E3 2016: Female-character-led games still WAY MORE INTERESTING

Last week I happened to see this piece from The Mary Sue about the disappointing numbers of games previewed at this year’s E3 that featured playable female characters. In it, TMS’ Jessica Lachenal expressed disappointment in the disparity between the relatively high number of games previewed last year at E3 that featured playable female characters and the seemingly lower numbers of such games this year:

After digging through the E3 2016 announcements for Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and EA, I’ve only been able to count six games that feature either exclusively playable female characters, the choice to play as a female character, or a segment involving playing as a female character. This is a significant drop from E3 2015, where the illustrious Sam Maggs found 23 games that featured female playable characters. Seven of those games only offered female playable characters, as Feminist Frequency pointed out. — The Six Games at E3 2016 Featuring Female Playable Characters, Jessica Lachenal

To go from 23 down to six seemed like such a puzzling drop that it got me wondering. Were there really only six games featuring playable female characters being previewed at E3?

Let’s look at some (general) numbers (remember, these are approximations):

Happily, there were actually a good deal more than that! However, in order to come by this information, I had to dig up this list from IGN of all games featured at this year’s E3, at which point I did some perfunctory Googling of each game on the list to determine (as best I could with no more than five minutes per game) numbers and genders of protagonists.

Because this list was HUGE, I decided that I would not bother counting anything that was an “open world” game – which seems to be the new term for MMOs that aren’t RPGs, racing games – which are about vehicles more than people, and fighting games – because fighting games’ issues with gender are a phenomenon unto themselves, and remasters of existing games – because that’s just cheating. (Most of the games that I eliminated were open world games, although remasters were a close second.) If you look at all games previewed, there were 27 games featuring playable female characters, as opposed to 43 games which did not have playable female characters:

e3-games
You can find the spreadsheet this came from here, if that’s more readable for you

Granted, the point made in the TMS piece stands – fully 5 of the 27 games were games that were announced for the first time at last year’s E3. It’s also worth noting that more than half of games with playable female characters offer those characters alongside 1 or more male characters. And a large number of those games offer only 1 woman and multiple male characters. Additionally, Battlefield 1 makes the list, since it will have one sequence with a playable female character, while the rest of the game will feature only men. However, since it contains a playable female character, that’s enough to get it to count.

So while 27 to 43 doesn’t look like that bad of a ratio when you look at the numbers, things get a lot more depressing when you look at games with only 1 protagonist. There are only 11 games with a sole female protagonist, as opposed to 33 games with sole male protagonists! Even more depressing than the gender imbalance is the fact that SO. GODDAMN. MANY. of the dude characters that are headlining these games are just MORE OF THE SAME and represent ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING NEW:

dudezBecause what gaming is more of the exact same protagonist that they have been serving us over and over and OVER for the last several decades. Please, I would like someone to tell me how I’m supposed to care about YET ANOTHER installation of The Adventures of Scowly GrizzledFace McSquareJaw and His Continuing Journeys In the Land of Heterosexual Mostly Whiteness. Because at this point, I’m pretty much at the same point with this shit as I am with Spiderman reboots. IT WAS GREAT THE FIRST TWO DOZEN TIMES BUT I’M NOT DOING IT AGAIN. I’M NOT. I DON’T CARE , YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.

Seriously, the offering of nearly identical grizzled (mostly) white guys with the same damn stories and the same damn motivations pursuing the same damn goals in the same damn environments… it’s just… BORING. BORING BORING BOOOOORING.

Contrast this with the female characters on offer. Even though there are many fewer of them, and they still skew overly white, young, and “pretty”, the variety still manages to be so much more interesting and compelling:

E3-wimminz

Here you see women who are white, black, Asian, and Middle Eastern. Old women, young girls, and in between. Soldiers and magicians, mechanics and rogues. And more than their visual dissimilarity, their goals and motivations are different. You have women trying to survive, trying to save someone they love, trying to make a new home and new way of life. Women trying to become masters of a martial art, women seeking action and adventure, and women looking to wrestle the Fates themselves.

All of which are WAY MORE INTERESTING than killing things with guns, regretting That One Woman You Couldn’t Save, having sex with women you don’t care about, and staring broodingly into the middle distance. I’ve been playing video games since I was six years old, and I’m fucking tired of seeing the same stories over and over again. As a consumer, pretty much the best way that you can guarantee that I won’t buy your product ever is to not include female protagonists.

And shit, you can still have pretty much ALL OF THAT Beardy McScowlpants crap in a game and still get me to like it if you actually have a female character worth playing. Joel from The Last of Us is one of the most stereotypical exemplars of the ScruffyBeard McFridgedDaughter trope ever, and I still wound up yelling my excitement about how goddamn good that game was over the course of several posts.

But, alas, given the continuing reluctance of AAA publishers to include playable female characters in their games, it looks like I’m going to be complaining about all the unoriginal Scowly White Dudes in AAA games for some time to come.

New 7th Sea core book: lots to be thrilled about, but still comes up short [LONG]

A few weeks ago, Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games approached me about doing a review of the art in the new 2nd Edition 7th Sea core book, in advance of the book’s final release. (7th Sea isn’t a Magpie product, it’s by John Wick, but it’s being project-managed by Mark and Marissa Kelly, who are 2 of the 3 owners of Magpie.) I thought this was pretty exciting, given that I had previously been a huge fan of the fantastically inclusive art direction in Urban Shadows, so I said that I would be very interested in taking him up on the offer of early access so that I could have time to work on the review.

