Indie Roleplaying Gives Up the Dream

May 23, 2008

I was just talking to my brother on the phone. He just became co-editor of Top Shelf Comics’ new webcomics imprint, meaning he can leave his other half-time job and work in comics full-time. It’s interesting, now that one of the Walton boys has achieved “the dream” of making a living working in a creative field, I’m left reflecting on how “the dream” seems less and less applicable to roleplaying.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a career in roleplaying or comics. Putting aside comics, making a career in roleplaying now seems ridiculous to me. I’m not sure why I would want to do that. It would be a lot of work for meager return, whether it was through freelancing for major companies or trying to make it as a full-time independent publisher. And I think I would like game design and publishing much less if I was depending on it to make ends meet.

Webcomics (and up-and-coming creative types in print comics) are dominated by college students and twenty somethings, most of whom hope to make a career out of comics. They’re willing to eat Kraft dinner for months just to make it through art school and possibly get a shot at being the next Craig Thompson.

Indie roleplaying, in contrast, is dominated by late-20s-to-middle-aged cats who already have a career. Maybe some kids too. They’re not going to abandon financial security to try to make a living from independent game publishing. Even folks like Brennan Taylor, the owner of Indie Press Revolution, has smartly chosen to not try to turn his indie games distributing business into a career. Of course, there are some folks who haven’t given up “the dream” and are, in fact, living it. Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen, and Thor Olavsrud come to mind (though I’m not sure if Thor hopes to someday turn his editorial gig with the game-producing wing of Archaia Studios Press into a full-time thing). However, I think, in the main, indie roleplaying is dominated by folks who don’t necessarily need to view game publishing as a means of generating income, because they have a “real” job that provides fairly well.

And where does this lead… to the de-professionalization of roleplaying game design and publishing, where people treat their game design work (correctly, I would argue) as a hobby and not a career. This has all sorts of ramifications. Making money is secondary. Sales numbers stop being the main measure of “success.” Maybe creative works are shared freely instead of sold, because that extra bit of income isn’t as important. There’s no need to beg for mainstream media coverage. There’s no reason to evangelically expand roleplaying to the masses. There’s no reason to care about the decline of the industry.

And… these are all going in the opposite direction that comics is currently headed in, where even independent comics are becoming a big business complete with movie deals and full-time editors for free webcomics imprints. Sure, it’s still possible that someone like Wizards or White Wolf will decide to start an independent imprint for boutique games (Mongoose’s tragic Flaming Cobra experiment is a debacle that’s not at all capable of seizing on the promise of indie game publishing) or that some meta-indie publisher will rise up and turn indie gaming into a heavily-commercialized section of the market. If the money starts pouring in, I imagine some folks will line up to cash out, because, why not? Might as well. I’m still waiting to see what happens when the first indie roleplaying property gets licensed for a major motion picture. Then the Powers That Be will start paying attention. (Is it a coincidence that Random House has a comics imprint now? I doubt it.)

But, as things are moving now, indie roleplaying has, in effect, given up on “the dream” of game publishing as a full-time career. We don’t want it. I like my job, personally, and I wouldn’t give it up to develop games, unless a major company was going to hire me to edit a boutique imprint. Even then, it would be a hard choice. What’s the health plan like? (Honestly, they don’t want me anyway; they want Evil Hat, who are more invested in doing crossover work with indie style but mainstream appeal.) More importantly, I’m not working towards the dream and I’m not seeking it out. I’m getting on with my life but staying committed to working on and publishing games on the side, because, you know, why not? It’s fun.

And so it everyone else I know. Interesting.

7 Responses to “Indie Roleplaying Gives Up the Dream”

  1. Fred Hicks Says:

    You’re also committed to games publishing as noncommercial, so you’re sort of dodging the whole money making venture thing in the first place, right?

    Right now IPR at least affords to pay me a part-time (quarter-time) salary for my customer service/etc work. I don’t have a day job (that isn’t Evil Hat), but my wife does, and that’s what keeps the household financially afloat at the moment.

    I guess I am still pursuing “the dream”, though, even if that mainly means the ability to pay myself McDonald’s wages and take advantage of my wife’s employer’s spousal health coverage. I think it’s possible for others to do so too, but it’s at least somewhat predicated on the notion of having a fairly solid volume of products (look at Gareth from Adamant Entertainment). Evil Hat needs to build up a significant catalog if we’re going to manage that, with each product’s long tail ultimately aggregating in enough steady income.

    But that’s a lot of work, and a lot of product, and you’ve got to invest a fair amount of time and money up front to get within striking distance of it.

    And lots of indie publishing is focused on low budget, high quality, low quantity/volume, high time investment for development products. Wrap all those factors up in a bundle and it’s frickin tough to find your way clear to anything like steady cash-flow.

