So let’s open with this – Rogue Genius Games (RGG) has a Kickstarter running at the moment (until Oct 15th). That obviously colors my opinions, and I want my biases up front. And, to be clear, I hope you’ll click on that link and consider backing my KS campaign. This post serves triple duty, as content for my blog, as an ad for our current KS, and as a way to start a conversation about how the industry is evolving.
That said, there are a lot of people, including many in the game industry, who feel an established company, or a big company, “shouldn’t” fund projects with Kickstarter. What counts as established or big varies by person (and, honestly, sometimes by conversation, and in some cases without an accurate idea what the actual size of some of the companies involved is), and in many cases RGG is likely small or struggling enough we come in under the theoretical line for it being “fair” for us to use Kickstarter
Now to be clear, if someone doesn’t want to back a Kickstarter that’s an entirely reasonable position, regardless of their reasoning. It’s a company’s job to convince you to invest in a KS campaign, and no project is “owed” support by backers. A Kickstarter campaign being run professionally has to expect both doubt and even naysayers, and one that isn’t being run professionally is a much bigger risk to backers.
Even so I think it’s worth taking some time to explain, from my point of view as someone running a company that has used (and plans to continue to use) Kickstarter for bigger projects why I find it useful and believe it’s a legitimate and useful tool for business of any size. Of course as a producer of tabletop games, mostly RPGs, that’s going to be the focus of my thoughts.
- In the Modern Tabletop Era, Pre-Orders Are Largely Meaningless
The idea of selling a product that doesn’t exist yet is not new. From the early days of gaming, companies would take orders for books they hadn’t finished, known as pre-orders, and use that money and information to finish the book and determine how many to print.
When I was first getting into the game industry in the 1990s, many of the people I worked for were already decrying the death of the pre-order system. At least for many companies, it used to be that if you announced a product that would come out 6-9 months later, you could expect a decent percentage of your sales to be pre-orders. Fans would pre-order from game shops, game shops would pre-order from distributors, and distributors would pre-order form game companies. With that information, and historical context, you could make a reasoned estimate of how well a product would do, and set the size of your print run accordingly.
The size of a print run has a huge impact on the profitability of a game product (with the exception of Print on Demand, which has its pros and cons but is generally a discussion for another day). The more books you print, the less each book costs. Which is great—as long as you sell them all. It can be very difficult to know if you are better off printing 1,000 copies at a unit cost of $2.75 each, or printing 1,500 for a unit cost of $2.55 each. Obviously the difference in pure profit is notable, and having more to sell means more potential income. But it’s also $2,750 vs. $3,825 to pay for the whole print run. If you end up selling 999 copies, the lower per-unit cost doesn’t matter.
Working with many game companies in the modern era, the feedback I get is that not only are pre-orders much smaller and less reliable than they used to be, they are no longer particularly useful for predicting total popularity. Books tend to get roughly the same number of pre-orders regardless of how well they end up selling. I presume this means that only hardcore fans and stores are pre-ordering, and thus tend to do it regardless of a product’s general appeal, but it’s also possible that online sales have changed how the system reacts to demand. Regardless, the point is that knowing I pre-sold 40 copies of a book does nothing to tell me if it’ll sell 1,000 copies, 1,500 copies, or 3,000 copies.
A Kickstarter goes a long way to solving this problem. First, the number of Kickstarter backers a book gets almost always exceeds what it would have gotten in modern preorders, which helps replace the funding pre-orders used to give companies to do books. Also, it sets a floor for how many copies I need, helping narrow down print run sizes. Third, it seems to be a better tool for determining the overall success of a product. Both from my own experience and having spoken to numerous game companies and even retailers, books with more successful Kickstarters generally are also more successful in sales after the Kickstarter. That’s useful information to have.