It turns out that the 7th Sea art was simultaneously exciting and frustrating, in the same way I find BioWare games exciting and frustrating. 80% of the art in this book is so so good, and there is exciting stuff I have never seen in a game book before, period. Which is why I find the areas where the book falls short all the more frustrating! Because it’s a fantastic book, but in terms of representation of women it still falls short.

Analysis numbers

Just as I would do with any large game book, I went through and did counts of the gender distribution of figures in 7th Sea core book art. I won’t clutter this review with lots of pie charts, but all of the results that I reference in this post can be found in this Infogr.am here, if you’re curious for specific figures.

While there were a lot of things to be excited about, the gender breakdown ended up being only slightly better than D&D 5E’s player’s handbook; of all the figures counted in the 7th Sea corebook, 35% were women, 55% were men, and 10% were unknown – which is only 5% better than the 5E PHB’s 30% representation of women.

When I mentioned these initial results, it was suggested that overall representation of figures isn’t necessarily the same as representation of focal figures – a point that I don’t necessarily agree with but thought worth investigating. However, when I re-did my counts focusing only on focal figures and eliminating background figures, there was only a 2% increase in female representation – which isn’t exactly a significant difference.

That’s not to say that the 7th Sea core book is as universally poor at equitable representation as the 5E PHB or the Pathfinder books that I examined, however. When it came to single-character illustration, 7th Sea fell just shy of parity with 19 women (47.5%) to 21 men (52.5%), which means that group illustrations are where the numbers fell apart and dragged down the averages for the rest of the book; out of 43 group illustrations, 8 had only one woman out of 3 or more figures, and 7 more had no women whatsoever.

So, not absolutely terrible – not by a long shot. But given the people involved and the high quality of art directions on other projects Magpie has managed, certainly disappointing.

Now of course, numbers don’t always tell the whole story – and there are a number of things worth looking at in a bit more detail. (It’s worth noting that I don’t want to end on a negative – since my overall feelings about this book are quite positive – so don’t let the fact that the first half of this post is pretty critical mislead you into thinking that I’m saying this is a terrible book, because that’s really not the case.)

My personal pet peeve: when men are men and women are sexy 

One of my absolute least favorite kinds of stupid game cheesecake artist is when you have depictions of a man and a woman shown as the same character type where then man is completely covered and the woman is dressed more revealingly. So I was rather annoyed when I spotted not one, but two instances of this irritating trope.

The first are these depictions of male and female highlanders: Highlander-m-f

I do appreciate the fact that the dress in both of these instances is historically accurate, but showing the female highlander with a sword and shield while her top hangs low enough to show off quite a lot of cleavage? Aggravating. And while the number of layers she’s wearing makes it a bit difficult to say for sure, I suspect that there’s some hip-thrusting happening for a more appealing pose – which is irritating in comparison to the male highlander who has his feet firmly planted with his weight distributed evenly between both feet. In other words, the male highlander is depicted as heroic, while the female highlander is depicted as pretty.

Still, mildly irritating is still a whole lot better than actually infuriating, as is the case with the male and female Jarls:

vikings-m-f

The female highlander is at least historically accurate, while all semblance of accuracy for the female Jarl is discarded in favor of sexy historical-ish flavor. A shield maiden should have armor that actually provides coverage of her arms and tors0, not some sexy leather tunic with a plunging v-neck that shows off her great rack. The male Jarl is heavily armed and armored, while the female Jarl is just a fashion icon.

And sure, only 2 pieces in a nearly 300 pages book is pretty impressive, given the overall art density. And while the Jarless earns a whole lot of side-eye, she is definitely a damn sight better than a lot of the bullshit art I lampoon on this blog.

Gender imbalance in group images: either you’re good enough to be a hero or villain, or you’re invisible

It’s not enough to simply say that the group illustrations are where things fall apart, because they’re the ones dragging down the overall average, because that would convey the notion that the group images are universally terrible – and they’re really not.

There are a large number of two-character images, and the great majority of two-character images depict men and women together in equally strong and interesting roles. There are far too many to pick out, but here are some of my favorite examples:

awesome-duos

When it comes to the duo shots, women are depicted as strong, interesting, and in a variety of roles – from magic-wielding warrior, to powerful noble, to alchemist, to daring swashbuckler. And there’s a lot to love! I love how the upward perspective on the female warrior in the first image is purely for heroic emphasis and not to emphasize her [ahem] feminine attributes, which is a gratingly common trope in fantasy art. I also love how angry the female noble looks as she steps on the back of the dead man at her feet, or how it looks like the female alchemist is the one running the show and the man is just her lab assistant. And the dueling swashbuckler? Epic.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that when the focus widens to larger depictions of the world, society, or a larger group of individuals, that things fall apart in a pretty bad way. 16% of the group images in the book don’t have any women at all, such as this illustration here:

no-fem-sailors

Admittedly, 5 of the 8 figures have no gender, but the three focal figures in this image are all gendered as male – which is disappointing given that the text says that women can do just about anything within the world of Theah.

