It may be surprising to learn that every publisher has their own way of tackling the complete process game publishing. It seems like the work of a designer is fairly diverse, while publishers follow a fixed map of steps. But that’s not the case at all! The process a publisher takes to bring a game to press can have just as much art and personality to it as the process of designing the game in the first place.
There is a lot of room to carve your own path and processes in the world of publishing, and the path to creating a final, finished product is quite diverse. Here’s what ours looks like!
Level 99 Games is divided currently into four departments. I’m hoping to add about 3 more as we grow, but for now we have these:
Creative: In charge of managing art, graphic design, packaging, and branding for products.
Development: In charge of balancing and maintaining rules, ensuring the teachability of the game, and playtesting.
Marketing: In charge of selling and supporting the final game, as well as the maintenance of organized play and customer support.
Administration: In charge of all the details that fall through the cracks of the other departments. Budgeting, design approval, logistics, payroll, fulfillment coordination, and more.
These four departments aren’t all-inclusive. There are many duties that require us to step out of our normal line of specialization and do things differently. For most day to day work, however, these roles give us a good handle on what we ought to be doing to help the whole team move forward.
Every great game starts with planning! This Pre-Design step is generally informal, and involves creating proposals for the game to share with the rest of our team. In our planning phases, we also do a bit of focus discussion with key fans from our playtesting groups, to make sure that the game is something they’re interested in playing. Only once we have a solid concept do we move onward to Design.
Most of our designing is done in-house. All members of Level 99 Games are encouraged to spend 1-3 hours of the normal workday doing the creative work of planning and design. In our home office, we get together once a week to playtest last week’s designs, then we get together again a day later to review those designs and refine them further for next week.
Everyone gets involved with Design at Level 99 Games. While we don’t all do the game design portions, we’re making decisions on marketing strategy, game style, art style, and features of the final product during this portion of a game’s life.
Once we have a solid design, we try to plan out all of the art that we’re going to need for a project, then get artists contracted to work on the project right away. This requires a lot of foresight and a strong plan for the final game. For this reason, we put extra work into the Planning and Design phases, so that we have the right vision and don’t waste money on art we won’t use. Art Creation is almost always the longest phase in our game designs, especially with new product lines.
While this phase is called “Art Creation”, we also lump all graphic designs, box layouts, and non-mechanical design work into this phase, which is overseen by our Creative Department.
Development happens in parallel with Art Creation, and involves the playtesting and balance of the game. In Design, we don’t always know exactly which cards and which numbers will go into the game. The more important thing is to understand how many cards we will need and what kind of balance we are trying to achieve. Development in this context is content creation for the game’s mechanical parts.
Our Development Department oversees playtesting and content creation for the game’s intellectual and gameplay portions.
Not all of our games go to Kickstarter, but if one is going to go to Kickstarter, this is the place where we start thinking about that and planning the project. We usually like to run a Kickstarter Project at about the 2/3 point for Art Creation and Development, so our backers have time to see the game improving and being formed after they pledge for it.
Even if we don’t have a Kickstarter Project running, we’ll usually begin taking pre-orders, and putting our marketing plans into place. This includes ordering ads from the Creative Department, and getting feature lists from Development in order to create copy.
Kickstarter Projects and other marketing efforts are handled mostly by our Marketing Department, though they generally require a lot of work from the whole staff.
Once Art Creation and Development are done, we have the Pre-Press package ready to go to press. Once we consider offering the game in international editions (which are printed all at once), we do final proof-reading (handled by Development), then send the game off to press.
Our press kits involve detailed instructions of how to craft and assemble the final game. These are generally put together by our Creative Department, who are in charge of the visual presentation of the game.
Our Marketing Department also gets involved here, requesting advertisements, retail-level packaging, demo copies, and posters to be put into boxes. Of course, we also have to manage cartoning and import.
At this point, we often solicit international editions of games with foreign publishers. We used to have this step occur during Development, but we’ve found that it’s best to have everything completed in terms of content first, then consider translated editions, so that we don’t keep our international partners waiting on our Creative and Development Teams.
The Production step is generally handled by the factory, but there’s still a lot for us to do. We approve digital proofs. The factory also sends us a white proof, which is a non-printed copy of the components, just to check material quality, construction, and component size. If needed, we approve physical art proofs as well (for color matching and component sizes). These art proofs are just printed copies of the digital proofs.
These proofs are approved by both the Creative Team, and then final production begins. Typically, this takes about 30-45 days per game we are producing, though many games can be produced in parallel with the pipeline the factory establishes.
Freight shipping is the process of getting our games from the factory to fulfillment centers around the world. We usually partner with about 5 centers in America, UK, Asia, Australia, and Canada. With Brexit looming, we’re looking into continental European fulfillment for future projects as well.
If we have translation partners, they also receive their own freight shipments.
The process of dividing up all the shipments can be complex, since we’re often fulfilling pledges with multiple parts. We pre-build as much of the pledge as we can in the factory, and have the products cartoned together so they can ship in the box, which saves a significant amount of time and labor for the fulfillment centers.
Packaging, palletizing, and freighting everything takes us about 2-4 weeks, and then the games arrive at customs in their respective countries. Our freight forwarding service handles the imports and taxes, and we’re ready to ship! Since we pay taxes on our imported freight, backers don’t have to pay these taxes when their games arrive.
Fulfillment is generally pretty easy to work with, once we have all the partners worked out. We try to get them all of our information several weeks in advance, so that when games arrive they can be shipped immediately.
We ship extra parts to each fulfillment center, so that they can follow up and send replacements as necessary. Sending these replacement copies directly from our headquarters in New Mexico would be costly, and would require customers to pay import taxes.
It’s not all on the fulfillment centers, of course. We have staff working in customer service to address any problems, as well as to issue any refunds or handle any returns or exchanges necessary. A no-questions-asked refund policy is also part of our company standard. Thanks to the great quality control we do in production, however, we rarely need to issue refunds or exchanges.
A little bit before a game has been fulfilled to all pre-orders and translation partners, we begin our active marketing campaigns for a product. This includes online advertising, shipping games to reviewers and influencers, and attending conventions with our booth kit.
Active Marketing usually persists for about 2-4 months. After that time, we’ll know if we have a perennial hit (selling several hundreds of copies per month) or a one-time release (tapering off after 3 months). At this point, we continue supporting the game as appropriate for its long term status. We continue to send games to reviewers even during this phase.
Organized Play is an important part of support for our competitive and living games. We allow players to register, host events, and record scores in order to get points. These points come with special rewards at the end of a 6-month season.
Even after a game is out of stock, we hold on to replacement parts and a few reserve copies for about 6 more months, just in case we need to handle any service requests. During this time, the game is usually no longer listed in our store. Its rulebooks and media materials remain on our website, however.
Eventually, it doesn’t make sense to hold onto even the replacement parts for a game. At this point, we officially retire the game and pull its media from our website. Retired games are generally liquidated or otherwise disposed of and no longer available at distribution or online.
There are only a few games that have been retired in the history of Level 99 Games. Many of these have come back years later in remastered editions, or in their own stand-alone boxes. If there’s a game you love from way back in the past, let us know!
This is just a quick overview of our process, and this acts as a template for the things we do. The steps don’t always happen in the same order every time, and you have to be flexible in order to adapt to the needs of your project and of the market.
But you have to start somewhere, and this is where we start, and how we’re planning when we come up with the next big thing!