Monday, November 5, 2012

Fun for Profit

It's been an exciting week here at Dangerous Games. A hurricane. Electricity out. Long lines for gas. And I broke 25th level in Borderlands 2. Don't ever say I don't have my priorities straight. As I mentioned in the last post, I wanted to tackle the concept of turning fun into a business. The idea was prompted by a throw-away line from a reader, Craig Glesner, you wrote " I am looking at all the new stuff I have to do for real as opposed to hobby." [Emphasis added].

Oh, Craig, there is so much you have to do to produce a professional-looking product. First, let me tell you what's at stake. I have a friend who purchased a product from one of the online, download sites. I then had to endure twenty minutes of angry, frustrated messages from him because the product was junk, in his opinion. It didn't do what it was promoted as doing. The quality of the writing was atrocious. It was rife with grammar mistakes. It was a bunch of poorly-drawn maps with spotty text. My friend vowed never to buy another product from this "company." I have another friend who professionally reviews games for people, and he posted to Facebook that the adventure he'd just read was in desperate need of a cartographer and editor. It was eight-pages of half-baked junk. Once you get a reputation for junk, you'll find it hard to recover.

There is a fundamental difference between creating for yourself (as a hobby) and creating as a business (for real). The biggest difference is that you have to treat it like a business. That's what your hobby becomes, and it's actually an oft-made lament by professionals; I know several pros who run their own companies and complain that they're not creating for fun, they're running businesses. That's not to say there aren't elements of fun in running your own game company. When I worked at LUG, I'd find myself involved in all kinds of fun conversations about elf sex or the difference between "compel" and "convince." There was 40K wargame night, and networked Starcraft. But mostly, for me, was the knowledge that I was creating something that other people would use for entertainment. That's not nothing. You also get to write things off your taxes, like part of your cable bill and movie tickets, because you're in the entertainment industry and have to keep up with nerd culture. I kid you not.

Now, I don't expect you to run out and hire an editor or graphic designer; many of you can't afford that kind of expense. (As an aside, however, if you're going to be offering your product as a Kickstarter, I suggest you allocate some of that money to hiring an editor and graphic designer.) There are things you can do to ameliorate the situation, and produce a quality product on your own.

First is focus. When you're writing for yourself, you can leave a lot of holes that your brain will fill while you're sitting at the table running the game for your friends. You already know that the evil baron is a narcissist with anger management issues, and so you don't feel the need to write that down. If that's a key fact to the adventure, however, you've just confused your reader (by not including the information). Another problem is that an encounter that makes perfect sense to you may not be so clear to someone else reading it. So you want to make sure when you write that your material is clear. It's a question of focus: You're not writing for yourself, for your home game; you're writing for an audience, who has to understand what the heck you're trying to say.

True story, when I write, I often have to stop myself and ask "what am I trying to say?" I may not be writing what I intended to write. What may seem clear to me may not be when viewed from a different perspective. This is why, quite honestly, people hire editors, because another pair of eyeballs reading your stuff and saying "that's not clear" can be helpful.

Second is scope. Your typical game product has a lot of words that need to be written. You're trying to explain how things work in your setting or adventure, and you're doing it so it's clear for someone else. This adds to the amount of words you must write to communicate your idea clearly (see focus, above). What for you might be a few words of description turns into a full-blown description, so your audience understands what you're trying to say. For many, they simply run out of steam. They can't sustain the momentum, and simply stop. I've seen products where the writer just gave up mid-sentence. One product started out by describing every room, but by mid-book they just couldn't do it anymore and the room descriptions just stopped. You are going to be writing a lot of material for a professional book.

There is a related problem: The person who writes too much. I know what a chair looks like. I know what a chest looks like. I even know what a phaser looks like. You don't have to describe every element of the dungeon room to me. We, as writers, have to focus on the salient features; that's just an SAT word for writing what's important. Does it matter to the adventure that the room is decorated in bauhaus style? Do I have to know that the kingdom's economy is based on kumquat production? You have to focus on what's important to the product.

I have this problem, too, to be honest. I'm currently working on a zombie adventure, set in the future, and I find myself writing page after page about the government and how it operates... which is kind of important because they're the enemy (in addition to the zombies), but it starts to read like a civics text book and I have to dial it back. Other times, I start on what I think is a really cool idea, but I drop it because I just can't sustain the word count. Be prepared to write a lot, but just enough to communicate your ideas.

