought it’d be fun to try and make it into something real. Again, probably like most people, I had absolutely no idea what was involved. But the great thing about getting into game design today (and even five years ago) is that there are so many resources available, so many people that are prepared and eager to share what they know, and it’s so easy to get the answers to your questions – as long as you’re not afraid to ask and not afraid to share what you’re working on, as well as your own experiences.
It's definitely possible to self-publish a game – perhaps most obviously through a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter, but even as a start-up, if you have some funds and some experience in the world of games. I initially tried to do this, using a small amount of savings to make a small print run of games, and tried to sell those on my own website, through Amazon and at a couple of places in person. I think four or five actual strangers paid actual money for a copy (and maybe one day those rare original copies will be worth a fortune on eBay!) Most of the rest are in my attic and I use them as demo/prototype copies. Or doorstops, Or to build a fort. But it’d definitely possible to go down this route if you have the right knowledge and contacts. It’s fair to say I had neither of these when I started.
What I didn’t realise was how many steps and roles are involved in getting from a game design to an actual game. So in my enthusiasm to turn my idea into something real, I tried to be an illustrator, a graphic designer, a marketer, a distributor, a publisher and more – as well as learning how to set up and run a (very small) company. I learned a lot, but the biggest lesson was that I really shouldn’t be trying to do all this myself. To succeed, you have to collaborate, and you have to know when to bring in people with better skills than yours. If that sounds obvious then well done, you're well ahead of where I started!
Where have I ended up now? Well my primary driver is coming up with games – I know I can rely on my brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and I can ‘engineer’ that process too (more on that in a future blog). I can’t draw. I’ve learned enough graphic design to be able to do basic card layouts and manipulate images that someone else has professionally produced. I know enough about production and shipping to have confidence in running a Kickstarter campaign but I wouldn’t dream of trying to do the shipping or manufacturing myself. You can certainly save money by getting all your games shipped to your home and then posting them individually to backers/customers, but is that really a good use of your time? I know I’m no good at advertising, marketing or publicity, and there are companies that can do this fantastically well (you can pay as much or as little as you want for this, but it tends to be commensurate with the number of views/conversions you get). So, for the large part, I’m sticking to designing the game, but making sure I understand the ecosystem of roles that can make my designs into something real.
So what’s the verdict and what does this mean for you? This is about understanding three things:
- what you can already do well;
- what you can learn;
- and what is really best left to the experts.
These three categories can change over time of course, as you gain more skills and experience, and get a better feel for how you like to spend your time (and money). Always try to learn more, but recognise when you’re better off paying for a professional. It’s great to do the research into how things work so you can see ‘under the bonnet’ and understand the complete end-to-end process of games, but then it pays to consciously decide what you’ll do yourself and what you’ll pass on to others. The right balance for you will depend on your existing skills, your willingness to learn new skills, and how much time and money you have (if you have no time and a lot of money it obviously makes sense to pay professionals for their skills; if you’re ‘short on money but long on time’ then it might pay to spend time learning new skills yourself. But realistically, you may find that shipping, logistics, marketing analysis, manufacturing, distribution and accounting are best left to those who do this for a living!
In all of these, it’s really worth understanding the difference between entry level skills and top-end professionals, and where you are on that spectrum. If you are already an illustrator then that gives you a great advantage, and there’s a lot of notable current examples of illustrators that have started (successfully) designing their own games – Ryan Laukat, Judson Cowan, Edmund McMillen, Mal Rempen and more. Similarly, if you already have a huge following online you can convert that into game design success (if you can come up with a great game or two). But if your start point is game design itself, you’re going to need some help – and that’s okay. Just remember that most game designers have started from that position, and there’s a great community of people out there that’ll be really happy to share their knowledge. Share what you’ve got (without fear – more on that in a future blog) and you’ll get ten times as much back.
Architects don’t build buildings. Labourers don’t design them. Neither of them try to be an estate agent, an interior designer, a plasterer or a decorator. You wouldn’t ask your bartender to cook you a meal, and your local window cleaner probably can’t make glass. Why should game design be any different? :-)