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.

25 Responses to “The Anti-Economics of Anti-Publishing”

  1. Joe Mcdaldno Says:

    “After all, the money and the commercial endeavor is not the point, right? It’s just the means.”

    I think you’re approaching a trap, here.

    Your article could be summarized in one of two ways:
    *The point isn’t to make money
    *You get to decide what the point is

    The former statement precludes the latter. If it’s the former, then you aren’t speaking to me and that’s a bummer. If it’s the latter, then you detract from your argument by making blanket statements about how things “ought” to be.

    One of the reasons I produce games is to support myself financially. I’ve heard a number of people in our community say, “Why would anyone want to do this as their day job?” It’s often spoken from a pretty clear place of privilege. They’re coming from places where there are attractive jobs that demand their skills. I have been unemployed for 14 of the past 18 months, and game design is one of the few skills that I’ve developed to a place that I can earn money from it. My other options are part-time cafe work and entry-level manual labour, both of which would earn me less money and be more exhausting and non-rewarding for me.

    I’ve established “help support myself financially” as one of my goals as a game designer. It’s below “produce exactly the game I want to produce,” but it’s above “use my games to transform the world into a better place.”

    Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals, obviously. A good example is how I’ve worked to support charitable causes in tandem with supporting myself financially. Monsterhearts just raised $530 for charity, Perfect Unrevised has to date raised $40 for PEN Canada, and The Grotesque has prompted people to donate in excess of $100 to various charities.

    I think that your message is really awesome, if interpreted one way: find out why you’re designing games, and design/release/play them in order to achieve your own goals, not anyone else’s. I think that your message is really problematic, if interpreted a different way: we shouldn’t be designing games in order to make money, because that’s worse than designing games in order to achieve some other goal that’s been handed down from above.

    With Pinball, I feel really sad that I can’t use them and simultaneously achieve my goals as a designer. I can’t use them to print a little game, like Teen Witch or The Quiet Year. Because I’d lose hundreds of dollars that I don’t have. The cost of a Scoutbooks print run is equal to the cost of over 3 months rent, for me. It’s a non-starter because of both my personal situation and my personal goals. I don’t think that’s my fault or that I should remedy that by forcing my publishing model to work with their business model. They’re just two non-compatible approaches, a fact that is neither “good” nor “bad.”

    Here’s this important thing I believe, and that you might believe too: there shouldn’t be any one true way to design and release games. There should be a wealth of different approaches, and people should be validated regardless of which approach they choose.

    To condemn the approach of treating your design work like a small business is to stunt the growth of this community. To condemn the approach of treating your design work like a gift freely given to the world is to stunt the growth of this community.

    We need fewer judgments, not newer judgments.

    • Joe, I agree totally with everything you just said there. Probably not a big surprise! I’m definitely writing — as I tried to be explicit about in the beginning — in response to perceived assumptions (which may or may not actually be true) that I think mislead game designers into thinking that commercial publication is the only real option.

      On the privilege issue, certainly I’m lucky to be in a place where I like my job and don’t feel like my hobbies have to justify the time I spend on them by making money. I realize that not everybody is in that place. For you, it may be that commercial publication is the only real option, but even then (and I suspect you agree as well) that still doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to accept operating like a “traditional” RPG publisher, only on a smaller scale. Indeed, your Monsterhearts Kickstarter is a great example of not simply accepting the options you’ve “been given” (established practices) but being open to doing things differently.

  2. Graham Says:

    Jonathan, you seem to be mixing various ideas here.

    If you’re saying “Don’t publish as a business if you don’t want to”, then great. I agree. That point needs making.

    If you’re saying “You won’t make real money publishing games”, then you’re flat wrong. I paid half my tuition fees with game publishing. The majority of my income, last year, came from publishing games.

    And if you’re saying “”If you publish commercially, that stops you focussing on people”, then I find that sad. Personally, I like selling games, because it lets me engage with people in a way I wouldn’t otherwise.

    Basically, I like your emphasis on non-commercial publishing. But I wish you’d make that emphasis without attacking commercial publishing, because you don’t need to. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

    • Hey Graham, I’m definitely not saying the second one and only kinda saying the second, but that may just be my personal experience. I dislike the seller-customer relationship and the designer-consumer relationship and definitely prefer approaching people as comrades and peers first.

