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 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


Feb 10 2011

Places we shoot ourselves

I am having a hell of a time laying out Hollowpoint.

Not in a good way. Here’s the issue: I am committed to using a 6″ x 9″ format for only one really good reason and one reason that’s pretty weak. Every other argument regarding this format is against it. The problem is, the two reasons for using it are both reasons that relate to the consumer. The arguments against it are all arguments that relate to the designer (me).

Here are the two pro reasons: it’s a very convenient format for a game. It travels well, it doesn’t take up a ton of table space, and it’s pretty. The other reason to use it is that I already did it once and it tickles me to make books that sit nicely together. The reasons we used it for Diaspora are basically the same: I like to use it and it sits beside my copy of Spirit of the Century nicely. These are reasons enough to use this format, as far as I am concerned.

It is, however, hell to lay out for.

The page is too wide for a single block of text in a reasonable typeface at a reasonable size. It results in long lines that are hard to read or in text that is too big and looks like a pre-school text. It’s crap for one column.

If you shrink that column to make some space for a sidebar, you discover that there isn’t enough. Sidebars are crowded affairs needing substantial massaging to work in the short line length remaining available. They do not work well here.

But you can’t go to two columns, which is what you would do in letter format, where you have far too much space for one column but plenty for two. Because there isn’t enough space for two columns here unless your type is extremely small.

So, basically, there as at once too much and too little space for the text. This is incredibly frustrating. It’s also a secret joy, of course, because trying to work inside a difficult constraint is puzzle-solving. I love this kind of work. But it is also crazy frustrating.

You can decorate your margins and suck in your column width. This is a pretty good solution if you have access to printing that can reliably get bleeds right. I probably can’t count on that — at least my experience is that I won’t be able to — and so I can’t afford to butt artwork up against the page edge unless I think really hard about the effect if the page trim is wrong and some white paper is revealed. So heavy and thoughtless decoration is out.

The other possibility is austerity. Stick to a narrow and legible single column and place it in a big empty space. This is actually very appealing to me and opens up some new possibilities.

Take for example contextual cues. In Diaspora we used italics and inset (from both sides) blocks to set fiction. When you see a narrow column of italic text, it’s always fiction. You are warned or cued depending on your interest. It doesn’t need to be explained. So by making the body text part of an austere and open margin design, we open up more opportunities for context because we have the space to expand into, or to set right or left of the body text. The text can acquire some dynamism not by being surrounded by art but by moving within the page space. The defect of the format becomes an opportunity.

It’s not clear that this is appropriate for the text in Hollowpoint. It might be, though — can the rythm of text position be made to imply the punctuality of the game’s pace? Can we fire paragraphs like gunshots?

Probably not. The audience for games is surprisingly conservative and isn’t likely to respond well to anything too clever. The taste is generally for conventional (within the context of games) layout: lots of art, border decoration, sidebars, and so on. Crowd the page and get as much stuff on it as possible. Invent page textures that make it hard to read, colour the page, blotch it, line it…make the reader feel like she got her money’s work at least in ink weight.

I worry that if I do that and subsequently run into Tufte, he’ll strangle me. Or drown me in my excess ink. I don’t want that to happen. So there’s likely to be a little avant garde design in Hollowpoint, though the garde it will be avant is the accepted forms for game text layout — certainly it won’t be avant the rest of the design world. This worked out okay for, say, Nobilis, though it had a lofty, airy context that aligned nicely with the layout. How can I get near that? Can I invent a context for Hollowpoint in which the space makes sense?

I don’t have answers yet. Which is why I am still laying out Hollowpoint. Endlessly.

–BMurray


Oct 21 2010

Re-re-relearning a lesson

Here’s a lesson I learn every month or so, and it’s a variation on an adage that’s not all that useful. That is, the adage is not very useful but the variation is. The adage is, “if you want something done right you have to do it yourself.” This is just not true — it almost always pays to hire experts to do things right that you are not great at and to let them have a free hand in doing it well. This variation, however, is true: if you want something to get done, start doing it.1

This is obvious as hell. If you don’t start it then there is no way it can get done. Duh. But it applies in subtle ways.

