Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

I won’t belabour the fact that I haven’t written here much, especially since in a way this post is about writing. I will say, though, that if you are looking for writing advice so that you can solve the NaNoWriMo conundrum then you might be better off using Scrivener (or whatever) in full screen mode and getting down to it. In general I mean.

I have been batting ideas around in my head for Soft Horizon lately, and I pretty much have to do that in my head (and in the skunkworks wiki) because I haven’t re-started playing it yet. That happens on Thursday, though, so I expect a surge of new material there and probably here. Anyway, the ideas that get batted around are sharply divided between mechanism and context. But this is a challenge because my preferred design (like Diaspora) avoids context as an explicit construction (like, say, a setting book or even a setting chapter) and instead delivers it through mechanism.

But how, then, to develop it? How to I establish what exactly the context is so that I can work on mechanisms that deliver it? In fact the problem is even more complex than that because I collaborate, so I need to deliver this vision to others. It might not be all that hard (for you maybe, though for me it is) to just hold this in my head as I work on mechanical elements, but this doesn’t help my collaborators much.

And I don’t want to write fiction because I’m not very good at it and I don’t want it in the final product and I don’t want to waste my time on something I’m bad at and won’t use. Hell, look at that sentence up there — it starts with “and”. And I over-use all kinds of sentence partitioning fragment justifiers like em-dashes and parentheses. I’m just not made for writing large chunks of fiction and, worse, I have a philosophical problem with tying a game to a complete work of fiction (which I’ve probably discussed before but if not I expect you to ask me about it so I can justify a good-natured tirade). See, look — there’s another set of parentheses! What’s next, a footnote?

Mind lies in the deep water and waits. A seaward trawler might see a surge or a flash, phosphorescent algae perhaps, and notice the lights surge and sparkle in patterns that coalesce and then disperse, and call it chance or exhaustion. An overwater airship passenger, in formal wear and equipped with a telescope, might see something fainter but more certain, given the high view. The long view. And sometimes the trawler doesn’t come home. Sometimes even an airship goes missing. And Mind becomes more and richer and closer to her purpose. Even now the sea breeds strange things that walk upon the water or swim in the air. And the land beckons.

The answer, maybe obviously, is to write micro fiction. This is the tiny snippets of fiction you see in most of our work, decorating chapter heads and endpapers and so on. It’s not more than a few paragraphs and it’s punchy and tries to be a little clever and very visual. It tries to encapsulate the setting and the tone in very few words. Where successful it implies a whole story but isn’t one.1 So right now I’m trying to figure out what the setting of Soft Horizon is by writing little bits of fiction. Vignettes, parts of scenes, a character sketch maybe, but never a story.

This is fun, of course. It’s fast and easy so I can bang one out when I’m bored and it will be pretty good. It will often derive from play, which is great, because then I get to steal ideas from others (and, better, ideas that come from the synergy of a bunch of others working together). Deriving it from play has the inconvenience (to my ego, mostly) that my personal vision becomes diluted with the awesome ideas of others. I have learned to be okay with that.

So over the next little while there will be an increasing amount of micro fiction going into the skunkworks as I try to outline the shape of the Soft Horizon setting for us all. As I get into actual playtesting again, this will accelerate. There may even be actual sketches though (crystal ball) the game will likely have an artist who is not me for a change. That’s another exciting bit that I will talk about another time.


  1. You may already have noticed that my ideas all run in parallel — the fiction implies a story but isn’t one just as the mechanisms imply a setting but aren’t one. Yes, I want you to do all the work so that when you play, it’s yours. Even the fiction. The meta-story behind a short paragraph about plugging a sucking chest wound with paper towels is yours, not mine.

Aug 12 2011


Well, Hollowpoint is looking like a success! It’s been about 4 weeks so far and we’ve moved 150 or so physical units and we released the PDF yesterday to substantial overnight sales. Hurray for us!

However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. What I noticed in this past four weeks is a very interesting qualitative difference in the sales. Now, before I get into what that is, I’ll outline what I see as critical differences between Hollowpoint and our other data point, Diaspora. There are many.

The biggest one is that this is not a FATE game. This is a system we developed for the express purpose of making fast, highly decorative action scenes that do not rely on simulating combat at the level of focus that many role-playing games do. This is not a guy-vs-guy combat system (I attack Larry, I roll to hit, I kill Larry). This game is more about describing your success and failure to meet your intentions with a chosen tactic. Anyway, in the context of this discussion the interesting thing is that it is not a FATE game and therefore there is no pre-existing fan base to draw on. When we built Diaspora I don’t think we realized quite how much default attention that would get us.

Another difference is that Google+ arrived at almost the same time as our release and so we were able to leverage it to spread the word as well as talking with fans at RPG Geek and This forum has a very different structure from regular discussion forums and has a different pattern of repetition — while a forum reaches a large number of people you don’t know, that number is largely fixed. With Google+ (and this is similar to Twitter but frankly has far deeper reach) we were able to reach a lot of friends of friends of friends while talking to a smaller set of people initially. I think this got us attention in places that we wouldn’t normally get to at all and may be the sort of breakthrough that starts to undermine the “browsing” exposure advantage that physical game stores have.

