Counting down, ramping up

It’s only about 3 weeks until the Teratozoic Kickstarter launches. The campaign will run from July 21st through August 16th, 2014—technically a “short” campaign at just 26 days. I started sending out review copies about 6 weeks ago, and have been trying to avoid counting down the days, but as the campaign gets closer and closer, it’s harder and harder to avoid. (Not to mention, every time I look at the preview version of the project page (to tweak some wording, update images, obsess over the reward tiers, question every single thing on the page; you know… normal stuff) the countdown is running; this thing has been counting down to August 16th for over 100 days.) Time keeps on ticking.

A couple/few months ago, the plan was to be using this time demoing Teratozoic locally. At Phoenix Comicon, at local game stores, to anyone I could get to try it, spreading the word, sharing the game as far and wide as possible. Except I’m an introvert with situational/social anxiety problems. I sometimes get panic attacks at board game nights when there are too many of my friends in attendance. I’ve got no background or experience with public gaming; I get uncomfortable if there are more than one or two new friends-of-friends at a game night, even if the total population never gets high enough to trigger my anxiety-they’re strangers, it’s uncomfortable.

I tried the Comicon thing. Having never participated in gaming at a convention, I don’t know how it works. Yes, the tense of that sentence is correct; even after a couple of days worth of panic attacks and overcoming anxiety for long enough to approach a few other local game developers & reviewers and get my game into people’s hands, I never could figure out how things were run up there. That’s even after several emails back and forth with the people who run gaming at Phoenix Comicon, before con, to be sure things would go okay. I have no idea how people play games up there-I mean, I saw people gaming, enough people to really freak me out, but the whole thing was too much for me to even ask (a stranger) how it works.

The entire Comicon situation really pushed me over the limit, socially. First of all, I don’t think I’ll ever intentionally go to a convention of that scale as an attendee again. (Well, maybe I’ll try PAX once, if the opportunity arises.) Secondly, I haven’t and don’t expect to make any attempts at demoing Teratozoic at local game stores. Just figuring out how something like that occurs… thinking about it stresses me out a little.

(I recently acquired passes for Maricopacon, a small local gaming convention which I should have several friends at; hopefully I can get them to explain the social conventions of the convention. Maybe I’ll bring a few copies of Teratozoic. Maybe I’ll get through the weekend without a serious panic attack or a retreat home.)

What this means is that Teratozoic’s “marketing” rests almost entirely in the hands of the couple dozen reviewers and game designers I sent/gave copies to. Out of my hands, as discussed previously, even more than I’d been hoping. Sure, I’ll send an email to the ~150 people on my mailing list and I’ll post to Facebook and Twitter when the campaign goes live, or if/when it hits meaningful milestones. Obviously, I’ll keep up with comments and questions as/if they come in to the project; absentee creators serve no one, not their backers & not themselves. Sitting in my office typing, sure, but no marketing that requires me to actually interact face to face with human beings. So there’s not much left to do, as the days count down.

But there is a certain amount of ramping up which needs to happen. Getting the last of my ducks in their rows. Pre-writing FAQ answers (as ridiculous as that seems, prior to anyone asking questions), pre-writing project updates, preparing the email to send to my mailing list, updating the ‘Media’ section of the project page (and the game’s page at modernevil.com) with quotes (maybe graphics) and videos as reviews come in, that sort of thing. Not a lot, but a few things to do as the days drop down.

The anticipation is … toxic. With luck, I won’t self-destruct before August 16th. From there it’s easy: Just producing and delivering the game; none of that marketing mess, and much of the rest of the process will return to my hands instead of relying on the whims and opinions of strangers. With ever more luck I’ll have some art commissions to work on, and a new set of cards to design and draw and test and refine. That kind of work, I enjoy. Heck, assembling and packing dozens/hundreds/thousands of copies of the game is a sort of work I enjoy. This waiting, the marketing, the pretending to like dealing with people; that’s not for me.

But it is my next several weeks.

Out of my hands; the second-hardest part

(Marketing is the hardest part, and this part is all tied up in the marketing, of course, but this isn’t what makes marketing hard for me; this just piles on.)

