Archive for May 23rd, 2008

Indie Roleplaying Gives Up the Dream

2008 May 23

I was just talking to my brother on the phone. He just became co-editor of Top Shelf Comics’ new webcomics imprint, meaning he can leave his other half-time job and work in comics full-time. It’s interesting, now that one of the Walton boys has achieved “the dream” of making a living working in a creative field, I’m left reflecting on how “the dream” seems less and less applicable to roleplaying.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a career in roleplaying or comics. Putting aside comics, making a career in roleplaying now seems ridiculous to me. I’m not sure why I would want to do that. It would be a lot of work for meager return, whether it was through freelancing for major companies or trying to make it as a full-time independent publisher. And I think I would like game design and publishing much less if I was depending on it to make ends meet.

Webcomics (and up-and-coming creative types in print comics) are dominated by college students and twenty somethings, most of whom hope to make a career out of comics. They’re willing to eat Kraft dinner for months just to make it through art school and possibly get a shot at being the next Craig Thompson.

Indie roleplaying, in contrast, is dominated by late-20s-to-middle-aged cats who already have a career. Maybe some kids too. They’re not going to abandon financial security to try to make a living from independent game publishing. Even folks like Brennan Taylor, the owner of Indie Press Revolution, has smartly chosen to not try to turn his indie games distributing business into a career. Of course, there are some folks who haven’t given up “the dream” and are, in fact, living it. Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen, and Thor Olavsrud come to mind (though I’m not sure if Thor hopes to someday turn his editorial gig with the game-producing wing of Archaia Studios Press into a full-time thing). However, I think, in the main, indie roleplaying is dominated by folks who don’t necessarily need to view game publishing as a means of generating income, because they have a “real” job that provides fairly well.

And where does this lead… to the de-professionalization of roleplaying game design and publishing, where people treat their game design work (correctly, I would argue) as a hobby and not a career. This has all sorts of ramifications. Making money is secondary. Sales numbers stop being the main measure of “success.” Maybe creative works are shared freely instead of sold, because that extra bit of income isn’t as important. There’s no need to beg for mainstream media coverage. There’s no reason to evangelically expand roleplaying to the masses. There’s no reason to care about the decline of the industry.

And… these are all going in the opposite direction that comics is currently headed in, where even independent comics are becoming a big business complete with movie deals and full-time editors for free webcomics imprints. Sure, it’s still possible that someone like Wizards or White Wolf will decide to start an independent imprint for boutique games (Mongoose’s tragic Flaming Cobra experiment is a debacle that’s not at all capable of seizing on the promise of indie game publishing) or that some meta-indie publisher will rise up and turn indie gaming into a heavily-commercialized section of the market. If the money starts pouring in, I imagine some folks will line up to cash out, because, why not? Might as well. I’m still waiting to see what happens when the first indie roleplaying property gets licensed for a major motion picture. Then the Powers That Be will start paying attention. (Is it a coincidence that Random House has a comics imprint now? I doubt it.)

But, as things are moving now, indie roleplaying has, in effect, given up on “the dream” of game publishing as a full-time career. We don’t want it. I like my job, personally, and I wouldn’t give it up to develop games, unless a major company was going to hire me to edit a boutique imprint. Even then, it would be a hard choice. What’s the health plan like? (Honestly, they don’t want me anyway; they want Evil Hat, who are more invested in doing crossover work with indie style but mainstream appeal.) More importantly, I’m not working towards the dream and I’m not seeking it out. I’m getting on with my life but staying committed to working on and publishing games on the side, because, you know, why not? It’s fun.

And so it everyone else I know. Interesting.