Mar 312016

Whuf. So I woke up to this message (excerpt is part of a larger one) in my email. I think it’s worth talking about in public. Here’s what they said, asking for advice, and what I had to say about it.

“I make games that can not sell. But these games are my identity, my signature. It is all I am. But I chose to make games as a means of survival.”

That’s the crux of a problem right there. Well, problems, but I’ll try to unentangle them here.

I’ll start with the last part: “I chose to make games as a means of survival.” — This is not something anyone should do.

By and large, at most scales, games do not sell well enough to be a component of survival. I’d estimate at least 95% of people working in games cannot make a living from the work they do in games. The market simply doesn’t support that kind of income generation unless you’re able to aggregate a lot of smaller revenue streams into a bigger one and that often doesn’t happen at the creative end of things. (Sad fact, creativity is not in short supply. High supply vs. demand means the prices for creativity stay low.)

When I started Evil Hat in 2005, I definitely was not choosing to make games as a means of survival. I had a solid enough financial base already—and a spouse with health coverage and a salary—that as a household we could afford me making that decision. I was paid nothing or nearly nothing for most of the first five years that followed—I simply sunk sweat equity into the company, and took little compensation for that. From what I’ve learned about entrepreneurship, that’s pretty typical. 3-5 years of making nothing or losing money in order to start up a business in the first place. By 2010 I was firmly doing primarily business-work rather than creative-work, and from there on forward to now I’ve continued to. Luckily I’m wired to enjoy business-work, and I’ve been able to focus on publishing, which fits the “aggregate many small streams into a larger one” model nicely. Now, ten years in, I have a salary. A small one relative to what I’ve made in the past. Miniscule if you spread it out to cover the time I spent making nothing.

So, games to survive, games to pay for living — this doesn’t exist except at larger scales. You can’t milk that stone.

Then there’s “these games are my identity”. I understand that feeling — it’s common in the creative temperament. But it’s a dangerous feeling to combine with “and I try to sell these games”. Because “I make games that can not sell” is also a common experience, for one. Not to mention, if I took games out of the equation, and said, “Sell me your identity,” that would probably feel pretty… uncomfortable.  Pairing your identity with a profit motive is a recipe for unhappiness. It positions you to feel every failure — and there are PLENTY of those in games — both in your pocketbook and your heart. At the same time. And that’s simply too much to carry.

My advice? Continue to make games. For yourself. If folks happen to like them enough to give you money for them, that’s great.

But address your need to survive by doing something else that actually makes money. MOST people in games do not actually work in games as a job. The work they do for games is something they do as a sideline, a hobby, something they fit into their spare time when they’re not at their day job. Find something you can do that earns your keep, and break that deathgrip you’ve established between your identity and your wallet. Without some kind of financial support to back up your love of making games, there simply won’t be enough of you left for those games in short order.

Oct 292014

Idea Explorer

I am interested in publishing an rpg setting, but I am having trouble finding information on how much it will cost, and how it is done. I would be extremely grateful if you could give me some information on publishing, and point me in the right direction for when our setting is finally ready.

Whoof! Okay, the “how it is done” part is kind of involved, as that’s sort of the everything of publishing. But, let’s talk costs, and I’ll try to touch on the hows along the way.

I’m also going to split each of these into “Deep End” and “Shallow End” thoughts.

  • The Deep End is going to talk about publishing at the scale I currently operate at, with Evil Hat.
  • The Shallow End is going to talk about how to do things as a newcomer without a lot of cash to risk.


Know your wordcount budget! Something like Fate Core runs around 80k-90k words. Something like Fate Accelerated runs around 10k-15k words.

Deep End: Professional rates for writing (including system design, tho some gearheads may want to price this differently) right now starts at 5 cents/word. Certain folks will cost you more, especially if they’re a “name” of some sort or another.

Shallow End: Some folks will work for less. Sometimes you’re doing the work yourself, and you’re willing to do work for yourself for no money. Beware the quality reduction traps that can lay in wait for you when you cut corners on paying your writers. That’s not to say you can’t find some folks of quality who are willing to work for less than the pro rate (above), but in general you should figure out how high you can make the rate, and make that the rate you pay, until you can start paying more.

