Hey all! B’omarr Punk (Adam), creator of Pure Steam™ here. This article was intended to be a wrap to our series from last year: “I am become designer, creator of worlds!” Instead, it serves as the new start of a series we like to call, “Behind the Gear-spun Curtain: A Purely Steampunk Look at Game Design.”
I agree that there is a dark feeling that hits us when we think of mixing art and business. We’d like our games, movies, and music to be pure, unadulterated acts of creativity. But let’s be honest. You may say you just want to design games for the love of it, but ultimately you want to make money doing it. As a GM, you’re already designing worlds, house rules, characters, plot hooks, and the like. If you could make a living churning out these gems and quit your day job, it’d be the life, right? As my favorite clown once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
With that out of the way, here are the three main things I tell people when they ask me how to approach the business side of game design.
1) Assess yourself, fill the gaps
Pure Steam was originally my brain child, but it took a few other minds to turn it into a reality. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Find people to fill your skill gaps. When we started development of Pure Steam, I was nearing the end of my MBA studies, and had nearly a decade of business experience, so I knew I could handle the nuts and bolts of the business. But I knew I needed help, because I was working and studying full time and I had my family.
LanJemWezz expressed interest in providing some core concepts, and I needed his writing skills (skills which are apparent on this site). My lead developer, SellSword2587 (Brennan), and I met through mutual friends, and he had game design schooling; I knew I needed him to crunch the numbers and make the game “work.” GrimGrin (Davin) had already self-published tons of steampunk rules for tabletop RPGs online, and I wanted to call on his extensive knowledge of all things steam. (He has turned into a veritable content factory.) SoftServo (Ben) was enlisted to compose our soundtrack and was a great resource for copyediting and style management. For artwork, we used freelancers, such as the wonderfully talented Mates Laurentiu.
2) Learn the market, find a niche
I started with an idea for a campaign, and every time I shared it with people, they pushed me to publish it so they could play it, too. I was reaching the part of my MBA which required me to produce business and marketing plans, so I thought I’d do the hypothetical “what-if” on my dream game company. My research led to the realization that there was a cycle to all major genres (zombies, ninjas, etc.) and steampunk was about to explode. If I were going to actually publish Pure Steam, it would need to be soon. We put a hold on the other product we were looking to develop, with plans to develop our steampunk game while it made market sense.
There were already several indie steampunk RPGs, and most of the feedback I gleaned on them was that the major turn off for gamers was learning a new game system to enter the genre. We figured creating a campaign setting for Pathfinder® using Paizo’s compatibility license was a more marketable solution, and it turns out to have been a good call. Pathfinder is one of the widest-played tabletop RPGs in production, and lots of those gamers want to add some steam to their game. So, if you have a great game idea, do some homework on the market as far as when and how to market it best.
3) Pick a business structure, fund your dream
We had the game idea and we had the team, but we needed a way to make it a reality. Printing books and paying artists isn’t cheap. I’ve been in business enough to know that without a written document, even the best laid agreements can go bad. So, we developed an LLC and each team member had a percentage of ownership instead of up-front payment for developing. We used an easy online legal service to codify our agreement. There are other ways to set up your business, depending on how you want to file your taxes and whether you’re going it alone or with partners, but one thing is for certain: put everything in writing.
The next step was to pay for the darn thing. I’ll share a little tidbit from every entrepreneurship class I was forced to take in school: the least attractive method to funding your startup is a loan. The most attractive is to get someone else to pay for it. But, we couldn’t exactly go on Shark Tank with an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign setting; they wouldn’t bite. Kickstarter was suggested by countless people, and it worked for us. We presented our idea to the world and in exchange for helping fund our dream, we rewarded our backers with rewards such as copies of the game and being written in as an NPC. Crowd-funding seems the best way to go right now for an indie game designer.
So, to recap, that’s assess yourself and fill the gaps, learn the market and find a niche, and pick a business structure to fund your dream. The gaming world’s out there with all sorts of needs that are waiting to be satisfied. Go find yourself an itch to scratch!
(And while you’re looking, don’t forget to check us out at puresteamrpg.com or on Facebook and Twitter @PureSteamRPG. You can also find our products at these fine web locations: drivethrurpg.com, paizo.com, d20pfsrd.com)