    Luke kicks Evil Hat’s butt here because he’s a true machine for getting a new Burning game out every year. Evil Hat right now is just taking too friggin long between products. If *I* want the dream, I’m gonna have to push EHP to the point of getting more regular — even if that’s just “annually” — with our product lines.

    And that probably sounds like death to a lot of indie designers, right out the gate. So I gotta wonder, was the dream really ever there for most of us in the first place? Maybe not, in a practical, achievable sense.

  2. If the barriers to publishing are lowered (they are) and we encourage more and more people to publish (we seem to), then the expectation should be a wider range of types of publishers. If making money is optional, then you’d expect to see a lot more people putting things out there for the joy of it, since they won’t be too badly financially punished for it. Back in the day, running a company like it was your personal tool of expression was probably a bad idea. Today, running a gaming imprint in your spare time just to collect and share your ideas is pretty sweet.

    That doesn’t mean that everyone should stop trying to make money; I just think that as more people get into the “market,” you won’t see any more people making any more of a living from it than you would have seen in a more sparse situation. Instead, we just have a greater variety of viable business models, including non-commercial ones.

    All which said, I still think that the rpg market’s problems are marketing problems. If there was a National Roleplaying Council that could buy ad space on network TV for rebranding purposes (“Got Roleplay?” “Roleplay: it’s not just for breakfast any more.” “Roleplay: the fabric of our lives.”) and hire lobbyists to introduce and support favorable legislation and bribe studios to release movies and tv shows that portray roleplaying in a favorable and hip light, then it’s possible that (if we had the right products for them) traditionally non-playing folks will flock to the hobby like mad.

    Okay, I admit: Settlers of Catan proves that sometimes, you only need the right product.

    Either way, if there were better mechanisms for finding (creating!) the people who would enjoy playing each individual game, then there’d be a lot more money in the hobby for everyone. The Long Tail is super-great when you’re talking about broadly popular products that lots and lots of people potentially might want, but not-board-or-video-games are still a specialty item that plenty of folks would never think of buying. Like Mr. Hicks says: you’d need a large catalog of product.

    Speaking as someone who has almost no hope at all of making a living off such things, I want to say that I do disagree with one specific point: even if there’s no money in it, I still feel that I need to appropriate other media and convert people en masse to the hobby, etc. I just think that people would be better off if they were able to make a fully informed decision about what kinds of play to include in their lives.

  3. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Fred, I totally agree with you on most of those points. Honestly, though, it isn’t like I didn’t try the commercial track first. I did and ultimately decided that path to the dream wasn’t going to work for me, based on a variety of factors.

    I think it’s totally cool that you’re committed to making this work for you, even if you’re making McDonald’s wages right now. That’s admirable, but, yeah, from my own perspective, it’s fascinating how many people have intentionally moved away from that model of trying to make their hobby into a full-time gig and seem relatively satisfied with just pursuing it on a part-time, near-volunteer basis.

    And, yes, that’s partially determined by our development model, which takes too long to really create steady income of really substantial amounts (unless you’re Luke). But our development model was developed out of certain principles and preferences, right? It’s not like it’s accidental that we’re committed to the small, high quality, high investment model.

    So, yeah, the dream may never have really been there for us, but I think many people are only starting to really come to grips with that, due to our baggage about what being a “real game designer and publisher” has traditionally involved. And by “us” I mean “me, at least.”

  4. Fred Hicks Says:

    I hear ya. I don’t think we’re on a different page in terms of seeing the picture — I just wanted to shine some light on some other parts of it. 🙂

  5. I gave up being an artist professionally due to financial and family responsibilities. My full time job is extremely rewarding. But if I was to publish something (commercially or not), I would want as many people as possible exposed to that work, representing as many different ages, classes, and cultural backgrounds as I can connect with. Preferably using it vs. collecting it. Especially by non-role players. I can’t fully learn from my work otherwise, it would feel too incestual.

    Almost every time I play an RPG with someone new, I learn something. Especially with people who have never played before. I’ve seen many rules (published and unpublished) that look amazing on paper but don’t survive playing with those not indoctrinated into our hobby or familiar with current trends.

    I don’t need to make money from this pursuit. I would pay for the privilege!

    So even though I don’t care about indie RPG as a career, or the status of the industry… I do care about expanding the hobby and positive mainstream media coverage would be awesome.

    That all being said. I do feel that in at least North America, if you gain benefit from something, you should reward that benefit somehow. And that people who excel at their craft should be rewarded. Just because I am in the current financial position where I don’t need the reward doesn’t mean I don’t think others shouldn’t have it.


  6. misuba Says:

    It should maybe be factored into this discussion that top-caliber comics take a lot more time to make than top-caliber RPGs, so the people who spend that time maybe need to justify it with a potential reward.

  7. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Misuba: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Many webcomics get by on just doing a page every few days, just the same amount of investment as your average indie rpg. And there are some top caliber ones (like clipart strips like “Get Your War On” and “Dinosaur Comics”) that took far less time to put together than most indie rpgs I can think of.

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