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One Last Thought on Material from Other IPs in Game Products

What was originally just a few Facebook and Twitter posts grew into the Monday post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, which lead to Tuesday’s More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, Wednesday’s About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, and yesterday’s On Writing With Licensed Game Rules. I hadn’t intended for this to be a weeklong series but… here we are.

So, I have one more semi-related topic I think bears mentioning.

In all the previous articles, I was talking about the complications, considerations, and connected issues when working with someone else’s intellectually property (IP) that you access through a license. But there are also times when you may find yourself tempted to work with other people’s IP without having legal access to it. You might feel you are within fair rights use, or think it’s fine because it’s an “Easter Egg,” or that no one will care, or it’s okay because you’re not charging money for the end product.

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

DON’T play with other people’s IP without a license unless you have paid a lawyer to tell you it’s okay.

I recommend even avoiding Easter Eggs, and be sure when drawing inspiration that your creation is not a carbon copy of the thing that inspired you. And if you do write Easter Eggs or draw major inspiration from a source, tell your developer/editor/publisher, so they can decide how much they are comfortable with that you have done.

And that’s the end of my thoughts for the week.

Stay safe, take care, be kind.

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On Writing With Licensed Game Rules

Another day, another follow-up post growing out of Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. In fact, another response brought on by a follow-up from Egg Embry, who asked about working on games with licensed game systems, and how those compared to working on games using licensed game systems.

While this week I have been focused on tabletop games that are based on a licensed IP, such as a Star Wars rpg, that’s not the only kind of licensed game material a game professional may get assigned to work with. There are also licensed game systems, such as when you use a system released under the Open Game License (OGL). While some of the research and approval process can be very similar, there are some very different concerns that can come up when working with licensed game systems, rather than licensed IPs. This is often the case when doing work for what are referred to as “third-party publishers,” (or 3pp), who publish adventures, supplements, and expansions for games by other publishers.

Of course who is a 3pp isn’t necessarily a clear-cut question. There are a number of games that have their origins in the OGL version of the d20 System, including 13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds, both editions of Pathfinder, and Starfinder. To most fans, that doesn’t make Pelgrane Press, Green Ronin Publishing, and Paizo 3pp… at least not for those game lines, where they are the publishers of the core rulebooks. (Of course some fans DO think of them as 3pp–which mostly doesn’t impact working on such projects, but is something a freelancer should be aware of if it comes up in conversation).

However, a writer working on those game lines should be aware they are published under the OGL, and therefore have rules and restrictions that may not apply to other game projects. (And please note – I am not a lawyer. NONE of this article is legal advice.) This means that the writer should be aware of what license applies to the rules of the game, and what a publisher expects the writer to know. for example, when operating with the OGL, the end product needs to include the Section 15 entry (part of the OGL published in every OGL product) of any protect it draws material from. That means as a writer if you include material from another OGL product (which you shouldn’t do without talking to your editor/developer/producer), you need to tell your publisher what that product was so they can include the required information.

And that highlights on of the biggest issues that can crop up when dealing with licensed game systems — many of those licenses are open, and can be used by anyone who follows their restrictions. That means publishers, producers, developers, and freelancers may well decide to use such a license without properly understanding it. this is much less common when dealing with a license for an intellectual property, since those negotiations tend to involve an active discussion on the terms and helps insure a meeting of minds. But the lower barrier to entry for things such as the OCL or Creative Commons licenses, or the very-different Dungeon Master’s Guild and similar programs, means people may try to use them without truly understanding them.

Ideally, it would be the job of the publisher to ensure anyone they hire or contract to work on a licensed game line was aware of the terms and requirements of that license before assigning them work. Pragmatically, many companies (often even bigger ones) simply do not have the spare time (or in some cases the instructional expertise) to undertake that effort, and depend on professionals to know how to operate within such licenses. Practically, it means knowing how common licenses work can make it easier to get work with such publishers, and reduce the risk of stumbling over some legal landmine.

Of course many people will quite reasonably say that such legal landmines are risks exclusively for the publisher, not the hireling… which may or may not be true. Anyone working for a publisher operating under a licensed game system should read their contract (you all have contracts for all your freelance work, right?), and see what you are agreeing to in terms of your responsibility to get the legal niceties right. While I am not aware of a freelancer even getting hauled into court over such a contract (nor am I aware of any lawsuits that settle OGL enforceability or interpretation), I am personally risk-adverse when it comes to these things, and like to stick to both the letter and spirit of contracts and licenses I agree to by using, even as a freelancer.

