Promises You Can't Keep

July 27, 2008

Something’s bothering me, so I thought I’d lay it out. This is something that hit me square between the eyes in my early forays into game publishing, but I see many other folks facing similar challenges. The basic principle I’ve come to, through trial and error, is this: Don’t promise people anything before you have it in your hands to give to them. Here’s some ways in which it manifests in roleplaying publishing…

Pre-Publication Buildup: Once upon a time, there was a guy named Jonathan who got so excited about this project he was working on, called Argonauts, that he published a huge description of it in Matt Snyder’s online indie gaming zine, Daedalus. He also paid this awesome artist named Antti to do eight illustrations for the game. And then… the game never came together. A year or two later, John Harper published Agon, which semi-wittingly carried some of the spirit of Argonauts, but the original game idea will probably never materialize. By this point, I’ve stopped getting emails asking when it’s coming out, but that was a semi-regular occurrence for a while.

More recently, in Ken Hite’s article in the GenCon 2007 convention book, he told people that they should all stop by the Forge Booth to pick up a copy of Push 2, because I’d expected the volume to be out by then. Now, a year later… still no Push 2 (it’ll happen when it happens). I hope I’ve learned my lesson in this regard.

I’ve also paid money for artwork and then never finished the game the artwork is for. This has happened… four times, if you count Bethany’s cover for Push 2. Definitely a mistake that I hope I’ve learned from.

Pre-Orders: This can be, in all sorts of ways, much worse for a new publishers (or even an old hand publisher) than jumping the gun on promotional efforts. For example, it was just recently announced that West End Games is apparently shutting down, partially because they took all these pre-orders for a product that never ended up materializing and kept be badgered by folks who wanted their money back and were angry at the lack of a product on schedule. Other companies have also gotten a lot of bad press by taking fans’ money long before a product appeared, such as Aetherco over Chi-Chian or EOS over a number of their announced products.

This even affects indie games, as exemplified by the Bliss Stage pre-order, which promised a full-color, 200p version of the game by Dec 2007. Currently, it looks like Ben will be lucky to have it out by Dec 2008. Ben’s unlikely to get the kind of flack that West End got, becaue the culture surrounding indie games is pretty different, but, still, pre-orders hardly ever take into account that the situation can change drastically.

I was just talking to Elizabeth, whose upcoming game, It’s Complicated is facing the little road-to-publication obstacles that nearly every product faces, exacerbated by the fact that she was pressured into the “pre-order + GenCon” publishing model/schedule at the last minute by a bunch of other indie game designers who I’m sure had the best intentions. But trying to deliver on her original pre-order promise amidst changing circumstances has become incredibly stressful for her. Likewise, Shreyas has also done the same thing, but I’m doing layout for Mist-Robed Gate and if the book is ready for GenCon, it’ll only be by the skin of our teeth.

In general, this is not good for us, for the indie game community, for our stress levels, and for the satisfaction of people who play our games and rightly expect to hold us to our promises. Sure, if you want to run a pre-order for a game that will be out “eventually,” then hopefully folks will have flexible expectations, but, in general, I think, it would be better for us to refrain from making promises we may not be able to keep, period.

64 Responses to “Promises You Can't Keep”

  1. Matthijs Says:

    It’s hard to say for sure, of course, but don’t you think there are some designers/publishers who’d never finish their games if they hadn’t somehow promised to do so?

  2. Ben Lehman Says:

    Hey, Jonathan:
    Color cover (not interior) and no promises about page length. Please don’t move the bar any higher: it’s rough enough already.

    And there’s a prime difference with West End and me: Everyone who has asked for a refund has gotten one from me. It still sucks (and there’s definitely a lesson about publishing anything that depends on other people’s work) but I’m not running off with anyone’s money.

    At this point, I’m considering just doing a refund to everyone, and leaving open the early supporter benefits (future products at cost or near-cost) as a thank you.

    yrs–
    –Ben

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Matthijs is right about that; It’s Complicated would probably be languishing while I got distracted by Homecoming or Thousand-Leaved Grass, were it not for the pressure of GenCon and the good-natured harassment from my friends and peers.

