Advice for women looking to get into game design: part 3 [LONG]

[This post is part of a series! Click here for Part 1 and Part 2 respectively]


Some caveats:

First, in the comments on my last post, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.

It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.

I’ve gone back and edited part 2 to add both of these concerns to my post.

Lastly, Rachel Kahn – the artist and creator of By Crom! – linked me to a talk that she gave about her experience of self-publishing as an indie comics artist. It’s not games, obviously, but she covers a lot of useful topics that still apply to game publishing, so it’s definitely worth a listen.

The agenda:

So far I’ve covered the thinky stuff about why you should consider self-publishing and common cognitive pitfalls to avoid. I’ve also talked about the economics of various distribution models and the pros and cons of each approach. However! I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room – crowdfunding! Nor have I talked about alternative content models and creative partnerships. So I’m going to do my best to address those three topics in this post.

I know that this doesn’t exactly make for scintillating reading, so this is the last post in the series and after this I will return to more entertaining things.

Economics of making the thing

It is literally impossible to possess all of the skills needed to make a polished and professional game without needing the input of another human. If you are fantastically lucky, you might be one of the rare humans[1] who can also make art and do layout in addition to writing and designing a game. However, you will always need a human that isn’t you to edit your work.

Yes always. You are legit not capable of editing your own work because your brain is an asshole and will lie to you about what is actually on the page.

So at the very least, you will need to find an editor. Depending on your skillset, you may also need a layout person and an artist. (Sometimes artists can do layout as well. But in my experience, it’s far more common that these would be separate people.) And of course, any editor, artist, or layout person capable of putting out professional-quality work is going to want to be paid for their time.

With that in mind, let’s look at different options available to you. Although it’s worth noting beforehand that generally, the less money you’re willing to spend, the more time you can expect to spend yourself.

1) Shoestring everything yourself

Admittedly, this is a lot easier if you are an artist or layout-capable person yourself. However, it is possible, and is something I have done in the past.

First, you’ll need an editor. If you’re trying to avoid needing to pay people, consider your network of friends. Do you have any friends who are competent editors? English or Journalism majors? Compulsive grammar nerds? Ask if they’d be willing to edit your draft! A lot of the time, friends will be willing to trade favors for favors. Can you help your prospective editor move? Provide free babysitting? Something else tedious and time-consuming?

Be creative – friends will be a lot more flexible in what they’ll accept as compensation. Just make sure not to screw your friend over by not following through on your end of the bargain. Few things sour friendships faster than screwing over someone in a business arrangement.

Next, artwork. Are you an artist yourself? Cool beans! Congratulations on being a lucky human! If not, however, don’t despair. The Prismatic Art Collection is an excellent collection of RPG stock art featuring inclusive and diverse artwork by a lot of fantastic artists.

If that doesn’t meet your needs, consider getting creative. If you can’t draw, are you any good with a camera? Consider using photography instead of illustration. J. R. Blackwell’s work on Heroine is a fantastic example of how well this can work out.what this can look like.

Lastly, layout. It is possible for the layout-inexperienced to do their own layout, but you need to be prepared for the massive time expenditure this will entail. How long do you think laying out your book will take? Great. Now quadruple that estimate. And maybe double that estimate. Essentially, you’ll be teaching yourself a new skill, and that takes time.

That’s not to say it’s impossible! If you want to go that route, grab several of your favorite game books whose look you want to emulate and crib (without plagiarizing!) from the elements that make those books pleasing. This will require trial and error. Persevere! (On no account, however, should you attempt to do this using any Microsoft product. Period. That way lies madness and despair.)

1a) Shoestring everything but art, source art cheaply

If the Prismatic Art Collection doesn’t fit your needs, stock art can be an inexpensive alternative – although it’s important to note that you’ll be sacrificing specificity if you go this route; you may need to go with something that approximates what you were looking for if you can’t find something that precisely fits what you had envisioned.

There are artists doing some really interesting things with stock art collections on Patreon; typically in exchange for becoming a patron you gain access to an artist’s stock art library. My favorites that I’ve seen are Kaitlynn PeavlerGeorge Cotronis, and James E. Shields. However, with more artists joining all the time, it’s worth taking a look at who else is doing similar projects to see whose art you’re most attracted to.

Your other option is to license stock art from a big stock photo site and then modify it yourself. One great example of this is Apocalypse World – Vincent Baker did traceovers of photos he found on stock photo sites and the end result is fantastic. Going this route will also represent a significant time expenditure! Because I can guarantee that you’re going to spend a fair amount of time on trial-and-error before you settle on something you like.

2) Assemble a team of freelancers, do a KickStarter to raise the funds to pay them

Increasingly, this is what the face of game publishing is looking like. If you go this route (and I’d say any project over about 20,000 words, you should definitely consider this as an option), look at what it is you need that you’re prepared to pay for.

Then go recruiting people to fill those needs. Pitch the project and explain what you want to hire them to do, then ask about their rates and availability. (Availability is important! Putting together a team of awesome people who can’t start working as soon as the campaign is over is going to lead to massive delays and headaches.) Add all that together and that’s your creative budget.

I have more to say about KickStarter, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.

3) Creative partnerships

The middle ground between option 1 and option 2 is a creative partnership. Say you have a project that you want to do, and you have about half of the needed skills. Consider shopping around for a creative partner who has the skills that you lack for the purposes of entering into a creative partnership in exchange for a mutually agreed-upon split of the profits (usually 50/50).

A great example of this is my partnership with Josh Roby on Princess Charming. Josh wanted to write a series of books for children; he was capable of handling writing, layout, and production logistics. However, he needed someone to do art as well as character and setting design. So he pitched the project to me and we became partners on this project. And it worked out really well for me! I did a bunch of fun (albeit time-consuming) art things, and then gave them to Josh and didn’t have to think about it anymore while he did all the work of turning them into physical books. Sucker.

