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]

Administrativa

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!)

KickStarter

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.

budget

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.

Seriously.

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!

onward

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.)

get-off-my-lawn

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.

Crowdfunding!

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.

images

[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.

doitnow

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.

YOU DO NOT REQUIRE THE VALIDATION OF ASSHOLES.

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.

MASTER THE GLORIOUS ART OF NOT GIVING A FUCK, FOR IT WILL SET YOU FREE.

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.

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:

combative

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

overlooked

…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.

Reflections on cultural osmosis

(I promise this post isn’t a post about children, but it is inspired by my kid so that’s where we’re going to start. But it’s still totally relevant to gaming, honest.)

My husband and I have differing philosophies when it comes to the problem of Santa and the question of whether we would teach the kid about Santa or not. Previous to this year, the question was more academic than anything. However, while my daughter isn’t quite old enough to understand all the trappings of Christmas, she’s now definitely of an age to be learning from this year what Christmas is about. So we found ourselves needing to reach some sort of detente.

Thankfully, my mother-in-law provided an elegant solution: never comment on the question of Santa’s existence. We need never confirm or deny the existence of Santa, because the culture at large will take care of the issue for us. If she believes, she believes – and vice versa. And this way the disagreement between my husband and I becomes something we can live with, because neither of us will be taking a course of action opposed to the philosophy of the other parent.

Watching the results of our experiment (children are living experiments, only there’s no way to prove the hypothesis until it’s way too late to affect the outcome) has been interesting. Despite the fact that we have not provided any sort of instruction in the Santa myth, my daughter can now point to the Santa ornaments on our tree and identify them as Santa. She can also identify reindeer, though it’s unclear whether this is a result of Santification or just her obsession with learning to identify animals. And she has come home with a few Santa-related crafts made at the daycare, which tells me there must be at least a small amount of Santa lore being delivered there.

Of course, this process has also been a bit unsettling as well. Because here is proof that even at the age of two and a half, the simple act of failing to talk about a cultural idea with our daughter means that she is slowly absorbing the cultural default through contact with the culture as a whole. And sure, it’s true that if we cared to we could educate her from day one about how Santa is a myth and etc etc etc, we’d probably have a kid that didn’t believe in Santa at all. But even then, she’s still going to perceive Santa/Christmas as the default cultural event of the season until she’s old enough to learn about different traditions, because that’s just how cultural background radiation works.

So what does this have to do with games already?

In my last post, I talked about (among other things) Valve/Steam’s handling of indie shooter game Hatred – a game in which you play a white man going on a violent rampage where the goal is to cause as much carnage as possible before being killed by law enforcement. One particular point that I made was the harm that Hatred commits in helping perpetuate a harmful cultural narrative:

I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively). And, you know, who needs to be concerned about promoting a cultural narrative that glorifies mass violence when there have been 278 American mass shootings up to this point in 2014? I’m sure that can’t possibly have any negative repercussions.

Predictably some people got super upset about this. How dare I say that video games cause violence! Didn’t I know there was all kinds of science proving that false? Clearly I’m just some sort of science-hating feminazi! And on and on, you get the idea. The only problem is: that isn’t what I was saying at all. Saying that I was seriously arguing that violent video games directly cause violence is a gross over-simplification to the point of straw-manning what I was actually saying. Which is that cultural narratives matter, and that mindlessly contributing to harmful cultural narratives is harmful.

In much the same way that my daughter is learning about Santa through passive cultural osmosis, other children are absorbing the dominant cultural narrative that glorifies rugged individualism and violent hypermasculinity because that’s how cultural osmosis fucking works. Games like Hatred that mindlessly replicate depictions of hypermasculine violence without making even the smallest effort to be critical of that violence are contributing to the cultural background radiation that informs our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREEEEENNNN here.

lovejoy-think-of-the-children-16nov131

Far from it! I’m actually pretty excited for the time, not too distant from now, when I can start playing games with my daughter and introducing her to the best parts of what gaming can be.

