Archive for the 'Anti-Publishing' Category

The Anti-Economics of Anti-Publishing

February 25, 2012

Often, it seems that the prevailing wisdom about indie game publishing is:

  • every game designer should strive to get their games published (how else can you call yourself a game designer?) and to sell a whole bunch of copies (validating their abilities)
  • any game that’s fun should be somewhere in the process of getting published (preferably in print and preferably launched at one of the big conventions)
  • indie game publishing should be run like a small business (minimizing costs and maximizing profits), not like a “vanity” project (the horror!)
  • nobody expects to quit their day job, but wouldn’t that be nice?

To which, I would like to say, very clearly: fuck that.

Publishing is a means to an end, and that end is delivering an experience of play. Anything that you do in publishing that does not focus on delivering a solid play experience to other folks is a distraction from the task at hand. Sometimes you might weight your options and decide, sure, I guess I have to do that in order to achieve the goals I want, but remember why you are publishing a game, which isn’t necessarily to sell more copies if that doesn’t end up creating solid play experiences. Sales != play. Sales != success (financial success maybe, but not a successful game; Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made a lot of money, remember). Sales are just sales.

To rant a little bit:

  • you and your game do not need to be formally published or sell any copies to be validated as being awesome; you just have to be awesome in the first place, which is hard enough; most games — even most decent games — are not particularly viable as commercial products: enjoy them for what they are; as Elizabeth said so eloquently just recently, you become a game designer by making games, whether you formally publish them or not, no matter how many you sell
  • rushing your game to publication (because you want to be a “published designer” or to launch at a big convention) does harm to your game; as folks like to say: it’s only late once, but it’s bad forever (and as an indie designer you get to set the deadlines, so it’s only late in your own mind); sure, you can release a “revised” version in a year or two, but you can’t update the copies and experiences of the early adopters who picked up your game when it wasn’t finished
  • small business publishing is a minefield and includes lot of un-fun tasks and responsibilities (tracking expenses, filing taxes, registering business licenses); you should not feel required to run a small business just because you wrote a game that’s kinda cool (do you feel required to run a small business because you wrote a couple songs and started a band? hell no!)
  • the amount of money that you can make publishing a game as a small business can be substantial, but — in the vast majority of cases, for the vast majority of games — may not be worth the amount of time and effort you’re going to have to put into your small business; most games aren’t going to sell as many copies as Fiasco or Burning Wheel, even if you’re aiming for a large audience (which you might not be! maybe you’re nailing a niche interest, like a game that builds awareness about human trafficking)
  • the vast majority of indie games are essentially “vanity” projects, even if their publisher is attempting to act like a small business, because the money made is not super significant and the main purpose of publishing is to disseminate the material, not to run a profitable enterprise; this actually opens your options substantially, because you don’t have to worry about maximizing profits, just getting your game out there without losing too much (or any) money
  • if you don’t like your job, that sucks; but game design and publishing is not really a viable employment alternative for most people, so maintaining the pipe dream of eventually becoming a full-time game designer and publisher can actually be counterproductive, getting in the way of developing more rational and achievable goals or figuring out what you really want to get out of this
  • additionally, game design (in my experience) is much less fun and much more limited when it’s your job rather than something you do on the side; as a professional, you are significantly less free to pursue any project you might want, because you’re limited to just the projects that have strong commercial potential and are forced to work around relatively strict deadlines in order to maintain cash flow, releasing products that may or may not be ready or working ridiculous hours to make sure the game is finished in time for you to pay rent

In fact, everything gets turned on its head (or, really, turned right-way-up, rather than the default upside-down viewpoint) when you decide that making money is not necessarily one of the core goals of indie game publishing. I have a blog category that’s called Anti-Publishing for specifically this reason, because publishing practices that aren’t wealth-maximizing sometimes look a bit strange from the perspective of a commercial endeavor. But, coming from the other direction, trying to maximize the meager profits of indie publishing often seems downright ludicrous to me, especially because I’m lucky enough to really like my job and can’t really imagine trying to make a living in tabletop games. Why run a small business if it’s not necessarily the most efficient or enjoyable way to disseminate your game? It’s super restrictive and not much fun besides.

