Mass Effect, Tolkien, and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

[The following was originally posted on my main blog, but as it’s gaming-related, I figured I’d put it over here as well.]

Everything that follows is my opinion and, further, is infested with spoilers for both the Mass Effect series and, I suppose, The Lord of the Rings. Reader beware.

In late February, I said (on twitter) that I thought the Mass Effect universe was probably the most important science fiction of a generation.

Since then, the executive producer for Mass Effect 3 has been working tirelessly to get me to retract that statement.

If you follow gaming news at all, you’ll already know that there have been great clouds of dust kicked over this particular story — the gist of it is that Mass Effect was brought to a conclusion with the release of Mass Effect 3 (note: not brought to its conclusion, just brought to a conclusion — more on that later), and while 99% of the game was the same top-notch, engaging, tear-inducing stuff that we’ve come to expect, the last five minutes or so is a steaming, Hersey’s Kiss-sized dollop of dog shit that you are forced to ingest at the conclusion of the meal, like a mint, before they let you out the door.

It’s fair to say that it’s soured many players’ impression of the experience as a whole.

Now, I realize that many of the folks reading this may not have played through the Mass Effect series. First of all, that’s really too bad, because it is very, very good both in terms of play (which steadily improves from game to game) and story (barring one steaming exception) and (I think) completely worth the time.

But secondly, I’d like to keep you non-ME people involved in the conversation, so I’m going to draw a comparison that I think most anyone likely to visit here will understand, so that we can all proceed with reasonable understanding of the issues.

Let’s pretend for a moment that The Lord of the Rings was released not as a series of books, but a series of games. More importantly, the company behind the series decided to do something really hard but rewarding with the game — they were going to let you make decisions during play that substantively altered the elements of the story. That means that some of people playing through this Lord of the Rings story would end up with a personal game experience that was pretty much exactly like the one you and I all remember from reading the books, but that story is just sort of the default. Whole forums were filled up by fans of the series comparing notes on their versions of the game, with guides on how to get into a romantic relationship with Arwen (the obvious one), Eowyn (more difficult, as you have to go without any kind of romance option through the whole first game, but considered by many to be far more rewarding), or even Legolas (finally released as DLC for the third game).

And that’s certainly not all of possible permutations. Some players actually managed to save Boromir (though he leaves the party regardless, but gets you a whole extra army in the third game if he’s alive, and makes Denethor much less of a pain in the ass to deal with). Some folks don’t split up the party, and spend most of the game recruiting supporters through the South and North, from Aughaire down to Dol Imren. For some, Gimli dies at Helms Deep; for others only Merry escapes into Fangorn (which makes recruiting the Ents all but impossible). Hell, there are even a few weirdos who chose NOT to recruit Samwise back at the beginning of the story, and actually play through the whole first game without him (though the writers reintroduce him as a non-optional party member once you get ready to leave Lothlorien).

And what about the players who rolled the main character as a female? That changes a LOT of stuff, as you might well imagine. (Though, thankfully, all the dialogue options with Legolas are the same.)

Are you with me so far?

Okay, so you’re playing through this game — you’ve played through parts 1 and 2 several times, in fact, sometimes as a goody-two-shoes, and sometimes as a total bad-ass. You’ve got a version of the game where you’re with Arwen, one with Eowyn, one with Legolas, and one where you focus on Frodo and his subtle hand-holding bromance with Sam. You’re ready for Part Three, is what I’m saying, and out it comes.

And it’s awesome. You finally bring lasting alliance between Rohan and Gondor, you form a fragile-yet-believable peace between elves and dwarves, and even manage to recruit a significant strike-force of old Moria orcs who don’t so much like you as much as they just hate the johnny-come-lately Uruk-hai.

The final chapters open. You face down Saruman (who pretended to fund all your efforts through the second book, but then turned on you at the end of the Two Towers), which was really satisfying. You crawl up to the top of Mount Doom, collapse against a rock, and have a really touching heart to heart with Sam. It’s over. You know you have all your scores high enough to destroy the One Ring with no crisis of conscious and no lame “Gollum bit off my finger and then falls in the lava” ending, like the one you saw on the fanfic forums last year.

And then out comes this glowing figure from behind a rock, and it’s… Tom Bombadil.

And Tom explains your options.

Oh, and you're totally going to die too. And all the roads and horses throughout all of middle earth vanish. And by the way did you know that Sauron and the Nazgul all actually just work for Bombadil? True story.

Now, let’s just ignore the fact that the company behind this game has been quoted many times as saying that the game will end with no less than sixteen different endings, to honor all the various ways the story could go, and focus on these three options.

None of them have anything to do with destroying the ring, do they?

Has ‘destroying the ring’ (alternately, destroying Sauron) been pretty much THE THING you’ve been working toward the whole game? Yeah, it has. In fact, it mentions “Rings” right there in the title of the series, doesn’t it? Rather seems to make The Ring a bit of a banner item, doesn’t it?