    Still, the stress sucks. Shreyas asked me if I needed a beer at 10 AM today. I’d been awake for like 15 minutes, and was saddened to realize we were out.


  4. Matthijs: It’s possible, but it definitely hasn’t worked in my case. More stress, for me, just makes me shut down and avoid a project (like Push 2, for example) that is causing me anguish. Sometimes I’ve seen buying art for games as a promise to get myself to finish them, thinking: “If I have money invested in this, it will definitely get done.” In fact, it’s generally been the opposite.

    Also, not finishing games is also cool, y’know? Personally, I have a ton of projects that will never be finished — many of them for very good reasons. Some of them I’m sitting on until I have the necessary skills to do them justice. I really, really hate the pressure to always turn any halfway finished game into a polished commercial product.

    Ben: Sorry, I wasn’t meaning to raise the bar. I know Bliss Stage has been stressing you out and I’m not trying to put additional pressure on you, just question the whole model of pre-orders, and Bliss Stage was the best outstanding example I could think of.

    Elizabeth: Yeah, I had to buy a six-pack on the way home yesterday because I was stressed out and needed a beer. Hope the stress lets up soon!

  5. Ben Lehman Says:

    Oh, yes. It was definitely a mistake, and I sincerely hope that other people can learn from my mistakes.

    Here’s the lessons of Bliss Stage:

    1) Never take a pre-order for something that you do not have the capacity to produce, yourself, if everyone else involved flakes out on you.

    2) Never take a pre-order with free shipping included before calling the post office to check in about shipping costs.

    3) Never announce two editions of a game simultaneously. Especially don’t do this the same year that Paul decides to popularize publishing and selling your unfinished games. Everyone will assume that your game is unfinished, and not play or buy it.

    4) If you do screw up, try to confront it in a timely manner, rather than running and hiding.


  6. Honestly, when you did the original pre-order, I was stunned at how cheap it was priced. I expected to pay $36 for the 200p color cover edition by itself, you know? Especially with shipping. Like, that’s about what SOTC costs, yeah?

    The non-play of ashcans or things that are assumed to be ashcans is definitely an emerging issue, similar to the “Why don’t people want to playtest my game?” issue that Anna and Brennan faced earlier this year. I’m not sure yet what we can do about that, but I’ve been thinking about it too.

    Of course, the non-play of free games, even finished ones, is another issue and more my personal battle.

  7. Nathan P. Says:

    Yeh, there’s a reason I’ve been keeping details of the Annalise rollout close to the chest. It’s all that same stuff, and it’s lame when your hobby starts stressing you out.

    One thing I’m learning is that there’s a damn good reason for people who have a financial investment in booths at Gen Con to get new products out for Gen Con – so that you have something new to drive traffic to your booth so you don’t lose a bunch of money on the whole damn thing.

  8. shreyas Says:

    “Ashcan” has already become a slur. Every time I hear it I am disgusted.

  9. Judd Says:

    Shreyas…

    *Judd gives you a look like, he loves you but thinks you are full of shit*


  10. Nathan: Hell yeah. GenCon is expensive. If you’re not there to sell 50+ copies of your new game… honestly, I’m beginning to think it’s not worth going. Which means that next year I may be hitting Dreamation instead. I mean, yeah, I’m willing to blow some money on my hobby, but wasting money is something else.

    Shreyas: I’m not sure I agree. I mean, yeah, not all ashcans have been spectacular, but there have also been really terrible versions of supposedly finished games that were nigh-unplayable. What I’m more worried it’s come to mean is something like: “I wanted to get this done for GenCon, but didn’t really have time, so I’m putting out a half-baked version instead.” Which is different than: “This is something I’m working on, but want feedback on, because I’m still processing it.”

  11. robertbohl Says:

    I want to chime in with a “me too” on pressure helping. I need a goad to get me to do things and while there has been some stress, having that goad means that Misspent Youth happened at last*. I’m very happy for that pressure now.

    This is not to say that your point isn’t well-taken. It is. It’s a dangerous game to promise things.

    * In ASHCAN form, anyway.