If you go this route, it’s super important to put down in writing who is expected to perform which tasks and what the desired timeline is going to be. It’s also very important that you work with someone you can get along with, because you’re going to be spending  a lot of time interacting with your partner. Don’t be tempted to partner with someone who rubs you the wrong way simply because you like their work, because trust me – that will never end well. Also, consider working together on a small project as a trial run before committing to working on a large project with someone who haven’t partnered with previously. It’s no fun discovering halfway through that you like your partner as a person but they drive you crazy as a collaborator.

You will need to figure out how to monetize the thing you want to make and plan accordingly. Consider signing a contract as to how profits will be split and how and when royalties will be paid to the person not receiving the monies. It is absolutely vital that you be on the same page with your partner about money things.

Serial content: Patreon

Everything that I’ve said about self-publishing so far has been predicated on the idea that what you are looking to do is sell a game. But maybe that’s not what you’re after, and maybe you’re open to alternative content models? So here I’m going to divert a little to talk about Patreon, since it would be a massive omission to not talk about Patreon as a way of funding game content.

Patreon is a great way to create small serial content; with traditional publishing models you can invest hundreds of hours in a project before it’s ready to publish. Patreon helps level out the revenue stream by providing income for content delivered in smaller, manageable chunks.

Most people use this to create content in discrete, self-contained chunks. Josh Roby uses Patreon to create “steampunk ports of call”, which are basically steampunk mini-settings. Mark Diaz Truman is using Patreon to create a monthly ezine called the Fate Codex.

Some people, like Caitlynn Belle and Topher Gerkey use it to fund the creation of small game projects. However, it can also be used to fund the development of larger projects; Quinn Murphy has been using his Patreon to fund the development of Five Fires – a hip hop RPG. You can also release games by the chapter, as this Patreon for the development of a Mexican RPG about killing angels. (I know I’m not doing it justice with that description, so please do check it out.)

Alternatively, some people use a per month model to fund the development of a larger project, or to enable more nebulous, hard-to-quantify work such as activism. Avery McDaldno is a good example of this; she makes games, coordinates events, gives talks, and does all sorts of awesome gameish things.

(And of course, because I’m bound to leave someone out here, it’s worth checking out this list of RPG-related Patreons over on RPGGeek.)

It’s worth noting that generally if you’re just starting out in game design, you should consider sticking to a per-content model rather than a per-month model. Without a proven reputation or established audience, a per-month model can be a hard sell; there are too many great Patreons out there to ever be able to support them all. You need to make potential patrons feel secure about seeing a return on investment, and a per-content model is a great way to do that. If you don’t create content, they don’t pay you anything! You’ll also need to invest effort in promoting your Patreon. Simply creating a Patreon and waiting for the money to roll in isn’t going to work. At all.

(And of course, Patreon is still a pretty new platform, so it’s hard to say definitively that these are your only two options. Who knows! There might be other exciting things people are doing that I’m not aware of!)


There are two main crowdfunding platforms for game content: IndieGoGo and KickStarter. I’ve written previously about why I use KickStarter and why you should too, but tl;dr is that IndieGoGo’s ethics leave a hell of a lot to be desired.

Anyhow, this section isn’t going to be about logistics – because there are a ton of people who have written voluminously about the logistics of running a game KickStarter. I could probably do an entire roundup post of KickStarter advice, and now that I think about it I really should. (Hmm.)

Anyway, most of what’s out there is written from the perspective of people who are running REALLY BIG CAMPAIGNS. So here is some perspective from the opposite end of the scale.

Budget, budget, budget

It can be a bit daunting figuring out exactly how to put together your budget, so for illustration here is my budget for Ruined Empire[2]. It does not include an editor! Make sure you don’t omit that.


YMMV, naturally, but this is a pretty good overview of the stuff that you should be thinking about. (Plus editing.) You’ll note that I’ve included payment for myself in my budget. ALWAYS ALWAYS DO THAT. KickStarters are a huge, huge job and you don’t want to wind up going through all that effort essentially for free.

I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, so I put this together using magic formulas to do the math for me. But if spreadsheets aren’t your thing, maybe check out these KickStarter budget calculators I found here and here? (I’m afraid I can’t vouch for their effectiveness in depth, but they looked useful when I was checking them out.)

KickStarter will be your lord and master

Running a KickStarter is like having a baby. No matter how prepared you may think you are, you aren’t ready at all. There will always be tasks that you hadn’t anticipated doing. A KickStarter is like a hungry, angry baby constantly demanding your attention.

Sound annoying? It is! And stressful! And time consuming, if you’re doing it right!

There is no replacement for KickStarter in that it can enable large projects that would otherwise be out of your reach. I would never have been able to put together Ruined Empire in a format that I felt would do it justice without KickStarter. However, KickStarters are a huge time and energy sink. Expect to be able to run 1 per year when you’re starting out; even the really experienced single-person publishers I know only manage 2 per year.

Make sure that your KickStarter revenue and expenses are in the same calendar year

This is actually something covered in pretty much all “mainstream” advice, but it’s important enough that I’m going to say it again here.

I didn’t do that with Ruined Empire and it’s kind of fucking over my taxes. Whoops.

Pay your damn freelancers

The big companies get away with screwing freelancers with unfavorable terms, but you should aspire to a higher standard. Half payment up front and half upon completion of work is a reasonable standard, and paying your freelancers promptly when you determine that their work is the final draft with no further changes needed will endear you greatly to them.


I could say more but I won’t

I know there’s more that I could say about KickStarter, but I’m going to hold off on that until after Ruined Empire and do a detailed post-mortem of that, since it’s the closest thing to a traditional game product I’m probably ever going to publish. Until then, to the Google!


So how much money can I make?

On my previous post, I got asked how much money you can expect to make selling RPGs. But that question is kind of impossible to answer for a number of reasons. To quote myself:

It depends. What kind of game are you trying to sell? What is it about? Is it something with broad appeal, or a weird little niche thing with limited appeal? How polished is it? Is it a standalone product or a supplement that requires another book to play?

How long have you been working on building an audience? Are you part of a community of gamers/game designers who can help promote your game? Have you been going to conventions to run your game? Have you been making an effort to get your games into game retailers?

I can’t give you numbers. Game design is like ANY business in that you have to put time IN to get money OUT.

