Category Archives: Business of Games

Gen Con Schedule

I’ll be at Gen Con! Here’s what my schedule looks light right now.

WEDNESDAY

I come in before noon. I have a few informal things planned, but you might be able to catch me someplace (like the Omni hotel lobby) if you want to.

THURSDAY

I’m open most of the day! I might try to Meet and greet hour someplace, if folks express interest (and yes, that would be a good time to have me sign stuff).

I mysterious disappear around 7pm, and likely for the rest of the night.

FRIDAY

I’m on several seminar panels!

Starfinder 101

11am   Location: ICC room 212

Introduction to the new Starfinder RPG. Learn the story of the Starfinder universe, what you need to start playing, & where to begin your own character’s legend.

Starfinder Rules Q&A

12pm   Location: ICC room 212

An up-close look at the rules of Starfinder, including differences between the Starfinder & Pathfinder rules. Ask questions & discuss the philosophy behind the Starfinder game system.

ENnies  (6pm)

I’ll be at the ENnie Awards! A great time to meet a lot of your favorite game designers, especially those with products up for awards!

SATURDAY

More seminars!

Starfinder Rules Design workshop

10am   Location: ICC room 212

Participate in a hands-on workshop focused on rules design in the Starfinder universe & assist in developing original rules from concept to execution.

Designing Starfinder Aliens

12pm   Location: ICC room 212

Learn the secrets of monster making & everything that goes into creating a truly terrifying foe.

Secrets of the Pact Worlds

1pm     Location: ICC room 212

Come explore the inner region of space in the Starfinder universe. Learn about Absalom Station & discover alien species.

Starfinder – The Digital Tools Horizon

2pm     Location: Crowne Plaza Victoria Stn B

What does the digital destiny of Starfinder look like? Leading companies answer your questions & outline their visions of the future!

I mysteriously disappear again in the evening. 😀

SUNDAY

Currently wide open!

This is the OTHER day I might schedule an open meet-and-greet, if there was interest.

MONDAY

I fly out in the afternoon, and I suspect I’ll watch the Moon eat the Sun from the airport.

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Old School Freelance

I used to send type-written article proposals to Dragon Magazine via US Postal Service, with a S.A.S.E. (That’s a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you who weren’t trying to get published in the 80s and 90s.)

Then I’d wait 4-6 weeks for a response. If there were things he’d like to see some different version of, I had to send ANOTHER written physical piece of mail. If something was approved, or approved with changes, I had to type that out, then mail in the typed article.

When then-Editor of Dragon Dave Gross sent me an email address (sent my US post) I could use to send in magazine proposals and submissions from that point on (with orders it Not Be Shared), around about my third article, it was a HUGE boost to my career. But I began with paper submissions.

By the time I was interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast, I could bring files with me on a 3.5″ floppy, in case I stayed someplace with a business center that had a computer I could work on. (A laptop, though they existed, was entirely outside my economic grasp.) So when I was flown out for a in-person interview, I managed to finish a Dragon article between when I left home and when I arrived at the old WotC building to wait an hour or so for my interview, so when a Dragon editor ran down and asked if I knew when the article would be ready, and I gave him the disk, he hugged me and ran back upstairs to begin editing it immediately.

Of course, that meant the people who were about to decide if they wanted to hire me heard about how I brought a much-needed article with me, just before my interview.

Paper. Stamps. Email. Floppy disks. It could be done before filesharing and blogs and Google Docs.

(Looks around. Nods once. Trundles back to dinosaur cave.)

The Modern Era

Now, I can offer material directly to the end-users, with things like My Patreon!

Check it out!

Rarer Than Astronauts?

Full-time, on-staff tabletop/pen-and-paper RPG writers with benefits are incredibly rare in the US.

I was told in 2000 there were more full-time astronauts in the US (149 at the time) than full-time, on-staff RPG writers. I suspect that was true at the time. There are fewer US astronauts now, and a lot more small companies with 1 or 2 people running it as full-time jobs, so whether it’s true now is going to depend on how you define things.

