Jan 9 2012

Bundle of joy

No, no one at my home is pregnant.

However, over at RPGNow there is a great bundle of games that happens to include Hollowpoint (and Deluge for that matter). It also has a bunch of titles from independent developers that you likely haven’t heard of. Have you heard of the game, My Cat is on Fire? Toypocalypse? They are all in there. It’s about $50 worth of games for $25.


Here’s the full list of what’s in there:

Hollowpoint from VSCA Publishing
Deluge from VSCA Publishing
Toys for the Sandbox: Apothacary from Occult Moon
Mi Gato se Incendia! (My Cat is on Fire!) by Benjamin Gerber
Argyle & Crew: Adventures in the Land of Skcos and two new scenarios by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s Magical Accouterments for Creatures Great and Small by Benjamin Gerber
Mirkmoot’s More Magical Mayhem for Creatures Small and Great by Benjamin Gerber
Shadow, Sword & Spell: Under Pashuvanam’s Lush from Rogue Games, Inc.
Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional by Jess Hartley
Instant Antagonist: The Creepy Cottontail from FR Press
Open Core Roleplaying System Classic from Battlefield Press
Toypocalypse from Top Rope Games
Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson
Kicking Historical Asses from Machine Age Productions
Homicidal Transients from Left of the Moon Games

Oh yeah — this is only good until the end of January! We can hardly call it the new year after that.


Apr 25 2011


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

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


I already said I haven’t thought much about design. But I have thought a little and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be working on Diamondback, a supplement for Diaspora. This came out of a discussion on 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.


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

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


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

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


Jan 27 2011

Fishy marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jan 26 2011

Do I change the V in VSCA?

I haven’t spoken a lot about games lately because I haven’t been thinking about them very hard. Even at the table on Thursday nights, I’ve been coasting — just playing, having a good time, and not thinking too hard about how things work, why they fail, and what that means for any given game design that the VSCA has in the works. There are several excellent reasons for this.

First, there are no VSCA games that are currently in deep thought stages. There’s Hollowpoint, which I am laying out now and so any deep though about it is likely to derail the release. Better not to think about it. Chimaera is still pretty nebulous and needs detailed work from others, so I’m not thinking about that. Soft Horizon is in a strange state that I interpret as needing time alone with itself — I am confident that when I come back to it I will see some simple ways to fix it and then there will be an explosion of new words.

Next there’s the fact that I am not getting a lot of non-fiction reading done during my commute, and non-fiction is what usually fuels thought about games and consequently blog posts.

The most important culprit, though, is work. I’ve been working with a research and development team in the field of transport automation for many years now, and for the past three or so the entire team has been in our Toronto office. Except me. I’m in Vancouver.

I love Vancouver but I also love my work, and working with a team of smart dedicated people over several thousand miles and a bunch of time zones just plain sucks. I discovered this for sure last winter when I went to Toronto for two weeks to wrap up some work that needed physical attention on real hardware and I had a blast. I had more fun and got more done than any two month period here in Vancouver. The energy of working right with the rest of the team was very high and reminded me of my early days in the business when I was packed with enthusiasm about everything. And I realized that was because I was surrounded by people sensitive to enthusiasm and so there was an amplifying effect. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

People in Toronto have been trying to get me to move out there for at least six years now and I have always resisted. There are a lot of reasons for that — my girl’s health has not been stellar, for example — but chief amongst them is simple inertia. I hate to change direction.

Now, though, I see that I have basically come to a complete stop and so changing direction is not really an issue. I need to get moving again and re-energize myself for the sake of my work. And so, sometime in mid-April, I will be moving with my wife and animals to Toronto in order to work directly with my R&D team.

I understand there are people in Toronto who play games, so I’m not too worried about building a new table of smart people, but I deeply regret having to leave the one I’m at now. We have a lot of unfinished business (right up there in the second paragraph) and, although of course we can play by IRC or Skype or whatever, I don’t want to design games that predominantly play well in those media and that’s what would happen. I want face-to-face social gaming to work and so that’s really how I have to test it.

Obviously (I think) everyone sees themselves as the center of the universe. I am no exception, and so I have some fear that the gaming group will be unable to sustain itself without my binding and brilliant presence. I don’t know that this fear is unfounded (certainly as far as location goes, my place seems the most amenable for everyone, but that can be fixed) but I am trying to let that go — whether or not the gang keeps gaming together is up to them and for their own reasons. I hope they do, and not least because the opportunity to remove myself from the playtest results is very appealing as an experimental methodology. Nonetheless, I instinctively see myself as indispensable and in a way this is a challenge to them to make it not true.