  12. Guy Shalev Says:

    Hm, people not playing Ashcans after buying them is odd to me.

    At least at last year’s Ashcan booth, they were pretty up-front about it, buy it if you plan to provide feedback about it.

    Since I knew I’m unlikely to play the games, I didn’t buy them, even though I was really interested in a couple.

  13. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    Hey guys,

    I know your pain. We experienced it early on (Magic Burner anyone?). Jared learned the same thing with Eight, a game people were talking about as early as 2002. I think most people have stopped asking about it at this point.

    We still do preorders, but not until we’ve sent the files to the printer.

    We also generally don’t announce what a product is until the preorder goes live. (Mouse Guard is an exception, but that was out of our control, which is another lesson learned.)

    The late announcement definitely makes it harder to market (if you care about that sort of thing), but it does help keep you from making promises that might not be kept.

    Unfortunately, it also interferes with the idea of public development, which has a lot of traction in our community (I still remember being really jazzed by reading about John Wick’s development of Orkworld at The Gaming Outpost). Designers have to decide for themselves which way they want to deal with that issue; there are no easy choices.


  14. Guy: Well, a lot of folks are releasing ashcans or things that resemble ashcans (Poison’d?) without necessarily marking them as such or doing it through the Ashcan Front. Poison’d sold almost 100 copies on Vincent’s name alone, just at GenCon. Stuff like that, where ashcans are sold more or less like finished games, makes them more like pre-release versions of games or quickstarts, or used for small, rush, unplaytested things like XXXXtreme Street Luge. But that just seems to push the “go to print” step of publishing earlier in the development process.

    Thor: Surely public development is still possible without making promises, yeah? For example, I post about the development of Geiger Counter here all the time, but I haven’t claimed to know when it will be coming out or started pre-orders or anything. I mean, sure, I wouldn’t start a column on it’s development at RPGnet, but hopefully that’s not really necessary anymore? I’m not sure.


  15. Thor, those are good perspective points, thanks for sharing!

    Public development is something that doesn’t work for me, and I don’t like breaking promises, so I’m definitly turning towards the don’t-breath-a-word-until-it’s-ready side of things.

    I’m already sick of explaining how Annalise isn’t an ashcan.

  16. Matt Snyder Says:

    Pre-orders are fucking wrong for EVERYONE. There I said it. Sell shit when you have something to sell. (For examples, see above.)

    -Matt “I’ll pre-order my games over my dead body” Snyder

    P.S. Shreyas, yer mother’s an ashcan.

  17. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    Jonathan: Absolutely. There are all sorts of different ways to address the issue.

    I think every designer is going to have to strike the balance for himself or herself. The downside of doing it publicly is that you will still get the questions about when something is going to be ready, and you’ll still disappoint the people who get excited by the idea if you end up dropping it later. The upside is excitement that can help push you over a hump if you run into difficulties, and general buzz doesn’t hurt either, especially if you’re hunting for playtesters.

    There are ways to keep everything quiet until you’re ready, but still let people inside the development process. When we were working on Burning Empires, I kept meticulous notes on our process and conversations and then wrote a multipart article about what we did, step by step.

    It doesn’t have quite the intimacy or energy of allowing people into the process as it’s happening, but it is one way to go about it.


  18. Nathan: Why do you think people assume Annalise is an ashcan? Has it already become the norm for games to go through that step?

    Thor: From what you’re saying, it seems like one of the most important factors is the size and nature of your audience, yeah?

    The Magic Burner has been rabidly awaited by the massive horde of BW fans for several years. In that kind of environment, developing it quietly in-house makes a lot more sense, because if you hit serious roadblocks and had to put it off for another year, most fans would never know about it and wouldn’t be writhing in agony and sending hatemail. Likewise, open development at a place like White Wolf would similarly be a disaster.

    For me… it’s totally different. Like, if the final Geiger Counter gets delayed another 2 years, even, the people who really love it, like Ben, Ping, and Amnesiac up in Seattle, they’ll just keep playing and refining the free playtest version of the rules and no one else will care.