So that is what I leave you with, my lovelies. I can’t promise you great fame or riches, all I provide here is a roadmap of what self-publishing can look like and how to get there. However, self-publishing is a business, and like any business you can’t expect the money to come in by itself. Businesses take time and effort sustained over years in order to build – they’re not something that just happens overnight.

Still, I hope that writing at such length (!!!) is helpful at demystifying the publishing process.

[1] John Harper is seriously amazing.

[2] Note that these numbers are in $USD, while the campaign itself funded in $CAD

Advice for women looking to get into game design: part 2 [LONG]

[ETA: Some important concerns were raised after this post about Lulu and DTRPG, so I’m editing a brief summary of these concerns into this post under 3a.

This is also part of a series! Part 3 in this series can be found here.]

In my last post, I talked about why it’s not enough to tell women to get involved in game design through freelancing for a major game publisher; it’s important that women know that self-publishing is also an option, and frequently it’s the far more financially beneficial option.

This is going to be a more practical post, talking about the nuts-and-bolts of distribution as a self-publisher. Obviously this is largely informed by my experience as an (admittedly tiny) self-publishing game designer, and everyone’s situation is unique, and YMMV blah blah blah.

Also, I’ll note that this post is information-dense. So if you’re not super super interested in self-publishing, maybe go watch some goat videos.

Lastly, I had intended to also tackle the different funding models of actually assembling a finished game project, from crowdfunding to creative partnerships and all that. But this post ballooned far beyond what I thought it would be, so that will have to wait for my next post because I have a lot to say about that! And I also want to talk about using Patreon to support serial-format game content, which may or may not fit in with my next post, so we’ll have to see what happens.

The changing face of self-publishing

I published my first game (Thou Art But A Warrior) in 2008, which feels like the Dark Ages now that I look back on those experiences. Crowdfunding didn’t exist. Drive Thru RPG was still a nascent force in indie publishing, hardly the juggernaut of market-share that it is now; Indie Press Revolution was the major arbiter of “hip, cool” indie TRPGs. And most importantly, PDF sales weren’t a thing that most indie publishers bothered worrying about; the iPhone had only been out for a year at that point, and the tablet market was still a twinkle in some marketer’s eye.

Determined to save money by doing everything myself, I did my own art and laid the book out myself in Word. (Oh god was that a mistake. Don’t ever ever do that.) Even then, the initial print run of 100 books cost me $400ish (it was a pretty small book), and then I had to take them to GenCon – which is itself no small expense – to spend my convention running endless demos. And even then my costs were comparatively tiny! Being able to do my own art took off a significant expense. And being able to rely on my husband’s editing[1] “for free” removed another significant expense.

(…yeah, yeah. I know how this sounds. Bear with me! This is going somewhere.)

Damn snowbirds with your retirement communities and your bingo!

Anyway, the point that I’m making is that publishing “back then” came with a pretty high barrier to entry. In addition to being someone who could afford to take the time to write a game, get it playtested, get it revised through multiple drafts, and have the bandwidth to deal with the nightmare that is printing[2] – you also had to be able to sink a lot of money into a game that had no guarantee of selling. Every time you self-published a game, you were taking the risk that all of your time, effort, and money would vanish and all you’d be left with was a box of books in your living room.

So it’s not terribly surprising that the horde of self-published game designers that were pimping their games at the IPR booth that year were a rather… monochromatic bunch of people.

Thankfully – as new self-publishing tools have been created, that barrier to entry has gotten lower, and lower, and lower. Which brings us to right now, when it has literally never been easier to publish your own shit.

So now let’s talk about how to get that done.

The current self-publishing landscape

(It’s important to note here that I will not be talking about how to make a finished game, for the most part. I’ll touch on art, editing, and layout as expenses that need to be considered and planned for, but as for “how to make a game that is polished and professional” – that’s an entirely different subject that people far more qualified than I have written extensively about.)

Self-publishing in 2015 is vastly different than in 2008, and it can take many different forms. As a publisher, you can put as much or as little time into your publishing as you want. So I’m going to go through the different “levels” of self-publishing as a one-person operation[3], though please note that “higher level” does not equate with “better”. “Higher level” simply means a greater investment of time, resources, and creative bandwidth.

Level 1: No books, just PDFs

This is what I think of as “entry-level publishing”. With tablets growing increasingly common at the table, PDF is now its own viable market segment – although it’s worth noting that the availability of PDF is never going to replace the demand for books.

At this level, all you really need is a game to publish, a website, and either a storefront or a distributor (or both).

1) The Game

Now when I say “a game to publish”, it’s important to note that I don’t necessarily mean  a complete roleplaying game with original setting and mechanical system. Hell no! Instead you could have a fully-fleshed out setting, or a small game that does a small but very specific thing, or a standalone hack of someone else’s game, or even a small hack of someone else’s game that doesn’t stand on its own. Whatever! If it is a game or helps other people play games, it counts.

2) The Website

Thankfully, this too is far easier than it used to be. There are a number of hosting services that use drag-and-drop content management systems that allow you to create slick, professional-looking websites without having to know a lick of HTML. Personally, I use SquareSpace (they are not paying me to endorse them) – their hosting rates are cheap, their templates attractive and easy to use, and if you pay a year at a time it includes a free domain name. I’ve been with them more than 2 years and never had any hiccups in service. (There are other similar services out there if you want to shop around – I just can’t comment on them.)

Even if you are  someone who knows HTML and web design, a service like SquareSpace is awesome because it just saves so much time[4].

3) The storefront/distributor

The easiest and cheapest way to handle this is to put a PayPal button on your website and email PDFs to customers yourself as your orders come in. I do a little of this – right now I’m only selling Thou Art But a Warrior through my UnStore, mostly because I’m also trying to get rid of my last dead-tree copies. However, this option is also the least visible. So either you’ll need to do self-promotion to offset this, or you’ll want to consider using multiple distribution channels. (Which you probably should! But more on that in a second.)

One additional, unfortunate complication to the selling-through-your-website model is that as of January 1st of this year, the new EU VAT rules basically mean that self-publishers can’t sell PDFs directly to their European customers.

