Working With a Publisher

If you get a game signed with a publisher, a whole new phase of your journey begins. You need to be prepared for what happens next.

This is your big chance, and you cannot afford to blow it. Your whole future career as a designer rests upon the success of this process.


Do not haggle over commission on your first game. It will likely be below average. Accepting their offer is a sign of goodwill, whereas haggling will likely get you nothing extra except a less generous relationship, and a small chance of your game being rejected outright. You can be more cavalier in future, once you have a published game.

Pre-signing work

I've seen many publishers begin to engage with a game and its designer, before signing it. They like the game, but there are some things they want changed.

Often, a publisher doesn't really understand why the game is the way it is, or the consequences of their proposed changes. On the other hand, they have the benefit of a neutral perspective on the game, and they have the experience to know what players are likely to want.

I've met multiple designers in this position. What would you do if faced with a publisher wanting significant changes to your game?

If your instinct is to respond, and explain why the game is the way it is, you've just lost yourself a publisher. From their point of view, they've just realised the game isn't going to be the way they want it, and that you're difficult to work with. It makes sense for publishers to test designers this way, before signing anything.

Your correct answer, here, is to give the publisher exactly what they want, or 90% of it (and be open-minded about the remaining 10%.) If you have multiple interested publishers, you can shop around. Chances are you don't.

If the changes are just too much to stomach, you can certainly refuse, and walk away. However, the list of plausible publishers for a game is likely in the dozens at most. My guess is that anyone who walks away has just thrown away their only publisher, or set a standard that any future publisher will also fall short of. If you do this, I expect you'll be taking a seat among the 99.9% of designers who are unpublished. You got close, but there's no prize for that.

At the start of your relationship with a publisher, and you'll have the least control. Before you sign a contract, you have even less, as they can very easily still walk away.


Once you've signed the contract, you literally cede all control over the game to the publisher. If a publisher is going to invest serious resources into a game, they want to make sure they can't have the rug pulled out from under them mid-way, or have the game be crippled by the designer vetoing their choices.

There is almost no way around this. If you can't hand over control, very few publishers will want to publish your game.

Typically, a publisher will only make major changes to the rules of the game in consultation with you. They can do whatever they like, but they want to keep you happy, and be able to utilise your knowledge of the game.

Do not fight

You must ensure your game gets published. This means going along with whatever the publisher decides, regardless of how bad it might seem.

Expect that the publisher will change the name and theme of the game. They'll change the physical representation of some game components, and make their own choice of art style.

It's hardly even feasible for them to consult with you about things like graphic design, layout, and icons. The publisher will be completely in control of those things, and act without your input.

These choices will not be what you had imagined your game would be. You will disagree with and personally dislike some of these choices. Give it time, and you'll be at peace with these changes. Even better, you'll embrace them, and make them the best they can be.

If you fight with the publisher early on, they'll likely just not publish the game at all. If you fight later on, they'll just stop asking for your opinion about things.

Make sure things work out

Once the contract has been signed, you retain the most control by staying on very good terms with the publisher. They'll want to keep you onside too, as long as it helps the project. The best strategy is to give suggestions, but also make it clear that you'll support their final choice.

Pick your battles. Fight over a very small number of things that are important (like core rules), and that could easily be changed.

Go out of your way to be a very good partner.

If something goes wrong, and your game doesn't get published, it doesn't matter who's at fault. You don't have a published game, and you have failed.


Publishers really do know what they're doing. They're experienced at this, and they have lots of skin in the game too. You can't see your game from a neutral perspective, like they can. Expect the worst, but go along with it.

Shortly after I signed Radlands, the publisher and I were corresponding about the game. He had chosen a direction for the art. He was going to use an artist the company had used for other games. He sent me some of the artist's work. It was exactly the opposite of what I had in mind. It was comic-book and exaggerated. I had been using realistic sci-fi placeholder art in my prototype, and expected something similar would be commissioned for the final game. I asked a few concerned questions, but I didn't press anything. This was the price for having my game published. I resigned myself to the fact that these things were out of my control.

Soon, the first pieces of art for Radlands were complete. They were in the style of what the boss had shown me, so I knew what was coming. I showed them to my friends, who reacted positively. Maybe the artwork wasn't so inappropriate, after all. It could work. I became increasingly interested to see the new artwork, as it was completed. Fairly quickly, I accepted this new look for my game, and by the end of the process, I was very pleased with the whole picture of the artwork. It's not what I would ever have chosen, but it's fantastic, and I'm glad they went in their direction, and not mine.

Future publication

Ideally, you only want to jump the publication hurdle once.

If your first project is a positive experience for both you and the publisher, you'll very likely have an avenue for the publication of many more games. You can then just focus on designing games, and be reasonably confident of publication. The company will evaluate your new games very quickly, and there will be no nasty surprises. If you're sensible, helpful, and cooperative, a publisher will be very keen to work with you again. Why would they work with some person of unknown character and ability, when they could just work with you? That's part of the reason why it's hard to get your first game published — companies mostly just work with designers they already know.

The second game

A second game will be vastly easier. I know the process, and I know what a publisher is likely to do, even if it's a different company. I'll know that the aesthetic of the game will change, and will intentionally leave part of the canvas blank, so they can paint on it. I'll say "I look forward to seeing what you come up with," rather than being concerned that they might get it wrong.

Design is a solitary hobby, but publication is a team effort. Be ready for this part, and just accept what comes of it — good or bad. It can't be any other way.

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