Archive for February, 2012

The Anti-Economics of Anti-Publishing

February 25, 2012

Often, it seems that the prevailing wisdom about indie game publishing is:

  • every game designer should strive to get their games published (how else can you call yourself a game designer?) and to sell a whole bunch of copies (validating their abilities)
  • any game that’s fun should be somewhere in the process of getting published (preferably in print and preferably launched at one of the big conventions)
  • indie game publishing should be run like a small business (minimizing costs and maximizing profits), not like a “vanity” project (the horror!)
  • nobody expects to quit their day job, but wouldn’t that be nice?

To which, I would like to say, very clearly: fuck that.

Publishing is a means to an end, and that end is delivering an experience of play. Anything that you do in publishing that does not focus on delivering a solid play experience to other folks is a distraction from the task at hand. Sometimes you might weight your options and decide, sure, I guess I have to do that in order to achieve the goals I want, but remember why you are publishing a game, which isn’t necessarily to sell more copies if that doesn’t end up creating solid play experiences. Sales != play. Sales != success (financial success maybe, but not a successful game; Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made a lot of money, remember). Sales are just sales.

To rant a little bit:

  • you and your game do not need to be formally published or sell any copies to be validated as being awesome; you just have to be awesome in the first place, which is hard enough; most games — even most decent games — are not particularly viable as commercial products: enjoy them for what they are; as Elizabeth said so eloquently just recently, you become a game designer by making games, whether you formally publish them or not, no matter how many you sell
  • rushing your game to publication (because you want to be a “published designer” or to launch at a big convention) does harm to your game; as folks like to say: it’s only late once, but it’s bad forever (and as an indie designer you get to set the deadlines, so it’s only late in your own mind); sure, you can release a “revised” version in a year or two, but you can’t update the copies and experiences of the early adopters who picked up your game when it wasn’t finished
  • small business publishing is a minefield and includes lot of un-fun tasks and responsibilities (tracking expenses, filing taxes, registering business licenses); you should not feel required to run a small business just because you wrote a game that’s kinda cool (do you feel required to run a small business because you wrote a couple songs and started a band? hell no!)
  • the amount of money that you can make publishing a game as a small business can be substantial, but — in the vast majority of cases, for the vast majority of games — may not be worth the amount of time and effort you’re going to have to put into your small business; most games aren’t going to sell as many copies as Fiasco or Burning Wheel, even if you’re aiming for a large audience (which you might not be! maybe you’re nailing a niche interest, like a game that builds awareness about human trafficking)
  • the vast majority of indie games are essentially “vanity” projects, even if their publisher is attempting to act like a small business, because the money made is not super significant and the main purpose of publishing is to disseminate the material, not to run a profitable enterprise; this actually opens your options substantially, because you don’t have to worry about maximizing profits, just getting your game out there without losing too much (or any) money
  • if you don’t like your job, that sucks; but game design and publishing is not really a viable employment alternative for most people, so maintaining the pipe dream of eventually becoming a full-time game designer and publisher can actually be counterproductive, getting in the way of developing more rational and achievable goals or figuring out what you really want to get out of this
  • additionally, game design (in my experience) is much less fun and much more limited when it’s your job rather than something you do on the side; as a professional, you are significantly less free to pursue any project you might want, because you’re limited to just the projects that have strong commercial potential and are forced to work around relatively strict deadlines in order to maintain cash flow, releasing products that may or may not be ready or working ridiculous hours to make sure the game is finished in time for you to pay rent

In fact, everything gets turned on its head (or, really, turned right-way-up, rather than the default upside-down viewpoint) when you decide that making money is not necessarily one of the core goals of indie game publishing. I have a blog category that’s called Anti-Publishing for specifically this reason, because publishing practices that aren’t wealth-maximizing sometimes look a bit strange from the perspective of a commercial endeavor. But, coming from the other direction, trying to maximize the meager profits of indie publishing often seems downright ludicrous to me, especially because I’m lucky enough to really like my job and can’t really imagine trying to make a living in tabletop games. Why run a small business if it’s not necessarily the most efficient or enjoyable way to disseminate your game? It’s super restrictive and not much fun besides.

To illustrate how pervasive wealth-maximizing behavior is in indie publishing, let me offer a specific example. Lately I’ve been really into this all-organic, all-recycled print shop in Portland called Pinball Publishing. They run both, which prints little booklets with chipboard covers, and a new service called Print Pinball which produces a variety of chipboard cards that are full-color only on one side. Because Pinball is a small print shop that uses super-high quality materials (organic and recycled stuff isn’t cheap) and prints the old fashioned way, rather than on a photocopier, their prices are obviously higher than the POD and short-run print services commonly used by the post-Forge indie games crowd. In my mind, higher print costs are not a problem at all; they just mean you have to target an audience that is willing to pay for a better or more involved product (say one with a bunch of components). Especially with Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options nowadays, people have shown that they will pay whatever it costs to get something that they desire, and you don’t even have to pay the cost upfront and hope to recoup (like you used to).