BUT. I’m also going to be careful to have truthful, critical conversations with her about the harmful elements of culture that she’ll encounter through games. Because the ugly reality of being a child-haver is that you can’t protect children from the harmful elements of cultural background radiation, no matter how hard you try. The best you can hope for is to give them tools that will allow them to remain critical and to actively resist accepting kyriarchy as the norm.

I know that despite my best efforts, I’m going to fail at some things. Because the same harmful ideas I’m attempting to teach my kid to resist are the same ones that I absorbed through passive cultural osmosis myself. Growing up, none of the adults in my life ever said anything overtly racist. But that didn’t stop me from growing up with unconscious racist attitudes, or from saying embarrassingly racist shit when I was in University. (That’s not to say that I’m perfect now, but I’d certainly like to think that I’ve gotten better.)

It also didn’t protect me from all of the unspoken sexism that I internalized. No one ever said that women were inferior. Indeed, the opposite was frequently articulated. Women are equal to men! Sexism is an outdated ideal! Women deserve equal rights and equal pay! But that message didn’t align with the reality of the social stigma for being outspoken, not conforming to traditional standards of femininity, and not confining my life aspirations to traditionally “female” career paths. So is it any wonder that as an adult, what I struggle with more than anything is allowing myself to feel as if I have worth? As if I am allowed to occupy space and want not-traditionally-feminine things?

And let’s not forget that it’s not only children who are susceptible to the harmful influence of our culture. There is a wealth of scientific data about the myriad negative effects that women suffer from being surrounded by a culture of sexism. There is also a growing body of evidence about the deleterious effects of sexist media on men, not the least of which is that men who consume sexist media display higher rates of sexist attitudes. Much as we like to delude ourselves that we’re too smart to be affected by the media we consume, scientifically speaking – that is demonstrably not the case.

A tale of two marketplaces

Well, folks. I had actually planned on writing about how recruiting truly diverse teams of writers requires actively removing barriers to entry. But instead, thanks to Gabe Newell and the legions of MRA asshats on Steam, I’m writing this instead. Blame the fedoras.

Anyway. Before I get into a detailed look at why Gabe Newell’s response to a flap over on Steam was both unethical and colossally bone-headed, let’s cover some necessary background. (Feminism is much like sci-fi in that infodumps are an evil necessity.)

Chapter 1: Steam Greenlight and indie game Hatred

Hatred isn’t a new game – it’s been in development for a while. But it wasn’t a game that many people had heard of before it got put up on Steam Greenlight two days ago:

Hatred, from unknown Polish developer Destructive Creations, was first announced back in October. Its trailer seemed to revel in the massacre of civilians with a kind of gruesome glee. The video drew comparisons to ultra-violent game franchises like Postal and Manhunt for its apparently amoral focus on gunning down innocent bystanders in violent detail. “This is the time for vengeance, and no life is worth saving, and I will put in the grave as many as I can,” the protagonist says in the trailer. “It’s time for me to kill, and it’s time for me to die. My genocide crusade begins here.” –Kyle Orland, Ars Technica

Charming.

Granted, it is true Hatred isn’t exactly the first game of its kind. Postal and Manhunt blazed that dubious trail. Still, given that the rate of mass shootings in the United States has tripled from 2011’s already pretty-fucking-high levels, it’s not too surprising that Steam stepped in and quickly removed the game from Greenlight.

…for about 24 hours, that is.

Late last night, Hatred re-appeared on the fan-voting section of Steam Greenlight, with all of its original comments and votes intact. What’s more, it seems like Destructive Creations received an email from Gabe Newell, apologizing for the decision to remove their game:

Hi, Jaroslaw.

Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.

Good luck with your game.

-Gabe.