But no, none of these options are about the Ring; they’re about one of the b-plots in the series, and one which you pretty much already laid to rest a few chapters ago.

So… okay, maybe this isn’t the END ending, you think, and you pick one of the options…

And that’s it. A bunch of cut-scenes play, Mount Doom explodes with fiery red light, you die, and the credits roll. The end.

Ohhh-kay. Maybe that was the bad ending. Let’s reload a save and pick option 2…

Same. Exact. Cut scenes. Except Mount Doom’s explosion is green. What?

Alright… umm… let’s check #3…

Nope. Mount Doom’s explosion is Blue. That’s it.

And, absolutely inexplicably, every single one of these cut scenes shows Gandalf, Aragorn, and SAMWISE escaping the explosion on one of the eagles and crash-landing somewhere in Lorien where they all pat themselves on the back and watch the sun set together.

What? But… Sam was with you. Aragorn and Gandalf… did they start running away halfway through the last fight at the Black Gate? Your boys abandoned you?

So, given this example, it’s possible — even for someone who didn’t play Mass Effect — to understand the fan’s reaction. The ending has no real connection to the rest of the story; barring the last scene and one conversation with an unnamed Nazgul in Book 3, it would lift right out with no one even noticing. It completely takes away your choices at the end of a game about making world-altering choices. It effectively destroys the Middle Earth that you were fighting for 100 hours of gameplay to preserve — no magic? Maybe a completely wiped out dwarven race? No one can travel anywhere without painstakingly rebuilding roads for a couple hundred years and replacing horses with something else? Also, no matter what, no matter how much ass you kick, you’re dead? Yeah. No thanks, man.

And that’s not even paying attention to stuff like how (and why) Sam and Gandalf and Strider ran away at the end. I mean… even if you’re going to do a shitty twist ending, don’t be so goddamn lazy about it. Don’t sit there and claim that criticism of the ending is an attack on your artistic product, because frankly that ending is full of holes and needs a rewrite and probably two more chapters to flesh out. (More on that in a bit.)

So… that’s where the Mass Effect franchise was after ME3 came out. A lot of confusion. A lot of rage. Some protests of a very interesting sort, where the gamers against the terrible ending decided to draw attention to the issue by raising something like seventy-thousand bucks for geek-related charities.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper.

Let’s continue with this Lord of the Rings video game analogy. Let’s say that after a bit of digging, people realized that Tolkien actually left the company to work on other projects before the game was complete. He wrote up a detailed outline, though; something that clearly spelled out exactly how the main arc of the story was supposed to play out, in broad strokes, basically spelling out what we would expect the ending to be, pretty much.

But Tolkien left. So they get another guy in. Someone else who’s written stuff about some kind of powerful ring…

They get Steven R. Donaldson.

(Those of you who know me and my history with the Thomas Covenant books can guess that this analogy is not going to be a positive one, because seriously: fuck Thomas Covenant.)

So they get this Donaldson guy in to helm the end of the series, and it turns out he’s the guy who comes up with the Tom Bombadil, fuck-the-continuity-of-the-series ending.

Why? Maybe he’s pissed about being the second choice. Maybe he’s not getting paid enough to give a fuck. Maybe he just really wants to do this kind of story, but can’t be arsed to write a series of his own for which it makes sense. Maybe the original ending outlined by Tolkien got leaked on a forum the year before the last game came out, so people decided it had to be changed, even if the alternative makes no sense. I don’t know.

What I do know is the there was a different ending written out for the Mass Effect series, the short version of which is that the Big Reveal in ME3 is that the Mass Effect itself — the magical black-box technology that allows interstellar travel and powers a ton of other things from weapons to expensive toothbrushes — is causing a constant increase in dark energy in the galaxy, and that’s causing all kinds of bad things (like the accelerated death of stars).

The Mass Effect — you know, the thing from which the name of the series is derived — is the secret behind the Big Reveal. Who would have thought?

So, in the end of the game-as-envisioned, you’re given a choice of saving the galaxy by sacrificing the human race (making humanity into a Reaper that can stop the Dark Energy decay), or telling the Reapers to screw themselves and trying to fix the problem on your own (with a handful of centuries left before the Dark Energy thing snowballs and grows out of control on its own).

Which, in a word, would have been better. Certainly FAR better than some kind of stupid Tom Bombadil/Star Child explanation where we are told that the (synthetic AI) Reapers destroy advanced organic civilizations every 50 thousand years to prevent organic civilizations from… being destroyed by synthetic AIs.

Now we don’t just have some gamer complaints about the terrible ending, we have a demonstrably better ending that was actually supposed to be the one implemented. Complicates things, doesn’t it?

But Why All the Hate?

The simple fact of the matter is that Mass Effect is a story, and it’s a very good story — in my opinion, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced. People can hem and haw about what constitutes a story — about whether a game can really be a story if people can play it — as though a story is only a story if it’s spoken or written or projected up on a movie screen. That’s like saying a person is only a person if they walk or ride a horse or drive a car… because we all know the vehicle in which the subject is conveyed changes that subject’s inherent nature.