Even so, that image isn’t nearly so egregious as this image, which comes from the section describing the Samartian parliament as being tremendously egalitarian, because Samartian citizen – regardless of background – may participate in the parliamentary process:

sarmatian-parliament

I see an awful lot of skin tones on display, but there are TWELVE MEN, and only one woman – who isn’t by any means focal. This lack of imagination on the part of the artist is as depressing as it is predictable. When told to depict a government, they drew mostly men with a token woman. Granted, that’s slightly better than the percent of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (4.4%), but not much! In a book that depicts tales of swashbuckling, heroism, magic, and adventure, I’d hope that it wouldn’t be too much to imagine that women might actually participate in public service.

Now that image has the most skewed gender ratio of any image in the book, but nearly every other image in the book that depicted 3 or more characters had more men than women – and usually by a large margin. (There were a few notable exceptions, like the image with five female witches, but those were more the exception that proved the rule.) 1 woman to 4 men seemed to be one of the most common gender ratios in group images, such as:

1-woman-witch

One villainess, four focal male figures. And sure they’re all cowering from her, and she’s center focus, but that doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any other visibly female figures in what looks to be a pretty crowded public space.

It happens with images of heroes too:

crowd-1-fem

Again, one woman – this time a hero – and 4 men. I do appreciate that in this instance, the woman looks heroic and capable, but the fact that in all of the 7th Sea core books henchpeople are depicted as nearly universally male is disappointing. In either good or evil, it seems that in Theah if you are spectacularly exceptional, you can aspire to be a true hero or a true villain – but if you are female and ordinary, well best keep you out of sight.

You even see this on the cover of the book:
Cover

And man that’s frustrating – because this cover is awesome. I absolutely love how fucking badass the female hero on the cover looks – the pose and cocky expression are just fantastic. Morever, she’s centrally placed, not just shoved off to one side – which is a thing that you see on an awful lot of fantasy RPG covers with similar ratios of gender representation. This is a great cover! It would just be nice if it had more than one woman.

Things that fucking rock

I’ve gone on at some length already about the things that frustrate me about this book – but there really is a lot in this book that I’m quite happy about! Like the copious quantities of completely awesome female characters:

awsum-laydeez

You don’t even know how hard it was restricting myself to just a few favorites. There are so many examples of strong, active, and awesome women of all types – women that get to interact dynamically with their environment. Each of these women is a character that I would absolutely love to play – and in general the depiction of women as consistently appealing avatar characters in this book is fantastic. For all that I’ve devoted a lot of space to complaining about “where are the women??” – the standard of depiction for women who do appear in the book is one that a lot of other mainstream RPGs would have difficulty living up to.

However, how the 7th Sea core book really sets a new high-water mark is in its depiction of gay relationships between heroic characters:

gay-kisses

It’s possible that I may have seen lesbians that weren’t outrageously pornified in a trad RPG text, although if I have I can’t remember it. But I know that I have never seen a gay kiss in a mainstream RPG – so even by that standard this art is groundbreaking. But better than that, these depictions are genuinely fantastic depictions of gay romance. Both sets of characters are appealing avatar characters and not Evil Gays! And in both images, the romance is shown as tender and genuine and real – which knocks my goddamn socks off.

In Conclusion

Obviously, 7th Sea is a game property with an enormous amount of reach and popularity. Given that it raised 1.3million on Kickstarter, an awful lot of publishers are going to be looking to learn lessons from the 7th Sea phenomenon. So despite my disappointment that I feel like the new core book didn’t live up to its potential with its representation of women, overall I feel pretty encouraged that this represents a large step in the right direction when it comes to overall inclusiveness of art direction in a mainstream RPG product – given the influence that this product will have over future mainstream RPG products. And it’s definitely my hope that Magpie can continue to improve upon what they’ve already done. There’s still an awful lot of 7th Sea content in production, and hopefully they’ll take all of this into consideration and work on finding ways to do even better.

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

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

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

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

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

comments

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

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

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

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

So that’s a thing. Moving on.

In which I disclaim:

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

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

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

KickStarter Diversity

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

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

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

Case Study 1: Deceptive Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 2: Shallow Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 3: The Forgotten – Progress!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… BRB, setting the world on fire.

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

JUST A THOUGHT.

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

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

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

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

Well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…who have all officially turned me down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KickStarter Part 2: The Only Way to Fix the Problem is to BUY GAMES BY WOMEN

Okay, folks. Today’s post is a 301-level post, in that it builds on a lot of things that I’ve written previously here. I know I’m shooting myself in the foot in terms of expecting anyone to read this by linking to a bunch of stuff right off the bat, but…

So here goes.

In the past, I’ve written about

Importantly, I’ve also written about the statistics of crowdfunding while female for both Patreon and KickStarter – although looking back I can see that my stats for Patreon were not as in-depth as I would like. (I may go back and correct that, but probably not.)

Everything I write here in this post is going to be predicated on the assumption that you have read those posts, or at least understand the concepts that I’ll be addressing. If I get any questions or comments referencing something covered in one of the above posts, I’m going to moderate your comment.

Again, this is NOT a 101-level post, so fair warning.

WHY IT SUCKS TO BE A FEMALE GAME DESIGNER/PUBLISHER: A SUMMARY

One of the classes I’m taking, now that I’ve gone back to community college (Canadians call it “college, which confuses the shit out of me, still), is Operations and Supply Chain Management. I never expected to get much out of it, but surprise! I am. And one of the things that we’ve spent A LOT of time on is various types of flow charts, or “process charts”. Which is sort of what I’m starting with here.