To illustrate how pervasive wealth-maximizing behavior is in indie publishing, let me offer a specific example. Lately I’ve been really into this all-organic, all-recycled print shop in Portland called Pinball Publishing. They run both Scoutbooks.com, which prints little booklets with chipboard covers, and a new service called Print Pinball which produces a variety of chipboard cards that are full-color only on one side. Because Pinball is a small print shop that uses super-high quality materials (organic and recycled stuff isn’t cheap) and prints the old fashioned way, rather than on a photocopier, their prices are obviously higher than the POD and short-run print services commonly used by the post-Forge indie games crowd. In my mind, higher print costs are not a problem at all; they just mean you have to target an audience that is willing to pay for a better or more involved product (say one with a bunch of components). Especially with Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options nowadays, people have shown that they will pay whatever it costs to get something that they desire, and you don’t even have to pay the cost upfront and hope to recoup (like you used to).

But when I talk to other indie games folks about how excited I am about the cool new product formats that Pinball makes possible, I get responses like:

  • Jason Morningstar: “…250 business cards cost $85?”
  • Joe Mcdaldno: “I’ve really wanted to figure out a way to work with them on printing a book… But after visiting and revisiting the idea, it just seems so unfeasible. I’d need to print 500-1000 copies of the game in order to have it come even reasonably close to being as cheap as other POD options.”

Which, fair enough, they’re certainly entitled to their own opinions, but come on, guys; you’re not publishing games to feed and clothe your children, are you? (if so, that’s nuts; publishing is no way to make steady, predictable income). Sometimes you have to pay more to get more. Just price the game higher, if it really bothers you. Or deal with making slimmer profits. Or Kickstart the whole thing and don’t worry about the extra cost at all. I mean, is this indie publishing or what? Deciding that we have to stick with super-cheap POD products produced on a photocopier is just as nuts as thinking that indie games have to all be full-color hardcovers or hand-stitched booklets. Wealth-maximizing seems logical but it is ultimately just as much of a trap as any other unquestioned behavior, placing strict artificial limits on what you can do. After all, the money and the commercial endeavor is not the point, right? It’s just the means.

Another Way

Indie publishing looks really different when you start from the assumption that you’re not in this to make money, but to product a quality game and get it in the hands of your target audience.

First off, you can take all the time you need, weeks, months, years, decades, however long it takes for the game to do what you want it to do. What’s the rush? Whoever dies having written the most games still dies. Ideally you want to leave this planet having created games that delivered memorable play experiences, which doesn’t necessarily happen if you try to publish one game a year or stick to some other artificial schedule. Sometimes you can write a great game in 2 hours. Sometimes it takes 2 decades. Besides, there are so many great games out there to play; it’s not like you or anyone else is deprived because they don’t have your game to play. You shouldn’t feel the need to commercially publish a game just because you can, but because you’ve crafted a worthwhile experience (or range of experiences) and want to share them with others. My approach (shared by a few other designers) is to publish informally early and often, never promising that there will necessarily be a future version, but hoping that—out of that iterative design process—a “finished” game may eventually emerge. In the meantime, though, people can enjoy the games for what they are, while I still have all the time in the world to finish them.