    And Ben’s situation with Bliss Stage is somewhere in between those two extremes.

  19. Jmstar Says:

    People who have done or are doing pre-orders, I’m curious about your motivation. I’ve heard some people use the revenue to fund the initial print run; what other reasons are there for you?

  20. Nathan P. Says:

    I did a pre-order for carry. It almost paid for the first print run, so that was cool. HOWEVER, I was already in the printing process before the preorder started – I was going to print them either way, but preorders enabled me to keep a consistent cash flow across that whole summer, and it gave me a good guage for how much interest there was in the game (I learned that a lot of people from overseas were interested in it, for example, and to this day the game sells prety well in Europe).

    For Annalise, I think because I’m doing multiple versions of the game over time, the assumption has been that the first version is an ashcan. It didn’t help that I framed it as “this version will be available at DexCon, and then another one will be at Gen Con”. It seems to have been widely read as “there will be an Ashcan at DexCon.” I think the assumption really is that many games will go through an ashcan stage, especially from the smaller publishers.


  21. Some other datapoints:

    1) For Dawning Star, we took overpromising and turned it up to 11. If you look at the back of Operation Quick Launch, there is a list of planned publications for the setting. Of the 8 other products listed, we only ended up doing 2 of them, and they were both delayed.

    2) You have to commend the Evil Hat folks for their iron will to not announce even an approximate street date for Dresden Files. “It will be released when it’s done.” They’re like political talking heads spinning out talking points with robot-like inconsistency.

    3) A few months back, I signed up to partake in the Ashcan booth with Bullseye. I was like 80% done with it and figured it would be a breeze to get the ashcan together. A couple of weeks after that, I signed the deal to do Tokyo Rain, which is all I have been working on since. Now, I’ll be rushing to finish the ashcan. Irony is a cruel bitch.


  22. Nathan: That seems to align with Ben’s comments about “not announcing multiple editions at the same time.” Interesting.

    The hard/softcover split (for SOTC, for example) seems to not have this problem, but people seem more confused about different editions with potentially different content, looking instead for the “best” or “most current” one.

    I guess that’s to be expected, in an environment where new editions have historically been assumed to completely replace and invalidate older ones. And, say, after the issues with the first edition of Shock: People are worried about getting on board early and then having to keep up to date on errata and necessary clarifications. I mean over here, Gregor’s already being asked when the “fixed” version of 3:16 is coming out. That’s how pervasive the problem is.

  23. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    Jonathan: That makes perfect sense to me.

    Note that even up to the day before we announced the Magic Burner would be out this year, we had fans starting threads in our forums asking about when it would be out. Each request like that was like a knife in the guts.

    I’m extremely pleased with the Magic Burner at this point. I think it’s awesome. But the truth is that there are other projects that we would have been working on this year if we didn’t have it hanging around our necks. We couldn’t go another year without producing it for the fans. They’ve been waiting five years.

    All in all, I’d much prefer to do things the way we did with Blossoms: not a word until it’s ready.

    Jmstar: For BWHQ, we do the preorders in order to keep liquidity between the period when we pay for the print run and when the book goes into general sale.

    We always have the initial print run covered (and contributors paid) before we put a book up for preorder. However, we do traditional print runs, generally 1,500 to 2,000 copies at a time. That can tie up a lot of cash, which becomes problematic if, say, Burning Wheel and the Monster Burner both require a reprint before we recoup that cash. Throw in some travel expenses, or the cost of a new scanner because Chris Moeller draws into the spine of his sketchbooks and we want to capture those sketches without cutting the book, and things really start to add up.

    Preorders also allow us to do special deals for our loyal fans. We can do a special price, or a free PDF, or signed copies or limited-run T-shirts. For instance, with Burning Empires, we hand numbered and signed every preorder, and included a free PDF and free buttons and stickers. Fans who were willing to pay extra got an individualized drawing in their book by Chris Moeller.

    Finally, preorders are all direct sales. Because we handle all the orders and fulfillment ourselves, a much greater percentage of the sale price goes right back to BWHQ. That’s a consideration for us because we sell a lot of books through distribution, which means a much lower percentage per book. It’s much less of an issue for someone like Jonathan.