Some people say it’s not a real story because the player’s choices can alter it. I (because of my background in certain types of tabletop role-playing games where players get as much say in the story as the guy running the game) think they’re full of crap, and I say the proof of its power as a story is right there in the story-pudding — it’s a story, and it affects me as a story does, and there it is. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, therefore duck.

But the problem (if you’re BioWare) is that human beings understand stories; we know how they’re supposed to work, thanks to thousands of years of cultural training. Mass Effect (until that conclusion) is a nigh-perfect example of how a story is done correctly, thanks in part to the medium, which allows (if you’ll permit me the slaughter of a few sacred cows) a level of of immersion and connection beyond what a book or movie or any other storytelling medium up to this point in our cultural history can match, because of the fact that you can actively take part in that story from the inside. Heresy? Fine, brand me a heretic; that’s how I see it.

And since it’s such a good story, people know how the thing is supposed to proceed, and they know how it should end.

You start out in ME1 trying to stop a bad guy, Saren. He’s the guy who gets us moving (because he’s a bad guy, and that’s what they do — bad guys act, and heroes react to that and move the story along). As we try to stop him, we find out there’s something bigger going on than just a rogue cop on a rampage. The picture keeps getting bigger, the stakes keep getting higher, and we keep getting our motivation and our level of commitment tested. Are we willing to sacrifice our personal life? Yes? Okay, will we sacrifice one of our friends? Yes? Okay, how about the leaders of the current galactic government? Yes? Okay…

It goes on like that. You fucking invest, is what I’m saying, and that’s just in the first game.

In the second game, the fight continues, as we have merely blunted the point of the spear, not stopped the attack. Our choices in ME1 had consequences, and we start to see them play out, for better or worse. Meanwhile, we’re trying to stop Evil Plan #2, in a suicide mission that could literally cost us nearly every single friend we’ve made. In the end, we get the joy of victory mixed with the sadness of the loss of those who didn’t make it, and it’s all good, because it’s a strong, healthy, enjoyable emotional release.

And now it’s ME3, and the stakes are even higher. We’re not recruiting more individual allies — we’re recruiting whole peoples — whole civilizations. Planets are falling. Worlds are being erased.

In the words of Harbinger, this hurts you.

Why? Because you know these people who are dying. You’ve spent over a hundred hours traveling this setting, meeting people, helping them, learning about each of their little stories; building relationships with, literally, hundreds of individuals. Every one of these planets going up in flames has a face (even if it’s a face behind a breathmask), and no one falls in this final story that wasn’t important in some way to you or someone you know.

(By contrast, the enemy is faceless and (since the reapers harvest your former allies and force them into monstrous templates) largely indistinguishable from one another — as it should be in this kind of story. You do not care about a Husk, though you might mourn the person killed to create the thing.)

In short, you aren’t just playing this game to get the high score. You’re fighting for this galaxy of individuals you’ve grown very, very attached to; to protect it and, as much as you can, preserve it. You’ve spent several hours every day on this, for months. It matters.

"Hard to imagine galaxy. To many People. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work. For this fight, want personal connection. Can't anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him."

(Best of all, you get to shoot bad guys in the face while you’re doing it, which takes this heavy topic and makes it engaging at that level as well. It’s like soaking up all the gravitas of Schindler’s List while enjoying the BFG-toting action of Castle Wolfenstein at the same time.)

The end comes. We talk to all our friends. Everyone’s wearing their brave face, talking about what they’re going to do afterwards, which beach they’re going to retire on. You start to think that maybe the end is in sight and maybe, just maybe, you might even be able to see some of that ending.

The last big conflict starts. You fight some unkillable things and kill them. You face off against an old nemesis and finally end him.

And then…

And then you’re given three choices, none of which result in anything any different from the others, and none of which have consequences that have any connection to the goals we’ve been working on for the last hundred hours or so.

Those people you were just talking to? They’re gone. Or stranded on an alien world. Or dead. All those planets you helped? They’re gone too — cut off, or starving, or maybe just destroyed in manufactured super-novas. Nothing you did or accomplished in the last three games actually matters — it’s all been wiped out by one of three (red, green, or blue) RESET buttons you pushed, because pushing one of those buttons was the only ‘choice’ given to you at the end.

As a species, trained for thousands of years in the way stories work, we know this is a bad ending. Not “tragic”. Just bad. Poor.

This isn’t about a bunch of priviledged gamers complaining about a sad ending, because there are well-done sad endings that make contextual sense.

This is about a mechanical ending to the game that doesn’t end the story — that provides no emotional release — one so disassociated from the previous 99% of the story that the fans of the series collectively hope it will later be revealed to be a dream (or, in the context of the setting, a final Reaper Indoctrination attempt).

