The other day, I was looking at board games online, and I thought that it might be fun to design a game, I might be able to make some money while I was at it. I’ve never created a game before, so I thought I’d look into game design to see if it’s something I could do and if I did, would I be able to make money at it. Looking at games in the store, you might think board games are expensive, so game designers must make a lot of money, right? That isn’t necessarily true.
It’s possible that you can make money designing and selling board games, but you have to do it at a large scale to make any meaningful profits. That doesn’t mean that small production runs can’t make good money, or that designers that sell 20,000 copies of their game will make a good income. There are always outliers that defy statistical success and failure. However, most people who want to make money in board games will have to design a game that is popular enough to sell quite a few copies or find a way to increase their profit margin.
Costs of making a board game
Before I start looking at how much money you can make from producing a board game, let’s see what you’ll have to pay. If you aren’t providing a complete end-to-end solution for the production and delivery of your game, you’ll have some people in between you and your customer that will have to do some of the work. Of course, they aren't going to work for free, so you’ll have to pay them a lot of money to do so. To have a game to sell, you’ll need to have it produced. But before you can even get to that stage, you’ll need to create a game worth playing.
So, you’ve finished coming up with the concept for a game that’s going to be the next monopoly, so your next step is to get it produced, right? Wrong! If you’re the only person who has seen or played your creation, you’ll need to have some playtesters test your game. You could have your friends and family test your game - and you should to get feedback from as many people as possible - however, it’s probably a good idea to pay some playtesters to find problems with your game and give you their thoughts. Otherwise, you might spend your money producing a game that consumers can’t stand playing. From what I’ve seen from designers, paying for playtesters is pretty much a must.
Your game should be ready for production now, right? Not unless you happen to be an artist that also moonlights as a game designer. Your consumers aren’t going to want to buy an ugly game. So, if you’re like me and don’t have an artistic bone in your body, you’ll need to pay someone to make your game look good. Depending on the amount of art that you need to put into your game, this can be a pretty sizable expense.
What to do when your design is done
Now your game is likely ready for production. You have a couple options here: You could sell your design to a production company, or you could produce it yourself.
Selling your design
If you plan on selling your design, you’ll need to shop around to different producers to see if any are interested. If you do get one to bite, you’ll get a share of the profits of the game, which only applies to copies that actually sell. The amount you get will depend on the deal you strike with the publisher, but it usually starts at around 2-3%…of the wholesale cost, which is typically about 40% of retail.
Let’s say you were able to sweet talk a publisher up to 5%. For a game that retails for $50, you’d make $1 ($50 * 40% * 5%, or $50 * 0.4 * 0.05). Even if you had a run of 20,000 copies, you’d only make $20,000. That’s not a bad payday by any means, but it’s also not enough to live on. So, maybe if you publish the game yourself, you’d be able to keep more of the profits, right?
While it is possible to make more money self-producing your game, there’s also a lot of work that goes into it. If you’ve never worked as a project manager - and even for some who have - you can easily get overwhelmed. To produce your game, you’ll need to work with manufacturers and shippers, who are always paid up front. This can quickly add up to over $20,000, even for small print runs. Crowdfunding companies like Kickstarter can help with upfront costs, but they come with their own set of problems, not to mention the cut they’ll take of whatever your campaign earns.
You’ll also have to deal with approving prototypes, marketing, web design, customer complaints, re-shipping - for those orders that failed - working with distributors, barcoding, packaging, and more! That’s a lot for one person to deal with. The question you need to ask yourself is, would you rather be a designer or a publisher?
I’m not trying to deter you from making a game, I just want you to be aware of what you can expect to earn in this industry. Most designers that I’ve talked with just enjoy the creative hobby that game designing can be. However, a hobby isn’t likely to help you pay your bills. So what can you do to achieve your dream of being a game designer?
Making it as a game designer
If you’re hoping to “make it” as a game designer, there are some things you can do to help yourself reach your goal. You can keep your day job, design multiple games, and learn to market yourself.
Don’t quit your day job
If you’re hoping to achieve success as a game designer, you shouldn’t start by quitting your day job and diving into it full time. Take your time to test the waters with your games, come up with your concept and go through a few rounds of playtesting. Then start looking at the next stage of development, whether that be selling the design to a publisher, finding an artist to create the art for your game, or taking it to a crowdfunding platform.
Once you get a few successes under your belt, you should be able to gauge the type of lifestyle your career as a game designer could support should you go full-time. For many designers, their games provide enough of an income to supplement their full-time job. It’s rare for a designer to make enough to be able to leave their 9 to 5.
Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue your goal? Absolutely not! The industry will always be in need of great designers, and that designer just might be you! Your game might become a blockbuster hit, selling millions of copies all over the world. Just because something isn’t statistically likely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the chance.
That being said, many game designers that I’ve seen online - and the few I’ve talked to in person - design games simply as a hobby. They do it for the love of the game (pun intended), and making money is just icing on the cake. Don’t be the cliched starving artist and keep your day job and design on the side.
Design multiple games
Since most designers get a percentage of their games that sell, it stands to reason that if you design multiple games, you’ll have a higher likelihood of succeeding as a designer. If you created 12 games a year and each one averaging 4,000 copies, you'd stand to make about $48,000, even by conservative estimates.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for you to produce subpar games to flood the market, just that designing multiple games could help you get to your goal of becoming a full-time designer. I know producing 12 games a year isn’t possible for most people - even professional designers, but if you could do two or three games, you might just produce a game that could support a career.
Learn to market yourself
Many board games fail because they aren’t marketed well. It’s easy to let your ego get in the way of success by assuming that your game will sell well based on your genius and ingenuity. However, if no one knows your game exists, then there’s no possible way that they can buy your game.
There are a lot of marketing strategies out there, but you don’t need something over the top. A website where you can showcase your games should be able to do the job. You can also consider starting a YouTube channel where you could give overviews of your game, host playthroughs, or even give behind the scenes insights into the design of the game. Hint, this could also help you make money to support your games through advertiser revenue.
Remember, as a game designer, you aren’t only selling your games, but you're selling yourself, too. If you’re like me, when you buy a game, you check to see who the game designer is, which may influence your decision. There are some prolific designers that most people in the industry will know their games and whether their design style produces games that they'll like.
So do yourself a service and market yourself as a part of your games. Attend board game conventions to promote them. Feature yourself on your website with your games. Help gamers make a connection between you and your designs.
None of these things will guarantee success. However, following these tips could help you succeed as a game designer. Whether you just want to publish a game to cement yourself as a game designer in the industry, or if your goal is to replace your full-time income through game design, put the work in, and you should get some measure of success.
Of course, having a bit of luck never hurts, either.
Is it possible to make money as a game designer? Of course, it is. But the definition of success will vary from person to person. Designing board games isn’t usually a lucrative venture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. The costs of producing a board game can be high, so going through a publisher or using a crowdfunding platform could help you get your game through production. The bottom line is: if you want to be a game designer, do it because you love designing games, market yourself and your game well, and you’ll do just fine.
Thank you for reading through my opinions. Do you agree with my position, or are my views way off? Please let me know in the comments. Are you a game designer that has made it in the industry, or are you an aspiring game designer and my article turned you off from pursuing it (although I hope I didn’t)? Please comment below and tell me your story.
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