Oh good. I’m so glad that Gabe Newell is committed to fighting for the artistic freedom of game developers to make games that paint entitled men who go on violent rampages as the hero. I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively). And, you know, who needs to be concerned about promoting a cultural narrative that glorifies mass violence when there have been 278 American mass shootings up to this point in 2014? I’m sure that can’t possibly have any negative repercussions.

Even more disturbing are the comments that have been added since Hatred was reinstated that call for developers to add SJW NPCs that they can murder:

SJW

WHAT. THE ACTUAL. FUCK.

The first comment is actually a (particularly gross) description of Zoe Quinn – the unfortunate original target of #GamerGate. I honestly don’t have the bandwidth to marinate in that kind of bile, but it seems that there have been specific requests for other favorite targets of #GamerGate, including Anita Sarkeesian.

But. You know. FREEEEEEDOM. Or something.

Chapter 2: Drive Thru Cards/Drive Thru RPG and the #GamerGate card game

So let’s compare and contrast the above with DTRPG’ handling of an analogous situation that arose when MRA tabletop designer James Desborough used their self-publishing tools published a #GamerGate card game that purported to be “satire”:

One player takes the side of Gamergate, and the other is the SJW’s in this satirical look at the recent controversy.  Play either the “Social Justice Warriors trying to get away with egregious breaches of ethics before Gamergate can create enough of a fuss and social pressure to expose them, all the while flaming each other on Twitter, screaming for attention and being trolled hard.[1]

…riiiight.

DTRPG reacted swiftly and removed the game from its site. A few days later, the following update was sent to DTRPG publishers and was also posted to DTRPG’s social media feed. Their update addressed several points, including the merits of supposedly satirical works based on active hate movements (emphasis mine):

Normally, satirical works would be welcome on our marketplaces. However, we feel that there are situations where satire is inappropriate. For example, we do not think that a game released today that satirizes police killings of minorities in the USA would be appropriate. Regardless of how one feels about an issue like that, we feel that it is too current, too emotionally charged on both sides, and too related to real-world violence or death to make it an appropriate matter for satire.

Similarly, no matter how one feels about Gamergate, it is likewise too current, too emotionally [sic] frought, and too related to violence to be an appropriate subject for satire. Additionally, we considered that the violent element of the Gamergate issue has a basis in misogyny. For these reasons, we felt that this card game title was not welcome for sale on our site.

(The entirety of their post can be found here and is well worth reading.)

Chapter 3: Privately owned marketplaces and censorship

It’s interesting that both Valve and DTRPG raised the spectre of censorship in their responses to their respective situations. But it’s also unfortunate in that it helps promote popular misconceptions about what actually constitutes censorship.

Neither Valve nor DTRPG are in any way connected with any kind of government or governmental body. They have no power to stifle the free speech of a creator, because they don’t have any ability to levy sanctions against the creator of an offensive game. Nor do they have the power to prevent a creator from publishing a game via alternative methods, of which – it should be noted – there are many. (KickStarter, Patreon, IndieGoGo, etc etc.) Indeed, it has never been easier to be a self-published game creator.

Valve and DTRPG are simply companies that happen to own a marketplace where third parties are allowed to promote and sell their own games, in exchange for a share of revenue earned. They get to set the rules for that marketplace, because it’s their fucking marketplace.  Kicking someone out of their marketplace or pulling a particular product from their digital shelves isn’t censorship. It’s a private company discontinuing a relationship with a vendor.

To use a real-world analogy…

GenCon has a Dealer’s Room in which vendors may purchase space to set up a booth and sell merchandise. The Dealer’s Room is, essentially, an absurdly large private marketplace. (In 2014 there were more than 3000 booths!) Because GenCon owns the marketplace, they set rules as to what may and may not be sold in the Dealer’s Room. Some of these rules relate to the types of items that may not be sold (biohazards, live animals, rocket launchers, etc). Some of these rules relate to the content of items being sold. (No visible female nipples, no frontal nudity.)

