Dev Notes 10 - Lessons From My First Year as a Small Game Publisher

This month marks the 1-year anniversary of the existence of Four-in-Hand Games. I have learned so much this year about so many aspects of game writing and publishing, and I would like to humbly offer some of the lessons that I have picked up along the way. I hope that they may be helpful to someone out there.

1) No one knows what you don't know

I have had many dealings and conversations with folks in the game publishing industry over the last year that confused and surprised me. At first I wasn't sure if it was okay to ask questions, because I thought that maybe I would burn bridges by appearing too amateurish. It turns out, however, that in every case the disconnect was simply because the industry professional in question did not know about my confusion. They are used to managing these various details, and tend to assume that others are as well. However, when I asked my questions, every single professional I dealt with was perfectly happy to explain how things worked. They remember what it was like to start out and are quite willing to help others through it. They just don't know where I am in that process. It's up to me to tell them.

My mental self-image the first time I talked to Shane Hensley.

The lesson here is - ask questions early and often. There is no guide to being a game publisher, but the information is readily available if you seek it.

2) Join an existing community

When I was first brainstorming the setting that would eventually become Steamscapes, I did not have a specific game system in mind. The decision to make Steamscapes a Savage Worlds game was by far the best choice I could have made. The support and suggestions we have gotten from Pinnacle specifically and from the licensee community in general have been so critical to the progress we've made so far. But also our book has gotten so many more looks because of the Savage Worlds Licensee label. I honestly could not imagine trying to promote both a new system AND a new setting. (With that understanding, mad props to the folks at Uber.)

I have also been privileged to join a community of area game designers (which includes the inimitable Kenneth Hite and our fiction writer Steven Townshend), and their advice has been extremely useful. If you are considering writing games, I strongly recommend surrounding yourself with people who are already doing it and listen to everything they say.

3) Uniqueness is both a blessing and a curse 

I took a fairly standard marketing approach to the development of Steamscapes: find an unfilled need and fill it. (I wrote very early on why I feel Steamscapes is different from other steampunk RPGs.) In gaming, though, this is not always easy or automatically correct. It is very easy to explain to people why Steamscapes is different. But when players are looking for a new game (which I wish were more common than it is), they typically start with settings and systems that are like the games they know. This is why Dungeon World has been a popular gateway to narrative games for so many D&D players. Gamers are often looking for some level of familiarity.

To be more specific, many steampunk games are actually fantasy/steampunk BECAUSE players want to keep the familiar feel of fantasy and just add a few steampunk elements. Not many people are actually looking for a steampunk-only setting. On the other hand, those that are looking for such a creature light up instantly when I explain that Steamscapes has no magic, no fantasy races, and no floating rock worlds. There are definitely fans who have noticed the same things we did about the genre, and we just have to connect with them. For those fans, our uniqueness is a positive. In the overall scheme of things, it does make it slightly more difficult to be noticed in the first place, but that is a tradeoff we are prepared to make for the product that we want to release.

For other designers, I would say that the lesson here is that copying existing ideas is not wrong, and neither is generating something new. Both have their hazards, and the most important thing is to be aware of why you are making that choice. Stick to it, and don't let anyone second guess it. Follow your passion at least as much if not more than you follow the market. Customers will respect that.

4) Support is not the same as sales, but you still need it

I have run many demos over the past year. I have struck up conversations online and in person about my game, and many of my family and friends have liked the Steamscapes Facebook page and supported and encouraged us at every step. All of these things translate to sales at a very low percentage. It turns out that people - even friends and family - can appreciate, enjoy, and support what you are doing without actually buying a book for themselves. Even though they know the people that made it, they still have their own purchasing priorities and may decide it's not for them. But here's the key: that's just fine.

It's okay, Grandma. Just be happy I wrote a book.

Without those demos and conversations and likes, I would be shouting into the void. I would be constantly disheartened because my only measure of worth would be the sales, which are currently at a level I would expect is normal for a first product. I know very well that we will sell more of our North America book as we develop more products and raise brand awareness, so the initial sales cannot be the only success metric. In the meantime, the engagement we get from players of demos and through our Facebook, forum, and G+ conversations are critical to actually becoming established. We are creating a presence and we need all the help we can get.

Sales will come, but community is now.

5) I'm a pretty good GM, and I wrote a pretty good game

Okay, I admit that this is the self-affirmation portion of the list. But with all of the Steamscapes games I have gamemastered over the last year, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that people consistently enjoy the adventures I run as well as the Steamscapes setting and characters itself. At Midwinter Gaming Con, I had six people sit down and say they would start with a two-hour game and see how they felt after that, then go for 9 hours with only a break for lunch. (Those were some awesome players, though. Couldn't have done a marathon session without great players.) These games are essential in motivating me to keep going, because they make me feel like I must be doing something right.

Not the way to sell your game.

I do have to give some credit on this point to the Savage Worlds system. Many of my demos have been the first SW experience for the players, and even if they don't buy my book immediately, they are very excited about the system. I definitely do not mind that, as more Savage converts can only help me in the long run.

For other designers, I would say that the lesson here is to make sure you run a good game (or work with someone who does) as well as writing a good game. Many people are going to experience your game as a player before they decide to read it, so that first impression is essential.

 

Thank you so much to everyone who has participated in any way in our first year of business! We're excited for the events and products we have coming up, and we hope you will stick with us as we continue to grow both personally and professionally.

-Fairman Rogers

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