Third is objective. What is it you're trying to write? Is it an adventure? Is it a setting? Is it a blog that no one's going to read? You have to know your marketplace. Every work makes an implicit promise to the reader, and the reader comes with certain expectations. For example, an adventure for Pathfinder is very different from one for Call of Cthulhu. If you tell your reader to expect a Pathfinder adventure, then it had better deliver, because that's what your audience is expecting. Moreover, if you promise a Pathfinder adventure exploring lost elven ruins, then there had better be a lot of elves and ruins. So many times, I've read products that don't deliver on the chosen format, or don't present what was promised.

So there are two expectations going on in your work: the product format expectation, and the subject matter expectation. It can be hard to stay focused on those twin objectives. You may start to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1920s New York, but end up getting distracted by some random idea -- the plight of immigrants in Red Hook. Or you start to write the adventure, and end up writing a 1920s New York City sourcebook. Worst is when you promise something that just doesn't deliver, the contemporary fantasy game setting that doesn't provide consistent character classes (alliteration!) or setting information because the writer lost focus, couldn't generate the words to support an entire book, and thus didn't fulfill the product's implied promise.

There are a lot of things you have to consider before you try to turn your hobby into a business. Let's face it, the idea of making money (any amount of money) from something you love to do is alluring. Especially when you see other people (like myself) doing it successfully. Today's environment means you don't necessarily have to take the traditional publishing route; you can effectively self-publish. I haven't even gotten into the questions of registering your business, getting UPC symbols, or filing tax returns (all elements of running a business). On a fundamental level, I tried to tackle the basics of turning your fun into profit, the product itself. Always remember: 1) You're writing for someone else; 2) you're writing a lot of words; and 3) you're writing for a marketplace.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Answering Questions

Craig Glesner asks a rather specific question that perhaps doesn't concern a lot of you, and that has to do with art. He asks about how one goes about finding artists, how much one pays, and so forth. Now, many of you out there aren't trying to publish your own game material, but you might find some of this information interesting in a "behind the curtain" kind of way. For me, beyond the nuts-and-bolts of finding artists is the more interesting comment Craig made: "Of course, now I am looking at all the new stuff I have to do for real as opposed to hobby".

The short answer, Craig, is go here:

First, it's not that hard to find an artist. The problem is finding "good" artists. If you're looking for an artist, all you need to do is post something online, either to EnWorld or RPGnet. What you're going to want to do is look at their online portfolios, and most professional artists maintain websites for just this purpose. This is a lot better then we had it back in the early days of the internet, when there really was no central location to go and post jobs. Most game companies would bring their art directors along to conventions for the express purpose of looking at all those portfolios artists would bring with them. So, post a job offering and see what response you get. 

Second, art direction. I gotta tell you something, there's a metric ton of stuff us non-artists don't know about art. Forced perspective? Light source? I don't know that stuff, man, just draw me a cool picture! It is so much harder than that. That's why most professional game companies hire a professional artist to act as art director. What he does is turn your words into pictures, and he does it a specific way: He tells the artist what to draw. In other words, he visualizes something from your game and describes it in such a way as to be helpful to the artist. I had to write hundreds of these things for the Star Trek RPG, and man does it suck. It's not so much the difficulty of doing it, as the fact that you're basically writing stuff for the game that will never appear in the game as words. It seems a little pointless to describe the Vulcan riding the chariot pulled by sehlats for a piece of art when you could be putting that stuff in the game.... Anyway, since you don't have the money to hire an art director, Craig, I suggest you just describe what you want to the best of your ability. 

Third, payment. I have no idea what pay rates are in the industry these days. It used to be that an original, full-color piece of art for a cover ran you about $2,000. A quarter panel used to go for about $125 per piece. All I have to say is that you negotiate a price with the artist. You now also have to consider all that fun stuff you never considered when this was just a hobby: when is payment due? That's up to your contract with the artist. Didn't think of that, either, did you? Your artist, whoever it turns out to be, isn't going to put pencil to paper without a contract. It stipulates when the work is due, the conditions for accepting the work, and when payment is due from you (plus how much). Happily, you can find a standard boiler-plate contract on the web. 