Getting on-staff at a game company as a creative of any kind (designer, developer, R&D, writer… titles vary by company) requires you to have a proven track record and a reputation for being someone that is easy to work with. In my opinion, nowadays the easiest way to get those started is by writing things for social media (one of the reasons I have a blog, for example), then work cheaply for small game companies, often for pdf-only or print-in-demand products. Hopefully you’ll get better, get more work, and come to more people’s attention. As your network of contacts spread and more people know about you, the size of company that is interested in working with you goes up.

The leap from that to an on-staff position is still a big one. I worked for Wizards of the Coast from 2000 to 2001, then was a full-time freelancer for most of the next 13 years before I got another staff job here at Paizo. You may have better luck than I did, or you may want to start your own publishing company, or begin a Patreon, or just do freelance work for several different companies, many of them smaller than Paizo.

Good luck to everyone who tries!

Imperfectly Normal

I try to be open about my various mental, emotional, and physical issues. But I also try to not harp on them. I’m not sure what the right balance is, but as I sit 10 days from Gen Con, and the release date for a whole series of books that have eaten up a lot of my headspace, it seemed reasonable to offer a snapshot of how I am doing.

The idea here is not to bemoan my circumstances (I am fortunate and privileged in many, many ways) or ask for help (I have the support I need). But I do want people who feel their own limitations puts various achievements out of reach to be able to see the spectacular level of imperfection that is normal for me. Your path may well be much harder. I’m not trying to give some life coach pep talk. Just honestly share where I am, and let all of you who care to read it decide what that information means for you.

There’s more work to be done than hours or brain cells to do it, and even when I have the time I don’t always have the capacity. Numerous things that trigger many of my anxieties are all happening at one, and even knowing I have been through these things many times before doesn’t really seem to help me keep a handle on things. This is a spectacular confluence of events hammering my sense of calm. As an analogy–knowing ripping the band-aid off will hurt, and that it’s both necessary and temporary, doesn’t reduce the pain of doing it.

I’m not getting enough sleep, and I am stressing too much. These factors will build until after Gen Con, and then, maybe (but only maybe) I can get my life back to some semblance of normalcy.  Until then, I am desperately trying not to let anyone down, not turn over sub-par work for anyone else to have to clean up (a task at which I have apparently already failed a couple of times), and not cry in public. That last is trickier now that I work in an office than it was when I worked from home 90% of the time.

I know, intellectually, I am going to get through this. I am even proud of a lot of the things I am accomplishing, and I have no intention of giving up. But I also am being honest with myself–there are yet more rough times ahead. There will be great times mixed in with them, too. That’s kinda how life works. My depression is a wild card, but even that I’ll get through if it rears up. The important thing is to keep doing everything I can, whenever I can. Some days will be good. Some will be bad. And I need to keep to my coping mechanisms, and forgive myself when they break down.

I’m exhausted, and repetitious, and run down, and worried. But sometimes I am proud and excited, too.

To a lesser extend, this is what any major new release or convention appearance does to me. this year is just magnified significantly in all regards.

It’s all imperfectly normal for me.

The Old Satire Swing Out Front

So if there’s one thing I learned in RPG publishing*, it’s that your d20-based fantasy rpg publishing company needs a small, fantasy-themed, murderous creature to use as a mascot.

Sadly the obvious choices–goblins, gremlins, kobolds, the demon god Orcus–are taken.

So, that pretty much leaves us with dark creepers, dretch, mites, and orang-pendaks.

I think we can all agree mite is the “big” winner here.

Of course, that means (by law), I have to think about a free RPG day adventure** featuring Mites.

For this sort of thing, the name comes first.

Here are my current choices:

A Mite. B Giants.

Doom (The Spell) Comes to Fog-Town

The Mite-y Horde

Tick Attack

Vermins and Vigilantes

Clearly***, this is the first step to a much greater level of success for me!

*And there might not be. And this is satire. Though there still might not be.

**I only have to think about it. I don’t have to do it. which is good, since I’m not going to.

***It is not clear.

This is weird

Yes it is. I give some explanation of it on my Patreon, in a currently patron-exclusive format.

Burnout, and the Rent

This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.

To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do.  It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.

So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.

And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.

Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).

But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.

I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.

On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.

In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.

Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiple, rather than add.

But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.

It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.

Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.

Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.

But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.

You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.

Patreon

I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.

If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.