We also adopted Fred Hicks’ Bits and Mortar strategy, offering the PDF for free to owners of the hard copy book. I think this changes purchasing on several axes and so is a very hard effect to measure. It seems likely that it drives up hard copy purchase while driving down digital purchases. I can’t prove that, though. I know we still have a lot of digital-only sales going on.

So anyway, what’s different that warrants a thousand words? Well, the reaction.

The reaction is slower and smaller, but then so was our marketing and our target audience. So that’s not unexpected. But the reaction is also far more active. By that I mean that early reactions to the game are mostly examples of immediate play! This is really exciting to me. I mean, I am cool with selling people a book to read, and I certainly write with the intention of pleasing a reader, but the fact that the very first reports on the quality of the book were actual play reports is an awesome fact.

Certainly a major factor here is that we built a game that sets up and plays out in a few hours. That facilitates this kind of quick reaction. But there’s also usually a couple of sessions to any game where people are feeling out the rules and play is not all that satisfying yet. We have seen less of this with Hollowpoint. The majority of play reports are in the “holy crap this was awesome” category, and that’s pretty exhilarating.

Another factor is that I think we reached people who were very open to trying something new in this genre and honestly I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough. I suspect it happened in part because of the depth of the Google+ impact but I can’t prove it. The reason I say that this is a kind of breakthrough is that modern action almost always emphasizes guy-vs-guy detail. It gets grittiness by tracking ammunition and graphic wound calculation and accurate weapons simulation. Hit locations. Blood loss rules. One-shot sniper rifle kills. I think that kind of thing is boring and was hoping someone else would so I could sell a copy of the game to that person and call this a success.

Instead I found a lot of people totally open to this concept, to this level of abstraction, and, frankly, to this orthogonal1 approach to the whole problem of role-playing action scenes. As with Diaspora, the core concept of the game design seems to be a kind of in joke: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we used this hippy concept to do that extremely traditional genre.

Anyway, it looks like the joke has been well received. Certainly this is a game that I love running and playing and I am relieved to once again find I am not alone in my bizarre tastes. Thank heavens for the internet, where there is always someone to share your perversity.


  1. Not claiming originality here; there are plenty of games that do not do guy-vs-guy conflict resolution. Just claiming it’s especially novel in the context of this genre.

Apr 25 2011


It’s been a while, I know. And what’s worse is that, in the interim, I haven’t been doing any gaming, so I don’t really have any gaming thoughts to deliver. What I have been doing is moving from Vancouver to Toronto. So now I’m in Toronto in a tiny condo with my girl, my three cats, and my dog. And that’s it — the furniture isn’t due for a few weeks and frankly I don’t know where it’s going to go when it gets here.

My first task, now that I have internet functionality at home and have got into the workplace where I have a regular and comfortable workstation, is of course to establish gamer contact and start thinking about design, publishing, and the business again. So this will ramble as I cover my thoughts on these (somewhat) diverse topics.


I already said I haven’t thought much about design. But I have thought a little and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be working on Diamondback, a supplement for Diaspora. This came out of a discussion on about Diaspora and mecha. Now, I don’t actually know much about mecha as a genre (nothing, really), but I did play a lot of Mechwarrior and so I get what’s cool about giant walking robots. I spent a few thousand dollars on little plastic ones. As is typical with me, however, I never paid a moment’s notice to the backstory for it. Yeah, in video games I always click click click right through the dialogue until there’s a decision to be made. I play World of Warcraft, for example, but I have no clue about the “lore”, as they call it.

That of course means that I will be writing my own. Or rather, consistent with VSCA house style, the rules will imply a setting and I can hope it will at least not be (literally, anyway) derivative: having no contact with existing material there is little chance I will copy it deliberately. Of course, this sort of material is usually drenched in archetypes, so there are even odds that I’ll closely parallel something between most and all of the existing genre content.


This move has seriously disrupted work on Hollowpoint, and that means we will probably miss the deadline for ENnie submissions. I’m okay with that, though I doubt Toph is, because I don’t really want to compete with Dresden Files RPG as well as Pathfinder and whatever new Eclipse Phase material is out there this year kicking ass. Oh, I’m sure there’s something even more terrifying to compete with next year, but it’s not really a decision at this point so I am prepared to declare those grapes extremely sour.

I’d love to say there’s something else on the horizon (nudge nudge) but there’s not at the moment and the geographically fractured design team makes that situation even more chaotic than it would otherwise be. Still, I anticipate a great deal of creativity over the next few months and, if the VSCA can get a few Skype sessions together, maybe as much or even more work than we would normally get done.


The first quarter of 2011 has been kind to us. Diaspora sales remain high — our Poisson curve has so far has refused to turn over as predicted and instead we continue to make pretty consistent sales numbers — very slightly lower than last quarter, basically, which was good. In another post at another time I’ll talk in more detail, but certainly I expect to be chatting with Fred Hicks soon enough about another print run. This makes me really happy — to see Diaspora behave as what they call an “evergreen” title is a joy. Lots of games start out popular, but the real feature of a great game is whether people continue to play it. Certainly we did (and hopefully will again) over many years both before and after publication. And I suspect that steady sales is an indication that there is plenty of play, budding off new owners.

Well, I hope that’s what’s happening anyway.


Feb 21 2011

Character advancement

I’m not a fan, but I also am, and I think JB helped me figure out why. Here’s a transcript of an IM chat that just went by my window:

So if character advancement is dumb, how come I miss it?