Here’s one. Planning is not doing. Planning is useful in many different ways. It lets you rough out budgets, it lets you get close to figuring out what the project resources might be, and it lets you structure the project in your head before beginning. But there is no way in which it is doing the work. Plan all you want but you will never be any closer to making anything. It might be best to phrase this another way: planning is its own project.

And another — acquiring, evaluating, learning, and configuring productivity tools is not doing. A lot of great stuff got done before the iPad was invented, and that might indicate that it is not an essential tool for many kinds of project. Now, by all means, if you are starting, say, as software project and you have no tools, then you need to pick some. But you don’t want this to be a search for perfection. In particular, you certainly do not want to find that one tool suite that is already perfectly tailored to your process (what, you have a process already and you don’t even have tools? Your cart is not only in the lead, it’s not attached to the horses at all). I’ll go so far as to suggest that you are probably wasting your time getting a great tool and then configuring it for your “special needs”. The fact is, our needs are not very special. The process implied by the default configuration is probably as good — probably better, even — than the process you’re attached to in your head. Finding and deploying your tools has become its own project. So unless that project is going to deliver product directly when it’s done (it’s not), make it a very fast project indeed.

Another one? Okay sure. If nothing is being delivered, nothing is happening. Many managers know this but read it differently — instead they think that if they don’t hear about things happening then nothing is happening. And so they demand to hear about things. Now everyone has to take time out to inform the manager. Give me a fucking break. The job of a manager is right there in the name of the job: if you are managing a project, then go out and manage it. Find out where things are at. Look in the document, maybe, and see what’s changed. Read the change log for the version control system. Talk to a developer. Manage some shit yourself. And if the changelog is full of changes and the document is full of revisions, then for sure things are happening. If it’s all still in someone’s head then, while a kind of progress is being made, nothing is actually happening yet. The way I once said this is, “if it’s not written down then it didn’t happen”.

If you are waiting for someone to do something that you could do, then do it. Make a thing happen. Change the code, the document, whatever, and log your changes. Inform the person you are waiting for that it’s already done. Give them something new to do. Or fire them, if this happens enough. This is not really advice for managers (well the firing bit is) but rather for peers — when you know something needs to get done and you know what it is and the guy who is supposed to do it isn’t doing it, then you you can keep waiting or you can do it. Which you choose depends mostly on whether you really care about getting the thing done.

And down there is the heart of the thing. Do you really care about getting this thing done? Because so many of the ways we choose to not work are really ways to avoid it. We do a lot of actual work in order to avoid the work that we need to do. Maybe more. So it’s not even just laziness — avoiding any work at all — but fabricating work that doesn’t need to happen in order to avoid doing something we don’t want to do. Whether that’s futzing with tools or claiming you are waiting for someone else, it’s the same thing. We could be making the objective happen but we aren’t. We have a way to lie to ourselves about how we really are, about how fixing the configuration file for this tool is absolutely essential to proceeding, but we all know that default-configuration word processors can be typed into just fine.

So, for the 93rd time this year, if you want something done right, well, get on that. Make something. Write it down where someone else can see it. If you’re one a team, act like it.

I really do love my job.

–BMurray

  1. This ties into my instincts regarding free-will and that underlines my objection to most objections. You either believe you have free will or you don’t. If you don’t, then you can wallow in helpless inaction if you like, but you don’t get the respect that a free-willed being deserves. You get treated like an animal or a plant, because that’s what you have declared yourself to be. If, on the other hand, you believe you have free will, then fucking exercise it already. Accept that what you do, whatever it is, is what you wanted to do. If you don’t like that then do something else.

Oct 4 2010

Processes

No matter what you do, you have a process by which you do it. There are a lot of self-help books that tell you about the most awesome personal process for every aspect of your life, and apparently following any one of these will make you rich and happy. Interestingly, the majority of the consumers of these books are neither rich nor happy. This is not an opening salvo on processes but perhaps an observation that all processes are more similar than they are different and you already have a process.

