- About Me
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I’m not comfortable sharing direct amounts of money, so I apologise if you’re looking for that sort of thing but it ain’t going to happen. Each month, I sold around 20–25 products, mostly PDFs but a couple of print copies of BLACK SEVEN. This netted me
$X (±10% each month).
In June, the first month of PWYW, that spiked to 240 copies – 10x my normal monthly sales figure. June’s takehome was about 5 *
$X. Fair enough, lots of people checking things out for free, but also a massive surge in people paying because PWYW is new and funky. I saw a couple of people pay more than the list price of a product, and a few people picking $0.01.
Since June, sales have been betwen 75 and 110 products. My income is back to
$X. Roughly four times as many people checking out my games, but only the original number paying (and much of that coming from BLACK SEVEN and ANIMUS, which aren’t PWYW).
DriveThru has a system where you can purchase a product multiple times, and with PWYW you can do so for different amounts. Hence, you can grab a book for free, decide that it’s worth some money, then come back and give the creator some cash. Because this is a little counterintuitive, I’ve set up emails mentioning this fact (in the style of an FYI rather than a begging letter) when people download a PWYW book. The number of people who have done that is about 1% over the course of 500 sales.
I know I’m not the only publisher to see this phenomenon, and let’s be fair: it’s a little disheartening to discover that people don’t want to put a number in the PWYW box. But I think this colors my attitudes towards PWYW a little differently to others, because I see the role of games a little differently – at least, this goes for games I produce; things I create for other companies are naturlly guided by their philosophies.
The thing is, I have a not-insignificant number of friends who do not have the discretionary income to pay for games. I could give them free copies of what I make, but what about other people in the same position who don’t happen to know me? I could also just say “sucks to be you”, but I’m really not that kind of person. But at the same time, I want to see something in exchange for my work from people who can afford it. To that end, I released games as Creative Commons, allowing for free sharing and distribution, but I wanted to use PWYW as a driver to increase awareness. It’s increased downloads. I don’t think those are the same thing. The people who have mentioned playing my PWYW games have been people who’ve played my other games – those who have enjoyed BLACK SEVEN or who follow me on Twitter based on my work for Onyx Path.
Really, that comes from the limitations of “free”. I’m willing to believe that the vast majority of people who grab a PWYW product intend to read it and sling money the author’s way if they thing it’s deserved. But because people haven’t paid for it, the book doesn’t occupy the same mindspace as something they’ve dropped currency on, so it shuffles off to the back of the queue and becomes something they might look at in six months’ time, and by then it’s something they haven’t any impetus to pay for because their reading and enjoyment is sufficiently divorced from the acquisition that with the best will in the world they’re not going to remember to go back and pay for it.
You can circumvent this by being a known publisher with an already-loyal following (e.g. Evil Hat). Then, PWYW can work for you – I don’t have access to their internals to know if they’ve seen the same results as me, but I’d suspect that they’ve got enough people that have faith and goodwill in them for PWYW to work better for them.
With the current system as it is, here’s how I’m going to use DTRPG’s PWYW process in the future.
- For any two-page games I make, like Beyond and Tales of the Space Marines, I’m going to put them up as PWYW. Philosophically, I can’t find a price point that I’m entirely happy with.
- For any products that I would have made free, like Touched by Darkness for Æternal Legends, I’m making them PWYW. If people want to sling me a buck or two, I’m not about to complain.
- I will also release older games, like Æternal Legends as PWYW once I feel they’ve run their course.
- New games, and new releases for games like BLACK SEVEN, will be fixed-price.
What I’d like to see as a PWYW system combines pieces that have been implemented in a few places, but since DTRPG is the 800kg gorilla in the marketplace it would need to implement these changes for them to be useful to independent publishers like myself.
- A way to give free stuff to people who pay more than a certain amount for a product. I’d like to be able to release a few for-pay supplements but offer them free to people who paid over what I’d otherwise set the PDF price at, or include some time-exclusive extras that others can only get later on.
