How to Make It in the Game Business –  Getting Your Company Off the Ground

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Heather Brown, 5 November 2014

Continuing our series of articles about the game business, our intrepid entrepreneurial duo gives the lowdown on bootstrapping your way through a new company launch

“You don’t go into game design to make money.”

One of our happy minions at Origins

One of our happy minions at Origins

How many times have I heard that?  Well, let’s just say that if I had a dollar for every time, I wouldn’t need to make any money from games.  There is some truth to it.  If all you do is design your game and throw it out to the masses without a plan—you won’t make much.  And if your goal is to share your creation with the world for the fun of it, that’s perfectly okay.

My name is Heather Brown and I’m one of the owners of Proving Ground Games.  We’re a small design and publication firm based in Ohio.  We have a vision to grow though!  Right now our staff consists of the owners and an intern, as well as a small army of volunteers who are in it for the swag.

The Basics

You probably don’t have an MBA—we sure don’t.  So, you’ll want to educate yourself on business practices and Intellectual Property law.  I learned a ton from the IP seminar they have every year at Origins.  I’m not an expert, but I know what’s patentable, what’s copyrightable, and how to do it.

There are federal and state resources that are available as you plan your business.  In Ohio, we have access to the Ohio 1st Stop Business Connection.  It has resources, information, and advice on starting a business, writing a business plan, securing funding, and you can apply for the necessary licenses online.  Your state likely has a similar website.  You can check the US Small Business Administration website to see what is available in your state, and for even more information.

As you’re looking through all the information, here are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

  • How do I want to organize my business legally?

There are lots of ways to organize your business.  You might decide to Incorporate, do an LLC, or stay as a partnership or sole proprietorship.  Each of these will have advantages and disadvantages.  It’s important to look at your business’ unique circumstances and make a decision.  You may want to use a legal filing website or consult an attorney for this step.  And, you can always start with a simpler form of organization and change as you grow.

  • What permits do I need?

Here’s where your state small business site can really help you.  Depending on how your business operates, you might need a Name Registration, Vendor License, or other various permits.  I highly recommend getting a Federal Employer Identification Number, even if you won’t have employees—it’s free and it gives you creditability with suppliers who might otherwise not give a new business the time of day.

  • What are my goals? Where do I see my business in 6 months?  A year? Five years?

Here’s a place the SBA can help you out.  Take the time to make a business plan.  Even if you aren’t going to be applying for grants or loans, the planning of your business is key.  Set concrete, achievable goals and have a plan on how to reach them.  Talk to others in the industry to find out their successes and failures as you write your plan.

A Word about Planning

Planning is what is going to make or break your business.  A plan is the difference between success and failure.  Make a plan, execute it, adjust as necessary.  Don’t fly by the seat of your pants.  Making games is a creative endeavor.  Us creative types often don’t do Type A personality stuff.  It’s not in my nature to pay attention to planning details, but it will make or break you.  How you do it is up to you.  A daily calendar, spreadsheets, Microsoft Project, a notebook—use what makes sense to you.

The printing and shipping center in my office: note the random ACU jacket under the table.

The printing and shipping center in my office: note the random ACU jacket under the table.

Hitting the Big Time

So now you’ve gotten a world class product out to a happy customer base.  What’s next?  Distribution!  You want to be seen by game stores across America and the world.  There are few options for distributor.  Not all of them will be willing to carry your product.  There are thousands of people out there making games right now, so you need to stand out.  Submit your finish product for industry awards.  (That’s how we landed our distributor—we won an Origins Award for Fields of Fire and I started calling people up and telling them we have an award winning game.)  Also, get yourself listed in the Greater Games Industry Catalog.  They will put in a listing for free, plus you can purchase advertising.  It’s a quarterly publication.

If your game is a book or a card game, consider listing on the “Drive-Thru” family of websites. is their site for war games.  You can put up your product for download or print on-demand.  It’s a great, low cost, way to get your game out in people’s hands.  Drive-Thru takes a cut of the proceeds, and that’s it!

A Day in the Life

Right now we have two full time people (myself and our primary artist, both owners) and 4 part time people (the other owners and an art intern).  Additionally, we have a group of play testers and a group of onsite volunteers for conventions and demos (these guys work for swag).  We’re not quite ready for an office, but we do have an office set up in my house.  Two rooms of my house are set up as office space.  One is used by my husband (another owner) and the larger office is mine and doubles as conference/play test space and mailroom.