Lastly, there's a bunch of other stuff I can't even begin to go into because a) I wasn't an art director and b) I remember only as a hazy nightmare. You're art may not come to you in a digital format, which means it's got to be scanned. You've got to scan it at the right dpi, otherwise your picture is going to look pixellated. You've got to keep track of the art itself, because many times the artist isn't selling you the original, just the right to use it. By that I mean, the artist owns the physical artwork (unless you want to pay more), and he'll likely want it back after you've scanned it. Again, this is something I'm only hazy on. So take this part with a giant grain of salt. 

Let me suggest this: Find a friend with graphic design experience and let him worry about this stuff. Flowing text in Quark isn't that hard, but including artwork increases the difficulty modifier. Even better if you can find some friends who are artists, and are willing to cut you a deal on the rate. Finally, ask around on one of the gaming websites out there, like EnWorld. There are a lot of industry professionals with way more knowledge than me, and I'm sure they'd be glad to help you out with information. Lastly, allow me to direct you to this site one more time:

Hopefully tomorrow, I'll tackle the larger subtext behind your question -- turning your hobby into a business. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Opening the Floor

Many of you may have noticed that for the past few days, there hasn't been much activity here at Dangerous Games. Partially, that's because I've been at home outlining some new projects. However, as I look over at the stats for this site, I notice that by far the biggest draw was the article on freelancer best practices. I understand that a lot of you out there want to know how to break into the business, or how to comport yourselves once you're working, but a lot of my other articles cover important stuff like sticking to word count and actually writing what you were asked to write.

Since I'm such an attention whore, and want to give you what you want, I'm going to throw open the floor to questions. What do you want to know about? What kind of advice would you like? What questions might you have for an industry professional? This can be about anything, from how to combat writer's block to why a certain game uses a particular mechanic to questions about something I've designed. I don't care. Hell, you can ask me "boxers or briefs?" and I can turn that into an article. I'm not proud (if I were, I wouldn't be a game designer).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Truth In Gaming

I watch a lot of “making of” documentaries that come with the DVDs of my favorite movies. I’m especially a fan of those movies that come with the second DVD filled with this stuff. (Conversely, I’m always annoyed by the DVDs that don’t include this kind of material; what are you trying to do? Hide from the making of your own movie? Is it some kind of mystical secret?) In these, the director often talks about his vision for the movie, and the process he went through to get that on screen. From script revisions to story-boarding, setting up shots to post production, a good documentary takes you through the director’s process. One of the things that usually stands out for me is when the director talks about bringing himself – his eye, his sensibility, his understanding of the material – to the creative process. He talks about being “true to the work,” and that’s the vector that interests me.

I live with an aspiring actor. The basis of our friendship is our mutual interest in truth. Notice, I didn’t say “the truth.” I’m not talking about cosmic truth. For him, it’s being true to the character, or the scene. For me, as a writer, I try to stay true to the work. I also look for what’s true in the characters, the scenes, and the overall work. Much like a director wants to stay true to the script or the original novel, a good writer is dedicated to what is true. If I describe a character as compassionate and loyal, he’s not going to abandon his friend dying by the side of the road. If I write a scene where everyone wants to give up, he might try to rally them to soldier on, or he might argue to stay behind with the wounded… I don’t know what he’ll do, honestly, because I don’t know right now what is true to that character (because I’m writing an example, and not a novel).

As a writer, I strive to be true to the work. This is no less true for game design.

First, you should be true to the rules. The rules of any game encourage specific play modes. They reward certain kinds of behavior, and penalize actions that run counter to the game's objectives (what it's trying to do). Often, simply not rewarding contrarian actions is penalty enough to discourage them. For example, Call of Cthulhu is a game about cosmic horrors, and the slow disintegration of your character's sanity. The game wants your characters to be scared; even better if the players are scared for the health and well-being of their characters. The rules encourage this by making the PCs generally weak, emphasizing the importance of investigation, and including Sanity rules. A lot of other games include rules for the characters going crazy, however only Call of Cthulhu has you tick off points like hit points; this is so you can see your character slowly descend into madness the more Cosmic Truth he or she learns. Finally, you don't go charging Cthulhu with machine guns blazing, because you'd get squished right before your brains leak out of your ears. 

