Epilogue: On “KickStarter Diversity” – problems, but not many potential solutions

[Note: I know I’ve been a one-note blog these last few weeks. This is going to be my last post about KickStarter for a while, promise.]

I would be remiss if I did not mention the tremendous response that I got to last week’s post. So thank you to everyone who said positive things in response, or who offered words of comfort, or who tried to offer assistance.

Thanks also to people who bought one of my games, or who became a patron. Not gonna lie, I’m feeling a bit guilty about the spike in sales that I saw – it wasn’t my intention to guilt people into buying my games or becoming patrons, I can understand how me opening a window onto some of the harsh, ugly feels that I’ve been having would seem like me yelling at you, my readers, which wasn’t my intention.

Of course, not all of my responses were that friendly and receptive. Like these, for example:

comments

There was also someone who popped up on my G+ and commented using the hashtag for GooberGate, which freaked me the fuck out for a few minutes when I saw it. (Thankfully that crowd doesn’t seem to be very active on G+?) So that was fun. Nice to know that after all of the word count that I devoted to gathering data on proving how fucked women publishers are, talking about feelings in gaming is still the biggest sin you can commit when writing about games while female.

Lastly, I feel like it’s worth addressing that a lot of people had questions about how I handled The Starlit Kingdom specifically, when honestly the second half of the post was by far the more “serious” of the two situations. The lack of response to TSK was an irritant, not the crushing disappointment and maddening frustration of being able to prove that people don’t buy games by women and still trying to find a way to be successful anyway. I lost a lot of time and effort, and that sucks and is discouraging. But it seems like that’s what a lot of people focused on because that’s the part that could be “fixed”.

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:

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.

So that’s a thing. Moving on.

In which I disclaim:

(It’s important to note here that I am going to talk about this in terms of women, but this goes double for people who are visible minorities, queer, disabled, etc. It just gets a bit laborious trying to include all of that, so please just remember that we’re not just talking about white ciswomen like me here.)

(Also I’m perfectly aware that I am presenting problems without solutions. I KNOW that. With the huge volume that I have written in the last month+ about the complexity of issues surrounding being a female publisher, this isn’t something where I can write a 2000-3000 word post about “here are the problems and here are the solutions”.)

(Also, I just KNOW that some people are going to read this and say “she doesn’t think white men should make money on games!” or “she thinks that recruiting diverse teams for game projects is bad!” or “she’s saying she should get more money just for being a woman!”. Which. Um. No. I am talking a problem that exists at a SYSTEMIC LEVEL. It’s important not to get bogged down in specific examples, even if specific examples are what I’m using to illustrate my point.)

KickStarter Diversity

Okay. So basically what we’ve been covering here for the last month and a bit is that being a female publisher sucks. And part of the reason you don’t see many female-fronted KickStarters is because of all the structural and cultural barriers that are placed in front of women designers and publishers. The result is that the games publishing industry tends to look a whole lot more homogeneous than their customer base actually is; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the big companies or at the scrappy indies, the tRPG industry is overwhelmingly white and male.

Now this is something that certain publishers are starting to be aware of. It’s also something that tRPG gamers are beginning to care about. As a result, it’s becoming more common to see efforts to have diverse creative teams for KickStarters. However, all too often the “diversity” that you end up seeing is what I think of as “KickStarter Diversity” – it’s disappointingly shallow at best, and outright deceptive at worst.

What do I mean? Well, here are two of my personal experiences that I feel serve as pretty solid examples of what I’m talking about.

Case Study 1: Deceptive Diversity

Pretty early in my game writing “career”, I happened to sign on as a freelancer to a pretty mammoth project – I was going to be one of a large number of co-authors writing a monster game book for a Really Big Name Publisher. The lead developer (who, I want to be clear, was also a subcontractor and not employed by the Really Big Name Publisher) wanted to put together a diverse team of writers to do a truly inclusive project. I was really excited about that! And it was early enough in my efforts to be a “real” game designer that the “legitimacy” of being able to say I’d written for Really Big Name Publisher was appealing.