Prior to the influx of cash that the Dresden Files RPG got us, when we weren’t writing words for ourselves for free, we paid around 3 cents/word. After we got that big increase in our company’s revenue, we went to the Deep End.


Deep End: Right now Evil Hat pays about 2 cents/word for editing.

Shallow End: Before Dresden (BD from here on forward) we paid 1 cent/word. Some folks can get away with paying even less. I don’t recommend underpaying for editing, because it’s completely crucial for a good product and you’ll get what you pay for.


Deep End: We pay what has emerged as roughly the industry standard on art.

  • Color: $200 per full page; $100 per half; $50 per quarter; $25 for a spot illustration.
  • Black & White: $100 per full page; $50 per half; $25 per quarter; $20 for a spot.
  • Cover Art: Depends on the complexity, the artist, and the size of the piece (front cover only? wrap-around?), among other factors. Could run you anywhere from $500 to a few thousand bucks depending on who you get.

It’s worth noting that some of the smaller-size rates may be a little low; some artists want to see the rate on smaller pieces go higher because a reduction in size is not necessarily a reduction in complexity, and it’s complexity that’s the real driver of the amount of effort. So keep that in mind, and use the above numbers only to figure out what you should offer an artist for the set of pieces you want them to do, and be ready to boost that by as much as 25% if you’re primarily sticking with smaller pieces. Also, be very clear in your communications about what the actual physical dimensions are that constitute a half page or quarter page piece, and in general, size those proportionate to the size of page you intend to print on.

Shallow End: You may be able to find some stock art and public domain/royalty free sources that can fill your needs. You may find artists willing to work for less (but beware quality). You can also reduce your ambitions as to the amount of art used in your game. You can get away with fewer pieces than you think!


Pricing this out can be a bit of a dark art.

Deep End: I tend to see flat rate payouts in the $1500-2500 range depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the layout required, and the use of color or black and white, etc. Particularly small projects may be able to go as low as $500. You may also encounter hourly rates, maybe $25/hour, maybe higher; I’m not as able to comment on hourly rates as I almost never operate with them.

Shallow End: You can try to learn this yourself. There’s a lot of ways to go wrong with this! But learning the ropes on a product that’s not particularly important to you can end up building skills that end up serving you well in your efforts to become a publisher. If you do consider doing layout yourself, please take the time to read and absorb the lessons in Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book as it’s probably the single best resource out there for a layperson to learn layout principles that can be applied to nearly any situation where you’re formatting text (emails, Word, etc).


Deep End: I can’t quote you specific prices, but at the Deep End, you’re requesting quotes from book printers to price out offset printing jobs for you. Ask for a range of quantities so you can see where the economies of scale kick in. In my experience the economies of scale don’t really start kicking in until the 2000-3000 quantity range, but really it’s something of a curve that plays out throughout.

I prefer to print domestically in the USA and I tend to give repeat business to folks who respond quickly via email and who give consistently strong customer service throughout the process. So my list of who I work with here is pretty short, because I find a good outfit and I tend to stick with them. You might be more inclined to shop around, and that’s fine.

  • Recommended for softcover, black and white interior printing: Bang.
  • Recommended for hardcover and/or color interior printing: Taylor Specialty Books.

If you end up using either of those guys, tell them Fred Hicks from Evil Hat sent you. They like to know when I’ve sent someone their way.

Shallow End: Consider pubishing digital-only on to start. DriveThru also has a solid print on demand program, too, which would let you print small quantities and on-demand-when-a-customer-orders-a-copy pretty affordably. In the RPG space I absolutely recommend you focus on them; DriveThru easily owns 70% or more of the eyeballs in the RPG PDF market, and their print on demand program gives you access to that same market with your print goods. It’s a lot more targeted than other POD options like Lulu or CreateSpace, tho those might work for you too.

With all POD, in general, I tend to recommend avoiding color interiors; if you do go for color, please consider paying for the “premium” version instead of the “standard” version, as the standard version, to me, usually looks a little muddy and kind of inkjet quality. And color printing is just plain lots more expensive in POD than black and white books are.