For the most part, these rules don’t generate any controversy. Partly because vendors know that they can’t expect total freedom when using someone else’s marketplace to sell their goods. But also because those rules protect the interests of the vendors who choose to participate in that private marketplace.

Continuing with our analogy, let’s say that GenCon had no restrictions on use of their space and were happy to let you do anything, anything with your space once you had paid for it. And let’s say that you’re a vendor who sells products that meet the core demand of GenCon’s typical audience, and you have a booth. You’re looking forward to doing some solid business, but when you show up it turns out that the booth next to you is selling fresh-from-the-cow manure. And their booth is full of it. Hundreds of pounds of manure.

When you talk to them, they say that there is a demand for their product. And it’s true. The demand is small, and their traffic is pretty meager, but people do seek out their booth to buy their manure. But this puts you in a difficult position. You’re not the one selling manure, but you’re sure as hell going to be associated with it, and your products are going to wind up smelling more and more like shit the longer their manure sits right next to your booth.

Now some of your customers will be completely unfazed by the presence of the manure, either because they are dedicated customers with whom you have a long-established relationship, or because they have no strong feelings about manure. Some of your customers will be unhappy about the manure, but will still patronize your booth if they happen to be nearby. But some of your customers will decide that they don’t want to go near a tremendous mountain of shit in order to buy your products, and it goes without saying that you’re going to have a harder time attracting new business when many customers won’t even see your booth, they’ll just see the massive shit pile and go somewhere else.

However, this isn’t the case for Valve and DTRPG. Both companies have, to varying degrees, restrictions on what products they will allow to be sold in their marketplaces. Both companies have recently found themselves in the situation of having a publisher that wanted to use their marketplace to sell games that amounted to festering piles of shit. The difference is how they reacted.

DTRPG quickly stepped in, removed the manure from their marketplace, Febreezed the shit out of everything, and apologized to their vendors and customers. Whereas Valve initially removed the manure from their marketplace, then let the manure vendor back in and personally apologized to the shit-sellers for having the temerity to imply that perhaps some people would be unhappy about having a festering shitpile attracting flies in their marketplace.

Which just goes to show why DTRPG is a company I’m happy to do business with, while Valve/Steam is a company that I go out of my way to avoid patronizing, if at all humanly possible.

I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.

However, it’s also true that about 99% of the things that I write here pertaining to sex and female sexuality as they are portrayed in video games are harshly critical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since writing my last post, because Bayonetta is a character that you really can’t write about without examining how her sexuality is portrayed and how that portrayal is actively harmful.

Sex in videogames: seriously, why is it so bad?

The reality is that as a medium, video games are 10-15 years behind other art forms in their portrayal of female sexuality[1]. That’s not to say that the rest of art and pop culture get it right – there are still an awful lot of terrible things to be found in movies, comics, and television. But there are also a wealth of examples of non-video-game pop culture in which female sexuality isn’t demonized, punished, or objectified[2].

As for video games…? Even after wracking my brains, I was only able to come up with a handful of games with totally positive portrayals of female sexuality, and even then half of those had caveats:

good_depictions

Although romance has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series, it’s been pretty much void of sex, with the exception of that not-a-sex-scene-that’s-still-totally-a-sex-scene in FFX. Which is a shame, because as much as Squeenix fails at costume design, their writers are really top notch at writing believable female characters who are a mix of strong and vulnerable and everything in between. And despite the fact that they didn’t technically have sex, I thought X’s not-a-sex-scene was a really touching portrayal of Yuna and Tidus allowing themselves to be mutually vulnerable to each other. (And you will never convince me that they weren’t totally having sex offscreen and that the music montage was just some epic afterglow.)

BioWare is a better example in that its sex scenes are actually sex scenes, although this hasn’t always been the case. While Dragon Age: Origins takes the cake for the BioWare romance I found most compelling (I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, but my female warden fell for Alistair so frigging hard), the fact that the designers chickened out and rendered all of the sex scenes with characters in their underwear really bugged me. It actually felt more objectifying than the Mass Effect series’ sex scenes, which were underwear free, just because at least Mass Effect wasn’t specifically calling attention to people’s junk.

