Friday, October 27, 2017

Thoughts on Creating a Successful Project

This past few years has been hugely educational for me.  I would never have known how hard it is to create a successful project in the RPG world had I not gone through all of this effort personally.  I always assumed that "it can't be that hard".

Allow me to say, for the record, "Yes, it's that hard".

The reason why is because there's a lot you need to know, and there's actually no really efficient or effective way to learn it without going through several years worth of poking, prodding, scraping and plenty of trial and error.  And all of that costs both time and money.  And frankly, most of us have too little of both to make a successful venture out of our favorite hobby.  But before I get into what's involved, let me discuss first what I mean by "successful".

What I don't mean is, I wrote a rules book, put it up on DriveThru, and got 200 downloads and $5.00 via PWYW from my friends who are supportive.  That is not what I mean by success.  Not that this isn't something that is a success in that doing the work involved with creating an RPG is hard, it takes a lot of time and effort to do a good job, and frankly, if you got 200 downloads you're already squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of success for the general mass of RPG Indie Publishers.

But that's not what I mean.  I mean the kind of success that one can bank on.  I mean real success.  And by that I don't mean "I made a lot of money".  What I do mean is "I made enough money to fund the project's continued development, support, and that enough people are enjoying it so that it has become an actually sustainable project."  And by "sustainable project" I mean that it has enough community support so that it won't just vanish into thin air as soon as I stop tweeting about it.

But to create that kind of success requires a great deal of effort.  And a lot of money as well, even if you try to do it as cheaply as you possibly can.  First, there's the effort that goes into creating a sound set of RPG rules.  That requires a good deal time in thinking, writing, copy editing, and play testing.  There's also the matter of artwork.  If you're not an artist then you have to obtain artwork from someone.  You could use public domain art, but ... really. You need fresh nice artwork or no one will look at your book.  Even if you have the most innovative rules in the world, people gravitate towards good art, and are repelled by mediocre art.  It can be the make-or-break point for many rules systems.  And good art is expensive.  It also takes time and effort to procure.  There's an art to obtaining good art.  Of course, if you want to go on the cheap as much as possible, then you have the option to do your own art.  If you're a good artist then that can work for you, obviously. If you're so-so... well, you take your chances.  I'm taking my chances with Elthos RPG.

And that's just the rules book in terms of RPG system.  There's also a lot of thought, and the rest, that must go into creating the Setting for those rules.  In fact, according to current (or are they already outdated?) Laws of RPG Rules Books, your rules are "supposed" to reflect the genre you are going after.  So every rules book has a genre focus, and those genres have specific rules to support it as such.  If that sounds hard to deal with, it's because it is.  And yet, most of us deal with it.  Except for those who are creating Genre-Neutral systems, in which case your rules need to be designed to allow for any possible genre.  Which is not easy either.  Let me repeat that.  That's not easy either.

Now you mesh your rules, your art, and your setting (not necessarily in that order) and you play test the hell out of the thing.  You find that Rule X doesn't work.  Maybe it's a central rule.  Back to the drawing board and revamp the system.  Maybe it's a minor rule.  Cool.  Update the docs and keep going.  But the point is that Play Testing is part of the work involved.  And that's not easy either.  It's not just playing the game and having fun.  It's checking the rules via the game and ensuring that the rules work to create fun for the players.  It's hard to monitor the game from this point of view, and you have to test all the rules, so you need to create scenarios that test all the rules.  Your players, who are there to have fun, and maybe to some degree test, may raise eyebrows.  But you keep going.  "Its a game test" you remind everyone, and you move on.  It's not easy either.

