Monday, May 9, 2016

A Job like Any Other - In Response To Christopher Helton's Article

Lighting up my corner of the Internet is this article by Christopher Helton on how tabletop role playing games often have costs that the public does not get to see, and how the pricing model for games either needs to change or other things will change. I enjoyed reading the article and found myself agreeing with parts of it.

Some of the commenters? Not so much.

Creating games is sometimes very easy, and I have played games whose rule sets were made available for free on old Geocities sites or were created at the spur of the moment on forums. I have also played games that have had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in artwork, game design, publicity, and have had teams of well known writers and artists involved in the making. I have been fortunate in my life to have done both, and helped create rules for playing Transformers on forums as well as working on games such as the upcoming Infinity game or my work for Onyx Path. 

Creating games is often a time consuming process that can drag out days, weeks, and even years. A lot of the time put into making a game is not earning the creators a dime for their efforts; when I doodle a character sheet in my notebook, I am not being paid for it. When an artist spends an afternoon perfecting drawing elvish faces, they are not paid for it. When you Skype with fellow creators and discuss how a social combat mechanic is going to work, or how a new kind of card type is going to play out in the tabletop game you're working on, you are not paid for it.

And this can be financially crushing to creators, especially for two reasons: If they do not have a lot of financial resources to begin with, or if the game does not come into existence. Because you either end up spending money you really don't have to spend, or you do not make back any of the time and money you have already spent.

Games are exactly that: games! They are fun, and often a shared experience. I spend time with my friends fighting pirates and demons from beyond this world, and I always leave feeling like I've spent 4-6 hours doing something fun. The memories of past games I've played often make me smile, especially when I think of the time Dereke and I fought the Ghost Bear of Montaigne Mountain (aka watched a wandering black bear walk by the camp) or the time when I was involved in a brutal civil war in the vampire underworld of Lafayette where I was briefly Prince of my own little city. Games are social. They are fun. But just like video games, or novels, or any other kind of media we consume to help cheer us up of the tediousness that is the real world, they have to be made. Pen has to be put to paper, and as tabletop gaming has changed in its long history, the process of making a game has changed.

So let me start by breaking down all that goes on with the game creation process, because I feel that this would help people understand why creators are constantly concerned with how to make money off their work and why even making the slightest bit of profit is essential.

1. Wouldn't It Be Cool If...

All games begin as a "Wouldn't it be cool if..." Moment. Think of something you were daydreaming about recently. Wouldn't it be cool if you were the captain of a starship where all your friends could play different positions on the ship and fly around a combat zone, fighting to save a space station in the middle? Or what if you thought about how cool it would be to have a board game where depending on the number of Omens you have uncovered, you change the plot each time and so you end up with a different gaming experience? 

(That's Starship Artemis and Betrayal at the Haunted House, respectively.)

The creator will spend a lot of time thinking of these ideas and how to implement them. The game is thought up and when the player puts it on paper or on their word processor, it slowly starts to take shape. But that's just the beginning! If you are planning on having another studio make this game, you will have to write up a pitch, contact that company's department, and try to sell the game. All time that is not billable.

If it is a game you are making yourself, you have to sit down and figure out how you will create the game. You need to look for artists that fit the style of your game, find writers, editors, and layout people to put it together, and you have to figure out how you will pay for printing. Even a digital only method of distributing the game will still have costs, though less than physical printing. Until you start selling the game, all of this will take up time and money.

Here is where the big disconnect I am seeing for some people is. To sum up the arguments I have seen, it comes down to this: "But you're creating a game! Why do I care if you make money for it? It's not real work!"

It's very much real work. Whether you are someone who designs cereal boxes for a living or comes up with the jingles for cereal commercials, creating a game is real work. You are coming up with a game that is going to be played by people for fun, and players expect the game to work and BE fun! A game that feels haphazardly put together is always noticed by the players, and can lead to them telling their friends that "this game doesn't work. I wouldn't recommend it."

Even after the concept is done and you have all the people working with you on the project, you still have to play test the game, edit it, do the art direction yourself or have your art director do that for you, and you have to take it to layout. All the professionals involved in this process are more than likely going to be doing this for pay, and as their time matters as much as yours, they would like to be paid more than half a cent or a quarter of a cent per word.

Which means either you must pay them up front, or you pay them upon publication. Which means money needs to change hands. The era of having a stable of artists and writers who work for free is coming to an end outside of the journalism industry (boo on you, HuffPo.) Quality work means that people will need to be paid.

And as for profit, well profit is essential for more than just making money. I have worked on games where the amount of profits I have made have paid for the cost of the game and put money towards making the next. I see very little of that profit, because after I wrap one game I have to think of the next one. Maybe I want to make a board game expansion to the core game, or maybe I want to work on a supplement. These books will then take the money I made on the previous book as their start up capital, and the process begins again!

