by Kathy Crawford
Why am I writing an article for the Journal of Computer Game Design? Good question. I am no game designer. I am not even much of a game player. I’ve only found three computer games I really like to play (Editor’s note: none of them mine harrumph!) But I know how to put a product together. When Chris took on the task of finishing and publishing Balance of the Planet in six months, he turned to me to set up manufacturing. With many years of experience in electronic instrument manufacturing, some good advice, and a lot of hard work the game shipped on schedule. So here is my advice to you.
Choosing a manufacturer
Choosing a manufacturer is akin to choosing a spouse. (Editor’s note: Oh, really?) You begin a partnership that must endure for better or for worse and through good times and bad. Unlike choosing a spouse, there are some criteria that you can use to evaluate the match. But before you can evaluate a manufacturer you have to decide what kind of manufacturer you want.
In the manufacture of software, you have three choices: the do-it-yourself approach, the assembly house or the turn-key manufacturer. The do-it-yourself approach means that you buy all of the individual parts, store them somewhere, duplicate the disks, then assemble finished games.
This is a very tedious way to manufacture your game, and may actually end up costing more than the other approaches, as you will see. If you choose to use an assembly house, then you buy the individual components up front, except the disks. The assembly house will act as your warehouse, within limits, and will, upon your order, duplicate disks, assemble finished games, and ship the product. Some of the benefits are clear: you don’t have to store pallets of material, buy a shrink wrap machine or duplicate disks. You pay for these services one way or another, but you benefit because the assembly house buys disks your most expensive component at volume discounts.
I believe that the last approach is the best. The turn-key manufacturer buys all of the components for your game, some will even help you generate film and plates ["film and plates??" you ask. "What are those for??" Ask me later.], will duplicate the disks, assemble the game and ship the product. These services are not free, you can expect the manufacturer to add 10-25% to the cost of the product for his trouble. However, the manufacturer probably has established discounts, credit status and quick turn-around times with the component suppliers. You benefit from each of these relationships and depending on the terms that you negotiate, the manufacturer may actually carry your inventory at no charge to you for short periods of time. You pay more, maybe, but you pay later possibly after you get paid by your distributor. The benefit to your cash flow is clear, but the biggest benefit is that you don’t have to plan for having the material available when it is needed. With my manufacturing experience, I felt that I could easily manage the material plan in my spare time. I chose not to plan the inventory myself because I would only have to forget or misplan one label or warranty card to have a whole shipment delayed. It is better to pay for someone to be dedicated to planning the inventory for my product.
Now that you know what type of manufacturer to look for, how do you evaluate a manufacturer. Getting recommendations from other small publishers is a good way. Jeff Braun of Maxis gave me several recommendations for good manufacturers, which helped me narrow the field of possibilities. You are looking for someone you feel comfortable working with, but remember, this is business. To evalute a manufacturer, you should use three criteria: quality, delivery and price. Think of these as the legs of a three-legged stool. If any one of the legs is missing, it won’t stand up. If one is uneven to the others, you should prepare for a rough ride.
Quality should be evaluated by contacting references, some of the manufacturer’s customers, and by observation. The references you should ask to contact should be current customers who are about the same size as you, and in start-up mode, if you are in start-up mode.
You should plan to inspect the factory. Spend some time looking at the warehouse and manufacturing area. Are the pallets of components well marked, protected from dust and dirt and well organized? Remember, in the end, this is your material your money. Look at product coming right out of the shrinkwrap machine. Is the box dented or marred? The shrink wrap tight? Is the flow of the product organized so that you, yourself, can see how the whole thing is built?If you can’t, chances are the process will get fouled up and you will get missing components in your games. What about quality inspection? Does someone look at the parts as they are going together to make sure the printing is straight and the box colors are sharp and clear? How do they tell that all of the components are in the box before shrink wrap? Our manufacturer weighs each box to insure that it is all there.
Last, but maybe most important, how do they maintain their disk duplication equipment? The "bad disk" complaint is the biggest one that we have found so far. It can be the disk, or a poorly aligned customer disk drive. Your manufacturer needs to keep his duplication equipment in peak condition, at the nominal alignment, to assure you of as few problems as possible.
Delivery should again be checked with the references. Let the manufacturer describe some of their best turnarounds and how they did it. Ask about their normal lead time that is, the time from when you call with an order to the time it ships. If you don’t give them that much time, don’t be upset when the shipment is late.
I have left price for last because it can be very emotional. If you are just getting started, money can be very tight. Remember, most of the time you get what you pay for. Get several quotes. Get quotes from assembly houses, turn-key houses and component vendors for some of your major components, like the box and manual. Look at the terms each company will give you and at the whole picture of cash flow. Don’t forget to ask about surprise charges like storage charges or shipping pallet charges. Be sure you know what setup charges are being amortised and that you have decided whether you want to pay these up front or want them in the cost of your product.
Lastly, remember, if a one cent label prevents your Christmas shipment from getting into distribution on time, the cost of that label is not one cent anymore. So choose your manufacturer carefully and he won’t let that happen to you.
Tales from the Crypt by Chris Crawford
Here’s a dark tale of evil doings. It seems that Arthur Author produced a game for Perry Publisher, with remuneration coming in the form of royalties. Perry Publisher duly published the game when it was finished, and sold it for several years. However, towards the end of the product life of the game, Perry Publisher came up with a great idea. He created a great sales promotion using Arthur’s game. Any customer who purchased any of Perry Publisher’s regular games would receive a copy of Arthur Author’s game for just 1 cent more!
As a result of this sales promotion, Perry Publisher sold more copies of his other games. Arthur Author, however, received royalties on only the 1 cent payment essentially nothing. This way, Perry Publisher was able to continue to make a profit on Arthur Author’s work (by selling more of his own games) without paying Arthur any royalties! Isn’t Perry Publisher clever for thinking up this scheme? Isn’t Arthur Author stupid for signing a contract that allows Perry to get away with this? Are you stupid enough to let Perry do this to you?