Archive for March, 2011

Pick Up Games: Cover Sketch

March 21, 2011

Design sketch for yet another publishing project I may be helping with.

Taking a Break from Editing Talk

March 20, 2011

So, I’ve decided to take a personal break from the editing-related controversy and discussions for the next week. While I think there’s some good stuff being said and some important stuff that still could be said, the tone and just the stress of the back-and-forth was making me frustrated, so this weekend I haven’t really been following those discussions that closely and I probably won’t get back to them at least before the end of this week.

Please, if you feel like you’re having productive exchanges, don’t stop and wait for me! I plan on continuing to approve comments to my earlier blog posts as long as people want to keep having those discussions. But I thought I should let people know that I won’t be personally reading or responding to them for a bit. I’m also not reading any editing related threads on SG, Anyway, etc.

This isn’t related to anyone’s behavior or any specific post. I’m just taking a break for my own personal sanity and stress level. I’ve actually, ironically enough, got a bunch of editing work to do for Magic Missile, and I’m going to go do that and come back maybe after I’ve got a chance to get some perspective and distance.

Limitations as Virtues

March 18, 2011

Over here, Ryan asks what “punk” means, as far as indie publishing goes. I agree with Lukas that “punk” is not quite the right word, with all of its other associations.

Let me just quote Our Band Could Be Your Life, since it’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. In it, Michael Azerrad suggests that the American indie music scene of the 1980s was organized around “viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.”

I think that works pretty well for us too.

On Publishing: What I Should Have Said

March 17, 2011

Based on my brother’s recommendation, I recently read part of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the rise of indie rock music in the 1980s. What it reminded me of — especially in the sections about “selling out” or bands “blowing up” or whatever — is that there will always be tensions in any independent publishing scene between two major goals on opposite sides of a spectrum, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call:

A. being just a kid with a dream;
B. beating The Man at his own game.

Being just a kid with a dream, in publishing terms, is showing up someplace — out of nowhere, knowing nobody — with just some hand-made photocopies in your backpack, ready to show people how badass your creation is.

The Man in the case of indie games is probably Hasbro: a big, faceless corporation who we can all pretend to loathe even as we buy and enjoy at least some of their games (shout out to Castle Ravenloft!), and aspire, at least in some respects, to emulate or triumph over their products, producing big beautiful, hardcover tomes that millions of people will buy and enjoy.

The points I wanted to make about this are as follows.

1. Being anywhere along the continuum between A and B is great. No place is better than any other, necessarily. Really, truly, honestly. This is something we still forget too often.

2. The continuum between these two goals is actually false or, at least, it applies across the entire range of choices involved in publishing. You can aspire to have a game that does dungeon crawling better than D&D but is still a stapled, photocopied booklet. You can decide to have production values somewhere in the middle (getting some fancy layout and printing hardcover books) but get your brother Ned to edit it and draw some pictures for you. There’s an infinite number of choices available and none of them is necessarily “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on your desires and goals for a specific project.

3. Even if you’re sure you want to try to beat Hasbro at their own game, it’s very difficult to jump right in and expect to do that right off the bat. If you look at the indie folks who are closest — like Luke Crane and Fred Hicks — they were themselves once kids with a dream. Luke literally showed up at GenCon with photocopies of the first version of Burning Wheel in his backpack. Fred and his comrades originally released Fate as a free PDF, just hoping a few other folks would find it interesting. How many years has it been since then? To get where they are, they’ve made consistent progress over time, project after project, rather than jumping in headfirst and losing their shirt.

4. By all means, take advice and learn from folks who’ve been involved in publishing before, but be honest with yourself about where you are in the process and what the next step is for you. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that a lot of the indie creators who are currently enthusiastic about editing are not planning their first game but their second or third. It is only natural, I would argue, to rethink how you did things the first time and do them differently the second or third time around. Does that mean everyone needs an editor on their second game? Not necessarily. Again, it’s all based on what your needs are and what you want for your game. Vincent recent had a great post that talked about approaching things gradually. Be true to yourself also means acknowledging the scale and complexity you’re capable of handling right now. Start with something manageable.

5. Really, in the end, question this advice as well. It’s not as if those of us who have done publishing before took the gradual, careful path in all cases. We tried things. We experimented. We screwed up. We did things we now regret and feel guilty about. Really, that’s all part of the process too. Don’t let the “be careful” advice of experienced folks prevent you from ultimately taking the plunge and publishing however works best for you. In the end, it’s your game and maybe you’ll blaze a new trail for others to follow. Maybe you do know better than we do. And, even if not, you’ll learn from your mistakes just like we did.

That’s more what I meant to say earlier. Yes, it’s contradictory. Welcome to publishing! 🙂

Quick Note and Apology

March 17, 2011

Fred Hicks has mentioned that some folks were really annoyed at my rant about editing. If so, I apologize, since I didn’t meant to make people upset, just to question some of the new consensus that seemed to be building about editing in the aftermath of Ben’s anti-playtesting post on Anyway and some other discussions.

