Publishing while female: 2 vignettes of bafflement, frustration, and humiliation [long]

Last time I wrote about the many and sundry reasons why it sucks being a female publisher, and how that suckitude is driving women out of publishing, and how the only way to fix the problem is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN, and it was a very difficult piece for me to write. The entire time I was writing it I was afraid that people would read it as sour grapes on my part and use that to dismiss what I was saying, because unfortunately my personal lack of success as a female publisher is of course the very thing that will most commonly be used to dismiss what I am saying when I try to talk about the lack of success of female publishers in general. So because I didn’t want what I was saying to be dismissed entirely out of hand, I worked very hard to keep that post’s tone more distant and less emotional – despite wanting nothing more than to yell my hyperbole-laden and profanity-laced anger at the internet.

As it turns out, wrestling with fear about how people will react to what you are saying while trying to perform a tone-balancing act is difficult and emotionally draining! (Amazing! Who’d have thought!) So it was nice that I did get some sympathetic commentary about my last post. Some.

But I also got dudes commenting on my Plus about how they “agreed” with what I was saying, but, well, you know. The kinds of games that they like to play are the kinds that are more likely to be produced by men, and WHAT COULD THEY POSSIBLY DO? It’s just too bad that the situation for female publishers is so messed up, and they want to do more, but HOW could they possibly make any personal contributions to changing things? HOW?

And let me tell you, that kind of willful helplessness in the face of what is a pretty damning and clear picture of how fucked things are in our hobby? It’s pretty goddamn frustrating having the biggest perpetrators respond with willful obliviousness while simultaneously trying to get credit for acknowledging that there is a problem and that they feel bad about it. “Wow. You’re right! This is terrible! It’s such a shame that this is all inevitable and that there is nothing more that can be done!”

… BRB, setting the world on fire.

You know what? Given that the wage gap is still DEFINITELY A THING (and actually getting worse here in Canada – so much for being a liberal community utopia), why don’t you men spend some of those extra 22-28 cents on the dollar on buying a game or two by women every now and then that you don’t actually want to play, just to show some support for women designers and publishers? You know, especially since you don’t have to worry about the extra gendered costs of inequal healthcare or products made for your gender or places to live.

JUST A THOUGHT.

So. Because my mostly dry, logical analysis didn’t seem to quite hit home for some people, let me attempt to put things in perspective by sharing two vignettes with you from my personal experience.

Case #1: The Starlit Kingdom, Andy Kitkowski, and Magical Girls

Andy Kitkowski, the brain behind Kotodama Heavy Industries (which is a game company, not a Japanese industrial company), has been doing pretty well with publishing translations of Japanese anime-themed RPGs for… quite a while now. Tenra Bansho Zero – the gonzo “throw literally every anime trope in a blender” game that I actually wrote Ruined Empire as a setting for – KickStarted for $129,000+; Ryuutama, a gentle and “heart-warming” game about traveling and adventure, KickStarted for $97,000+; and recently Shinobigami, a game which seems to be about schoolgirls having ninja battles (I admit to skimming the description on that one and going by the art, since it didn’t seem like my thing) just KickStarted for $87,000+. Even before KickStarter was a thing, I remember Andy going to GenCon and selling absurd numbers of copies of Maid RPG to anime fans who were dying to try out anime-themed roleplaying games. He pretty much created the market for English-language translations of Japanese, anime-themed tRPGs.

So I had all of that very much in mind when I first started developing The Starlit Kingdom. The Starlit Kingdom was inspired by the launch of a Sailor Moon reboot – Sailor Moon Crystal. There was a lot of excitement about that in my circles, and given that the idea seemed timely and that Andy had been doing quite well at publishing anime RPGs for several years, I figured than a game about magical girls as inspired by Sailor Moon would be a good investment in terms of time to eventual dollars returned. If even only a small number of the people who threw money at Andy to translate all sorts of anime-themed games bought copies of The Starlit Kingdom, it would still pay off since I was doing everything – from writing to playtesting to illustration to layout – myself. I might not make a lot of money, but certainly I’d make a nice little sum – enough to justify the effort, right?

Well…

I should have seen the writing on the wall at GenCon last year and just walked away.