Deep End: It’s gonna suck. If you are not already schooled in and capable of running a top quality shipping and fulfillment operation, shipping out daily and promptly, find someone else to do this for you, and find out how much they charge you per package and per item, and tack that on to what you charge your customers for shipping. That’s the “handling” part of shipping & handling right there. See Distribution, below, for more; Indie Press Revolution may be a good fit for you as a fulfiller interested in working with small press RPG publishers.

Shallow End: If you followed my Shallow End advice for printing, above, this isn’t really going to be a concern for you. If you’re all digital to start, there’s no cost to ship. If you’re using print on demand that’s consumer-accessible, then they’re paying the shipping cost themselves at the time they place the order.


Distribution! It’s how you get your games out onto game retailer shelves everywhere, or at least somewhere, without a lot of very hard work hand-selling and trying to find the small percentage of retailers who are willing to buy product direct from a publisher.

Deep End: Diversify. Exclusives only really serve the distributor you get into an exclusive with; sure, you might get a few extra percentage points, but the loss of market access gotten from using other distributors too is probably not equaled by that. So diversify.

Distributors Evil Hat currently works with include but aren’t limited to:

  • USA: ACD; Indie press Revolution (IPR); Alliance; Peachstate Hobby Distribution (PHD); GTS Distribution; Golden Distribution.
  • International: Esdevium; Lion Rampant; Ulisses Spiele; Pegasus Spiele; Bergsala Enigma.

If you’re getting into bed with distribution, you need to manage your costs pretty tightly. Distribution is going to buy stuff from you at 60% off of your cover price, typically: meaning that your $20 book will get you only $8, gross, for the distribution sale.

(The reason the discounts here are so steep is because a very big discount, close to or at 50%, is given to retailers; because when a retailer buys your book, they aren’t buying a sold book, they’re buying a book they’re hoping will sell. You give a big fat discount to retailers because they’re taking a gamble and assuming a ton of risk on a book that may tie up capital and never turn into that cash coming back to them. But you want retailers in your world, man. They’re the best kind of advertising & marketing for your stuff, at the end of the day, when things go right.)

Shallow End: If you’ve got physical goods, and you want a partner who can do direct sale orders and fulfillment for you as well as sell to a retail market that’s friendly to small press publishers, you really should look at Indie Press Revolution as your first step. They were created specifically for your kind of situation; warehousing with them is super cheap (possibly free last I checked), and on consignment, and Jason Walters (who runs it day to day) is a pleasure to work with.

Once you’ve found your feet, you can start diversifying your way towards a full Big End implementation of product distribution. But IPR? They’re where I’d recommend starting.

Keep in mind, my biases lean heavily against directly doing sales and fulfillment yourself. If you, in an honest and sober self-assessment, think you can do a great job and do right by your customers consistently, then, sure, think about doing your sales & fulfillment for customers & retailers yourself. For me, at every step of the way, that’s always felt like too much work, and has very clearly been the thing I should not be doing vs. all the other jobs that a publisher has to do.

If you don’t have physical goods or are in a strictly print on demand footing for physical goods, distribution isn’t really in the picture. Print on demand often won’t produce a low enough unit cost to make selling your product into retail make any sense.

Pricing Your Book

Deep End: Remember that distribution scenario: bank on getting 40% of your cover price on a sale. What should a sale do for you, exactly? In my opinion, it should pay for at least the unit sold plus one unit more. So if you have a $20 book, that sells into distribution at $8, that $8 should be enough to cover the unit cost of 2 of your books. So flip that around: if your printing cost is $4 per unit, you can price your book with a cover price of $20. 5x unit cost is your multiplier — and if you can make it higher than 5x, you’re in good shape. If you can’t produce a competitive cover price with your printing (see Printing above) method’s unit cost times five, you’re probably not using a printing method that’s friendly for getting into distribution in the first place. Over to the shallow end with you, for now.

Shallow End: Make sure you at least make a few bucks of profit. Ideally, make sure you make at least as much profit as an individual unit costs you to produce. But really, think about the distribution math from the Deep End, above.