Second, you don’t have to think about publishing in terms of a small business, though legally you might have to register yourself as a small business or publish through someone else who is running a small business, so you can pay taxes and keep expenses straight. This allows you to focus more on delivering the experience to your audience and less on profit-maximizing or logistics. For example, I can create a product that costs $34 to put together and sell it for $35. Sure, I don’t want to loose a whole ton of money unnecessarily, but I don’t need to make money either. Heck, I could decide that instead of buying a new Playstation, or whatever else, I’m going to put that $250 into making a few copies of a game that I give away to my friends. That’s not publishing in any traditional sense, but it’s creating a game and disseminating it to an audience. And there’s no reason to think it necessarily has to cost money, either; it can just cost time and energy. How many people has John reached with Ghost/Echo, Lady Blackbird, and Danger Patrol (all free)? That’s a huge example of the power of “anti-publishing,” and also of the same iterative “release early and often” design process that I mentioned above.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly at all, you can make games that would be lousy commercial products, without feeling like you have to justify them somehow. I talked about this a bit earlier in a post on limited-edition games. If you don’t have to sell N copies of your game in order to feel successful or make back your investment, you’re really free to design anything that you can conceive of, sharing it with whatever audience you feel you can reach, even if it’s just a few other people. A lot of game designers seem to be torn between what they want to design and what some imaginary audience wants. This way, there’s no need to compromise if you aren’t inclined to. Make whatever game you want to make, regardless of whether you imagine it has broad appeal. (Honestly, I would be shocked if a well-designed game, no matter how strange, didn’t find some audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) However, this also means that you can’t have strong expectations or a sense of entitlement about how large the audience will be, since your audience is whatever it is, based on the choices you’ve made for your game.

To me, this approach to indie game publishing is not strange or weird, but the way things should be. There’s no reason for indie games to follow the bizarre and not-especially-viable practices that commercial games “industry” does. Why do we have to print hundreds of copies, loose a bunch of money trying to get ourselves into distribution and game stores, have booths at conventions, and the like? We can choose to do those things, no doubt, and probably do them more effectively than larger game companies, but there’s no need to necessary play by the same rules, when we didn’t choose these practices in the first place. We can choose to do whatever we want, and choosing to act as non-commercial entities, as hobby endeavors rather than small businesses, gives us a lot more flexibility and freedom, in my mind.

At PAX Dev last year, Vincent described indie game publishing as being able to decide, at any moment, that you’re going to stop selling your game. Instead, I’d describe indie publishing as being able to decide, from the very beginning, that you’re not necessarily going to sell your game at all. And hopefully we’ll see more exploration of non-commercial “anti-publishing” means of dissemination in the coming years.

Limited Edition Games

January 15, 2012

Archived here from a discussion on SG.

I’ve been thinking a lot about limited edition games because some of my most interesting game concepts probably have a rather limited audience, due to both interest and the necessity of certain physical components.

Examples!

I bought a copy of Cunningham & Venezky’s Diaspora playing cards a few years back, which describe humans abandoning civilization and animals slowly taking over the cities. There are only 300 decks in existence and maybe only a few owned by members of the indie games community (because a link to it was posted on SG a while back). So if I design a game that uses the deck, it would be a very limited-edition thing, only playable with people who owned a copy of the deck. Could be a big hit at conventions, since it might be your only chance to play it! But not very effective as a commercial product for the masses.

Another thought: my game Metrofinal is really crazy and weird, but the components are really difficult to produce in a way that makes them reusable. Players have to be able to draw on the game board and write on the components, but — unlike Risk Legacy or something — it’s a single session game, not a campaign-length experience. So either I produce components as pads of sheets in a boxed set — sorta like Luke and Jared did with Freemarket — or I produce the game in packets of printed products that you dispose of afterwards: you’d effectively purchase the material for playing the game once and would have to buy a new set to play again. Maybe you destroy the components in a ritual fashion afterwards? Still pondering that. Maybe it just shouldn’t be turned into a commercial product at all.

Lastly, I own two copies of Hodge & Wright’s landmark photographs of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which are 11×11″ cardboard prints in a box of 200+ sheets. These will eventually be crucial components for playing Fingers on the Firmament, where players will draw on the star photos to make maps of space. There’s probably a limit to how many copies of the game I can hand-assemble from used copies of Hodge & Wright’s prints. Plus, the 11×11″ dimensions are going to make them really hard to ship or do much else with. So maybe I’ll make 20-50 copies and that’s all the copies that will ever exist.

I realize that many designers feel a natural desire for their games to be played by as many people as possible, but sometimes an experience can be more special, intimate, and valuable if it is extremely limited and special. And, as indie designers, we’re not dependent on selling a bunch of games for our livelihood, like the folks at WOTC or even Green Ronin. Nobody’s going to lose their job if you just sell 10 copies to the folks who really believe in and desire your game.