You see, at GenCon in 2014, I ran 4 sessions of The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts (my light setting hack of the Shab al-Hiri Roach to take place in the Harry Potterverse) and sent more than 10 people over to the IPR booth to try to buy copies of a game that they hadn’t stocked because it’s so ancient. So in 2015, I was determined that I would run my own games and actually, you know, PROMOTE MY OWN WORK. Only… no one wanted to play my games. Out of the four 4-hour slots I was scheduled for, two of them didn’t happen due to lack of interest. The third, I wound up running the other game I was playtesting, and the fourth? Well, I did get to run The Starlit Kingdom. Once. BARELY. But it only happened because I ambushed another GM (a man) whose slot had also fallen through and begged him to play it with me so that I could run it for the one person I’d met at Games on Demand who actually wanted to play it. The con variant of TSK is supposed to run with four people. I made it work with 3.

Still, the game went so well and was so great, and both my players said that they had a ton of fun – even the male player who I’d had to beg to play, who admitted after that it wasn’t something he would have chosen to play on his own given the subject material. So, falsely encouraged, I went home and did more playtesting and spent time polishing, editing, rewriting, and illustrating the game before releasing it in November. To… crickets. (Fun little aside: To date, TSK has made half as much money as SexyTime Adventures: the RPG – which is silly, stupid parody game in which character creation involves paper dolls, and players are encouraged to get rerolls by making inappropriate pornface while narrating their actions.)

It took finishing and releasing the game, which I am still incredibly proud of, to make me realize the ugly truth: it doesn’t matter how much commercial appeal Sailor Moon has; no one wants to play a game about magical girls. Because, you know, cooties.

As you might imagine, this realization was hugely discouraging. As a result, I decided that I wasn’t willing to pour even more time and effort into trying to revive a game that had been such a dismal failure; maybe it could be done, but the amount of time and effort it would take could be spent more profitably on other endeavors. So I walked away from TSK and turned my attention to other things. That is, until it came time to do signups for GM slots for Dreamation; I wanted to get my badge comped, and I was reluctant to go back to running other peoples’ stuff, just because I didn’t have anything newer than The Starlit Kingdom that I wanted to try running. So I signed up to run TSK, since it was finished – hoping I could maybe move maybe one or two copies. Except this time I refined the pitch to remove anything that would signal “inspired by Sailor Moon” to an observer not already intimately acquainted with Sailor Moon.

This met with… moderate success. I got enough people to run one session of TSK; the other session, no one signed up for. The session I did get to run went very well! There were two women and two men, and the men were just as into the game, if not moreso, than the women. It was intense and emotional and hard-hitting and horrible in all the ways it was supposed to be, which was great!

But then, when we were finished, one of the male players – the one who had been not at all familiar with Sailor Moon – admitted that if he’d known that The Starlit Kingdom was a game about magical girls, he wouldn’t have signed up. He’d gotten the impression that TSK was a game about “space tragedy fantasy”, which is what interested him. And, you know, retroactively he was glad that he’d played and had fun and stuff – because actually enjoying a game about magical girls turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

And that moment right there killed the last vestiges of my willingness to promote the game, because how fucked is it that the only way to effectively promote my game is to pretend that it’s about SOMETHING ELSE. Especially when I KNOW that it succeeds at making men actually care about and enjoy playing a game that forces you to tell stories about powerful women? And when the reason that I wrote the game is because I have INCREDIBLY POWERFUL FEELS about the feminist value of Sailor Moon (and about magical girls as a genre) and the value of stories that depict heroic women working together and getting shit done while also being apologetically feminine, it really fucking hurts getting confirmation that the things that give me those POWERFUL FEELS are the very reasons why gamers don’t want to play The Starlit Kingdom.

And it makes me wonder, what is it about magical girls that people are so “uninterested” in exploring? Is it the idea of playing a story where most of the protagonists are necessarily women? Is it the idea of exploring stories that are marked as being “for girls”? Is it as simple as seeing a woman’s name on the cover of a game about women? I’ll never know, and that sucks.

Case 2: PLEASE SIRS, MAY I HAVE SOME LEGITIMIZING MALENESS?

As frustrating as the situation with The Starlit Kingdom is, that’s not nearly as humiliating and upsetting as an experience that I’ve been suffering through the last few weeks.