Still, ridiculous underwear aside, BioWare has done really well in their portrayals of female sexuality. There are women who are lesbians, bisexual, hetero, and cheerfully ambiguous. They have women who just want casual sex, women who are after romance, and women who aren’t really sure what they want. And none of these women are presented as wrong, or as being punished for their sexuality. Even better, there’s no difference between how sex scenes are handled between FemShep and BroShep. No matter who you play, there’s real tenderness there.

And sure, there are missteps. Like Morrigan’s blatant and stereotypical sexuality, or Jack with her ridiculous nipple straps and her MaleShep romance option of fixing her with sex, which I just find really terrible. (Seriously, feminists get told all the damn time that what we need to “fix” us is a good dicking, so I find that trope particularly offensive.)

But beyond Final Fantasy and recent BioWare titles, I was stuck. An informal straw poll on Google+ yielded a few more like Saint’s Row IV (which I haven’t played) – a notable example that was put forth by several people. (I’ll admit to being surprised.) Gone Home also came up, as did The Sims[3]. ..aaaand that was about all any of us could come up with. Sadly, it seems AAA game studios (that aren’t BioWare) simply don’t have a clue how to write sexual content that doesn’t exist to solely to objectify female characters.

Not that that should come as a surprise. 88 percent of game industry devs are male, and it’s been well documented that harassment for women in the industry is pretty much a given. (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Jennifer Hepler, Jade Raymond… the list is very long and very depressing.) Much as we think of games as an interactive medium, interactions have to be programmed. Every interaction has to be scripted and its potential outcomes defined, and the people doing that programming are largely white and male – and all of that is happening in an environment steeped in misogyny and brogramming culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that AAA games nearly always fail to deliver genuine portrayals of female sexuality? How can they, when the few women in the industry can’t effectively advocate for themselves, let alone for a fictional female character? So when AAA game studios try to include honest portrayals of female sexuality, the result is nearly always something like this:

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sex in tabletop game design: an example to be emulated [4]

The conversation about how to handle sex at the table is hardly a new one in tabletop land. Of course, being a different medium, that conversation has resulted in different tools. Some of those tools can best be described as “safety nets” – tools to help people feel safe in playing through content that makes them vulnerable. I’m only going to mention those tangentially as a separate conversation worth being aware of; though if you’re not familiar with lines and veils  and the X-Card, you should definitely read up on them.

What I find more interesting, however – at least for the purposes of this conversation – is the different mechanical approaches that varying designers have taken to solving this problem of how to address sex in a mechanical way in ways that feel meaningful, without resorting to cheap stereotypes. While this is far from an exhaustive catalog of games worth considering, here are some games that explicitly include sex mechanics I have played and enjoyed:

1) Kagematsu – a game in which the sole male character (a ronin) is played by a woman, and all of the other characters are trying to seduce him with the purpose of convincing him to stay and protect their village. In playing this, I loved how it greatly inverted players’ default point of view.

2) Apocalypse World focuses on the consequences that result from sex, with custom sex moves that only take effect after characters have sex, and with varying results, depending on just who it is that’s doing it. (And let me tell you, things get real interesting when it’s two PCs having sex.)

3) Much to my regret, I have yet to play Monsterhearts as anything other than a convention game. Still, Monsterhearts is a fantastic game for exploring themes of emerging sexuality – queer or otherwise – and the confusion that this can cause. As an Apocalypse World derivative, Monsterhearts has sex moves. However, it’s worth noting that a Monsterhearts-specific move lets all PCs make rolls to turn someone on – the person targeted is either turned on or not as determined by the dice.

