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.


  1. Wow.

    Two whole posts just for me. *gushes* Awww. Gee, Ross, you're the best.

    Seriously, thank you so much. Here I thought you were busy or thought my questions uninteresting and you go and devote to entire, informative posts on my inquires.

    As for the advice, those are good reminders.

    Just so you know if you want to actually post about the "boring' infrastructure I would love to have the heads up as opposed to slog through the net trying to figure out where I need to go.

    While I do have a mild association with publishing here and there, I haven't actually done it yet so I am still lacking a lot of knowledge of the process. Like I joked about the going to movies and such as a business expense, but didn't know I really could.

    Well, of to finish breakfast and catching up on the rest of the morning stuff.


  2. Oh goodness. You want to know about the boring aspects of the business? Ok. Rather than answer here, I'll cook up a blog post about the nuts and bolts of running a business (such as I know them).

    1. Yes, I do and thank you very much.

      I await the nuts and bolts post eagerly.

      (I am so giddy about this very useful info that I have not yet jumped on you for not using my middle initial. :p)

  3. These posts are awesome and informative, Ross. Thank you for taking the time to share your hard-earned wisdom and experience!