Dear writers: If you create something, and your readers hope that what you just gave them was, in reality, an “it was a dream all along” ending, because that would be better than what you wrote, you seriously. fucked. up.

Is the ending, as an ending (taken out of context with the game we’ve been playing), a bad one? No. It’s an interesting theme that was explored extensively in a B-plot within the series and which could certainly be the central thread of a series of its own.

But it’s not the ending of this story. Our goals — the one we’ve been fighting for — are never addressed. There is no closure, either happy or sad — we want our emotional release as it relates to the game we actually played. Maybe that means tragedy at our own stupid hands — maybe victory wrested from the biomechanical jaws of defeat (and at the cost of a greater looming danger ahead).

The ending we got? It didn’t make me angry or sad or happy. It left me unfulfilled, because it ended the game talking about something I didn’t actually care about, and left me waiting for that emotional release that ME1 or ME2 pulled off so well.

The idea that the player’s should just deal with the ending, because it’s Bioware’s ending and not theirs is one of the interesting points in this debate, simply because it rides this weird line where we don’t really have a cultural context for what the Mass Effect series is: Is it a game? Is it a story? If if it’s a game, then who cares about the story, and if it’s a story, then treat it like a book and stop pretending you get to influence it, stupid consumer.

The answer is more complicated: Is it a game or story? Yes. Moreover, it’s a game that’s welcomed player input into the narrative from the first moment, and as such, should be committed to honoring that input throughout. It’s a story, but it belongs to everyone telling it.

But It’s Art!
There’s a recurring tune being played by Bioware in response to this outcry, and it goes something like this: “We might respond to these complaints, and we might flesh out the ending we presented, but we’re not going to change anything, because this is art — this is the product of artists — and as such it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces.”

Which is, speaking as a working artist, complete and utter horseshit.

If you make a movie, and you put in front of focus groups, and they categorically hate the ending, you change it. If you’re writing a book and your first readers tell you the ending is terrible, you fix it. (Ditto your second readers, your second-draft readers, your agent, your editor, your copy editor.)

Or maybe you don’t — maybe you say “this is art, and it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces”, which is certainly your choice — but don’t expect anyone to help you bring that piece of crap to print.

Anyone can tell a story. You can sit in your special writing nook and turn out page after page of perfectly unaltered, immutable art and be quite happy — you’re welcome to, in fact.

But when you decide you want to make a living off it? Even if you want to just make a little spending money?

Then the rules change. Then it’s work. Then it’s a job. More importantly, then it’s part of a business model, and those golden days of your art being inviolate and immutable blah blah blah are well and truly behind you. Name me a story that saw print, or a movie that saw the Big Screen, and I’ll show you art that changed because of input from someone other than the the original creator — from someone looking at it from the point of view of the consumer.

Bioware is a company. Making their stories into games is their business model. Hiding behind some kind of “but it’s art, so we’re not changing it” defense is insulting, disingenuous, and flat-out stupid. Worse, it perpetuates the idea that the creator’s output is in some stupid way sancrosant and, as art, cannot be “wrong” or “bad”. If you as a creator imagine that to be the case — if you think that kind of argument is going to defend your right to never do a rewrite or a revision or line edits or to ever alter, in any way, your precious Artistic Process — discard that notion.

Or become accustomed to a long life as an “undiscovered talent”.

Big Problems, Little Solutions: E-book Publishing Ideas Stolen from Gamers

Yesterday’s post generated a lot of interest. And emotion, yes, but mostly interest. If I can be allowed to revisit that post for a second, I’d like to sum the whole thing up like so:

Ignore questions of infrastructure and the costs of ebook file development; those things are tangential to the current issue. What Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins are doing by delaying release of ebooks has nothing to do with those issues. It is about money. Period. It’s either about pushing readers toward the purchase of hardbacks, like the good old days, or it’s about the shoving match going on between Amazon and the Big Six over the price of ebooks. Either way, it’s about money.

However, the tunnel-vision focus from the Big Six on that single issue means that they are missing something critical: by delaying the release of official ebooks, they are creating an environment in which ebook piracy (thus far, a negligible issue) can and will thrive. This will hurt them, and I believe they will transfer that pain – which they caused themselves – to their authors.

This makes me angry.

This.

This.

There. That’s all of yesterday TLDR post, in three paragraphs. You’re welcome.

Now then.

Generally, I try to avoid pointing out a problem without proposing some possible solutions. Doing otherwise is what the kids these days refer to as a “dick move”.

So:

What could the Big Six do, with regard to the release of ebooks, that would be better than the idea they’re currently going with?

