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In The Long Run, Is The Real Money in the Games Industry Not Going to Come From Making The Games?

Gridiron football grew out of older games, and became a hobby sport. At that point, the money in the game was in producing the materials (equipment) for it, and to a lesser extent selling books with the rules.

Now, far more people watch football than play it, and the money is made by forming professional-level exhibitions and controlling the viewing of such, and related licensing. Making generic football equipment and rulebooks for it is a far, far less lucrative business.

This may just be the natural progression for all games.

In which case, adventure game companies are looking at the hobby they largely created giving someone else most of the money generated by the game.

(And hey, speaking of making money elsewise, please sign up to my Patreon so I can afford to keep making posts like this!)

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Responding as a Professional in Public

A lot of creatives are very engaged with the public nowadays, myself included (to the degree I can manage it). That can have lots of rewarding interactions, but it can also lead to people giving you very public feedback. That feedback may be valuable to your work, or it may miss the point entirely, or it may actually cause you problems in being seen as open, or competent, or paying attention. If you want to be a public professional creative, in my opinion you need to respond to your viewer’s feedback professionally.

And here, I am specifically talking about responding to true feedback. If someone is trying to threaten you, or your right to exist, or your livelihood in a comment disguised as feedback, you are in a much more serious situation that’s flatly outside the scope of this essay—take steps appropriate to their intent, not steps designed to respond to a normal comment that’s well within the reasonable back-and-forth of the public creative.

My most recent public feedback? So, my mother (Empress of the Geeks) called me out on twitter about my Laser Dress design. “If laser dresses are weapons. aren’t they forbidden at all important (diplomatic etc) parties? What use is that?”

First, let me say how much I love that I live a life where I can do a fairly silly, opening-of-an-80’s-animated-series-inspired, a co-worker threw the idea over a cubical wall and I ran with it, off-the-cuff design for a piece of armed formalwear for a roleplaying game… and my mother can (and will) critique it online. Most of my fellow game designers have to mourn that their families don’t really get RPGs, or what they do for a living. My mother’s connected enough to tell me if she thinks I’ve missed a bet. ❤

Regardless, that’s feedback in a public venue. Now, how to respond?

First, personally, I believe in staying polite. Don’t ever be the one to escalate, it doesn’t help anything. If you think someone isn’t worth responding to, just don’t respond to them. You can try ignoring them – most people lack the time to hunt down and pester every creative they question, so this often works. However, it’s not universally effective. If you feel you need to be clear you are disengaging, I recommend not beating around the bush but not being rude. “I appreciate the question, but that’s not something I am going to go into.” or “That’s outside the scope I of what I want to get into.” Have both worked pretty well for me. The point is to be clear to someone who doesn’t want to let something go that you don’t want to get into—just tell them you don’t want to get into it. They don’t get to decide what conversations you have unless they are paying you directly under some kind of contract. (And no, buying your stuff doesn’t count for this purpose—they are a customer, not an employer.)

In this case, I’m happy to engage and respond with my mother, so I wrote a response.

“First, that assumes that they aren’t designed for diplomatic parties among races where going unarmed would be an insult. Judge not aliens by our own cultural norms, Mom. :)”

So let’s be clear, my mother has a point. The main reason I didn’t address her point in the original write-up is that it’s as much a joke as it is a serious piece of equipment… and my mother isn’t the right audience for that joke. But I did go to all the trouble of writing it up as useable equipment so… why? Why did I bother?

My unofficial material for Starfinder is very much third-party publisher material, and in general I trust GMs to figure out what they want to use that material for. Maybe laser dresses are rare, and no one normally knows what they are. Of course if that’s the idea, the rules should have covered how to identify them, so listing that invites a further debate, which isn’t what I am looking to do here. I want to respond, in an engaging and friendly way, without leaving a huge opening for other people to jump into.

Now, in this case I have an advantage of knowing my audience. She raised me, after all, and introduced me to science fiction (and fandom, and cons, and her brother introduced me to RPGs, and she was my DM for many years when I was a kid – we’re a pretty geeky family). So I know she’s read a ton of classic science fiction, which often asks questions like, “what would it be like if an alien culture was radically different than our own?”

