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Virtually Adventurous: Exploring electronic publishing

Part Three: Everybody's Got One

by Guy McLimore and Matt Drake
Jul 15,2002


Virtually Adventurous

Exploring electronic publishing
with Matt Drake, Spectre Press
and Guy McLimore, MicroTactix Games

Part Three: Everybody's Got One

If you want to publish anything, there's one thing you'll need right off the bat - an idea. Fortunately, ideas are like opinions and a certain body part - everybody has one. The problem comes when you try to decide which idea you want to use, and how to use it.

The first thing you have to do, the very first thing, is get an idea. In my case, I started Spectre Press with a very rough idea of what I wanted to publish. This turned out to be something of an error in judgment, but it has worked out so far, more by luck than any skill or discernment on my part. That, and I know lots of really good people.

So you need an idea - where do you get it? The first, and most obvious answer, is you. Sometimes an idea just comes to you. Spectre Press's biggest undertaking yet, a game called Rune Stryders, just plain came to me. I was looking at some illustrations, and I said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool to have big mecha thingies in a fantasy realm?'

But let's pretend you're like me when I started, and you're a little short on publishable ideas. You have a game company, and you have a website, and you're ready to publish. All you need is an idea, and your first source - yourself - is fresh out. When I hit this block, I made an open call at RPG.net, and within weeks, found myself besieged by about a dozen ideas that ranged from awesome to good to just plain crap. Of course, Wizards of the Coast tried this tack, and wound up with over 10,000 ideas, so you may want to consider how badly you need ideas.

Of course, you may want a better quality of ideas. You might want to get ideas from people you trust. In my case, I ask my current freelancers for ideas of their own. I find that I trust the people I work with, and I trust their opinion, and most of all, I trust their ability to complete the projects they begin.

So now you've got a whole truckload of ideas, with a sort of bell curve of quality. How do you select which ones you can use? Unless you have unlimited time and funds, you can't use them all, and even if you could, you probably don't want to. Ideas are cheap, folks - it's execution that matters.

One important criterion for selecting an idea is the market. If there is a huge clamor right now for Japanese games, and games about duck hunting are at an all time low, you can probably throw out all the ideas that involve ducks without a second thought. Thankfully, I have had very few submissions for games about ducks.

Another criterion to consider is the uniqueness of the idea. If someone sends you an idea, and it's about as original as Dolly the sheep, you can probably chuck that out without much thought. You might be surprised how many Dollys you can get. If their recent deadline adjustment is any indication, Wizards was certainly surprised, and five will get you ten they chuck half the ideas as unoriginal dross.

Another very important consideration is 'fit.' If you intend to publish really great science fiction games, and you get a submission for a western game, you can toss that on its ear. Of course, that's an oversimplification. It might be better to say that if you publish tried-and-true fantasy stuff with a dark theme, and someone sends a crazy, experimental fantasy game with a light theme, you can throw that out. Determining 'fit' can be tricky, and if an idea has enough merit, you may even want to alter your company to fit the idea. One thing the e-publisher must always consider is the idea's potential as an electronic product - there are many factors to consider when publishing for the web, and determining 'fit' is crucial when creating electronic products.

The final criterion, and the most important, is the ability of the contributor. If a submission is poorly written, with bad grammar and no organization of thoughts, you may be hard-pressed to keep it even if it is the 'next big thing,' the dream project. On the other hand, an idea that is only slightly original can be gold if a writer with skill and talent submits it.

To expound on this point, Wizards doesn't want your ideas. Your ideas are a dime a dozen. They got 10,000 submissions, and probably 100 different ideas. What they want, what makes them willing to part with six figures, is your ability. If your idea is so well presented that the judges can't wait to play it, you're in. If your idea is unique, original, and thrilling, and you write like a fifth grader, they don't want it. Your finished book will probably be a beating to read, a chore to edit, and a total flop at the game stores. Frank Miller (my favorite comic writer) could write about eating breakfast, and I would buy it, because he's got the ability to make me want to read. That's what Wizards wants, and when you're choosing an idea, that's what you want.

