expensive toys

My business, the VSCA, is in a very privileged space. It’s not for me to talk about whether someone elses pricing scheme is good or bad, just or unjust. It is certainly all those things. So let’s just look at some things that are certainly true and wonder how much we care. You get to decide how much you care for yourself.

Monte Cook Games pays a decent wage to their writers and artists. Far above the indie norm.

A hundred bucks in one outlay is too much money for some people to pay. They cannot afford to buy this game (Invisible Sun) even in digital only form.

A hundred bucks does not seem to me to be out of line with my personal rule for pricing: generate the same profit in print as in digital. It just tells me that MCG is making about eighty bucks per unit on the print version too.

Big price-tag games are not new. Hell I would love to own that monster box Ogre release but there’s no way I could justify the price. I still have to pay off the stair elevator chair thing my wife uses to get to the bathroom since she can’t walk. But there are lots of things I can’t afford. I usually talk myself into believing I don’t want them. Same as everyone. Pfft, Lambourghini, where would you even drive one in this city and expect to use its performance?

There are thousands of games with lower production values but better play values one could own. It is hard to find out about all of them. Even most of them. Because…

…it is very hard for a producer of low priced excellent games to get eyes on their game. They can’t afford the sort of marketing available to better capitalized endeavours, they don’t have the industry heft and consequently the social media reach that these folks have. And manufacturing that reach is very difficult (and as we have seen elsewhere in the so-called “industry”, sometimes poisonous: it might not be wise to trust people who have spent a lot of energy developing social capital like that).

Kickstarter enables almost anyone to either effectively capitalize whatever project they want (including one of the scale of Invisible Sun) or fail trying. The nice thing about this is they don’t need to eat the risk unless they succeed at the Kickstarter. That’s when the risk kicks in and sometimes eats you alive. The problem here is probably that “great game designer” and “great project planner” and “fiscal genius” don’t necessarily overlap in any given enthusiastic person starting a Kickstarter. But if you do Kickstart and you do your fiscal homework, you can pay artists and writers top dollar too. And if you can’t (Kickstarter fails) then you don’t play out that risk. This is what Kickstarter is good for.

This might not be a fact but I believe it firmly: more people buy a digital product than read it and more people read it than play it. If you want to sell a lot of copies your game can be crap as long as it’s pretty and entertaining to read.

The front page of DriveThruRPG is driven by revenue not units sold. If you sell two copies a day at a hundred bucks each you will stay on the front page for a long time. Smaller entities will last hours at best, and then fall under the radar. So even if a consumer checks the site once a day, they will never see many new titles. Never ever.

Poor people deserve a good time too. In fact I’ll say they deserve it more. A lot more. You wouldn’t believe how much the oppression of living day to day with Not Enough is lifted, however briefly, by a fun time with cool people.

To my mind then there is nothing “to do” about this hefty pricing of a PDF. It’s easy to justify. It’s easy to deride. Ultimately, a business has set a price and you can afford it or not. They don’t owe you access and you don’t owe them your money.

At the same time there is a boom in insanely cheap, deliberately low-fidelity gaming zines produced by people who are only paying themselves and barely managing that. Should we also be examining that? Is that “ethical”? There are and have always been a ton of pay-what-you-want or even just free games out there that are largely invisible because the heuristics of DTRPG guarantee it and the authors are not facile at getting visibility. Should we be concerned that they pressure indie developers to keep their prices low? They do. Should we be concerned?

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I have never paid Juan Ochoa enough.

No, not particularly. What we should care about is that people who do work get paid for it and paid adequately. That’s pretty much it. Whether a product sells enough to stay afloat is not our problem. Pricing is not our problem. Consumer goods being out of reach is old news (and is a feature of capitalism, so changing it is a substantial project). Cheap and occasionally excellent goods being available is awesome and unusual.

There are at least two ethical actions then (and I like to talk about things in terms of what to do next — criticism without some logical next steps is cathartic but less useful): supporting lines that pay their artists and supporting lines that are single-author (since these are largely the same thing). If you tell me the rates you are paying artists and writers on your Kickstarter, I’m more likely to think about backing (depending on what you actually say). If you’re a single-author publisher and especially if you’re not using Kickstarter, I will happily highlight your project here and tweet the hell out of it, lending you my (sorry but) limited reach.

If you want everyone to be able to afford games, you can’t drive down the price of Elite Games and also support adequate pay to artists. There are a lot of talented people getting paid to make that sort of thing. You can help make already affordable games more visible, though, and by side effect put more money in the hands of artists. So they can make more (affordable) games.

That is, the solution isn’t deriding luxury games. The solution is celebrating the rest of them. Inasmuch as a solution is needed.

Oh and for heaven’s sake play your games. If you read it, yell about it, good bad or mediocre. If you play it, yell with more authority.

Yell about games.

itchiness

nanite-borg-gold-detail logoTime for a little experiment. While there is not a lot of choice for hardcopy publishing, there are choices for digital. And, better, some give much better margins than the Big Place For Game PDFs You Already Know About.