So, I can use that to craft a response that notes she has a point (“Yeah, laser dresses aren’t going to be legal in most high-end parties based on our culture”), while pointing out that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonable item (“Starfinder is set in a whole galaxy of adventure—there are tons of cultures not based on ours!”).

But, I made a mistake.

It being my mother, I ripped off a response on-the-quick, and didn’t think about it again until this morning. When I re-read it, it felt… a tad patronizing. I didn’t INTEND to be patronizing, but the tone and wording are more dismissive than I meant them to be. And that’s one of the risks of communications online. All you have is the words, cold and hard on the screen, and missed tone is all too easy. I included a smiley face, which has become the punctuation of emotion in e-missives, but I don’t think that’s good enough. I should have carefully reread my repost, as I often do when talking to new folks, and made sure the tone was friendly and polite.

Sorry, mom. I’ll try to do better. 🙂

Speaking of Being a Professional: Patreon!

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Sometimes It’s a Hobby. It’s Always a Job.

I have spoken to many creatives about how they interact with the media they create for, and gotten a lot of different responses. Many novelists have told me they can’t help but dissect the story elements of all fiction they absorb, and the word structure of everything they read. They can’t help themselves, and it makes the process of enjoying fiction different. Not necessarily worse, but different. On the other hand, some have a specific type of fiction or writing they carefully keep separate from their professional analysis, such as romance novels, or pulp adventure, or biographies, so they have something they can enjoy without feeling like it’s work.

But even then, they confess, it’s always a little bit work.

I’ve had the privilege to talk to more than one movie and television screenwriter. Most of them seem to have a different process—they try to be in the moment the first time they watch anything, with just a running checklist of the moments that get a big reaction from them. It’s later that they break things down for analysis. The second viewing. The fourth. The twentieth.

I found myself thinking about that a lot when I was going frame-by-frame through Star Wars space battle scenes, looking to see if there was any starship that had never received game stats before, in any video game, board game, RPG, card game, or miniatures game. I was not, at that moment, enjoying Star Wars. I was far from my hobby, while staring elements of it in the face.

Some game designers I know can’t play the games they work on. It’s always work for them, even if they are surrounded by friends and laughing and bouncing dice. The rules and layout and themes have come to be associated with their career and employment to a degree they can’t let go, relax, and enjoy themselves. Other game designers (myself included) have a hard time imagining working on a game they don’t play. I certainly have written for games I didn’t particularly enjoy, but even then having a real-world feel for how the elements all came together was crucial to my understanding of how to expand, adjust, or develop the game.

Ideally, I DO like the games I’m working on. And thankfully, that’s usually the case. And yes, I have a constant background awareness that the things I am learning have a relevance beyond me having a good time. They are a form of professional development, and that changes how I respond to them, and sometimes even how I interact with the players around me. Especially just after a game, I sometimes want to know why people did what they did, because I want to understand how THEY are interacting with the game.

But for me, it’s when I am playing a game I’m NOT working on I find myself the most in my job-headspace rather than my hobby-headspace. That lessens significantly once I am familiar with a game, but whenever it has a new twist or interaction, I’m right back to analyzing it for it’s engine, rather than enjoying the ride.

That fine, honestly. I was analyzing game mechanics long before it was my job. Indeed, it largely became my job because it was such an all-consuming hobby for me. While my friends and class mates were learning life skills, I was learning when a die pool could accidentally make massive failure more likely for highly skilled characters that got more dice.

In the end they had saleable talents and experiences, and I had Dragon magazine articles.

I DO think it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t make your whole life your job. And over twenty years of having a professional game design career, I have tried to distinguish between leisure writing and creative writing. On the other hand since I support myself and my family with the work of creating games, I am well aware it’s never just a game when it’s your career.

Since I am generally creating entire fictional universes for people to play in, my job touches on all the geek media I can get my hands on. Popular tropes, characters and ideas people may want to model, and things I might accidentally duplicate in parallel development are all things I need to be aware of, and that touches on everything I consume in all aspects of my leisure time.

Sometimes it’s a hobby. But it’s always a job.