You see, I have an alpha draft for a game that I’m pretty sure would have a lot of commercial appeal… but not if I published it. And the numbers that I gathered on the statistics of KickStarter funding of roleplaying games support me in that assessment! By looking at both the statistics that I collected and also examining trends regarding the revenue earnings of various kinds of games KickStarters, I determined that a medium-sized game studio could gross 4-5 times more than I would be able to make if I were to attempt KickStarting the game on my own. And when I showed my numbers to other (male) friends who do game publishing, they agreed with my assessment!

I decided that what I needed was a publishing partner that was:

  1. not a huge company that would screw me out of my IP and keep the lion’s share of the profits for themselves
  2. a company that I had either worked with before or knew enough by reputation to trust their ethics
  3. published the same kind of games that I was writing and…
  4. could confer legitimizing maleness

As you might imagine, that set of criteria rather severely limited my options – there ended up being only 2.5 publishing companies that fit all of the criteria. (The third company mostly didn’t fit #3, but sorta did? A little?) It was not at all encouraging, but still. I put on my grown-up pants, polished the alpha draft of my game into something professional-looking, wrote up a business proposal showcasing the commercial viability of the game that I wanted to publish, and started approaching potential publishing partners.

…who have all officially turned me down.

And to be fair, each of the companies that I approached had legit business reasons for not accepting my proposal. Publishing-Me understood and agreed with the reasons that each of the companies laid out (and each company did have different reasons) for why it didn’t make sense to work with me on that project. CREATOR-Me, however… Creator-Me has spent a lot of the last few weeks crying and trying to deal with rejection in a calm, competent, professional manner that wouldn’t result in any burned bridges while dealing with a whole lot of harsh, ugly feels.

Firstly, it is incredibly, profoundly depressing that I can prove with numbers that female publishers operate at a disadvantage in terms of net profits as compared to their male publishing peers. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, have been publishing games since 2008, and have freelanced for some of the biggest companies in the industry – Green Ronin, Onyx Path, and Wizards of the Coast. But knowing that none of that matters, that no amount of hard work and hustle will overcome the gender penalty that female publishers operate under in the current publishing landscape… it makes it hard for me to feel pride in my abilities and accomplishments as a game designer and publisher. Worse, it is incredibly humiliating having to go hat-in-hand to male-led publishing companies, present my research findings calmly and clearly, and ask in perfectly calm and neutral tones for them to confer some legitimizing maleness on my project while also trying to convince them that there are good business reasons to want to do so. Because doing so requires admitting that no matter how hard I try, without a male business partner I am never going to be anything other than a third-rate micropublisher.

And getting the rejections themselves? …there is so much that I want to say about how that felt that I don’t know how to assemble into a clear picture. All I have is fragments.

Like crying in a school computer lab, my hands shaking and a friend patting my shoulder as I typed calm and professional-sounding assurances that I understood their situation and didn’t bear them any ill-will, because of course this was business. Or being terse and distant with my husband when he was trying to get me to talk about what was wrong, and then crying over the dishes when he got me to open up. Or crying on a friend’s shoulder and feeling ashamed that I couldn’t just act like a damn grownup and get over the disappointment already. (And of course, the fact I can’t stop crying about these disappointments makes me feel like a fake and a failure, because crying is for girls and if I was a “real” publisher, I would be able to roll with the punches and move on. THERE’S NO CRYING IN GAME DESIGN. See how that works?)

This leaves me trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this game that I still believe in. The last thing I want is to invest hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into developing, writing, testing, and publishing a full-length game only to have it fail as badly as all of my recent projects have. But without a male-fronted publishing partner, what options do I have?

Publishing under a male name? That’s all well and good for someone just getting started, but what about the 8 years of work that I’ve done as a game designer? I have an established reputation, no matter how small. Walking away from that would be cutting my nose off to spite my face. Do I give up and walk away? Even knowing that this is the most commercially friendly idea I’ve had in a very long time? Do I find, as some of my female friends put it, a KickBeard – a Totes Legit Male Micropublisher willing to put his name on the cover and promote it as a project he’s associated with (despite having nothing to do with development) in exchange for a tiny percent of the profits? It would increase my profits, but inevitably some people would see it as “his” game, no matter how open he is about his lack of actual involvement in writing and development.