      I said the money can be substantial, but may not be worth the effort to run a small business. I used “may” intentionally, because that was my personal experience, but other people obviously have different experiences. What I intended to point out was, just because you like making money and like making games, those two things don’t necessarily need to go together, like peanut butter and cheese.

      Overall, my intention was not to attack commercial publishing, but to criticize its ubiquity and “default” status. Even in the “anti-publishing” concept I’m putting forward here, commercial publishing is useful if it’s really the best way to deliver your product to its audience. I just think that’s not always the case, not by a long shot.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    So there’s some true stuff here that I feel is hidden away among chest-beating, posturing, and blatantly false information, which super sucks. This is a great way to get people to look, but not a great way to get people to listen.

    Just a couple of things:

    Working full time as a game designer is viable for pretty much anyone who is actually prepared to make it their full time job. Full stop. The tools you mention, like Kickstarter, have ONLY MADE IT EASIER. Do you know what the current demographic info is for people who want to work full time as a game designer? What the cost of living is? I could have paid my rent on my giant three-bedroom apartment in Western MA for the profit on my TBF Kickstarter— and that’s not counting freelance work, side projects, and PDF and physical sales of old books. Columbus, Ohio is an even cheaper place to live. A lot of people, like Joe, don’t have kids or mortgages. Why do you get to tell them what’s feasible? Being a full-time professional game designer certainly doesn’t make sense when you’re in grad school for a completely unrelated field, in a really expensive part of the country, and there are a number of other interests that excite you as much or more than game design does. Awesome!

    The fact that other people have goals that are not yours does not invalidate you. I cannot stress this enough.

    I am biased here, because I turned my “small business”-minded indie RPG design and publication into an incredibly lucrative full time job making money as a game designer. I go to work for 8-10 hours a day and design games for my boss. I come home, and in my spare time, I design games for me. Your experience does not equal my experience! I don’t mind the things you call the un-fun stuff. I like having a set goal or date for release because it puts pressure on me to do the work. I don’t think there is anything hip or glorious or fascinating about being the kind of person who is always “working on this novel” or “working on this game.” I want to have them under my belt. That is the kind of person I am.

    When I said “Want to be a game designer? Then make games,” I meant it with the inherent assumption that you would finish the games you make.

    Who said you get to call other people’s commercial endeavors vanity products just because they don’t sell as much as Fiasco? Jesus. You know I love you but I feel like you owe an apology to every person who has been excited to see another PDF order come in because it meant they could pick up some groceries. There’s a huge amount of class privilege here that I think needs to be examined before you go making proclamations dismissing people’s motivations and products.

    If you want to do the anti-publishing thing, AWESOME. You’ll notice that the community at large, and especially your friends you’re judging in this post, has been incredibly supportive of your goals and excited to see what you do. I guess I’m just at a loss for why you’d go crap all over them.

    For comparison, I have been sitting on a blog post idea called “Lies the indie game community likes to tell themselves, debunked by pros,” but I didn’t want to be a giant asshole. You know?

    • I’m not intending to crap all over people and definitely apologize and will reconsider how I talk about this if that’s what’s coming across in this post. I was trying to intentionally use language like “you should not feel required to do X” and “you can do Y” and “you don’t have to do Z” to show that I was talking about an alternative approach and not suggesting that people who wanted to approach things from a different perspective were wrong or bad.

      I think your career trajectory is amazing and I couldn’t be happier about your success. I don’t feel invalidated that your goals are different from mine, and likewise I hope you don’t feel at all invalidated if I don’t want the things that you have worked really hard to achieve. They are unquestionably tremendous achievements, as I’m sure you’re well aware.

      Privilege is something I was consciously worried about when I wrote this post, because I am definitely aware of several potent aspects. Most notably, every time that I’ve tried to get really serious about finishing and commercially publishing a game… it was during a time when I was unemployed and worried about money. So I definitely realize that people often have a variety of motivations and needs, and sometimes one set of concerns takes prominence over another.

      In any event, I hope we can talk more about this at some point, because I feel like our different perspectives on these kinds of issues is the source of the bumps we’ve occasionally run into trying to collaborate on games together (and I’m fully willing to admit that a lot of these may be my fault).

      P.S. I’d love to read your thoughts on “lies indie designers tell themselves.” I would be stunned if I didn’t agree with most of them.

