Sunday, October 21, 2012

No, I Don't Want to Look at Your Game

There have been a lot of changes to the game making business since I left in 2003. Back in the day, if you wanted to be published, you had to go to an existing company, which meant working on their intellectual property. You submitted your new sparkly vampire clan to White Wolf, or your tale of squamous horror to Chaosium, and if they liked it, they published it, and it became theirs. You sold the rights to your work as part of the legal agreement to sell your words. Nowadays, with the advent of .pdfs and print-on-demand, things have changed significantly, and it's affecting all aspects of the hobby games industry.

Let me tell you what it was like back in the day. Pull up an ottoman and get an old man a blanket while he reminisces... As I said, if you wanted to write for games, you had to play in someone else's sandbox. Game companies are interested in supporting their intellectual property, not helping you to create your own. Traditionally, the game idea came first -- Deadlands is very much Shane Hensley's, Mark Rein-Hagen "invented" Vampire -- with the company created to publish it. Which is a long-winded way of saying most games are created the way you create your own. So if you had your own IP, you had to self-publish (because those same game companies were busy supporting their own IPs).

Why is that? If you come to me, as Studio Manta, and want me to publish your game, that opens up a whole kettle of fish. With worms. And mercury poisoning. Are you selling me your IP, so I can publish it? Likely not; you want to see that sweet-sweet green paper. You don't want me to make all the money off your creation. Remember that scene in the club in The Social Network? That dude sells Victoria's Secret to The Limited for $4 million, Les Wexner takes it up to $256 million, and dude kills himself. Same thing here. You don't want to sell me your Next Great Idea because you want to profit off it. Terrific, and understandable. However, I, as Studio Manta, don't want to take on a partner (which is what you're suggesting by holding onto the IP rights); moreover, I don't want you taking Next Big Thing to another company, or starting your own, after I have helped build it into the Next Big Thing (which would be in your rights as the holder of the copyright). This is why game companies would rather you pour syrup on them and throw them onto an anthill than even look at your IP.

So, bad in the day, if you wanted to self-publish, you were taking a huge risk. The .pdf format and print-on-demand (called "lightning press" back then) were in their infancy. The quality of both was pretty low, and the cost of goods was ridiculously high (at least for the latter). You had to go the route everyone else went: You published 5,000 copies of your opus at TransCon or Quebecor, had them shipped to a warehouse, and hoped Alliance picked you up. Why 5,000 copies? Well, the more copies you printed, the lower your per unit cost and the more profit you could make. You could have printed 1,000 copies, but you'd be paying more money to do it. Also, you're paying for the shipping to your warehouse (you do have a place to store your books, right? Because 5,000 copies is too many for your mom's basement). This was, and still is, expensive.

Now, you youngsters have electronic publishing and PoD. It's the future! This has opened up a number of opportunities for you, the most important of which is lowering the barriers to entry for you and your Next Big Game IP. It's an exciting time, and one of the reasons I came back into the business. Without the .pdf revolution and PoD, you wouldn't be seeing all those great indie games on DriveThru or RPGNow. The drawback is that its lowered the barriers to entry, and there's a lot of dreck out there. But you know all this, right?

Over the next few blog posts, I'm going to be talking about the potential rewards and pitfalls of self-publishing. Several of you have asked for advice about creating your own IPs rather than supporting someone else's. I've had questions about the OGL, or the GSL, or whatever people are calling it these days ( I swear, you kids and your changing acronyms). In short, I love self-publishing, hate the GSL/OGL, and still think there's a place for the traditional means of distribution (e.g., writing for existing game companies). How's that for ending with a bang? As always, if you have any questions, let me know.

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