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Industry Insider: Writing Contracts

So, as with everything on this whole site: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

And if you are at the stage where you’re writing contracts, you likely could do with some real legal advice. Yes, that costs money. But if you want a contract that’ll actually hold up to a legal challenge, you want a lawyer in your state to have looked at it. Preferably one with some understanding of publishing and trademark and copyright law, if not specifically gaming. Chances are you can find a generic contract online, make changes to it to fit your needs, and take it in for a review for a modest amount of money.

(Or, if you’ve signed some contracts with other companies for game content, you can use that as a template of what to include, though don’t copy the wording whole-cloth without permission.)

Of course heading off legal challenges are far from the only function of contracts. I have found the MOST common (and an extremely useful) purpose they serve is to make the scope and details of the responsibilities of all sides of a deal clear, and to preserve them against bad memories or misunderstandings. More than once, I have discovered at the contract stage that I was supposed to do more than I thought, or get paid less, or give up more rights—or had a freelancer tell me they got a similar surprise when looking over a contract I sent them.

((A note to freelancers: That’s okay, by the way. Until it is signed, a contract is a suggestion. Sure, most big companies won’t change most terms for you… but it’s both worth asking, and worth knowing what you are agreeing to if you go forward with a contract you’re not a huge fan of. And they MAY pay you more, or change a deadline, or make some other accommodation. It should never hurt to ask.

And if asking about the terms of a contract brings some major negative drama? That tells you something about working with those people too.

Also, never work without a contract.

Not even for me. Not even for your friends. (Especially not for your friends!)

If money, rights, intellectual property, work, credit, or anything that has or potentially will have value is exchanging hands or being used by anyone other than its creator, get a contract. It can be short. It can be basic.

But get one before ANY work gets done.

Okay, back to talking to publishers!))

So, with all that forward out of the way, what kind of information should a contract cover?

WHO

Yep, step one is who are the parties in the contract. It’s easiest of that’s two parties, such as a writer and a publisher, but you certainly can have multiple-party contracts. One useful thing I notice in a lot of contracts is that once the two parties are identified, they are then referred to by some other defined term, such as “This agreement is by and between Rogue Genius Games, a Washington company having a principle place of business at _[address]_ (hereafter “RGG”)…”

That’s useful, because you can then just use RGG in the rest of the contract. For contracts you want to use as a template, it also means you can have a place for the freelancer’s name and address, and then say (hereafter “Freelancer”), and not have to change the name everyplace you want to refer to the freelancer later in the contract.

While it’s usually obvious, who a contract is between can be surprisingly complex and important. For example, if I ask someone if they want to write a project for me in a casual conversation, it may get lost if I am asking them as a private individual, as the publisher of Rogue Genius Games, in my role as a developer for one of about three other game companies I work with, or some other role entirely. Any lack of clarity about that is my fault, but a contract makes sure that the person working for me knows who they are working for before they formally agree to do the work.

Also, some freelancers do work through an LLC or other legal entity, rather than as sole proprietors of their doing-business-as under their own name. That’s normally not an issue, but when it comes time to claim expenses or report income, it’s super-helpful if I tell the IRS that Freddy Freelancer earned money, and he wants to report it under Freelancer LLC, that out records line up.

It’s also a good idea to define who is getting what kind of credit, and maybe even where. Is the freelancer going to be listed as the author? A writer? As ‘additional content by’? Listed on the cover/ Not mentioned at all? Not every contract covers this, but they certainly could.

It’s also a good idea to give a name for the project, so everyone knows what you’re talking about. But a lot of contracts I see add “or such other title as [Publisher] shall decide to use,” which is obviously a potentially useful bit of CYA.

WHERE

What laws govern this contract? Your home nation? Home state? Where your LLC is registered? Look into this, and have the contract spell it out.

WHAT

After a contract covers who, it’s time to get to what—what work is being products. Is it writing? If so is it being figured in words? In pages? In what topics are being covered? It’s important to have a clear description of what the contract is covering. If you need a longer outline, it’s okay to note that there is an outline separate from the contract, or one as an “Exhibit A,” or however your lawyer tells you to set it up.