There are a few quantum leaps in the utility of processes. The first is noticing that you have one. Before this point, you work on whatever comes up and seems to be next and you get things done. After this point, you are able to set aside distracting things that don’t need attention yet because they come later in your process. And, more importantly, once you have a process you can write it down and look at it and wonder how to make it better. This is a huge leap forward.

The next quantum leap is when you buy software to manage your process, which is when you realize that you must either adopt the software’s implied process (change is scary!) or try to make the software do what you want. You will also find at this time that your process now includes a lot of points at which you need to fiddle with the software. Occasionally you will find your process clunking along with a flat tire as you await a feature or bug fix that you desperately need.

I am not the most productive man on earth. I’m not even a very productive man because I just don’t give a shit about deadlines in cases outside my day job. This has to do with my interest in maintaining real autonomy and real choices in my life and is tied to all kinds of philosophical scaffolding that is underneath practically everything I do. The simple version is that if I am doing something for myself, I am not going to undermine this by stressing over it. This is why selling things has complicated my life — I hadn’t really considered the ethical burden it would impose on me now that there are thousands of people interested in the thing I sold. And I bear their interests as a duty and I take that seriously.

However, for myself, I won’t eat that. And so my process for work on games includes that lack of interest in calendar pressure. Now, calendar pressure does some interesting things to processes and not all of them are good. A high level schedule for a software product, for example, has nice milestone delivery dates on it because the customer needs to see progress and may have civil engineering and other contractors waiting on installation of various stages of the work. This necessitates a “waterfall” model. We try to avoid this all the time and never do — and never can because it is intrinsic in the calendar date and the dependencies. Revealingly, it is also the underlying assumption of practically all planning software and consequently no matter how hard you try to move into something more productive, you snap back like a released rubber band every time the planning guy comes round to update things.

The waterfall model is this: we need to do these things and then we will do these other things. And then we’ll be done.

The iterative model is this: we need to do this and this and this over and over until it’s done. And then we’ll be done.

The iterative model basically sticks all of your milestone objectives (say, requirements, design, code, and testing) inside one box shakes until complete. This has the downside of meeting all the milestones at once which frustrates waterfall planners to no end. And their software can’t cope with it so you can’t do it.

But if you do do it you reap huge rewards. See the thing is, even when you’re doing a waterfall project you are actually doing an iterative project. You’re just not admitting it. This makes the iterations very expensive and this increases resistance to iteration. This reduces the quality and makes me go berserk.

Embracing the iterative model means that you get the first milestone material out in a sufficient rather than complete fashion: you build just enough so that you can get on with the next bit. Then you do the same with the next bit, feeding back information gained to the previous bit and passing on you partial work to your next bit.  So the requirements guy is fixing requirements based on the design guy’s findings and the software guy is building some runnable code based on the design and feeding back his findings to design and the testing guy is building tests based on code that is actually running and feeding back his information. This requires great communication and can become chaotic and looks (and maybe is) unplannable, which terrifies many. However, here’s the upside: at any given time you are back with stuff that does something because that’s always your objective.

This echoes prettily off the “go play” and the “actual play” elements of some game design philosophies. In particular, a really great question to ask of any little mechanism is “how does it play?” In an iterative design, you always would have something ready to play. It might suck and you might already know it sucks, but you have enough to go to the table and shake some dice and know for sure how it sucks rather than speculating. In a waterfall design you hit the table with an enormous investment in untested ideas — going back to design or even requirements is daunting and can be personally hard. With that much invested, the admission of failure is expensive to the ego.

I see a lot of little ideas out there. A lot of them are extremely elaborate. Almost none of them have seen play. This is a dangerous place for a little idea, because the investment has outstripped the confidence one ought to have in it. This is a recipe for making bad decisions.

Sometimes people ask me what a game that’s in the works is “about”. This is a question about requirements, in a sense, and so while I have a gross idea going into a project, I expect it to be refined by play. This is why I find the question aggravating at almost every stage of development: it implies that I know this and that implies a waterfall model of development. That somehow we have a clear and concrete requirement list before we get rolling with everything else. That never happens for me.

What usually happens is I get a hankering for a certain kind of play. In the case of the No Contact flurry you’ve recently seen, that was a desire to recapture the feel of a very successful d20 Modern game we played once. What’s this game “about”? Well look up there because that’s all it’s about until something else happens.