There’s still work to be done, marketing for miles, but I’ve already sent out a bunch of copies of Teratozoic to reviewers now, so it’s beginning to be out of my hands. The last 6+ months I’ve been working on the game, the art, the rules, the graphic design, the marketing materials, planning everything, it’s all been the work of my hands—ostensibly under my control. The further along the project goes, the more it’s out of my hands. It begins with trusting printers to do their jobs, to accurately produce the specified colors and quality levels, to deliver on time, once I move into proper prototyping—but it’s still in my control to choose the right printers, to adjust my files, and so on.

Once the game is out in the public, in the hands of reviewers now, and in front of potential backers later this summer, and in the hands of players in the Fall, it’s out of my hands. What people think of it, what they say about it, whether they’re interested, whether they want a copy, whether they mention it to their friends, whether they play it again and again or only once or not at all—it’s all out of my hands. Beyond my control. All I could do to influence the game’s future lies in its past, in its design and production and presentation. It’s very difficult.

It’s hard to let go.

When one’s creation is disliked, badly reviewed, or attacked, it’s only a natural reaction to feel bad about it, to get defensive, to want to change people’s minds, or to fight back. Which is mostly inappropriate. I mean, feeling bad is fairly private, but the rest tends toward making things worse, rather than better. So even though those reactions are natural, one must fight against them. One must hold back. Try to let go.

The perspective I tend toward is to consider my works dead once done/published. Dead and buried. Grieve that all the best is behind us, but then try to move on, to forget, to ignore, to make something new. (I’m already working on at least two other games.)

Which makes this intermediate period, where the game is partially public (in the hands of reviewers, already (prematurely) being reviewed) but not yet public and still requiring months of (the hardest kind of) work, quite like suffering alongside a terminally ill loved-one. The pain, the struggle, the hard work and hard decisions and knowing that in the end it’ll only end in death and loss and pain. Even if some may celebrate the work, even if it reaches significant financial success, even if it’s generally well reviewed, even if thousands of people play and enjoy it, once it’s out there it’s got to be dead to me. It’s too hard any other way.

It’s too hard to hold on to something once it’s out of my hands.

Trying to define my goals for Teratozoic

I’ve been thinking about this part of the problem for a long time, now. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, probably several times if you also follow me on Facebook, Facebook, and/or Twitter. I need to know what my goals are for this project. What I’m trying to achieve. How I’ll define success. (How I’ll know when I’m done.) I still don’t have it all nailed down.

Barring selling the game to a publisher, which is an avenue down which I am not likely to travel very far, I certainly have no intentions of pursuing traditional distribution into retail. The complications, expenses, frustrations, and challenges of dealing with distributors, retailers, or even with the scale of manufacturing (above and beyond any pre-sales/KS-sales) required to satisfy a supply chain are not something I want in my life. At most, I intend to have a POD version of the game remain available at DriveThruCards (with downloadable/printable instructions, and no box; DriveThru only prints cards), and (assuming a successful Kickstarter) to offer a small inventory of copies directly through modernevil.com—something in the range of: I’ll have to order ten or fifteen percent more copies than are backed for, in case of damage/loss/etc; any which remain after all copies have been shipped will be available for direct sales.

So why do a Kickstarter, at all? Well, because I’d like to include printed rules, and I’d like to package the game in a nice box, preferably printed. If I raise (at least) $1,000 I can afford to have 50 copies (read: At least 60 copies, in case of damage/loss/etc) of the cards, custom boxes, and nice rule sheets printed, I can assemble them myself, and I can afford to package and ship them (via USPS) to 50 different backers. For any number of copies sold between 50 and about 1,000 I’d be using the same suppliers/printers, doing the game-assembly (& shipping) personally, and have roughly the same (almost zero) profit margins. Since all but the most-popular new games (the top 15% or 20%) sell fewer than 500 copies, even with a wildly-successful Kickstarter that’s the range I expect to be in; the ‘hand-assembled craft-product with little-or-no profit’ range.