    The Magic Burner has already paid for its printing costs thanks to the preorder. It will be profitable right out of the gate. That means less stress and worry for us!

  24. Jmstar Says:

    Thanks, Thor, I appreciate it. If I heard that BWHQ staff were slathering themselves with cooking oil and attacking people in Central Park I’d assume there was a sensible business plan behind it.

    –Jason

  25. robertbohl Says:

    I’m doing my “preorder” (which ain’t one, really) because there are some people who might want the game, but who won’t be at at Gen Con, and I’m not going to do another print run of the ashcan version of Misspent Youth.


  26. Rob: Hmm, that’s an interesting approach to ashcan printing and distribution, using pre-orders. How did you settle on that, over putting it up on Lulu (letting people order print copies for themselves) or releasing it as a PDF?

  27. Dave Cleaver Says:

    Speaking as a consumer, I have yet to be disappointed by a pre-order I’ve participated in.

    I think when publishers also release an early copy of the PDF with the preorder, that this can help to catch errors or omissions before they make it into the book.


  28. Dave: That’s a good point. Also, if you have the PDF on hand to give out with the pre-order… presumably you’re inches away from printing, which is different from saying, “pre-order my game that I’m not done writing and/or doing layout for yet.” Seems like the BW guys also wait until that point to do pre-orders, when the product is ready to go, and not before, which seems like a pretty reasonable guideline for pre-orders.

    I was definitely leaning towards Matt’s “DON’T DO IT EVER!” with my original post, but I think I’m becoming more moderate about situations when the print-ready file is in-hand.

  29. robertbohl Says:

    Jonathan: I don’t really want the ashcan version to be a persistent “thing” out there. I’d like it to only exist for as long as it takes me to get the full version of the game out. Therefore, no Lulu. Plus I’m charging only $10 and Lulu’s cut on a book of my shape and size is something like 7 bucks.

    PS: I also didn’t do my “reservations” process until the book was already at the printers.

  30. robertbohl Says:

    PS: And no PDF for the same reason.


  31. Rob: Cool. Though you could take it down from Lulu after a given period of time or replace it with the finished file once you had it ready. Plus, I guess I wasn’t thinking that making money (even to pay for art and stuff) was really the purpose of an ashcan, so I wasn’t thinking Lulu’s cut would matter at all.

  32. robertbohl Says:

    Well its purpose isn’t to make money, but I would prefer to cut down on how much it’s costing me, if you know what I mean.

    Also, this “preorder”/reserve thing is a fairly low-impact thing. So far I have less than a half dozen bites. I just wanted the people who were really dedicated to be certain to have a copy in case the book was a fluke success and sold out all the hard copies of the ashcan I had produced.

    Really it was just an afterthought so that people who were interested in the game wouldn’t be penalized for not being able to go to Gen Con.

  33. Jmstar Says:

    Using the practices and experience of BWHQ as a benchmark is probably a mistake for most of us. They are badder, brainier, and operating on a different scale.

    The whole ashcan thing continues to mystify me. Maybe it will make more sense when the first generation of ashcanned work sees print in its final form.


  34. Jason: My understanding is that it arose from two main elements 1) Paul’s interest in ashcan comics, which are kinda a different thing, unique products in their own right, but printed really cheaply or made at home, not steps on the way to a more finished version, but more like Primitive or XXXXtreme Street Luge; and 2) the perceived difficulty of finding independent playtesters for a game that wasn’t available in print. The idea being, I guess, if people pay money for something, even $10, it demonstrates an investment that might get them to play it. In the latter case, it’s just a print edition of a playtest draft.

    Maybe Paul and/or Matt can correct me on this.

  35. robertbohl Says:

    2 is my reason, though I should hasten to add that as far as I know the game is just fine. I don’t anticipate its breaking, but a) the text might not be and b) I might be wrong. I don’t want to produce a full-price copy of the book and get a bunch of crap wrong and have to release version 2 and get a bunch of bad blood.

  36. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    As far as ashcans go, it actually has a bit of history to it. Sorcerer went through an ashcan phase.