So, after I send my kids off to school, I put on the coffee and get to work.  I check email, respond to social media messages, and check our forums and page for product questions to forward to the designer(s).  We are currently play testing our first installment of WWII miniatures rules (we’re actually still accepting play testers—check the first chapter information out here).  Once I’m caught up on correspondence, I check in with Shannon Owens, our staff artist/art director.  She’s currently working on art for 1740: Adventure in the Highlands, our first board game.

Shannon has been updating the art work for 1740 (Flora MacDonald shown)

Shannon has been updating the art work for 1740 (Flora MacDonald shown)

Once that’s done, I’m usually ready for a second cup of coffee.  I grab that and update project timelines.  Then it’s off to whatever the day has in store.  That may mean writing this article, preparing something for my distributor, setting up a new advertising plan, writing down our latest rules changes, play testing, discussing art work, going over manufacturer agreements, getting ready for a convention, or shipping product, just whatever needs done.

The key here is that we’re staying in communication with each other and our customers and we’re working our plan.  I’m a huge procrastinator and I hate the time that planning takes.  Setting up a single product development timeline in Microsoft Project can take a week, if it’s complicated (and if Project crashes on me, which it likes to do).  However, I’ve worked without a project management process and it’s not pretty.  Not at all.

On the other side of this, if someone is lagging behind the plan, I may need to light a fire under them (or sometimes I’m the one who needs the fire lit).  Don’t be afraid to hold the various people in your project accountable—whether you’ve contracted a sculptor or you’re looking at your partner.  Do realize that your plan is probably going to be totally wrong and will need updated—especially on the first few tries.  You’ll learn to how to determine how long something will take and how many hours you really have to devote to it.

Tools of the Trade

We use a number of tools to keep everything moving forward, share information, and archive information.

  • Microsoft Office 365.

We have a business Office365 account.  This allows us to have access to all of Microsoft’s core products: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, OneNote, Publisher, Outlook, OneDrive, and Sharepoint.  This give us the ability to create our basic stuff and share it.  We can ftp files to distributors or to manufacturers.  We have multiple email accounts (on an exchange server) and aliases and can get the day to day done.  We pay an annual per user license fee, and then we get access to all the newest versions of the products.

A screenshot of our WWII rules project plan in Microsoft Project

A screenshot of our WWII rules project plan in Microsoft Project

  • Microsoft Project.

Project is not included in Office365, but it is included in an MSDN membership.  We were able to get into their small business program and we have access to not only Project, but the latest versions of Windows, Azure, and pretty much every business tool Microsoft has—free for 2 years.  It’s pretty pricy, though, so you may want to weigh if it’s worth it for you.

Project can be a huge time saver.  You input the work schedule of each person on the project, then divide up the tasks into manageable amounts and assign them.  Project does the scheduling for you and you can use it for everything from cost estimating to setting release dates.

  • Adobe Creative Cloud.

Adobe products are an important resource for any artwork you want to do, whether it’s hand drawn or from a photo.  Build game boards, card art, pretty much anything you need for your game.  You can even build basic websites.  It comes as a monthly subscription that is very low cost (like $30 a month or so) and you get additional storage along with it so you can do online backups or collaborations of your work.  Adobe products have a pretty steep learning curve, so make sure you have time to devote to it or can bring in an experienced graphic artist.

For quick and dirty sharing and saving that even the most “cloud storage” challenged can use with ease, nothing beats drop box.  Sign up, get free storage.  Invite your buddy to sign up and share a folder, get more free storage.  Anything you put on DropBox can be seen by anyone with access to the folder, so it’s not always the most secure way to do it, but the convenience and price (free) make it a great option.

Easy hosting, plug and play website construction.  It’s the fastest and most reliable way to get your web page out there.  We tried a service that was a bit cheaper—it was NOT reliable.  Every time they had to restart the server we were housed on, they lost our last two days of updates.  Not cool.

One of our partners is a real live accountant, so we started keeping our books on spreadsheets.  We’ve grown now to the point that we need a suite to organize it all, so QuickBooks was our choice.

  • Constant Contact.

One thing we’ve discovered is that new product launches are made or broken by the email list.  No other marketing tool is as effective.  Facebook or twitter, you’re lucky if even your own subscribers see your posts (even paid ads!).  Google marketing is great, but it requires that someone be looking for something already.  A well maintained and informative email list will put you in front of your customers more reliably than almost anything else.

Heather previously dropped by to chat with us about their upcoming 1740 boardgame, too.

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