The Tentative Plan

December 28, 2011

Here’s my tentative plan for being the change that I want to see. It has a somewhat different tone from one of my standard posts, so forgive me.

There are many ways to get involved in indie game design, Game Chef and other design contests being one of the easiest. However, there’s very little organized assistance in helping a designer progress from a working draft to a “finished” draft — whether that’s intended for commercial publication or just free distribution. Yes, there’s a library of knowledge on various forums and blogs for designers to haphazardly search through; there’s great people you can talk to briefly at conventions and meetups; but there’s relatively few sources of sustained support and structure to ensure that progress is actually made. Instead, most folks have to blaze a path on their own.

If you’re lucky enough to build a working relationship with an established indie games publisher — Galileo Games, Evil Hat, or even how Nathan Paoletta and Meg Baker are publishing games originally authored by other designers — those folks can provide that assistance, but I have a feeling that many folks want the assistance that an experienced publisher can provide while still wanting at least the option of publishing the game themselves. Or they would like to release the game for free, target a limited audience, or use some other publishing model that makes it more difficult for a commercial indie publisher to want to become involved.

My tentative plan for Corvid Sun, then, is for it to be an explicitly non-commercial indie games developer (explicitly not a publisher), providing volunteer preparation and publications assistance to other game designers, including both experienced and up-and-coming folks. This is something I wish existed for me, someone dedicated to helping me achieve my own goals for my games, so I want to offer it to other designers in the hopes that it’s something we all need. While I’m hoping that Corvid Sun can develop a close relationship to one or more established indie games publishers — providing some optional outlets for traditional publication — it’s main purpose will be helping folks prepare their game for whatever release or publication plan they have in mind, whether they release it for free, publish it themselves, publish it through another company, etc. Consequently, all the support I provide to other people’s games through Corvid Sun will ultimately owned by them, to be used however they see fit as long as they acknowledge the assistance somewhere.

The Stage One project is going to be a good trial run for what I want to do in the future, since it operates according the the principles I’ve described here, though the ultimate goal of a single 200-copy print run of an short anthology booklet was something I established in the beginning. That makes sense for an anthology where multiple designers are going to be submitting games, since trying to negotiate collective goals later would be much more complicated. But for assisting with individual games — even where there are 2 or more designers involved — the plan would be to listen to their goals for the project and help them achieve those.

Now, especially since this is going to be a totally volunteer operation, I’m only going to provide support for projects that I believe strongly in. But I honestly encounter those all the time, especially through the design contests I’m involved in (Game Chef, Stage One, Murderland). I’m certainly happy to talk to folks about their projects and see if it’s something I want to become involved in, but I’m also planning to contact potential partners directly and continue to find terrific contest drafts that could use some additional support. That said, I’m going to try to stay aware of my prior commitments and not overburden myself. Right now, I’m pretty much booked solid, but hopefully I can finish up a few things soon and have more time to explore new projects.

In any event, this is one of the things I think indie games really needs going forward, acknowledging that achieving the goals you have for your game can be really difficult, especially if you’re working on your own. But also that indie publishing — like the games themselves — is really a bunch of different activities that all go under the same name. You can’t measure the success of different games using the same yardstick, because it all depends on what your goals for the game are, both in terms of design and publication. Corvid Sun is my attempt at trying to acknowledge and support that, attempting to give back to the community what I’ve gotten from it — in a way that supplements the things I already do through Game Chef — while also leveraging the experience and expertise I have through my day job in think-tank publishing.

“Core Games”: Learning from thatgamecompany

December 20, 2011

So my current favorite indie video game designers are the folks at thatgamecompany, makers of Flow, Flower, Way [edit: actually made by Chris Bell before he joined TGC], and the upcoming game Journey. I just stumbled across this really cool diagram and description on their webpage and wanted to talk about it. Some of this is marketing text, yeah, but there’s clearly something important going on here, for them to be so successful at producing the kinds of games that they do.

thatgamecompany designs and develops artistically crafted, broadly accessible video games that push the boundaries of interactive entertainment. We respect our players and want to contribute meaningful, enriching experiences that touch and inspire them. We seek talent that values integrity and personal growth within an environment of intense collaboration and experimentation.