So, when you're designing rules, you should think about the truth of what you're trying to encourage. You're aiming to encourage specific kinds of play, to emphasize the game's genre and themes. In a game of film noir detective stories, there had better be rules for interrogating people and investigation. Putting in mass combat rules would run counter to the truth of your game. Moreover, the way in which you reward characters, experience points or skill increases, should be tied to those activities; solving the crime should net more rewards than simply shooting Sydney Greenstreet in the gut. If you're going to design a pirate game, there'd better be rules for naval battles and boarding actions. Including rules for diplomacy or sanity is a waste of time and detracts from the core game play (unless you're doing a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off in the latter case); if you're trying to emulate the "Dread Pirate Rob" effect, you might want to include rules for tracking a pirate's fame (or infamy), for example. Character rewards could be tied not only to killing hapless sailors, but also the amount of booty players take; even better if the latter outweighs the former, to encourage them to want to steal as much booty as they can lay their grubby mitts on. 

If you're writing new rules for an existing ruleset, you want to think about what the game is trying to accomplish through its established modes of play. That's just a fancy way to say "don't add rules that the game doesn't need or want." There's a very good reason why there aren't any Sanity rules in the pirate game, so adding them is superfluous. You want to stay true to the game play. However, if you're now adding zombies and tentacled horrors to the pirate setting, then you obviously need to include those Sanity rules. If the game is about low-level magic in a contemporary setting, then don't add high-level magic item creation rules. You want to be aware of what the game is trying to achieve, and support that. New rules might provide variation to existing rules, so you can use them in a new way. If you need to add a completely new mechanic, make sure it blends in with the old rules. For example, the pirate game is fast-paced and doesn't encourage a lot of book-keeping, so your new Sanity rules should emulate this (rather than requiring a complex series of dice rolls and minute tracking). Lastly, you want to present appropriate conflicts. The Noir game is about investigation, so you don't want to write an adventure with a James Bond style mega-battle. Otherwise, you're going against the established play mode, and violating the game's truth.

There’s another layer to this, as well. What are the expectations of your target audience? You have to stick to your game’s expectations, or the expectations of the core audience. Vampire: the Masquerade is all about political intrigue, because what else are you going to do to occupy your time when you’re a soulless, immortal bloodsucker? The target audience expects a lot of intrigue and backstabbing and double-crossing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, is all about slaying vampires; you don’t really need all that much information about vampire politics when all you care about is staking vampires and getting to class on time. 

As a writer, you should also be concerned about the setting's truth. The setting supports the established mode of play, by giving the players appropriate things to do, and presenting conflicts to resolve in the manner in which the game expects them to be resolved. Look at the difference between Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Birthright. Those are all fantasy medieval settings, but with different elements that encourage a specific feeling, tone, and themes, which feed back into particular modes of play. Writing for Forgotten Realms is different than writing for Dark Sun. The setting for a horror game should be appropriately spooky, with dark shadows, a menacing landscape, and disturbing characters; you don't want to create a happy little ice cream shop (unless something seriously messed up is going to happen there). A post-apocalyptic setting is going to be gritty, with looted stores and a decaying landscape; you don't want to describe a happy little town with white picket fences (unless something very strange is going on). You can introduce vampire politics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with one group trying to use the slayers against the other, but remember the objective isn't Vampire: the Masquerade-style intrigue; the players are never going to get involved in that level of detail. Stay true to your objective. 

Which brings me to the concept of juxtaposition. Notice in those last two examples, I proposed elements that run counter to the established theme. Juxtaposition actually ends up supporting the setting's assumptions by running counter to them. Presenting a happy little ice cream shop in a normally dreary horror setting immediately sets the player's teeth on edge. What kinds of horrible things could possibly occur in a Friendly's?! Their minds are already running through the gristly possibilities. If you're going to use this technique, again remain true to your objectives. Know why you're violating the setting's themes, and running counter to its truth. That is, this setting element has its own truth. Also, use this technique sparingly. 

In all cases, I'm asking myself "why is this here?" and "what am I trying to accomplish?" It's easy to get off track, become enamored with your own work, and loose sight of the work's truth. You have to stay true to the game's rules and established play mode, as well as true to the setting. If you're going to break the mode, then you have to stay true to your objectives. It's a lot to keep in mind. 

First, A Recommendation

One of the things I never considered when I first started out as a full-time industry professional was the concept of product identity and trade dress. When I got to Last Unicorn, there were quite a few meetings held about what the product line would look like; we hadn't even finished writing the first book, and we were worried about the appearance of the line? I learned that this was an important consideration.

This goes beyond defining things like page-counts. To recap, in order to properly budget for a book's production, a game company closely defines the elements that go into a book. Page count, words per page, paper stock, cover type, even binding. That's the stuff I, as your humble line editor, was worried about, because a lot of it directly affected what I could do with a book. I cared about as much about what the cover's appearance as I do the latest Kardashian shenanigans.

