When does it make sense for a hobbyist to publish?

I love making games, and I’ve been happier and more productive than ever before since realizing it’s “just” a hobby for me. After switching career tracks out of the game industry, however, I felt a bit confused about what the end goal should be of all my hobbyist design work. Back when I assumed I would sell my games for supplemental income and industry credits, it seemed self-evident that I’d spend considerable time and/or money on artwork (at the very least). As I neared the end of a couple hobbyist projects, though, I found myself wondering if I might be better off just giving stuff away in blog posts. After all, not publishing means not having to deal with complicated tax questions, not having to worry about the business side of publishing, and not owing anything to paying customers with legitimate gripes about your products. So why bother?

Figuring that the internet would come up with a better answer than I could on my own, I asked online: If you’re making RPGs as a hobbyist, with no expectation of making significant income from it, what are the upsides of spending any more time, effort, or expense on print or PDF publication (versus, say, just posting unpolished stuff to your blog)? This is, of course, a personal question with no one-size-fits-all answer, but I found the range of responses very helpful. And, as you’ll know if you’ve been keeping up with this blog at all, it did indeed lead me to self-publish some games on Itch.io. In advance of writing a bit about how that experience has been, I thought I’d revisit the responses I got to the above question, just in case anybody reading has been pondering the same question.

In summary, people think it makes sense to publish for….

  1. Creative fulfillment: Making your game as good as it can be feels good in its own right, and the tasks involved in publishing (editing, layout, etc.) can be just as personally rewarding as game design.
  2. External validation: Knowing people are willing to spend money on your games signals you are doing something right.
  3. Visibility: If you want people to see and play your games (perhaps for points 1 or 2, above), that’s a lot more likely to happen if you put in that extra effort than if you just blog into the void.
  4. Spending money: Even if other sources provide enough income to support your lifestyle, having a little extra to spend can be nice.
  5. Skill building: Going through the publication process demands learning new things—professional skills, personal skills, and creative skills alike.
  6. Creative contributions: More broadly distributing your material makes it easier to inspire others and add to the collective corpus of work, which in turn elevates the whole hobby.
  7. Industry support: You help keep others in business by earmarking your hobbyist income for artists and other RPGs, normalizing the idea that RPGs are worth paying for at all, and providing products for retailers to sell.
  8. Delegating unwanted tasks: If you hate marketing or selling your game, but really want it to reach a wider audience than your personal blog, there are folks who are happy to do that for you.
  9. Providing motivation: When you know others want to pay you for something (or have already paid you, e.g., via Kickstarter or Patreon), it can inspire accountability, productivity, and decisiveness.

Of course, if you do want to pursue publishing professionally—whether for supplemental income, or as an eventual career change—there are plenty of other reasons so self-publish, like putting together a portfolio, making professional contacts, learning about the industry and business strategy, and so on. But even if you’re like me, and you expect that the money you might make from games would, at best, slightly offset the amount you spend on games, there are still some good reasons to give publishing a shot.

Or, at least, that’s how I feel now. Ask me again after Tax Day.

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