On top of what the end product is supposed to be, it’s worth calling out the expectations and duties of each side. Many contracts require the freelancer to note the material they turn over is original, never-before contracts, used, or bought, and absolutely not licensed or plagiarized material. Mostly, this is about the publisher having a documents stating they bought the material in good faith, believing it did not violate anyone else’s rights. But it also serves as a reminder for newer freelancers who may not realize that just because something is on Wikipedia or a fan page somewhere doesn’t mean it’s available for commercial use.

In addition to describing the work itself, it should describe the rights being transferred. Is it work-for-hire which (probably) means the author isn’t even considered the author for purpose of copyright law. Is it all rights transferred in perpetuity? Is it just first publishing rights? Can the freelancer still use it for purposes of personal promotion (especially important for visual art). Legal terms can have a lot of weight here, but clarity can also just be useful to set expectations among the parties involved.

The more rights the contract transfers, the more it should pay. I’ve done work for a much lower rate because it just granted exclusive right to use it for 90 days, and then I could reuse or resell it (though noting if I did sell it that it wasn’t new content, but previously published work). I’ve save tons of money on art buying things like second-use rights, or only licensing it to my exclusive use for a limited period of time.

But that all needs to be covered in the contract.

HOW

Can the freelancer subcontract? Send you the final manuscript by Facebook chat? Write in in crayon on coffee filters?

Define what format you want the work in, and how it should be sent to you. Email and ftp systems are pretty common now, but if you want it inscribed on vellum and shipped by carrier pigeon, you need to have that in the contract.

WHEN

Deadlines are important. Include them in the contract.

If you want the freelancer to show you progress before the final deadline, put that in the contract as well. It’s perfectly reasonable for a contract to state that the freelancer needs to turn over a draft with half the work done by the halfway point of the work period. It’s not reasonable to not give any warning you want such advance peeks at how things are going, then get upset of the freelancer doesn’t do so after the contract is signed. They owe you want the contract says they owe you—if you want to be able to dictate when and how and where they do the work, you need to actually hire them.

Also cover if the deadline is when the work is to be done, or when it is to be in your hands. Cover what happens if the deadline is missed. Are you going to start deducting money from the end payment? Are you going to cancel the contract? Do you want to have the right to do either but not be required to?

Put it in the contract.

WHY

By ‘why,’ I mean what is the other side getting out of this. You get the freelancer’s work so they should get… paid.

There are lots of parts of that. How much are they getting paid? Is it per word, regardless of how many words they turn over, or is it a flat rate for an approximate wordcount? Is it per word, but only words you end up suing after editing and development? Is it a profit share arrangement? And if so, is it a percentage of the gross, the net, or some other number (such as the gross of the amount you get from distribution, rather than gross of cover price, but after any money for pod and shipping)?

When is the payment coming? Upon acceptance? If so, what qualifies as acceptance by you (and how long do you have to accept before the writer can take their work back)? Upon publication? (That sucks, btw, but if you do it you need to define what counts as publication, and how long after that you have to pay, and what happens if you haven’t published it 90 days, or 9 years, after getting the work in).

How much? And is that in US dollars? Canadian? Australian?

How are you sending the money? Check in the post? PayPal? If there are fees involved in the payment method, are those your responsibility, or the freelancers?

Does the freelancer get anything else? A free copy of the book? Three free copies? The right to buy more at a 50% discount?

ANYTHING ELSE

When you are discussing this project, with the freelancer or anyone else, keep a notebook (paper or virtual), and take notes about anything important that comes up that people working on it need to keep in mind. Do you need map sketches to send to a cartographer? Well your contract with your writer had better say that. Do you need art descriptions of monsters? Or do you need three writers to work together so none of them duplicate each other’s work? Do you want everything playtested? If so, does the freelancer have your permission to disclose things to playtesters? Do they need to sign NDAs? Or is everything a secret, not to be discussed with anyone until the project is announced?

Think about what you need and who you need it from, then put that in the contracts.

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Industry Insider: The Cold Hard Truth About Motivation

So, real talk.

The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.

It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.

But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.

I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.

But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.

I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.

And in time, that became a skill like any other.

That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.

But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.

I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome,  watching for signs of burnout,  and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.

But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:

“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”

And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”

You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit  a ceiling of success.

I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.

These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.

So what do I use?

I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.

I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.

I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.

I remind myself of Sturgeon’s Law, combined with the idea that perfect can be the enemy of good.

That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.