If you're going to publish your own books, however, even if it's just in .pdf format, you really need to think not only about the individual product's appearance, but also what the entire line looks like. There's  a reason all Deadlands books had that shocking orange cover. How big will the book's title be on the cover? What font will you use? How big will your company logo be, and where will it be placed? Will you put the author's names on the cover? That's called your "trade dress." You should be able to look at your product on a shelf and instantly tell it's your product.

We haven't even discussed your corporate identity -- your logo, what font you'll use for your business cards, all that stuff the affects how you present your company.

All this is a long-winded way to explain the reasons why you need a graphic designer. If you're going to publish your own books, you likely gave this about as much consideration as I did back when I started at Last Unicorn; which is to say "none." I just happen to have a graphic designer to recommend to you. Her name is J Kovach. I suggest you visit her at Take a look at her work. Give her a call. See if she can help you with your graphics needs.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The 800-Pound RPG in the Corner

Last night, I was awakened at 2am by a frantic message about a game. Yes, you read that right. Frantic message. 2 am. About a game. We writers are a strange lot, and pretty much everyone I know writes at night, or rather morning technically speaking. While you're asleep in your bed, dreaming about whatever it is you dream about, the typical writer is pounding away at his keyboard and a fifth of bourbon. Hey, it worked for Hemingway. 

The message wasn't really a question, but rather a game writer who wanted to discuss Monte Cook and Numenera. The message:

I just think it's a great example of the kind of hunger there is for good game products that don't follow the traditional path. He essentially walked away from the next big thing to make his own next big thing, paid for by his supporters. 

For those of you who aren't in the hobby games industry, or those of you who are but have been living under a rock, Monte Cook earned $500,000 in a Kickstarter campaign for his new game, Numenera. This has created a buzz like... well, like a half-million dollars. Let's face it, when you guys email me questions about e-publishing and the GSL, you have visions of making a half-million dollars for your game setting. Hell, I have visions of making that kind of money. So it's time to talk about the 800-lbs. RPG in the corner. 

Let's start with the obvious. Neither of us is Monte Cook. Monte has been working in this business for a long time (since 1988). He comes out of traditional publishing, which means he knows the importance of hitting a deadline; he knows how to write well, because he's submitted hundreds of articles and learned what line editors want to see; he's worked as a line editor for ICE and TSR, so he knows how to keep a product focused, and what makes a good game. He's worked on some big-ticket items like Planescape, D&D 3rd Edition (which earned him praise from Gary Gygax himself), and Dungeon-a-Day. He founded his own game company, Malhavoc Press, which, YES, produced D20 material. He has his own Wikipedia entry, for goodness sakes. 

Whatever Monte produces, you can be sure it's going to be awesome. He has that kind of reputation. I think, at this point, Monte could write out a grocery list and get $20K on Kickstarter for it. That's not taking anything away from Monte. He's gracious, self-effacing, tremendously talented... He deserves his success. If you want to make $500,000 for your own game, however, you have to look at what he did, then emulate it. 

That's how I got into this business. My favorite writer was Nigel Findley. He designed games and eventually published novels. I looked at his career when I was an aspiring writer (which means I'd done didly-squat and wanted to), and saw that he started as a freelancer, produced quality products for several years, then got hired full-time as an editor. After a few years of doing this, he started writing novels for the game on which he worked. I vowed to follow in his footsteps. And, eventually, wound up working full-time for LUG as a line editor.

Working for the Man: As I said, working for an established game company is invaluable. It teaches you to become a better writer, as you absorb your editors comments and adopt them consistently. It teaches you the value of a deadline, because without those you'll never actually finish. Getting a job as a line editor teaches you all the things you never even considered as a freelancer. I know. My first week as a line editor, LUG brought Andrew Greenberg and Bill Bridges out as consultants. I learned more about what makes a game, and how to present it, than 20-years of playing games could ever teach me. These days, however, getting freelance writing work in the hobby games industry is pretty hard. It's virtually impossible to get full-time work as a line editor. The industry just doesn't work that way anymore. 