So I’m adding the non-Fate VSCA offerings to a storefront at itch.io. If it seems useful and if the operators there seem responsive to the special needs of role-playing game sales, I’ll add more.

For the month of February, have 50% off there. I’ll post the Soft Horizon SRD there when the latest rev goes public.

Thanks as always for your support. Patreon is paying off, keeping the game-related bills paid and that’s a huge relief. The King Machine is selling, slowly, but increasingly, and I think when Sand Dogs comes out (which is a more mainstream setting) we’ll get even more traction.

Love to you all!

2018 in review

2018, despite being a shit year for pretty much the entire planet, was a good year for the VSCA. For me.

On the home front, though Jackie’s mobility and other functions continue to decline thanks to Multiple Sclerosis (you want to help cure something horrible? Send your Christmas money to the MS Society of Canada) other issues are largely under control. My place is still a mess, my time soaked by pretty much everything and Jackie unable to assist, but that’s really a minor issue. There were no major hospitalization incidents and mania and psychosis are under control. That’s pretty good. That lightens my load a little and is a big factor in the rest of this review.

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This project also got me drawing again. That’s a Really Big Deal.

Elysium Flare got released! And it’s my first full-colour project. We even managed to bring in some art from Colombian art-genius, Juan Ochoa. It’s a really lovely book and a tidy little Fate-based science fiction game. It features a lot of loose setting material out of my own head and represents my best effort at grabbing some enthusiasm for space opera as a genre. Now look, I had fun making it and I think it’s a great little game. And it’s beautiful, especially in hardcopy. But I’m not likely to do space opera again unless it’s pretty psychedelic and I’m not likely to do another Fate game.

This project also got me to figure out the Drive Thru RPG POD system. It’s convoluted and frustrating but it works. As a publisher experience, Lulu is much nicer but you can’t beat the integration and the storefront of DTRPG. Both make nice books.

We started and then abandoned a Diaspora second edition. That’s probably not ever going to happen.

I started the Patreon to keep this new effort running and it’s been very powerful for me: feeling like I owe people regular product makes me make it. I can’t emphasize enough how well this works for me. Thank you to all my patrons: you have made this a great year.

lazer-owl smallI almost secretly released a little zine-sized product called anomaly digest. It’s for sale in hardcopy only and it’s at cost — there’s no profit in it. Add it to your cart when you buy everything else! It contains a number of little adventure hooks and mini-dungeons created as part of the RPG Talk (that’s a Discord invite link) regular content contests. I don’t participate in these any more since it kicked me into making games and that’s where the energy goes now. This went our as a physical reward to some patrons.

bonobo anthropologistAnd finally the Soft Horizon gelled and I got out the first issue, The King Machine. A game I’m really proud of, but I’ve talked about it elsewhere.

And now the second issue is out for playtest (really a textual playtest — the game itself is already heavily tested but now I need to see if the text works). So Sand Dogs could be out in January.

And then there was the impending for real death of G+ which forced me to make some plans about where to communicate and get communicated at. That bore this blog, a remake of my old one (and I’ll repost some stuff from there occasionally), and some exploration of other spaces. So far I can be found at:

marketing

Somewhere along the way marketing an independent game got way harder for me.

With Diaspora we had a lot of community contact during development through RPG.net and many of the readers and posters there bought the game, wrote about their experiences, and voted in the ENnies. We won a gold for Best Rules. We sold (and still sell) a lot of Diaspora.

Three years later we released Hollowpoint. There was some engagement at RPG.net but a lot of the contact was through the blue collar space blog (now defunct): existing VSCA customers looking forward to the next game. Hollowpoint sold well (not as well as Diaspora) and still sells. It’s a great game. We didn’t win an ENnie but we were nominated for best game. Given the sales (and therefore the voting body for the game) that’s not surprising. And I am very proud of that nomination.

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Zero Dark Thirty was a casualty. I think I’m just still pissed that they stole my title for a movie.

Then there was a long break. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, lost my gaming group. my wife got very sick, and generally I was unable to create. During this period Kickstarter emerged as a way to get enough pre-sales money to do big production books. Lots of colour, pretty product, and most importantly connection to a lot of people who seem very eager to put money down on product that won’t show up for a year or two. Also during that period RPG.net started banishing any post that smelled like shilling your game to a subforum that no one reads. A new community emerged that made no sense to me and a valuable community for an independent community designer got shut down.

I tried a few little things in the interim, not trying very hard. Elysium Flare was baking in the back of my head. Soft Horizon was just being troublesome.

Well perhaps I waited too long. The original audience, the VSCA fans, had become dispersed. Some of them just grew out of role-playing games (not sure how that happens). They forgot who we are. The locations of the communities changed. There are more and they are stranger, full of young people (get off my lawn). There’s a lot of video and audio (which I really can’t use in my home). Kickstarter became sort of the only way to sell games.