As I said yesterday:

Some folks asked me yesterday what I thought of James McQuivey’s idea to delay the ebook-as-a-separate-thing by four months, but also give it away as a free thing with every purchase of a hardback edition. I think it’s a great idea. I thought it was a great idea when I suggested it to my agent about six months ago on Twitter. However, I won’t take credit for it – the indie gaming industry has been doing that for years; as a smaller, more nimble publishing organism, it has already felt and adapted to the changes of the digital age, and could teach the ‘real’ publishing world a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

I told Joanna Penn in an interview last year that the tabletop role-playing gaming industry started out by trying to model the methods of traditional publishing, found out the hard way that that really didn’t work for them (in the long run, it’s not working for big publishers either, but they’re BIG, so they didn’t notice as soon), and had to find new solutions.  They were the first to adopt electronic publishing, shame-free POD printing, electronic-only publishing, podcasting-modules, mixed media releases, and every other experimental method anyone could think of, good or bad. That’s fine: they’re small, and experimenting is something  small groups of people can DO that big groups can’t.

But what that means is that they’ve come up with some things that consistently seem to work, which, to a greater or lesser degree, might translate into solutions for Big Publishing that would please even the greedy bastards longing for the golden profits of yesteryear.  I don’t have much time, so let’s get right to it.

Package the ebook with the hardback as a value-add

This works. More to the point it IS WORKING. Not just in gaming, but on Amazon, with the Kindle. For gaming examples, go to indie press revolution and take a look at the options for games like Penny for My ThoughtsSpirit of the Century, or Mouse Guard.  I’m not going to discuss this further; this is the granddaddy of ‘new’ ideas, and dead-fucking-simple to implement.

Subscriptions

Whazza? Subscriptions?

Eleven million WoW players tells me that this is a sales method that can work.

Take a look at Paizo.com. They have a brilliant kind of deal set up for all their games and plain-old books: set up a subscription to one of their channels (like Planet Stories, which is your classic pulp “planetary romance” stuff). It costs you X dollars a year or whatever. Every month, you get an email about the new releases within that “channel”, on ebook. NEW releases. If you decide to buy, you get 30% off the unwashed-masses price. (Edit: Or hey, you get it on day-of-hardback-release. Even better: Both.)

Or, how about the Big Dog of gaming, Wizards of the CoastWotC has done some stupid stuff with regard to PDFs of their products in the past, but DnD Insider is smart. Pay for a monthly subscription to the service, and you a couple magazines every month with articles and useful stuff, written by the names you’re already fans of, some cool apps, and ‘free’ access to every one of their current books, as searchable PDFs.  I’m not a member, but I gather that members also get access to ‘preview’ copies of upcoming books, months before they’re released, which generates stir and interest and maybe a few advance reviews posted on –

Oh, you know what that sounds like in publishing? Advance Reader Copies (ARCs).

Yeah: “Sign up for our monthly subscription, and get digital ARCs of our upcoming titles, and a discount on the REAL digital copy when it’s released.” What book nerd wouldn’t jump at the chance?

The Ransom Model

There are a couple game designers who do stuff like this, notably Greg Stolze and Daniel Solis. There are a couple different ways it gets implemented. With Stolze’s Reign supplements, if Greg collects enough money from contributors (the “threshold pledge”) he releases the ebook as a free download for anyone and everyone.  An easy tweak for this in Big Publishing works like this: “If we get enough preorders for the ebook, we’ll release it the same day as the hardback comes out. If not, you have to wait.” I like this, because it lets consumers tell publishers what they want — a ransom model works pretty well as a market study – the consumer has power, and if they don’t exercise it, the publisher feels justified in delaying release.

I can’t help but note that this is a pretty workable thing for indie authors. (If you don’t want to take preorder money for something you might not end up doing, run it like a publish-athon and just take pledges — it’s still a good a way to gauge interest.)

You can also reward the ransom-preorder people in lots of fun ways. A thank-you list on the website or inside the book, mentioning people who helped make that version of the book happen when it did. A unique cover for the advance-order people. Hell, I dunno – what else would be cool?


That’s stuff off the top of my head, stolen from people who are making it work in gaming (and thanks to Chris Weeda for the suggestion).

The important take-away is this: ideas and implementations vary, but they all have one thing in common: they require embracing e-publishing, not holding it at arm’s length like a used condom you found in the spare sheets for your hotel room.

Embracing it. That’s the first thing publishers need to do. That’s the first step.

Right now? I’m not seeing it.

And that’s not a problem anyone but the publishers themselves can fix.

Pulling a dick move, and other things that make stories (and games) better.

Somewhere*, sometime**, D was talking about writing things and said something like:

The only scene in a story with no conflict in it should be the epilogue at the end of the story.

I know that isn’t it exactly, but that’s the gist of it; when you’re telling a story, scenes should have conflicts in them, or they shouldn’t… you know… be scenes.

De also pointed out*** that you can cheat this a little bit in a scene without any obvious conflict by then revealing “Yeah, while it looked like Mom and Daughter were have a nice happy cup of tea for six pages, Mom had ACTUALLY CALLED THE INSANE ASYLUM TO TURN IN HER DAUGHTER!” DUN Dun dunnnn.

A good trick (one which I’ve used), but it doesn’t change the basic idea, which is (put into my own words):

Never stop fucking with the main character.