#OwensLaw

It’s interesting what people will latch onto.

I didn’t name “Owen’s Law.” I think that was Keith J Davies of Echelon Game Design, though someone might have done it before him I didn’t notice. And I certainly didn’t turn it into a hashtag. That was definitely Lucus Palosaari, project manager over at Fat Goblin Games. So I’m using their terms, because not doing so seems disrespectful, but I’d be just as happy to see the idea spread without having my name attached to it.

So whatever you call it, the rule is this. “If you mention a product you sell or make money from, link directly to where people can buy it.” The broader application of the rule can be stated as “Make it easy for people to give you money.” Though that one also a lot of other corollaries as well.

Now I am not the appointed keeper of Internet etiquette, and I know some folks don’t like to “hijack” threads or commercialize non-commercial discussions. I’ve been very clear that no one should worry about either of those in any online space I control. My Facebook page is there for gaming and gamers, and if a discussing makes you think, “WOW, that sounds like people involved in this idea might like to buy my Advanced Guide to Halfing War Baking!” then by all means, mention it AND post a link.

Really, once you are calling attention to a product, why make people actually interested in it do a Google search for it? I don’t see posting a link as any more intrusive than telling people talking about where their favorite burgers are not just that you like In and Out, but that there’s one down on Main Street. It’s additional, relevant information. And, in this case, it cuts barriers between people who want to give you money, and the actual act of you getting paid.

This is especially true of independent creatives. Your best advertising is word of mouth, but that has to start with you. Telling folks about your awesome stuff is good, but if they don’t take the steps to buy your stuff and then discover they love it, they can’t tell OTHER people how much they love it. And in my experience, people are much more likely to follow one click and then make a buy decisions, than they are to copy the name of your product (which I hope you got right), paste it into a search engine, choose and click on a link (that I hope is a sales site and not a review with no cart options), and THEN decide if they want to buy it. It doesn’t sound like much work… but what is the advantage to you of making them do that work?

Also, if you have fans, posting the link makes it easy for them to SHARE that link. Now you aren’t dependent on them getting the products name right, and your name right, AND for interested buyers to do the Google Search tango to get to a buy screen. If you paste the right links in when you talk about your products, your fans can easily share the exact link you want buyers to see and use.

Of course, don’t be obnoxious about cramming a mention of your products in everywhere you can. People will tune you out. I prefer 3-4 social media posts about things other than my products for every 1 that has a buy link. But if you restrict yourself to announcements that actually seem like news and are posted in appropriate venues, and mentions of your material when and where it’s actually relevant to the topic at hand, you can boost your visibility, save members of the community some time, and “Make it easy for people to give you money.”

And as a final #OwensLaw note, this need not apply only to your stuff. It can just be a cheap, easy way to support other groups in your community. Obviously I didn’t have to post links to Echelon Game Design or Fat Goblin Games above… but it cost me nothing to do so, and if any reader finds even the company names interesting those links saves them the time and effort of looking the companies up. That increases the changes of more people having more fun, which I always see as a good thing. And, it may earn me or my blog goodwill, which is great.

Speaking of My Stuff

I couldn’t do an #OwensLaw post without some shameless self-promotion. I have a Patreon, and the money from it helps support this blog and it’s free content. And, today, I added a minor coda to how I use #OwensLaw to boost visibility and sales as Patreon-exclusive content.

Check it out!

Upcoming Starfinder-Compatible Products from RGG

Next month, Rogue Genius Games is going to be leaping into the Starfinder-compatible market, with what we hope are the first of a long line of exciting quality products. More details will be available as we get closer to release, but I did want to show off what we are planning, and how they are looking.

The Starfarer’s Companion has tons of material for players and GMs, including computers, starships, feats, races (Aasimar, Catfolk, Deoxyians, Dhampirs, Grippli, Ifrit, Kitsune, Kobolds, Mechanoi, Nagaji, Oreads, Samsarans, Suli, Sylphs, Tengu, Tieflings, Undine, Vanaras, Vishkanya, and Wayangs) and classes (Bard, Cleric, Magus, Paladin, Ranger, and Wizard).

Starfarer's Companion Cover 72dpi

We’re also releasing a 1st-level introductory adventure for 4-6 players, Blood Space & Moon Dust!