I honestly have no fucking idea what I’m going to do. All I know is that I am TIRED. I am tired of beating my head against this wall and it not moving. I am tired of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and FAILING and NEVER having any hope that next time will be different. I am SO FUCKING TIRED that sometimes all I want to do is lie down and never get up again, because men get to “fail forward” and “find fruitfulness in failure”, but all women get is ground down, chewed up, and spat out. It makes me want to give up, throw my hands in the air, and quit altogether. Except I’ve been painted into this corner by own small amount of never-quite-enough-to-survive-on success, and I don’t have any damn choice but to keep trying, because all of the other options I’m faced with are even worse.

Even now, writing this. My throat feels tight, my eyes tingle, and my teeth are clenched. I am in mourning for the me that never got to exist – the me that was a “real” publisher, and who was able to build her audience such that she could stop falling into a series of abusive dead end jobs and realize her dream of being creative full time. But no amount of blood, sweat, and tears is going to bring that me into existence, and so it’s time to let her go.

So to those of you who “feel bad” that the games you like “just happen” to be made by men and there’s “nothing” you can really do about that? Why don’t you stick that in your pipe and smoke it?

22 thoughts on “Publishing while female: 2 vignettes of bafflement, frustration, and humiliation [long]

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It was horrible (and eye-opening) to read – I can only image how it was to live it. I’ve definitely been thinking more critically about the products I choose to support and promote over the past few weeks – looking at my purchase/back history I know it’ll take a long time to start redressing that imbalance, but it’s better to make a start! Thanks for continuing to write and create, even though it must seem thankless at the moment.

    • The royalties on DriveThru are higher than I like, so I tend to release on PayHip, wait a few months, and then release on DTRPG, at least when it makes sense. (Frex, I don’t intend to put Autonomy on DTRPG. It’s not the sort of game whose sales would be boosted by being on DTRPG, and it’s already PWYW, so I don’t want to lose 35% of an already small amount to royalties)

      That said, it’s been batshit the last few months and I haven’t remembered to put TSK up on DTRPG, so the question is a useful reminder.

  2. My heart is properly broken. I wish I could do something. Give money, give support, give even publishing, but that is sadly impossible, I simply do not have the capital to spare, despite so badly wanting too.

  3. I’ve been trying to buck this trend for a while, buying games designed by women, even if my interest was only tangential. Plus, I have an active interest in the Sailor Moon genre, so I’m picking up “The Moonlit Kingdom” after I hit “Post Comment”.

    I don’t want a cookie for this, or any form of acknowledgement. I just wanted to give you a little hope. There are people (male ones, even) trying to reverse this trend, and genuinely interested in your work.

  4. KickBeard – that is the perfect word. I was thinking of almost the same idea. Except, you don’t need someone who will take a % of the profits and part of the credit, you need someone who will take all the credit, none of the profits, and then gleefully throw off the charade once your check is in the bank. A scientist. Someone out to help you prove that men will get the job when women can’t. I have absolutely no gaming credentials, publishing ability, or spare time, but I would love to do that. 🙂

  5. I am so sorry this all happened to . I am male gamer and I love Sailor Moon and magical girls. If I had known about Starlit Kingdom I would have happily bought it and run it for my friends.😦 I guess I am that ace prion that proves the rule. Can I buy a copy on DTRPG? Directly from you? I know it is a small gesture in the grand scheme of things but I want to show my support.

    • Hi, Hector

      So, on the one hand I don’t intend this as trying to guilt people who read my blog into buying my games. My readers are great and amazing, and my patrons are also great and amazing! So, you know, I’m sorry if it seems like I’m personally yelling at you? Because I have a lot of harsh and ugly feels, but that’s not my intent.

      As far as where you can get a copy, you can find it here on PayHip; or if you’d prefer to have all your games collected on DTRPG (as I know some people do), I plan on putting it up there over the weekend.

      Thank you again.