- The ability to show the average price excluding people who paid nothing on the product page, in place of a real price. The current DTRPG layout encourages people to treat PWYW as another way of saying “free”.
- Ideally, also the ability to set an “initial” average – say 10 or 50 or howevermany purchases at an amount that I’d set the product at if it weren’t PWYW. If not, then just that price.
- A minimum price, even if it’s merchant-specific and is just $1. People who pay $0.01 don’t do me any good and don’t do DTRPG any good (they’re paying less than the payment processing fees). I’m happy for people to get my books for free, but if you’re going to pay anything then a dollar is pretty much a minimum to not screw the merchant.
So yeah. That’s where I’m at.
Herein “PWYW”. ↩
I apologise in advance if this is a bit choppy and stream-of-consciousness. I have my excuses but I’m aware that it’s not my best writing. ↩
I was brought up not to speak about direct amounts because it’s rude, due to a whole lot of things including the inherent class system that idiots in the middle and upper classes think doesn’t exist any more. ↩
You see a similar effect when people get even big-ticket games out of DTRPG charity mega-bundles. ↩
I would say “I’m sure you’re not like that”, but the figures above say that you are unless you’re one of five specific people. You have personal feelings about a hypothetical situation, I have evidence. ↩
Tagged with: self-publishing for stoats
@geeklordjedi asked me this over Twitter:
@digitalraven I had a question. When working on a RPG do you find it easier to work on the story side, or game mechanics?
— Jesse Burcar (@geeklordjedi) July 29, 2013
Naturally, I said I couldn’t fit the response into 140 characters, but the general thrust is “Mu. They’re not distinct.”
I’m now going to write a hell of a lot of words that probably don’t answer his question. Sorry. Shit happens.
Crunch vs. Fluff
or, The False Dichotomy
This isn’t a direct response to Jesse’s question. Instead, it’s a whole bunch of related thoughts. Recently I’ve seen a resurgence in arguments along the lines of:
Crunch (rules, systems) is hard to write. You only write
fluff (setting), so you’re not as good a designer.
You’re also probably a failed novelist. Because I’ve written
some terrible houserules for Truncheons & Flagons,1 I’m
automatically a better game designer than you are even
though I’m actually a dickhead with self-esteem issues
desperately trying to achieve some form of validity for my
life by denigrating professional game designers.2
Yeah, it’s going to be one of those posts.
A game is a blob of information. Some of that information pertains to describing the type of story the game is supposed to create, even if it’s a strict world-sim type thing. Some of it describes the systems used to reflect that story. Both parts are just as necessary, and both parts are just as hard to write.
Elements of a Roleplaying Game
The real dichotomy in role-playing games is between setting and fiction.
Fiction can describe a setting. For the vast majority of roleplaying games, the only thing needed is fiction describing a setting and characters. They’re carried out on blogs and livejournals and forums. Most people who play tabletop roleplaying games don’t interact with these games, which is a pity because they’re in a serious majority.
Most tabletop RPGs have three distinct elements:
Fiction, which I’m going to break apart into “what happens in the game” and “descriptive text showing how the game should run”. Many gamers assume everything that isn’t rules revolving around dice3 is fiction. They’re wrong, mind, but that’s a popular opinion. The latter is used as an example of setting. The former needs both setting and rules.
Setting involves the presentation of the milieu in which the fiction happens. The fiction needs the setting. Setting involves a combination of broadly-written areas that the writer designs—just as much as they might design rules—in order to a) evoke and b) provide hooks for creating the fiction through play. Setting may include scraps of the second meaning of fiction as part of the evocation.
Rules, which includes specific “roll these dice” and “lose 10 hitpoints”, but also what White Wolf games call “theme” and “mood”—which should really be replaced with “leitmotif” but that’s a different argument. The former is easy for anyone with a grasp of probability, decision theory, and game theory. The latter is usually conflated as part of the setting.
Which is Harder?
None of them.