      • Elizabeth Says:

        I get what you’re saying, but as mentioned previously, the language you’re using seems to have come off as charged to more people than just me. I think you’re onto something on Twitter about self-fulfilling controversy; if you had framed this as “These are the lessons I have learned for me,” you would have gotten a lot more head-nodding and a lot less WTF. When you go around bolding stuff like “This is not strange or weird, but how indie publishing should be,” no one is going to notice the “in my mind.”

        Your presentation of the information, with your catchy bolded phrases and only parenthetical qualifications, comes off less as “You should not feel required to do X” and “You can do Y” and more like “Why would you ever choose to do X? Most of the reasons people would choose to do X are invalid! Doing Y is way better in the long run FOR EVERYONE!!!! (named Jonathan Walton anyway).”

        I do appreciate your response, though, and of course I’m happy to talk about this whenever. I feel like you and I come at this from two sides of the same coin— we both want to help people make games, but my experience is more geared toward helping people make commercially successful games and you’re more geared toward helping people make free games. And that’s fine.

        But you say this is the first time you’ve talked about this stuff, and I feel like that’s not really true. You’ve been advocating this stuff for as long as I’ve known you. You’ve spent so long advocating the right to make things on your own dime and your own timeframe with your own agenda that it feels more like you’re still trying to get permission from someone. You’re better than that. I want to LEARN more about HOW you do this: where do you find the motivation to finish your game if you don’t give yourself deadlines? What are your price considerations when you’re not trying to turn a profit— when margins become less important, what’s the new deciding variables?

        I guess what I’m saying is this: I am really looking forward to what I can learn when you stop preaching and start teaching. I’m all ears.

  4. hans Says:

    Hey Jonathan, I don’t have the cautious-to-negative response that Joe, Graham, and Elizabeth do, but then I’m not a published designer. I think this is fan-fucking-tastic, and I don’t read you as bagging on selling or publishing; you’re providing an alternate point of view from the prevailing one about what it means to make and distribute indie games.

    You’re channeling the fire of Early Ron Edwards here (I’ve always loved chest-beating shit, personally), and I think what you’re saying is important.

  5. Julia Says:

    Jonathan, I’ve heard your argument on not publishing, and I’m always left asking the air, why should anyone feel shame for wanting or expecting to be paid for their hard work and time, even if those hours were spent doing “hobby” stuff? Furthermore, if I have a vision of a game, and I want to spend some money paying someone else to contribute to the parts of that vision that are beyond my capability, why should I go broke compensating other people for their skills?

    Here’s a thing. Publishing doesn’t just mean profit, it means exposure. It’s a way to strengthen your network. I don’t think of myself as a full time game designer. I’m a freelance writer and editor. The work I’ve done writing games, combined with the exposure and the networking opportunities I got from publishing has brought me more non-game design work than game design work. If I hadn’t published a game, and instead just shared it with my friends, I would not gained exposure as a good writer.

    So yeah, I hear that no one should feel any pressure to publish a game, just as no one should ever feel pressure to sell her art, or the scarves she knits, or poetry she writes. In turn, no one should feel pressure to starve doing what she enjoys doing.

    • Julia, I don’t disagree with any of that. I’m definitely not trying to make anyone feel ashamed! (That would be really terrible). It’s great that people have achieved their goals through commercial publishing. It didn’t work for me and my goals, but I’m glad it works for other folks!

  6. Julia Says:

    Yes, it would be terrible, and I don’t think you’re trying to shame anyone. But when I’ve read your essays where you’re trying to promote not publishing, it seems that you spend more energy expounding on what you think is bad about publishing than what you find satisfying about not publishing. Your reasons not to publish, which I understand and actually somewhat agree with, get drowned out when you illustrate them with examples of why you don’t find publishing satisfying.

    I’d like to hear you talk more about small scale publishing, and not use it as a way to illustrate the anti-publishing argument. Game publishing for me makes me money through its networking and exposure opportunities for my writing work. Creating small runs of art books could be a very appealing and viable way both to test the indie game publishing waters, make some nice gifts to give to friends, or to increase sales and exposure for those who do or want to make some money in publishing. To that end, I don’t really care what other people say when they poo-poo the idea. I want to hear about someone who did use Scout Books, and how awesome it was.