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About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Apparently this is becoming Licensed games week on my blog, as I continue to respond to questions about Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. A number of people had questions and comments about the stresses, additional work, drawbacks, and benefits of working on licensed game projects. I could go on about those topics for hours, but instead here’s a few quick thought snapshots.

First, be aware that you almost certainly won’t own any of the work you do. Work-for-hire is the norm in tabletop game writing in any case, but when you are working on a licensed IP, the IP holder is sure to insist on owning anything related to the IP you come up with. Indeed, you likely won’t even be credited for the ideas you create when they are reused. I know I created the ILH-KK Citadel Cruiser, Hutt battle armor and the Kilian Lords for Star Wars, but when those have re-entered other Star Wars projects, my name is generally no-where to be found.

Publishers can (and should) contract to keep the rights to the game systems and mechanics they create for a licensed game, but any IP-related ideas outside pure mechanics is going to go to the IP-holder. And, honestly, that’s reasonable.

The research requirements can be heavy, but whether they are heavier than typical game writing depends very much on what kind of game writing you’ve gotten used to. If you have mostly been making up things whole-cloth for cartoon universes where revolutionary mice use psychic weapons to fight against an authoritarian spider aristocracy, you may not have had to do a significant amount of continuity research in your game writing. On the other hand, if you’ve been working on games that try to match historical periods, or that have significant game continuity (some game worlds go back more than 40 years at this point), the skills to learn about the setting, match existing continuity, and project ideas appropriate in tone and theme translate well to converting IP-concepts to game design.

The approval process can throw a monkey wench into the process, though that’s more likely to impact a publisher’s process than a writers. It’s essentially another level of editing and development. If you are exposed to it at all (many developers handle approvals themselves, rather than have writers do it), the largest issue is to not take it personally, and to try to learn what the IP owner wants by examining what gets approved, what doesn’t, and what gets approved with changes (and how they are changed). The IP holder is unlikely to have either time or interest in training licensees in how to write for the IP, so learning to train yourself on feedback is a useful skill. (It’s also one reason people who have successfully worked on multiple licensed projects are often sought out for new licenses–the publishers and project leads have reason to believe you have mastered the process of licensed project writing, rather than just having a good grasp of a single IP).

Honestly I have found it’s a skill much like any other writing specialty. It’s stressful the first few times you do it, but once you have an idea of how to tackle it it’s much like following any other structured outline.

And while your name may not be directly attached to ideas you create for the setting of the IP, the increased visibility of a licensed game certainly can get you more attention based on your involvement. My work on the three d20 Star Wars RPG games remains one of the places people recognize my name from, and both fans and publishers have mentioned following my career after seeing my name on multiple Star Wars game books. And on a resume, having been involved with recognizable properties can impress people who may never have heard of The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider, but definitely know what Star Wars and Star Trek are.

And, often the money is better than usual for the writers and editors. Not always, by a long shot, but often enough to make it worth considering branching into licensed writing if you haven’t already.

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More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

In response to yesterday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, some folks asked questions that resulted in some follow-up thoughts. One of the most important questions came from Egg Embry, who noted that some licenses are bigger than others, and asked if that influenced the amount of work involved (in terms of the approval process, etc.)?

And it very much can be an influence. But also, there are lots of factors that can influence that, and they aren’t all obvious.

For example, some IPs are just a massive amount of information, and going through it all can take time. Star Wars and Star Trek just have more data about their IPs than many properties, and not all of that info is considered canon. That increases the time needed to get up to speed, and the research any new idea may require.

But there are also just differences in what various licensors have as resources, and require for approvals. Some have highly detailed setting bibles they can send licensees to work off of, which are updated with new information and even note data that is no longer considered official. Others have nothing of note, and might require a licensee to annotate where every idea or supposition if drawn from. Some have entire departments dedicated to combing over submissions from licensees to ensure they meet the IP’s style, tone, and content, while others assign a single assistant to read it over and see if it seems okay.