Yeah, yeah, “show, don’t tell” works, because if you are legitimately trying to “show” as you write a scene you’ll instinctively put in some kind of thing worth showing. A conflict. There you go. You’ve done it.

(Tangential thought I just had: This may be be a legitimate means of separating “porn” from “erotica”. Erotic has sex scenes with conflict. Porn just has scenes with people fucking. Maybe? Hmm.)

Now, none of this is particular epic storytelling trickery; people get this. People mention this kind of thing all the time.

What people are only slowly starting to get is how it applies to roleplaying games.

Let me tell you about this guy I know. Plays in my Wednesday game. Like most of the people who come in and out of the Wednesday game, he’s also runs games. As a person-who-runs-games, he has a bit of a reputation. A Nom-de-GM, even: people call him Weeda the Evil.

He’s earned this title and the attendant rep via a pretty simple means and method – he rakes his player’s characters over the coals. I’m pretty sure he used to give out certificates to anyone who died in a game he was running. There may have even been t-shirts.

t050artsmall

He is, without a doubt, one of the most popular GMs in the Denver area. Probably, if you’re a gamer (or a reader, or an author) I don’t need to explain why.

…*crickets*…

BUT JUST IN CASE I DO, it goes something like this: no one ever gets the feeling from this guy that he’s screwing with you just to screw with you — he’s screwing with you because you’re the Big Cheese, the Main Character, the Hero. He believes you can take it, and he’ll Test to Destruction to prove his point.

He has a similar rule to the one I blocked up above. It is (not surprisingly) more concise.

Heroes Suffer.

Sometimes, your heroes will not appreciate your exciting plot twists.

Sometimes, your heroes will not appreciate your exciting plot twists.

Yeah.

The thing with RPGs is that, for a really really long time, the only tool that GMs had at their disposal was their own sense of drama and their desire to make sure the Hero Suffers. Take another guy without that sense and you have a lot of dead, boring fights. Take a different guy who only gets that you’re screwing with the characters, and not where that motivation comes from, and you just have some dick GM that everyone hates playing with.

(Take a writer who misinterprets this sort of guideline, or misreads what it is about one of their successful stories that makes people happy, and you get someone who thinks “the key to a successful story is doing horrible shit to my main character”, which somewhat misses the difference between ‘introducing conflict’ and ‘torture’. I’m looking at you, Vorkosigan series!)

Sometimes you just have to punch your favorite character right in the junk.

Sometimes you just have to punch your favorite character right in the junk. That's fine. But it's way more interesting when you give a character a choice between junk-punching and something else, and they CHOOSE junk-punching.

Luckily, there’s a lot of great games out there that are figuring this out and helping GMs find that sweet spot between “I want to be fair and impartial” and “I need to put you through the wringer or you’re going to be bored.” It started in the good old days with GURPS and Champions and their Dependent NPC (8), but that sort of thing never really worked they way it should. Sorcerer figured it out and introduced “bangs” that pretty much made all of the GMs prep a process of building a list of tough questions the players had to answer. That was good. Primetime Adventures actually breaks if you don’t throw tough conflicts at the main characters and get the Fan Mail flowing.

And it’s gotten better. Fate/Spirit of the Century has the whole Fate Point/Aspect compels that give you a great Devil’s Deal kind of thing to use, but for my money, the best stuff out there right now that does this is Mouse Guard and Danger Patrol. I won’t get into they “whys” of this right now, because this is not the gaming blog, but MG pretty much builds an entire game around “Heroes Suffer”, and Danger Patrol is built around the idea that the only way you can help your fellow players out is by making the situation they’re in more and more Dangerous (potentially creating new dangers everyone has to deal with).

GM: “Okay, Tim is going to jump from one flying car to the other. That’s super dangerous, and worth some extra dice, but what other dangers are out there he doesn’t know about?”
Kate: “There’s a school bus coming the other way, and he’s going to force it to swerve into oncoming traffic.”
GM: “Okay… bonus dice.”
Chris: “And it’s full of kids.”
GM: “Another bonus die.”
Tim: “Umm…”
Kate: “And puppies! It’s ‘bring your puppy to school day!”
GM: “Bonus dice!”
Tim: *Groans*

NOTE: This conversation actually happened in a Danger Patrol game, just not mine – it was Brennan! (Thank you Brennan for helping me find that lost bit of info.

The result of a escalating series of Dangers in Danger Patrol.

The result of a escalating series of Dangers in Danger patrol.

For the longest time, I had to remember to bring what I knew about conflicts from writing, and try to apply that to games I ran.

Now? I borrow tricks from the games I play and use them when I’m writing.


* – On her blog.
** – I couldn’t find the post.
*** – I couldn’t find this post, either.

Writing for (make believe) television: The Game!

