Aug 12 2011

Hollowpointery

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 RPG.net. 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.

–BMurray

  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.

Jul 16 2011

In which Brad gets taught a lesson

I got schooled today.

You may have already noticed that we released Hollowpoint the other day (on Bastille day, no less, as Toph pointed out to me). We got it up and out, made some announcements, and made sure the critical info was at the web page and so on &c. One of the first things I was asked by a prospective buyer was whether or not there would be some free stuff to download from the web site.

Hollowpoint is a pretty austere game. As with Diaspora, you can’t let the page count fool you — the core of it is really simple and wonderful. Anyway, this austerity means that it’s very hard to imagine what exactly you could give away for free without basically giving up the game. The first thing that comes to mind is of course character sheets. Because, you know, everyone has character sheets.

But really? I make characters for this game on an index card and there are practically no headings, just data. I suppose I could upload a blank index card as a PDF and maybe add some examples of filled out cards. Of course, that’s just being catty — there’s obviously a genuine desire for more information and character sheets deliver that.

Anyway, almost instantly a fan takes me to task on the character sheet thing. Tony Love (his real name I swear) doesn’t berate me or even say I’m wrong. Instead he uploads this:

Yeah it’s a fucking toe tag! This is so very awesome! Death is a desired goal in Hollowpoint, so representing the character on a toe tag does two nice things (besides being simple and compact). It reminds you that you are going to die, and it lets you keep score by your stack of toe tags. You could even put them on your toe I suppose.

I am not one to let a lesson go by unlearned. Nor do I like to take the obvious away from these things when one might dig deeper. So I have decided to take this as evidence — proof even — that there are indeed things to make for free download that are worth doing and worth having. So now I’m thinking hard about that.

One of the things I’m batting around is skinning kits. See, this game can play in many genres. Really anything with a team, a mission, and dangerously bad behaviour. Someone asked me if you could do Halo with it. My brain lit up. Hell yes you can do Halo with it. Swap the DIG skill out for DRIVE so that some characters can solve problems by rampaging with a Warthog and you are basically done.

So maybe offering short kits that show you how to do this — a concept, the changes that need to be made, the recommended Trait procedure for it, some art, and a sample mission outline or two. And maybe some technical detail for weapons and tactics that are specific to the skin.

This game is already a synthesis of myriad thefts. ORE is in here, 3:16 is in here, Top Secret is in here, FATE is in here. So why not Fiasco in the post-publishing stage?

Why not indeed.

–BMurray


Jul 14 2011

Motivation

I want to talk a little about motivation because we just released Hollowpoint and it almost didn’t happen because I had none.

At some point during the project I lost interest in it. Not because it’s not a great game — it is a great game! — but because…well, I don’t know really. Ennui, maybe. Ennui is my pinnacle stat some days. I am trying to get a handle on what broke through that barrier though.

The first breakthrough was technological. Sometimes during the editing process the whole thing just seems too cumbersome to do well and so, by extension, at all. At some point, however, we found we already had some pretty nifty tools for handling commentary and and status by remote control (recall that by this time I had moved to Toronto, so me and the other primary author, C.W. Marshall, were a few thousand kilometers apart). That broke through the first barrier.

I’ll be honest here, though — while the tools are powerful and effective and reduced the work load a bit, what helped the most (for me) was that they were novel and nifty. I wanted to play with them and the project game me an excuse to do so. This is a big motivator for me: shiny things. I always try to tie shiny things to a project because I know that will get hours from me into the project reliably. So the tools are great, but the novelty of them is important. That’s crass and superficial and unprofessional but it’s a fact and you don’t want to try to bull through facts with willpower and platitudes. If ennui is a brick wall, facts are vault doors.

Then I kind of stalled again. And while I was stalled, some kind soul out there posted on RPG.net wondering whatever happened to Hollowpoint.

That was it.

The big motivator is that someone is enthusiastic about the end product. We forget that sometimes — that there is somewhere out there who is waiting for you to finish and is excited about it. Again, it would be a mistake to look at this too far apart from oneself — the reason this is motivating is Vanity, pure and simple. I really want to please this person because I really want them to like me. That’s incredibly motivating.

Interestingly, I already knew this from playing role-playing games in general. I know that it’s very motivating for players to have a non-player character compliment their character. A beautiful person’s favour, a look of awe at their awesome behaviour…anything really. We transfer the attention from character to player effortlessly (Dennett would say that’s because we use the same tools to simulate emotion that we use to actually experience it, so there is a deep way in which there is no actual difference between pretense and reality except insofar as you seem to be able to pop out of the simulated state) and so we feel good. Wow that was a long parenthetical — if it wasn’t so funny I’d change it to a footnote.

Anyway, there’s the message for motivation: embrace your weakness. It’s similar to Larry Wall’s three virtues of the computer programmer: Hubris, Laziness, and Impatience. If you feed your project through your vices, you will be driven to progress.

–BMurray


May 8 2011

Workflow and releases

Hollowpoint was stalled for a long time and, while I have plenty of “I am really busy” excuses, I think the real excuse has to be, “my workflow sucked”. A night or two ago, however, it came together and it did so by leveraging good industrial tools rather than by softly hacking together ways to talk nice to each other. So this is not about how you can reach your inner Protestant but rather an acknowledgement that when you own multi-thousand dollar tools you should pay attention.

I’m practically a communist. I think that the capitalist system does a lot of things really well, but that there are some weird edge cases confronting us that demonstrate its impending failure–or ours, if we cling to it despite the failing. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that but rather use it to explain my difficulty in accepting that an industry-standard tool might get something as soft as collaboration right.

