How to Publish Your Own Role-Playing Game (Cheap)

Author: Clinton R. Nixon
Version: 2.0
Date: Jan 26, 2005
Copyright: This work is copyright 2005 Clinton R. Nixon. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.
Colophon:This document was created using DocTools.

The history of role-playing game publishing is littered with stories of companies who spent an inordinate amount of money and went flat broke, gone in a year. I've heard people say publicly that you need $10,000 to start an RPG company. Conventional wisdom says you aren't a real RPG publisher unless you do it full-time, but the market can barely support the publishers it already has.

If you've got a great idea for a game, how can you avoid these pitfalls? How can you publish a game and actually make some money? There's a hundred options, but here's the ones I've found from my research.

First, some advice

I'm going to give you some advice my dad taught me: never go into debt. The RPG market is a fickle thing, and you cannot promise you can pay back a debt with the sort of risk involved.

The corollary to this is: don't quit your day job. This is not a bad thing. Here's how it worked for me. My first year as a publisher, I made beer money. You might think that's not a lot, but free beer for a year is nothing to sneeze at. The second year, I could pay for beer and my internet bill. Sometimes, I got my water and electric bill in there, too. These days, I consistently pay my car payment and other bills with money from publishing. I've paid my rent that way on a good month.

And never once have I come up short at the end of a month, worrying about how I'd pay bills. Whenever a full-time publisher says you're not a "real publisher," ask them if that's true for them. (If you want to get mean, ask 'em how many times they've had to delay a product until they could afford to print it.)

Writing

Now, to the meat of this article.

There's absolutely no need to have a $300 word processor, or worse yet, an expensive desktop publishing program for a good game. For those used to Microsoft Word, there's free software online that's completely compatible and easy to use. OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org) is an office suite available for download, incorporating nearly every feature found in Microsoft Office, with file filters for compatibility, in case you need to exchange information with other people working with you on your game. (OpenOffice is available for Windows and Linux.) Best of all, it makes PDFs for free, eliminating the need for Adobe Acrobat. You can easily make a very nice looking book using only this product.

Word processors are not necessary to publish a game, though: the HTML format may fit the needs of many game authors. While it may take a while to learn HTML, it is relatively easy and allows for freedom of layout. HTML may be written and edited in anything from a text editor to advanced text-based editors such as Mozilla Composer, which is free.

No matter what you choose to use, layout can be relatively complex in HTML, with horizontal lines, nested tables to make columns and boxes, included art, and more. HTML primers are a-plenty online, with Webmonkey being one of the most well-known and respected, and W3Schools having the best I've seen. If you have to pick up a book, I'd recommend Learning Web Design, 2nd Edition by O'Reilly and Associates. It's pricey at $40, but is as cheap as computer books get these days, and is well worth it.

Me, I write my games in plain-jane text. You might use Notepad on Windows to do this or be an uber-geek like me and use vi on your Unix box.

Desktop publishing

Layout is where the money usually flies out of your wallet. Adobe Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, and Adobe InDesign, the big three desktop publishing (DTP) programs, are hundreds of dollars each. If you want to offer your game as anything but a web page, you'll need to use some tool, though.

Your first option is using the tools at your command. If you're using OpenOffice or Microsoft Word, you can do simple layout. I laid out my first two games completely in word processors, and they turned out alright. (I would have never tried to lay out Donjon in a word processor, though.) You'll want to make a PDF of your document, which OpenOffice will do automatically. If you have Microsoft Word or another word processing program, PDFCreator will create PDFs from any Windows application for free.

For heavy-duty layout, my recommendations are operating system specific.

If you're using Windows, I can't recommend Serif's Page Plus 10 enough. Donjon was completely laid out in Page Plus, and it handled it beautifully. Features like a built-in word processor help tremendously, and the price is below any other layout program ($130, although they often run specials.) If you plan to make more than one game, I suggest getting this product.

If you're using a Macintosh, my recommendation is Stone Studios' Create. It's a little weird getting used to, but once you warm up to it, it's a fine layout program. For $150, it's much cheaper than Adobe or Quark products, and is a good website layout program as well. The best feature in Create is the ability to import RTFD files (the format of TextEdit, which comes free with OS X) complete with styles. Another recommendation is Apple's Pages, their new word processor. It supports almost all functions of a good DTP program, and is available bundled with their presentation program for $79.