Some creators don’t care what a licensed game says, because they’re just going to ignore it. Others care very much, since they want all their IP’s related products to be in agreement. Some authors don’t want to be bothered with licensed product questions, while (much more rarely, but delightfully when it happens) some creators are involved and engaged, seeing licensees as a resource to help ask questions and build their worlds.

It can be extremely difficult to know which is which IP in advance. Some is obvious–things with lots of sources and lots of other licensed properties is likely to take more research. others are luck of the draw–an I{ based on a series of books that also have a current hit TV show may be extremely protective and precious about their hard-wrought IP… or they may be happy to allow nearly anything. Some IP holders promptly send back comments, notes, and approvals, while others get so busy that even if they mean well, the approval process can hold up new released by months or even years.

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About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Often, ttRPGs and other tabletop games are based on an intellectual property (“IP”) not owned by the publisher of the game. These are games based on a license, where a deal is cut between the game publisher and the IP owner for a game based on that IP to exist. Many fans love licensed games, and often have a long list of “obvious” licensed games they feel should be made. Some fans think game publishers are stupid for not making such games. Some fans even make their own versions, without ever contacting either the game publisher or IP owner in advance, and are baffled when they are not able to publish their result.

In my more than 20-year tabletop game career, I have worked on numerous licensed games, from Star Wars to EverQuest, Wheel of Time, Black Company, Thieves World, Dragon AGE, Song of Ice and Fire, and more. I have learned this hard truth — licensed Games take MUCH more time and effort to make, contain major additional complications, and a game company has to pay for the privilege of undertaking that additional work and risk. It’s rarely worth it. Not never. But rarely. It varies wildly.

So, this leads to the question: if it’s so hard and expensive, why do game companies keep doing it? And the answers (like most placed where business. Reality, and games interesct) are varied.

Sometimes, a licensed game is made in an effort to boost the visibility (and thus sales) or other games made by the same publisher, or to push some specific marketing strategy. For example, when the d20 System was being rolled out in 2000, there were some licensed books done specifically to prove that the d20 System could do more than just D&D.

Sometimes, the belief is that the property will be so popular that a game based on it will sell an order of magnitude more copies. So if you would sell 2,000 copies of Stellar Battles the RPG, and make $4 profit for each copy sold, but you believe you’d sell 20,000 copies of the Star Wars RPG at $1 profit for each copy sold, the fact you’ll make $20k on Star Wars vs the 8k on Stellar Battles would make the extra risk and effort worth it.

(This is also why licenses normally end–sales dip, renewals of contracts often call for more money to be outlayed, so even if a line made money for years, that calculation changes).

Sometimes it’s about breaking into new markets, or making new fans for the company. If you have only managed to get into hobby stores, but you have the John Wick — World of Assassins RPG to offer, you may be able to sell it in places like Barnes & Noble, or even Wal-Mart. Or if you haven’t even managed to get INTO hobby stores, you may be trying to get a major distributor to pick you up if you have a good license, and hope they’ll keep you when that license ends.

Sometimes it’s a desire to make a game IP look competitive with other IPs. If you can market the Stellar Battles RPG alongside licensed Battlestar Galactica and RoboCop RPGs using the same system from the same publisher, another company might decide that means Stellar Battles is popular enough that they want to pay YOU to make Stellar Battles comics or BIGHEADKO bobblehead dolls.

Similarly, some companies will take on a licensed game to build a relationship with the IP owner, in hopes of securing a different license owned by the same people. In general, the bigger the licensed IP, the more money stands to be made, but also the more cautious the IP owner is about allowing someone to make a game using it. If a game company wants to secure the license for Huge Pop Culture Phenom, the RPG, they may have to prove they can do quality work by first making Cult Almost-Classic, licensed from the same IP owner. This tactic is obviously fraught with additional costs and risks and isn’t common, but I am aware of at least a few cases where it worked, and the game profited well in the long run.

And, to be frank, sometimes the game company has people who love an IP so much they push to get it made as fans, whether it’s a good idea or not. That rarely goes well, but game creators and game company owners aren’t immune to fan enthusiasm. And working on a licensed game for a license you know well and enjoy is much easier and less stressful than working on one you don’t know or don’t care about, so employee enthusiasm is a legitimate element to consider, even if it can’t make a bad idea into a good one.

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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 the 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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