Writing a setting is hard. You need to know what genre you’re wanting to emulate, but you can’t just sit down and write fiction and hope that it’ll evoke the setting enough that you can toss in a couple of story hooks and be done. Sometimes it works. Usually, it sucks.4
Writing fiction to support a game and provide examples of what the game should look like in play is hard. Let’s face it, if it were easy you’d not be writing fucking RPGs. You could be making enough as a novelist that you wouldn’t need a day-job.5
Writing rules is hard, especially if you don’t know probability, decision theory, or game theory.6 Even if you do, the rules have to by their very processes create the outcome that you desire—the fiction that you’re aiming to emulate.
You’re No Help
Probably not. But I have answered the question.
How to Make a Game
Now, on to a related question: How does one make a game?
If you’ve got some ideas for systems, play with them. What’re the odds? The expected values? On strict analysis, is there a single optimal strategy that a rational person would take? How do the strategies change when other people get involved?
Once you’re happy with your results, write them up somewhere—along with the results of your analysis—and stick it in a drawer somewhere. You are not ready to write a game.
A game starts with an idea for either a setting or the fiction you want to emulate. Once you’ve got that, flesh it out a bit. If you know what kind of fiction you want to emulate, create a setting that emphasises that kind of fiction. If you’ve got a setting, write about it—not about ancient history or powerful NPCs, but about bits that you envisage the characters in your game interacting with.
One of the worst things you can do is write a lot of information about your setting that won’t ever come up in-game. The most recent example I can think of is the Iron Kingdoms RPG—the modern one, not the D20 one. The book opens with an introduction then page after page of ancient history that doesn’t help me as a player one bit.
I came into the game cold, wanting to play in the setting. I don’t want to read twenty pages on dead gods and who stabbed who fifteen thousand years ago. I want a precis of what’s where, some recent history that can throw up story hooks, and current interactions between individuals and nations that can throw up story hooks.
Iron Kingdoms feels like a game that was meant to be read, not played. It’s a supplement for the wargame showing off a bunch of worldbuilding7 to people who already know the setting and want more. It’s a terrible way to write an RPG for people who aren’t already invested in your setting.
Anyway. You need to develop your idea—the fiction and setting in tandem—until you’re able to present both in a way that gets everything about your game across to readers without you being present. This takes a lot of work. Setting development takes time, and as mentioned is a hell of a lot harder than just writing stories. Fiction development is hard because literary analysis is hard, and if you can’t be fucked doing literary analysis you’re never going to figure out what makes your chosen fiction tick. You need to create hooks and elements that communicate what your game is about.
This doesn’t look like a lot of hard work, but it is. It looks easy because you don’t have many specific questions that you can ask and answer. Knowing literary analysis and criticism helps, but it’s like writing an essay on the evolution of dada and surrealism into situationism and its impact upon the modern world. One question (or rather, one title), but a shitload of work to answer.
Once you’ve got your idea, then attach your system. Now, you’ve got a choice. Do you want a system that emulates the fiction, or one where the players help create the fiction?
Some mouthbreathing idiots want to claim that one type or the other “isn’t a roleplaying game”. Ignore them, because they’re so obviously wrong that engaging them will make you stupider, and you don’t design a game by getting into fights on the internet.
If it’s the former, think about a few things: How focused is the game? If it’s got a tight focus, think about how to represent that focus in the rules—mission creation in BLACK SEVEN is a good example of a hard system that reflects the game’s tight focus. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying uses Action Scenes and Transition Scenes as a soft system to create a similar focus.
Does an existing system do what you want to do? If so, how should you change it so it better represents the fiction you want to create? This can be just as hard as building a new system, because you need to analyse how your changes impact the original system in case of emergent weirdness.
