Monday, December 29, 2014

(Semi) Post-Mortem

It isn’t quite finished yet (there are two missing chapters), but it’s out and that means its time for some reflection. It's customary when finishing a big project to do a sort of reflective "post-mortem", but I've never done one of those before, and the product isn't quite technically done. Still, everything from the beginning of the Kickstarter to the release of the PDF has been different than expected, and it's about time for some explanations and reflections.

Going Pro 

No matter what creative field you work in, there’s a big difference between the aspiring professional and the actual professional.
  • The aspiring professional can go at his own pace. The professional has to hold to a schedule
  • The aspiring professional is allowed to make mistakes. The professional is expected to be past that.
  • The aspiring professional can go back and forth between day job, family, hobbies, and their aspiring profession as their needs demand. The professional is expected to have that balance figured out already.
So on and so forth. The transition from aspiring professional to actual professional is a long one, but Kickstarter has the uncanny ability to throw a company into the deep end of the professional pool and tell them to sink or swim. It’s almost a cliche now to hear companies talk about how they weren't prepared for the success of a kickstarter, but it’s a cliche because it happens so often it’s practically expected.

As for us, we’d already run a kickstarter before (which came in at a whopping $1,200 total) we expected this one to come in at $2,000, maybe as high as $5,000 if we were really lucky. And so, I did something that in hindsight was such a stupid financial decision that I expect many of you to shake your heads at me for it.

I promised a collaborator a percentage of the kickstarter funding.

When the kickstarter began climbing past $5,000 with no signs of stopping, we knew we had a crisis. We did the math and realized that as more people joined and the cost of production therefore increased, the more that percentage being scraped off the top was driving us into the red. Since kickstarters happen in real-time, my wife rushed to re-negotiate with the collaborator while I started devising stretch goals and new reward tiers that balanced production costs better to hopefully push us into having the overhead to actually do the project. In the end we managed to get the finances in order, but were now facing a much bigger project than we’d planned on, complete with an entirely new book (Wizard’s Academy).

I’ve always had a hard time leaving something alone if I know it can be better, and so with a project as big as this one I kept finding myself going back to basics and back to basics, thinking and re-thinking the spheres, the implications of what we were introducing to the table, and how it would affect the way people played vs how they thought they were ‘supposed’ to play. And as many of you know, a 3 months became 6 months became 9 months. I’m sure I must have looked comical to the people I was working with, as I’d set up mock battles between various characters and stop after an attack to discuss why they’d made that choice and what other options there might have been.

We did the best we could as we tried to find that elusive balance between family, day job and design, and we discovered a few things:

  1. There are dozens of little tricks, traps, concerns, and red tape that goes into running a small business that you never realize are there until you run into them.
  2. Running something as big as this kickstarter, this book, and this business on the side just isn’t viable. There’s just too much involved.
  3. I really, really like design.

While I was in the middle of developing these rules, Paizo made an announcement that they were seeking a new full-time developer, and like most of the community I applied.

I passed the first round. Then I passed the design test. I made it all the way to the final interview, but in the end I didn’t get the job (obviously). But even so, it was a great experience, and it got my family and I to seriously think about what it would take, and whether or not it would be possible, for me to really, truly do this full-time.

My dear pregnant wife was graduating in only a couple months, which meant the end of student employment, which meant we were approaching that horrible ‘what now’ phase of life, where we had a limited opportunity to choose where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do with ourselves. We had a book in development, but we also had a 2.5 kids. Did we want to bank our family’s future on my design skills, based on nothing more than a kickstarter and “well Paizo seemed to like me”?

We did.

As soon as graduation was over, we picked up and moved to the Northwest where most of the other game companies are located. We found a town about two hours from Seattle that had a college in need of a ballroom dance instructor (my most reliable day job) and set up shop. We knew this was a risk and it would set our already overdue book back even longer as we spend a few months finding a place to live, moving in, getting work and life sorted, etc., but in the end we knew it would give me more time to design, and it worked. The book progressed faster than ever before, and while not finished, we were nonetheless able to get the PDF out Christmas night. And, due to figuring out much better production lines and divisions of labor, the rest of it should follow much quicker than before.

The Future

If anyone was interested in why the book was taking so much longer than expected, that's the explanation, and my own commitment to make sure everything runs much smoother from here on out.

Being a professional company means we’ve had to change our approach to our own products. We’ve learned just how long it takes us to develop things and how to divide labor up so everyone’s constantly busy, and we’ve adjusted our schedule to compensate.

Our first priority is getting you what you paid for; finishing Spheres of Power and getting Wizard’s Academy out to you.

We will also be running a new Kickstarter in January, not for a finished product as such, but more for a product line: a series of PDFs that, while they will culminate in a physical book at the end, will allow us to release them serially to you as they’re done rather than asking you to wait for the finished product.

We will also be revamping our company website into a much better hub, and we will be using our Facebook page to make announcements much more regularly.

And as always, I’ll be using this spot for my own general musings, but I guess every designer needs a place for that.

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