    • You’re totally right that it would probably be better to do it than talk about doing it. Personally, I feel like Metrofinal did a lot to vindicate my design approach in my own mind, considering I’ve been working on it off and on for more than 5 years and it’s just getting to the point that it feels done. But you’re right, there’s not too many good examples that I can personally attest to.

      But what about Lady Blackbird? It’s had enormous success without being a commercial product. And if John ever decided to launch a Kickstarter to fund future installments (also released for free, even), it would probably do really well. That’s one thing that I didn’t really discuss: non-commercial design activities can really set yourself up for success if you decide to try something more commercial, because you can choose your best or most well-known work and expand on it, like Fred and Rob did with FATE.

      That said, we can definitely have some better and more well-informed conversations a few years from now, when hopefully some of my long-term plans have come to fruition. Rather than me just saying: “hey, consider looking at things this way; trust me, it works!”

      • benlehman Says:

        Actually, there’s been a lot of interesting ground broken wrt this stuff, starting as early as kill puppies for satan, and probably before. But it’s mostly been done by people you deride as “profit-maximizers.” Next time you want to manifestize, it might behoove you to, you know, ask about some of this stuff.

      • Elizabeth Says:

        The profit-maximizing and wealth-maximizing stuff really had me shaking my head, too. Besides the fact that I have been feeding and clothing my kids on money made through indie publishing for years (but hey, thanks for calling me and Vincent crazy!), last year me and Ryan Macklin got together and used our commercial products, as well as the commercial products of others, to raise over $20,000 to pay people’s medical bills and stuff.

        Using indie publishing money to pay for cancer treatments?! Who’d do that? Crazy, right?

        My point is that there is a huge spectrum of business models in between profit-maximization and anti-publishing, and you do everyone a disservice (and nothing is more poorly served by this than your own argument!) deriding them all with the
        same brush.

  7. FWIW, the first time I read this, I just found myself kind of nodding along and agreeing – I didn’t have anything to comment because I pretty much agreed with everything you said here. But I suppose this is because I’m from the privileged class – or maybe because I have a family and being able to support them by making the kinds of games I love is really doubtful.

    I am surprised and heartened to hear that Joe, Elizabeth, and Graham can do so well making games! My thinking has been: Vincent and Meg have day jobs – and if they can’t support themselves doing this, who can?

    • Yeah, I’ve been thinking about all the games that come out of Game Chef and other design contests — hundreds and hundreds of games, most of which will never make up a significant part of anyone’s income — and how the more experimental ones are hardly ever developed further, at least partially because people don’t see the commercial potential of them. But, if there was less emphasis on considering games in terms of their money-making potential — when that shouldn’t even be on the table for a lot of these games — we could really empower many, many more people to think of themselves and act like game designers, rather than seeing that largely as something that other people (who sell a lot of games) do.

  8. This a response to Elizabeth above, because this implementation of WordPress doesn’t do replies past third level:

    I don’t think we’re on the same page on what I mean by “profit-maximizing.” You raising money for charity through your games is not, in any sense, profit-maximizing. Neither is using the profits from your games to do anything else you like, including clothing your children. None of those involves making corner-cutting decisions about how to publish your game in order to maximize the profitability of your small business, which is what I was specifically trying to talk about. I meant, for example, always choosing the cheapest printer you could find, despite quality issues, total price control (because we can set out own prices), and the ease of funding a print run through crowdfunding or other means nowadays. I meant letting the decisions you make based on what’s most profitable for your business interfere with or dictate how you present or disseminate your games to your audience.

    For some reason, I’ve apparently come across as saying that sales and making money are bad, which is not at all what I was intending. Commercial publishing is definitely a powerful tool that everyone (especially now) should have and make use of when it’s the best means for accomplishing your goals. My point was supposed to be that focusing your attention on sales and making money (when that’s a means and not an end in and of itself) can often come at the cost of really focusing on delivering your game to your audience in the way you really want to, especially if your game does not necessarily have huge commercial potential (or you’re not sure whether it does).

  9. Ben, you’re really saying that I should have consulted you before writing a blog post? This is a format for discussion, and if you want to object or offer a different perspective, you’re welcome to do that. If you feel like I’m so off the mark that it’s not worth your time, that’s cool too, dude.

