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.