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.

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

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

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

original

CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW

 

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

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

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

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

swapped

CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW (WHICH YOU SHOULD TOTALLY DO)

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Tuesday Freebies: things mostly about GamerGate

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

Things that are interesting

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

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

People being stupid on the internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but maybe that’s changing?

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

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

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

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

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

Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

Necessary disclaimers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

And now for something completely silly

[ETA: Hey, folks. So I did a jerk thing – for good reasons, but it was still a jerk thing. I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about a mutual troll that Filamena Young and I both share, so I blocked out her name on the Google+ post that she made that started this whole mess. Which was bad! I shouldn’t have done that! So I’ve fixed that, and linked to the post. But also you should maybe go buy some of her games, because she’s good people and also an amazing game designer. 

So this post requires a little background.

First, earlier in the week people started sharing this (NSFW!!) image: “if males had the same armor as females in RPGs”.

And predictably, people started reporting the photo as obscene. Because a dong-esque, metallic Pringles can codpiece is obscene, but women in RPG art showing the exact same amount of skin are TOTALLY AWSUM!!1!!11!eleventy

I’ll give you a moment to stew in the hypocrisy.

I aaalmost wish I could use this meme more, because his beard is amazing.

Thankfully, because the people in my circles are some cool people, it didn’t take long for people to make some pretty funny responses. Including this thread! Which led to… well… okay, just read the screen cap, okay?

convo

RETALIATORY WANG. Is that not the name of the best punk band in the history of ever? And I found myself compelled – compelled – to draw the cover art of this hypothetical Retaliatory Wang album. Because reasons! And empowerment! And… uh… reasons!

And the idea rattled around in my head for a day or two, but I dithered a bit. I mean, sure it would be funny! …to me. But would anyone else thing so?

And then another thing happened. A female artist friend on the Plus started a thread in which she brought this art (also NSFW!!) to my attention, because she knows how much I hate corpse tits in game art. And almost immediately some male artist, previously unknown to me, jumped in and started complaining that women like us were what was wrong with game art, and you know he’s definitely a feminist, but complaining about gratuitous nipples on a flaming skeletal corpse is, like, the worst. ART IS DEAD. (Yes he literally used the phrase “art is dead”.)

And suddenly, my desire to draw Retaliatory Wang’s album cover assumed new meaning. Now this wasn’t just about conceptual silliness! This was about retaliation! With wangs! I started sketching, and I started a new thread asking people for song title ideas and… well… then this happened:

 

 

And then for some reason I felt it necessary to write more than 400 words explaining why this was a thing that needed to happen. So I blame my brain, okay? And the internet, too. But mostly my brain.

[Thanks to the following for supplying track titles, or portions thereof: Arlene Medder, Ezio Melega, Dymphna, J. Walton, Jonas Richter, and Josh Roby. Thanks also to the people who inspired this trainwreck. You know who you are.]

Tuesday Freebies: the edition with infinite class

Well, folks. I’m hard at work on another paid post, and it’s an art post! And it will be glorious. (And maybe a bit NSFW.) Unfortunately, it’s not done yet and I won’t get a chance to finish it until tomorrow. So in the mean time, let’s have some freebies!


Things that are useful

This post is a fantastic look at communication styles, and how clashing communication styles can cause women to just quietly leave gaming groups without ever addressing the problems that are bothering them. This should be required reading for GMs who frequently game with new people.

Also, I really do try to avoid linking to The Escapist, because seriously fuck them and their #GamerGate apologism. However, this piece is an excellent look at swords and those who say it’s “unrealistic” to portray women fighting with them.

Lastly, this isn’t useful so much as “really effing cool”, but I could totally see this getting used in tabletop campaign, so… Turns out, a Swiss taxidermist did a facial reconstruction of the tattooed Siberian princess that was unearthed last year. And she looks so metal! I’m totally going to play her in a game some time.


Thing related to #GamerGate

The incomparable Leigh Alexander gave a talk about 90’s culture and how it ties into trends that led to the current state of game culture. It’s super fascinating (especially for me as a child of the 90’s), and the entire talk is online for free. Though make sure you skip to about 10:00, since before that they were just streaming technical difficulties in setting up the stream. Of particular note, the second question that she took was some dude trying to punk her using #GamerGate talking points. Beautifully, she dismantled him and his BS question – politely, and with infinite class. It was pretty much the best. (Transcription of the exchange is here for those who don’t want to watch the whole video.)

Also of note, Feminist Frequency released its first annual report since becoming a registered charity. And like everything that Anita Sarkeesian has a hand in, I am super impressed by how polished it is, and how it paints an honest picture of the current state of game culture while also remaining full of hope for the future.

Lastly, you may have heard about the flap over several feminist Wikipedia articles being censured for their part in a dispute over articles about #GamerGate. Turns out, initial reports may have been exaggerated? This is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on that manages to be informative without being boring.


Things I wrote!

Lastly, I posted the following on G+ in a private thread in response to someone asking how people with longer-running Patreons feel that Patreon has affected their art. It covers ground I haven’t previously covered here, so I thought I’d repost my comment in full here on my blog:

Okay, so disclaimer, I’m using it to support my blog. So, you know, is blogging “art” and all that…

I think the first and most important factor for me is that I wouldn’t have been able to re-launch my blog without Patreon support. I would need to chase other paying work. That is a not-inconsiderable factor. If you are economic circumstances that privilege you from needing to consider profitability of art that you make, that’s awesome! However, for myself and other artists with constrained budgets, Patreon is invaluable simply because it gives us freedom to make what we want to and not simply what will sell like gangbusters.

Now, from a personal standpoint, what has it meant to me personally and my work?

If anything, I find that my standards for what should be a paid post have risen since I first started blogging again. I’ll admit that it’s in small part due to the scrutiny that I’ve gotten from some quarters over being a “professional victim”. But mostly it’s because I want my patrons to stick with me for the long haul, and since I’ve hit a plateau in terms of patron support it’s important to me that I maintain strict standards of quality/quantity in terms of posts that I make as paid.

As far as does it influence what I choose to blog about? Sure. Of course it does. Some of that in good ways and some of that in not so good ways.

The not-so-good is that because I feel pressured to deliver quality posts, I sometimes fall into being silent when I don’t feel like I have things of worth to say. And that’s a trap! (I wrote about it at length here.) I’m trying to be better at not doing that, and also trying to do more free, off-the-cuff things so I don’t fall into that trap of not making paid posts because I’m feeling particularly worthless that day.

However, the good is twofold. First, that the accountability that I feel to my patrons has pushed me to improve my craft. I spend more time on my posts than I did pre-Patreon, for the most part. And I think the difference shows. Also, again because I feel pressure to deliver value, I’ve pushed myself to break out of my comfort zone and start experimenting with different kinds of posts. Like Claustrophobia! That was done with the intention of making it a Patreon thing. I never would have thought to do that sort of thing pre-Patreon, because I wouldn’t have been able to believe that people might find it valuable.

It’s not 100% awesome. There are the above difficulties. I also did another roundup of pros and cons here.

And then there’s just practical stuff. Like how Patreon’s UI SUCKS DONKEY BALLS. But for me, it’s been a game changer. And I think it’s a great thing for art overall, and for me as an artist personally.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 278 other followers