artist highlight: juan ochoa

I am a pretty bad art director. I don’t really know what I want. It’s in my head but, you know, there are a lot of layers of translation between my brain and someone elses. My instinct, though, is to trust that part of being an artist — like a real artist, a pro — is not just translating my idea but also bringing all that creative talent to make my idea theirs. To have them develop the concept into something much better than what was in my head anyway.

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Juan and his cat Art Supplies. I believe he has another name, but also is clearly an art supply.

Juan Ochoa helps me get over that hurdle and preserve my desire to see another artist get creative: he works interactively at the concept level to get things not just right, not just as good as I wanted, but the multiple of what he wants and what I want. His method makes us both better.

I first asked Juan to collaborate with me on a project that didn’t wind up developing into anything, although we did still have some cool concept art come out of it. This was Swallowmere, a fantasy sequel to the VSCA’s Hollowpoint. It has a ghastly web page. I apologize. Here are some bandages for your eyes.

So the premise was, the world of That RPG We All Played When We Were Kids, a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and humans and dwarves and whatnot, but a thousand years later. A modern, technological fantasy. Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings, say.

demureIt didn’t finish but it created a lot of fun text and art and that was when I first got into Juan’s process. Pictures, text chat, live video, whatever he can get his hands on to bring you into the process. Now if you don’t want that, that’s cool, he can churn out to spec and not bug you about it. But if you do want it, if you want to collaborate rather than just direct, he’s all in.

After Swallowmere I asked him to do a cover and some character art for my space opera project Elysium Flare (which did complete!) In the end I got so into making the art myself — and this was his fault, since working interactively with him let me steal some essential techniques for digital illustration — that the book wound up largely in my own style. Nonetheless, critical landmarks in the book are perfectly his.

Shamayan FINAL.pngJuan lives in Bogota, Colombia, where it is notoriously hard to get him paid, get him mail, and other things we take for granted elsewhere. But it’s also a place where he can afford to live on his art (provided we hire him a-plenty), eat great food, drink amazing coffee, and keep an adorable cat. He occasionally ships me some coffee along with a cake of panela, a kind of cake of unrefined cane sugar which you chip off into your coffee. If you chip off too big a chip you just eat it because it’s still rich with molasses and other good pre-refinement stuff.

Juan has worked for plenty of folks in the industry already — you’ll see his work everywhere once you notice his distinctive style. And yet he remains humble (to a fault), affordable, and approachable. He has portfolios all over the place but this is the only one I think is current.

I love working with Juan. I feel like I get smarter every time we interact. I have recently asked Juan to work on a mini-project with me that I’ll expose at a later date. It’s not a game, just a…thing. Promotional thing, for sure, to bring attention to Sand Dogs (which is releasing within the next week), but also just a thing. A little delight. An amuse yeux perhaps.

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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.

nerd family

This might not be popular right now because the reflex is going to be to start hunting witches.

For good or ill our little communities are a lot like gangs. Not in their mandate, but rather in what they provide below the surface of their stated purpose. People join to find some family. They join to be seen, to be supported, and to generate the comradery of the herd. They feel good. Even if you already have lots of great real family, having a family surrogate online is still great.

So when a gang is poisoned as has happened recently, we are going to have a lot of family members trying to save themselves. Trying to keep some sense of family. There are a lot of different ways they will try to handle this problem.

Some will stand by their existing family no matter what, even if it means swallowing the poison.

IMG_20160603_104159.jpgSome will abandon the toxic horror and set out on their own. They may find new family. That may be easy or hard depending on how they handled the horror. But it’s going to take a little work at least because they will carry the smell of it or, maybe worse, believe that they do. And noses are pretty twitchy right now.

And a lot will want to leave but believe they can’t. Especially if we are telling them they are witches and that witches must burn. And what they will do, generally, is stay where they are and suffer and support the toxic space.

I think that’s horrible for everyone.

So, for a while at least, I’d like to set aside the details of grievances with others that are not The Principle in this tale. Just for now and just the details. And for people earnestly seeking a new space, at least consider their needs. Keep your policies, even armour them up: please please eject all assholery. There’s no need to be soft on actual behaviour as it occurs. But give an earnest application the benefit of the doubt so that there’s at least somewhere to go.

If there are tons of awesome places to be other than the Toxic Horror Show and the only bar is that you can’t be an asshole, that will make it a lot more attractive to leave and to change.

There will be bad actors. But let’s not slam the gates closed from fear of them. There are real refugees incoming. Refugees from horrible regimes deserve a chance to start over.