And Patreon is part of My Job

Or at least, an important part of my career. If you find any of my posts useful, be they game industry essays, game material, or just assorting musings, please consider supporting their creation by becoming a patron.

Working Sick

Generally speaking as a writer, if you get a cold, or get the flu, you write as best you are able while sick, and to still hit your deadlines you depend on being able to catch up in a crunch when you’re better.

If you’re going to be sick for longer than a few days or a week, things change.

I have a medical issue causing severe fatigue. We know at least part of what is going on, but don’t know yet if we have identified the root cause, or just found a symptom of something more serious. And, it may be months before the testing finds a conclusive answer to that question.

And that means, I have to consider how I am going to manage if my energy levels crashed for weeks, or months to come.

I have, for the past month or so, been more exhausted every day than the day before. Since the issue causing my fatigue is at least potentially progressive, I began to despair that I was on a downward arc that might actually incapacitate me sometime before it gets addressed up to 3-4 months from now.

Of course I *also* had two conventions nearly back-to-back in the past month, and am under pressure from a number of major deadlines. That can be exhausting under the best of circumstances.

So I have maintain the best self-care I could, and attempted to employ new coping techniques suggested by some research.

Today, for the first time in 4 or 5 weeks, I’m not immediately more fatigued than I was yesterday. Indeed, I haven’t been this functional for a week or more.

Any medical condition is likely to have ups and downs so I don’t plan to read too much into this, but it’s nice that I might not exclusively be looking at a downward spiral for personal energy.

That said, as I finish short- and mid-term projects, I’m not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that’ll leave me with time and energy to tackle my long-term things (especially those that are months behind schedule) even if my energy level doesn’t recover any more than this in the foreseeable future.

That’s the only way I can see to keep my career on-track, and not let down anyone who is depending on me.

And I’ll monitor my progress, both medical and wordcount-wise, and see if the steps I’m taking are good enough. If not, I may begin to consider backing out of some long-term commitments, as much as I hate doing that.

We’ll see.

No Convention Owes Me Anything

No convention owes me anything unless I pay them cash for it.

I am not owed any specific person be selected to be a speaker until they are announced as such. I am not owed any specific theme or topic or program track, unless they’ve already been announced (AND I’ve bought a membership on that basis).

I am not owed a guest spot. Not the platform, not the increased awareness, and absolutely not a free membership, or room, or transport.

Many conventions *have* offered me such things, but the only one to ever do so *twice* was SoonerCon, and even they have never offered to fly me out or put my up in a hotel.

And if some convention that has limited slots selects someone I consider less qualified than me to speak on their theme or topic (or less qualified than my close circle of friends, colleagues, and pro-crushes)… then they still don’t owe me anything.

A convention is never going to be an absolute arbiter of who is “best” at anything. Their main goal is to have interesting guests who will encourage people to come and listen, and talk about their choice (to reach others who will come and listen, even if the original commentator won’t).

And if they only picked the “most qualified” every year… then we’d hear the same voices over and over and over.

That’s boring. Screw that.

Further, if a convention makes a selection I think is under-qualified… I would consider it the height of unprofessionalism to bitch about it. I am, by definition, biased if I think anyone I like better is a better choice; and likely not qualified to have an opinion if there *isn’t* anyone I like I think is more qualified.

That’s just shitty gatekeeping, and it helps nothing.

If you feel someone is dangerous, including the kinds of dangerous that being racist or bigoted or someone who makes threats qualifies as, that’s a totally unrelated issue to this.

Beyond that, celebrate those who have gotten one of the tiny motes of recognition this industry offers. Tearing them down (and suggesting they don’t *deserve* their guest spot is both tearing them down and insulting them) is shitty.

Besides, they are obviously more qualified than you in at least one way.

They lead their career in such a way as to get the invitation.

In Seattle. Sleepless.