Producing Your Own Stuff: This is the route many of you want to take. So long as you keep my advice in my previous post ( in mind, I think you can enjoy success. Using the .pdf format and PoD really opens the door to interesting, innovative stuff. Your goal is to emulate what you see in professionally produced game products. (Also, hire an editor. Or hire someone like me to read over your stuff). Monte earned himself a reputation for quality game material, first by learning all he could in the hobby games industry, then actually producing good stuff. 

Look at the Message Above: Creating stuff through the OGL or GSL is a terrific way to get noticed and build a reputation. No doubt about it. But look at the message I quoted above. Go head, I'll wait. Monte left doing what everyone else was doing and created his own game. He blazed his own path. This is why I harsh on the GSL so much, because so many people out there produce what I call "my older brother's D&D campaign" and don't create new games

It seems to me with the .pdf format and print-on-demand (and Kickstarter) now is an exciting time to be producing our own games. Sure, you’re not hopping on the OGL/GSL money train, but it’s not quite the party you may think. If you’re going to fight for brand recognition, and assume all the risks and costs, wouldn’t you rather do it to support your own Intellectual Property? Like a Numenera? 

Kickstarter: This is the magical key to money-land, no doubt about it. Here's what Kickstarter has taught me, so far. First, many of you are backing multiple Kickstarters; this tells me you have a lot of disposable income that you're willing to spend on quality games. Second, a lot of you are backing the options that give you the entire game line; this tells me the traditional distribution chain isn't servicing you. You can't get your games at game stores, so you're going to the net and backing Really Cool Games. Third, many of you like chasing after those stretch goals; you want to be a part of the process, whether it's demonstrating your loyalty by getting the exclusive dice, or kicking in to get yourself written into the game. Monte made his money by going directly to the fans. 

The Rub: Finally, you're all looking at that $500,000 and you're dreaming about taking a money bath. Certainly, Monte Cook could take all that money and disappear to the Cayman Islands and start voting Republican. But he's not going to do that, and neither are you. You know what you're going to do? Start producing the game you promised, with all those stretch goals. Yes, Monte really blazed a trail and showed us all what is possible. It's really tremendous. Now, he's got to get to work. Earning that kind of money can be as much of a curse as a blessing. You've got to manage all those promises you made. I'm not suggesting he won't do that; in fact I know he's working hard to get it all done, and I know it'll be spectacular. Again, because Monte has that kind of reputation. 

Put Another Way: I have been in this business for years. I know what makes a good game. I can't even read or play a game without analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses. I have my name on dozens of products. I won a freaking award for this. And I don't think I could make $500K on Kickstarter. I don't think I could even make $20K, to be honest. I have realistic expectations. 

I know you have visions of using Kickstarter and PoD and a bunch of other tools out there to make your own half-million dollars. I even want you to try. Remember, however, (and this is the point of this blog) you need to earn yourself a reputation for quality work. You need to know what makes a good game, and how to present it well. You need good ideas. And you need a lot of hard work. In short, you need to face this realistically. You can't just throw up any old thing on Kickstarter and expect to make "Monte Cook Kind of Money." It's something to shoot for, though, ain't it? 

Toiling in the Land of Sodom

In my previous blog post, I covered the basics of why game companies don’t want to look at your game, game setting, trading card game, miniature wargame, boardgame, or what-have-you (did I cover all the bases?), and what you used to have to do to self-publish. To recap, game companies are working on their own games, thank you very much, and don’t want the hassles involved with buying the rights to your game (which you’ve likely over-valued anyway); you could self-publish the old fashioned way, or as I like to call it “why didn’t I just take all that money and burn it because that would have been more efficient?” Today, I’m going to talk about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the new environment of .pdfs and print-on-demand (PoD).

Specifically, I was asked “why would I spend my time and energy supporting someone else’s IP by writing for them at $0.06/word when I could be self-publishing and reaping all the rewards?” That’s a great question, but needs some clarification. The writer in question wants to know why he should submit something to, or solicit freelance writing from, an established game company, when with .pdf, PoD and the various “open source” licenses he could publish his own material for the same game and realize more of the profit. Just to be clear, I’m doing just that; currently I’m working on a Pathfinder campaign being released in .pdf.

It’s no secret around the hobby games industry that I’m not a fan of the OGL, and left the industry just as that horse was leaving the barn. It’s a miniscule industry, we all know each other (sometimes a bit too well), and I’m what you could politely call “vocal” in my opinions. I’m going to try to see it from the other perspective, however, and discuss the pros and cons of being a 3rd Person Provider of game content.