Advertising & Marketing

Don’t look at me, man. It’s also a dark art. I have people for that sort of thing!

… Okay, that’s only mostly true. Advertising is kind of dying/changing/dying again/changing again right now. The Internet has exploded everything that everyone used to know about how it’s done. Yields are low and problematic. No matter which End of the pool you’re at, I just don’t recommend putting much money into advertising unless the yield is very likely to be pretty high. (And it almost never is.)

So instead you should focus on building audience. That only happens healthily, in my opinion, through an investment of a lot of years of work, being as transparent as you can be so folks never have to guess at what’s going on, interacting with fans, getting out to conventions and running games, providing good customer service, and so forth. There is no overnight solution; it’s all by increments, each fan hard-won.

This ties over into some of my thoughts about crowdfunding, at the end of the day. Folks ask me how we’ve found the scale of success we have when we use things like Kickstarter. They ask me what the secret is. My answer is: first, take ten years building an audience.

It’s all about the audience.

A Final Note On Paying People

Pay them. Pay them promptly. Establish a contract with them at the start of work that makes it clear what they’re supposed to make for you and how much you’ll pay them and when. Stick to it. And in general please avoid “pay on publication” contracts. Pay folks when they complete the work for you, not when you finally get off your ass and get around to publishing what they made for you. Their work is done, already.

Photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

Sep 182013

I’m having trouble sorting out distribution – I’ve approached PSI and Impressions on recommendations from Triple Ace and Pelgrane, but to no avail. I’m assuming this is because we are a new and small company, and this is our first print product, but to be honest I’m unsure if I’m doing something wrong with my approach.

Do you have any advice how I should go about it? I’m asking Jason at IPR if he can help with the direct sales fulfillment, and am looking for a similar outlet in the UK / Europe, but as far as actual distribution into stores is concerned I seem to be running up against a brick wall. I’m thinking of approaching Studio 2 but otherwise am running out of options. How does Evil Hat manage distribution?

So, we don’t go through middle-men to get into distribution: we don’t use Impressions, PSI, or Studio 2, so I have no experience there. I know they’re out there but there’s been no incentive to start using them. Others have plenty of incentive, I imagine! But it’s outside my sphere of knowledge.

Our original setup:

We floored (stored, sometimes for a fee depending on the provider) our stuff with Indie Press Revolution (IPR). They handled not only direct sales for us, but also sales to retailers. The challenge there was that IPR’s penetration into retail was only so-so. IPR would pay us quarterly, as is their contracted arrangement.

Our next setup:

We retained our relationship with IPR, but moved our primary flooring and sales fulfillment over to Alliance Games Distribution along with some automation support with our own web store so we could capture a little more coin on our direct sales. We solicited purchase orders from other distributors such as ACD and PHD in the States, and Esdevium, Lion Rampant, and Ulisses Spiele abroad. When one of them placed an order, we’d ship to them, issue a PO, and wait 30-ish days to get paid. Our flooring arrangement with Alliance meanwhile got us paid monthly, after they’d report to us how much they sold of our stuff and we’d invoice them according to that report. Alliance let us ship to their central (midwest) warehouse, and would take care of any cost of shipping our stuff to their other three warehouses themselves. Sometimes this meant they’d go really skimpy on those other three warehouses and end up running out of stock on key items of ours despite having thousands of copies at their midwest facility. And so…

Our current setup:

Same as previous but now we’re diversifying our flooring a little more: we’ve got ACD flooring our stuff as well now. This means they have more of our stuff on hand because we assume the risk of unsold inventory. They DON’T do the “ship between our warehouses ourselves” thing, so I have to send them a separate supply to each of three locations. On the other hand this means there’s a better chance we’ll be able to have confidence that all three sales zones they cover will remain reasonably well stocked. While that does happen reasonably often with Alliance, the fact that it’s all on them to make sure they don’t hit gaps in their other three locations means they DO hit gaps in their other three locations if they play it too careful or, simply, don’t pay attention to how fast our items are running down in those locations.

My recommendation: 

If you’re looking to break into the distribution market… don’t skip a step in what we did, because that worked out damn fine. Start out with Indie Press Revolution, like we did. Their flooring is very cheap, they’ll handle US-based direct sales for you if you don’t have a storefront that can do so comfortably, and they’re able to get you some convention representation via their booth presence.