So next I start writing mechanisms up. How will we actually play this? What variables will be important? What do I want to test out here? I will write enough to go to the table and play a game. That means at least: how do we define a guy and how do we have guys interact.

And next is play. Right fricking now. As soon as enough rules are in the wiki to do it. I play with myself a lot (lol) as early as possible, testing each gear in the mechanism, but it has to get to a table with at least two people as soon as possible. And this will imply new testing, changes to the mechanism, new mechanism to write, and revision of requirements. This phase goes on for a year.

This process is intellectually appealing in part because it reduces investment. Nothing gets a lot of work before hitting the table and so it’s hard to get too attached to anything (though it does happen) that’s not actually fun. It’s also appealing because it closes in on really co0l ideas by emphasizing discovery as well as invention: when emergent properties are discovered in a mechanism, this process is agile enough to exploit them heavily and also be equipped to talk about why and how it works. These results are important to me.

What this process does not do is tell you when you’re likely to be done. Or even if you’re likely to be done. You can bolt that on if you’re clever and motivated. So I hear.

Fortunately I don’t care about calendar milestones until there’s a vested interest from outside.

–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 5 2010

One year ago today-ish

August 7th will be the first anniversary of the sale of Diaspora. In point of fact, I put it on sale sometime around midnight on August 6th, but our first confirmed sale to someone who was not an author or an author’s mom was very early in the morning on August 7th. So we are coming up on a full year of Diaspora and that makes me feel pretty damned good. Here’s why.

We did it because it was fun to do. We loved the things that Spirit of the Century taught us even though we revised our SotC experience during play very heavily indeed. I like — even require — this part about role-playing games.  It’s part of the fun I have. I get the whole rules-as-written thing, especially as I get deeper into game design and find — paradoxically — that I have to play closer to rules as written than ever before. I sympathise. But I don’t think it’s as fun as hacking on the rules to make them fit the evening and I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation from role-playing game designers in most contexts (I would certainly exclude GM-less games from this, for example, for reasons I haven’t thought through yet but that I suspect are interesting).

Anyway, we hacked SotC and loved Traveller and so we birthed Spirit of the Far Future which was a lark and good fun and got played by us. Business as usual.

Then we learned about Lulu and the whole print-on-demand concept. And this meant we could go from hack to product with close to zero risk. We could hold a printed hardcover of our rules in our own hands! A real book!

And that was really it — it was a vanity product in the strictest sense. We’d make ourselves some books because that would be really cool and, because it was zero extra work, we’d let other people buy one if they wanted one. There is no interesting way in which this is a business here. It’s just a lark with a trophy at the end and an invitation for like-minded people to get themselves a copy.

As we got started on preparing the text for this, we realized that in making the product available, we actually were assuming some new ethical responsibilities as well as opening up new opportunities. There’s not really any such thing as casually offering something for sale at a profit. Profit being the key word there, and we were certainly thinking very early on that it would be nice to get a bottle of scotch out of the deal. So now we had to raise the bar on what we would sell customers — it had to be worth the money, and it was going to cost some money even if we made zero profit.

There also came the opportunity of being an author on a “real” book. By making it available for re-sale, having a genuine customer base, and registering the book with Library and Archives Canada with a real-live ISBN, we changed what we are to the world. We are authors in a legally binding sense (though what we are bound to is not much). If you go to the archives in Ottawa, you can see our book. You can borrow the loaner copy. We are part of the international acknowledgment of participation in the sum total of recorded human knowledge and art.

So are a few hundred million other people you never heard of. But still, it’s a kind of club and I’m happy to be a member.

Today we publish in hardcover and softcover. We have an electronic version. There are fan hacks all over the place that turn it into exactly what they want. Other people talk about its virtues and deficiencies in public places — they actually care enough about it to say something one way or the other. There are attackers and defenders — it’s a big enough deal to choose sides. That all makes me very proud.

As I write this we’ve sold over 1,500 copies. I don’t know exactly how many, but it’s close to and more than that. You can buy it in real stores or have it printed for you through Lulu or delivered to your computer by RPGNow. And we’ve obviously been working on some new projects now that we know we can do this if we want to. And we do.

