How to Start a Game Design Company

by | Apr 5, 2019 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Good morning Trash Dog readers! Welcome to our first blog! My name is Adam, and I’m the CEO and co-owner of Trash Dog Gaming, a tabletop and card game design company based in the Philadelphia area. And I’m here to tell you how to start a game design company, especially if you have no experience starting a business. This blog will be one of a series of blogs I publish on this topic, with the ultimate goal being a playbook you can use to begin your own gamecompany.

In my opinion, the best part about designing games is that it’s art, sociology, psychology, game theory, and storytelling all wrapped up in one complex package. And it’s as intoxicating as it is complex! Once you start seeing the pieces fit together, and your game really starts eliciting the response that you wanted, it’s almost like a hidden road overgrown with bushes suddenly reveals itself; your players are feeling something and you’re responsible for that.

But the design part of game design is only half of the story. Despite it being the much more mundane aspect of the process, from the very beginning you have to be thinking about your business. Even if your “company” is just you by yourself, or you have a small team working on a project like we do, you must consider the very real possibility that you are the only designer who’s ever going to be this passionate about your project. And if that’s so, you are in business for yourself.

The Rule of Thirds

My approach to being a single designer or small team, at least at the beginning of your adventure, is to use what I call the Rule of Thirds – spend ⅓ of your time on game design, spend ⅓ of your time playing games, and spend ⅓ of your time developing your business (I’ll write a seperate blog about the importance of playing games another time, I promise!). At various times in the process how you allot your time will change (after all, if you feel like your game really just needs polishing, you might no longer require the inspiration that playing games often gives you), but in general the rule of thirds is meant to help keep your design process and your game company moving forward at the same rate.

Having a fully completed game, ready to go, but no company infrastructure in place significantly slows down your pace to publishing. No one knows who you are, you have no distribution pipeline, and you’re often reliant either on a larger publisher taking your game on or trying to crowdsource via an app like <a href=”https://www.kickstarter.com/”>Kickstarter without any name recognition. This article series is about helping you develop that final third – developing your business.

Challenge #1: Building Your Brand

Building out your brand as a game design company is one of the trickiest aspects of the early business process, but in my opinion it’s the most important. Take a moment and think about how you interact with the companies or individuals who make the games that you love.

Do you follow them on Twitter? Interact with other fans on message boards like Reddit or BoardGameGeek? Do you watch YouTube videos or streams where your favorite games are played? Or maybe you’ve been to a show like PAX where you’ve actually gotten to meet the designers themselves, or play-tested their games! No matter how you interact with these mediums, fandom is an activity that gamers constantly take part in, and as a designer, they want to consume your content outside of just playing it.

Solution 1: Social Media

Social media is often overblown as a tool in business; it’s not easy to monetize social media and convert it directly into sales. Just because someone is following you doesn’t mean that they want to give you their money.

The best way to use social media as a game design company is to utilize it as an opportunity to interact with other professionals and influencers. Game designers are often active in their respective communities, and can help expose your company to a larger audience. They also can lead you to opportunities to playtest their games, or get your feet wet with smaller design opportunities. In all cases, your best bet is to read what they write, listen to what they have to say, and begin to showcase your skills as a legitimate game designer. It’s all about building your brand, and at the beginning of your game design company you have the opportunity to shape how you look to other professionals!

I can tell you that for tabletop or card games, the best resource on the internet is boardgamegeek.com. Not only do they have an incredibly active forum community, they also have a dedicated page for over 100,000 games. Every bit of news about tabletop games gets touched on by their website, and even the biggest designers in the industry use the site as a means of exposing their games to a larger audience. If your desire is to release a tabletop or card game, hop on there immediately and begin to interact with other gamers – you will be stunned to find out what they find to be important, and how helpful they will be when you are ready to release or even just test your game!

Solution 2: The right kind of website

As a small company, you don’t have access to marketing specialists and a public relations team to help you puttogether your brand strategy; you have to operate by yourself. There was an excellent book put out last year by Steven Long called Dark Alley Marketing, all about how small “indie” developers can set themselves up to have marketing success without the access to marketing professionals. To summarize his greater point, you need to know exactly what the press, and your audience, are looking for.

As Long outlines, your initial website needs to make you look legitimate – you don’t need a ton of stuff on there, but your website should be able to answer all of their questions about your company. The goal is for you to make it easy for them – customers are not interested in searching all over your website for the answers to their questions.

You should plan on purchasing your domain as quickly as possible – there are plenty of web design platforms you can use. We recommend something such as Wix or Squarespace to get you started. As Long discusses, you need to make sure your website has all of the essentials.

  1. A homepage with a beautiful banner, the names of your upcoming releases and an
    expected release date
  2. Give your visitors the opportunity to subscribe to your site and follow your news with a newsletter. Signing up with a company like Mailchimp is easy, and you don’t have to send them weekly newsletters. Less is more, but a subscriber list is important since they’re interested in what you’re doing.
  3. Maintain a blog! (Hey, you’re reading ours right now!)
  4. Make your contact information easy to find
  5. Your Press Kit – This might be the most useful tool on your website. This is where you stash all of your logos, banners, trailers, and GIFs. The idea is that it makes it easy for reviewers to find what they need and to share it – including release notes, what platforms you’re releasing it on, your social media handles, and a longer description for your individual games.

Long term, you’ll have to consider distribution (selling your games), as well as a host of other customer engagement items. But for now, get those first five items going as quickly as possible so that you can begin to show that you’re a professional. And if you don’t have any projects to show, that’s okay too! You can show off your play-testing components or images that you’re getting from the graphic designer; the goal is that people can find you, find out about you, and engage with you.

Solution 3: Your aesthetic

You could write a whole book about this, but the idea behind your aesthetic is to create a visual and sensory feel for your company that a customer experiences. Are you creating lighthearted games? Then everything from your font to your colors to your blog posts should reflect that same attitudes. You want your potential customers to get the feel for what your company is before they ever have the opportunity to play one of your games.

It might seem like an unnecessary thing, but if the materials you’re producing, from art to blog posts, suffer from poor lighting or misspelling, your customers are going to notice. One of my favorite complaints about games on BoardGameGeek is misspelling that occurs in narrative driven games – if you’re trying to create a narrative game, spelling things correctly is one of the most important things of all!

Whew. That’s a lot of information for one post. I’ll leave you here for today, but we have a lot of work to do in our next blog, going over how to get yourself incorporated (you’d be surprised how many game company names already are trademarked!), and eventually how to begin planning out your very first Kickstarter. Until then, you can reach me on Twitter @TrashDogAdam or email at adam@trashdoggaming.com.