Thankfully, PayHip is a storefront service that will handle VAT for you! They’ll take 5% of each sale, but really 5% is more than worth it for not having to deal with the VAT yourself. And what you get is a pretty slick looking storefront with some pretty decent analytics and social media tools built in.

However! PayHip still doesn’t do your self-promotion for you! And if that matters to you, you may want to look into a larger distribution channel like Drive Thru RPG or Indie Press Revolution. (And since they’d be doing the distribution, VAT would ultimately be their problem, not yours.) DTRPG will give you 65% of net profit as a non-exclusive publisher, and 70% if you publish with them exclusively. IPR doesn’t charge as much in royalties – they take 20% of cover price for all PDF sales. But then, their sales aren’t as large as DTRPG, so that’s a judgement call you’ll have to make.

It’s worth noting that DTRPG is huge, and has an enormous customer base. Many DTRPG customers will only purchase game PDFs through DTRPG so that their game libraries are effectively centralized in one location that they have access to away from home. So there are a lot of sales that you will only capture through DTRPG. However, DTRPG also takes a lot more of your money.

A good way to balance this is to launch a new game through your website and/or storefront of choice, and only release on DTRPG after a month or two when initial sales have peaked and started to taper off. (This was the approach I took for SexyTime adventures and I wound up doubling the number of copies sold.)

Of course, if all of that sounds like too much of a hassle, and it might, there’s nothing wrong with publishing exclusively with DTRPG and linking your website over there. Ultimately, you have to do the personal calculus and decide if the return on investment is worth it for anything beyond that.

3a) Important caveats (edited in after initial post)

In the comments, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.

It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.

Level 2: Books

Books are something that are never going to go away, period. So it’s worth considering that as an option, because some people won’t buy a game if they can’t get a book. (Although it’s worth noting that Print + PDF is becoming the standard for a lot of indie outfits, as increasingly people like having an option of owning a book but not having to haul around the extra weight at a convention.) But of course, books means printing as well as shipping, which ups the nuisance factor considerably.

But if books is a thing you want to do, then here’s what that can look like:

1) Sell books through website/storefront, mail them yourself

This is originally what most of self-publishing looked like, and it can still be viable if you’re willing to put up with a lot of hassle. Shipping books yourself means you’re not paying handling fees to someone else to do it for you. However. This also requires you to keep physical copies around your house, as well as mailing supplies. And you need to be able to take time to make semi-regular trips to the post office. It is time consuming, to say nothing of space-consuming. And if you live in Canada, Canada Post’s absolutely ridiculous postage rates are going to preclude you from doing this. (I have someone in the States who ships my print copies of TABAW for me.)

Most importantly, however, this model means that you will have to have gone to the trouble of getting it printed yourself, which is no small task. And that means either sinking in money up front, or funding a print run plus extras through crowdfunding, which we’ll come back to. So increasingly, people are ditching this model in favor of #2.

1a) Print books, send them to a distributor who will sell/ship them for you

There are several distributors who do this for small indie publishers. Indie Press Revolution was the first, and the only distributor I have any direct experience with. (I stopped using IPR several years ago.) However, it may be worth considering if you want to save money on printing costs but don’t want to or can’t mail books yourself.

Importantly, distributors like IPR sell to retailers – which means that you could potentially get your game into local game stores. However, with IPR retail sales are made at 55% of cover, with the remaining profit being split 80/20 – leaving you with 44% of your cover price as compared to 70% of cover for direct print sales. So you may decide that retail sales using this model aren’t worth it to you, since you’re “losing money” as compared to a direct-to-the-customer print sale. Or you may decide that the reduced royalty is worth the extra exposure. It’s your call.

However, while this model saves you from dealing with shipping, it still doesn’t save you from dealing with printers. Which is why more publishers are shifting to…

2) Upload a print-ready PDF to a platform that will print-on-demand for you

Drive Thru RPG is great for this, because you can upload one print-ready file and set different options for how people can buy it. So you set price levels for PDF, for black and white, for color softcover, color hardcover, etc etc etc. And when people order a print copy, DTRPG prints it on demand and mails it for you, and you get the royalties without ever having to go to the post office.

Which, as someone who has dealt with printers, let me tell you this is something you should strongly consider. Printers are either 1) glacially slow or 2) amazingly talented at fucking things up. No exceptions.

Lulu is an alternative for those interested in the “not needing to handle books” model of selling books. They charge a flat price for printing, you set the cover price and get the difference. However, using Lulu comes with the same disadvantage as selling only through your website. If you want your game to sell well, you’re going to have to put extra work into promoting it.


Most dead-tree print runs these days are being funded through crowdfunding, because as noted previously, printing is expensive. And as shipping costs sky rocket, publishers handling dead-tree books need to be able to make sure their costs will be covered. However, this post is already long enough, so crowdfunding will have to wait until next time.


[1] Being married to your editor is both a blessing and a curse. It’s impossible to grumpily ignore your editor when they give you brutal edits if they live in your house.

[2] Actually, dealing with printers isn’t any better now than it was in 2008. Even when you’re dealing with a good printer, the process still sucks.

[3] Much of what I say might not apply to medium sized indie operations like Bully Pulpit.

[4] No more coding lightbox galleries manually! Whee!

Advice for women looking to get into game design: Part 1

[ETA: Part 2 is now up! You can find it here! Part 3 is here.]

Before we get started

Lately, the issue of women and minorities in game design and development has been a topic of conversation in indie tabletop circles. I recently wrote about the dustup that happened over the level of female representation on D&D’s core design team. Since then, several interesting data points have been added, such that I think it’s worth taking a look at here.

So I’m going to write a 2-part series here about getting started as a woman in indie publishing. Some of what appears here will be “recycled” content, in that it’s repurposed from a Google+ post that I made several months ago. Most of it, however, will be “original” content that has not previously been pulled from my brain meats.

Part 1 is going to handle what I’m calling “thinky stuff” – pros and cons of publishing your own content, as well as common cognitive pitfalls that women face in game publishing.