We call our games “core games.” Core games appeal not only to existing hardcore and casual gaming markets, but also to dormant gamers and even non-gamers. Core games reach these new markets because they are easier and less time consuming, yet possess emotionally rich and powerful interactive experiences.

My reaction to this is: yes, yes, yes. I definitely feel like it describes the kind of audiences I want to make games for. What’s your reaction?

The “Business Model” of an Academic Press

June 6, 2011

Reposted from an SG thread about crowdfunding.

I’ve been wanting to share a talk I went to hosted by the University of Washington Press, which explained their “business model.” It was among the most depressing talks I’ve ever gone to. Luke Crane has a more sustainable economic enterprise than the entire academic publishing world, no joke!

They said it took $30,000 and 3 years for them to produce a volume and, generally, they might end up selling 300-500 copies of a book. Selling 1,000 copies was a significant success. Also, they often didn’t have the funds to afford a print run, so the press and authors would apply for grant funding to cover a significant amount of that. Or, at some presses, the author might be asked to front some portion of printing costs themselves.

That entire industry is dead and it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much about it. They still have a kind of vampire hold on the universities because many people still view publishing a volume through an academic press as they only way to gain scholarly status and tenure, but that’s less and less true these days as both tenure and academic publishing continue to die. The whole system is going to crash and have to be rebuilt along totally different lines. It’s totally unsustainable and not really a “business” at all.

I had been considering approaching some academic presses to see if they’d be interested in publishing Magic Missile and/or another edited volume I might put together later on, but there’s basically zero chance of that now, given how completely out-of-date their publishing model is. I mean, I can sell 500-1000 copies of something through the normal indie games channels, given a year or two. Waiting 3 years and having to raise $30,000 just isn’t worth it for the kind of non-support that an academic press would apparently provide. I even know the kinds of people that I could contact to get peer review, which is the major service that academic presses provide. Essentially, I feel like I could run an entire academic press for RPG-related books much better than most actual academic presses.

On Publishing: What I Should Have Said

March 17, 2011

Based on my brother’s recommendation, I recently read part of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the rise of indie rock music in the 1980s. What it reminded me of — especially in the sections about “selling out” or bands “blowing up” or whatever — is that there will always be tensions in any independent publishing scene between two major goals on opposite sides of a spectrum, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call:

A. being just a kid with a dream;
B. beating The Man at his own game.

Being just a kid with a dream, in publishing terms, is showing up someplace — out of nowhere, knowing nobody — with just some hand-made photocopies in your backpack, ready to show people how badass your creation is.

The Man in the case of indie games is probably Hasbro: a big, faceless corporation who we can all pretend to loathe even as we buy and enjoy at least some of their games (shout out to Castle Ravenloft!), and aspire, at least in some respects, to emulate or triumph over their products, producing big beautiful, hardcover tomes that millions of people will buy and enjoy.

The points I wanted to make about this are as follows.

1. Being anywhere along the continuum between A and B is great. No place is better than any other, necessarily. Really, truly, honestly. This is something we still forget too often.

2. The continuum between these two goals is actually false or, at least, it applies across the entire range of choices involved in publishing. You can aspire to have a game that does dungeon crawling better than D&D but is still a stapled, photocopied booklet. You can decide to have production values somewhere in the middle (getting some fancy layout and printing hardcover books) but get your brother Ned to edit it and draw some pictures for you. There’s an infinite number of choices available and none of them is necessarily “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on your desires and goals for a specific project.

3. Even if you’re sure you want to try to beat Hasbro at their own game, it’s very difficult to jump right in and expect to do that right off the bat. If you look at the indie folks who are closest — like Luke Crane and Fred Hicks — they were themselves once kids with a dream. Luke literally showed up at GenCon with photocopies of the first version of Burning Wheel in his backpack. Fred and his comrades originally released Fate as a free PDF, just hoping a few other folks would find it interesting. How many years has it been since then? To get where they are, they’ve made consistent progress over time, project after project, rather than jumping in headfirst and losing their shirt.