But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…

The blog has content.

This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.

Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.

Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.

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Industry Insider: Guesstimating RPG Popularity/Sales

Sometimes, it’s useful to know how a given RPG is doing, both in absolute terms (how many units sold total, how many this month), and relatively (what is it doing better than? What is it doing worse than? Are it’s numbers trending up, or down?)

Especially if you are a 3pp and you are considering doing a licensed product linked to a core game, it can be useful to know how those core games are doing.

But, game companies don’t normally release numbers like that. And even if you want to compare a game to something you publish, you only have one set of those number (your units sold). (And sometimes you don’t even know that if you have things out to distributors with a returnability clause, meaning things you think you have sold might still come back to you and require a refund–but that’s another post).

So the best you can do is gather what little information the industry has, much of which is vague and anecdotal, and then make you best guess.

Since the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is a system covered by the Open Gaming License, and my blog does OGL things compatible with it, let’s see if we can figure out any sources of info to help pin down the game’s popularity.

When released at Gen Con in 2017, the Starfinder Core Rulebook sold out in 5 hours. That’s a fine start, but it doesn’t tell us much about sales now, or how many total units moved.

The Starfinder Core Rulebook is #69 for RPG gaming books on Amazon for gaming books. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook at 66. Other Starfinder books are also in the Top 100–Armory at #52, Alien Archive at #48, Armory #52, and Pact Worlds #93.

Pathfinder has one other entry, the GameMastery Guide at 94.

Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, Cortex, FATE, 13th Age, World of Darkness, Mutants and Masterminds and for that matter most other non-D&D tabletop rpgs don’t have any books that make the top 100. That’s only one seller, but it’s a big seller.

Now that’s all relative information only, but it does tell you something about whether new Starfinder books are still moving well, and how they do in physical, online sales compared to other RPGs. You can also try to use that information to guesstimate sales per month, though again you can’t really trust the quality of that data. Still, that data, iffy as it is, says the Core Rulebook is moving 290 units per month on Amazon alone.

You can also look at ICv2‘s ranking of Top 5 RPGs, keepign in mind again that the data is from just one set of courses and not gathered scientifically. ICv2 listed Starfinder at #2 for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, (behind D&D in both cases).

Roll20 periodically does a quarterly report showing how many games and players are using it for games of various systems. The latest report I can find (June 12, 2018) says “Starfinder is growing steadily, from #16 to #11 over the course of two quarters, and we anticipate that the release of the official Starfinder sheet, as well as some excellent Starfinder products, will break it into the top 10 in no time.”

For many games, you could also look at their relative sales position on DriveThruRPG (for a relative sense of recent sales compared to other games sold on the site), and the metallic best-seller values of specific products (for a feel of total sales over that product’s lifetime). However, Paizo does not sell the Starfinder pdfs or print books on DriveThru, so the best you could do is compare various Starfinder-compatible 3pp products to the 3pp products of other games. There might be times when that kind of comparison is useful, but they are going to be rare enough I’m not going to dig up sample data just for a blog article.

NONE of these sources of info are definitive. But they do give something slightly better than a wild guess, or asking people at a single game store of convention what they *think* is doing well. It seems clear that Starfinder’s sales are healthy, and so far that appears to be a steady or growing trend. There are other things you can look at, like what kinds of products has the publisher of the game announced? The fact that Paizo has a Starfinder Beginner’s Box coming at least suggests they are looking at new customer acquisition, which may help keep Starfinder sales robust.

You can sometimes augment the utility of such things with your own sales information–if you know how well a print book of yours is selling on Amazon, you know books rated about it are moving more units than that.

And sometimes you can tease out other trends as well–but that’s a practice for people who think there’s specific information they need, and I wish them the best of luck.

It’s not GREAT data for making business decisions, but in general I do find it better than nothing.

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Industry Insider: Pragmatism, Personality, and Partnership

I talk a lot about how the best way to get work as a freelancer is to put your name, in a positive context, in front of people who can give you work as often as possible. That’s true in my experience, but it also just hints at another truth about the tabletop game industry in general.

It’s not just what you can do. It’s also about who you know, and who you are.

