I’m driving along I-70 passing through Illinois, to Indiana, on my way back home. It’s part of a 12 hour drive back from a NYE trip to visit friends in Kansas City. I’ve got a joke from Twitter running through my mind and, in a fit of solo road trip weirdness, I start rhyming words with “lank.” By the time I get home, I’ve designed my first game. I get it all written down in Google Docs, starting on my phone, finishing in Word in the weeks to come. I want to make it into a “real game” so I turn to Kickstarter.
In the time between now and then, I’ve been involved in well over a dozen successful Kickstarter projects, most of them my own. As of December 2021, I’m done with Kickstarter and plan to never support them again because of their pivot to a blockchain-based infrastructure. More than that, in the weeks since that announcement, I’ve had to reevaluate my entire business model for my own work.
This post is me working through some of that, so please bear with me.
The Road That Would Have Been
When we found out that Elissa was pregnant, in Nov of ’20, we decided that it made the most sense for me to transition to being a stay-at-home parent while Elissa worked her job. She made a lot more than I did and that transition would make it possible for me to concentrate on my freelance work and design more.
It looked amazingly rosy. I left my job as a beer buyer for a local grocery store (legitimately the best full-time job I’ve ever had). Days later, I launched the Kickstarter for You Are the Dungeon. It’s the best a project of mine has ever performed on the platform. It seemed like a proof of concept of my business model. Here’s what the plan was:
- Once a quarter (or so), run a Kickstarter for a zine-style game. Relatively easy to produce on all fronts.
- Use Kickstarter updates to channel people to my newsletter and to my Patreon
- Use Patreon in a pay-what-you-can model, giving all supporters the same access to my work
- As patron thresholds get met, take my older games and revise them with new mechanics, making them pay-what-you-can so they can serve as an easy on-ramp to my work
- Lather, rinse, repeat
And it worked! Every time I posted a Kickstarter update, I ended up with new patrons. Every Kickstarter survey I sent, I got to add new people to my newsletter list.
Then Kickstarter went and pulled the rug out from under a significant portion of the industry. I still think that model can work but now I’m asking a lot of questions about what I want my life to look like and what my goals really are.
What Are We Trying to Do Here?
One of the uncomfortable realities about how I set that model up is that I didn’t really ask myself what my end goal was. I was focused on that particularly capitalist ideal of growth. Sure, in the back of my mind, I knew I wouldn’t do it forever. I didn’t explore that set of possibilities a lot, though.
Then I designed the system for Iron Edda Reforged.
The design team and I had a session where the characters took on a particularly big and bad boss fight. It was a true test of what the narrative-focused system we made could do. It was amazing. If you want to hear it for yourself, check out The Hand of Tyr, part 1 and part 2.
After that session, I had a revelation, one I didn’t expect to have. It was that I had made a system that accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in game design. It rocked me. I took a few weeks to think about the implications. I settled on the idea that I would slowly pivot to learning how to better write fiction, with an eye towards getting an agent, getting traditionally published, etc. A few weeks after that decision, Kickstarter made their announcement.
I’ve been doing even more thinking since then. Yesterday, Elissa sent me a reddit post that helped some stuff really sink home.
Here’s the original post, including a lovely, long comic from Gavin Aung Than, using a quote from Bill Watterson. I’m posting it here in its entirety.
Inventing Your Own Life’s Meaning
For a decade, I’ve been pursuing game design as profession. I’ve written and published dozens of games. Not once during that entire process did I think about where I was going with it. Early on, I think I was afraid to because I might reach the conclusion that I’d have to stop. More recently, events have forced my hand. I have to think about these things.
Iron Edda Reforged works as a system because the group playing decides what the endpoints are. Endpoints of scenes, of campaigns, the works. You know what the outcome is going to be because you’ve decided on it. How it happens is the key. I’ve been focused on the how for so long. It’s time to focus on the where.
That comic really struck a chord in me. Bill Watterson is someone who, from all appearances, has lived the message of the comic. When he was ready to stop doing Calvin & Hobbes, he did. He never merchandised or licensed it for anyone else’s use. He’s gotten to live his life.
Is there work I need to do for other people so I can help support my family? For sure! Does my own work need to be fed into the model I posted above? Probably not. I’m at a point now where, as long as I’m getting that freelance work done, I can focus on my own work in the ways I want to. I’m beholden to no schedule other than the one I set. I think that, at the least, that’s going to make me a more thorough and mindful artist.
There’s a part of my mind that’s been wired to think of all of my work in terms of the capital it can generate, through other platforms. I’m ready to change that.
To be able to make a decision like this, under capitalism? It’s a true gift. We should all be so lucky to create because we want to. I’d be a fool to not take4 advantage of it.