But when I talk to other indie games folks about how excited I am about the cool new product formats that Pinball makes possible, I get responses like:

  • Jason Morningstar: “…250 business cards cost $85?”
  • Joe Mcdaldno: “I’ve really wanted to figure out a way to work with them on printing a book… But after visiting and revisiting the idea, it just seems so unfeasible. I’d need to print 500-1000 copies of the game in order to have it come even reasonably close to being as cheap as other POD options.”

Which, fair enough, they’re certainly entitled to their own opinions, but come on, guys; you’re not publishing games to feed and clothe your children, are you? (if so, that’s nuts; publishing is no way to make steady, predictable income). Sometimes you have to pay more to get more. Just price the game higher, if it really bothers you. Or deal with making slimmer profits. Or Kickstart the whole thing and don’t worry about the extra cost at all. I mean, is this indie publishing or what? Deciding that we have to stick with super-cheap POD products produced on a photocopier is just as nuts as thinking that indie games have to all be full-color hardcovers or hand-stitched booklets. Wealth-maximizing seems logical but it is ultimately just as much of a trap as any other unquestioned behavior, placing strict artificial limits on what you can do. After all, the money and the commercial endeavor is not the point, right? It’s just the means.

Another Way

Indie publishing looks really different when you start from the assumption that you’re not in this to make money, but to product a quality game and get it in the hands of your target audience.

First off, you can take all the time you need, weeks, months, years, decades, however long it takes for the game to do what you want it to do. What’s the rush? Whoever dies having written the most games still dies. Ideally you want to leave this planet having created games that delivered memorable play experiences, which doesn’t necessarily happen if you try to publish one game a year or stick to some other artificial schedule. Sometimes you can write a great game in 2 hours. Sometimes it takes 2 decades. Besides, there are so many great games out there to play; it’s not like you or anyone else is deprived because they don’t have your game to play. You shouldn’t feel the need to commercially publish a game just because you can, but because you’ve crafted a worthwhile experience (or range of experiences) and want to share them with others. My approach (shared by a few other designers) is to publish informally early and often, never promising that there will necessarily be a future version, but hoping that—out of that iterative design process—a “finished” game may eventually emerge. In the meantime, though, people can enjoy the games for what they are, while I still have all the time in the world to finish them.

Second, you don’t have to think about publishing in terms of a small business, though legally you might have to register yourself as a small business or publish through someone else who is running a small business, so you can pay taxes and keep expenses straight. This allows you to focus more on delivering the experience to your audience and less on profit-maximizing or logistics. For example, I can create a product that costs $34 to put together and sell it for $35. Sure, I don’t want to loose a whole ton of money unnecessarily, but I don’t need to make money either. Heck, I could decide that instead of buying a new Playstation, or whatever else, I’m going to put that $250 into making a few copies of a game that I give away to my friends. That’s not publishing in any traditional sense, but it’s creating a game and disseminating it to an audience. And there’s no reason to think it necessarily has to cost money, either; it can just cost time and energy. How many people has John reached with Ghost/Echo, Lady Blackbird, and Danger Patrol (all free)? That’s a huge example of the power of “anti-publishing,” and also of the same iterative “release early and often” design process that I mentioned above.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly at all, you can make games that would be lousy commercial products, without feeling like you have to justify them somehow. I talked about this a bit earlier in a post on limited-edition games. If you don’t have to sell N copies of your game in order to feel successful or make back your investment, you’re really free to design anything that you can conceive of, sharing it with whatever audience you feel you can reach, even if it’s just a few other people. A lot of game designers seem to be torn between what they want to design and what some imaginary audience wants. This way, there’s no need to compromise if you aren’t inclined to. Make whatever game you want to make, regardless of whether you imagine it has broad appeal. (Honestly, I would be shocked if a well-designed game, no matter how strange, didn’t find some audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) However, this also means that you can’t have strong expectations or a sense of entitlement about how large the audience will be, since your audience is whatever it is, based on the choices you’ve made for your game.

To me, this approach to indie game publishing is not strange or weird, but the way things should be. There’s no reason for indie games to follow the bizarre and not-especially-viable practices that commercial games “industry” does. Why do we have to print hundreds of copies, loose a bunch of money trying to get ourselves into distribution and game stores, have booths at conventions, and the like? We can choose to do those things, no doubt, and probably do them more effectively than larger game companies, but there’s no need to necessary play by the same rules, when we didn’t choose these practices in the first place. We can choose to do whatever we want, and choosing to act as non-commercial entities, as hobby endeavors rather than small businesses, gives us a lot more flexibility and freedom, in my mind.

At PAX Dev last year, Vincent described indie game publishing as being able to decide, at any moment, that you’re going to stop selling your game. Instead, I’d describe indie publishing as being able to decide, from the very beginning, that you’re not necessarily going to sell your game at all. And hopefully we’ll see more exploration of non-commercial “anti-publishing” means of dissemination in the coming years.