I’ve talked before about the surprise at the initial success. I won’t tell that story again. We’re up for an ENnie for best rules, which the math suggests we can’t win (> 7000 voters and only 1500 copies sold suggest there just aren’t enough owners to compete) but I am blown away that the four of us were  nominated and want to thank all the little people. We’re all little people, just folks, doing stuff they want to do. My pals at the table, my grandfather for making me think creativity was intrinsically valuable, my father for making me feel duty in my guts, my mother, my sister, my enemies, my workmates…it all went into the machine that makes stuff.

Anyway, enough of the maudlin bullshit. We’ve brought in enough money to have to pay taxes and we’ve bought a lot more scotch than we expected to. We split the money four ways, so no one is quitting day jobs (or even night jobs for that matter), but we had huge fun making the book and even more talking with more and more people about playing the game with the book. It’s been a really swell year that’s made me feel better about gaming and about myself than many prior years. If it’s always like this then I will always publish games.

It’s got a great beat and I can dance to it. I give it a 9. Would go again.

–BMurray


Jul 20 2010

The New Media

I’ve talked — okay really I’ve gone on and on — about  the way that publishing is changing and also about how gaming is in a position to take the vanguard in these changes, at least in part because we have limited ties to traditional methods in the first place. Sure there are still the “big boys” out there who do things the usual way, and sure there are still a lot of very small publishers still entrenched in the print-run-investment model, but gamers seem to be fast to explore new media. Now that has implicit risk, too, because sometimes experiments result in answers like, “no”, which means that while the bleeding edge explorers tend to have an open mind about trying new things, they (we) also go through new things like toilet paper, leaving a lot of guesses swirling down the can.

The VSCA has adopted a very low-risk model for its business, which happens to align nicely with new technology. Now, just this morning I was reading about another new technology and then remembering an old conversation, and I ot a little synergistic flash in my head that thrilled me because it implied that I might be able to dick around with fun stuff even more than I already do. This is a good sign, because I am more likely to do something if it’s fun.

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the VSCA made available on a reasonably fast schedule (monthly say) its current design state for all projects, as well as a few blue collar space articles, and some other stuff, hopefully containing a complete (small) game every time? By small game I mean like a subsystem for something in development, but repackaged as a small stand-alone idea. And what if it was in colour and available digitally or print on demand? I’m thinking somewhere between 24 and 96 pages, delivered regularly, purcased either per-unit or by subscription.

I’m not really approaching this idea as something I think anyone wants, yet (which is why I phrase all this as a giant question) but rather as something that sounds fun to do and has been enabled by recent changes in technology and position — I’m thinking specifically here about Magcloud‘s recent announcement that they have an iPad app pending and that they will be giving stuff away for a while.

So we’re talking here about leveraging (actually I see our methods at VSCA as more parasitical, but “leverage” leverages Leverage, which is hot right now, even though I haven’t seen it yet) someone elses work (Magcloud making an iPad app to deliver colourful content with option to print, with them managing all the customer interaction and just sending us a cheque) so that I can do only the fun parts. And this, as I’ve said before, is how technology and capitalism work together to empower pocket socialists like me, turning my leisure into Scotch.

This would enable us to produce Diaspora supplements, for example, by putting them in a concise format that still has a profitable delivery mechanism, and that is super appealing to me. I’ve avoided supplements so far mostly because the document needs to be above a certain size to make sense turning into product, but if it’s part of (even the largest part of) a magazine format, then that’s solved. It can be as large or as small as the idea is. And I’m keen on Diaspora supplements.

What do you think? Could this be a new way to make games? See, I could see Diaspora broken up into distinct stand-alone pieces that together make an awesome game. If you got those pieces one at a time, would you be happy? If you came to the complete game having played the platoon-scale game for a few weeks and a couple of social fights already, would your experience be better or worse? Now naturally this doesn’t preclude more traditional (if you can call our parasitic method traditional) publication, but rather would augment it. Maybe customers on the subscription list get a discount. Or maybe I figure if you spent $50 on magazines then you already bought a game and I mail it to you. I dunno yet and I’m not promising anything.