…so to tl;dr everything I just linked to in the most reductive way possible, if you are a female game designer and/or publisher, you will face the following barriers to designing, producing, and publishing your own games:

  • lack of community support (passive): fewer reshares of promotional posts on social media, less “buzz” around the development of projects you are working on, etc etc
  • lack of community support (active): gate-keeping, misogynist backlash against your games because… reasons (it’s a thing folks, it really is), marginalization of your work as “for women” or “niche”, etc etc
  • internal cognitive: especially Imposter Syndrome – this one is the biggest
  • practical realities of being a woman, and miscellaneous RL shit: the wage gap, second shift labor that disproportionately affects women, losing emotional/mental bandwidth to having to deal with microaggressions on a daily basis

If you struggle and persevere and actually start publishing games, you will attract:

  • less community buzz/support: Yes I listed it twice. It’s that important. Buzz translates into post-crowdfunding sales. Without it, you can’t expect anything substantive with regard to post-campaign sales
  • fewer backers/patrons: which when combined with less support leads directly to
  • fewer long term sales and lower overall revenue

These factors translate directly into:

  • women designers having to set lower goals and take on less ambitions projects: which is itself an ugly catch 22, because over time this perpetuates an unconscious view of women designers are people who make scrappy little games and niche projects and men as designers capable of pulling down the big bucks ($50,000+). Look at all of the $200,000+ RPG KickStarters in the past two years. It’s not a coincidence that every single one of them was fronted by a man.
  • projects by women designers attaining their goals with much lower margins of success (which is stressful): look, I’ve done it. I didn’t think Ruined Empire was going to fund, to be honest. It’s stressful, and it sucks, and that stress was the main reason why I didn’t do a KickStarter in 2015.

Over time, this has long-term consequences:

  • Women become less active or simply produce less over time: You can’t afford to produce what you won’t get paid for. Designing for the “passion” or “the love of the hobby” just doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about something that takes as much work as designing games
  • Talented and amazing women leave the hobby: Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat leaving tabletop gaming, or Leigh Alexander leaving video gaming are just two of my least favorite depressing examples of this. Not everyone is as amazingly hard-headed and contrary as I am, and that’s mostly a good thing, because sometimes choosing to leave is the only objectively sane course of action.
  • Women become 2nd class designers: Women resign themselves to being 2nd class designers who write freelance for larger projects on which they won’t earn any royalties (this is distressingly common), or who write small games that might make a couple hundred here or there, but nothing else

All of which translates into A PAY GAP FOR FEMALE GAME DESIGNERS. And unless you ACTUALLY BELIEVE that men just do better work than women, that is a problem, not just for the women but for the hobby itself. Because logically, if male game designers aren’t better at game design than women, it means there are a whole lot of amazing games that could change the face of the hobby entirely that just won’t ever get written, because women don’t have the time, energy, and bandwidth to write them.

The only way to fix this is for people to START BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN

It doesn’t matter if you personally buy games by women. I mean, of course YOU do, gentle reader, because you’re lovely and progressive and are invested in the betterment of the hobby and all that. Now be quiet and don’t interrupt.

Look, the numbers are stark, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is as bleak as it is inescapable: as a community, WE ARE NOT BUYING GAMES BY WOMEN.

Obviously that needs to change. So what can you, personally, do? Well…

1) TAKE A HARD LOOK AT WHO YOU FOLLOW AND HOW YOU BUY GAMES

First, look at your social media: Who is in your circles on G+? Who do you follow on FB/Twitter? What is the breakdown of the space where you go to talk about games? How many women are in those spaces?

Second, look hard at who are the designers whose work you follow most closely? How many of those designers are women?

Third, look really hard at how much money do you give to men versus how much to women? (I’ll admit that I’m not so great about this, myself. My personal games collection is hugely unbalanced, and I don’t feel great about that.)

Note that I am NOT saying “don’t buy games by men”. FFS, that’s some straw-manning bullshit, so don’t even do that shit.

What I am saying is this: if the if the people you talk about games with are mostly white dudes, expand your circles to include more people who aren’t white dudes.

If the designers you follow are mostly white dudes, start following designers who aren’t white dudes.

If the people you buy games from are mostly white dudes, try to buy more games from people who aren’t white dudes.

I’m not saying that you’ll reach perfect parity overnight, but being aware that your spending is skewed isn’t enough. You need to actively look for ways to support projects by women.

2) PROMOTE WOMEN’S WORK

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had what I felt like was a solid, appealing project and tried to promote it and gotten… crickets.

This goes DOUBLE for you, whites dudes with community “cred”. Your word carries more weight than mine ever will, because that’s how bullshit identity politics work. You may not like it, you may not want to hear it, but it’s the truth.

3) MAKE GENDER A TIPPING POINT

How many times have you thrown money at a game you know you probably won’t ever play but want to read? Shit, I’ve done it. I’ve got half a shelf of game books that looked appealing but I knew I probably wouldn’t play, and most of them are by men.

Make “IS IT BY A WOMAN” part of that calculus. If you’re not sure if you want to buy a thing, and it looks interesting but you’re not sure if you’ll play it, check the gender of the author. And if it’s by a woman, and you have the money to spare anyway, consider actually buying it – because that supports that game designer in making more games down the line.