How often do you want characters to succeed? Do you need a randomiser, or would a blind-bid feel more appropriate? Do you need degrees of success? Is a flat percentage chance good (one die), or would a bell curve be more appropriate (multiple dice)? How about a binomial distribution (dice pool)? Do you want two axes of results (cards)? Do you want to model characters as a whole, or only as they engage with the story—the latter is good for tight-focused games. How does the system play if you don’t approach it already knowing the kind of fiction you want to create?8
That’s a lot of questions. You need to answer them. This is known as “doing the core maths”.9
Examples of this kind of design among my games: Æternal Legends, BLACK SEVEN, the upcoming Rescue Squad.
If you want a system for creating the fiction, think about how you want that to work. Again, do you need randomisers (and all the other questions above)? How do they drive the fiction? Do you want players to each have a character, or do you create a pool of characters and players pick and choose every scene? What do you need to know about that character? Do you represent that mechanically? How? Do you need a GM? What rules does the GM operate under? What restrictions apply to the GM? And to the players?
Again, that’s a lot of questions and you need to answer them.
Examples of this kind of design among my games: Beyond, Tales of the Space Marines
This looks like a lot of hard work, and it is. But it looks harder because it’s made up of concrete questions and pieces that you can test via the tools of probability, decision theory, and game theory. It’s no harder than setting creation, it’s just more obvious in its difficulty.
Game design involves hard work in all areas. If you don’t want to do the hard work, you might end up with a game, but it’ll suck. Plenty of games suck after doing the hard work. Learn from them and move on.
More likely the currently-popular republication of an earlier version of that game, which isn’t so much “ripe for abuse” as “pre-broken on a fundamental level.”↩
I may be paraphrasing.↩
Or cards. Or blind-bid point-distribution. Or the expenditure of resources. Whatever.↩
Oh, pick your own bloody example. Cthulhutech is low-hanging fruit even if it wasn’t written by idiots who can’t help but jam sexual violence into every goddamn supplement. Pretty much any game decried as “hasn’t learned the lessons of early White Wolf” fits the bill.↩
Though this level of ignorance would get you a spot on the D&D Next design team.↩
The difference between worldbuilding and masturbation is the number of hands involved. And the amount of shame you feel at exhibiting the results to the public.↩
Not answering that is why D&D3 and its inheritors in the “dungeon fantasy” genre are all awful.↩
Plural. Only dead people say “mathematic”.↩
This is the first Werewolf book I’ve developed, and I’m psyched to see it out on Kickstarter!
Morning chapesses (and chaps) who are handsome and clever enough to follow this blog!
DriveThruRPG has a new featureette where one can set games as “pay what you want”. Since I like to think I’m a decent sort, I’ve enabled this for Æternal Legends — originally released in 2007, it’s the roleplaying game of fantasy heroes in the modern world. Hope you enjoy, and think it’s worth it.
You might remember that my 2012 was pretty much defined by one book: Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition. I put a hell of a lot of words into that book, and ended up developer for the resurrected Werewolf line.
It’s now available from DriveThruRPG in PDF and Print on Demand versions. The Kickstarter-exclusive deluxe versions will take a little longer to come through since they’re a traditional print run, but the book’s available now!
I don’t post all of my White Wolf/Onyx Path releases here, but this one’s the big one.
I’ve got some spare books going as a result of Conpulsion: three copies of Æternal Legends and one of BLACK SEVEN. I don’t want to just sell them, because DriveThruRPG, Indie Press Revolution, and Lulu already do that for me.
Instead, I’m going to give them away. Inspired by all around fantastic human being Joe Mcdaldno, you can get one by doing good deeds.
It’s fairly simple: You do good deeds, you let me know what you’ve done by sending me an email, and on the 17th of May I’ll pick people who have emailed at random to receive a free book. I’ll cover shipping. If you don’t get a printed book, you’ll get to choose between a free electronic copy of either Æternal Legends or the ANIMUS complete pack (BLACK SEVEN and ANIMUS). Everyone who tells me about a good deed gets something in return, I promise.