Since a key point I keep trying to explain to other people when they ask about how to succeed (or why they’re failing) at Kickstarting their projects is that you must bring the crowd with you to Kickstarter (they don’t provide the crowd, just the platform for transferring money from fans to creators), and I know that I don’t have an appropriately-large ‘crowd’/audience to know with any certainty that my project will fund at even as low as 50 copies, it is actually against my own advice to attempt to Kickstart Teratozoic.

At least, not now.

Not with 43 Facebook ‘Likes’ on my professional Page. Not with a mere 33 people opening the last email I sent my (still quite small, at 156 people) mailing list. If I saw someone posting about their failing/failed Kickstarter with numbers like those, I’d tell ‘em the same thing. You have to do something to reach enough* people, and you ought to do it before the Kickstarter goes live. Based on my Kickstarter history and my current reach, I wouldn’t expect Teratozoic to find more than 10 or 20 backers; 50 is an almost-ridiculous stretch, and the 1,000+ required to have a financially-profitable venture is genuinely-ridiculous. Ludicrous.
*Enough people to have no doubt you’ll reach your goal with only the people you bring on Day 1.

Which is why I’ve been planning on sending out dozens of preview copies to board/card-game reviewers; to put my game in front of their audiences, which are orders of magnitude larger than my own, and hope some percentage of those viewers decides to back Teratozoic based on what they see in the reviews. Which is, theoretically, an excellent idea, and a good way to ‘cast a wider net’. It’s also why I’ve been planning to demo the game at Phoenix Comicon, with as many people as I can wrangle into coming over, and at game stores around town over the next few months, to build ‘buzz’ and let more people know of the game’s existence. It’s why I’ve been planning on ordering and assembling dozens of additional promo copies, to give them away to people who would be willing to teach their own friends & gaming groups how to play, further spreading the word.

Except fuck me if the cost of the preview copies doesn’t push the costs so high my new break-even point is around 250 copies, instead of 50. (Or ~$750 to $1k in patronage, in advance of the Kickstarter. Don’t ask me to explain the math, but suffice it to say that $800 from 2 or 3 people who mostly want to support me (but maybe also want a painting) is worth a lot more than $4,000 from 200 people who each want a copy of the game.) Which means those reviews had better be good, and had better reach many thousands of people, because there’s no way at all my own network (even with as much local promotion as I could stand) would ever reach those numbers.

Which leads me, perhaps, to the idea of running a pre-Kickstarter Kickstarter (or off-KS crowdfunding campaign), to raise $800+ to pay for marketing of Teratozoic. Because if I could raise funds to cover the costs of marketing and development, then the actual Kickstarter for the game is much closer to reachable, at possibly as low as a $200 (instead of $5,000) goal without threatening the project’s viability. Hmm… Interesting thought. I could put up two or three tiers, say $50 in marketing support gets you a preview copy of the game, $100 gets you a preview copy of the game and a Plus Subscription, and $400 gets you a monster painting*, a preview copy of the game, and a Patron Plus Subscription. (Yeah, yeah, the last two are basically just the regular subscription prices.) If I run it through Gumroad on my own site I pay half as much in fees (~5%) to get the funds, and I get the funds whether or not I hit the goal, and I get them immediately, which would all be benefits over running an actual pre-Kickstarter. If successful, that would relieve a lot of the stress I’ve been under, in planning this thing.
*One of my planned tiers for the Teratozoic Kickstarter is $400 (plus Shipping) to have an original painting (up to ~24×36″) made of your favorite monster (from multiple cards, assembled) or monster part (from one card) from Teratozoic.

So. I think part of why I don’t drop the plans/hope to get reviews done & reach a wider-than-my-own audience with the Kickstarter is that I don’t just want to get the game made, and I don’t just want to get the game made with the nicest version I’m able to produce, but I want that nicest-version of the game to be bought and enjoyed by as many people as will/could enjoy it. Not just those among my 30 to 300 fans who would enjoy it, but as many as I can imagine and afford to reach. With a book, it’s cheap and easy to get it in the hands of thousands or tens of thousands of readers/listeners, by giving the digital versions away for free. And I plan to offer the digital/PnP version of Teratozoic for free, but there’s so much expense and effort in turning a PDF into a playable card game that it doesn’t reach nearly as many people. I write my books to be read and enjoyed, and I (apparently) design my games to be played and enjoyed. So I guess that’s an important part of my goals: Not to make money, or to have brick-and-mortar distribution (the reach is not worth the effort, to me; the only reason I can see to go that way is money, which I don’t directly desire), but to have a nice, complete version of my game made, and to get it into the hands of as many gamers as possible without going to too much trouble or getting too stressed. Success will be delivering those nice copies of the game to players, without having had too many anxiety attacks in the process, or going into more debt.