  6. You might consider alternate cover art for Starlit Kingdom; that it doesn’t convey “Sailor Moon Inspired Magical Girl RPG” very well might not have helped it. STA’s better sales could in part be from having a cover that does a good job of conveying the theme of game. I think a lot of the appeal of the Japanese style games at least in terms of how it affects sales comes from the artwork. Even though Ryuutama was relatively light on art, I knew a lot of people who bought it specifically for what art it did have.

    Once I get through my slush pile, I may be checking out TSK. My GF has been rewatching Sailor Moon R, and it’s got me wondering what a MG SF along those lines would look like with a less uselessly vapid protagonist.

    For others who might be looking for game art, I cannot recommend Jabari Weathers enough. She has stuff coming out in 1001 Knights and I couldn’t be happier with the work she did for my own project.

  7. Have you ever talk to or interacted with magical girl tRPG fans that ALREADY EXIST? There’s a sizable community of people who like THIS EXACT SORT OF THING and none of them have ever heard of your game? Check out http://boards.4chan.org/tg/thread/45875086/magical-girl-cyoa

    There’s a fan-made magical girl RPG because they haven’t perceived anyone making this thing. Think about how narrow the set of people who would be into such a niche sort of product. You have people who like tRPGS, and those among them who like anime, and those among THEM who like the magical girl genre. There hasn’t been any indication that you are in communication with the type of people who might want what you’re making, and when you finally pitched your creation, you missed this audience by a very large margin. I only heard about this today when someone linked this blog on reddit complaining about how you come across as entitled because you want people (men specifically) to pay for this codex or book or whatever even if they have no prior interest in this game, solely because you’re a woman and you’re citing a wage gap.

    I Googled this and I found no mention of this game outside your shop page and like two tumblr accounts. There aren’t any news stories, there are even Youtube videos to demonstrate or review the game. There’s not even a good description of what your… thing contains, and what I can expect to receive for that $10. It’s not even remotely obvious you’re selling a Sailor-Moon inspired tRPG. It’s a nondescript castle on the moon. I feel that for a little more effort, you could have marketed this much better. Even illustrating some “magical girls” for the front cover with unique designs probably might have done wonders.

    I’ll do you a solid and check it out and if it’s decent, I’ll recommend it to others. But I don’t expect I’m going to have any fun with it if I can’t find anyone else who’s interested in this sort of thing.

    • Granted, the interest seems to veer more into the Pretty Cure or Puella Magi territory. But the Sailor Moon interest is in there, if only in the aesthetic.

    • Okay. So I’m going to do you the benefit of reading charitably, even though your comment comes across as hugely patronizing.

      First, promoting games while female represents a distinct handicap, since there are places that I just don’t go on the internet for my own mental health. There’s a REASON I never approached 4Chan. The NICEST thing anyone from 4Chan has ever called me when linking to my material is a “jealous lesbian”, so you’ll understand that sort of reaction isn’t exactly motivational for me to engage with 4Chan. Likewise, given the shit that gets leveled at me here on my own blog, the idea of putting a demo of play up on YouTube gives me HIVES, given the things that people say about women there. Likewise, I never did an AMA on Reddit because Reddit is where men call me things like “ignorant judgemental cunt” and compare rape to a sport in threads about things I’ve written.

      I HAVE attempted to reach out to people about doing cross-promotion. I’m not ENTIRELY ignorant of how to promote my own work. But given that managing the comments here on my own damn blog is sometimes enough to tank my mental health, I just don’t want to deal with that kind of backlash.

      But, you know, thanks for “doing me a solid”. Maybe next time you can be a bit more empathetic, though.

      • Ok… yeah. I was being a little patronizing when I typed all of that. Thanks for being charitable to consider it anyway, I admit your attention wasn’t particularly deserved. I don’t have anything meaningful to add if promoting more on Youtube/Reddit/4chan is not to your taste.

        I’m sorry for the negative vibes. This just sounded like something I’m legitimately interested in now, and it felt that I was being accused for “not supporting women publishers” because I’m only just now hearing about it in the first place.

        • I understand that writing this post can come across as yelling at people for not buying my games; that wasn’t my intention and that’s what kept me from writing this post for so long. But when my harsh feels about the humiliation of having to ask for legitmizing maleness have been making me cry about 3 or 4 days out of 7 for the last three weeks, that feels like something worth writing about.

          Thanks for being willing to consider my perspective.