Point being - creating an RPG is not an easy thing to do.  It's just not.  It takes a huge commitment, both in time and money.  And finally you're ready to publish.  Now you have to learn a bunch of stuff about how to publish your rules.  You've got DriveThruRPG, pretty much the 800 lbs gorilla of RPG Publishing, and you've got to learn how to deal with the rules of creating a printable PDF, which requires the use of InDesign, or the equivalent software.  InDesign has a huge learning curve, and it's expensive to "rent" from Adobe at $32 / month.  Doesn't sound expensive until you add up the months you spend renting it.  Then you see, oh yeah... it is expensive.  So don't forget to suspend your rental when you're not working on the project.  You can always un-suspend when you need to.  Of course if you work on it intermittently as things come up, like I do, that's not a practical option, and yeah, the cost does add up over time.

But there's more.  You have legal considerations as well.  Did you happen to want people to use your rules to create their own Settings, like I do with Elthos RPG?  Well, you need to bake that into your terms of service, or license, in your book.  And guess what, you probably need to consult a lawyer.  And that's expensive.  But only if you plan on actually making a Success.  If you are thinking you're going to do a run of 200 and that's it, then you don't need to bother with the legal stuff because there's a solid chance you won't ever get sued, or run into legal issues.  On the other hand you still could.  So being prepped with the right legal verbiage is a good idea.  For example, I was going to save some money by going with Creative Commons.  But as it turns out, I didn't understand how CC works and what it's intended for, and it wouldn't have worked for Elthos.  My lawyer explained it to me, and now I get it.  I have a license agreement in Elthos that allows Settings creators to use the Elthos Rules to creating Settings Books and sell them without anything more than an attribution to Elthos.  But that took money for me to have created so that it's correctly formatted in legal terms.  And without that I would have run a risk that later people would have had a stumbling block and that would not have helped me with my goal of creating a Success.

Then there's marketing.  How do you market your RPG?  You tell your friends.  That's good for 10 to 20 downloads, maybe, if your friends are cool.  Your mom.  She'll download at least 3 if you ask her several times.  Then there's your friends friends... good for a few more downloads.  You post to social media ... a LOT.  You create new and fresh content that helps people in the community, and you constantly mention off hand that by the way you're working on something over there ... and you point.  That's good for a few more downloads.  So finally you reached 200.  Now what?

Marketing.  Now, yes, yes, I know, no one does Marketing in the world of RPGs.  But then again, 98% of RPGs go for the 200 run, and that's it.  Which is fine, if that's all you intended, and you worked along those lines, so it didn't cost you much to produce and the time was spent on a hobby thing that you love anyway.  No great loss.  But - that's not creating a Success in the way that I mean it.

So Marketing.  You hire a Marketing company, or you go it alone.  If you go it alone there is a huge learning curve in terms of SEO and how it works.  There's strategy, there's tactics, and there's money.  You have to spend a lot of money on marketing even when you go it alone.  Or, if you're really really good, you do all the research on it yourself ... which takes a LOT of time because it's really complicated, actually - and as Einstein once proved Time = $.  But lets say you don't mind and you spend the time.  You learn.  It still costs money as soon as, for example, you want to "Boost" your post on FaceBook.  In fact FB's Boosting is ludicrously expensive.  And if you don't Boost?  Well, that's the thing.  I'm not going to go into how FB algorithms work, and how Boosting works here, but suffice it to say, expect spend money if you want your post to reach more than 35% of your friends and family.  And if you're a business, or trying to use FB to spread the word about your RPG ... well, you get the idea.

Marketing is probably the most important, and the most expensive aspect of success.  And also probably the least understood.  It's complicated.  And it takes a long time for it to actually work.  A years's commitment to a marketing effort is normal in the industry because most people who don't see positive (very) responses (ie sales) in the first few months figure it's a bunch of hokus pokus and quit the campaign before it has a chance to work.  So Marketing requires a great deal of commitment.  Which equals time and money.