Hang on, let me enter your brain and find out.
Am I just wanting to get back on an addictive cycle or something? (Not being snarky here, just wondering aloud.)
It’s a mechanical attaboy.
It’s also a crank you get to turn on the machine.
That latter might also explain why, although I don’t like advancement, I’ll do character creation every other night given a chance.
hmmmmm, yep.
I think that, lacking advancement, a story’s course is pretty much run in six or fewer sessions. That’s best acknowledged rather than fought.
That is, looking forward to the next progression point is part of what sustains interest in the character.
You’re constantly planning its mechanical course.
Looking forward to the next bell or whistle.
That’s part of the Hollowpoint experiment, really.
(Death as advancement, I mean)
yep, that all matches my experience, thanks.
I think there is a sort of ideal image of the puissant character one has in mind at chargen and you’re sort of filling in the picture as you spend your XP or level up.
Maybe, yeah.
I guess that needs to be part of the craft in a system lacking advancement: the characters need to be whole at inception and have room to change over the course of a story arc without changing the scale of the arc.
And then willingly abandoned when they are used up.
The craft, then, in an advancement model, includes having a place to go (scope changes, undefeatable opposition introduced as a carrot for advancement)

So part of what I take away from this dialogue is that I actually do like advancement, it’s just that I am also content to explore one character for a limited time and then build a new one, and that that is possibly a surrogate for advancement. Or, perhaps, advancement is even a surrogate for starting new stories — after all, it’s actually the latter that is better represented in fiction. I think that the continuous series of stories about single (and advancing?) individuals might be minority form of fiction. Maybe it’s better, though, to just say that it’s distinct and that perhaps we’ve stumbled on a way it’s distinct. Advancement becomes a way to rebirth a hero repeatedly, jump-starting the story.

But I think that mechanical connection is also essential to understanding this relationship between player and character. The out-of-game process of “leveling up” is something that lots of people (myself included) get off on. I also love character creation, though.

This analysis (if you can call this yammering analysis) should inform our games directly, I think. That is, you either need advancement or you need a story-scale pacing mechanism that lets you stop at a logical and early point. This latter is actually pretty hard — the story can easily remain unresolved as the characters become boring and need to go sit on the shelf. This will be unsatisfying as now both halting (unresolved story tension) and continuing (playing a character without investment) kind of suck. The game better handle this and certainly advancement is a cheap way to do it.

Barring advancement, explicit pacing seems likely to help. Certainly cramming everything into one session (Fiasco, Hollowpoint) is a solution. Finding a logical analog probably also delivers (staying true to an “episode” or a “page” for TV and comic simulations respectively). In support of this I find that both Traveller and Diaspora suffer for the lack of a mechanical solution to this issue. At least in the case of Diaspora, however, I can claim that this is part of our fidelity to simulating Traveller as a game genre.

Yes, I am claiming (tongue firmly in cheek) that we deliberately emulated its defects. There is even a way in which this is true (that is, the way in which we didn’t notice they were defects, maybe).


Jan 27 2011

Fishy marketing

Selling Diaspora showed me some interesting statistical facts that ultimately led to a kind of marketing/business strategy. I’m not actually all that interested in marketing or business, though it’s been a fun game so far, but I am interested in applied statistics — numbers that are powerful and help make intelligent decisions. So keeping track of sales data was inevitable (I like numbers) and analyzing them was inevitable (I like statistics) and using them for something was a treat (I love application — I work in an engineering field). But I don’t want to give the impression that the entire journey thus far was calculated.

Initially we told a bunch of people about Diaspora and decided to sell it to them because we liked it and thought other people would too, and making a few dollars on it would be nifty experience and maybe (no one ever admits to this) let us join the club. The one with the other guys we admire who publish games. I still don’t feel like I’m part of the club, but I’m beginning to suspect that there isn’t one — it’s more like an aggregation of high-school cliques maybe.

Anyway, when we started selling we noticed sales start low, peak fast, and then taper off. I pretty much immediately saw a Poisson distribution in the making but didn’t see it as something you can do anything with. I wasn’t thinking straight.

For half a year we listened to the fan base and the would-be fan base for the game. We talked, they talked, we all reacted, and I took notes. During this time we were debating internally a PDF release and what that would mean, at least in part because it was an interesting academic exercise (I’m thinking specifically about my musings on the problem of correlation between physical and digital media, which is already a known problem between translations and multiple non-digital media). Ultimately we did release it and I watched those numbers closely.

And they did it too. Another Poisson distribution. And that’s when I realized why New Coke existed and why logos change and why NEW AND IMPROVED is on things.

The Poisson curve (with low lambda) has a long and very shallow tail. If sales follow this curve, and they certainly seem to (with lambda around 3 or 4 usually), then as a business-person and as a marketer, you have a couple of ways to make this work for you. You want to amplify that peak, for starters. That’s obvious, though, and the most naive seller does that just by telling people things are for sale. But there’s a richer vein in the tail — if you could fatten that tail then you would be making more sales over a longer period of time. It’s nice to get a big wad of sales, but a continuous stream is the way to stay healthy (at least in part because beyond some critical number of sales it starts to be self-reinforcing).