4. By all means, take advice and learn from folks who’ve been involved in publishing before, but be honest with yourself about where you are in the process and what the next step is for you. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that a lot of the indie creators who are currently enthusiastic about editing are not planning their first game but their second or third. It is only natural, I would argue, to rethink how you did things the first time and do them differently the second or third time around. Does that mean everyone needs an editor on their second game? Not necessarily. Again, it’s all based on what your needs are and what you want for your game. Vincent recent had a great post that talked about approaching things gradually. Be true to yourself also means acknowledging the scale and complexity you’re capable of handling right now. Start with something manageable.

5. Really, in the end, question this advice as well. It’s not as if those of us who have done publishing before took the gradual, careful path in all cases. We tried things. We experimented. We screwed up. We did things we now regret and feel guilty about. Really, that’s all part of the process too. Don’t let the “be careful” advice of experienced folks prevent you from ultimately taking the plunge and publishing however works best for you. In the end, it’s your game and maybe you’ll blaze a new trail for others to follow. Maybe you do know better than we do. And, even if not, you’ll learn from your mistakes just like we did.

That’s more what I meant to say earlier. Yes, it’s contradictory. Welcome to publishing! :)

Quick Note and Apology

March 17, 2011

Fred Hicks has mentioned that some folks were really annoyed at my rant about editing. If so, I apologize, since I didn’t meant to make people upset, just to question some of the new consensus that seemed to be building about editing in the aftermath of Ben’s anti-playtesting post on Anyway and some other discussions.

In truth, “editor-serving drivel” was completely unfair to the motivations of folks with different opinions. Really, we all want to help folks make games that they’re proud of. If anyone’s still upset and wants to talk about it or tell me I’m a jerk, feel free to whisper me or email me (jaywalt, gmail).

That was not the best example of the kind of voice I aspire to be and hope I can gradually re-earn any respect that I’ve lost.

The First Dozen Things I Learned from Push

March 17, 2011

There’s an SG thread about things you wish you did differently when publishing something. Here’s what I came up with:

0. I would have gotten to know people who were indie publishers BEFORE I published rather than after, so I had people I could call up and ask questions. If you don’t have the personal cell number of a successful indie publisher, maybe you don’t know one well enough yet.

1. I would have gotten a business account at my bank (which I now have) first thing, before doing anything else, so I could keep income and expenses for my publishing activities complete separate from my personal accounts. This is especially critical later on when you’re doing your business taxes.

2. I would have taken care of other business-related activities way earlier too, like getting state and city business licenses.

3. Before I had any products ready to go, I would have set up spreadsheets to track purchases through all the different methods I used (“backpack” sales, booth sales at various cons, IPR direct sales, IPR retailer sales, IPR convention sales, PDF sales through my website, Lulu print sales, Lulu PDF sales, PDF sales through DriveThur/RPGnow, etc.), since all of those have different expenses and I made different amounts of profit off each one. That’s a lot of work, but it’s critical and is one of those things nobody really talks about.

4. Having set up the spread sheet and run some estimated numbers through it, I would have been careful to price my book so that I made at least some profit off each one of those outlets. As it was, I lost money on IPR retailer sales for a while, maybe even for the duration that Push was available in print.

5. I wouldn’t have printed books through Lulu, despite it being relatively convenient. I know some publishers that still use them, but it’s not really competitive, cost wise, with getting a short run of 200 or so copies through an actual printer.

6. I would have had a schedule where I printed the books months before I actually needed them for GenCon. First, it’s good if folks have at least a month or so to read and/or play your game before you launch it at a big convention, so there’s folks there who can run it besides you. Second, it prevents last minute deadline rushing that can leave you with a product that you’re not satisfied with later. Better to put out a solid game the first time then back-track and apologize later. If you’re putting out your game in, say, January or Feburary (a great month to release a game), it’s clear you’re not rushing it just to have it for GenCon. If you’re launching at GenCon or some other big convention… maybe your book isn’t actually ready to go yet.