If you're running on the edge and using Linux, Scribus is free and awesome. The Shadow of Yesterday was laid out using this software, and I've never had an easier time in layout. I recommend calling a super-computer-guru friend over to help you install the CVS version of this software, which means the version released literally yesterday. The new features, especially the ability to import from OpenOffice documents, are invaluable.

If you're stuck on using one of the "big three," find a college student. They get extreme discounts buying software from college bookstores - you might be able to find PageMaker, InDesign, or Quark for under $100. Most college students will do anything for free beer, so this plan shouldn't be too hard.

Art

Art can be the most expensive part of your project, and often is for big-press projects. For the independent author, though, there are options. First - and I can't stress this enough - check with your friends. There's not a single person gaming today who doesn't have that friend that draws like a professional and works at, usually, Quick-E-Mart. You're not cheating them - give them credit in your work. If it does well, then they have a credential to show to other companies, and if it does really well, companies may be calling them. Almost every artist I know has been more than happy to donate art, and most of its been of higher quality than normal RPG art.

When I was creating Donjon, I was contacted by an artist who offered me several pieces for free. They were stunning, and I took them, giving him credit. Not long afterwards, he was commissioned to illustrate an entire RPG, one which walked away with many awards and many acclaims for its evocative art.

Even better is finding an artist to work with that actually is interested in your game. The best example I can think of is John Wick and Thomas Denmark. I can't imagine Orkworld without Thomas Denmark, actually. While the majority of the text is written by John, the game is an obvious joint effort and it shows in its quality. The breadth and consistency of work Thomas brought to the game was incredible, and moreso, it was personal. The love in Thomas' art was readily apparent, and by finding a collaborator with an artistic streak, you can bring that sort of consistency, and hopefully, that sort of enthusiasm to your work.

Another option is paying for a clipart collection. I've never been disappointed by ClipArt.com, a subscription service with over 2.6 million clipart images, plus photographs and fonts (great for making headers and the like). The site, notably used by Grey Ghost Games for the Fudge RPG, charges for the work of compiling and sorting out these public domain images at the rate of $13.95 for one week, or $59.95 for 3 months, with rates going down per week after that. This ranges into the expensive, but the fact that they offer one-week subscriptions does help. By making a good list of images you're looking for, you could feasibly buy only a week's worth of time and get everything you need. In addition, buying an account with a few friends or other game designers may be a good idea. As the images are public domain, there's no copyright laws being broken by sharing access. (Note: the site does not smile on this idea. It may be a good idea for one person to have an account and look for images for you. Multiple logins from different IP addresses all at the same time is not the best thought. And the site's run by good people, so try to obey their rules.)

Lastly, do think about paying for some art. Most artists will be willing to work with you, especially when you're making a game for such little profit. Look around on the web and find some artists that you like and give them an offer. I got the idea long ago from Ron Edwards to basically lease art from artists - I pay for the rights to use their art in one game, and they retain all other rights. They can even sell the art again. By making a deal like this, an artist might be willing to come down on his price.

Online distribution

If you're not going to print your game, you're going to need to distribute online. You may decide you don't want to distribute your game as an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) file. Web pages may work well for you, and regardless of what others say, you can sell a web page. By password protecting the "members only" section of your site, you can sell access to your work on the web that way. (This model has been highly successful with the Internet adult industry.)

Web Hosting

Web hosting is a big mess. Trying to decide where to put this thing is - not can be, but is - a total pain in the ass. Here's what you have to look at:

  • Do I want to pay for this thing?
  • How much to I want to pay?
  • Do I even know what I'm doing?
  • Will people shoot me for pop-up ads? (Yes.)
  • How long of a web site address are people willing to type to buy my game? (Again, I have the answer - not very long.)

There is the free web hosting option, a la Tripod.com, Freeservers.com, and others. I don't want to say this - but these can work for you. I chose the above two because they offer personalized domains like 'http://yourgame.triservers.com,' which is a big bonus over the drug-addled madness that can occur such as 'http://users.freecrap.com/BigApple/~game43a2/'. In addition, if you don't understand the web, user interfaces are integrated with these sites to ease uploading files and organizing your web site. So what's the downside? Ads, ads, and more ads. With these free web hosting options, you're going to at least see banner ads, and recently, more and more pop-up ads. (According to articles, the world of advertising have discovered that people don't click on banner ads - one reason not to get one to advertise your game, by the way. What they didn't undercover is that pop-up ads make people never want to come back to your site.) Utilize these if you need to, but you will eventually want to graduate from these free sites.