But there’s no parameter for the curve that fattens the tail. That’s not just an artifact of the math, but rather it seems to speak to facts about selling. What we saw with the PDF release, though, is that if you put a bunch of Poissons together over time, the sum of them (a multi-modal Poisson curve, where each mode is a single curve) is kind of like a regular Poisson curve with a fat tail.

And so a strategy is born. I wanted to fatten the tail of the total sales curve (in red there). I had two modes already (the blue one, Lulu hardcovers, is representative but the mode is really “POD release” — the sum of all hardcover sales, including the purple vendor line) — POD release and PDF release. I needed a third later in the year.

Around the time of our PDF release, we had a few people talking with us about different methods of distribution. At the time we weren’t to keen but I put them in my back pocket. Then in the summer we won the gold ENnie for Best Rules. The timing was right for something now and I kind of hoped the ENNie would do it alone. It didn’t — the award does not generate sales in any interesting way (or at least it didn’t for us) and I think that’s because it’s mostly watched by the industry. Yes, fans vote on it, but fans already bought the game. It’s the industry that’s watching that and thinking, “Wow, I never heard of them before I better check it out and see if there’s a way to make us both a buck. Well mostly me, but you know.”

So, yeah, right after the ENnie we got a few nibbles regarding better distribution. And I wanted another Poisson curve to add to the graph and fatten that long tail right about then. That’s when I re-opened discussion with the gang at Evil Hat.

I’ll be honest — I didn’t actually think very hard about the other offers. Fred Hicks at Evil Hat had already pitched his idea and we liked it already. Even better, he had just launched The Dresden Files RPG and it was selling like crazy thanks to stellar work, great production values, a popular system, and a solid license (with art!). Now with this success came a lot of distribution deals — I’d been watching Fred blog about his experience with Alliance, Diamond, and others. These are all names I hear when I try to pitch the game at stores. That was where the third peak would be.

And so it went — that third peak, in pink, is the sum of the Evil Hat print contribution, our third mode. And I note that our sum curve, the big red one, is only sort of declining. That slope could obviously turn down very hard indeed, but I am optimistic about its shape.

I want to stress, in closing, that the lesson I take away from this is general: when managing the marketing and sales of a product over the long term, you want to be looking ahead to ways to create new peaks. The specific is not a strategy, it’s just what happened. I would not, for example, artifically delay a PDF release in future, for reasons I’ve already discussed (and which Fred made very clear to me) which relate more to community than to sales. But the gimmick, the trick, the talent seems to be to find that next hill to keep the tail fat.

I don’t know if I have that talent — the chart up there is mostly about a confluence of lucky instances — but at least I think I know how it’s done.


Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.

There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.

A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).

Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.

A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.

We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.

The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.

Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.

The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.

So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.

Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.

So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.

And derived from that last: play games.


Jan 4 2011

Crystal Balls

Well, 2010 was a very good year for Diaspora. We beat our goal of 2000 total units sold by the end of 2010 and by a (probably) very healthy margin. We’re already 40 over and there are still a few sources that have to report in for Q4 of that year. So yay us!

As if that wasn’t enough, I also heard from Chris Hanrahan at Endgame in Oakland (one of the best game stores in North America) and he posted his top 10 RPG sellers for 2010. Sure, Dungeons and Dragons is up there (the Player’s Handbook for 4e is number 4 I think). And Dresden Files RPG takes up two slots in the top 5. Diaspora, staggeringly, is number 5. That’s ahead of a large number of Dungeons and Dragons products, ahead of nearly every other Wizards of the Coast product (Gamma World Booster Packs are in the top 5!) and ahead of Pathfinder material. I have to say, this was very unexpected. My understanding was that Paizo was hoping to compete at similar scales to Wizards of the Coast, or at least within a factor of ten. Surely, regardless, they are on the short list of “big boys” in the industry. If that’s true then this sort of thing must be fairly bad news.

Of course, Endgame is pretty special. Chris has an avowed interest in independent titles and goes out of his way (even, I expect, sometimes losing money) to acquire, promote, and sell them. So this might be an outlier rather than an indication of the market.

Well let’s hope so. I don’t mean to undermine how thrilled I am that our game has sold so well, but honestly if the big names are, in some broader sense, sitting below the sales figures for small fry like the VSCA (recall that I am ecstatic about 2000 units sold over a year and a half) then they are well and truly fucked. Certainly they have deeper market penetration, being installed in Barnes and Noble and ten times more locations than we are, but even so, Diaspora is not making enough money to represent a living wage for a single person. If their profits are, say, ten times better than ours then they can afford an employee.

I’m pretty sure they are not making 10 times more per unit than we are. Are they in 10 times more stores? Or, more correctly, reaching 10 times more people? 100 times? Maybe they are. Even viewed with the maximum skepticism (they reach way more stores with totally different profiles and have profit margins vastly in excess of ours — let’s say an error of 10 times 10 times 10, a factor of 10 for each category) it seems they could scarcely afford a dozen employees total. And that’s assuming there’s no one making a profit after paying salaries (including shareholders where there are some).

So I have to wonder just how long the “big names” can keep this up.