In truth, “editor-serving drivel” was completely unfair to the motivations of folks with different opinions. Really, we all want to help folks make games that they’re proud of. If anyone’s still upset and wants to talk about it or tell me I’m a jerk, feel free to whisper me or email me (jaywalt, gmail).

That was not the best example of the kind of voice I aspire to be and hope I can gradually re-earn any respect that I’ve lost.

The First Dozen Things I Learned from Push

March 17, 2011

There’s an SG thread about things you wish you did differently when publishing something. Here’s what I came up with:

0. I would have gotten to know people who were indie publishers BEFORE I published rather than after, so I had people I could call up and ask questions. If you don’t have the personal cell number of a successful indie publisher, maybe you don’t know one well enough yet.

1. I would have gotten a business account at my bank (which I now have) first thing, before doing anything else, so I could keep income and expenses for my publishing activities complete separate from my personal accounts. This is especially critical later on when you’re doing your business taxes.

2. I would have taken care of other business-related activities way earlier too, like getting state and city business licenses.

3. Before I had any products ready to go, I would have set up spreadsheets to track purchases through all the different methods I used (“backpack” sales, booth sales at various cons, IPR direct sales, IPR retailer sales, IPR convention sales, PDF sales through my website, Lulu print sales, Lulu PDF sales, PDF sales through DriveThur/RPGnow, etc.), since all of those have different expenses and I made different amounts of profit off each one. That’s a lot of work, but it’s critical and is one of those things nobody really talks about.

4. Having set up the spread sheet and run some estimated numbers through it, I would have been careful to price my book so that I made at least some profit off each one of those outlets. As it was, I lost money on IPR retailer sales for a while, maybe even for the duration that Push was available in print.

5. I wouldn’t have printed books through Lulu, despite it being relatively convenient. I know some publishers that still use them, but it’s not really competitive, cost wise, with getting a short run of 200 or so copies through an actual printer.

6. I would have had a schedule where I printed the books months before I actually needed them for GenCon. First, it’s good if folks have at least a month or so to read and/or play your game before you launch it at a big convention, so there’s folks there who can run it besides you. Second, it prevents last minute deadline rushing that can leave you with a product that you’re not satisfied with later. Better to put out a solid game the first time then back-track and apologize later. If you’re putting out your game in, say, January or Feburary (a great month to release a game), it’s clear you’re not rushing it just to have it for GenCon. If you’re launching at GenCon or some other big convention… maybe your book isn’t actually ready to go yet.

7. I would have had a flat, up-front payment to contributors and not split profits later. Promising people money you don’t yet have is kinda bullshit and it means that you have to keep sending them checks for a potentially infinite amount of time into the future, until you decide to let the book go out of print (which is ultimately what happened to Push, not un-coincidentally). While it may seem the “fair” thing to do for the folks that are helping you out, it’s WAY more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Ryan recently had a post where he mentioned the option of trading shares of later profit for editorial work. DON’T DO IT. Pay some money just so you never have to work with someone again if they turn out to be a jerk. Everyone I worked with on Push was awesome, but it was still too much of a hassle to count profits and them split them 6 ways.

8. I edited Push, so I can’t really talk about editing so much. It’s been a popular topic lately, though, so I feel like I should say something. Here’s the thing, a good editor is more than just some dude you hire to read your game and tell you where it sucks, in the same way that a good layout guy doesn’t just walk away with your text and come back with a fully finished PDF. Editors get into the guts of what you create and are collaborators in what you ultimately produce, so make sure that they’re somebody that you want to have a partnership with and trust to stick with you until your project is done. I know more than a few indie game designers who thought they had a deal with an editor and then shit happened and they ended up having to do it themselves or find other people to help. Heck, that’s how I ended up editing part of Blowback for free. Also, this stuff about “getting what you pay for” with editing is editor-serving drivel.* Paying more won’t always get you a better product. When is that ever true? Paying less or expecting things for free won’t get you a better product either. The only way to make sure you get good editing is having a strong relationship with someone who is willing to give you the kind of help you want and need. Whether you’re paying them or not doesn’t matter. You can pay someone a bunch of money and still get shitty editing (or even no editing, if they take your money and walk). Hiring an editor does not absolve you of the responsibility of publishing a unclear or poorly written game. You don’t get to blame them later when there are still problems. You still ultimately have to decide when your game is ready for release. And that can be without any editing. Really, the idea that every game needs an editor is also editor-serving drivel.* What happened to our punk-rock, DIY spirit? Release whatever you want, just make sure you’re willing to stand up and take responsibility for your creations, whatever they look like. If they’re a photocopied, stapled thing that you wrote in 6 hours and sell for $10 a piece, power to you.