Part 2 is going to deal in more practical matters. I’ll talk about my experiences as a self-publisher: how I got started, what goes into making a finished game, and the many different avenues available to self-publishers.

So now that I’ve laid that out, let’s get started.

1) The pros and cons of self-publishing

Most of the time when people talk about “breaking into the industry as a game designer”, what they mean is “getting a freelancing gig for one of the ‘mainstream’ publishing companies[1]”. But if that is all that you think of when you think of “breaking in”, then let me tell you YOU ARE SELLING YOURSELF SHORT.

Not to get all “get off my lawn” on folks here, but it has never been easier to self-publish games than it is right now. There are so many tools now that allow people to self-publish exciting and polished games that just plain didn’t exist when I started dabbling in self-publishing nearly seven years ago. It is absolutely possible for a one-person operation (like yours truly) to make and publish games that people want to buy.

There’s also the issue of economics. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press wrote this fantastic look at the economics of publishing from the standpoint of one of the “big dogs”, and it’s a great look at why freelance writing is not well paid, and why it’s not ever going to be well paid in the current market. The fact of the matter is that very often, a tiny self-publisher with a tiny audience can shoestring a game of their own and still make more money than they’d make freelancing for one of the big companies.

As a new writer in the industry, you can expect to make between 2-3 cents per word. That’s it. But as a self-publisher? You get all the profit, minus only expenses related to distribution, which adds up much more quickly.

Real-world example:

The work that I did for V20: Dark Ages was at a contracted rate of 3 cents per word. 3 cents per word times several thousand words means that my final fee was several hundred dollars.

Contrast that with SexyTime Adventures: the RPG, my stupid satirical dungeon-running not-even-a-standalone-hack of Dungeon World that’s mostly an exercise in mocking bad fantasy cheesecake art. I shoe-stringed producing it and it wound up costing me $35 total. To date, it has earned me more money than the work I did on V20: Dark Ages[3].

More importantly, I own the rights to all of it. My work on V20: Dark Ages was done work-for-hire, which means I don’t own any of the work that I did on that project.

Now all of that said, there are some cons to self-publishing. I’m not going to pretend that it’s all giggles and unicorns! Because there are distinctly unfun parts to self-publishing too. So I’m going to do a good old-fashioned pro-con list here:

Self-publishing pros Self-publishing cons
You own 100% of your work Self-promotion and publishing are time-consuming
You don’t have to wait to get paid KickStarters are NOT for the faint of heart (or the weak of organizational skills)
You don’t have to worry about getting screwed out of a comp copy, or about an employer just not paying you for your work – all of which are very real risks Building an audience is something that takes hard work over time. There is no substitute for this. None.
The profit margins are much, MUCH larger Finishing a draft is just the beginning of the process
You are in control of the creative process You’ll need to find a trustworthy, competent editor. Getting your edits will never be fun, or your editor isn’t doing the job right.
There are no rules for what self-publishing HAS to look like. How much time and effort you put into publishing is up to you Organizing playtests sucks. Seriously, it’s just the worst. (Except KickStarters.)
There are many alternative funding models and storefront options for people not willing/able to get into the logistics of dead tree books

Personally, I would LOVE to see many more people start self-publishing their own stuff. Tell that voice in your head that’s blasting the litany of reasons why it wouldn’t work to STFU. (It’s lying, but we’re going to come back to that in part #2.) I’m obviously pretty biased, but as someone who has experience with both ends of this? Self-publishing is by far my preferred method of game-writing. BY. FAR.

In the end, you have to do the calculus of what makes sense for you. But don’t let the Myth of the Game Designer fool you into thinking that you’re not “good enough” or “popular enough” or “talented enough” to publish your own content. And don’t EVER let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do freelance writing for “exposure” or to “gain experience”. Because here’s the deal.

As a freelancer, YOU ARE PROVIDING A SERVICE THAT HAS WORTH, or else they wouldn’t be paying you for it! The game companies are NOT in this to help you, the lowly freelancer. They are in this to MAKE MONEY, pure and simple. Working for “exposure” is an endless, useless trap so DON’T DO IT.

2) Self-publishing: common cognitive pitfalls[2]

[This is directed pretty much exclusively at women (misandry!), and is all taken from things I have berated myself for at some point or another.]

You have imposter syndrome, and it is lying to you.

Granted, it’s true that I know lots of male designers and writers with imposter syndrome. But it’s worse for women, because we have the double whammy of starting out a new craft in a hobby that tells women we don’t belong here.

You will feel like you have nothing to contribute, that you have no business calling yourself a game designer. That’s bullshit. Tell your brain the shut the fuck up and keep designing. (You may not ever get rid of that voice, but I promise it gets easier to tell it to STFU with practice.)

Write the game that you want to write

Making games is work and you have to really be excited about a project to see it through from start to finish. Don’t discard a game idea because you think no one will be interested or want to play it. Make it anyway and put it out there. You may be surprised! Hell, I’m still surprised that ANYONE actually bought SexyTime Adventures, let alone played it. But it happened! And I almost didn’t publish it, because I thought no one would be interested but me.

This goes double if you want to write a game about something stereotypically “girly”. You want to write a game about saving kittens? DO IT. A game about teenage girl angst? ROCK. A game about shoujo magical girl anime? OMFG DOOO IIIITTTT.


You do you. It’s okay to design for a niche audience.

Only writing hacks doesn’t mean you’re not a “real” game designer

It took me years to call myself a game designer because I can’t write original systems for shit. But I’ve learned that I’m really good at taking a system that does 75% of what I want it to do and Frankensteining it into doing a particular thing it didn’t do before. That’s game design!

Did you make a game? Then you are, grammatically, a game designer. Own that label.

Not being able to get outside groups to run playtests does not mean that no one will want to play your game

Seriously. It doesn’t mean that you suck, or your game sucks. It means there are too many games and too little time to play them in. It’s okay. Find some friends to play your game with you. It’ll be okay.

Keep your eyes on your own work

I still sometimes beat myself up that I’m not as prolific as Designer X or I’m not as popular as Designer Y. And it’s stupid and pointless. Be the best designer YOU can be.