And in the end, the work that I did for RBNP was some of the best work I’ve ever done. I’m proud of the work that I did, and of the book that we created. But here’s the thing, RBNP’s terms were outright abusive.

First, they only paid 3 cents per word. Even for small assignments of 1000-2000 words, you end up being underpaid when you do the math of how long it took you to write those words versus how much you’re getting paid. But when you’re talking the massive wordcounts that most members of the team were pulling in order to put together this mammoth tome? 10 thousand, 15 thousand, or even 20 thousand word assignments require time, research, and planning. A lot of it! Even with the advantage of plenty of my previous writing experience, with the amount of time that I spent on my assignment I miiiiiiight have gotten (American) minimum wage for it. Barely.

There’s also the issue that RBNP’s contract terms were (and as far as I know still are) half on acceptance (which I’ll come back to) and half pay-on-publication. Given the length of time that your average game book spends in development, this means that writers are putting in time and effort without any guarantee of payment; books do get delayed, and even canceled. Not often, but it does happen! Now yes, game development is an expensive process; there are illustrators and layout artists to be paid, as well as production and shipping costs to consider. But given that KickStarter is now the default publication model for any seriously large game book, it’s even more abusive that a company would still make their payment terms pay-on-publication, because a few weeks after the campaign ends, they already have all that money sitting in the bank.

In the case of the project that I worked on, it broke six figures on KickStarter, and yet I didn’t get the second half of my money until eighteen months after I’d completed and turned in my drafts. And don’t even get me started on how hard it was to get a copy of the book, which was also in my contract.

The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth, because again – I truly believe in the product that we made and am grateful to the lead developer for his hard work in putting together such a wonderfully diverse team of writers and in pushing some hard conversations to make sure that we got things right, from a standpoint of being inclusive. But the fact is that the lion’s share of the profit from the six figures that were KickStarted are going to owners who are white and male, whose business model seems (at least from the subcontractor end of things) to  to revolve around getting marginalized writers who crave legitimacy to sign on to projects, because they don’t have expectations they should be treated better.

It is great that RBNP is publishing games that are inclusive, and it makes me happy that that is something that audiences are excited about. But when their business model is predicated on achieving that inclusivity by getting a diverse team of writers, treating them like shit, and then stuffing all of the money into the pockets of some white guys? That sucks. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the owners don’t deserve to profit! Publishing is a fucking huge job and it’s expensive. But it is possible to be a publisher AND treat your freelancers well, which they are not.

Case Study 2: Shallow Diversity

After my experiences writing for RBNP, I swore off of spec writing for big game projects. Especially when I ended up making more money per word on SexyTime Adventures, which isn’t even a real game, than I did on my writing for RBNP. And I definitely earn more money per word here on my blog, even on the long posts. The return on investment just wasn’t worth it.

However, subsequently a friend of mine contacted me about a KickStarter for a game by Another Big Name Publisher that was written around themes of diversity and inclusion that was looking to put together a diverse team of stretch goal writers to reflect the themes of the game. Because of the reputation of the game in question, and because the request came through this friend who had done a lot to support me as a publisher, I decided to sign on. But unfortunately, I wound up regretting that decision.

To be fair to Another Big Name Publisher, their terms were objectively better – 5 cents a wordand pay on acceptance. However, “on acceptance” turned out to be unexpectedly vague – the contract didn’t specify what “on acceptance” actually meant – on acceptance of my draft? On acceptance of everyone’s drafts? How soon after “acceptance” would we get payed? And how was I supposed to know when “acceptance” had happened? None of these questions came up until after I turned in my draft (on time) and… then didn’t see any money. It ended up being three months between the deadline for drafts and the date that I actually got paid. When I started asking about payment and timelines at about the two month mark, it was generally a week between emails. All in all, it was not a happy freelancer experience.

Now admittedly, 3 months is still a hell of a lot better than 18. But the amount of money that I was owed didn’t even break 3 digits, and again, this was for something that already had many thousands of dollars in the bank thanks to the KickStarter.

There’s also the problematic element that ABNP is a company that is mostly male and almost entirely white is using diversity as a selling point for this game. Given that the diversity of participation was through fairly small stretch goals, it makes sense that the profits would go to the company (and the writers) making the game. But as with RBNP, you have the very people who are contributing the diversity that is desired being the people who are least compensated.

