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? 

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