Archive for July 27th, 2008

Promises You Can’t Keep

2008 Jul 27

Something’s bothering me, so I thought I’d lay it out. This is something that hit me square between the eyes in my early forays into game publishing, but I see many other folks facing similar challenges. The basic principle I’ve come to, through trial and error, is this: Don’t promise people anything before you have it in your hands to give to them. Here’s some ways in which it manifests in roleplaying publishing…

Pre-Publication Buildup: Once upon a time, there was a guy named Jonathan who got so excited about this project he was working on, called Argonauts, that he published a huge description of it in Matt Snyder’s online indie gaming zine, Daedalus. He also paid this awesome artist named Antti to do eight illustrations for the game. And then… the game never came together. A year or two later, John Harper published Agon, which semi-wittingly carried some of the spirit of Argonauts, but the original game idea will probably never materialize. By this point, I’ve stopped getting emails asking when it’s coming out, but that was a semi-regular occurrence for a while.

More recently, in Ken Hite’s article in the GenCon 2007 convention book, he told people that they should all stop by the Forge Booth to pick up a copy of Push 2, because I’d expected the volume to be out by then. Now, a year later… still no Push 2 (it’ll happen when it happens). I hope I’ve learned my lesson in this regard.

I’ve also paid money for artwork and then never finished the game the artwork is for. This has happened… four times, if you count Bethany’s cover for Push 2. Definitely a mistake that I hope I’ve learned from.

Pre-Orders: This can be, in all sorts of ways, much worse for a new publishers (or even an old hand publisher) than jumping the gun on promotional efforts. For example, it was just recently announced that West End Games is apparently shutting down, partially because they took all these pre-orders for a product that never ended up materializing and kept be badgered by folks who wanted their money back and were angry at the lack of a product on schedule. Other companies have also gotten a lot of bad press by taking fans’ money long before a product appeared, such as Aetherco over Chi-Chian or EOS over a number of their announced products.

This even affects indie games, as exemplified by the Bliss Stage pre-order, which promised a full-color, 200p version of the game by Dec 2007. Currently, it looks like Ben will be lucky to have it out by Dec 2008. Ben’s unlikely to get the kind of flack that West End got, becaue the culture surrounding indie games is pretty different, but, still, pre-orders hardly ever take into account that the situation can change drastically.

I was just talking to Elizabeth, whose upcoming game, It’s Complicated is facing the little road-to-publication obstacles that nearly every product faces, exacerbated by the fact that she was pressured into the “pre-order + GenCon” publishing model/schedule at the last minute by a bunch of other indie game designers who I’m sure had the best intentions. But trying to deliver on her original pre-order promise amidst changing circumstances has become incredibly stressful for her. Likewise, Shreyas has also done the same thing, but I’m doing layout for Mist-Robed Gate and if the book is ready for GenCon, it’ll only be by the skin of our teeth.

In general, this is not good for us, for the indie game community, for our stress levels, and for the satisfaction of people who play our games and rightly expect to hold us to our promises. Sure, if you want to run a pre-order for a game that will be out “eventually,” then hopefully folks will have flexible expectations, but, in general, I think, it would be better for us to refrain from making promises we may not be able to keep, period.