But I am thinking real hard, and grinning.

–BMurray


Jun 7 2010

Even better POD

So I’ve talked about POD before and how it’s been a great choice for us, and yet the current implementations leave a lot to be desired if you happen to get popular. In particular, the role-playing game world suffers and as it’s a tiny niche, it’s not likely to get serviced by the big guys.

Here’s the problem. I want to sell you books. I don’t want to warehouse books and I don’t want to do fulfillment and all that. I just want to create a book as an electronic entity and sell it to you as a real, physical, and ideally beautiful, book. What’s cool is that for the most part you want to buy this book. So it seems like we’re all good here. Enter the niche.

My best choice for this sort of riskless sale is Lulu. I just send them the data and sit back. They sell you books and send me a cheque. Problem is, Lulu customers are not mostly about role-playing games or even games in general. They are mostly about fiction. So it doesn’t seem to be the case that there is a lot of browsing going on at Lulu that ends up in a sale of my book, and that’s a problem — if I can only sell to people who already know they want my book, then I’m missing what I expect is a crapton of “opportunity sales”. That is, sales to people who know they want to buy something but don’t know exactly what. In a perfect world they stumble around in a place rich with possibilities and spot my book and buy it. Lulu is not this place.

A partial solution here is to supply to vendors. The downside of this is that now I have to get involved in pre-printing and fulfillment. First in small quantities to the small number of vendors who are willing to buy in volumes that make it worth my while (my margins are tight). Then maybe large volumes to a third party (like IPR, say) who can supply to vendors in a more appealing fashion (it still pays for them to buy in volume but they don’t have to absorb the risk of buying ten of my book — they can buy two of mine and two of another and two of yet another, and so on). Anyway, that’s all part of the business I am not interested in.

Enter RPG Now (Drivethru RPG, One Bookshelf, etc.) and their POD service. This is finally a real POD service. Real for me, anyway. The fact that it doesn’t quite exist yet does not bother me. Here’s what they are promising to do that no one else does, and that makes me very happy indeed.

They are promising high quality. As they will be printing through Lightning Source (a self-proclaimed POD service, but very much a first-generation one that has no storefront for authors and a clear preference for dealing with “real” publishers), a company that has very high quality standards, I am confident they can achieve this. We’ll be getting draft copies to verify this quality so we’ll know for sure soon enough. But I have high confidence. So far this is ground already covered by Lulu.

They are promising that the product will be a first-class product at RPG Now. That means that it will be part of the same publisher’s infrastructure there and that’s cool because it is super powerful — not only is the reporting to the author good, but also the capacity to bundle is there (and isn’t at Lulu, and that’s a big deal). So I can offer book + PDF at a bargain. I can offer all my books. I can offer all my books by a certain author. I can bundle with other vendors (one day there could be an “all FATE hardcover” bundle, say). Awesome.

They are promising that they will be able to offer vendor pricing to vendor accounts. This puts them in direct competition with IPR for this sort of item — if a vendor can browse and pick and choose in a way that might include my book, I am ecstatic. This will satisfy a very large number of vendors that I cannot satisfy right now. This is a new market.

RPG Now already has a reputation amongst gamers — it’s already a place that gamers go to browse. So this opens up my hardcopy to opportunity sales in two ways (site browsing as well as increased brick and mortar presence).

All of this smells too good to be true, but the fact is that most of this is just a user interface improvement over what Lulu does and so RPG Now seems to be aiming at taking the same (or less) out of the margin between print cost and sale that Lulu does. So for me, the publisher, the margin remains roughly the same. Selling to vendors can be similarly no different than, say, IPR as far as margin goes, assuming I pre-printed stock through Lightning Source or somewhere similarly inexpensive.

Okay so RPG Now wants to do all the work that I don’t want to do and they want to get paid such that I make the same margin I ever did. At the same time they want to vastly improve my options for bundling and make everything I publish available to an existing browsing audience. They have basically taken my IPR and Lulu defect list and made it their feature list.

Sign me up.

–BMurray