It’s a challenge to me, as well, because I don’t like people very much. I also love them, but I am very good at finding faults that cannot be (in my eyes) redeemed as a way to excuse myself for opting out of social events that aren’t completely wonderful all the time. So finding a new group will have its own challenges — getting this group perfected took more than 30 years. I like challenges, though, so I hope to rise to it.

The bottom line, though, is that a third of my life is asleep and a third is at work, and of the remaining third only about a tenth is gaming. That’s a thirtieth of my world and I can’t really let that dictate the third it impacts. So it’s a very hard decision (obviously you want to weight those fractions — that thirtieth becomes very heavy because I dearly love my table) but I think in the end a clear one. And so I signed my relocation offer yesterday with the full support of my wife and lover and closest friend, and it’s a done deal.

By April I will be inflicting myself on the Greater Toronto Area. Lock up your gamers.


Jan 4 2011

Crystal Balls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Aug 24 2010

Getting lucky, looking smart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Thanks, M. Boulet.

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.

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.


Jul 26 2010

What would be in Highport?

Okay that was fun. All the fiddling with my Terrible Grant, I mean. I’m jazzed about layout and typography and stuff relevant to this Highport idea. But is there anything to it? What would go in one of these? Who would get paid and how? What would it cost an end user?

Maybe those should be looked at one at a time. Is there anything to it? Sure. I could be persuaded to generate or acquire and edit content on a relatively frequent basis and fiddle with amusing software to get it done. I’m cool with that. So it’s certainly feasible.

What would go in one of these? That’s the kind of thing that makes lists in my head! So here’s one:

  • A Diaspora cluster in some detail. Not everyone feels creative all the time. Detail might include common equipment and maybe military structure ready for use in platoon combat. Ships? Sure! This is already looking like something that could easily span multiple issues actually.
  • A new game. I remember photocopying Dragon magazines and chopping that up to build my Snit Smashing boardgame. Making something like that happen regularly would thrill me.
  • Preview upcoming VSCA titles. Things like our space combat free PDF release could be stuck in a VSCA magazine.

Obviously I’m thinking mostly about concrete, playable content and not editorial material. Some of this is stuff fans have already been asking for, so it would be cool to be able to fork it over. I can’t see it as being very art-heavy, frankly, but rather more of a nuts and bolts periodical manual for actual play. Tables, charts, diagrams, rules, and enough fluff to get you thinking about how to use it in your game. Very little more. It would look sharp but austere on your iPad.

Who would get paid and how? See now that’s a good question because it’s not sustainable as a single-person effort. As Bob implied earlier, the clone army is not yet ready. But there are some kick-ass game designers and other creative folks withing a few dozen blocks of me and many more within reach of the interwebs. So I’m thinking of some kind of flat fee for a usage license with VSCA not owning the content. So basically I would pay a contributor (of art or writing or whatever) for the right to publish, but they would retain all rights to their content. I thought about doing a royalty thing but honestly I’m just not interested in the accounting.

What would it cost the end user? Well this is interesting. I’m exploring Magcloud because they already do the full-colour magazine thing using a model I like, but also because they have an iPad app and that’s really what I want to get in on: delivery by iPad. Also paper — I love paper — but PDFs can look so damned good on this thing that I am compelled to show you. With product. Currently Magcloud offers content through the app for free with a click-option to purchase the hardcopy. Things looks os bloody good on the device, though, that I’m afraid that’s ass-backwards — it almost makes more sense to sell some kind of ownership and charge a minor printing and shipping fee for hardcopies. Anyway, they will sort that out and if I’m working with them on this I’ll be providing vocal input. They’ll work something out. So there are a few models that would intersect with the Magcloud method:

  • Charge the base rate + profit on the Magcloud hardcopy. When they let me charge for the app delivery, charge a base rate + profit. This is least interesting to me, partially because in soliciting art and writing I incur risk and hope to get paid from the Magcloud revenues. This smells old-school.
  • Kickstart each issue and use a fraction of that money as budget for the issue and a fraction as profit. Release the PDF for free, selling through Magcloud at the minimum possible (just the Magcloud costs basically) for hardcopy and iPadd app release. This is pretty appealing (zero risk, leveraging technology) obviously.
  • Some combination of the above.

Anyway that’s what I’m thinking. I like the visual austerity of Diaspora 1 and would be aiming at that + colour to really take advantage of the iPad as delivery system. This would not be a magazine you buy for the cool artwork. Lots of folks do that already. I want to produce game-stuff. Shitloads of it.


  1. Apparently I will use lots of bullet lists too, judging by this article.

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.