First, the pros. I’ve got to admit, the whole thing sounds great, and I know quite a few people who jumped on this bandwagon and rode it to money-town for a long time. I know there are people and game companies who stayed in the business making great products by becoming 3rd Person Providers. First, and most importantly, you make 100 percent of the profit. That’s saying something. You’re not making $0.02/word or $0.06/word, you’re making all the money after costs. Given the size of the market for games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, that’s potentially a lot of money. The reason this is all possible in the first place, and what makes it really cost-effective, is the .pdf format and PoD. These two elements combine to lower your cost of goods. You’re not paying to print, ship, and store thousands of copies of a book that might not sell. You’re selling an electronic file, and your customer is paying the printing costs if he orders a print-on-demand hardcopy. All you’re really paying for is the writing (which is often done by the 3PP guy himself) and layout, and the guy who turns it into a .pdf (if you can’t do it yourself). That’s savings you can pass on to your customers, in the form of less expensive books (and you are passing those savings on to him, aren’t you?). Even better, you eliminate the middleman – those evil distributors and game stores who all want their cut to not really sell your game all that effectively in the first place.

As much fun as a lower cost of goods, higher profit margin, and cost effective distribution can be, the real thrill for a lot of writers is the ability to create and control an intellectual property. This is not just nothing. If you write something for Studio Manta, and I pay for it, then it’s MINE. I buy the copyright. Not only that, but I get to tell you what to write and how to write it. That’s what my job essentially is as a line developer, and why Big Game Press employs me. Not only that, but Studio Manta gets to use your material any way it likes, when it likes. You, the writer, are adding to the Big Game Press’ intellectual property. If you self-publish, however, that creative control is yours. You can design whatever you like, so long as it conforms to any requirements of the license. It’s your setting. In fact, I hold the copyright to my first book, The Bronze Grimoire, because that’s how Chaosium rolls. I could turn it into a movie, or a novel, or a video game. And at this point, I could reprint it myself, or sell the publishing rights back to Chaosium. That’s power, my friends. And let’s face it, you all have visions dancing in your heads of selling your magnum opus to Hollywood, or writing a fiction line based on the setting, or getting Blue Oyster Cult to turn it into a song… If you create and control your own IP, you’ve got visions of sugar-plums dancing in your heads, and if you’re more realistic you at least realize you make the profit off your own IP.

I love this idea so much that I’m actually working on my own intellectual property. Actually, three. I don’t want to take my idea to Hollywood, I just want to publish the kind of setting in which I would want to play (that’s an important game design element), and make all the profit from it. I also like the idea of being able to circumvent the bastard distributors who don’t actually do anything to sell games, but insist on their mark-up. So you see, I’ve thought about this 3PP thing, too. Remember that as you read the cons.

And there are a lot of cons, in my opinion. First, you take on all the risks and costs involved in publishing. Sure, a lot of people made a lot of money with the OGL, and continue to make a lot of money on Pathfinder. These have been, generally, either the early adopters or the ones who have a reputation for quality. A lot of people have also lost a lot of money producing shovel-ware, or jumping on the bandwagon too late, or just plain getting lost in the avalanche of products out there.

Which brings me to, you have to fight for brand recognition. The market is glutted, or can easily be glutted. Let me put it this way: I shop at Complete Strategist in NYC. A few years ago, I noticed a trend. The 2nd tier game company sections were getting smaller, and the D&D OGL section was getting larger. And larger. And larger. I had no idea if I should buy a campaign setting from AEG or the one from Green Ronin or the one from Mongoose…. How many freaking monster books can a single game support, by the way? These books weren't organized in any manner, either. All the D20 stuff got dumped in the D20 section, so you could never find anything. I’m not even getting into the morass of OGL .pdf products being offered. And not all of these offerings are good; there’s a lot of crap out there (a point my friend Mark makes often, and loudly).

Which brings me to the problem of quality. When the subject turns to 3rd Party Producers and their products, a common complaint I hear is that they’re simply not edited. Editors and line editors are important. Because while you may be intimately familiar with your subject matter, you may not communicate it well; what may be clear to you could be a muddle on the page. Subject-verb agreement, shifting tenses, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, these are all too common, I’ve heard. Hell, I need an editor just for this blog, because I sometimes type “they’re” when I meant “their” and I don’t catch it because I’ve been staring at the text for too long. You’re also trying to cut costs by not including art. I know we’re writers, and many of us don’t understand why the artist gets paid so much for a quarter-panel of art when we, ink-stained wretches that we are, are the ones doing all the work. Art is important. It not only breaks up the text, it conveys a sense of the setting. Seriously, go to a local high school, steal some kid’s chemistry notebook, and print his Metallica doodles. If you’re not going to try to put out a professional-looking product, then you’re not a game company: you’re a vanity press.

