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A small but significant amount of commentary on the shitty situation for freelancers in the industry side of the TRPG industry is along the lines of “Well, just run a Kickstarter or Patreon for the games you want to design”.
This is bad advice. Kickstarter and Patreon are not the tools to free writers from the shackles of the game design industry.1
They are crowdfunding platforms, and crowdfunding works on a bunch of different assumptions. Primarily, if you want to run a successful Kickstarter or make an amount of money that isn’t a joke on Patreon, you need a pretty much constant stream of marketing and self-promotion.
The idea that “quality” will somehow attract money is bullshit; it was proven to be bullshit as soon as nerds started complaining that the only way Microsoft remained in a dominant position despite poor software was “marketing”, like that was some kind of black magic. Well no shit, Sherlock. Of course marketing is how Microsoft remained popular. Without marketing, nobody wants to use your shit.
That is a truism of doing business. “Quality” gets you dick. Marketing gets you popular. Anyone saying otherwise is a liar.
People point to small-press kickstarters and patreons that succeeded. Dungeon World, f'rex. They succeeded because marketing.2
The point of all of this is simple: marketing and self-promotion are not part of the writing and game design toolkit; they’re entirely orthogonal to it. Sometimes you can manage it in the short-term, say, during a KS. Even then, if you’re not good at it you end up promising things you can’t reasonably deliver. That’s not a factor of budgeting as much as it is self-promotion — you need people to get involved with what you’re doing. And so the KS crushes you.
I’ve been part of two Kickstarters so far: W20: Changing Breeds and W20 Book of the Wyrm. In neither case was I the main person on the project. Rich and Rose took point. And yet, it was a full-time job. While the Kickstarters were running, I straight-up could not do any design work. It was absolutely fucking exhausting. I know from that experience that I cannot do that with any regularity; I do not have the skills or the energy to run a successful KS.
Patreon is similar: you need to build the initial following to get enough money per-release (or per-month, but in the trad-games space that’s code for “fund my life”) that doing the work for that release is worth it. And to make enough to recoup the costs of the work involved, you’d need to be in the top 1% of trad-games Patreons. Otherwise, compared to freelancing — even as it is now, even with all the unpaid bullshit — you lose money.
If I had to self-promote to get paid, I’d be out of the industry in a New York second, and I know that I am not unusual in this.
The other factor of crowdfunding is cash. Because of a string of massive delays and total failures, one of the best ways to guarantee funding is to have at least the pre-release text ready to go when you launch. You also need a video and at least some art; text-only kickstarters don’t succeed.
Except that means writing the damn thing happens before you know if you can pay for it. Art-ing the damn thing likewise. As for the video? Sure, count it under “self-promotion” but even if you’re just doing voice-over, if you have the skill to do it as a pro that’s £100-£150 of work you’re doing for free.
Thing is, this whole thing came about because of the amount of work that we as writers & game designers already do for free. By the time you factor in art and video, a kickstarter for a 60-page game — say, if I’d kickstarted BLACK SEVEN — would have left me over £1000 out of pocket with no guarantee of recouping that cash.
Instead, I stuck it on DriveThru, where it has a chance of people noticing it without dedicating a month to doing nothing creative but using skills I don’t have. With the tiny bit of self-promotion I managed, it’s an electrum bestseller (top 3% of products on the site).
TL;DR: Crowdfunding works for people with the skills to crowdfund. Those are separate skills. Most creatives, especially those freelancing, do not have those skills. It is not a silver bullet, and attempts to claim that it is are disingenuous and insulting.
Stew Wilson is a writer, game designer, computational demonologist, and mathematician.
This blog covers his professional writing and game design work.
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