GA Blood Space and Moon Dust Cover 72dpi

And of course it seems likely that once the game is out, some Starfinder material will find it’s way onto this blog, and into my Patreon. 😀

It’s exciting times!

On Game Industry Professionalism

I’m surprised how often this comes up, but there is often a sad lack of professionalism in the game industry. It’s not all one-way, and it’s not all intentional, and it’s not all unique to this industry… but some of it is, and that causes issues throughout the hobby. Especially as some big conventions are coming up, and those often mean new contacts and new work deals, I wanted to talk about it a bit.

I’m certainly not the gatekeeper of gaming professionalism, but there are some things that seem to be common among the industry folks I look up to who are better-known, smarter, and more graceful than I am, and I do my best to emulate the. This list isn’t comprehensive or absolute – there are important things I and missing and side cases that might be rare exceptions to these principals. But in general, this is a fair baseline for what I see as the start of game industry professionalism.

Oh, and I want it to be fun to read, so it’s broken into movie quote section.

Break a Deal, Face the Wheel

No, no one will actually put a fiberglass mask on your head and send you off to die in the desert… but if you get a reputation for not doing what you have contracted and agreed to, you may end up in an allegorical desert when all the available work dries up.

Look, the industry is often brutal. Pay is too low, deadlines too short, respect too uncommon (especially among some segments of fans). Some years not only would I have made more money spending the same amount of time doing minimum wage fast food jobs, but my main reward was to be called out and attacked by people with less experience and understanding of games than I have. It can suck.

But leaving people in a lurch makes it suck more.

If you agree to do a job, and the other side holds up their end, you need to do your best to hold up your end. I have had people I thought were promising freelancers, who I took a risk on, mentored, said nice things about and introduced to other publishers, take a contract, ask me to push back the deadline by months, then stop communicating at all, then tell me they can no longer do the project at all and give me some half-assed outline in way of recompense. All while continuing to do work for other companies.

If mental health issues has you down? Yes, that’s no different that backing out of a running job because you broke a leg. You need to be up-front and honest, and tell me as soon as possible, but I get it. But do it early, be frank, and don’t immediately prove it’s not about that by taking even more work from other people. If you need a break, take a break.

But if the job you are doing for me just got pushed back to the back of your queue so often because of better work coming along that you’ve decided it’s not fun anymore, or no longer a good use of your time? Tough. You agreed to do this project. We have a contract. Do it.

You’re not just making a publishers life more difficult when you just throw a project aside. You are boosting their missed opportunity cost, adding stress, and preventing them from paying everyone else who would be involved. It’s unprofessional, and it’s way too common among way too many freelancers.

The reverse of this is ALSO true. If you tell someone you’ll publish their work, and there’s no formal timeline, and five years alter you still haven’t? You are screwing with them. And, obviously, pay what you say you will pay, when you say you will or before. Giving feedback is optional, but smart to improve the whole industry. Bad-mouthing a freelancer to other publishers for some behavior you never told THEM was an issue/ Unprofessional. Cancelling a project and just never telling people working on turnovers? Unprofessional. Sitting on a manuscript for years? Unprofessional… and I’ve been guilty of that one.

Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.

We rarely have information as crucial as the location of the One Ring, but there certainly are things you shouldn’t let the (various) Dark Lords know.

What information is exchanged between company and employee or freelancer as part of a work arrangement should be kept between those two, unless there’s a crime involved or an agreement that says otherwise or it’s become common knowledge. If you get to work on Ultimate Sentient Weapons, a major book that hasn’t been announced yet, you SHOULD NOT then use that information to write a book that does the same thing but better, and sell it before USW comes out. That’s screwing over your partner who got you that info, and it’s not cool. Similarly if a freelancer tells a publisher the freelancer is already working on something similar, the publisher should not take steps to trademark names involved, or change publishing dates, or badmouth them to damage their reputation, or change the project to cover the idea the freelance admitted to having.

Even without an NDA, don’t do this.

