How to Make Your Own Role-playing Game (Cheap)
by Clinton R. Nixon
I've spent too much money on "justifiable" expenses for working on games. I've bought art for $100; I've gone to CompUSA and bought Adobe Acrobat; and I should have paid an incredible amount on Adobe Pagemaker, Photoshop, and Microsoft Word. (Luckily, I have a CD-R and flexible morals, but both of those come with a cost, too.)
And I've just made, at this point, enough to cover the costs. (Hopefully, Donjon will change that.)
How do you avoid this? How can you put a game online and make some money without spending everything from your day job? There's a hundred options, but here's the ones I've found from my research.
Writing and Layout
There's absolutely no need to have a $100 word processor, or worse yet, an expensive desktop publishing program for a good game. For those used to Microsoft Word, there's free software online that's completely compatible and easy to use. OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org) is an office suite available for download, incorporating nearly every feature found in Microsoft Office, with file filters for compatibility, in case you need to exchange information with other people working with you on your game. (OpenOffice is available for Windows, Linux, and Solaris.)
AbiWord (http://www.abiword.com) is another option, a free word processor developed by the open-source community available for Windows, Unix, Linux, and BeOS. AbiWord doesn't have all the features of Microsoft Word, but its simplicity may appeal to many who tire from StarOffice's cluttered interface. (It's my word processor of choice.)
A last option is Gobe Productive (http://www.gobe.com), which costs $75 for Windows. However, it integrates a complete office suite into the software, allowing you to do word processing, illustration, art touch-up, and simple layout all with the same program. (It also does spreadsheets - good for keeping track of how much you're spending on publishing your game.)
Word processors are not necessary to publish a game, though: the HTML format may fit the needs of many game authors. While it may take a while to learn HTML, it is relatively easy, and allows for freedom of layout. HTML may be written and edited in anything from a text editor to advanced text-based editors such as Arachnophilia, 1st Page, Coffee Cup HTML Editor, to WYSIWYG editors such as FrontPage Express (free from Microsoft) or Netscape Composer (free with Netscape). All of the above editors can be found with a search on Google (http://www.google.com).
No matter what you choose to use, layout can be relatively complex in HTML, with horizontal lines, nested tables to make columns and boxes, included art, and more. HTML primers are a-plenty online, with Webmonkey (http://hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/) being one of the most well-known and respected, and W3Schools (http://www.w3schools.com) having the best I've seen. If you have to pick up a book, I'd recommend HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide by O'Reilly and Associates. It's pricey at $35, but is as cheap as computer books get these days, and is well worth it. You may well be able to find an older edition (it's the fourth) at a used bookstore cheaply. (I still use my first edition copy I bought for 23,000 won - $11 at the time - from an underground bookstore in Seoul, Korea.)
Art can be the most expensive part of your project, and often is for big-press projects. For the independent author, though, there are options. First - and I can't stress this enough - scam it from your friends. There's not a single person gaming today who doesn't have that friend that draws like a professional and works at, usually, Quick-E-Mart. You're not cheating them - give them credit in your work. If it does well, then they have a credential to show to other companies, and if it does really well, companies may be calling them. Almost every artist I know has been more than happy to donate art, and most of its been of higher quality than normal RPG art. Drew Baker, who I've never met, gave me free art whenever I asked for my incredibly short-lived online magazine, RPGevolution. One day, walking through my local game store, I notice a cover with a familiar style and open it up - it's Drew Baker. Promotion is an amazing tool - which we'll cover more on later - and should be used and freely given by all independent artists.
Even better is finding an artist to work with that actually is interested in your game. The best example I can think of is John Wick and Thomas Denmark. I can't imagine Orkworld without Thomas Denmark, actually. While the majority of the text is written by John, the game is an obvious joint effort and it shows in its quality. The breadth and consistency of work Thomas brought to the game was incredible, and moreso, it was personal. The love in Thomas' art was readily apparent, and by finding a collaborator with an artistic streak, you can bring that sort of consistency, and hopefully, that sort of enthusiasm to your work.
Your other free option is web-based clip art. This can be extremely spotty. Much of the clip art out there is garbage, but you can find the occasional rare quality piece, especially - for some reason - in medieval woodcuts. clipart.com and The Open Directory (http://www.dmoz.org) section on clip art are good places to start for free clip art.
On the paying side of clip art, I've never been disappointed at ArtToday (http://www.arttoday.com), a subscription service with over 1,900,000 clip art images, plus photographs and fonts (great for making headers and the like).
The site, notably used by Grey Ghost Games for the Fudge RPG, charges for the work of compiling and sorting out these public domain images at the rate of $7.95 for one week, or $49.95 for 3 months, with rates going down per week after that. This ranges into the expensive, but the fact that they offer one-week subscriptions does help. By making a good list of images you're looking for, you could feasibly buy only a week's worth of time and get everything you need. In addition, buying an account with a few friends or other game designers may be a good idea. As the images are public domain, there's no copyright laws being broken by sharing access. (Note: the site does not smile on this idea. It may be a good idea for one person to have an account and look for images for you. Multiple logins from different IP addresses all at the same time is not the best thought. And the site's run by good people, so try to obey their rules.)