Now some are going to argue that this is the death of the hobby, because in any given niche of endeavour there is an oscillating interest in its impending death. As time marches on, the frequency of this oscillation seems to expand and contract a little, and there are amplitude peaks of panic (I recall the death of the Internet was absolutely certain in around 1990 when it seemed that phone companies were going to charge huge extra fees for using voice lines for data) but it really does repeat. Of course, some industries do die (buggy whips, certainly, though even there we have the niche Amish market) but the continuing enthusiasm for the hobby at every forum where it’s discussed should be seen as a reason for optimism.

Interest does seem to be more diverse and maybe harder to get at with traditional big store models. I know there are small pockets of players all over my city here playing all manner of tiny games, but they aren’t going to Chapters to buy them and they aren’t seeking to maintain a product ownership — there are no or few supplements to chase. Rather instead they buy whole new games. This is bad for anyone depending on the supplement treadmill for profit (and it was certainly a good idea at the time) but good for every tiny guy with an idea, a little talent, and a day job.

I am reminded of the idea of the Global Village1. Technology is increasingly enabling individual effort, allowing small groups of artisans (and I would love it if we’d stop being so embarrassed about being artists) to reach a small audience in every one of thousands of places on the globe. See, you can get volume by reaching a majority of people through a single well understood outlet. But you can now also reach a lot of minorities — they represent minorities only in the context of their local geography, which increasingly does not matter. As far as an internet-empowered vendor is concerned, the only geography that matters is the net, and they are all there in one place.

I guess, this being the beginning of a new year, I should make some predictions. I predict increasing desperation amongst companies clinging to modes of delivery (and types of products) that are already dead. I predict that a small number of these companies will figure it out and change course. I predict that more will make minor moves in the right direction but be unable to make the deep dangerous risky changes that need to be made and will be unable to clear the iceberg. Some will die this year but most will lumber on, still turning and turning but ever so slowly. A whole lot of small guys will become medium-sized. More single artisans will band together to make aggregate entities that emphasize individual ownership but share skill sets. They will reach a million tiny pockets of special interest.

In the longer term there is a potential for losing the monolithic model of human interest — television was the glue that made that monster, delivering the same desires to half a billion people all day every day, but that model of television is surely on the skids. Its iceberg is further away but it is there. Netflix, for example, is waving a flag on the tip of it. And without that binder, there is a distinct risk that peoples interests will be allowed to naturally diversify further. When that happens you (you, the giant corporate manufacturer, distributor, reseller) will no longer be able to easily gather a huge audience into an artificial gross group identity that can be exploited with single products. Well, you can try. But the little guy, adequately paid for doing something else, will be able to rip at your special interests and with less interest in making money doing it.

Sound communist? Maybe there’s something Marx got right.2 Maybe technology necessarily creates equality eventually. I’ve said before that the means of production were made most democratically available to us in the form of Lulu. I used that phrase deliberately.

To summarize, the future is more small companies delivering specialized product to many small groups distributed widely. More hobby businesses will be enabled and more products will be delivered with less interest in profit and more interest in the hobby as art. It will take a deliberate, concerted effort of government and corporation to stop this. Watch those new bills, folks. This is the new Danger for the Way Things Are. And they don’t call conservatism that for nothing.3


  1. Marshal McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962).
  2. And maybe something Marcuse got wrong, which would be nice because his bleak perspective has been looking pretty good the last 25 years or so.
  3. Note that this is not ragging on conservatism. The technical definition of conservatism (which I’m using here) is the idea that change is intrinsically more risky than no change, and therefore that a political goal of maintaining functioning organs rather than changing things is a safe and wise course. It’s very true right up until it’s not.

Nov 15 2010

Empire building

There once was a time when I had a 286 computer running DOS. Around this time, I ran my first empire-building game. It was a big hit. We spent tons of time with it and never even got close to using it as intended. We mostly made maps (by hand, because there was no way the computing power was up to it — actually the software) and designed spaceships (with the Traveller:2300 Star Cruiser rules, if I recall). At some point one of our motley crew built custom software to facilitate the game, complete with a rotatable 3d star map and travelling-salesman solver to find optimum jump paths. That was awesome.

The idea of the empire building game is simple. There is a universe full of worlds and you don’t know much about it. You make space ships and zoom around discovering worlds. You exploit them, increasing your resources and your ability to make space ships. Eventually you run into other people and fight it out for domination of the galaxy. The joy of it is that you can play the empire part by email and use it as an excuse to occasionally wargame the space fights.

That’s the idea. I’ve done this a few times and I don’t think we ever once got to a fight. The thing is, a lot of the fun is in building space ships and exploring the universe. This may be related to the fact that my table like character generation a lot, so we’re in the “prep is play” camp, and a lot of this empire building game is basically prep. You make things, you organize them, you submit them for approval, and you get new data to integrate into your file. You sort of have to love data management. With occasional fighting.

So this time we’re using the rules I wrote for the last time, Starfight, which were originally written for use with a different space fighting game. This time I figured I’d use Diaspora because its ship construction is interesting but simple and we already know and love the space combat system. And it’s designed to stand alone. It seems like a match to me!

Also this time around we have Tim’s sons in the mix, and they are only a little younger than we were when we first tried this. Holy crap, that brings it all home.

