Becoming a Publisher, with Asger Granerud

Two weeks ago I shared a discussion I had in 2018 with Asger Granerud, designer of, amongst many other things, Shaky Manor, Flamme Rouge, Copenhagen, and 13 Days. This week, I bring you a follow-up discussion. Almost a year ago to this day, Asger and longtime colleague Daniel Skjold Pederson founded Sidekick Games, their own game company. I therefore had a chat with Asger about that particular endeavor, and thought I’d share it with you!

JV: Hey Asger! So since our first talk, you have made the jump to self-publishing! Congratulations on starting Sidekick Games! Could you talk about what made you so interested in it?

AG: It’s such a wide topic… let’s start with the financial aspect. Starting a publishing company is something Daniel and I have discussed loosely for years. Different games and different approaches over the years. 

Financially the potential upside is rather big. However, we are also moving risk onto ourselves. Personally, when new indie publishers are discussed, my biggest concern is always that they’ve underestimated how difficult it is to actually sell thousands of copies of a game. Doing so requires a lot of work, luck or investment, and sometimes I get the impression that people optimistically hope all it requires is a good game, and the rest will happen automatically… I’ve warned several friends and acquaintances in the above scenario NOT to publish themselves. 

JV: So what makes Sidekick Games different?

AG: I founded and ran Spilbræt.dk for 3.5 years. It is a board game distributor in Scandinavia, and though I’m no longer involved, it still carries 1000+ titles, and moves big volumes every month. This means I’ve been exposed to a lot of details of publishing. Not just the practical details of logistics, manufacturing, etc. but more importantly the network that goes with it. I am on a first name basis with distributors across EU, and we’re already pushing to have Bloom Town localised into several markets. 

JV: And what made you take the plunge now? 

AG: Two things influenced that. 1) We wanted a game that was simple to produce, acknowledging the fact that we aren’t manufacturing experts. Bloom Town fits the bill. 2) We had a lead with a small chance of success, to eliminate some of our risk, by selling the North American rights exclusively to Walmart.com. We pushed for this, and managed to find a solution all parties were happy with.

Normally the risk of self publishing is why I warn against it. None of us have a crystal ball, and though I am very proud of Bloom Town, I also realise that it’s ultimate success is largely out of our hands. However by choosing the right project, and being lucky with a lead, we managed to reduce the element of risk enough that we simply had to try. 

JV: What about the creative aspect of design? How did that translate to publishing?

AG: It has allowed us to dig deeper into the product design than we typically do. Often we do get to have some say when we sign with others, but having full control, and ultimately full responsibility, is of course a different matter entirely. 

We’ve spent months getting our company logo just right, and the details we’ve adjusted in the art have been minute. Even if we are a first time publisher, I have full faith Bloom Town can stand on a shelf and still sparkle despite being surrounded by much more experienced publishers 🙂

JV: A lot of self-published designers lament that they now don’t have time to design games, given how much of their time goes into business stuff. What’s your experience been like?

AG: Largely the same, but I hope it gets better. We’ve had to move real fast early in the process, find freelancers all over, coordinate them, and handle dozens of other details. Normally when we go to Spiel Essen we bring close to 15 games to shop around, and this year it is closer to being 5. 

We did realise it would be an issue ahead of time, so we did bring in friend and fellow game designer Danny Halstad as our project manager on Bloom Town. Without him it wouldn’t have materialised. 

JV: When did you decide you’d self-publish Bloom Town? Did you try pitching it to established publishers first?

At Essen 2018 we shopped it around to four of the top tier publishers, and a few of them still hadn’t declined when we pulled it. The kicker for going forward was the WM deal, and those initial talks started back in October 2018. 

JV: Is this a one-time occurence, or do you plan on self-publishing more games? If so, how would you decide what to self-publish and what to leave to other publishers?

We don’t have a big chrome plan rolled out. We do know we have an appetite for more, and want to see how we can move forward utilising what we’ve learned this time. Right now there is only one thing we worry about, and that is supporting Bloom Town and getting it attention in this crowded place. 