The thing is that it’s pretty easy to sell collaboration and brainstorming tools based on how amazing the end user suspects they will be rather than on how amazing they actually will be. There are a lot of reasons for this, but a lot of it is related to how pretty something is (mind mapping software springs to mind here, which is rarely more interesting than putting my editor in outline mode, but I have a topologist’s need to make doughnuts out of coffee mugs) and how well organized things seems to be. Well, getting work done isn’t really about pretty or tidy or organized. These things can help spur some enthusiasm but they do not bear directly on getting the job done.

We have been exchanging drafts and notes using PDF, marking up with comments using Acrobat. This is mostly because we have it, so we use it. We didn’t buy it (or get granted it, in the most recent iteration) for this purpose, but if there’s a screwdriver in the toolkit and you have a screw that needs screwing, well, there it is.

So we had a tool but still no good workflow, and the ad hoc method I was using was making the process extremely tedious. And then I set my suspicion of clever tools aside and looked at what I had here in this product, and I found that it supports a workflow. One that works. I raised an eyebrow, Spocklike, and tried out the review tagging in comments.

So, instead of reading the PDF and looking for comments, I split the window into the PDF image and a review comments list. Now the comments are clearer — rather than reading a marked up document I am reading comments that refer to the PDF as an example. The work is inverted and I’m now concentrating on the part I care about rather than the part I read a thousands times.

That’s already pretty good. But now I also see that I can reply to comments and tag them as accepted, rejected, completed, deferred…all kinds of possibilities. And as I save it (in Dropbox, so the reviewer can instantly see comments on comments) I realize that what I have here is a laser-focused discussion forum with the document as background. And suddenly I am banging out the comments one at a time, with great focus and with clarity in my responses. Yes, do that bit, click done. No, don’t agree, note why. Yes, do, done. No. Don’t understand please send more info. Yes, do, done. Yes, do, done.

In two sittings I had all comments addressed in a review cycle that has taken me months to even look at with any real industry. And that’s not because I had something nifty I wanted to take out for a spin, but rather because I had something extremely powerful at my fingertips that I had been suspicious of until now.

From now on, that’s certainly how I’m handling peer-review edits. I recognize that this limits my reviewers to those who have the same expensive tools, but that happens to be okay in this context. It might not be in another and that would (will?) be frustrating. So now here is my list of tools that have totally been worth the money:

  • Good typefaces,
  • InDesign,
  • Illustrator,
  • Acrobat (double points for being useful in ways I didn’t anticipate),
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox.

So thank you Adobe, you corporate motherfuckers. You know what you’re doing and I will pay more attention.

–BMurray


Apr 25 2011

Relocation

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.

Design

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 RPG.net 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.

Publishing

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.

Business

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.

–BMurray


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.

–BMurray


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

–BMurray

  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.

Oct 22 2010

The hovercraft parable

Recently a new chapter has been added to the story about the role-playing game publishing industry dying. The “death” is mostly a way to interpret the steady failing of big reliable game lines and the steady success of small endeavours with small goals by peers using technology from front to back. I think a modern parable is in order.

One day I was heading home from work, got off the train, and went to the bus stop for the last leg of my journey. Standing at the stop and looking north, I see a huge construction project in progress. This looks like it is going to be some kind of very sturdy multi-storey concrete building, like a parking tower or an industrial warehouse. They are working on finishing the second floor.

What they are doing, specifically, is laying down concrete and smoothing it flat. I don’t get that this is what’s happening right away, because what I see is three guys laughing their heads off. They are laughing because they are each sitting on a chair that looks like it is mounted on a pair of downward-pointing fans, and skidding around all over the structure at high speed.

They are surfacing the concrete by riding around on one-person hovercraft.

My first thought is that I would pay to do this. In fact, I am pretty sure that if they sold tickets for twenty bucks to give you half an hour on the hovercraft-chair, there would be a line-up around the block. The surface would get done and someone would make a packet and a half doing it. There’s even a built-in audience — about half the people waiting for the bus are watching the well-paid union labourers ride and thinking pretty much the same thing as I am. “Goddamn, what I really want to be doing right now is giving one of those guys twenty bucks and then barrel around on a hovercraft.”

There are probably many obstacles (insurance, quality of work, marketing, licensing, simple convention) but only one is really insurmountable. The union would never go for it.

–BMurray


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?

–BMurray

  1. Thanks, M. Boulet.

Aug 11 2010

I am bound to silence

I have skipped a few days here because the Ennies have spurred some interesting business for me to deal with and it’s pretty much all I can talk about and, since I can’t talk about it all, it’s just best for everyone if I don’t even sit near a computer.

Now, however, one deal is in the bag and so I can talk about it. RetroPunk Game Design out of Brazil has acquired the license to translate Diaspora into Portuguese and publish that translation in PDF and hardcopy. These guys are great to deal with and just recently snagged some Evil Hat titles as well, and so we’re very excited about this development. I heard someone else got a deal for a Hebrew translation and now my inner typography geek is … aroused … over that possibility but I’m not actually pursuing it. What could be cooler than a Diaspora for the Diaspora though?

Anyway, I know we have at least a couple of Brazilian fans who are cheering, though I have to warn you that the finished work is a long ways away. Translation is not easy or cheap, friends.

I have a playtest session coming up tomorrow so I’ll have something more amusing then I expect. Until then, as one Brazilian fan shouted at me, sinistro! Which I think means, “you evil fuck.” Not sure.