Monday, October 22, 2012

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.

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