Once things are all out in the open, normal intellectual property rights can apply. And if the publisher is giving the info to lots of folks to do associated projects, there’s no reason not to ask if you can be included in that set of folks. But you can’t use info you were given to do a job for A Corp, then leverage it to sell a tie-in to B Corp before anyone even knows it has happened. Similarly, don’t leak files, even just to your friend Josh. Because you may trust Josh… but Josh may trust Wilhelm, and Wilhelm may trust Jerry, and Jerry may be an asshole. Don’t take the risk.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

What you do and say as a representative of yourself is your business. But if you wrote for a company’s new book, and you go to that company’s forum, and you take sole credit for things that were developed, edited, and worked on by 7 folks? Not cool. And if you badmouth it as crap the developers ruined? Not professional. And if you attack and insult customers who are annoyed? Way unprofessional.

If you can at all help it, don’t escalate conversations people who work with you are going to have to deal with. It’s like leaving a dead fish on the counter. If it’s your counter that’s gross, but you have to deal with it. If you leave it on my counter, you are making my life harder as the reward for me working with you.

Also, you will build a reputation. It will get around. Consider what you want it to be.

Be Kind. Rewind.

This industry is a meat grinder all too often. People with great talent and love of games leave both for more money, and for less stress and grief from fans.

So, try to be nice.

Yes, this is a vague hand-wave at professionalism, but give it some thought. If it takes only a tiny bit more effort to be nice to folks, why not do that? Yes, sometimes people are attacking you, or actively damaging your company or your reputation, and “nice” may not be a reasonable reply.

But if we were all nice whenever we could be? That would fix a lot of issues too.

Give more credit that you take.

Tell people when they make a positive impact on your life. Thank them.

Consider if you are being needlessly cruel in feedback. Saying you hate a game mechanic is very different from saying it’s idiotic and you don’t understand how anyone could ever think it was a good idea, and even THAT is different from saying a game’s writers are idiots who clearly only have their jobs because they are friends with the developer and the boss is so checked out he doesn’t care what gets published.

We HAVE lost people from the industry from such behavior. We’ll never stop it all, but if I can have one rock thrown at me each day or twelve, I’ll pick just one.

Self-Promotion Done Right

You can build up yourself without tearing anyone down. For example, I have a Patreon, and I’d love if you backed it.

Clinton Boomer has a Patreon. It’s awesome. You should back it too.

Liz Courts has a couple of Patreons. All worthwhile.

So does Jacob Blackmon!

I’d rather talk about how awesome these all are, and let you decide where to spend your money.

This entire post was sponsored by the Open Gaming Store. It’s awesome, too.

Bad Nights and Coping Mechanisms

It’s late, and I’m tired. Today was a massive failure. As a result, I feel like a massive failure.

So, to coping mechanisms.

Though I do not believe it emotionally, or intellectually, I am going to keep telling myself everything is going to be all right, and that things will get better. There are risks to this, but it serves me better than despair, so that’s the mechanism. It has to be rote, or I won’t do it when I most need it. I have sometimes dug up my old checklist, from when I literally could not trust myself to make smart care decisions on nights like this. I’d stare at the times, and feel total apathy. But doing something seemed smart, so I’d do those things. And check them off, each as I did it, no matter how minor. Some lists even include not doing things, so I get to mark those off just by properly focusing my sloth.

The coping mechanism says I have to go forward assuming I can fix things tomorrow. I can’t keep the failure of today with me, count all my progress against the negative value of this and all the failed days that came before. That’s stacking the deck against myself. I need to have a realistic assessment of what is possible, but that’s about looking forward not weighing down measures of success with things I could have gotten done if I just hadn’t failed miserably on a range of occasions.

I do know, looking at my track record, that sometimes I pull it out, and sometimes I don’t. I also know I am a bad judge of my ratios of success to failure, and that smart people I trust often have a very different opinion of how I am doing. That all gets added to the coping mechanism calculations.

But there’s no point on hammering my brain any harder about this tonight. That hasn’t worked since I was 35. When I am done, I am done.

I need to go through my checklist of things to try to give tomorrow the best chance. What I eat, what I read or watch, how late I stay up, whether I take my prescriptions—these things feel utterly pointless right now, but I know they are not. However bad things are, there is no point in making them worse.

I am bad at self-care, but making every effort I am able to is part of the coping mechanism.

Also do the best you can to take care of yourself, and forgive yourself of your failures.