So for me, mostly interested in making a book about a game, selling it to you, and then moving on to the next game, my market disappeared. Or went into hiding. My old home, RPG.net, makes the pretense of being non-commercial by ghettoizing independent game announcements (though strangely there’s a whole thread just for Kickstarters pinned to the front page of tabletop-open — I am not sure I understand what privileges Kickstarter). And Kickstarter dominates — it’s kind of the only game in town. And I just don’t like it (for me, in my opinion, your mileage may vary, and all that good shit).

Worse for me, I think I pissed off some people with the power to generate buzz and thanks to the way the Internet works, when someone pisses you off you can kind of shut them off forever, meaning any miscommunication can become banishment with no chance of reconciliation — there’s no accidental meeting at a dinner party where you get drunk and in a maudlin fit explain each other to each other and bury the hatchet. Now you just get disappeared. Or maybe everyone grew up but me. I know at least one grew up and I miss him a lot.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way to do this any more. It just means that the ways changed (and in ways that are mostly social, not technological) and the audience got harder to find. And my tastes have changed as well and since I sell what I love to play, when my tastes change I have to actively try to find the audience that changed with me. That turns out to be very hard. Exhausting, even.

So I am at peak creativity — two releases this year and maybe a third (though more likely Sand Dogs will be coming out in 2019). More planned for next year. But at a low point in my reach, which is very demoralizing.

The games, however, are still going out since the zero-risk model is still in effect. This mess is not stopping me, just disappointing me.

sand dogs v0 doc

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Time for a break then back to the digging.

The first draft of the playtest doc for Sand Dogs is now publicly available! If you give it a spin or even just a read, please reach out. And share as far and wide as you like.

This doc is obviously incomplete but it’s also certainly enough to run a game — it’s all we’ve been using for the past six weeks or so. Much more is coming, including ways to develop tomb artifacts, gods, and stuff like that.

If you dig it, consider grabbing a copy of The King Machine (same system), which is on sale for less than 5 bucks in PDF until next year. You can have a very monkey Christmas with that.

less indie more coöp?

The hardcore independent scene, where one person is doing everything from concept to delivery, is great fun for me. But it’s not in any way lucrative because I’m not good at everything. I really don’t want to get involved in conventional methods, though, with all the middlemen I don’t know taking a piece of the profits. And I don’t like the distance that comes with paying someone to do spec work.

I want to collaborate. I really want to be able to lean on a coöperative.

Consider a community (shared goals: real community) of people with various skills that can gang up to produce games. Maybe the organization sets the profit percentages to some standard so that everyone gets paid. But basically you’d have a pool of people you can collaborate with.

A user named tropical depression brought this up on the dice.camp Mastodon instance and I would love to develop it. Well, I would love for someone else to develop it: I am not a brilliant organizer of humans. But imagine a place where you could find that person who kicks ass at getting kickstarters out the door? Imagine a place where many of the people had a vested interest in your success and consequently helped hype your work? And all with keeping the risk down by avoiding pre-publication payments, instead sharing profits in a fair way? This would break down the whole publisher role and concentrate on creation and selling product.

Is anyone doing this already? Sign me up. I find the recent re-focus on traditional print-warehouse-sell very disheartening, moving us backwards from the power creators have with POD. It re-introduces risk that doesn’t need to be there and it reinforces boss-minion power structures, paying “staff” instead of collaborating with other creators and sharing the fruits of that work. The new old way makes me a marketer and I’m not a marketer. I want to leverage grass-roots enthusiasm, not develop a Twitter brand. I want to share and get shared.

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Juan Ochoa is so much better at this bit than I am. Why not let him flex?

I also don’t want to work for free. I don’t want anyone to work for free. But I want an artist I work with to come to the table with creative input, not just fill a spec. Artists, it turns out, are really good at art. They excel at colour balance, composition, and all that good stuff that they often set aside to meet a specification. Usually from someone who’s not as good as they are. What if, instead, that cover art was the best art a real artist could make based on their reading of the material? What if we worked together, not just on the same schedule, but to share the creative process in its entirety?

Similarly with writers and developers: what if we genuinely brought our creative energy together to write that text? I always talk about letting the players bring their creative vision to the narrative of a role-playing game — isn’t the logical extension of that belief in others’ creativity allowing others to share the conceptualization of a new game?

What technology would be necessary (I hate to burden actual work with picking technologies since technology is sexier than working) to collaborate effectively? Would a coöp need to standardize or just cope with everyone’s favourite workflow? Could it at least provide advice based on expert knowledge? It could.

And distribution: it seems like working with the existing sales and fulfilment experts would be valuable for everyone. DriveThruRPG and Indie Press Revolution could both benefit from some kind of relationship with an organization that consistently produces in a fair and diverse way. And that relationship could streamline the rough parts of working with those marketplaces. I’m sure there are others as well.

Could I relinquish enough of my own vision to let that happen? I’d love to give it a try.

But I don’t know where to start and I’m the wrong person to start it. I’d be a very enthusiastic member, though. Vocal, opinionated, and producing work at a regular rate.