Perfect is the mortal enemy of good enough

There is a difference between perfect and polished. Your game will never be perfect. Is it good enough? Good. Shove it out the door and move on.

You do not need a middleman. REPEAT. YOU DO NOT NEED A MIDDLEMAN.

Self-publishing is a thing that you are allowed to do. Yes, you with your no previously published games. Yes you with your lack of budget for a professional illustrator. Polish your game to the best of your capacity and put it out there. You do NOT need to shop around for “established” publishers to publish your work before you can call yourself a “real” designer.

That said, self-publishing is work! And maybe you don’t want to do that extra work, and that’s okay. But be upfront with yourself about your reasons – if it’s about validation, then re-consider. Because the economics of freelancing means that even self-publishers with tiny audiences (like me) can often make more money by publishing their own work.

Find a community of designers who you can talk about design with

I’ve learned A LOT about game design from talking with other designers and watching their process. Similarly, I find that talking about my in-process design thoughts helps me refine my ideas. Google+ is a GREAT place for that, because Circles and robust blocking tools make it easy to aggressively curate a discussion space you find productive.

You do not require the validation of assholes

That’s so important I’m going to say that again.


It’s a sad reality of the gaming community that there are assholes, and as a woman you WILL encounter them. Sometimes, it may be someone you’ve heard about, someone who you think of as a Big Name. It can be really hard when that happens to remember that your worth as a designer is NOT contingent on their approval.

Say that the absolute worst case happens and they try to blacklist you. Remember that your audience is NOT 100% of gamers. Your audience is people who like and appreciate your games. And contrary to what they think, Big Name Assholes don’t really have as much power to affect your game sales as they think they do. People who would listen to a Big Name Asshole calling for a boycott of your work? Aren’t sales you should care about losing.


Remember to have fun

You’re making GAMES after all! Have fun! Even if I hadn’t sold a single copy of SexyTime Adventures, I would still consider it a success, because I giggled to myself the entire time I was writing it. Make games that you have fun making.

[1] Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat, Green Ronin, Onyx Path, etc etc

[2] This section was originally written as a Google+ post, which you can find here.

[3] Full disclosure: that’s not factoring in the 30% pay bump that was one of the KickStarter stretch goals. By that metric, it falls just short.

Gender-swap: New Langrisser RPG, now with more crotch

(Credit where credit is due – I originally came across this thanks to the wonderful Bikini Armor Battle Damage.)

So it seems that Langrisser, a popular Japanese tactical RPG, might be getting its first sequel in fifteen years, and some people are really excited about that. However, in my case this bit of news caught my attention not because of nostalgia (I’ve never played the games, nor even heard of them previously) but because of the… interesting character designs.



The male hero is pretty standard JRPG fare, right? Unusually vertical hair, very bishounen features, grumpy expression, and ornate armor. So far so good. But the female character…? Well, really, where do I start?

So leaving aside the fact that this is definitely one of the most extreme cases of armored lingerie that I have ever seen (it actually covers less than Fran!), and also the fact that the instant she even tried to lift that sword – much less swing it – her boobs would pop right out of that top, and also the fact that she must be getting Brazilian waxes on a disturbingly frequent basis… I think the thing that jumps out at me the most is this:

HOLY SHIT IS THAT A LOT OF CROTCH. Like, I don’t even know how they managed it, but that is more crotch than most of Blade and Soul’s costume designs, which is impressive because Hyung Tae Kim – the lead artist – sure loves him some crotch.

And of course, that made me think of Retaliatory Wang, which pretty much made me need to do a gender swap. BECAUSE WANG, AMIRITE? So here we go!



Changing the male hero to read as female was almost absurdly easy – it took me all of 8 minutes. (I timed myself.) I rounded out the breastplate; de-squared the hero’s jaw; and added eyelashes, blush, and lipstick. Interestingly, the last step I took was to de-verticalize[1] the hair; I guess I’ve just played too many JRPGs where the hero has vertical hair to read a fully-covered character with vertical hair as anything but male. And that was it! That’s all!

Gender-swapping Lingerie Knight, however, took a lot more work, and a fair amount of trial and error.

First, I removed most of the hair – since hyper-long hair is a common trope for emphasizing femininity. I also masculinized her features: the jaw was squared, the nose lengthened, the eyes narrowed, and the neck widened. The pauldron on her right shoulder was enlarged and painted in to widen the shoulders. And lastly, the part I had the most fun with, I painted in the banana hammock, complete with chest and pubic hair. (And giggled to myself the entire time, because I am super mature.) After that, it was a lot of trial-and-error.

I had planned on not bulking her up, since the male hero read as male despite having the same very slight build. However, in order to overcome the sheer ridiculousness of the outfit, I wound up going back and bulking up her biceps and legs. I also had to get rid of the boob cups entirely, as well as square off the contours of the lace, because even with no boobs and chest hair, the boob cups still made it look like he just had really hairy boobs.

And even after all that, I still wound up adding a goatee and mustache, because I felt like the prominent wang, chest/pubic hair, increased muscularity, and masculinized features were still not sufficient to read as male while wearing that outfit. And even then, the end result is a design that is hilarious, but not at all appealing as an avatar. Whereas the gender-swapped male hero? I would play her in a heartbeat.


[1] Yes it is a word. Shut up.

Tuesday Freebies: things mostly about GamerGate

Hi, folks! I was in a play this past weekend, which meant I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to blogging. Thankfully, the internet has been super interesting in my absence, which means it’s time for more freebies!

Things that are interesting

Courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune, researchers at Brigham Young University are trying to make a game that will encourage more women and minorities to get into STEM fields. I’m a bit skeptical of the idea as it’s presented, but it might be something interesting to follow.

Meanwhile, over on Paste Magazine Ian Williams and Austin Walker have an enlightening conversation about Blaxploitation in the context of upcoming game Funk of Titans. WELL worth a read, since Blaxploitation is usually something I’ve seen discussed in regards to film, not games.

People being stupid on the internet

The Mary Sue storified a bunch of tweets in which they tell the tale of how #GamerGate is literally unable to process the idea that there might be more than one person in the world with the same name.