The tabletop game industry is stunningly small. Personal relationships, personality matches, and private opinions carry a lot of weight on who everyone does business with. At a pragmatic level, the bigger a company the more likely it is to try to just look at objective questions of what makes sense for a business, but those decisions are made by individual people, and their preferences and biases can impact everything from who gets a faster reply to an inquiry to who is trusted with big-dollar budgets.

Obviously it’s helpful to have friends in the industry, but equally obviously most people don’t start off with that advantage. It is absolutely possible to make friends, but more importantly it is possible to build relationships based on trust and respect. Friendship can cause problems as often as it gives an advantage, because people don’t like to give their friends bad news. And the tabletop game industry is all-too-often a place where business decisions are bad news.

Building relationships within the industry can happen organically just by being active in industry activities. Post regularly on messageboards. Write reviews. Engage in social media. Go to conventions. Volunteer to help with events, especially running games for organized play programs. None of those things generally gives you a direct payoff in “game industry friends earned per month,” but they do expose you to people who, like you, are building a network of people known.

Pragmatically, remember that with all these interactions being professional and honest and accurate is going to impact how people think of you. I absolutely do not recommend being a kiss-ass–most people aren’t actually very good at that, and yes-folks aren’t as useful as people who can give an honest, professional opinion. But you also don’t want to be an asshole. There are successful game industry professionals who use ‘asshole” or “grumpy curmudgeon” as their brand, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of talent, and in my opinion they often do themselves as much harm as good and are sometimes buoyed up by cults of personality who can give them bad feedback, false promises of support, or even turn on them.

The main point with this kind of industry engagement is to let people know who you are, and hopefully learn who you get along with. Tabletop game projects often involve a lot of interaction and back-and-forth among their participants, and a lot of us want to know we can get along with someone before we commit to working with them for weeks, months, or even years.

That means that all those things people want to keep out of business decisions–politics, sense of humor, debate style, even questions of spirituality–can impact who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. I know people in the industry who dislike being in long conversations with me because I am too likely to extensively engage in at-best-mid-quality puns. Obviously that limits my ability to get those people excited to work with me, even if they think I have the skills and connections to help a project along. Equally obviously, I’m not willing to change how I interact with them enough to remove that block to a working relationship. Sometimes we get over that hurdle (often by using middlemen or online-only communications, where I can regretfully delete clever wordplay that’s out-of-place). Sometimes we don’t. But by knowing each other well enough to foresee an issue, we can decide if the extra work is worth the payoff.

Especially early on, extra complements and support can help open doors to more opportunities to show people who you are. from Kickstarters to Patreon campaigns to pre-sales to social media posts about upcoming projects, people who make things happen in the industry often have ways you can show your support, and that is not the worst way to introduce yourself to someone. But don’t pander–it’s not a good basis for any long-term relationship, and it’s exhausting.

I’m not going to try to present this as reasonable or the way things “should” be, but the tabletop game industry is hard enough that many of its professionals just don’t have any interest in working with people they don’t get along with. Sometimes this results in people playing favorites, and that can be frustrating when you are the outside of a social circle. But it’s also something that can mostly only be overcome by developing your own social circle. You have to do the work, be available, put yourself out there, but you also have to remember that every interaction with everyone in the game industry is a preview of what you are like to talk to and hang around with.

Memories in the industry are often as long as the industry itself is small. If you insult someone, slight their work rudely, fail to uphold your end of a contract, or honestly do anything that seriously annoys them, it can impact their desire to work with you forever. I have friends and partners who avoid ever being on the same project because they can’t get along with one another. I don’t recommend trying to walk on eggshells–you have to live your life–but respect, consideration, politeness, and fulfilling obligations once you undertake them go a long way to build a reputation and network of people who appreciate your efforts.

You can’t compromise who you are or what your values are–there are people I won’t work with for moral and ethical reasons. You shouldn’t take risks you can’t afford even for friends–there are projects I have declined to get involved with because while I liked everyone working on it, I had no confidence in their ability to see it through. You can’t make people like you–there’s no one I know in this industry who doesn’t have a few serious detractors, deservedly or not. But you can be aware of the impact of your personality and behavior, and remember that it’s not divorced from your ability to make deals, get work, earn trust, and move forward with career goals.

This is a long-term concern. It takes years, often, for engagement to build any relationships that help you know who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. But those years are going to pass one way or another. I find it’s best to try to use them to increase my opportunities, rather than burn bridges.

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