The “plan” is 0-2 games a year, and only our own designs. In practice we do not expect choosing what to pitch will be that difficult. For us to consider it for Sidekick Games, it has to be a relatively straight forward production, as we want to minimise risk and complexity. We are also mostly looking for the very mainstream games, as we want to put our energy into something that could potentially stay in print. Having said that, I can’t rule out that a vanity niche project might also have better chances at materialising from inside our own ranks. Time will tell!

JV: In our last talk you said “I do believe designers [who self-publish] have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.” Has that math held up to real life? 

AG: There is no real life data yet, as we still haven’t sold a copy to an end user. But the back of the envelope math still holds, and some scenarios can even require less than a 10th.

The BIG difference is somewhat of a black box to me though, and that is the brand and company value we are building. Our goal isn’t to sell the company, the goal is to create a lean machine with a great team that releases 0-2 fantastic games a year, some of which manage to become evergreens. Should someone ask to buy it for a ridiculous amount of money, we’re not likely to say no, though. This value is hard to estimate as it is so diffuse, but it is also one of the major differences between self publishing and going through others. 

JV: There’s been a lot of “first level” advice on self-publishing. As an experienced professional in this industry, could you share some of the issues you were still surprised by on the publishing side?

AG: I’m not sure if I was surprised by the minute details that need to be coordinated across many people, to make such a project bloom, but if not I willfully ignored it initially. You will need a team, and unless you’re an expert on all relevant subjects, finding the right people is obviously paramount. 

JV: Can you give us a short list of those skills that you need to be successful?

AG: Project management, Logistics, Production planning, Graphic Design, Illustrations, Art direction, Sales, Marketing, Development, Rules editing, Product/industry knowledge, Maximizing Conventions. Whether you become an expert or hire one, you need all of those.

JV: Do you plan on self-publishing some of your already published games if/when the rights revert back to you?

AG: There are no plans to do so, but obviously it would be much less work!

JV: Without going into specifics, can you give us an order of magnitude of how much capital was invested (including art, graphic design, dev work, project manager) for Bloom Town? 

AG: If you include every expense we have had including manufacturing, marketing etc. we are probably closing in on $75K. However, our expectation is that would go down as we are deliberately working on keeping the project simple to manage, over cutting costs. 

None of the above includes any pay for project management, designer royalties or advances, etc. We get paid when it becomes a success 🙂 

JV: Well thanks a bunch Asger, and I wish you two all the luck in the world!

On the viability of game design as a full-time job

Today, I’m cheating a bit, and reposting a discussion I’ve had with Asger Granerud of Sidekick Games (who you probably know from Flamme Rouge and 13 Days) last year for his own blog. I’m hoping to do two posts a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and maybe the Friday post would be with a guest?

So to start this, here’s that discussion about what is a goal, a dream for so many of us: making game design a financially viable use of our time. It’s more business/finance oriented than I want things to be, but as this week is focused on manufacturer quotes and contracts and finances, it’s honestly hard to get my head into more of a design state for the post. Hopefully this is still useful to y’all!

JV: We had a discussion last week were you said that you are a full-time designer, and that it’s “viable to make a living designing games”, which I was surprised by: I feel like it goes against the zeitgeist of “don’t expect to make money from your games”.

AG: I know several people who have earned a living wage from game design in 2018, and none of them had games published prior to 2016. However, I also know people who have worked hard, and still haven’t gotten one of their designs signed. I don’t want to come off as insinuating it is easy, nor that a quick fix exists: I just want to say that it is doable.

JV: What do you think is the difference between those two groups? Is it just luck or timing, or is it something those designers could improve on?

AG: Luck and timing is a factor. It wasn’t a given that Flamme Rouge and its sports theme would find a publisher, nor that the publisher could make it a success.

I think the advice I would emphasize would be twofold:
– First and foremost, you have to look at your games as products. You could make the best children’s game in the world, but if it costs €1000 to produce it doesn’t matter. Effectively each game you are pitching is a business case for the publisher: if they don’t think they can make a profit, they are not going to publish it.
– Second, play the numbers and embrace rejection: don’t design 2 games, design 20; don’t pitch to 5 publishers, pitch to 25. These steps will hone your design skills, your pitching skills, and will build you a network.