    • benlehman Says:

      Not me. Me or Vincent or Jason or Ron or Clinton or Emily or Paul or anyone who’s been actively engaged with this sort of endeavor for years. Or you could have paid attention while we were doing it.

      Your entire tone is this posturing of “I’m breaking new and innovative ground” when this stuff has been going on around you for a decade now. What’s up?

    • benlehman Says:

      When Julia asks you to talk about the successes of the model, why not talk about kpfs’s trades model or Sorcerer’s “hey if you play this and like it mail me five bucks” model or Fiasco’s playsets or Clinton’s active promotion of Creative Commons or Emily’s development of Breaking the Ice or my “pay what you like even nothing” model for game sales?

      If you want to talk about the drawbacks of the model, you could talk about the Ashcan Front’s failure to develop audiences or the trouble I’ve had with getting Clover to the right people or why Ron changed from a shareware model to traditional publishing.

      • Ben, those are all great examples. And I have been paying attention to those developments, those just aren’t games that I’ve played very much so they didn’t come to mind immediately (my bad!). I totally agree that this isn’t a new development at all, when put in the perspective that you are suggesting here (and I think that’s a very useful and helpful one, thanks!), and I definitely shouldn’t have asserted this like it was anything new and controversial (that was a bit self-aggrandizing and not especially helpful).

        I was just thinking — before I read your response — that my next post, attempting to break this down in more manageable chunks, might examine the Ashcan Front specifically, though I’m definitely going to be sitting on it for a while (it took me over a week to write this one, but I guess I ironically released it too soon!). I just couldn’t remember anyone talking about non-commercial or mixed-methods publishing from a broader perspective before, the way that we often talk about commercial publishing.

  10. Brennan Says:

    I’m not going to pile on to the conversation about tone in the post, anything I might have to contribute has been said and answered already, and I think a lot of what I was reading into the post doesn’t match your actual view, as you’ve now said repeatedly. Anyway, here’s another perspective.

    I have a day job, a very lucrative one, which gives me the luxury to operate Galileo Games as a hobby enterprise. The only thing I require it to do is pay for itself, I’m not trying to extract profit out of it. That gives me the ability to work on games I like, and publish games for other people that they like. It also lets me take risks with games that may not be so commercially viable.

    Two examples: Kingdom of Nothing was a game where I wasn’t sure of it’s overall appeal. It’s one of my best-selling games. How We Came to Live Here is a great design, and a game I love, and it is my worst seller. I still keep both in print, because I can. It’s hard to know what’s going to be a hit and what won’t, but I can take risks on projects because I don’t have to pay my bills with game receipts.

    The main reason I like commercial publishing, and multiple sales channels, and keeping my costs down (but never at the expense of quality), is that I can make beautiful objects. That is one of the main sources of game publishing satisfaction for me, and one of my primary publication goals. Other designers are coming to me and asking me to publish their games for them because they hate all the boring crap which I honestly don’t mind, and because I’m publishing beautiful quality products and that’s what they want for their game. Galileo is fulfilling all of my personal game design goals.

  11. devp Says:

    Your tone is hardly the most strident in the community, and there is a way in which strong words will get the attention and discussion that is necessary. If you will pursue a manifesto-recorrection-remanifesto pattern in writing about this issue, that’s probably better than being overly moderate.

    I do think there are some important issues of privilege here that are worth discussing (and to which I can only speak to part of). Some of this seems geared to people with disposable time/income who can afford to view things in this kind of hobbyist fashion, rather than as part of their livelihood; but isn’t that one of the people who should seriously re-evaluate their commercial publishing goals?

    Hell, let me throw myself out here. I have games I want to complete, but I’m fairly certain that I won’t shift into using my tabletop games work to replace parts of my income. I interact with this hobby as a hobbyist creator. Maybe it’s inappropriate to use the commercial potential in the hobby as a way to measure traction and success (as opposed to a way to make my engagement sustainable). I’m going to think about that and better determine what are my goals for my finished projects.

  12. devp Says:

    I would be more interested in hearing in what you will choose to do. This is, indeed, a subject you’ve worked with before, and you’ve worked hard at restating this for a while.

    What I would like to hear from you is what you will change in how you relate to the hobby. What will be your goals and metrics for success and sustainability, if you will not be seeking profit/sales-maximization? And what will you change in your process to achieve these goals?

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