August 5th, 2015

JuJu

Thinking On

Naturally, a lot of discussion on the issues raised in and around my last post happened elsewhere on social media. Mostly Google+, as that site tends to have the largest gamer population1.

Because I don’t want it locked in a proprietary social network bubble, I’m going to revise and condense a lot of what I posted and what the discussion moved on to here.


  1. As well as some really ardent defenders.2 Despite posts auto-truncating, a random algorithm deciding which posts to display in the first place because gød forbid you’d want to see what the people you followed posted, a UI that’s slow in everything but Chrome3, and a page design that actively hates wide monitors. 

  2. Mention that all the evidence points to G+ dying sooner or later and you get walls-of-text “proving” that it won’t based on some loony’s anecdotal experience that totally ignores how Google treats its services. 

  3. But that’s true of every Google tool. Docs in Firefox and Safari is a laggy sack of shit. 

Mirrored from ZeroPointInformation.

Originally posted at my Dreamwidth blog.
JuJu

No Silver Bullets

A small but significant amount of commentary on the shitty situation for freelancers in the industry side of the TRPG industry is along the lines of “Well, just run a Kickstarter or Patreon for the games you want to design”.

This is bad advice. Kickstarter and Patreon are not the tools to free writers from the shackles of the game design industry.1

They are crowdfunding platforms, and crowdfunding works on a bunch of different assumptions. Primarily, if you want to run a successful Kickstarter or make an amount of money that isn’t a joke on Patreon, you need a pretty much constant stream of marketing and self-promotion.

The idea that “quality” will somehow attract money is bullshit; it was proven to be bullshit as soon as nerds started complaining that the only way Microsoft remained in a dominant position despite poor software was “marketing”, like that was some kind of black magic. Well no shit, Sherlock. Of course marketing is how Microsoft remained popular. Without marketing, nobody wants to use your shit.

That is a truism of doing business. “Quality” gets you dick. Marketing gets you popular. Anyone saying otherwise is a liar.

People point to small-press kickstarters and patreons that succeeded. Dungeon World, f'rex. They succeeded because marketing.2

The point of all of this is simple: marketing and self-promotion are not part of the writing and game design toolkit; they’re entirely orthogonal to it. Sometimes you can manage it in the short-term, say, during a KS. Even then, if you’re not good at it you end up promising things you can’t reasonably deliver. That’s not a factor of budgeting as much as it is self-promotion — you need people to get involved with what you’re doing. And so the KS crushes you.

I’ve been part of two Kickstarters so far: W20: Changing Breeds and W20 Book of the Wyrm. In neither case was I the main person on the project. Rich and Rose took point. And yet, it was a full-time job. While the Kickstarters were running, I straight-up could not do any design work. It was absolutely fucking exhausting. I know from that experience that I cannot do that with any regularity; I do not have the skills or the energy to run a successful KS.

Patreon is similar: you need to build the initial following to get enough money per-release (or per-month, but in the trad-games space that’s code for “fund my life”) that doing the work for that release is worth it. And to make enough to recoup the costs of the work involved, you’d need to be in the top 1% of trad-games Patreons. Otherwise, compared to freelancing — even as it is now, even with all the unpaid bullshit — you lose money.

If I had to self-promote to get paid, I’d be out of the industry in a New York second, and I know that I am not unusual in this.

The other factor of crowdfunding is cash. Because of a string of massive delays and total failures, one of the best ways to guarantee funding is to have at least the pre-release text ready to go when you launch. You also need a video and at least some art; text-only kickstarters don’t succeed.

Except that means writing the damn thing happens before you know if you can pay for it. Art-ing the damn thing likewise. As for the video? Sure, count it under “self-promotion” but even if you’re just doing voice-over, if you have the skill to do it as a pro that’s £100-£150 of work you’re doing for free.

Thing is, this whole thing came about because of the amount of work that we as writers & game designers already do for free. By the time you factor in art and video, a kickstarter for a 60-page game — say, if I’d kickstarted BLACK SEVEN — would have left me over £1000 out of pocket with no guarantee of recouping that cash.

Instead, I stuck it on DriveThru, where it has a chance of people noticing it without dedicating a month to doing nothing creative but using skills I don’t have. With the tiny bit of self-promotion I managed, it’s an electrum bestseller (top 3% of products on the site).