Lastly, do think about paying for some art. Most artists will be willing to work with you, especially when you're making a game for such little profit. Look around on the web and find some artists that you like and give them an offer. I got the idea long ago from Ron Edwards (http://www.sorcerer-rpg.com) to basically lease art from artists - I pay for the rights to use their art in one game, and they retain all other rights. They can even sell the art again. By making a deal like this, an artist might be willing to come down on his price.
Layout is where the money usually flies out of your wallet. Adobe Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, and Adobe InDesign, the big three layout programs, are hundreds of dollars each. If you want to offer your game as anything but a web page, you'll need to do some layout, though.
Your first option is using the tools at your command. If you're using Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, or AbiWord, you can do simple layout. I laid out my first two games completely in word processors, and they turned out alright. (I would have never tried to lay out Donjon in a word processor, though.) If you're using Gobe Productive, you're in even more luck - it is made to do simple layout.
For heavy-duty layout, I can't recommend Serif's Page Plus 8 (http://www.serif.com - $85) enough. is completely laid out in Page Plus, and it handled it beautifully. Features like a built-in word processor help tremendously, and the price is below any other layout program. If you plan to make more than one game, I suggest getting this product.
If you're stuck on using one of the "big three," find a college student. They get extreme discounts buying software from college bookstores - you might be able to find PageMaker, InDesign, or Quark for under $100. Most college students will do anything for free beer, so this plan shouldn't be too hard.
Making a PDF
If you're not going to print your game, you're going to need to distribute online. You may decide you don't want to distribute your game as an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) file. Web pages may work well for you, and regardless of what others say, you can sell a web page. By password protecting the "members only" section of your site, you can sell access to your work on the web that way. (This model has been highly successful with the Internet adult industry.)
The most common method of online distribution, though, is PDF. (You'll also have to make PDFs if you're making a hard-copy book and using a product that your printer doesn't take files from - like Page Plus.) Unfortunately, Adobe Acrobat, the program most commonly used to make PDFs is expensive - $250 in stores. This may be a time to collaborate again: if one person is designated the "PDF guy," several people making games could pitch in for the cost and utilize the program.
A better idea, though, is Adobe's new Create PDF Online service (https://createpdf.adobe.com/). Seemingly without regard for profit, Adobe's created a website where you can upload an unlimited amount of files (in a huge variety of formats including Microsoft Office formats, image files, HTML, and other file formats, including Postscript) to convert to PDF for $10 a month. Testing out the site myself, it seems easy for those with moderate computer experience. The files are converted immediately and can either be downloaded from the site or e-mailed to you. The one limitation is that uploaded files cannot be bigger than 100MB and cannot have a processing time of more than 10 minutes. This isn't a huge problem, but if you've got a graphics-laden 256-page book you want to convert to PDF, you might be out of luck. The other downfall is that you can not take advantage of all the features of the PDF format with this tool - you do not have the ability to edit the PDF afterwards, change the file information, add bookmarks, or add hyperlinks from the document. Still, it's a cheap alternative to laying out $250 or corrupting your immortal soul by pirating software.
Web Hosting and Selling
Web hosting is a big mess. Trying to decide where to put this thing is - not can be, but is - a total pain in the arse. Here's what you have to look at:
Once you've decided that you don't want your readers clawing their eyes out, you have to decide who to purchase your web hosting from. There's no way I can give you a list of all the hosts to consider, but you might check out the below sites:
Lastly, do as I've mentioned with other things above, if you can: scam from friends. They may already have a good host with a good price that you can also use. Many hosts offer services where more than one domain name can be connected to the same account, allowing several people to go into together on a web hosting account.
As far as selling your game on your website goes, there's a few credit card processing companies out there to go with. PayPal (http://www.paypal.com) is well-known, and charges less per sell than most sites I've seen. There are other options, but I have to recommend PayPal heartily, though, not because I have vested interest in it, but because it is relatively well-known. People can be paranoid about their credit cards, and name familiarity helps you sell. In addition, PayPal has relatively nice web panels to see your transactions and find out how your sales are.
The first thing I have to say is: you do not have to print your game. You can sell PDFs online, or even give your game away if you want. Printing your game is expensive, and ties you up in a way you may not want. Printing does not make your game more valid.
That said, how can you print on the cheap? If you're interested in printing large quantities to send to distributors and what-not, check out the information at Wizard's Attic (http://www.wizards-attic.com/Publishers.html). It's great stuff, and will tell you all sorts of things I don't know.
If you're interested in printing 20 copies at a time to sell off your website, here's some ideas. I'm less experienced with this, I'll admit, but in the time I've done it, I've found one thing: Kinko's is more expensive than any place else. Look around - Office Depot has great prices, and so does Costco, if you're a member. I highly recommend printing one master copy of your game, as well - printing costs much more than copying. If you have a friend with a laser printer, or a boss who doesn't mind you using the office printer, try to print your original copy for free - it can cost more than 10 times the cost of copying.
There's no one true way to publish your game. There's no one way to publish it cheaply, either. The traditional system of publishing and distribution works for its members, and only marginally. It certainly isn't the easiest or always the best way. If some piece of advice in here helps, I'm more than glad. The cardinal rule of publishing your independent game is this: do it. Do not be cowed by anything or anyone. Find others interested in independent publishing, create a support circle, and absolutely go with it.