There’s one other issue you’ve got to contend with on the quality side, and that’s perception. For many people, cost equals value. That’s just the way the human brain works. You may put out a setting for $4.99 on RPGnow, but to many people that automatically means it’s got to suck compared to the $39.99 giganto-setting put out by Paizo. Because value equals cost. Moreover, Monte Cook might be able to self-publish a setting for D&D and make a million dollars; Jonathan Tweet might sell 100,000 copies of his latest IP. But you’re not Monte Cook. I know, I checked. You have to answer the question “why should I buy this dude’s setting?” because that’s the question your consumer is asking. Often, that answer is “quality.” See the paragraph above. If you put out a product that offers perceived value, do it consistently, and get a reputation for it, then you should be okay. That’s a BIG “if.”

Alright, you say to yourself “I don’t care about the risks and costs, and I’ll brave the marketplace, because at least I’m supporting my own IP.” Are you? Are you really? I don’t think you’re supporting your intellectual property at all. I think you’re actually supporting Paizo’s and WotC’s. You’re building their brand identity with your offerings. And without any threat to their bottom line, no less. If your product tanks in the marketplace, it’s no skin off their nose. They didn’t spend money to produce it, you did. You lose the money, not them. If you’re a success, and I hope you are, then they get the benefit. Everyone buys Ross’ Land of Angst because they’ve heard it’s so good, and everyone’s talking about it, and… you have to own Pathfinder or D&D to play it. Let’s put another way, everyone’s saying “have you seen Ross’ new setting for Pathfinder?!” Sure, I’m benefitting, too, by making the sale. But I’m also adding to their Intellectual Property; they can take what you wrote and use it in their own stuff, and so can anyone else. In the end, you’re still tending someone else’s garden, but with your own IP.

(As an aside, this can be dangerous. Every time there was a rumor that WotC was going to change the OGL, dozens of companies froze in fear. Do you really want to be at the whims of some MBA who decides enough is enough and drastically revises the license? I can’t answer that question for you, but it’s one you should consider.)

You don’t care about all of that, however, because the IP for the setting will be your own. You can sell it to Hollywood. You can sell it to Electronic Arts. There can be comic books! Let me assure you, Hollywood does not want your IP. Ditto for EA and Marvel. Also Tor, Viking or any other publishing house. My friend Shane Hensley has been trying to sell Deadlands for years, with NO success. He took it to game companies who said that wild west videogames won’t sell, then produced Red Dead Redemption; in fact I have an Xbox game called Darkwatch that is an almost perfect rip-off of Deadlands. So get those fantasies of selling your IP and retiring to Megan Fox right out of your head. If you’re going to turn it into a videogame, I hope you’re good at coding. If you want a comic book, start taking art classes.

Working for The Man
To return to the original question, some people don’t want to deal with all of this. My friend Chris Pramas says that if you want to write and design games, the last thing you should do is start a game company. Do that, and suddenly you’re running a company, not designing games. For some people, they just want to write, and submitting work to a game company is a good way to do it without all the headaches. Sure, you’ve got to write what they say, only make $0.06/word, struggle to get work, and have to deal with irrational line editors (hello!), but you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting of writing, editing, layout, sales, tracking payments… That’s why you would want to work for an existing game company. It’s safer.

In Conclusion
Remember when I said I was working on a Pathfinder 3rd Person Production? I am. Just because I’ve been pretty harsh on the idea doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in it. I’m even going to pursue two other licensing agreements. What I want you to do is go in with your eyes open. There’s tremendous potential to make money, especially with the cost of goods so low (thanks to .pdf and PoD). There’s also a strong possibility you’ll lose your shirt. Have no illusions, you’ll have to take on the risks and costs of production yourself, fight for brand recognition, work hard to put out a quality product, and fight to get to the top of the heap. Don’t do it because you think your D&D setting will set the media world on fire and have Hollywood beating a path to your door. Do it because you love to write games. Because let me tell you something, this stuff is a lot of hard work.