JV: Why do you think the perception that there’s no money to be made in games is so prevalent in the industry?

AG: I think it is because a lot of people have that experience. They design a game, sell it to a publisher, and see a little money come into their account, but rarely enough to make a significant impact in their life, and sometimes even less than they had in expenses getting there.

Most games get 3-5K units printed, and then never get a reprint. On average you are probably earning 0.80 USD per unit (that number obviously varies wildly), so that won’t cut it unless you have a massive output. If you want to work on this full time, your ambition shouldn’t be to make a game that sells 3-5K: you need at least a zero after that. I haven’t tracked it precisely from the get go, but my guess is my games have sold around 200.000 copies in total so far, with Flamme Rouge as my breakaway leader.

JV: Speaking of games as products, what do you do to ensure that your games are viable products?

AG: At the end of the day, the question is if it has a place in the market, but none of us have a crystal ball. With 13 Days we knew that we wanted a game that could scratch our Twilight Struggle itch, but in 30 min. We guessed there were many other folks out there that perhaps didn’t have as much time as they wanted either. For other games, it can be spotting a similar niche, but it could also be a component, mechanic or other hook. Regardless of your hook though, you still have to make a good game.

JV: Do you ever need to work on games that don’t excite you as much, just because they’ll sell or make good products?

AG: I’m blessed to be an omni-gamer. I have my personal preferences, but generally I just really like playing games. I wish I would actually “know” which games would sell, but I don’t, therefore I try to make games that will make people happy. Sometimes that can be achieved by nuclear war, other times it will be jumping frogs, or shaking meeples around in a box.

The process of design is a creative outlet I enjoy immensely, in and of itself. Personally I don’t need additional motivation beyond that and the goal of spreading happiness!

On your personal experience:
JV: When were you able to go full-time?

AG: I went full time on February 1st, 2018. I had been designing games since 2012, and signed my first contract in 2014. By 2018, I had about 10 boxes on the market.

JV: How much (if at all) did your experience at Games Workshop help you?

AG: Personally, I think the Warhammer Community was much more influential in forming me as a game designer than my 2 year stint at Games Workshop HQ in Nottingham. I have been designing tournament systems, restrictions, campaigns, and scenarios for at least a decade before I started designing games, and I had been consuming other people’s work in similar veins.

JV: And in terms of contacts in the industry, did either of those experiences help?

AG: So far it has not made any difference. I have tried using some of them in the past, but nothing has come of it.

JV: What does an average week look like for you as a full-time designer?

AG: I co-design all my games with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, and have been doing so since 2014. From Monday to Wednesday, we meet and work from 9 to 16 (4PM). It is a mix of design, development of existing projects, prototype production, and publisher contact. Every other Friday we have a playtest session, the Superhero Meet-up, that runs from 16-22. Our time is generally scheduled around getting something ready for next Superhero Meet-up.

On top of that, we also have on average two or so impromptu playtest nights a month when we are in need or want to shorten the cycle. These are typically with other designers in the Copenhagen community. Some work also makes sense to do without Daniel and I having to sit together, so rulebooks, graphic design and other tasks may land outside the fixed hours. Conventions are also part of this, and often we end up working 16 hour days when there.

JV: How do you and Daniel share the design responsibilities?

AG: There are differences in what we do, but more from differences in ability: I can’t draw a stickman without being ridiculed, so Daniel does that. However, I can use the adobe suite, so I do that. This is often time consuming, so Daniel ends up writing slightly more rulebooks than I do. It just happened organically, we didn’t really plan it that way, and regardless of the task, we bounce almost everything up against each other.

JV: How many games are you working on at any one time, on average? Are they at the same point in their designs?

AG: On average, we have 3-5 active designs at any one time, in very different stages. At the highest, I know we have had meetings in the past where we covered issues on 10+ designs in one sitting.

JV: How many playtesters are in your regular Superhero group, and how did you build that group?