So now you've culled the herd and decided on an idea - or maybe a few - and you're ready to publish. What do you do with the ideas? Since we're talking about e-publishing here, I'm only going to discuss possibilities for electronic format products.

The first thing to consider is the capability of the format. You can make a book with links, with sound, with zoomable maps. You can design a game with reprintable pages, or 'assembly-required' models. It's important when deciding on the style of execution to think outside traditional publishing and exploit the strengths of the electronic format.

For example, one of the upcoming products at Spectre Press is called 'Arkular.' It is a setting, but it focuses to a great extent on the maps. There are 14 maps in all, ranging from a world map to cities, regional maps to ruined buildings. This could, of course, be published in print, but to exploit the format, we've added more. Using the form function available in PDFs, GMs will be able to rename every location on every map. Kingdoms can be reinvented, cities can be renamed, and taverns can become temples. This level of flexibility can only be found in an electronic format.

Of course, when considering the benefits of the format, you must also consider the drawbacks. Downloads and web space demand small files, and the end user must be considered as well. Customers will probably be printing on their own printers, so ink consumption must be taken into account. Color choices, image size, and page count are all factors when considering how to execute your ideas.

Another important consideration is the ability of the contributor. If the contributor is incredibly busy, with no head for math, you may want to make the idea into a small supplement and let it go at that. If you trust that your contributor is skilled, talented, and reliable, it may not be a bad idea to let them develop something big.

Probably the most important consideration brings the entire discussion full circle, by focusing again on you. How badly do you want this project? Are you willing to invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on a breathtaking project, or would you rather limit your time and money investment and make a short book? Do you even have the time and money to create something huge? After everything else, the most important factor is, again, you.

So do you have an idea that will revolutionize gaming? We're all waiting to hear it. Just keep in mind, ideas are like opinions - everyone has one. But unlike the ubiquitous body part, they don't all stink.

A NOTE FROM GUY: First of all, thanks to Matt for jumping in when it was actually my turn to turn in a column. Preparation for the RPGnet Mall booth at GenCon has been keeping me kind of busy. (You'll hear more about that soon.) I did want to take a moment, however, to echo Matt's comment that ideas, as such, are not the major coin in which the game designer trades. First and foremost, the designer is a communicator. Writing skills are essential.

My own advice to those starting their own publishing venture, whether print or electronic, is to start small. Unless you are already a seasoned writer, you shouldn't plan to start with a brand new game system with a massive gameworld attached. Even an experienced freelancer will find that publishing your own stuff is a lot different than writing for others.

A lot of very successful companies started small, even when they had bigger things in mind. FASA began by producing starship deck plans for Traveller. Cheapass Games didn't begin with an elaborate color card game like Brawl, but with slim black-and-white minigames on which they could build a reputation. Doing a series of small releases has a lot of advantages. It allows you to find your "voice" and learn what it is you do well. It also will give you some solid income which can support your efforts to do a better job on your primary project. Finally (and perhaps most importantly) it allows you to make your mistakes -- and you will make mistakes -- on smaller, less critical projects.

So don't be too quick to jump on your Big Idea. Breaking out with a Big Product is almost impossible if you have no established reputation as a publisher. Build a reputation for making solid products first, and use that reputation to assure that -- when your Big Idea is put forth -- people are already waiting eagerly to see it.

Next month (for sure) more about leveraging the strengths of the electronic format for unique product features that print can't match, and the changing expectations of customers.

Matt Drake is sole proprietor of Spectre Press, and couldn't produce a wooden nickel without all the incredible freelancers who prop him up and make him look good.

Guy McLimore is Executive Editor and CEO of MicroTactix Inc., which is a fancy way of saying he's the Face Man for a coalition of adventure game designers, writers and artists who are too busy cranking out great products to keep him from stealing the spotlight. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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  • Part the Sixth: In which the Humble Narrator hears the voice of by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake, 07oct02
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  • Part the Fourth by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake, 05aug02
  • Part Three: Everybody's Got One by Guy McLimore and Matt Drake , 15jul02
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