Details: you need to do a couple of “normal” good deeds, or one “significant” deed. Both those terms are in quotes because even one normal deed can make a real change to someone’s life. Examples of both categories are below, but don’t let these limit you: you get to judge what counts as a good deed and as long as it’s not an obvious attempt to game the rules, I’ll happily accept it.
“Normal” deeds include:
- Donating to charity (I’m personally a fan of Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Marie Curie Cancer Care). $10/€8/£5 or equivalent in your local currency1 is enough to qualify.
- Spend an hour volunteering at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, charity, or local non-profit organization.
- Bake a loaf or bread or batch of muffins and give them to someone you know who would appreciate them.
- Take a bag of clothes to a homeless shelter.
- Drop off a big bag of books at a charity shop.
“Significant” things you can do:
- Set aside a full day to help someone you know to move house.
- Commit to a weekly volunteer position and complete the first few weeks.
- Donate blood or platelets. I’m aware that the restrictions on blood donation are needlessly discriminatory, but people need blood and just about nowhere has enough.
- Help a friend who is looking for work with both writing a CV/resumé and the longer process of finding a job.
Email me and tell me what you’ve done. I’ll hook you up with free stuff on May 17th, which also happens to be my birthday.
Assuming this idea has legs, it’s just the start of a longer-term plan to give people my games in exchange for good deeds.
- Values roughly equivalent at time of writing; designed to be a round number for people in the same country as I am. Suck it up for charity.↩
Conpulsion was pretty damn fantastic. I got to meet a number of people who I’ve only known online up to now and really reconnect with the Scottish gaming scene. I’m fired up and ready to go. Nothing to do with drinking that much Red Bull, oh no.
One of the side effects of meeting so many people was giving out cards so they’ve got my email address without having to write it down (yes, I’m sad enough to have business cards). Now, I know that’s kinda old-fashioned, especially among gamers, so I’ve got a way to make those cards useful to you.
If you were at Conpulsion, drop me an email and you’ll get a free copy of the premium laid-out version of Beyond — my ghost-themed two page game — as a thanks for making the con so great. If you’re too cool for email, send me an @reply or DM on Twitter, a message through Google+, or whatever other means the cool kids are using these days. Just as long as it’s not Facebook, as I’m allergic.
As I mention over on the W20 Blog, the Editing Pass of Doom™ is done on W20: Changing Breeds. Which is nice. What’s next?
Apotheosis Drive X is coming along nicely. At time of writing, it needs just another $1000 to see Topher Gerkey’s Apotheosis of the Rose: Princess Drive X funded. After that, the funds go towards funding my own Guardians of Steel. I’m working on the outline for that now and realising that what started as a system for gaming robot toys punching the crap out of each other has a surprising depth and nuance when taken beyond the initial spectacle. Reading the old Grant Morrison Zoids comics really helped with that. The initial pitch is below the cut, but my ideas are racing at the mo.
Also, I’ll be a guest at Conpulsion up here in Edinburgh, running Werewolf20 and BLACK SEVEN. The con will feature an exclusive sneak preview of the Skinner SAS (“exclusive” assuming it doesn’t come out between now and then, anyway) that I’m running as a prize in the charity auction.
Apotheosis Drive X is:
The first mecha RPG powered by Fate Core.
A high drama, high action game with a philosophical and humanist bent.
Using a system of “generations” to represent vast technological advances that come quicker and quicker each time.
Focused on epic mecha battles. This is not Fate: The Tactical Wargame.
And y’know what? That’s not all! If the game funds, each extra $2,500 unlocks an additional setting and system hack for the ADX New Titan Report Anthology.
See Geoffrey McVey do fightin’ Hindu magical mecha!
Awe as Bruce Baugh writes mecha-piloting cephalopods fighting Wells’ Martians at the bottom of the sea!
Thrill to Topher Gerkey’s shoujo-style adventure, with young girls unlocking the power of the Princess Drives!
Watch as some giggling cretin smashes together Cthulhu, Mechagodzilla, Iron Man, and the Transformers and tries to make sense of the wreckage!