I think the pre-Kickstarter fundraiser may be the answer to that. I’ll start working on it, now.

Update: You can now directly and easily financially support the marketing efforts of Teratozoic, as described; links are up at modernevil.com/teratozoic/.

Update x2: The fundraiser has now concluded. I was able to raise $550 of my $850 goal.

Quick debt paydown update for 2014

So, as projected, our ability to pay down our debts has been significantly slowed by buying a house. Additionally (as also expected), my initial guesses at budgets weren’t all accurate and we’ve had to make a few adjustments here and there over the last year, generally by eating into the amount we’re overpaying our last credit card’s minimum payment. We’ve only just passed a year in the house, so I won’t know what our adjusted utility payments will be for another week or two; I prefer to use plans which balance out the payments for the entire year, so we don’t have crazy-high electric bills in the summer, but most utilities require a year’s usage data before they’ll sign you up. So, things may adjust around a bit more in our budget, further altering the following projections.

If you recall from my last debt pay-down update, due to buying a house and taking out a ~$100k mortgage last March our total debt went from ~$47k last January (after paying down $45k in balances between 3/2008 and 1/2013) to $142,723.88 as of closing on the house. One year later, our total debt balances stood at $138,557.51 – a reduction of $4,166.37, year over year. That was around $1230 off our last credit card, around $1166 off the student loans, and roughly $1769 of the principal on the mortgage. We also paid approximately $6740 in interest on that debt, about half of that on the mortgage.

As I said above, everything slipped a little, and I’ve got an adjustment in my spreadsheets for a predictable change in expenses coming up next year, so we’re currently projecting we’ll pay of that final credit card in early 2019, the student loans in late 2026, and the house at the end of 2034. Not exactly exciting news, but we’re still paying things down, and there is an end on the map, if not in sight. Certainly, we don’t want to be taking on any new debt in the near future. Buying a car or going back to school are not viable options in the next several years, for example, and would set back our ability to continue making headway by a significant margin. But maybe there’ll be some really nice, affordable electric cars on the market in 2019, right?

The Road to [somewhere] is…

So, I’m still hard at work on Teratozoic. I did a little play-testing and a moderate amount of calculation/maths this weekend & ended up revising the entire Era cards setup to better-balance the game against 1) going to 3 colors from the originally-designed 2, and 2) simultaneously adding support for up to 6 players from 4. (Actually originally 2, but that was many, many major revisions ago, now.) Ended up adding a 7th Era card, a new Era name (really re-named 5 Eras, but it’s mostly re-arranging names), and having to try to reconcile this with the fact that I ordered (effectively) 5 copies of the updated game from 3 printers last Wednesday. One printer let me change the cards, but put me at the back of their queue, another couldn’t change the existing order (but it was the one I was ordering 3 copies from) so I made a new order for just the 7 new cards (21 total cards in the new order, and shipping double the cost of printing). The third printer hasn’t gotten back to me, yet. Maybe I’ll call them tomorrow. So… things are advancing, I have more play-testing scheduled for next weekend, and [redacted] which was probably premature and has been stressing me out—I guess I’ll have my answer one way or another by Friday?

Paved With [my...] Intentions, a card game by Teel McClanahan III, from Modern Evil PressIn other news, which I broadcast on all my Facebook pages, I actually published my first game on March 6th. It’s called Paved With [my...] Intentions and it’s … a bit of an odd duck. It’s the third or fourth game I’ve designed with narrative being one of the central pillars of its design, in this case quite obviously and literally. Mechanically it begins as a quick card-drafting game—each player starts with a stack of cards, picks one, and passes the stack to the next player, receiving a new stack from the other direction and repeating until they have a full set. In this case a full set is one card in each color of the rainbow, plus white. (No, not indigo.) Then players take the cards they selected and arrange them into a straight line where each card covers half of the card below it—because each card (except the white ones, which are on top) is divided into two halves and each half has a distinct chunk of story (and a numerical value) on it, and players have to choose one half of each card to be part of their story. Finally, each player reads the story they built, out loud, to the group, and compares stories and scores.