“So, Owen, what DO you do if you seriously need rest to fulfill your professional obligations, such as an early morning at PaizoCon, but your insomnia kicks in?”
I’m so glad you asked!
I have numerous mechanisms designed to help me cope. One is to get up and do something uninteresting for 30 minutes. this increases the chance I’ll go back to sleep (rather than watching anime, or writing on a project that excites me, which is likely to make me even more awake).
Drink some water or a bout a cup of cold milk. Spend 5-10 minutes being restful and aware of my surroundings.
Then I change the conditions I am trying to sleep in. If I am using white noise, I alter what it is. If I have a nightlight, I turn it off, or use a different one. Anything to trick my brain into thinking it’s a different night and a different bed. (If a different bed is actually an option, I sometimes take that.)
Then, it’s time to try to sleep again.
If about two cycles of that still doesn’t do it, (or three or four if I have more time) I “give up.” If I can manage it, I stay in bed and rest, because quiet rest can leave me in better shape than being twitchy all night, even if I get no sleep. If that’s psychologically off the table, I get up, shower, dress, and begin my day.
“So, do you find writing about not sleeping boring? Because, it’s almost midnight, and you need to be up early…”
Nope, this definitely qualifies as too interesting for my above coping mechanisms. But sometimes I need to do some therapeutic writing to quiet my mind enough to try the other stuff.
And this has been that writing.
Now, to pull up a waterfall video on my cell phone…

On Playing Games With Strangers

I’m at a gaming convention this weekend, and that means I have played a bunch of games with total strangers. Nor were all of them any form of D20 game, or even RPGs. I played, and observed the play, of a broad range of people of different ages and backgrounds.

It was exhausting, but also amazing.

I think it’s really important for game designers to play games with people they don’t know at all, outside of a formal playtest, at least from time to time. Especially in a “fellow player” capacity, where you aren’t the facilitator or teacher of the game. You can learn things it’s hard to pick up with this kind of empirical experience.

This weekend, I have been reminded that if you have a game that *ever* requires someone to add three numbers, and the sum is going to be a double digit or higher number, there’s a segment of competent, reasonable adults you are excluding. Those people will never, ever, enjoy any activity that has that basic level of math as a requirement. And the more often you require that in the game, the bigger that segment of people is.

That doesn’t mean no game should do that math. It’s okay for a game not to be for everyone.

But it’s important to remember that our individual experiences and preferences are far, far from universal.

As a game design, I am adding “Play Games With Strangers” as one of the critical activities I need to make sure I engage in from time to time.

I ALSO have a list that tells me to Boost My Patreon” fairly regularly, so…
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The March of Entertainment Awareness

When I was a child, the first time I became aware of an upcoming movie or television series was its trailer. So by the time I knew a thing existed, I was exposed to the sounds, actors, lighting, design, and even some of its tone and theme. Similarly I became aware of books and games with their ads, which generally included a cover and excerpt, though admittedly both of those were sometimes created for just the ad.

But my expectations were set not by a name and a hope, but by a small slice of the end product.

Now even then there were industry papers and genre magazines that would talk about upcoming stuff, but they weren’t as commonly available or as all-encompassing as the internet news of today. And as I got older, I did start to find such sources of news, but even then I often got either just a sentence of a thing in production, which didn’t always even have it’s name, or I got more news only when there were set pictures and publicity shots, which still gave me some feel for what kind of entertainment product was being crafted.

That’s not to say I was never surprised, or disappointed, or shocking delighted by the end product. Nor do I claim there were no exceptions (especially sequels) to not knowing about a thing until there was some evidence of what kind of thing it would be in the end. But on the whole even when I wanted news, I knew less, and knew anything for a shorter timeframe, than I do now.

Nor do I have to go looking for such information anymore. Even if I assiduously avoid industry news and genre-based forums and discussion groups, that information makes its way to me. If you are part of social circles that include numerous fans of some genre with entertainment offerings, chances are someone in your group will share, or link, or just tell you about it in person.

And in response to the growing level of knowledge, many creators try to control the expected narrative, engage fans and build trust, and get marketing value out of even the earliest stages of announcements about a new series, movie, game, or novel.

And that builds even more awareness, as it is intended to, but without much more context for what the end product will actually be like.

Though I have no proof of this, I personally believe that both builds a sense of community (along with all the rights and duties a community carries with it) where none truly exists, and that it allows the most passionate fans to build in their imaginations what the end product SHOULD be like long before they have any input on what it WILL be like.