7. I would have had a flat, up-front payment to contributors and not split profits later. Promising people money you don’t yet have is kinda bullshit and it means that you have to keep sending them checks for a potentially infinite amount of time into the future, until you decide to let the book go out of print (which is ultimately what happened to Push, not un-coincidentally). While it may seem the “fair” thing to do for the folks that are helping you out, it’s WAY more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Ryan recently had a post where he mentioned the option of trading shares of later profit for editorial work. DON’T DO IT. Pay some money just so you never have to work with someone again if they turn out to be a jerk. Everyone I worked with on Push was awesome, but it was still too much of a hassle to count profits and them split them 6 ways.

8. I edited Push, so I can’t really talk about editing so much. It’s been a popular topic lately, though, so I feel like I should say something. Here’s the thing, a good editor is more than just some dude you hire to read your game and tell you where it sucks, in the same way that a good layout guy doesn’t just walk away with your text and come back with a fully finished PDF. Editors get into the guts of what you create and are collaborators in what you ultimately produce, so make sure that they’re somebody that you want to have a partnership with and trust to stick with you until your project is done. I know more than a few indie game designers who thought they had a deal with an editor and then shit happened and they ended up having to do it themselves or find other people to help. Heck, that’s how I ended up editing part of Blowback for free. Also, this stuff about “getting what you pay for” with editing is editor-serving drivel.* Paying more won’t always get you a better product. When is that ever true? Paying less or expecting things for free won’t get you a better product either. The only way to make sure you get good editing is having a strong relationship with someone who is willing to give you the kind of help you want and need. Whether you’re paying them or not doesn’t matter. You can pay someone a bunch of money and still get shitty editing (or even no editing, if they take your money and walk). Hiring an editor does not absolve you of the responsibility of publishing a unclear or poorly written game. You don’t get to blame them later when there are still problems. You still ultimately have to decide when your game is ready for release. And that can be without any editing. Really, the idea that every game needs an editor is also editor-serving drivel.* What happened to our punk-rock, DIY spirit? Release whatever you want, just make sure you’re willing to stand up and take responsibility for your creations, whatever they look like. If they’re a photocopied, stapled thing that you wrote in 6 hours and sell for $10 a piece, power to you.

9. I would have made sure the games were consistently fun to play before publishing them. There’s are a bunch of ways to do this, but mostly it involves playing your game in the spirit it was intended — not to break it, not to see if extreme situations are covered by the rules, just to have fun and enjoy it. What Ben’s anti-playtesting rant got right was that playing your game a whole bunch won’t magically show you all the problems it has and offer you clear solutions to them. Sometimes you’ll play a game a bunch, it’ll still be mediocre, and you won’t be sure what the problems are and how to fix them. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t publish that game (yet or ever, depending on if you figure it out later). Also, if nobody wants to play your game with you, you should either find people who do or maybe not publish that game. If you had no audience, who are you going to sell it to or (if it’s for free) who’s going to play it?

10. I would think very carefully about conventions and make sure that they made sense for my budget and aspirations. I wouldn’t have done a convention just because it felt like I was supposed to or that’s how things worked. Better yet, I would have gone to conventions just as a regular con-goer before deciding to pay a bunch of money to attend as part of a booth.

11. I wouldn’t have bought any art before the text of the game was final and ready to go. I still probably have several thousand dollars worth of art for products that may never exist. I’ve also sent hundreds of dollars to artists who never ended up delivering the goods, so this is another place where working with people that you have stronger ties with — or, at least, who act professionally — is much better.

12. I wouldn’t release “press releases” or made any kind of announcements about the future availability of products before they were at the printer. Definitely don’t take pre-order money from people before the final PDF is ready to be sent to the printer and you have a clear sense of print costs and everything else. Otherwise, how do you know what to charge or how long it’ll be before the books are ready?

I’m sure I can think of more, but those are the first dozen things.