But there's another problem with Marketing that might not occur to people straight up.  So I'm going to mention it because I just found this out today.  So, as it turns out Marketing is a lot about SEO (Search Engine Optimization).  You need this in order to expand your audience beyond the scope of your Friends and Family.  That way when people are searching for terms using Google the key words will bring up your site instead of someone else on the results page.  Without that, no one may notice your site.  So SEO is important to Success.  But ... SEO requires a LOT of fairly complicated interactions because the SEO algorithms look at all kinds of factors when ranking pages.  Everything from linked posts to hash tags, to press releases, to comments, to ... well everything.  And the more interconnected the posts are the better SEO likes them.  The reason is that Google (et al) tries to ensure that you're posts are "Authoritative" in order to spread them around. Now, it should be said that there's a science to SEO.  However, because Google doesn't like to publish the details of it's SEO algorithms, it's a murky science at best.  And there's considerable amount of trail and error that goes into the thing by our ever persistent Marketing departments.  And when Google inexpectedly introduces changes... well, it's like a busted bee hive of activity in the Marketing offices while the experts try to sort out what the change was, and how to adjust to it.

And so for your product or service to be classed as ranking high in a Google Search, and showing up on the highly coveted Page 1 results, you need to show a long term persistent, and shall we say "Professional" approach.  In other words, you have to be spending lots of effort on it.  Like, you know, a professional business would normally be expected to do.  So all of that sounds normal and good and stuff.

But here's the rub.  The kinds of posts that get shared and liked and linked and wind up hitting positive marks with Google's SEO may not be NOT the same posts as those your friends in the community expect or like.  They can seem like glitzy marketing hype. And in a sense they are.  But that Marketing aspect is there BECAUSE that's what the Google algorithm looks for when plotting SEO.  So while you might normally post stuff that's rich and deep and engaging to your friends... Google is looking for hype-ish looking materials that it can easily categorize with an algorithm.  Hence... the end result is that your Marketing team may well be producing materials for you that seem to you to be what you might fear others will consider hogwash, and you'll be concerned that all your lovely RPG friends on the InTarwEbz are going to think you've "Sold Out To The Marketing Hype Machine".  And you'll notice when that happens, especially among the Smart-Set of RPG enthusiasts (who are keenly aware of Marketing Glitz and tend to hate it with a purple passion, as everyone with half a brain does).  You'll sense it if there happens to coincide a palpable fall off in interest in what you're doing.  People really have come to hate hate hate to be marketed to.  I do, too.  It's totally understandable.  But the Google Machine has made it so that if you don't go down the Marketing Glitz path then you can't gain actual real-world traction with your project.

Now you might be thinking, but what's the point of all of that?  I'm just trying to publish a small press offering of my cool new RPG for a few of my friends and it's a labor of love and I don't care one iota if only 10 people ever see it, and I make no money from it at all.  That's cool with me.  I'm doing this work as a labor of love, after all, and therefore if I hope and expect financial gain from it then I'm selling out, and my work will be garbage, and everyone will hate me for it.  So there.

Yep.  I understand totally.  Most of us, rightly, have adopted that attitude.  Not necessarily because we are thinking "But if my RPG hit the big time and became the next D&D, well that would totally suck."  No, I don't think any of us are thinking that.  But the massive effort involved with creating a D&D sized Success in the RPG industry is so huge, and so risky (in terms of lost time and money) that most of us look at that and auto-reject it.  But we still love RPGs, we still want to create RPGs, and so we go after it - in hobby mode.  No gain expected.  But then again, without the effort we can also expect that not much will come of our efforts either.  Which is fine if that's cool with you.  That said, I think that really, most of us are hoping for more.  But like that proverbial bridge too far... we can't make it to there from here.  So we sigh, and resign ourselves, and say "Yeah, well, that's all ok.  I'm doing it for the love of the hobby anyway." and we go with it.

I don't have a problem with that.  In fact I'm inclined to want to take that route too.  Except ... at least in my case, I wanted to do something more ambitious yet!  Back in 1980 I thought we'd have computerized RPG tools to help us run our games by doing the number crunching for us.  Not take over the creativity aspect... just crunch the numbers, and give us a tool to help us create and maintain our worlds.  Software.  Oddly, no one created that.  So in 1994 I decided I would do it.  Why not?  I knew nothing about software at the time, but figured I could learn it, and so I began with one step.  I bought a QBasic programming manual and read it page by page and practiced the techniques until I understood them ... and began creating the Mythos Machine (aka "the Gamemaster's Toolbox").