I saw people making the argument that they would prefer a 192 page book with limited B/W art and endless pages of text at a $20 price point as opposed to a $40 for a book that has art in it. While I think I would enjoy books like that, I have seen books at conventions that are made like that. They often do not sell well because people flip through them and are not impressed with what they see. Many gamers like to see pictures of the world they are about to step into. They want to be inspired by epic artwork of what their characters could do in that universe, and whether that artwork is little chibi drawings or pictures of massive armies going to war with each other, they want to see what the world is like. 

Don't believe me? Well, tell me if you would play this game:

"You are in a world where the geography looks very similar to our own. In this world, races of elves, dwarves, and humans battle against the great forces of Chaos who seek to destroy everything. Players can choose what jobs they want to play, such as rat catchers and militia men, who then move up to warriors or sorcerers through dynamic game play. The game system uses d6s, and you can be an elven noble, a dwarf warrior, or a Germanic knight adventuring through dungeons."

Sounds pretty basic, right? Sounds like a generic ripoff of Lord of the Rings?

That is the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game, set in the world of Warhammer, from Games Workshop. It's one of the longest running games in the world, and though the generic description of the setting may make it seem pretty bland, it is a huge world full of heroes. Artwork of Tyrion the Phoenix Lord battling Archaon the Everchosen help the players see the real scope of the world.

Now that said, there are games with very minimal artwork that work VERY well. FATE, a game I enjoy, often has only a little artwork in their core books because it leaves it up to the players. These games are often a harder sell on people because while they can hear about how cool the setting is, they may not think the game is worth it on a casual flip through of the book.

2. "But you're doing this for fun!"

Fuck yeah, I do this for fun! I love making games! Making games is richly rewarded for me, and every time someone tells me they've played a game I've worked on I smile. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But I can't allow myself to go broke for the sake of it.

In the beginning, I worked for exposure. I worked on small d20 adventures and wrote up new Vampire clans on forums with friends because it was fun. I wrote fiction for online fiction anthologies because I didn't mind getting paid in exposure because I thought the exposure would have been worth it. But at the time, I lived either in my Mom's house, in a dorm, or at a friend's place. I had no bills, and each paycheck I got from a comic book store often went back into the store in buying stuff.

I cannot pay my bills with exposure. I cannot feed myself or others with exposure. As the saying goes, "Exposure? People die from exposure!" It's a joke, but one that depicts the real problem here: creating games is time that could be used doing something else that would make money so that I could buy other games. Instead, I put that time into making games.

There is always a fine breaking point between doing what you love because you love it, and greatly sacrificing of yourself to do what you love because you love it. If all creators worked on the latter method, we would not see as many games out on the market today because people would not be able to put the time and effort into making them.

This is not dissing those creators who do manage to make games without charging for them. There's a game I greatly enjoy called Engine Hearts, where you play little machines surviving in a post apocalyptic world where man has disappeared and you are struggling to survive in it. It's a fantastic game, and the creators managed to make it pay what you want online because they got several people to donate their time and services for free for it. And the game is pretty damn awesome if you ask me!

But not every game company can work that way. If this was the 24th century in the Star Trek universe, we could. But the financial needs of the real world often do not allow it.

3. "I do not have the money to pay for a $60 game, and I feel like I'm being shamed for being poor."

I don't think the original writer was going for this, but I do want to take people's criticisms seriously. 

Let's face it: sometimes, we really want something that's cool but the price point steers us off. I would love to read every book that hits the gaming market, but some of them have high costs that I cannot afford. If you are someone who struggles to make ends meet, the idea of buying the $60 Iron Kingdoms Unleashed book or keeping up with each hardcover from Wizards of the Coast is just cost prohibitive. And I know the agony of really wanting something that I can't afford. 

Tabletop games have evolved to the point that everyone expects each book to have amazing artwork, crisp layout, and have plenty of pages full of content. I know that if I picked up a book that was only 16 pages long, looked like crap, and was priced $30 I would probably turn away. But many of these books have high costs because of their high production costs associated with making them. The previously mentioned Iron Kingdoms book has color artwork every 1 1/2 pages, is a weighty 400+ page tome, and took unknown hours of play testing and development. For a company to release a book like that, they need to charge it at a cost where they can make back money on it.

I don't have an answer for those who want such a book but cannot afford it. I'm not going to tell people how to spend their money or live their lives, but I hope that by explaining how the book is made, they may have some insight into why costs are high on some books and low on others. Games are a tricky business on how to make them, but finding the right price point on how to sell them is even trickier.