But maybe unlike us, also try to get purchase orders from Alliance and ACD at the least, in the States. If you build up the kind of sales momentum necessary to make the cost components of flooring with those guys work, THEN try to get something like that set up. Fast forwarding to that step first might well be jumping the gun — tho you can look into it. I just don’t think the math bears up until you’ve got a proven winner. We didn’t make that jump until we had the Dresden Files RPG.

Feb 242012

Occasionally someone drops by my inbox and asks how to start being an RPG publisher.

Assuming they’re already working on a game, I’m usually tempted to say, “Congratulations, you have,” and leave it there. 🙂

But to dig in just a little, I have some short, sweet, and super brief answers to the usual questions lurking in my brain, and the latest such inquiry to cross my door did me the great courtesy of asking nearly all of the usual questions. So here is my not very detailed, super opinionated FAQ. Call it a quick dash of Dear Deadly, if you like.

How do I start?

Small. Do stuff for free. Get it on a blog. Playtest it. Get others to playtest it without you in the room. Hook into design communities where you can, on forums (story-games, the forge, and social media. Go to your local regional conventions, and run slots of your game there. If you can make it to New Jersey in November, above all, bring your design to Metatopia for some tough, needed love from experts.

Where do I start?

See above.

How do I publish?

See above. But also consider platforms like Lulu and DriveThruRPG. Invest very little up front; until you’ve proven yourself, and importantly, until you’ve found an audience willing to buy your point of view, it’s not worth losing a ton of money.

Do I need to start up a company first?

You could, but it’s not a requirement.

Where can I advertise my RPG?

Ads are an iffy bet. You’ll do better to build strong word of mouth buzz through actual play experiences. That involves going to lots of conventions, or getting fans who’ll do it for you.

Should I go to cons and run games of it to entice people?


Expect it to take years.

And be ready to hate your game at some point — all designers go through it, me included. Push past it. Step away from it. Work on another thing. Come back around and rediscover what was good about it. Use the distance to get clarity on what’s broken, and fix it.

Communicate with your public at every possible turn. Do not shie away from it. Let them see behind the curtain. You do not have secret private information that must be kept in the dark. Folks will appreciate the trust.

Dec 282011

Dear Deadly,

Licenses seem to be a mixed blessing in the industry. Clearly a popular license can increase sales, but the difficulty in getting stuff reviewed and the delays that can introduce seem to be a huge burden, above and beyond the cost of the license.

I know that you had an “in” with the Dresden Files, but what advice can you give for determining if a license is worth the effort and cost? How do you manage the licensor to keep things on track?


Steve asks good questions here (the subject line is the killer one, though). This is something I’m hoping Chris Hanrahan will be able to cover with me in a future That’s How We Roll, but I can share a few thoughts here as well.

Ultimately, a license is all about managing expectations — both yours the licensor’s. Every license is its own kind of special snowflake, really; it’s hard to really dig into generalized truths because of the differences in morphology here. But all the same, here’s a noncomprehensive list of things you should be thinking about and discussions you should be having with the licensor.

Does the license come with free or low cost assets you can repurpose to or debut in your product?

At its most basic, a license brings you extra audience you wouldn’t otherwise have. Licenses that are really worth it either bring an incredibly large audience to you that you aren’t otherwise reaching, or bring extras along for the ride that help you keep your budget from spiraling out of control.

In the case of the Dresden Files RPG, we got two major boosts. One, we got low-cost access to much of the art done for the Dresden Files comic book that was at the time being published by the Dabel Brothers. The Dabels did not always manage their business well (and so the comic has since moved over to Dynamite Entertainment), but they were very kind to us by giving us broad access to the amazing art done for the comic by Ardian Syaf.  Two, Jim Butcher was willing to write a short story specifically for the RPG. It’ll show up in a collection of short stories elsewhere eventually, I’m sure, but having a period of time where we had exclusive first-source content of our own for the RPG certainly hasn’t hurt.