In an entirely different kind of stupidity, e-sports leagues have long followed the practice of gender segregating their tournaments, a practice when sane and rational people have pointed out makes NO FUCKING SENSE. Nevertheless, it’s a policy that e-sports isn’t likely to ditch any time soon, as illustrated by the staggering level of ignorance displayed by Garena’s recent rules change to their LoL women’s league which mandated that each team of 4 women could have a maximum of 1 LGBT woman, because queer superpowers? Thankfully, this decision has since been reversed, although Garena’s apology was a totally bullshit “sorry you were offended” apology, which doesn’t really surprise me.

Online harassment: it’s a problem, and the cops don’t care

Several excellent pieces addressing the frightening new reality of GamerGate have scrolled through my feeds in the last little while. They are not easy reads, but they are all valuable. (That said, if you’ve been harassed online or fear being harassed, please exercise caution and maybe don’t read these.)

On Gawker, Sam Biddle writes about recent threats against Brianna Wu by a deranged GGer who appears to have attempted to seek Wu out in real life with intent to murder her and her family. Terrifyingly, the cops are aware of these threats, and of this recent incident, but have yet to lay charges against the perpetrator and even suggested to Wu that she simply “turn off her devices”.

On their blog, Ronan Wills tackles the problematic habit of not believing women when they talk about their abuse online. It’s an excellent read, so go read it and save me the trouble of quoting the whole damn thing.

On Pacific Standard, Amanda Hess wrote about her personal experience with harassment and death threats online, most of which mirrors what is being said about the harassment faced by Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, et al. It also talks about the impracticality of “just don’t go online” as a response to such harassment.

Similarly, on Jezebel Anna Merlan writes about her own run-ins with online harassment. She also chronicles her attempts to take these threats to law enforcement. It’s a pretty terrifying look at how behind the times law enforcement is on this issue, and how deeply they really just don’t give a shit.

…but maybe that’s changing?

In the first bit of good news I’ve seen related to GamerGate, it turns out that Brandon Wilson (aka Famed God) has been arrested for two different SWATting attempts, with a possibility of a 5 year jail sentence. I hope to God that he actually gets convicted, and that we see more such arrests soon.

Also, in what is definitely a first for Twitter, CEO Dick Costolo has admitted that they really fucking suck at dealing with abuse of its platform:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day

Granted, their primary motivation for tackling this problem now is that it’s costing them users. But even cynical motivation is still motivation; let’s hope this is more than just lip service.

Lastly, The Mary Sue has a preview of the upcoming GamerGate episode of Law & Order: SVU. And while their heart is obviously in the right place, the actual script looks like it’s going to be something of a trainwreck. (I don’t know what’s more painful, hearing Olivia Benson say “doxxing” or Ice T talk about “the dark net”.)

Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

Necessary disclaimers

This post might seem a little arcane, since it is rooted in a Twitter dustup that stemmed from a misunderstanding (funny how 140 characters makes it easy to lose context…). However, I also think it’s a good look at the messy what-goes-in-the-sausage side of game development, and how increasing diversity in game development isn’t as straightforward or as easy as it sounds.

(Before I get started, let me assert that this post isn’t meant to be seen as taking sides, in any form or fashion. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation! I know the internet doesn’t like nuance, but that’s what’s being expressed here, so deal.)

Let me explain… No. Is too long. Let me sum up.

So here’s how it all went down. Tumblr user teal-deer made a post called “There are now Zero Women working on Dungeons and Dragons“. From that post:

Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, an editor who previously worked both on Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, was laid off on January 28th.

This means of the mere eight remaining employees working on Dungeons and Dragons, zero of them are women. This is a huge problem. –teal-dear (follow link for full post)

Subsequent to this post, rollforproblematic made a post about WotC D&D demographics as compared to Paizo’s demographics. Which is where Jessica Price, a project manager at Paizo, stepped in to provide comment about demographics at Paizo and the realities of uncredited work that might add to the perception of lack of female participation. Jessica’s post is classy and professional, only commenting on her direct experience at Paizo and not mentioning WotC or D&D even in passing.

However, Jessica Price has her tumblr set to push tumblr posts to Twitter, which – because of the format restriction – only includes the first line in the tweet; when making a response to a threaded Tumblr post, what appears in the pushed tweet is very often not written by the replying person in the first place. So it’s pretty understandable that there was some confusion about what it was that Jessica Price was actually saying. Unfortunately, how people reacted to that confusion was to start making angry posts on Twitter.

Mike Mearls got the ball rolling by making this rather combative tweet:


Now to be fair, he did follow up his tweet with this one:


…which is a sentiment I agree with! And plan to blog about in the future! But wow is this not the way to express that sentiment. Especially when you follow it up with a series of tweets listing women on the team in non-design positions without actually mentioning their names in the tweets. (This is something that happens to women all the damn time, where we are credited by position as “a woman” and not actually by name, and it sucks.)

So what could charitably[1] be seen as preventing the erasure of women in development suddenly starts look a lot more like an ally using the mere existence of women as a shield against criticism, which is the “I have coworkers that are black” of feminism. Furthermore, you have a male developer using the existence of these unnamed female coworkers as a bludgeon to demand an apology from a female developer for criticism that wasn’t actually hers. Which reads as an ally demanding feminism cookies at best and a man in a position of authority using their status to silence a woman making unwanted criticism at worst.

All of which is… incredibly problematic.

Even so! Jessica Price kept it classy and responded with:

…But the original post isn’t mine, and my responses are addressing comments about Paizo’s demographics. I have no expertise/interest in commenting on WotC’s demographics; if you want to talk about that, please remove me. … –Jessica Price (you can read the full thread here, or most of it)

And Mike Mearls apologized for the discussion, and that was pretty much that. (At least as far as I’m aware. Phew.)

All in all, pretty short-lived for a Twitter dustup. However, it left me with… well… a lot of complicated feels.