Well, that put my Elthos Project into a whole different category of effort. I created a really comprehensive tool that was finished in 2000.  But it was done in Visual Basic, and therefore it was buggy as hell and I declined to release it to the public on the grounds that support for the tool would kill me.  By this point I had become a professional programmer / analyst and was working my day job, and doing programming on Elthos at night.  So ... it's been an incredibly slow process.  I also take classes at night, so even slower than you can imagine.  But I'm a persistent if not too smart person, and over time I built Elthos from the ground up.  First with my 1978 rules system, which I distilled into its present streamlined mini-system form (The "One Die System"), and converted the old VB program into a Web Application called The Mythos Machine.  I figure that I've put in about $2 million worth of time into the project (taking my average salary over the years I've been working on it times the number of hours I've put into it overall).  Yep.  That's a lot of time=money.

Some people might ask, well, why didn't you speed up the process by going and getting Venture Capital and hiring a team to build it instead of doing it all yourself at Museum Speed?  Fair question.  The answer is - I didn't trust VC to not come in and take over my concept and turn it into garbage for the sake of Fast Money, and for a handful of shekels actually sell out to the man.  I figured I'd rather do it slow, on my own dime, and maintain full ownership, so that I could do it the way I think it really should be done.  Regardless of the cost in time that it would take.  Stupid of me, probably.  But, yeah... I wanted to avoid "Imperial Entanglements".  I didn't trust VC then... and I don't now.  So you'll see me trying my best to boost this off the ground myself, and with a little help from my friends.

So now I face this crazy edge of the project where I'm trying finally to get word of it out to the public.  And that's rough.  Marketing is rough.  I think it's far more rough than any other part of the project, including the programming.  Because finally, after all, I'm interacting with the public.  And ... gee ... I feel like a bit of an ass putting stuff out there that looks, well ... sort of horrid from my point of view.  But SEO!  SEO! SEO!  And I'm really afraid that my friends in the community will see this stuff and be like "OMG that is soooo 'Marketing-Glitz', I can't stand that guy."  Which would suck.  But unfortunately, it's also necessary.

You see, I want Elthos to be successful.  Really successful.  I want to advance the cause and foster creativity with RPGs.  I want an online tool system that helps GMs to create and run their own Worlds to succeed.  Because I believe that creativity is the one great thing that sets us apart from all else.  We're creative beings.  We should exercise our creativity, and if at all possible, prosper by it.

So I'm trying everything I can to make the Elthos Project a success.  I want to leave it as my legacy ... in the early 21st Century a new generation of digital RPG Tools began to arise from the misty ethers and take form ... and Elthos was one of them.

That's what I hope to read in the 22nd Century history books.  And that takes a lot of work. A LOT.  But I'm up for it.  I enjoy it.  And if all else fails... guess what?  Well, I did it for the love of the hobby, and even if it turns out that I'm the only person who uses the Mythos Machine to run my own games, and no one else notices it ... I will still have creating something amazing.  A printing press for RPG Settings.  I think that's cool, and I think I can be happy even if that's the ultimate result.

On the other hand, if people actually discover how great a tool it is, and it becomes popular and people like it and use it a lot ... I won't complain.  :)

If you want to check out where I'm at with it, and join the last leg of the Open Beta ... feel free to take a poke at ... I'll be curious to hear what you think of it.

Also... if you are looking for advice and/or help with your own project... I've learned a lot in the past few years.  Maybe I can help.  Let me know.  I might be able to offer advice gained from my experiences with this project. Feel free to message me if you think I might be able to help answer some questions or point you in the right direction.  Happy to.

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