TL;DR: Crowdfunding works for people with the skills to crowdfund. Those are separate skills. Most creatives, especially those freelancing, do not have those skills. It is not a silver bullet, and attempts to claim that it is are disingenuous and insulting.


  1. Obviously Kickstarter and Patreon work for a number of people. They are not failures as platforms in any way. I’m talking to the specific experience of trying to use them as a replacement for freelance TRPG design work. 

  2. The impotent rage of grognards is a kind of marketing. 

Mirrored from ZeroPointInformation.

Originally posted at my Dreamwidth blog.
JuJu

The Curse of Centralisation

So let’s talk about an elephant in the room: if you want to get involved with new projects and new companies as a freelancer, you have to go to GenCon.

GenCon is the biggest tradgames convention. It is the only one, as far as most of the work goes. And if you don’t go, you don’t exist.

I am a professional writer and game designer. As I may have mentioned, I have eleven years' experience as a professional game designer. That doesn’t count the years I spent beforehand doing fan-work and building up my skills, just the amount of time I’ve been paid for doing the job. I have a million and a half words in print. I have done work for publishers set up by people I’ve worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path because they know my output even if they’ve not met me in person.

Yet to the wider industry, I don’t exist.

Thing is, I pretty much can’t go to GenCon. Getting there costs more than I make in the industry. It is a financial drain, and no amount of extra work that I’d pick up from being there would push that into the positive. I have other things going on that mean even if I could fund it from gaming work, it probably still won’t happen.

I have tried to get freelance work with people & publishers I haven’t worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path. I have pointed to my list of publications, I’ve provided references, and I’ve provided writing samples of both published and first-draft work. In return, I’ve been treated like I’m a total n00b, like I’m trying to break in to the industry and don’t know how things really work. Patronised, patted on the head, or just ignored. Because how could someone be in the industry if you haven’t met them at GenCon?

This isn’t just true of freelancers looking to work for other publishers. It’s sometimes true for people in the same company — no matter how many referrals you have from other folks, not having that in-person connection puts you at a significant disadvantage. It’s also true for indie designers and publishers. Not having a presence at GenCon means your game — hell, you as a writer/designer/publisher — don’t exist.

The unstated requirement of GenCon attendance is an issue because it acts as a barrier to the free movement of labour in the industry. Free movement is beneficial to creatives because they get more work, they get more experience with new systems, and they are better-known by people who buy games which in turn means that if they do want to go it alone they have a built-in fan base that people stuck working for one or two publishers don’t have. GenCon creates two classes of RPG pros. Those who have free movement, and those who don’t. In order to be a healthy place to work, the industry needs to do a hell of a lot better.

For people who can go, GenCon is great. For those of us who can’t, it poisons the industry and wider community against us.

Mirrored from ZeroPointInformation.

Originally posted at my Dreamwidth blog.
JuJu

Wider Margins

A footnote in yesterday’s post mentioned that one of the many reasons behind the razor-thin margins in the tradgames space is the stagnating price.

RPG books are ridiculously fucking cheap compared to books of similar production values in other areas. The price of the book has not risen in any significant proportion to the increase in costs. Instead, the increase in production price has eaten in to the margins, the amount of money that the publisher gets and uses to pay for writers and artists and game designers.

This has two drivers:

  1. A lot of people who start gaming are in university or younger, and don’t have a significant amount of disposable income.
  2. Old gamers have ossified to the point that they refuse to believe that production costs have increased by anywhere near as much as they have, and believe that a 300-page full-colour glossy hardback rulebook should cost as much as the 200-page black and white softcover that they remember from when they got started.

The target market of trad RPGs thus can’t (point 1) or can but won’t (point 2) pay a reasonable price for the books that they’re getting.

In order to pay people fairly for their labour, publishers need more available cash. One of the ways to do this is to increase prices of the premium end. Full-colour glossy hardbacks should be priced as what they are. Not even commesurate with said books of equivalent publication values in other areas, just enough to reflect the actual cost of making such a book and paying a publisher enough that they can continue putting the books out without ridiculous financial pressure.

Another way is to present rulebooks as they used to be — black and white softcovers, shorter and with less art. These days the market will happily bear them at 6×9 rather than “full” size. Those can be priced at the entry level, giving people enough to play the game without being overwhelming.

Mirrored from ZeroPointInformation.

Originally posted at my Dreamwidth blog.