Case Study 3: The Forgotten – Progress!

Andrew Medeiros is the co-designer of Urban Shadows and, in the interest of full disclosure, my co-designer on The Watch – recently finished his KickStarter for The Forgotten – a card-based LARP about people trying to survive in a city under siege by doing whatever it takes to stay alive. His second stretch goal (also full disclosure, extra photography by me was the first stretch goal) was actually to commission Kira Magrann to write a variant game based on The Forgotten that would be available to backers.

I found that idea hugely interesting! Because it goes beyond the standard approach to diversity of “if we get $4000 more we’ll add $100 worth of cost and maybe a bit more in terms of development costs for a stretch goal by a not-white-guy”. Because that model of KickStarter diversity is only ever going to be shallow by definition, and the demographics of game development logically dictate that shallow models of KickStarter diversity are always going to funnel the most money to white dudes. Which, you know, fuck that. Diversity should be more than just a wallpaper selling point!

Instead, what is happening with The Forgotten is that the designer is taking a share of his games profits and saying to a not-white-dude game designer, “I want you to create a game”. It represents taking a share of the extra profits earned by male-fronted games and funneling toward a female creator in a way that results in MORE compelling content, not less. (Kira’s variant game is going to be about patriarchal dystopia, a la The Handmaid’s Tale, and I am RIDICULOUSLY excited to play it.) And of course, the devil is in the details. The game hasn’t been written yet, and there are lots of details to be ironed out. But the potential for this sort of arrangement is HUGE.

And sure. This sort of arrangement wouldn’t work for every KickStarter. It would be a nightmare for something the size and complexity of 7th Sea (which also just ended, and raised 1.3 million). But part of why I’m writing this is to start a conversation. Publishers are a smart lot, used to solving a lot of complex problems. So, publishers, what can we do about this? How can we start creating meaningful diversity in publishing that isn’t just wallpaper on a mostly-white product?

11 thoughts on “Epilogue: On “KickStarter Diversity” – problems, but not many potential solutions

  1. If it makes you feel better, I bought TSK after your blog post because I didn’t know about it before. I’m not the most attentive person and I lose track of things like that. But having played (and kind of hated the mechanics for) the Sailor Moon RPG, I was excited to see a new approach and to share it with friends.

    I understand the frustration of working with big name game publishers. I did a lot of work for a company in the early oughts, with the same half-up-front model. In my case, the company went out of business and no one got paid their second half. It was one of the things that killed freelance RPG work for me.

  2. It’s entirely probable the assertion “but the fact is that the lion’s share of the profit from the six figures that were KickStarted are going to owners” is true — I don’t know the details and can’t guess at who you’re referring to. I will say that my reflexive reaction to that *kind* of statement, tho, is that there are some very large assumptions about the costs of fulfilling a Kickstarter going on there. F’rex, Evil Hat has brought in a lot of capital thanks to our various Kickstarter campaigns — and very little of that has gone to the owners, when it comes down to it, because vast amounts of what’s raised goes into all the other expenses involved in creating and delivering the product. End of 2013, I blogged about this in the specific case of Fate Core in some detail: http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2013/11/core-ks-breakdown/

    • You make a good point, and I should have been a bit more clear. What I meant is that the net profits were going to the owners. I recognize that publishing is a complex business with a tooonnnn of suppliers – especially for larger projects where you might have 20 or 30 freelancers, and I didn’t mean to imply that the majority of 6 figures was going straight into the pockets of the owners. That was imprecisely phrased, so sorry.

  3. @ Wunder:

    The only caveat I’d add to case study 1 (perhaps echoing Jeremy) is it may not have ONLY been the diverse sub-contractors that RBNP was screwing. Chances are they treat all their sub-contracted minions in shabby fashion and it was “nothing personal” (i.e. no specific middle finger to the people who were hired to work on the project).

    Even so, as with case study 2, I see how it’s a real poke in the eye that the people who may be benefiting the most from the excitement surrounding a product that celebrates (or at least embraces) diversity are the white male majority.