If they’ve put their cards in the correct color-order, every possible combination of cards forms a grammatically and structurally-valid story (though many, many combinations are quite-intentionally surreal and/or disturbing), each one carefully crafted as a possibility by me when I was writing them. It occurred to me recently that with this game I jump from having a few dozen published stories to having almost eighteen million published stories: There are 17,915,904 valid story formations possible from the 42 story cards in the deck. (Some assembly required.) Realistically, there are only a little over a million stories which make sense for someone to play if they care about their score, because of the way I devised the scoring of each story chunk, but almost everyone who’s played it so far has agreed that the scoring is clearly secondary to the story-building. (They also seem to think it’s a blast to play. Almost everyone has quite enjoyed the stories I wrote for this game.) So I’m clearly going to go ahead and start describing myself as the author of over 17 million stories.

(And I’m currently in early development on another narrative card game which, based on my current concepts, would result in upping that number to “over 128 trillion stories”, though I expect that total to fluctuate wildly as I hammer out the details of the gameplay and write the narrative chunks.)

Here are some photos of the cards I took, for the product page:

Sample hand from Paved With [my...] Intentions, a card game by Teel McClanahan III, from Modern Evil Press

A sample hand

Card detail, drawn from the sample hand, from Paved With [my...] Intentions, a card game by Teel McClanahan III, from Modern Evil Press

Card detail, drawn from the sample hand

The first half of the instructions, with an example rainbow-layout in the background, from Paved With [my...] Intentions, a card game by Teel McClanahan III, from Modern Evil Press

The first part of the instructions, with an example rainbow-layout in the background.

Second part of the Instructions, with a sample lineup of cards in the background, from Paved With [my...] Intentions, a card game by Teel McClanahan III, from Modern Evil Press

The second part of the Instructions, with a sample lineup of cards in the background.

Did I forget to mention that the game is for adult/mature players only? “Contains elements of comedy, horror, working in an office, sexuality, religion, dreams, and nightmares.” Oh, and as you can see in the 2nd rules card, there’s one other mechanic which makes things more interesting: many of the story chunks have occurrences of “[my...]” which, during the reading of the story, will be replaced by the red phrase on the player’s chosen white card. This creates much more apparently-coherent storytelling from an otherwise random combination of sentences and sentence fragments.

So it’s quite an odd game. Very light, very quick, almost-surprisingly functional. I did roughly zero testing, designing it and ordering my copy within (I think) 48 hours. There’s no art, only graphic design. (The font selection and the colors used are very specifically chosen for this project—I custom mixed (with math) CMYK colors for the rainbow of cards to suit my intentions for the tone of the game.) I have no idea how to sell it, no expectations that there’s even an audience for it, but it turns out that’s one of the core concepts of my publishing company: Publishing the creations I wanted to create, not the ones I think the market wants to buy. So I put it up for sale via POD, ordered myself a copy (and a copy for each of my Plus Subscribers), and that was that. No attempts to raise funds for a print run to give myself stock I wouldn’t know how to sell, just put it out there, put up some links, and hope for the best. Depending on how I decide to account for Plus Subscriptions, exactly, it’s already profitable.

((Note: If you buy a Plus or Patron Plus Subscription before the end of March, a physical copy of Paved With [my...] Intentions is included in your subscription.))

I am definitely doing my best to resist the urge to do the same thing with the production and distribution of Teratozoic. Teratozoic, I think, is broadly marketable. Potentially difficult to learn the scoring of monsters for, but appealing to people of all ages and capabilities (re: gaming). I’m going to keep working on Teratozoic. Dumping it straight to POD-only is the last resort. (But certainly still counts as publishing it, of course!)