AG: Semi regular numbers probably reach 15-20, but on any given Superhero Meetup, we will have 4-8 of those attend. To start it, we bought a bunch of snacks, drinks, beer, and pizza and invited lots of our friends and network. Then we made a few one-time open invitations in board game groups in Copenhagen, and if people showed up they got invited to return.

JV: With that testing schedule, how long does it take you to get a game from first prototype to a pitchable state?

AG: There really is no formula. It can be days or years. Children’s games tend to be based on a single strong idea, and sometimes that is all you need to pitch a game. Generally the process stretches when complexity goes up, but even so bigger games can still be sold without being fully developed. Assuming it stands out and is already solid. No need to sink hundreds of hours into developing a cowboy game, if the publisher wants a space theme. If your core design is pliable enough, developing after the sale ensures you can merge the theme and mechanics.

JV: Convention-wise, what do you prioritize?

AG: Nuremberg Toyfair and Spiel Essen are the permanent fixtures in our calendar, though they are so close in the year that we might ditch Nuremberg going forward. Our ambition is to do a US-convention a year as well. Beyond that, we do attend others, but more as gamers than as professionals, though the blessing is that even that is considered work!

On the pitching process:
JV: How do you handle relationships with publishers? The pitching process is already very stressful, I can’t imagine what it would be like if I knew my next meal depended on those contracts!

AG: First, I don’t think they are stressful at all. Pitching games is the most stress-free sales I’ve ever done, simply because you aren’t actually selling anything. At best they are going to take a prototype, then they are going to take it home and test it multiple times, with people that weren’t even present at your pitch: the game has to sell itself. Now I’m not saying there is no skill involved in a pitch, but I just feel that knowing the game has to prove itself regardless of what I do and say reduces that stress.

Second, my next meal isn’t dependant on that contract at all. If I sign a game today, I’m not going to be paid for it for 2 or 3 years. Right now I’m living off the work I did the past 5 years, not the work I’m doing tomorrow. Moreover, it is a numbers game: lots of games, more meetings, and even more pitches. But what you get most of all is refusal: I think Daniel and I pitched ~120 times total, across 26 meetings, just at Spiel Essen 2018.

JV: How do you handle pitching multiple publishers, and the delay while they have prototypes?

AG: We pitch to lots of publishers at once, and we never do sell sheets. At most, about 10 different publishers have had the same prototype of one of our designs. That being said, we try to avoid that these days, not out of concern for the publishers, but because we don’t want to make that many prototypes!

If a publisher then offers to sign a game, we tell them they will have to wait 4-6 weeks. We immediately inform all other publishers with prototypes of the deadline, and then wait. This process is fully transparent and we have not received any pushback from publishers.

JV: And have your ever had to deal with simultaneous offers?

AG: Yes, twice. We asked both companies for draft contracts, and looked through those. Though the details of the contract matter, they still cover 95% the same concerns in slightly different ways. We are not looking for a bidding war, we are much more interested in the second thing we ask them for: their vision for the product.

Also, it is much more important if they have the right partners, if they answer emails, all the intangible stuff that doesn’t go in the contract. Each game you design is a tiny lottery ticket financially: so many factors go into its final success that are completely out of your control. Therefore, I think the most important part an established designer can start focusing on is developing relationships with the best publishers. They will possibly impact the success of your game more than you will.

JV: You said you design 30 games, of which you get 10 published, 1 of which is actually getting you long term money. Could you elaborate on that process?

AG: First off, that is just a rule of thumb: Daniel and I are trying to track our work, and even when we succeed, our numbers aren’t exactly massive enough to be statistically significant, but 30-10-1 sounds right over a two-year period. I’ll try and look into it later in the year, and see if there are any trends. I also suspect our hit rate is going up.

JV: You also talked about selling directly to customers: is that something you have experienced? Is that something you plan on doing?

AG: A fully different topic, where we’re moving away from game design, towards publishing. Right this minute there aren’t any plans to do so, but if there was a project too niche to fit into traditional publishing, I would consider it. I do believe designers have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.