    But what’s a white male publisher supposed to do? NOT create games that celebrate and embrace diversity? I mean, that’s just repeating the cycle, too, yeah?

    As a white male publisher, I find myself in this quandary. I would like to create games that are outside the white male het- paradigm (I’m working on one at the moment, actually), and I try to use female and non-white artists when I find them, but regardless of whether I do or not, the money I make is still going back into MY pockets…it’s not benefitting non-white, non-male game designers. It’s benefitting me, another dude of the establishment.

    Your case study 3 is an interesting one, and one worth thinking about. It feels like there needs to be some sort of co-op or support lending institution (grants! grants for everyone!) for getting resources and contacts to would-be designers of diverse backgrounds. Something that could be paid into (donations, etc.) and loans pulled from, something that would allow for networking so diverse folks and white male allies could track what was going on in the “diverse gaming community.” Just to get things off the ground, you know? Just to have a foundation of support to make their projects competitive, with regard to funding and marketing.

    Huh. I’m tempted to research how one would go about setting up such a thing. But it would be pretty silly to have such a thing administered by yet another white, straight dude.

    • You ask a lot of great questions, and I wish that I had answers to them. Obviously, white male publishers can and should make diverse content! But as to how to fix the systemic issues that publishing has…? I wish I knew.

      Sorry, that feels like a cheat to respond with to such a thoughtful comment, but I’ve been thinking about this all day and I have nothing.

      • @ Wunder:

        It’s not a cheat. It’s a bonafide dilemma.

        Systemic change takes time…the objective might need to be “hasten the process.”

        [and not starve ourselves out of the biz in the process. Gaming needs the input of folks like you. Please don’t quit on us!]

    • “As a white male publisher, I find myself in this quandary. I would like to create games that are outside the white male het- paradigm (I’m working on one at the moment, actually), and I try to use female and non-white artists when I find them, but regardless of whether I do or not, the money I make is still going back into MY pockets…it’s not benefitting non-white, non-male game designers. It’s benefitting me, another dude of the establishment.”

      My advice as a fellow publisher (a non-white one, if race matters) – once you’ve found people you like, continue supporting them by offering them ongoing work. That way, the money that goes into your pocket for one project can go back to them on the next. If you reach a point where you are making enough money to pay those contributors more for their work, pay them more for their work. Whether they are non-white or non-male is incidental; support your contributors in whatever ways you can.

  4. Thank you for making all of these posts. This entire series is going to be so valuable for someone disadvantaged looking to break into freelance and self publishing. Do you have a program or a person to vet your messages, so you don’t have to see and deal with such people? Would you be open to publishing in toxic spaces if you had some kind of protection? Or do you just want to not engage cause the fallout will hit you anyway?

    • Well I’m no Anita Sarkeesian or Brianna Wu, so no, I don’t have anyone to vet my messages. It’s not so bad, though, because I don’t get a HUGE volume of troll comments here, and I’ve learned to stay away from places like Reddit where people say terrible things about me. So, like, I know it’s out there, but I don’t have to see much of it myself? And it helps a bit that I’ve gotten a thicker skin. I mean, it’s never going to stop bothering me, but at least I have practice at putting this shit in perspective.

  5. Number two is a big reason why I try to pay contributors as soon as I can. I hate that even the pittance I’m able to offer is actually considered pretty good money compared to most markets. Dunno about what RBNP’s numbers were, but to break even on semi-pro rates, I would’ve needed to raise 5 times what I did on kickstarter. My sales numbers would need to be in the thousands it afford paying pro-rates It’s amazing how small the return is on writing, even in the pro-markets. One reasons I started my own zine was I thought “I spent 4 months working on this 7,000 word story; best case scenario, I a few hundred bucks from one of the big 5 magazines; or I can try to help some other folks make some money in a field where almost no one is paying anybody for anything.”

    One cool thing, though, is if you’re actually looking for awesome stuff, sometimes diversity just happens. I had to ask a friend if they were joking when they gave me props for the diversity and pro-feminist content I’d rounded up – they weren’t.

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