EDIT: * an unfair characterization that I regret, see the next post.

Scout Books: Hot New Printing Option

March 16, 2011

So I’ve been watching the awesome folks at Pinball Publishing for a long time. They’re an eco-friendly print shop based in Portland and do really amazing work with 100% recycled materials and plant-based inks. A year ago, they launched a line called “scoutbooks,” blank or lined mini-notebooks with custom covers, inspired — as far as I can tell — by Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets.

Recently, they’ve upgraded the options and allow you to order bad-ass looking 32-page 3.5×5″ saddle-stitched booklets with chipboard covers and custom interiors through their amazingly simple website. With 1-color covers, they end up being $2-3 a piece, and it’s between $2-4 for two color covers, depending on how many you order.

In my mind, these are PERFECT way to print short indie games in a way that looks nice and professional. I’ve been planning all along to use them to print Geiger Counter and Super Suit, and thought about hoarding this secret away so I could be the first to do this, but decided it was better to share.

If anybody does get games printed through them, please let me know because I’m dying to find out how they turn out.

What This is Actually About

September 8, 2010

A note mostly to myself, paraphrasing a recent conversation with Ryan Macklin, but also in reference to conversations with Matt Snyder and others:

“Creator ownership is (or should be) about creators having as much control as they want.”

It doesn’t mean everybody should have to self-publish as a sole proprietorship.

I think that might be the step in thinking that could take the indie roleplaying community closer to where indie comics are right now.

At least, something worth thinking about.

Everyone Can Make Games

August 29, 2010

Archived from this thread on SG:

So, with Game Chef coming up again, I have to say that I firmly believe that:

1. Everyone can design a game. It’s like how everyone can draw a picture of a flower. You just do it, period. And there it is: a game.

2. Whether a game is “good” or not is completely subjective, depending on what you want from it. Maybe it isn’t particularly successful as a game, but tells you a great deal about the author (insight) or, 20 years down the road, becomes a record of what they were thinking about at the time (nostalgia). Everything is potentially valuable and useful and “good” to someone. And the rest doesn’t matter. Why would anyone want to judge all games by the same set of criteria? Why should every game aspire to be D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard? That’s bullshit. You have to know your (subjective) criteria before you decide how to judge a game.

3. Everyone can learn to make games that work better as games (i.e. creating a consistently enjoyable experience for their players, based on whatever subjective criteria you have for play), given practice and a desire to learn from others. Actually, you can learn to make games that are better at whatever subjective criteria you have, if it’s selling more copies, or causing more controversy, or making you more famous amongst your peers or whatever. People are good at learning to do things. All it takes is time and dedication. Of course, people have different capacities for getting better and different learning speeds, especially as we get older, but I believe that everyone can make incremental progress if they put in the time and energy. That’s one of the simple joys and rewards of being alive.

4. Does that mean that everyone can make a game that will be hugely successful at their own subjective criteria? No. You can definitely get closer to your criteria or more successful, but nothing guarantees that you will be successful at anything you want to do. The challenge and uncertainty is also part of life simple pleasures and vexing frustrations.

5. Sometimes this means, in order to be hugely successful by your own (subjective) standards, you have to change the criteria by which you measure yourself and your games. Maybe you just want to write the best 2-player game about zombies ever written. That’s probably possible. Will it sell a billion copies and make you world famous? Probably not. Who cares though? You did it. You met your criteria. Maybe you want to hack an existing game and run a really memorable campaign that your home playgroup will never forget. Badass. Do that.

A lot of this comes out of my own frustrations and personal journey over the past 10 years or so, coming to terms with my own design and publishing goals and ability to execute on them (at least at this stage in my life). So, changing your personal criteria for success is something near and dear to my heart. I do it all the time and feel like it’s probably critical for human beings to stay sane and satisfied.

Issues in Indie Publishing: 2010

August 15, 2010

Having missed GenCon this year, I’m trying to aggregate the various issues brought up by the post-GenCon blogosphere and forum conversations in this (so far, civil) thread on SG. Please point me at anything I may have missed.