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.

ghost ship

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Did I mention the graphic design is great? It is. See?

Jay Iles wrote this awesome game.

It’s called Ghost Ship and it’s in alpha right now. You should go read it and play it. There are nearly 170 pages of it so set some time aside.

You were a person but now you’re dead. Fortunately for you, they scanned your brain and installed you in a space ship’s computer. Unfortunately for you, it’s not really your ship. You’re property, software, a commodity. But maybe you can become more than that as you gain memories and maybe some humanity. Providing your memories don’t become irretrievably corrupted. Or just wrong.

Right now Ghost Ship is kind of a box of parts (something the author herself has said). But wow, what cool parts. And the graphic design is vibrant and stark and evocative. And Juan Ochoa drew the robots.

It feels like a hack of Blades in the Dark but it runs pretty far afield (or maybe just far abroad), though keeping the mission + downtime (At Ease in this game) structure. There are subsystems for managing yourself, your software, your drones, and your ship. It’s quite complex and I can’t help thinking that it would benefit from a little refactoring: find some commonality and restate some of these detailed subsystems as special cases of some easily described structure. But then these subsystems are wicked cool and any one would be a very hard darling to kill.

I also got the feeling that Jay hasn’t quite decided what kind of game it is — it feels a little like there are different intentions colliding but I can’t put my finger on why. Do you feel that way? Have a better intuition for what’s causing it.

The highlight for me is the memory system: you have memories and they can be used to influence a die roll under fairly specific circumstances. But you are software and your memories are volatile and be corrupted which can change them in fairly specific ways (like, say, reversing the tone: your positive memory is now a horror). And it can get worse and worse until you lose the memory altogether. But you can try to repair it (complicated by the fact that you don’t remember what it was supposed to be). One could build a whole game around just this.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

wormholes and waystations

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My art, but it feels thematically consistent.

Today I’m going to look at Joshua Kubli’s magnum opus, Wormholes and Waystations. Joshua keeps a current set of links in its own doc, including contact info. This is an enormous tome, nearly 400 pages of material, that delivers a space-opera OSR experience. It cleaves close to type, not providing rules that guarantee the theme but rather providing extensive rules for making characters, vehicles, and equipment that are consistent with the theme. That is, we build all the things that live in this universe and get a data dump of the state and history of the universe and then go. We don’t get rules for how to push the narrative to deliver the theme but rather trust the simulation to provide it as an emergent property.

Except in one little section you could almost miss, a gem: the type of ship the characters fly determines the mission type, and the mission is ultimately the driver, or at  least the kick-off, for the emergent narrative.

I usually have a problem with these kinds of games because they lack the focus to deliver what they claim they will deliver — they claim to generate a certain kind of story but in reality they set up the precursors for that story and then mostly hope that’s what happens. Fortunately, whatever happens is usually fun — it’s the claim that the game makes a particular thing happen when the game doesn’t actually have rules to do it that I find irksome.

However, in this game that one page of information out of nearly 400 does what it says on the box. Some examples:

Noble: Luxury vessels are manned by the wealthy, so the crew might be guards and servants for a pampered dilettante, or an idealistic and meddlesome
diplomat.

Odd Jobs: Give the PCs a Multi-Purpose ship if the plan is for them to travel from one world to another, taking any sort of job they can get. Multi-Purpose ships are also
good for piracy and smuggling; they’re fast, well-armed, fairly tough, and can still carry a fair amount of cargo.

Patrol: Patrol ships are good for a lighter-duty military campaign, or for law enforcement and bounty hunter vessels.

Scout: A new planet every week to explore and exploit! Give them an Exploration ship if they’re going to boldly go seek out new beings and new societies every few sessions.

Right there is the heart of the game: this is what you’re going to do and the system will provide all the pieces needed to deliver it. And most of the game is those pieces.

Character generation is enormous and detailed an a lot of fun. I’d compare it to Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera except this is more fun and less tedious. I’m a sucker for the bits of games where you make things and this game has tons of that.

This is a complete game but could benefit from your eyes on the text: does it do what it claims to do? Is it clear what you should do during character generation? From moment to moment in play? Is there more here than there needs to be? Not enough?

I’m certain it plays just fine: the basic model of play is time-tested. Does the text deliver it?

My personal observation is that it would be a better game if that mission section had more detail, even if just some oracles, some charts that triggered ideas in the ref’s brain. Develop each into a genuine inspiration for jumping into the action rather than the tantalizing but tiny offering that’s there now. If it had the same energy applied to it as other sections of the game have I’d be very enthusiastic about giving it a spin.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.