Once you've decided that you don't want your readers clawing their eyes out, you have to decide who to purchase your web hosting from. There's no way I can give you a list of all the hosts to consider, but you might check out the below sites:

I personally use Dreamhost and TextDrive for different sites, and like them very much. I recommend more than anything to ask someone you know who they are hosting their web site with. You'll find out what they've been satisfied with and what they haven't. In the Internet economy, the owners of a web host can change overnight - people who were good a year ago may have awful service now. In my experience, you'll be happy with Dreamhost if you're not a technical wizard. You'll be even happier with TextDrive if you are.

Lastly, do as I've mentioned with other things above, if you can: scam from friends. They may already have a good host with a good price that you can also use. Many hosts offer services where more than one domain name can be connected to the same account, allowing several people to go into together on a web hosting account. Dreamhost is great about this.

As far as selling your game on your website goes, there's a few credit card processing companies out there to go with. PayPal is well-known, and charges less per sell than most sites I've seen. There are other options, but I have to recommend PayPal heartily, though, not because I have vested interest in it, but because it is relatively well-known. People can be paranoid about their credit cards, and name familiarity helps you sell. In addition, PayPal has relatively nice web panels to see your transactions and find out how your sales are.

Selling PDFs

If you've got your game together, and got a website, and you're ready to sell your game as an electronic text (Portable Document Format, or PDF), you've got to decide how to actually distribute this text. Your options are to distribute it yourself or let a third party in on the deal.

Distributing it yourself can be rewarding and certainly brings you the most profit. It is the most work, however. If you're a technical wizard, you can probably rig up an instant delivery system with PayPal and some web scripting. If not, you're either going to have to e-mail that PDF to everyone who buys your game, or provide them all with a secret download link. That secret download link, by the way, isn't that secret. All it takes is one guy to let out the site address, and you've got a lot of downloads without a lot of sales.

If you want to let a third party sell your game, you're in luck. There's about a gazillion options. The ones I recommend looking at are:

  • RPGNow. It's well established and will take your game if it's good at all.
  • Drive Thru RPG. It's less well established and more picky about who they carry. Their PDF security features, if you worry about piracy, are great.
  • Lulu. Not associated with RPGs, but general e-texts. They are good at what they do, but your cross-selling will be somewhat hurt.

Printing

The first thing I have to say is: you do not have to print your game. You can sell PDFs online, or even give your game away if you want. Printing your game is expensive, and ties you up in a way you may not want. Printing does not make your game more valid. That said, how can you print on the cheap?

If you're printing copies that you want to have in hand to sell - the most traditional method - look for digital printing. This is sometimes called Print-On-Demand (POD) printing somewhat erronously. We'll cover real POD printing below. There's a lot of digital printers around and there might be a good one in your hometown. The advantage over traditional printing is that it doesn't cost a tremendous amount to do a small print run. These guys can make 100 copies without all the overhead that traditional printing would have. If you're planning on a thousand copies or more, you might want to look into a traditional book printer, but you might want to take all your money out of the bank and set it on fire, too. If you want a recommendation for a digital printer, look in the Publishing forum at the Forge, and ask other who they used.

The new cool way to publish your game in print is true Print-On-Demand. The way this works: you upload a PDF to a website that sells your game in print. They have some neat tools on their site for you to specify how the store looks and then it's sold from there. When a customer orders your game, it's printed at that time and shipped to them. The third party collects the money and sends you the difference between their cost + markup and the price you choose to sell the game for. It's a good deal, as you put no money down ahead of time, but you make less per copy than if you printed up-front.

Conclusion

There's no one true way to publish your game. There's no one way to publish it cheaply, either. The traditional system of publishing and distribution works for its members some of the time. It certainly isn't the easiest or always the best way. If some piece of advice in here helps, I'm more than glad. The cardinal rule of publishing your independent game is this: do it. Do not be cowed by anything or anyone. Find others interested in independent publishing, create a support circle, and absolutely go with it.