This got longer than I was expecting, so next time: I’ll look at examples of what I’m talking about “in the wild”

Detailed analysis of successfully funded games KickStarters in 2015 [SO MANY CHARTS]

Lately, I’ve been working on a series looking at the gender distribution of crowdfunding, starting first with Patreon – which is a crowdfunding model that enables serial content. So far in the series, I’ve done a gender breakdown of a representative sample of Patreon creators with games-related Patreons, a look at the barriers that keep women from becoming creators on Patreon, and an aside with advice for women who want to get into having a Patreon anyway. And unfortunately, the statistics of Patreon creators are pretty dismal; only 24% of Patreons had female contributors, with only 13% of creators surveyed being solo women.

However, only looking at Patreon would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Patreon has changed the landscape of creativity in that artists who want to do projects that wouldn’t traditionally be commercially viable now have a venue for doing work that they want to do instead of having to focus on projects that they are not as interested in but they know will be an easier sell. But Patreon’s funding model doesn’t really do much to address the economic realities of game development: it’s expensive. In order to produce a polished, finished game there are a lot of expenses – writing, editing, artwork, layout, printing, fulfillment, and they’re all vitally important.

Tabletop RPGs are procedural documents – ensuring that your text is clearly written and conveys what it needs to is vital. Layout is just as critical, because the best writing and editing in the world won’t keep your customers from being frustrated if they can’t find the rules they need to reference at the table. Art is important to draw people in to the world you are creating, and to convey the feel of the game. And as with any creative work, you get what you pay for. You can save money by finding people who are willing to work on the cheap, but generally the people doing the best work know that they’re doing the best work and will insist on being fairly compensated for their time.

Lastly, while I’ve heard increasing grumbling from publisher friends that “next time” they’re going to do a KickStarter with digital-only distribution, we have yet to reach a point where that wouldn’t be cutting off your own nose to spite your face. But face it, shipping physical product suuuuuuckkkkksssss. Production and shipping the physical product is a huge chunk of any KickStarter budget, and costs are non-negotiable. If you want the thing, you pay what the supplier demands. Those costs add up quickly, and even for small projects with only modest aspirations, budgets for a typical RPG tend to be thousands of dollars. So for most small to medium-sized publishers, KickStarter (or other platforms like IndieGoGo) is the only way that indie publishers can afford to produce polished, professional quality game products.

So with all of that said, I felt that I would be I would remiss were I to not do examine the demographics of KickStarter, just as I have already done with Patreon.

Methodology and Sources

In determining which data I wanted to examine, I decided that I would look at all successfully funded RPG KickStarters from 2015 – excluding campaigns that were either canceled or failed to meet their goal. Unfortunately, assigning gender to a KickStarter is a much trickier prospect than with Patreon; very few Patreons had more than two creators, and only one that I surveyed had a creator team with more than four people. However, since KickStarter projects can be much larger, teams for RPG products can get pretty damn huge. For example, I was one of twenty or so writers on V20 Dark Ages. Then there were lead developers, an editor, and I don’t even know how many artists. So figuring out how to determine the “gender” of a project becomes a much trickier prospect.

In the end, what I settled for was looking at who it was that fronted the project – so either who was it that created the campaign, or if that was inconclusive was there a name attached to the title of the campaign itself? (Frex) I then assigned each result to one of the following categories:

  • solo male (a single man working alone)
  • solo female (a single woman working alone)
  • all male (a group of at least 2 men working together)
  • all female (a group of at least 2 women working together)
  • mixed gender (a group with at least one woman and one man working together)
  • studio (a medium to large sized games company or publisher that is not a sole proprietorship)
  • unknown (aliases or names for which gender could not be determined)

I also broke down the types of campaigns, since “roleplaying games” is a pretty broad category, into the following sub-categories: campaign settings, adventures, events, multimedia, dice, accessories, supplements, and games. Lastly, for each campaign I recorded the total amount raised and what percent of their goal was raised. (Logically, since I only looked at successful campaigns, all results for percent of goal raised were over 100%)

Sadly, KickStarter’s interface is pretty terrible for collecting this sort of data. So I wound up turning to RPGGeek, where RPGGeek users maintain an ongoing list of games KickStarters by year. I’ll admit that I have no way of verifying if their data collection is 100% comprehensive, but it is definitely exhaustive. In collecting the data that I needed, I had to go through twenty four pages of forum results. Given that I counted a total of 388 successfully funded campaigns, I feel that my results are definitely statistically rigorous.

That said, I did filter my raw results slightly. In putting together “final” numbers for the charts that I was preparing, I chose to omit 18 campaigns from the results because of sketchy practices surrounding artificially low funding goals. For instance, there was one guy who by himself had 8 successfully funded campaigns in 2015 – which sounds impressive! Until you realize that he was funding basic adventure modules and his goal for each campaign was only $30. So despite that each campaign was only making around $800-$1500 or so, he was seeing THOUSANDS of percent on his campaigns in terms of percent of goals raised. Since I was very interested in percent of goal raised to see if gender was a factor, I wanted to get rid of the extreme results so that my conclusions would actually be meaningful. So it should be noted that while I recorded 388 successful campaigns, results below were tabulated based on the filtered total of 370.