And, in some cases, that leads to consumers of this material feeling like not only CAN their opinions be taken into consideration, but that they SHOULD be. Rather than see the movie or play the game and make a judgement based on what it is, they want their opinions to shape the end result, and are doubly-upset when the final product largely ignores them

Now, there are explicit cases where consumer feedback IS sought out where it can impact the end result, Test screenings, pilot episodes, beta reader copies, and playtests are all places where a company wants to know what the reaction is while there is a mechanism in palce to codify it, and time to adjust the end product. And that’s great.

But AMAs and hidden easter eggs and forum chats often AREN’T that, and people, with their greater awareness of what is coming well before that thing is gelled, are specifically tricked into thinking they are invited to be among the cooks, instead of among the diners.

I’m not claiming this is better or worse… but it feels like a trend that has not hit its apex. And at the minimum, it makes me think about what I am implying is possible, or even desired, when I talk about products I am involved with that don’t yet exist in their final form.

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As always, this post is made possible by my Patrons.

Another Trip Around the Sun

Today is the four-year anniversary of Lj’s and my arriving in Seattle, and here I am again in a new apartment, surrounded by boxes. That makes it feel like I haven’t made much progress in four years, but that’s objectively not true.

In that time I have developed more words than in the ten years before, written about half as much as the two years leading up to it but finally gotten an Adventure Path adventure done, moved two more times, fallen in love with a restaurant that closed but took the friendships I made there with me, been to seven different conventions (a few of them many times), helped shepherd a brand new RPG into the world in Starfinder, been taken to the ER, visited friends in the ER, and acquired a cat.

I’ve learned a lot since my arrival, about myself, and Seattle, and game design, and challenges other professionals face that I don’t, and challenges I face that some other professionals don’t. I have created, and helped others create, and talked to a lot of colleagues and fans and friends about things that never would have come up in my original hometown. Of course I have also missed a lot of things from my old social group, who collectively still manage to play games with a frequency I can’t come close to matching.

It’s been a huge change and, four years later, I’m still adjusting to it. But I am also still looking forward to what happens next, with opportunities I knew I couldn’t guess at but that would come only with this huge risk continuing to pop up.

I can’t say I have no regrets. I am too introverted, and too trepidatious, and miss too many lifelong friends not to have regrets. But I can say that knowing what I know now, I’d still make the same decision. There’s no question this was a smart move for my career, but it’s up to me to make sure it’s a smart move for the rest of my life.

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Be Your Own Brand

I’m not doing #ATTRPGMaker, but a lot of people I know are, and they all hit “What’s Your Brand?” today. And suddenly, I feel like answering.

My brand? My brand is Owen K.C. Stephens.

I love the fact that so many people are willing to employ me in one capacity or another (and honor me with the trust to all do so at once), but with 20 years of this under my belt, I know that I can’t depend on any game, trademark, or company to necessarily be around for as long as I want my career to last.

But, obviously, *I* will be here as long as I am here.

So yes, Paizo, and Green Ronin, and Rogue Genius Games, and Rite Publishing are all things I strongly promote. Starfinder, and Really Wild West, and Pathfinder, and Pathways are all lines I have staked a lot of time and effort in being part of.

But that’s all part of defining my one core brand, which is me.

My name. My professionalism. My reputation.

Hopefully, both industry folks and customers have some idea what adding me to a project means. Obviously lots of people have never heard of me, but my focus on myself as a brand is to try to make sure that when they DO hear of me, they do so in the context of the image I want to project.

And, hopefully, that makes adding me to other brands a benefit to those, as well.

The one thing you get to take with your wherever you go is your name. Things might change so the rights to games I work on get restricted, or companies that pay me might be struck by asteroids. And I think it’s *very* important I give my very best effort to everyone who hires me. I never “save something back” to promote my own brand at the expense of another.

But by making sure I do the best I can for everyone who hires me, I make THAT part of my brand.

I try to do the same in social media, on forums, and even in public. And by doing my best for everyone who hires me, and being professional in all game-related dealings with the public, I can build my brand at the same time I do my best to promote the other brands I am paid to work with.

Speaking of my brand:

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