Anyway, I did a lot of thinking in my head before starting this because the best time we ever had with this was the first time, and I want to recapture what was fun about that. Part of what was fun was that we had no tools but pencils and blank paper at the time and had to figure out how to manage our data. I didn’t think that was the fun part before. I am certain now that I was wrong. When I think about how cool that first game was, I think about coloured maps drawn with rulers, Lotus spread-sheets, and custom software. But how do you recapture that?

Well, the first thing I think is to realize that folks probably won’t actually use pencils and rulers. But that wasn’t the essence of that success. The essence of it was figuring out what to do with limited data. Figuring out a way to represent it for yourself. So this time around the coloured pencils might actually be some mighty sophisticated software, but under the covers the principle is still this: it’s your problem. So my solution (or rather my experiment) is to provide very limited data to the end user, but it’s the essential data. That is, rather than keep a database of all the details and spit out custom awesome maps, I am just handing out the data. And because there’s nor sophisticated database, it’s not complex data.

For the first turn, players get their homeworld data, which looks like this:

Vagkim (Tim’s home world)

-1-> Faran
-2-> Cozan, Meschist
-3-> Nisqit, Nolaquin

All this means is that Tim’s home planet is called Vagkim and that there is a system called Faran one jump away. And Cozan and Meschist are two jumps away. Nisqit and Nolaquin are three jumps away. Now you can draw a map.  It’s mostly a conceptual map because you only have distances and not bearings, but the fact is no one cares about bearings in this situation. I mean, if you wanted to reconstruct what the sky looks like from your homeworld then sure, you need to know what direction things are in, but if you just need to know how close something is to something else, then all you need are distances.

The other data stored are the resources. These are three numbers: Industrial, Raw, and Social. To start only your homeworld has any. Once a world becomes friendly to you, you can exploit its resources. What you get depends partially on its available resources and partially on your method of exploitation. You can strip mine it, install a corporate presence, or try to run the government.

Oops, drifting afield here. Anyway, managing this data is not very onerous and you can do it all graphically which i fun. Fuck those databases, frankly. Give me a pretty network graph.

And the other thing you do a lot of is make ships with the ship construction system and there is no way that’s not fun. You need to keep track of your ships and that’s your problem and that’s part of your fun. Fortunately Diaspora ships are pretty easy to make and do not take up much space to describe. They are also trivial to verify unlike Traveller:2300 ships which I pretty much just had to take as given, errors and all, because I wasn’t really keep on checking the volume calculations to the third decimal place. One might find oneself encouraged to draw space ships, even.

And then all this takes place on a little mailing list so there is also an implicit invitation to share, and that is part of the program as well. Part of what was really cool in the first iteration was sharing with each other just how we had decided to organize the data. Showing off our cool maps, for example, or our ship drawings. Or the software we wrote. The combination of a problem to solve and an eager audience was really what drove the fun.

I hope. If I’m right then we will recapture some of what was cool in 1986. If not, well, maybe we’ll at least have an excuse to fight space ships. Make guys and then make them fight is the cardinal rule.


Sep 14 2010

How hard is too hard?

My wife has remarked that for some reason every commercial on some channels now looks (or at least sounds) like a Cialis commercial. Who am I to argue or even resist a little bit?

Because Diaspora says “hard science-fiction” on the cover, we are often asked what exactly hard science-fiction is1. This is always embarrassing because the definition is actually kind of a pet peeve of mine. Not because I’m pedantic about it, but rather because I’m not. Here’s my definition: hard science-fiction is science-fiction that the audience finds believable without effort. It appears, to them, to be a logical extrapolation of modern science. Note now that this is a subjective definition. This is important.

When writing this game we were conscious of the fact that there would be an audience that was not us. This may sound odd considering we never really expected to sell to very many people, but nonetheless it’s true because that’s just part of the craft of writing in the first place. And so the problem was not to deliver my vision of hard sf, but rather to somehow deliver your vision of it. You see how my subjective definition now creates a problem?

Okay, one problem with “hard” is that it’s usually coupled to “brittle”. Once upon a time (tell us a story, Uncle Brad!) I wrote simulations. I wrote vehicle motion simulators, pathogen propagation simulators, signalling simulators, and other simulators. That work has always informed my game play and game hacking, and here’s why: you cannot simulate everything. You have to decide exactly what work you are going to do and what work you are not going to do. This is because, as you drill into details across a broad spectrum you uncover more and more inter-relationship between details. This means that a minor error in one propagates to all details related to it, whether or not those details have errors. And every detail has errors. So you get a combinatorial explosion of error. The rule of thumb is: the more details you have the more wrong you are.

Okay, so here we are: hard sf is about plausible extrapolation of the future. Increase in detail makes the error increase. Error reduces plausibility. Obviously, then, the trick is to not go into detail!

This flies in the face of practically every hard or hard-ish science-fiction game ever made. Okay maybe not every one, but pretty much every one I can think of. These games are often characterized — typified even! — by lots and lots of crunchy technology detail. Computers are this big. Lasers work like this. Everyone uses this gizmo. We will communicate between planets by telefax. Bussard ramjets work. And every single detail is not only a chance to be wrong, but more importantly a chance for disagreement with your audience. And the definition of your genre (by my fiat, anyway) requires agreement above all other concerns. So this definitive design choice basically guarantees failure or at least eventual quaintness.