The Results

Overall-gender

As someone who has been observing KickStarter as a publishing platform for several years, I wasn’t too surprised that the gender breakdown even less egalitarian than Patreon. What did surprise me was how much lower the percent of female participation was. Patreon’s 13% representation of female-only creators is pretty dismal, but 13% is at least mostly in line with the current representation of women in the industry as a whole.

KickStarter, however, had slightly less than half those numbers in terms of solo female representation, with only 6% of all successfully funded games projects in 2015 being fronted by solo women. And widening the focus to include all campaigns that include at least one female front person actually makes the numbers worse, which may be due to the fact that out of 370 KickStarters, not a one of them was fronted by a group of just women. As it turns out, solo female campaigns together with mixed gender campaigns made up 9% of overall KickStarter campaigns, as opposed to 24% of the Patreons that I examined having female creator participation (or only 3/8 of Patreon’s numbers).

Pretty bleak, right? Well strap in, because it gets worse.

Overall-funds-pie

Holy shit! Solo female campaigns make up 6% of the total number of KickStarters, but account for only 3% of 2015’s total funds raised! Mixed-gender campaigns also suffer a penalty, although not quite as bad – they received only 2% of total funds raised despite making up 3% of overall campaigns. By contrast, all-male campaigns accounted for 10% of total funds raised while only making up 4% of overall campaigns.

Granted, it is true that solo male campaigns “underperformed”, at 41% of total funds raised for 65% of total campaigns. However, I think that probably has a lot to do with the fact that there were an awwwwful lot of sketchy solo-male campaigns that I saw that had super-low (ie sub-$1000) goals, so it makes a lot of sense that the studio campaigns would overperform so dramatically while solo-male campaigns would suffer.

So what happens when you start looking at averages by gender category? Well, things get interesting, and a bit less clear.

Overall-amt-raised

Studios had the highest average funds-raised-per-campaign, which makes sense. A company like Onyx Path or Green Ronin is going to have a larger audience and has the logistics in place to fund a campaign with a much larger scope than the smaller operators, which lets them rake in the big money. What I didn’t expect was how comparatively small the gap between studios and all-male campaigns would be, and how large the gap between all-male campaigns and everything else would be.

The fact that mixed-gender campaigns outperformed solo gender campaigns is interesting, although it may be another reflection of the preponderance of low-goal “sketchy” campaigns by solo male creators. Still, it is undeniable that solo female creators have the lowest average funds raised by far, with solo female campaigns averaging a mere quarter of all-male campaigns, and just under 90% of the average solo male campaign.

Of course, something that is undoubtedly a factor is that if you look at the average requested funding level, the gender category that asks for the least money is, of course, women:

Overall-avg-goal

Again, studios come out on top – although again that’s not terribly surprising given the scope of many studio-fronted products. The results after that get a little muddled; for instance why are mixed-gender campaigns averaging the second-highest requested goal?

Still, women again come in last, asking for only only 73% of what solo male campaigns requested, and only 39% of what all-male campaigns requested. I was hoping against hope that perhaps that would be mitigated if I looked at the percent of goal raised. If the lower goals were perhaps offset by solo female campaigns doing better in terms of percent of goal raised…? But no. They weren’t, mostly:

Overall-PCT-goal

So yeah, there’s a weird blip with mixed gender campaigns having the second-highest requested goals and yet having the lowest percent raised. I honestly couldn’t begin to untangle what’s going on there. But solo female campaigns still come in second last, at only half of the percentages that all-male campaigns have managed. So, you know, that’s a thing that’s depressing.

I could have stopped there, but I got curious about what would happen if I looked at each campaign type by gender, which actually turned out pretty interesting. So just for shits and giggles, I present for your further edification the gender breakdown of each category examined:

Bar-settings

What the actual fuck. In ALL of 2015, EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN SETTING KickStarter was either by a studio or a lone dude? (For a second I was like, WHAT THE SHIT WHAT ABOUT RUINED EMPIRE, I KNOW THAT WAS BY A LADY LIKE PRETTY CONCLUSIVELY. And then I remembered that was in 2014 and felt stupid.)

So. Yeah. NO settings fronted by women, or even partially by women in 2015. Wow.

bar-adventure

Jeez. Adventures have some female representation, but honestly the numbers don’t look all that much better. Around 8ish percent of all adventure KickStarters had female participation, but they only received 2% of total funds raised for their category? I mean, sure it’s great that they over-represented in terms of goal and percent of goal, but still. Oof. Feels.

Bar-events

Events represented the smallest category, so it’s hard to make any conclusive statements other than even with a large relative proportion of campaigns by people of unknown gender, it’s still pretty damn male-dominated. Which was surprising, because all of the best, most competent, most hard-working event organizers I know are women! So I didn’t expect that at all.

Bar-multimedia

The lack of any mixed-gender teams in this category makes the numbers really straight forward. Yes it’s great that when you look at average funding, solo female campaigns over-performed relative to their overall participation in the category. But that doesn’t change the fact that only ONE out of ten multimedia KickStarters in 2015 was by a woman, which is a shitty ratio no matter how you look at it.