    Burning Wheel went through multiple ashcan phases (at the Burning Wheel Revised release party back in 2005, Luke took out all the various BW Classic ashcans, many of them bound together with tape, and showed them around).

    With Great Power went through an ashcan-for-purchase phase with its Preview Edition.

    Clinton gave out a number of ashcans of Face of Angels back in 2005 or 2006 (I think).

    I’m sure there are other examples that I’m not remembering right now.

    In some ways it’s a holdover from the days when traditional offset printing was the only real option. You made your game, put together some copies at Kinkos, and passed them around to get people to play and comment. And if you did want to go into print, you didn’t do it until the game had seen a lot of play, because printing was a big investment and you couldn’t afford to get it wrong.

    My impression is that Paul and Matt are trying to capture the energy and aesthetic of those days, much as you describe, Jonathan.

    And I think it’s also a good reminder to anyone that has a commercial release in mind to slow down and play the hell out of it before declaring it final. It’s a reminder to pay attention to the process and experience rather than going straight to the product phase. At the same time, it can relieve a lot of stress by giving you permission to release your game to lots of people without trying to make it perfect.


  37. Thor: Thanks for that. Us young’uns often forget about the dark ages before POD.

  38. Andy K Says:

    jmstar: What Thor said. I’m going to be doing Preorders on Tenra Bansho when it’s ready (and maybe after GC for Maid as well, for a larger print run over what we’re selling direct from the booth) to be printed: I did some very loose math, and basically selling 100 or so copies of the game through Preorder would take my print run cost from $7000 (“need to get a loan, even though I expect to recoup the money quickly”) to about $3000 (“can cover with cash, no problem”).

  39. Rob Donoghue Says:

    So, preorder worked out very well for us in every way. One other advantage I haven’t seen mentioned of preorder-paired-with-pdf is that the pdf gives people something to talk about and gets them some amount of immediate gratification. A lot of our early success on rpg.net came from people who had preordered getting the pdfs and starting to talk about them while we actually got the orders out the door. That got us more sales, and set up a nice virtuous cycle.

    All in all there are obviously many good reasons why you might not want to do a preorder (or an ashcan, or any other step along the way that someone else has done) but that just makes it one more business decision.

    -Rob D.

  40. shreyas Says:

    Nathan’s experience with Annalise is exactly what’s wrong with the community’s execution of ashcans – it’s become unclear what’s an ashcan and what isn’t because of the finished-product gloss that some ashcans have and the crappiness of some early editions. Without a clear, physical difference between these two things, some consumers who can see copies of the hand-bound, utterly gorgeous Annalise are like, “So when’s the real version come out?” because their best guess is, sure, this must be an ashcan, ’cause it’s new and what does ashcan mean anyway?


  41. I’ve had my own pre-release messup, and I’ll say that from my experience? It’s brutal. Like, snapping-point painful, as a thing to undergo.

    So.

    What I tell myself to do from now on goes like this:

    “Look at every possible thing that can go wrong with that process; assume that those things will go wrong (including many of the ones that are “all you”). If this is your first game, assume that there is an entire list of things you don’t even know about that will also go wrong. Write that list down. Stare at it. Sleep on it. Frame pre-release accordingly.”

    I’m not saying that others should do likewise; others people are very different creatures. But it might be informative, anyhow.

  42. Guy Shalev Says:

    Rob, I think the “thing against pre-orders” are when the book is still a nebulous project, or wasn’t sent to the printers yet, and as such, may never see the light of day, or will at an unknown date.

    I don’t think there’s a problem with pre-orders when the book is going to be out, anyday. If you only have lay-out left to do for example.

    Though it may be an issue if you ship from China, heh.

  43. Jmstar Says:

    Thanks guys for your pearls of ashcan wisdom.

    I’m not buying any more, and I am going to remain skeptical until I see some finished games that emerge from the most recent iteration of the model.