Do you and/or the licensor think that the game will sell in numbers that are far outside of how non-licensed RPGs tend to sell?

There’s always a decent chance that the value of a well-known license will boost sales of the RPG — but there’s absolutely no guarantee it will. It’s best to set expectations for all involved parties that the game will sell no better than an unlicensed RPG, and to make sure the financials make sense with that being the case (more on that in a bit). You can’t get yourself caught up in an agreement that more or less demands or expects you to sell thousands upon thousands of copies.

The costs of the license — often expressed in terms of down payment up front to the licensor and percentage of royalty paid to the licensor on a per sale basis — can’t take your unit cost to the point where you aren’t making money on a sale into your lowest margin sales channel (usually distribution). Run the damn numbers in a genuinely worst-case scenario, and make sure they still add up to you at least breaking even, or in the event of disaster, losing only what you can afford to lose.

Do you think the name alone is justification for a higher price point?

And while we’re on that topic, don’t think that you can simply make up for license costs by slapping a higher cover price on the game. Push your cover price high enough and you’ll lose the extra audience you’re supposedly gaining by acquiring the license. You shouldn’t be boosting the price of your product on the name alone; it’s gotta bring the cracklingly good content along to justify that. The two DFRPG books together are a hefty price tag, but the playable single core book, Your Story, is not outside the range of unlicensed games with a similar form factor; on top of that, we jammed it full of love-for-the-license content. All of that is a deliberate choice made to make sure the game competes as a game in its own right, sans the influence of the license.  We wouldn’t have been able to put that price on the book if the license costs were high. Thankfully, they weren’t, for us, so it was all viable.

Can you reasonably assess how large of an audience you’re getting access to with the license?

… And how much of a percentage of them (think very small: maybe 3-5% on a novel series?) do you think you’ll be able to acquire from that license’s fandom that you aren’t already getting access to? Overlap is the key calculation here: of a property’s audience, how many of them are likely gamers or willing-to-become-gamers? Not a lot. So divide by 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 or more.

I recently looked at a potential license and was lucky to be able to get some honest numbers on what the readership/viewership was for that property. When I looked at the probable RPG sub-portion of that number, it ended up not making sense to pursue the license, because the audience boost we’d likely get from the license didn’t outweigh the costs of acquiring the license and developing the project. It doesn’t always have to come down to a cold calculation like that, and sometimes you can decide to forge ahead even if those numbers don’t say you should. But it’s good to know what they’re saying, because that’s the mountain you’re gonna climb.

How important is your project to the licensor?

You’re going to be asking for a lot of initially uncompensated, additional work out of the licensor throughout the process, in all likelihood. You’ll be asking them to read through mountains of text, scour your draft for things that don’t fit with their vision of the license, etc. It’s a big time investment for them (and they’re busy generating the primary content for the property in the first place) and will be very time consuming for you as you wait for their feedback. Yes, it’s important to work out this process and make sure inefficiencies are identified and medicated in advance, but that’s just time and project management stuff. Important, but it won’t matter one bit if your project isn’t important to the licensor. They have to want to see it succeed; that’s going to motivate them to donate that extra time and effort, help you find resources you need, and figure out when they need to be delegating the approval and Q&A work to someone who does have the time to respond to you. What you want here is a collaborator who’s excited about seeing the project happen and wants to help — or someone who’s happy to take your check and stay hands off with the design of the final product. There’s a big swampy zone in between those two where your project can and will get bogged down because of a lack of time and/or enthusiasm, and in that swamp your project will also start to acquire a stink of mediocrity. Avoid it.

How fast are you expecting all of this to happen?

Because it’s going to take a lot longer than you think, and that’s okay. But you need to learn how to believe that it’s okay.

Are you going after this license because it’s popular (in the minds of the gamer populace), or because it’s personally exciting to you?

If you didn’t answer “yes” to that, you might want to reconsider. The best licenses are probably the ones that are both. You’ll get the audience you want because it’s popular. You’ll make sure you’re doing the best possible job because it’s personally exciting to you — exciting enough that you’ll still like it after you’re done. Which is no mean feat.

Plenty more to be said about this, but I think those are good places to start your exploration.