I’ve been a bit periscope-down for the last week or so, but I thought I’d pop in for just a moment before my students show up and muse on a game I’m starting up this evening. I don’t normally talk about my gaming on this blog (saving that for Random Average), but in this case, I thought it was relevant.

The game is Primetime Adventures – a story-game that’s designed to simulate the ebbs and flows of (mostly) genre television melodrama, best exemplified by shows like Buffy, Alias, Six Feet Under, Chuck, Heroes, Lost, and things of that nature.

Tonight we will have the Pitch Session, in which participants will propose various show ideas which we will then shoot down or hammer on until we have a concept for a television show we rather like – at which point in time we proceed to make up the protagonists for the show and figure out the basic flow the story arcs and the character issues and all that good stuff that we’ll explore for the next five or six game sessions.

The television metaphor is a powerful one, and leads to some good concepts, many of which are inspired by the basic idea “this is something I think would make awesome television, but which no one IN television would ever have the balls to make.” Maybe it’s faerie-invaded Edwardian England, or ghost hunting noir, or undead-fighting kung-fu holy warriors, or everyman robot-overlord survival horror. Could be anything, really.

I don’t have any ideas.

Rather, I have about a hundred ideas, none of which are stepping forward and shouting “pick me, hone me, LOVE ME” the way I always expect they should do — the way that actual quality television or stories do.

In fact, what I’m feeling right now is pretty much what I feel every time I’m about to start a new writing project for which I only have a kinda-sorta idea. It’s a good place to be, and kind of a rotten place to be all at once. When all you have is a blank page and no constraints, you can get a little paralyzed.

I can hardly wait to get started. I’ll let you know what we come up with.

The New Frontier of Indie Publishing has already been Mapped Out (on a Battlemat)

Before I get into this, I need to lay out a couple concepts that I’m referencing here.

Concept One: The Long Tail

long_tail_graph“The Long Tail” describes the “niche” strategy of businesses like Amazon.com or Netflix which can be expressed – in my own words – as “sell many different products, in relatively small quantity, per product”. This is different from traditional business models, where the basic idea is “sell a large quantity of only a few things.” Traditional publishing is built on – no surprise – a traditional model; so much so that only 5% of all published authors account for 95% of the profit in publishing today.

Conversely, the way companies like Amazon and Netflix work allows them to profit by selling small volumes of ‘niche’ items across a broad customer base, instead of only selling large volumes of a few popular items. The group within that broad customer base that purchases a large number of “non-hit” items is the demographic that is also sometimes called the Long Tail.

This model acknowledges that the upper 20% of items listed for sale will account for most of the sales, but without negligible stocking and distribution costs, the other 80% of available products will still be profitable per unit sold and will, as a group, outsell that top 20%.

The main benefit to consumers is vastly increased product variety.

The main benefit to the distributor is that they can keep a much bigger ‘inventory’ of products in a particular niche, since warehousing isn’t such an issue, letting them outperform traditional competitors (example: Netflix can supply many titles that Blockbuster simply doesn’t offer in-store, because said title is not *already* popular).

The main (two) benefits to the independent author are:

  1. Those whose products could not — for economic reasons — find a place in pre-Internet information distribution channels can realize a burst of financially successful creativity that finds its audience. One example of this is YouTube, where quality artists within any number of disciplines have found success that they would never have gotten via traditional channels.
  2. The new ability to maintain a large ‘niche’ inventory without warehousing overhead means that the creator has time to find their audience via a new method of marketing that has only recently become viable, let alone profitable.

That new method of marketing is Concept Two.

Concept Two: First, Ten

social-networkingSeth Godin came up with this name and this concept, but in his own words “Three years from now, this advice will be so common as to be boring.”

The basic idea is this:

Find ten people who trust you/respect you/need you/listen to you…

Those ten people need what you have to sell, or want it. And if they love it, you win. If they love it, they’ll each find you ten more people (or a hundred or a thousand or, perhaps, just three). Repeat.

If they don’t love it, you need a new product. Start over.

As he points out, this approach changes everything, as compared to typical publishing. You don’t market to the anonymous masses. They’re not anonymous and they’re not masses. You market to people who are willing participants. The idea of a ‘launch’ and press releases and the big unveiling is a bad one. Instead, a gradual build turns into a swell turns into a wave.

(Seth is very smart – damn sight smarter than me. You should be reading his blog.)

So the basic idea is that (a) you have this Long Tail demographic you can market to, and you have the time to do so, because you don’t have to worry about running out of time and getting your book backlisted/discontinued — that’s just not an real concern anymore. You just need to Find Ten, over and over again. This includes things like:

  • New Media Marketing: building and managing a presence on social networks and online or virtual communities. This is very low-frequency, low-intensity, and cost effective.
  • Buzz: Basically word of mouth, the transmission of commercial information from person to person in an online or real-world environment. There was a statistic bounced around this year’s Technology of Change conference that 85% of book sales were thanks to word-of-mouth, 10% were thanks to the book cover, and everything else anyone did for marketing accounted for the final 5% of sales. Word of mouth is clearly pretty huge.
  • Viral Marketing: Using preexisting social networks, with an emphasis of the casual, non-intentional and low cost.