    Paying ten bucks is actually a barrier for me – I’m far less inclined to offer feedback if I paid for somebody’s 75% finished game. This is antithetical to the whole model, which is sort of predicated on people being committed through their purchase to help the designer, but it’s an empirical fact – of the ashcans my local group purchased last year, one got heavy play and critical dialog (Psi Run) and the rest were lucky to get one session and maybe an AP report. Some got nothing, which is a waste of time, money, and good will.


  44. I ran a pre-order for Solipsist and it wasn’t bad, or significantly good. It made a bit of money, but not enough to make a huge difference to the costs of the game’s production (and in any case, I’d already paid for printing by then). It didn’t generate any buzz (that I saw), although the people did get an early PDF, so it didn’t do anything there (or anything bad either).

    I did wonder if there was the opposite effect actually, or reducing the release-day buzz somewhat.

  45. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Shreyas & Jason & Thor: What do you cats think of the emerging model of releasing “good enough” first editions of games (that may eventually be expanded, in a year or even less) instead of taking the time to really polish an initial product in a BWHQ fashion? I’m thinking in particular of Agon, which John Harper put together in four months, Bliss Stage: Initial Stage, and this years versions: Mist-Robed Gate and Geiger Counter. Geiger is free, which may or may not complicate your feelings about it, Jason. Thor, is that kind of thing more or less like the spirit of Luke’s early BW editions and other pre-POD ashcans?

  46. Jmstar Says:

    JWalt: I think that’s a terrible trend, and I hope it isn’t a “model”. Anything free gets a special dispensation, but taking money from someone incurs an obligation. With an ashcan, it’s explicit that the game may not be quite ready for prime time. There may be rules that are broken or missing. Taking money for the same caliber of product without that disclaimer is lazy and/or dishonest. It’s the commercial aspect that raises my hackles, not the half-baked game aspect. I love half-baked games.

    And this isn’t the same as the universal experience of, after due diligence, being surprised by mechanical or textual problems once a game is released into the wild. That’s just reality, but if it’s your thing, you absolutely know the difference.

  47. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    The early BWHQ ashcans were given away to friends. People that were going to play it. But the idea was always there for a final, polished release (although initially, Luke wanted to give away the final printed version too, rather than charging for it).

    I, personally, have no issue with “good enough” versions of games, as long as that’s clearly communicated to the person receiving the game. In my mind, it’s no different than paying Wolfgang Bauer to be a patron for his next D&D scenario. You get to engage in the design process with the designer, playtest and provide input, and influence the final product, assuming there is one.

    Every game I’ve seen from the ashcan front has been a fine, playable game. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of playing Acts of Evil and helping Paul wrestle with some of its issues, for instance, even though the play sessions themselves were problematic.

    My version of the With Great Power Preview Edition remains a fully playable and interesting game.

    As long as everyone has their eyes open, I think everything is cool.


  48. Jason: I was talking to Nathan before we fought Irontooth’s minions last Sunday and he was saying that, for Annalise, he plans to release multiple editions of the game aimed at different audiences. And that got me thinking about the version of Geiger Counter I’m giving away at GenCon.

    Basically, I now see the GenCon edition as something that should totally work well for anyone who’s played any of a number of games from the post-Forge indie games scene. This is why I’m giving it away to folks who buy two games from Design Matters or people who I personally play it with, because I figure, in both cases, I’m assured that they have enough background to be successful at playing it. However, I haven’t yet spent the time honing the game and text to be accessible to a general audience that either hasn’t played RPGs at all or has only played D&D and White Wolf stuff.

    So is it horrible for me to release one edition of the game for the crowd I know I can write for while I work on an expanded version of the game for a more general audience?

    Thor: I am fascinated by the idea that Luke originally wanted to give BW away. Did he have a plan for how to do that? I mean, it’s Luke, right, he had to have a plan. I’m largely interested because I’m about to embark on my own model of free game distribution.

  49. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    Jonathan: He spent years saving up enough money. My understanding is he was going to print 1,000 books and then rent a van and drive across the country, giving the books away. I don’t think there was anything more to the plan than that.

    That was a much younger Luke.


  50. Thor: Wow. Yeah, thank goodness for POD and the internet, so I don’t have to do it that way or blow that much money on it.