Bar-dice

I seriously was not expecting such a large number of KickStarters making DICE of all things, nor was I expecting them to be so lucrative. Still, not really sure what else to say that won’t sound repetitive here. I mean, whee! Yet another category totally dominated by men. Shocker.Bar-accessories

Cool. So with no mixed-gender participation, once again we have ONE campaign with female contribution out of an entire category that makes up a pretty sizeable chunk of the total number of successful campaigns. Still, one out of 44 is still 2.2%, so that doesn’t really explain the fact that that singular campaign only raised 0.3% of total revenue. Seriously? What the hell.
Bar-supplements

Yup. Looks like women making supplements have a shitty time of it too. MY SURPRISED FACE. LET ME SHOW IT TO YOU.

bar-games

Well. Kickstarters for games at least manage to do (sliiiightly) better than average in that 8% of total campaigns were fronted by solo women, as opposed to 6% of the overall total. Still, as with every other category, they did not receive a proportionate level of funding. YAY. EVERYTHING IS DEPRESSING.

And that’s all for today

I’ve got more to say, but that’ll have to wait for next time because this post got super long and I AM FINALLY DONE.

Advice for people (especially women) who have been thinking about starting a Patreon

I’ve gotten a lot of really positive responses to my last post about the barriers that keep women from engaging with Patreon. In the comments I mentioned that something I had meant to address in that post was advice for how women could go about having a Patreon ANYWAY, but that time and space constraints prevented me from including that. I’d been planning on moving on to my posts about KickStarter, since I try to avoid spending suuuper-long stretches of time on one particular topic – especially when that topic is highly specialized and isn’t of particular interest to people outside of a specific group. However, I’ve gotten several requests from people to please write this post. So here we are!

0: Material Previously Covered

Last year I did a huuuuge series on “advice for women looking to get into game design”. It covered pretty well everything, from the pros and cons of self-publishing to all of the various economic models for doing so. I’m not going to say you need to read all of that, because seriously it’s really long. However, I’d recommend reading part 2 of the first post in the series here about common cognitive pitfalls to watch out for. I also wrote a little about the different types of Patreons out there in part 3 of that series with some examples (under the heading Serial Content: Patreon), some of which are now sadly out of date.

So you can go read that stuff. You know, if you want.

1: JUST DO IT

If starting a Patreon is something that you’ve been waffling about for a while, then in the words of the immortal Shia Lebeouf…

Seriously, though. JUST. DO IT. Especially if what you want to start a Patreon for is shit that you would do anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? People don’t support you and nothing has changed. Setting up a Patreon page takes 1-2 hours, depending on how much thought you put into it. You’d be out that time, sure, but nothing else.

“But, wundergeek! If I start a Patreon and no one pledges, I’ll be so embarrassed!”

Look, I get it. I do. But I’ll tell you a secret, gentle reader. Failure is an unavoidable part of being creative. Not every idea is going to catch on! Patreon at least front-end-loads the failure so that you haven’t lost tens or even hundreds of hours on something no one wants to consume. (Which is something that I’ve done, by the way, and wow does it ever suck. But that’s a tale for another post.)

However, I’ll also note that sometimes it’s the projects that we most expect to fail that surprise us. Take this blog, for example; when I first started writing it, I thought that there was no way any significant number of people would read it. And yet nearly five years, 2+ million views, and 81 (at the time of writing this post) patrons later, here we are. So don’t let your assumptions about what people will be willing to support keep you from trying, because brains are assholes.

1a. “But the thing I want to do is weirdly specific and there’s no way anyone would pay for it!”

First, while there are some people who become patrons purely with a goal to consume specific content, there are also people who become patrons because they want to support the creator, and not necessarily because they’re a super fan who loves everything that that creator is producing.

Second, never forget that the internet is a weird place. Your weirdly specific thing might be someone else’s “thing they wished someone would make” that they’ve been waiting for someone to make so that they could give them money for it. The outrageous overnight success of Send Your Enemies Glitter is proof of that.

Third, if you are a member of a marginalized community, there’s a really good chance that your brain is being an asshole. Tell your brain that in a market as saturated with RPG content as the current market is, weird and specific also means distinctive, which will help you stand out. And then tell your brain to get stuffed.

2. Don’t feel pressured to make a video.

A profile and a cover picture is more than sufficient to launch a campaign with. Don’t let yourself get hung up on the idea that you “have” to have a polished video in order to be taken seriously, even though I’m pretty sure Patreon says when you’re setting up a profile that pages with videos get more patrons (or at least it did when I was setting mine up, which was admittedly two years ago).

2a. Cover images are easy, and here’s why

Are you making game hacks? Take a picture of some character sheets spread out on a table! Are you making stock art? Collage a few of your best pieces together. Blogs and other writing projects are a bit harder, since the end product is a bit more intangible. But even then there’s no need to get fussed, because here is what you can do.

First, do an image search on Wikimedia Commons (because stealing other people’s work to promote your own is a shitty thing to do). Find an image that you like and put some simple text over top of it that summarizes what you do. No graphics software? No problem. Pixlr’s photo editor is a nice, free, in-browser image editor that is pretty well equivalent to the old Limited editions of Photoshop. (Make sure you select Pixlr Editor and NOT Pixlr Express.)

example 1
SO PROFESSIONAL

Now, you might feel like your image looks a little slapped-together when you do that. So here is my totally easy trick to make your image look more polished with about 15 seconds of work: OUTER GLOW. So here’s what you do. You have your image, and your text will be on its own layer. Click the layer styles button (highlighted in the screenshot above). Then follow the steps in the screenshot below:

example 2

Now your text has a black border! Except it will still be fuzzy and not really all that useful, so you’ll need to tweak the settings a bit, like so:example 3

Bam. Now you’ve got an image that looks like you actually worked on it. Win.