This is how we tempered Diaspora so that it can be hard but also agile enough to meet the subjective definition. First, we claim only a small number of facts: heat is a problem and reaction drives are all you get. Anti-gravity is unlikely. Second, we conveniently put super-technology behind the Singularity fence — when things get implausible, they occur in a place where the whole culture is ascending, which always looks like disaster from the outside. A billion souls upload themselves to a vast galactic data hub where everything is awesome, but they leave behind no record beyond a billion corpses. A super-technical civilization comes to depend entirely on its artificial brains and is wiped out completely when the power fails (superconductor rot, maybe).

So in Diaspora hard science-fiction is not so much a definition as an invitation. Beyond those small details, the universe is defined by the table playing the game, and if they have invented something that feels a lot like hard science-fiction to them, who the hell am I (or anyone) to argue? Each unnecessary detail (how big is a ship’s computer?) is excised2.

By refusing to attend to detail it could be argued that Diaspora is not really hard science-fiction. Rather what it does at each table, and taking into account the feelings of each player on the topic of plausible future technology, is simulate hard science-fiction.


  1. I was informed in one podcast interview that there is actually a technical definition that dates back a ways: hard sf is about the hard (or physical) sciences and soft sf is about the soft (or social) sciences. This doesn’t jibe much with the colloquial use and, worse, I’m not sure it’s even all that useful since most sf games are likely to be both
  2. In fact the ship design system got turned inside out after starting as a traditional naval architecture simulator — you know the kind where you are basically pretending to build an actual ship, picking components and calculating mass and thrust and all that? It was certainly compounding so many errors that the results were ludicrous, implausible because I knew how deeply fabricated they were. But it was also generating a suspicious consistency in results — when you use real rocketry physics, your ships have a fairly narrow range of reasonable sizes for most duties. Well if the size of a space craft is not all that interesting, then it seemed like we could discard that whole architectural phase and instead make a system that creates technology-consistent stats and the user can paint whatever description she likes on it. How big is it? Who am I to tell you? How big is plausible?

Aug 24 2010

Getting lucky, looking smart

I’ve talked (ad nauseuam1, I’m sure) about what we did to get Diaspora out there. I’ve talked about why we did that and how it worked out. In light of this piece from an actual vendor about “indie” games and IPR, I’ll talk now about what the effects were in retrospect and why small scale game developers should consider our model when producing their work-of-love-for-small-but-real-profit.

We hooked our cart to FATE. There’s no way to deny that the opportunity to grab the same brand as Spirit of the Century presented to us by the OGL was a big deal. I don’t think we realized what a big deal it was (or more correctly, what a big deal it would become) but there’s no question that we instantly penetrated an existing and forgiving crowd of buyers while at the same time staying on the periphery of it — we changed enough and on our own terms that it was an outsider’s FATE game. In real terms that meant that we actually attracted interest from both folks that knew they already liked FATE and from folks who loved the sort of ideas we had but were leery of FATE for some reason. This was discovered, not intentional. But the bottom line here is that being part of an existing success is an opportunity, and the OGL is an invitation. That boom may already be subsiding, but that’s for history to declare. I know we still have at least one FATE-like game in the pipe.

The more important thing, though, is risk. I read a lot of game design forums. I don’t participate much because frankly I feel like an outsider. They are all really interested in aspects of game design that I’m not all that interested in — for me, design emerges from frank discussion between a small number of smart people who are iterating their ideas over constant play. All those adjectives are important. Some forums try to do this and for people that feel “inside” them, I am certain they work. Anyway, the only reason I brought it up is because inside these forums folks talk about how they intend to publish and, despite their cutting edge ideas in game design, I see constant conservatism regarding methods. And the article above hints at why this conservatism is a kind of doom.

The conservative method I am thinking of is the traditional print publishing method: make a book, print a bunch up, and sell them. The costs involved in this are many: making it includes art, editing, writing, software, yadda yadda yadda. Printing it means short run print jobs (which have very high costs), warehousing, shipping, and, inevitably, third parties (IPR). Selling it means being visible, and a lot of folks take that to mean going to cons. This last works well if you are already going to a con, which is cool for those folks that do that. It feels, however, mandatory when you talk to people that do this. That is, “I go to cons” is sort of an assumption rather than a method. In some ways indie games mostly finance going to cons. At least that’s how my math on it worked out. We bought scotch instead. I am not going to claim that was a better choice.

Here’s the thing, though: working in very small numbers (by publishing standards — say 1000 units in a year as a goal) means that you are necessarily going to operate with high costs. That thins your margin and means you pretty much have to do all your marketing yourself. Now you have a bunch of choices to make this work, but they seem to boil down to: cut your costs or cut your risk.

The vast majority seem keen to select either the former or no choice at all.

There is a popular notion that risk-takers are the big successes in a capitalist system. Actually what happens is that risk-takers succeed big when they succeed and fail big when they fail. Long term success is created by carefully managing and deferring risk in such a way as to still capitalize on it (Nassim Tales tries to tell us about this in The Black Swan but the message is buried under some dreadful writing — he’s still right, though). You want to be attached to that risk taker, but with a good knife for cutting loose if he plummets. That means you won’t see as much profit when he succeeds, but you might get away with small losses along the way. Anyway, we don’t here a lot of talk about risk in the indie design community, which strikes me as bizarre.