9. I would have made sure the games were consistently fun to play before publishing them. There’s are a bunch of ways to do this, but mostly it involves playing your game in the spirit it was intended — not to break it, not to see if extreme situations are covered by the rules, just to have fun and enjoy it. What Ben’s anti-playtesting rant got right was that playing your game a whole bunch won’t magically show you all the problems it has and offer you clear solutions to them. Sometimes you’ll play a game a bunch, it’ll still be mediocre, and you won’t be sure what the problems are and how to fix them. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t publish that game (yet or ever, depending on if you figure it out later). Also, if nobody wants to play your game with you, you should either find people who do or maybe not publish that game. If you had no audience, who are you going to sell it to or (if it’s for free) who’s going to play it?

10. I would think very carefully about conventions and make sure that they made sense for my budget and aspirations. I wouldn’t have done a convention just because it felt like I was supposed to or that’s how things worked. Better yet, I would have gone to conventions just as a regular con-goer before deciding to pay a bunch of money to attend as part of a booth.

11. I wouldn’t have bought any art before the text of the game was final and ready to go. I still probably have several thousand dollars worth of art for products that may never exist. I’ve also sent hundreds of dollars to artists who never ended up delivering the goods, so this is another place where working with people that you have stronger ties with — or, at least, who act professionally — is much better.

12. I wouldn’t release “press releases” or made any kind of announcements about the future availability of products before they were at the printer. Definitely don’t take pre-order money from people before the final PDF is ready to be sent to the printer and you have a clear sense of print costs and everything else. Otherwise, how do you know what to charge or how long it’ll be before the books are ready?

I’m sure I can think of more, but those are the first dozen things.

EDIT: * an unfair characterization that I regret, see the next post.

30 Games of Bite: Cover Concept

March 16, 2011

A cover concept for a possible vampire anthology.

Scout Books: Hot New Printing Option

March 16, 2011

So I’ve been watching the awesome folks at Pinball Publishing for a long time. They’re an eco-friendly print shop based in Portland and do really amazing work with 100% recycled materials and plant-based inks. A year ago, they launched a line called “scoutbooks,” blank or lined mini-notebooks with custom covers, inspired — as far as I can tell — by Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets.

Recently, they’ve upgraded the options and allow you to order bad-ass looking 32-page 3.5×5″ saddle-stitched booklets with chipboard covers and custom interiors through their amazingly simple website. With 1-color covers, they end up being $2-3 a piece, and it’s between $2-4 for two color covers, depending on how many you order.

In my mind, these are PERFECT way to print short indie games in a way that looks nice and professional. I’ve been planning all along to use them to print Geiger Counter and Super Suit, and thought about hoarding this secret away so I could be the first to do this, but decided it was better to share.

If anybody does get games printed through them, please let me know because I’m dying to find out how they turn out.

Super Spotsylvania: Blackbeard’s Revenge

March 14, 2011

There are plans on SG for putting together an anthology of short vampire games. And I owe Jason Morningstar a game about NC pirates from way back, so it seemed like the perfect combination.

The Actual, Honest-to-Goodness Facts

  • Blackbeard’s flag depicts a demonic skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear; uh huh.
  • When Blackbeard was killed in 1718, his head was cut off and his body thrown overboard, but the body kept swimming around the boat before finally sinking.
  • Blackbeard’s skull was supposedly turned into a silver chalice; also, mysterious ghostly lights are often seen traveling to and from his former residence at Plum Point during storms.
  • In the 1740s, Blackbeard’s favorite hangout, Bath NC, was cursed for its heathen ways by the wandering minister George Whitefield and thereafter failed to prosper; coincidentally, George Whitefield carried his coffin with him when he traveled and even slept in it, rather than stopping in an immoral inn.
  • Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel Hands, received a pardon in exchange for testifying against all the corrupt officials Blackbeard had consorted with; it is unclear what happened to him afterwards.
  • Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, the man indirectly responsible for Blackbeard’s demise, later retired to his estate in Spotsylvania VA which was called, no joke, The Enchanted Castle; the largest nearby community was called Germanna, because Spotswood brought large numbers of German settlers there to operate his ironworks.

So the plot of the game probably goes something like this:

Blackbeard is a vampire and he has returned to undeath c. 1750 to take revenge on everyone who wronged him. He has set up shop in the cursed town of Bath and the vampire George Whitefield is assisting him. Indeed, it may have been Whitefield who traveled all the way from Boston and New York to help bring Blackbeard back. Together they’ve captured one of the daughters or granddaughters of Alexander Spotswood and are preparing to sacrifice her soul to open a portal to Hell and bring back all the great dead buccaneers. The players take on the role of Israel Hands — who knows Blackbeard better than anyone — and other badass historical persons and attempt to destroy the vampires and their evil plot. Of course, this will all lead to a final showdown in the Enchanted Castle of Spotsylvania.

The rules are going to be derived from the Snow Queen / Zelda-inspired game I’ve been working on for a long time, since I really want to see those work in play. I’m excited to begin putting this together once I actually get done with exams and have the time.