          • Going to give some harsh advice. You can accept it, ignore it, or rage against it all you want. But don’t complain if you can’t get off the ground when someone who has experience offers it to you.

            Go to a business class to start with. Selling a “magical girl game” is about as easy mode as you can get especially in the P&P, cRPG, or handheld markets(not talking about casual games here), I’m talking about people that will buy the games even if the combat/play system is garbage because the background is great. There’s a very good chance you’re “outside of the trend market” or in a predicted market slump or it’s just plain uninteresting. Even if “you feel that it’s the greatest thing evar!!111!” It likely isn’t to anyone else, and you’re unable to sell it that way, that means you’re unable to make that leap from “artistic vision” to “real world expectations.”

            And if you can’t get your point across to a publisher, then there’s two things wrong. Either you’re unable to draw enough attention to the product because it’s boring, or your game concept is sub-standard or boring or garbage to publishers. Looking at the available information that I can find, the first impression I get is “it’s amateurish garbage and not worth my time.”

            As well, if you can’t hang your emotions up long enough to figure out what’s wrong, you’re not going to survive in the industry very long. Publishers want people who can get results with the money they’re going to be fronting for the product, they don’t care if you’re male, female, or protozoan as long as it makes them money back on their investment. Please not that the game market is predominantly male. Please note that 50% of the game market is NOT female outside of games that are at the extreme casual end like farmville, candycrush, mafia wars, *insert name of famous persons clothing escapade micro-transaction-game here* etc. That’s the type of stuff they will teach you in a business class, know your market and “who you want to sell it to” and “how you want to sell it.”

            If you’re unwilling to let someone else take a risk with their money, on your idea. Then your only other option is to self-publish, and throw the dice. You’ll either win or lose, and either way it’ll be the first on a very long road of learning experiences.

            That’s some advice from an ex-female dev that survived the AAA industry for 10 years and retired before the AAA crash started accelerating. And with that, good luck.

  8. Thanks for persuading me to get into Endless Fantasy Tactics while I’m still painting my Tau list. ^^; I was interested in it before I realized it had a woman designer (and then I was even more interested).

    They’re rarer than hen’s teeth, though, especially in tabletop miniatures games. Would you consider writing, as a follow-up, a list of women-designed tabletop games? Or even just “games” in general. Or if you know of one already, maybe you could post a link …

    Also I’m going to second the people here about TSK: I had no idea that it was a magical girl game. Not from the name, not from the cover art, and not from the description. I feel bad for pointing that out, but this actually sounds like an RPG I’d want to buy and collect if it had anime artwork and were more clearly explained. I mean, I got all excite about Ewen Cluney’s Magical Burst because it was an unofficial Madoka: The RPG.

    An RPG inspired by Sailor Moon sounds exciting also, although like that one commenter said, it kind of needs the proper style of artwork to sell it to Sailor Moon fans. And be the kind of collectible a magical girl / anime fan would want to own.

    (To compare it to Sexytime Adventures, with that game it’s easy to tell right up front what the themes are, what it’s parodying, and what kind of stuff you’re getting into. The title, the art, and the blurb all convey it very well. Whereas with TSK, all three of those things obscure the fact that it’s a magical girl RPG.)

    I know you were concerned about legal troubles, but a lot of people make magical girl OCs on places like DeviantArt, and there are magical girl RPG books (a scant few) on DTRPG already. Are you sure that it isn’t an option to make something resembling them, at least enough that the reader can fill in the blanks?

    I wish you luck and thank you for helping get me thinking and talking about this …

    • … and as someone who writes stuff exclusively on Dreamwidth and AO3, after getting attacked on places like Tumblr, I know the feel of not wanting to go out and promote your stuff. And I don’t blame you for not being able to >_<; or for having tons of Impostor Syndrome and depression / anxiety over this game you poured your heart into. I'm sorry if I just made things worse.

  9. […] So, you know, yeah I acknowledge there’s more I could have done to promote TSK. I probably threw in the towel a bit too quickly. But it’s also important to remember that the best places to promote an anime-themed game (Reddit, YouTube, and 4Chan) are virulently unfriendly to women and my anxiety just couldn’t deal with venturing into those spaces. As I pointed out in a comment: […]

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