  51. Jmstar Says:

    I love that story, Thor. He’d be like the John the Baptist of Burning Wheel.

    Jonathan, you definitely have to choose an audience, right? I think the idea of different editions for different constituents is interesting and possibly fruitful. Just, you know, find a way to articulate that gracefully to the recipient. Just writing a game that’s meant for people who have mastered X technique and Y play style is very tempting, because it is easy and those are people you want to play with anyway. But if you charge me twenty bucks for either version and it doesn’t hang together as a functional game, I will come for you in the night.


  52. Jason: Well, I guess I have nothing to fear from you because 1) my game will rock your socks and 2) it’s free.

  53. Jmstar Says:

    Looking forward to playing!

  54. shreyas Says:

    Well, obviously I think ‘good enough’ first editions are, well, good enough.

    That said, I think this for my game in particular because my game text is done, and it’s the supplemental material that I plan to expand in later editions. I would under no conditions charge strangers money for a game that was less than sparkling.

  55. Guy Shalev Says:

    Jonathan, regarding the “Good enough” model, I’ll be ok with it more if I know from the get-go that this is an interim book, that it is not planned to stand on its own, rules wise.

    I absolutely hate buying a game and two months later having a new edition announced.
    Also, the “Good enough” model produces games with vast holes too often to my liking.

  56. Thor Olavsrud Says:

    I think something is being lost in the ashcan discussion.

    Part of what I love about ashcans is that they turn the focus on ideas and process rather than product. Acts of Evil as ashcan is valuable in and of itself, regardless of whether Acts of Evil as finished product ever comes about.

    The With Great Power Preview Edition is a fully playable and fascinating game, despite its flaws. I would have been satisfied with it even if there were no finished With Great Power game.

    Nor does an ashcan have to be an intermediate step at all. It can be made as an ashcan to be an ashcan. I think Keith’s Untitled is a perfect example of this.

  57. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Thor: I definitely agree with you in many respects. It seems like the dislike of ashcans is in some ways related to the model of roleplaying in which new versions render previous versions obsolete, instead of merely providing optional, additional information or simply being a new product for a new audience with the old product still working just as well as it always has.

    Primitive is also a great example of a game that is, in its final form, an ashcan, simple and handmade, but really fun.

    Seems like the real question, from the beginning, are more or less the same as with any other roleplaying product: how well does the ashcan function in play, how significant are its flaws, and how is the ashcan presented, so that the audience knows what to expect.

  58. Leigh Walton Says:

    What about a “pre-order pledge” or a variation on the “ransom model”? So no money actually changes hands until the book is done and about to be printed, but the publisher can prepare for publication with reasonable expectations?

    Admittedly you don’t get the benefits of using preorder money to pay contributors (art/design/etc), but it’s better than shooting blind.


  59. Leigh: I’m not sure there’s software that lets you take pre-orders and then only accept the money when you send the project out. Most things like Fundable, which operates on the ransom model, make you set fixed amounts of money that you’re trying to raise or numbers of copies pre-ordered. It doesn’t just let you keep accepting however many pre-orders you want and withdraw all the money once you have something to send out. Hmm…

  60. Matthijs Says:

    I just love what Thor said: “Pay attention to the process and experience rather than going straight to the product phase.”

    Very zen, very craftsmanlike, very true, I believe.

  61. Paul Czege Says:

    Thor is the god of wisdom.

  62. Guy Shalev Says:

    I thought it was the god of thunder! Heh.

    That’s why my nick-name is Thunder_God 😛

  63. Gregor Says:

    Yeah, with 3:16 I feel kinda bad that I didn’t tell anyone it was done until it was actually done. In some cases really downplaying how far along it was. Often to close friends.

    But I didn’t want to put the word out until I was absolutely 100% sure it was finished. And it is.

    The best moment for me, was last Thursday at Joe Prince’s wedding. Joe told me that I hit it out of the park. That’ll do for me.

    I feel bad that Ashcans are getting a bad rep. I see the process of Ryan’s ashcan last year — that killed publication in its current form — as absolutely vindicating ashcans.


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