The feels and their complications

1. Mike Mearls’ response was not okay.

Regardless of the intent behind his tweets, the response that Mike Mearls chose to make was not okay. Women in the industry already have to deal with a bewildering array of harassers, trolls, and sea lions. So this kind of belligerence directed at a prominent female industry figure by one of the luminaries of the TRPG world is just not okay. Even if Jessica Price had been the one making the original criticism, this kind of combative defensiveness is not an appropriate response to what was actually a civilly expressed criticism, despite Tumblr’s shortening of the post making it appear otherwise.

Mike Mearls has expressed a desire to be an ally in that he wants to work for increasing diversity and inclusion within D&D products and the industry as a whole. Well part of being an ally is being able to take criticism on the chin. Yeah, it fucking sucks. But as a person of privilege, you do not get to prioritize your feelings over a marginalized person’s expression of marginalization. That is allying incorrectly.

2. Women in gaming who assume non-design roles are valuable

There is a weird cult of the Game Designer in TRPG circles, which sucks because there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

Furthermore, we need to erase the myth of the Solitary (Male) Game Designer, because game design is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a craft that requires community to be successful. And so often it’s women providing vital first feedback and design advice who aren’t even recognized for the importance of their contributions to the final work.

2a. Credit where credit is due

If women are going to start having their contributions recognized, men in positions of power need to vigorously highlight the participation of women.

2b. Women often get pushed out of design and into support roles

Over on Google+, David Hill made the point that very often, women working in non-design support roles don’t want to be working in those roles.

Gosh, I think I’ve heard this story before. One of my good friends was hired for design and concept work at a major video game studio. Immediately upon relocating and starting, they decided she’d be a better fit off the design team, and as a community manager. With a pay cut.

Wait. This isn’t one of my friends. This is a lot of them.

Which still doesn’t change the fact that there are no women on the game design team. That’s a fact. Yet, people have to apologize for saying this empirical fact, because it erases all the non-game design people working on the property. –David Hill, (entire post here)

I know women who do great work in non-design support positions, and who are passionate about what they do. But it’s undeniable that women do get shunted away from design positions because of gendered workplace expectations.

And unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which is the case here. Because a bunch of internet people descending on them to demand that they talk about their job satisfaction for the purposes of resolving an internet argument isn’t exactly going to elicit honest responses.

3. Silencing women is not okay, community that demands our silence is toxic

I’m going to quote myself from a rant I made on Twitter (albeit lightly edited for grammar) that was partly inspired by this Twitter dustup, but also by a messily complicated situation I’m dealing with in my real life:

It is important to recognize that the work that women do in building community IS work and that it IS valuable. Women who build community are not less valuable because they are performing the role they were socialized to adhere to.

But it’s also important to recognize that women also serve and foster community in other ways than building community structures/supports. Most women I know have at some point chosen to be silent on an issue that harms them in the interest of community. Community is often a thing that is not built FOR women, but built ON women. A thing that requires their complicity and silence.

The penalty of not remaining silent is not being allowed to participate in the thing that they helped build/grow/foster. I make the choice to remain silent on certain things every day. Some days it is easier than others. Some days it’s an eyeroll and a whatev – nbd. Some days it’s a weight on your chest that makes it impossible to breathe or ask for help.

And I don’t know how to fix it, any of it. My silence won’t fix it. But I can’t deal with the consequences of not-silence. Community that requires the silence of the women who perform labor in its service is not healthy community, but how do we move on from that? I wish I had more than just questions.

4. Female and non-binary designers exist. There are lots of them.

Something that Mike Mearls failed to address is the fact that the core design team is exclusively male. And that is absolutely something he should have acknowledged instead of handwaving about ‘well look at all these women over here!’. Yes, I’m sure that the men on the design team are all eminently qualified and have an impressive roster of design work. But you know what? There are a lot of smart, talented, and experienced non-male designers out there who would be more than qualified to take on designing for D&D.

So getting defensive about the fact that they do have women… who aren’t designers? It feels like moving the goal posts. 0 out of 8 is a shitty ratio, and at the very least it should be acknowledged that, yeah, they could have done better wrt diversity.

4a. No I’m not saying fire Mike Mearls or any of the other male designers and hire a woman

FFS, don’t even start with the strawmen, okay?

5. Fucking up is inevitable. What matters is how you respond when called out.

Seriously. I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times – it’s something that happens to everybody. You’re going to fuck up. Period. And it sucks being called out. Because dammit they should know that you’re not the enemy, and that you had good intentions, right?

Thing is, intent isn’t some magical cure-all. You can’t say “well that’s what I meant was…” and expect that to solve everything, because it won’t.

6. Lastly, walk the fucking walk

This past year, I had an encounter with a Big Name Game Industry Figure that highlights the kind of bullshit that game industry women have to deal with. First he belligerently make mocking comments about positions I’ve taken on my blog, then he attempted to silence me by making dismissive sarcastic remarks. It was an obvious show of power and status wielded against a woman who said things that he didn’t like, and IT FUCKING SUCKED.

And this guy? Someone who has said that he wants diversity in the industry. Someone who has worked to bring in more female writers and designers. And yet when faced with a woman who expressed opinions he didn’t like, he too thought it was totally okay to weaponize his superior status in order to shut up a woman having opinions he didn’t agree with.

It made me furious! Hell, I’m still mad about it! That kind of thing is the kind of shitty microaggression that piles up and drives women out of the industry. So if you’re a dude working in the game industry, you HAVE TO be conscious of the fact that you are always operating from a place of privilege and status, and that weaponizing that status is just not fucking okay.

In summary

It’s a complicated situation! And again, this isn’t intended as a personal attack against Mike Mearls. I’ve written previously about how I like the new direction of D&D and how meeting Mike Mearls gave me hope for the future of the hobby!

Still, this was a giant red flag for me, and yet another check mark on my list of “Reasons Why I’m Glad I Publish My Own Fucking Games” ie “I’m Glad This Is Shit I Don’t Have To Deal With”. Because if I had been Jessica Price, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been so classy in my response.

[1] I’m a bit fan of always making a strenuous effort to read charitably. Mostly because so much of what I say here gets deliberately quoted out of context elsewhere.