Of course, the main thing that all of these systems have in common is that these are systems that aren’t exclusively engineered to model violence. Violence is definitely a large part of Apocalypse World, because hey – apocalypse. But Apocalypse World is also designed to model relationships, sex, fucking, psychic horror, and general social dysfunction. Monsterhearts does include harm (damage), but that’s far less central to the system than the mechanics modeling relationships, obligation, arousal, and sex. And Kagematsu doesn’t even have any violence mechanics at all! Kagematsu’s rules focus on modeling affection versus desperation, and about the most violent thing that players can choose to do mechanically is slap Kagematsu – which doesn’t leave any lasting effect, aside from the effect on what he thinks of you.

These sorts of mechanics lead to sex that feels messy and vulnerable and real. Sex that can feel fun or fraught; romantic or deeply unhealthy or even both; complicated and wonderful and meaningful. And the mechanics drive that story!

The best example I have witnessed of this is actually something that just happened in an Apocalypse World campaign that I’m part of. My character and another PC had been “circling the drain” (as I had previously described our relationship), with sex as an almost-inevitable conclusion that we somehow hadn’t managed until the end of our most recent session. And when it did finally happen, I was so very excited because of this little rule on my character sheet:

quarantine

For those of you familiar with AW, it was my Quarantine and the Hocus. Yes it was just as messed up as it sounds.

And let me tell you, knowing that this was a move that was going to come into play, the rest of the players were super invested in the scene! There wasn’t any phone-checking or side conversations, because the Quarantine sex move is so goddamn sweet in a post-apocalyptic world composed almost entirely of awfulness! Which is how this happened:

loved-oh-snap

And then the rest of the scene happened, and it was great and we moved on with our lives. It wasn’t until later that it really struck me that people had reacted as if we were playing D&D and I’d just rolled a one-shot on a dragon, which just goes to show why I love Apocalypse World so very much. It is absolutely possible to get player investment and excitement in things other than death and violence!

The problem is that the complete lack of these sorts of mechanics is where the majority of video games run into problems. The majority of AAA video games are violence simulators, with a couple other sub-systems thrown in. And that’s not to decry their worth as games – I’ll admit that I find using Adrenaline’s slow-mo effect in Mass Effect to line up a sniper rifle shot through an eye-slit in a riot shield immensely satisfying! But when 90% or more of a game’s mechanics revolve around various flavors of how to kill things, it shouldn’t be surprising that portrayals of female sexuality wind up as hollow retreads of awful sexist stereotypes.

Even BioWare games, which I feel generally handle female sexuality pretty well, rely on an incredibly shallow sub-system slapped on top of their violence simulator. If you do things a, b, and c and say things x, y, and z – you can accumulate enough points sleep with a woman, so long as the option has been programmed to allow you to do so. Their very sophisticated script-writing obscures the fact that the only design that has gone into modeling character relationships is a simple system of one-time bonuses and penalties, hidden behind pretty graphics and clever dialogue.

And as a game designer, I just feel like we can do so much better! Yes video games are a different medium with different constraints than tabletop. But tabletop designers have been learning from video game design for years. Maybe it’s time for video game devs to start looking at tabletop systems for solutions to the problem of how to use mechanical systems to drive satisfying stories about sex and relationships.

Sadly, until that happens I think the best we can expect is a thin veneer of romance on top of games about killing things and taking their stuff.

[1] Worth noting, that I’m almost exclusively writing about cisgender female sexuality here, simply because of the dearth of examples available to me.

[2] Granted, those examples are almost always indie-affiliated. But that’s a different conundrum.

[3] Which I wouldn’t have thought of, since the Sims don’t have any character beyond what the player constructs for them. But at the same time, any punishment of female Sims for having sex comes entirely from the player and not from the game. And given that having recreational sex is an entirely different option from having procreative sex, the mechanics are pretty darn feminist.

[4] I’m going to speak specifically about indie tabletop design, mostly because that’s the type of game that I play and the type of games that my friends design. That’s not to say that there aren’t games outside of Indie Tabletop Land that might not also provide positive examples.

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