3. Decide on a content model and communicate that content model clearly to your patrons

There are two basic ways of charging patrons – either they pledge a static amount per month, or they pledge per content – at which point their pledges might vary from month to month if you are getting into posting multiple items per month and they have monthly limits set up to cap their maximum contribution.

My recommendation to people just getting started with Patreon is that they default to per-content for their pledge model. When you’re just getting started, a per-month model is going to deter a lot of folks who might want to support you but also want to see a proven track record of providing consistent return on investment. Setting up your Patreon as per-content means that your patrons are only on the hook when you produce content, and the controls for setting monthly caps are robust and relatively easy to set up such that your patrons won’t need to worry about getting into paying you more money than you’d expected.

If you are someone who has a lot of real-world obligations and know that your content production is going to be inconsistent, make sure you make that part of your pitch upfront. That way your patrons are going into supporting you knowing that the content flow is going to be uneven, and if you have a few weeks where your life explodes and you don’t make anything – it’s okay. (Though if something happens that keeps you from adhering to your usual content frequency, it is polite to drop a note to your patrons letting them know. I’ve done this as patrons-only messages through Patreon when it’s happened to me in the past, and my patrons have always been wonderfully supportive when it’s been an issue.)

There are drawbacks. Per-month funding evens out the revenue stream; per-content logically means that you get more money in months where you produce more. And, also logically, the inverse is also true in that if you have a month where you don’t produce anything… you also don’t get any money. Still, I feel those are pretty minor considerations overall. I’ve had my Patreon for two years and still wouldn’t consider switching the funding model, because per-content is much better for how I operate given the meatspace demands on my time and attention.

3a. Different model subtypes: examples

For the sake of clarity, and because you shouldn’t do exactly what I do just because it works for me, here are the four most common Patreon models that pertain to game type. YMMV:

  • Charges per unit content, all content publicly available (ex: this blog!)
  • Charges per unit content, all content available to patrons (ex: Kaitlyn Peavler)
  • Charges per unit content, content available to patrons with previous content available for purchase (ex: Worlds Without Master)
  • Charges per month, grants access to content (ex: Avery McDaldno, now defunct)
  • Charges per month, all content publicly accessible (ex: John Harper, now pretty much defunct)

4. Offer a $1 level, even if $1 won’t give access to the thing you are making

Never underestimate the $1 pledges, because they really add up! Having a $1 level makes it possible for someone to say “well I’m not interested in that thing they’re doing, but I really like the creator so it’s worth $1 to me just to help them do what they want to do”.

TEN out of my 81 patrons have set themselves up as “no reward”, meaning they don’t want any of the perks that come with their donation level. They just want to give me money, and that’s it.

Patreon patrons are generous folk, is what I’m saying here.

5. Be conservative in setting up your milestones (if you set them up at all)

Milestones are NOT something that you need to start right away. Hell, two years later I still haven’t set up milestones, because I don’t know what I would set as my goals. I tailor the amount of work I do for posts here on my blog to the amount of support I get. When I first started this Patreon, I was averaging around 1500 words per post. Now 2000-2200 is much more my usual average, because I can afford to go more in-depth.

Still, if the thing you want to do is a thing that it would make sense to set up milestones for, BE CONSERVATIVE. I lose between $5 to $10 per post on pledges that don’t get processed, for whatever reason. People don’t do it maliciously – most often it’s because their credit card information changed and they forgot to update all of their peripheral shit like Patreon. But it happens. Add in the fact that Patreon’s and PayPal’s cut adds up to about 10-11% of your total AFTER dropped pledges… you can end up on the hook for a lot more work per unit dollar than you wanted to be doing.

My advice – don’t set them up right away. And leave yourself lots of wiggle room if you do set them up, and be willing to communicate with your patrons if you have to change your milestones.

Speaking of which…

6. Thou shalt communicate with your patrons

If you’re someone who sucks at email, learn to not suck at it. Patreon isn’t exactly a business transaction, in that your patrons aren’t buying and selling content per se. But they are making it possible for you to do the thing that you want to do, so be courteous about responding quickly to messages. It will go a long way toward building goodwill. It sounds stupid and obvious, but you want your patrons to feel good about you as a human being, since that will make them more likely to want to continue supporting you.

7. Don’t feel guilty about charging your patrons

If you’ve communicated what it is that you want to do, and you’ve communicated your expected content schedule, and the thing that you’ve produced is even remotely within the scope of your Patreon, then let go of your guilt and make that post paid already! Having a clear pitch isn’t just important to attracting new patrons. It’s also important to set expectations so that your patrons know who you are and what you’re doing.

If someone is your patron, they have agreed to become your patron because they WANT to give you money to do the thing that you are doing. So feeling guilty about doing the thing that you are doing and NOT allowing people to give you money for it is actually the opposite of what your patrons were hoping for.

Of course, I say this as someone who still struggles with this. I had to be reassured that it was okay to make this a paid post before I did so, and even then I still feel a bit hinky about it. So, you know, do as I say and not as I… feel? Or something.