Look at those three things: anything there strike you as something a publisher can do better than the author, plus perhaps their first “Ten” people?

((To be fair, there’s no reason at all this doesn’t apply to an author working in Traditional publishing as well. In that case, you want/need your Agent and Publishing Editor to be two of your First Ten, so that they can evangelize within the existing Trad Publishing networks that you-the-author could never reach. That’s obviously valuable, if the option is available to you.))

Now, ponder this: all this marketing theory stuff is not hypothetical. This is something already happening today in one of the publishing niches that has raced ahead of the mainstream publishing genres (fiction, non-fiction) by virtue of never having been part of mainstream publishing in the first place.

I’m speaking of roleplaying game publishing (which you might have guessed from the title of the post). Lemme ‘splain.

spielleiterBack in the late 70s and early 80s, roleplaying games were on their first upswing and, since the primary product of the roleplaying gaming industry at the time was books, game developers looked, naturally, to the publishing industry for ideas on how to MAKE books – how to publish.

And let me tell you, those were some meticulous, geeky bastards back in the day; they figured out how publishing worked and in most cases they followed the traditional publishing model to the letter. Also, they usually aimed for the highest quality products they could (or, often, couldn’t) afford to produce. You should SEE some of the books they turned out – big, beautiful, heavily illustrated, hardbound, double-stitched – you could kill a caribou with the first (or second) edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – don’t even get me started on the original Champions rulebook.

There was, of course, a problem. Roleplaying games are a niche market. Super-niche. The nicheiest. You could have one, probably two, MAYBE three or four product lines successfully pushed into this niche market using traditional publishing methods (each additional line taking a bite out of the success of the other lines) before the niche was full and anything that came after failed. Perhaps not right away, but they’d fail.

TSR (publishers of DnD) was even bought out, and all the others? There is one handful of gaming companies (full-time employing a double handful of people) that have survived from then to now. Meanwhile, the list of those that went under, trying to publish using traditional means, would fill a phone book.

Most people gave it up.

Then came the internet.

With the internet came mailing lists, usenet, and (eventually) forums that in some cases became places of collaboration and creation for that niche market. Some of the early products of that time (FUDGE, to name one) are still popular today, but the basic idea here is that this experience informed some game designers that their ideas had merit, and even an audience.

They just didn’t have any idea how to turn that idea into a PRODUCT without bankrupting themselves. First, the book publishing cost was prohibitive and Second: even if they found an affordable way to publish, how do you get your niche-within-a-niche idea out to the right people?

Then came Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, which did a remarkable thing by releasing their rules set as Open Source, basically allowing anyone legal permission to write adventures and source material for the game, and publish it however they like, with one simple caveat: “write it in such a way that the customer still needs our main rulebooks to play.”

Suddenly, the problem with “How do you get your work to the right audience” was gone (provided you wrote stuff for DnD – the biggest product line within Gaming, so not much of a hardship), which left hundreds of creators with only one problem to solve: how to get our work out to people without bankrupting ourselves.

More importantly, this was a group of people who never really associated themselves (mentally) with traditional publishing – they’re gamers, man – so there’s no stigma to the idea of self-publishing. Quite the contrary: in that niche market, self-publishing was the DREAM – a mix of “rock and roll” and “my god, I might actually make some money off this hobby I love!”

Now these were geeky, meticulous bastards (notice a theme?), and when faced with a problem like that, they worked the HELL out of it. By a glorious bit of serendipity, available technology on the internet was finally catching up to their needs at almost the same time: relatively affordable and good-quality print-on-demand, secure and user-friendly online ‘storefront’ software that let you sell electronic files easily. FREE services for acquiring legitimate ISBN numbers and getting listed on sites like Amazon, so that your new DnD module would show up in Amazon searches alongside products from the “big boys.”

Heady times.

When the wave of 3rd edition DnD publishing waned, what was left behind was all that knowledge, experience, creative forums, and the services to make publishing your own stuff possible.

muWhich is exactly what people did. Today, there are HUNDREDS of products available to this roleplaying gaming niche, and no one ‘going out of business’. Sure, some stuff never sells (because it’s crap), but the good stuff rises – slowly, most of the time – to the top, and finds its target audience, who evangelize and market for those games without much help from the original creator at all, aside from their participation in the social networks surrounding that niche market.

Most of their sales come from:

  • Building a presence on social networks and online or virtual communities (The Forge, Story-Games.com, RPG.net, Indie Press Revolution and dozens more, including (of course) Facebook and Twitter).
  • Word of mouth, from one successful Actual Play report to the next.

Sound familiar?

Sounds like a real-world example of what people are theorizing indie publishing will look like.

Here’s the thing: indie publishing ALREADY works like the ‘theory’ posits: it’s just that only a small group has realized it so far.