- Failure Is Useful
It’s especially useful information for a game company when a Kickstarter fails to reach its funding goal. That’s frustrating, but it’s also crucial information. Game companies can be killed by a single massive failure in a book they printed. Numerous companies HAVE dies from a single big flop, though admittedly usually companies with other problems as well. But discovering a project can’t raise the minimum needed to finish it before you spend that money is a huge help. It allows game companies to take risks, which leads to innovation, because they have both a read on popularity and a source of income to do things that might cost more than their normal efforts. Discovering that something is a bad idea, or at least needs retooling, before spending all the development and print and shipping and warehousing costs for it is an enormous incentive to try riskier things. I believe that is both good for the industry overall, and for creative endeavors of specific companies and creators.
- It’s Good Advertising
There aren’t all that many great, affordable venues for reaching tens of thousands of potential customers in the tabletop industry anymore. At one time Dragon magazine had a circulation over 100,000 copies. While there are successful game magazines still running (Rite Publishing’s Pathways is amazingly steady and has affordable ad options – but again, I am biased as someone who works for Rite), none of them have anything like that reach. The closest I can think of with that kind of power is John Reyst’s d20pfsrd.com site, and numerous companies I know have made great use of it… to advertise Kickstarters.
I strongly suspect that one (admittedly of many) reasons pre-orders are down in the modern era is that there isn’t a “magazine of record” for RPGs and tabletop as a whole. Dragon was, at least for a good chunk of its existence, much more than a D&D magazine. I read reviews of and saw ads for many competing game systems in its pages, and nothing with that broad base appeal and vast reach seems to still exist.
A Kickstarter is an event, and it’s one that encourages word of mouth. Because of the structure of stretch goals, people already backing you have an incentive to tell their friends and get THEM to back you, so the end product is better. And it allows a game company to push advertising for a specific time period—the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, and know that those efforts pay off in terms of total product size and quality, and likely long-term sales.
- Speaking of Stretch Goals
If a Kickstarter goes crazy-popular, and the creator manages it properly (and yes, you can mishandle a Kickstarter as a creator, but that’s hardly a problem unique to the platform), you can discover demand for something is much higher than you thought. If you offer a campaign to fund a 32-page supplement on Halfling War Baking, and it turns out what the world really wants is a 160 page hardback full color book on the topic, it’s great to discover that while there’s time to value-size your project. Similarly done properly (again, which doesn’t always happen), a Kickstarter can also let you test the waters for supplements and related add-on products. A game company might well have no other way of getting this information, and thus customers might have no other change to indicate they want it. As a connection directly between creator and consumer, this is huge. Speaking of which:
- It Creates a Community
There are pros and cons to this one, on both sides, but having a venue where people who have put their money where their mouth is can speak directly to creators has a vast potential I think creators are still learning the right way to benefit from. For customers, being able to pledge $1 to be able to speak directly to the creator, in a venue where other customers can publicly see your opinion, has a strong potential for encouraging accountability. Or course it also creates a new potential for trolling, but you take the bad with the good in this case.
Creators can also ask question directly of the people already paying them, adjust a product based on popular feedback, explain their processes—it’s a weird combination of written seminars, ad space, and forums. At its worst, it can become a toxic pool, but so can most means of online communication. At its best it’s an open and creative forum of stakeholders in a developing project, and I think that benefit is both underappreciated and still developing.
Compared to entertainment option creators like movie studios and big novel publishing houses, even the largest tabletop RPG game creator is tiny. I think there is a strong benefit in having a new and interactive way for just folks who have proven their interest in a project get to interact with the creators of it to try to build bonds and (hopefully) earn trust and buy-in.
- Finally, From Folks Smarter Than Me
Monte Cook Games are great, smart folks, who do RPG Kickstaters well. Like, expert-level well. Since it’s a public post, I am going to link to a Facebook post of Shanna Germain, where she talks about and shows a post by Charles M. Ryan that speaks to “Why Kickstarter?” I think it’s well worth the read.
Speaking Of Online Funding Sites
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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.