Cutting costs, see (sorry, channeling Edward G. there), is the reflex choice. Holy crap, this costs too much, what can I do? I know! Cut costs! Duh! But we rarely think about the choice of cutting costs to zero (or close to it) with the expectation of lower maximum profits. This is risk-cutting, a conservative course that has much higher expected (in the mathematical sense) rewards but much lower maximum rewards. I guess sometimes one can be too focused on the prize and loose track of ones footing in the process.

Again I will stress, what we did was fortuitous, not planned. We didn’t plan to sell 1,500 books in a year. If we were clairvoyant, we’d have done a 1,000 book print run and fronted the cash for it. But (and here’s the kicker) we’re not clairvoyant. We (and you) have zero magical powers. Thinking wistfully about what might have been is bullshit. It’s a waste of energy that could be spent yelling on the interweb.

What we did was adopt no risk. The Lulu model encapsulates all of the bits of publishing that entail risk, from store-front web presence to printing to customer payment, through shipping. They handle it all. And they take a fat chunk of cash for it — they take a very fat printing fee and then they take a kind of commission off your final sale price. And they deserve it! Whatever failings they have, they are eating all the risk on your product. And you still wind up with a pretty good profit margin at the end of the day.

In fact, if you decide to go all trad on the publishing end and print and warehouse and sell everything yourself, you can make twice as much money per unit. But your accessibility is weak — your units sold is low and you are doing all the dumbwork (I’m thinking of fulfillment here mostly). If you’re not doing a lot of it then you aren’t selling a lot of books. If you are doing a lot of it, you suddenly realize why it’s worth paying someone else. And so, pretty fast, you are looking for a third party like IPR to handle that. As soon as you do that you have cut your profit per unit down to about where it would have been with Lulu. Lower, as it turns out. But you’ll get more copy out!

Maybe. Your vendor sales will go up, but the unit profit on them will be very bleak indeed at your printing volumes. Your direct sales will go up over your home shop, but no one will tell you by how much (though they will tell you how much of your profit they will take — this is not a bad thing but it better be part of your decision calculus). No one will promise you anything particular about promotion (where will you be on the web site front page? for how long? will your game be in the IPR boot at Origins? will someone try to sell it? what are you buying here? It’s mostly a secret). But it’s pretty much the only game in town if you’re tired of handling payment and shipping yourself.

So when vendors are seeing the IPR move as a potential problem for indie titles, this better strike you to your heart, because IPR was already something of a problem for indie titles. I think somewhere people got it in their heads that this was a huge opportunity, but it was almost instantly eclipsed (in fact though not in mindshare) by what Lulu did: print + storefront + shipping. All your costs folded into a per-unit cost rather than an up-front risk or a workload. As soon as that happened it becomes tenuous indeed to pay a third party to do part of that work while you continue to sustain the bulk of the risk. It’s disproportionate. It’s a bad deal.

Now PDF sales are another ball of wax because they are intrinsically risk-free. So here’s where you can really make up some slack because there is a real (though small, by my count, but probably growing) market for them. Sadly, Lulu won’t let you bundle products or anything interesting like that, so your hands are tied there, but you have tons of other options for selling PDFs. Scattering them around is kind of crap, and the fees taken are pretty thick, but it’s all gravy, right? Yeah. In the end it’s a no-brainer though I’m glad we held on to it for as long as we did — it let the physical book get traction and seeing the hardcover was a big deal for a lot of people, judging by my mail. Anyway, I’ve said before that if DriveThruRPG gets their POD act together they have a serious winner in the bag for indie games: zero risk + great publisher account/sales tools will be the Golden Egg for a little guy with a game in his head. If we can wrap our head around dodging the trad publishing risk bullet. Big publishers amortize this risk with diverse titles and tons of market penetration. You won’t do that, but will take the same proportional risk per title (greater actually). That is a crappy deal.

So for the first year we sold directly, using POD exactly as it was intended (print on the demand of the customer, not the publisher — the way it’s often used is as a cheap printer, which misses the whole point). We had good buzz, thanks in no small part to an outrageous review by Fred Hicks which basically told the whole FATE community that it had his stamp of approval and they should go buy it right now. And that was the “hitch your wagon” part. We didn’t intend to be on a bandwagon (as I said before, we’re kind of outsiders — we didn’t know there was a bandwagon) but we wound up there. That’s lucky. We had an existing voice at RPG.Net and we sent reviewer copies to folks like C.W. Richeson, where we were confident the result would be respected, read, and (net) positive. That’s deliberate.

Now, a year on, we’re publishing in a more traditional model in partnership with Evil Hat. But we’re still operating a risk-averse shop, letting Fred and the gang take a chunk of the profits in exchange for taking on the risk. And he’s smart — he knows the risk is low and the profit margin high, and our end of the risk is that if it goes south we don’t get paid. But zero return on zero down is mighty low risk in my books. Most importantly, taking that kind of risk is his business. He’s got a stable of titles, a smart business advisor, connections in the industry…oh my goodness, he’s a publisher.

So, in response to that post from a vendor about IPR, I offer this to the so-called indie community. Ask yourself first if you’re a publisher. If you’re not, watch the POD space closely for opportunities, because they are there. But if you’re not, think hard about printing, warehousing, and shipping books. Because that’s publisher stuff — so why are you doing it?


  1. Thanks, M. Boulet.