The Current State of Free

August 1, 2009

Over on SG, Tony Dowler asked about publishing things for free and how that was working out for folks. This was my response:

Tony, my current personal development/publishing model goes something like this: 1) release free editions of my game until I’m satisfied that it’s as good as I can make it, 2) once it’s in its final form, release a commercial version or contract with someone else who wants to publish a commercial version (but the free versions stay free, including the final finished document). This has a number of benefits, that I really like:

  • no rushing to commercial publication (GenCon, when’s that again?)
  • no worrying about the game being perfect before I release it
  • people can enjoy playing / playtesting my games right now
  • the iterative publication of free editions lets me gradually improve the text
  • it allows me to build up an audience for my games and gain feedback from them
  • if, ultimately, several of my games never make it to step 2… so what? people can still play them
  • I feel like “a real game designer” without feeling caught up in as much bullshit posturing
  • my games will ultimately end up better for it
  • I feel much less guilt about games not being done or out there

Of the games that I’ve released for free, the ones that I’m generally known for are Geiger Counter and Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan. Since the alpha release, I’ve had 14 independent APs posted for Geiger, which is pretty damn good in my book, and 4 independent discussions of my game (all started by Ben Robbins). I keep a log of them on my Geiger page. I know there’s been more play than that too, but it did take a while for folks to really start playing it after I released it (a few months, at least) and there are large gaps in the stream of APs, not a steady progression, but I think that’s pretty common for commercially published games too. Now that there’s a bit of word-of-mouth out about Geiger, I never have trouble filling slots or pick-up games at conventions or meet-ups. If you release a free game, though, and people are already aware of you or your concepts are especially gripping or attractive (I’m thinking of the Red Box Hack, Dungeon Squad, and John Harper’s recent releases), I think you can have free products really explode right out of the gate.

Kazekami Kyoko has had a somewhat different history. I wrote it in 2006 and I keep hearing something about it… once or twice a year, I’d say. So very much a slow, slow burn but something that doesn’t ever seem to go away. And for a game I wrote in a couple of hours, I think that’s pretty damn awesome. There was a really cool thread on the Forge about it just recently.

So, basically, right now I’m looking at free, iterative publication as the main thing I’m doing, since none of my games have made it to #2 yet (and, honestly, I’m increasingly fine with that). This isn’t some prelude to the “big show” of commercial publishing; this is it. The fact that folks like John Harper and Matt Wilson have been seduced and subverted to something vaguely resembling my publishing model — which, honestly, I was seduced to by Clinton — just makes it all the more fun and satisfying, since I’m not doing it by myself. Plus, John and Matt have clearly uped the ante, which just pushes me to make my free stuff better.

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