For my sins, as they say, I’m an artist. I write things. I design games. God, it’s hard to say that, and to say it and mean it, and to say it without flinching. Without rushing to qualify it.
Way back in 2006 (on the first of June) I graduated to the world of ARTING FOR MONEY, when I got my first paid gig with the wonderful wonderful amazing people at Green Ronin on WFRP 2nd ed. But while I knew a great deal about WFRP, I had to learn a lot about writing for money. I made mistakes, like trying to take every job I was offered, no matter how much (unpaid) research I’d need to do and how little I cared about the project. I was poor, and I desperately needed the cash but that was still a bad move. For me, that is. It could be the right move for someone else. But I had to figure out what kind of freelancer I wanted to be, and how to be that kind of freelancer.
Arting is hard. In so many ways. It takes years to master any particular craft, and you discover you can never stop learning even if you wanted to. You have to constantly reinvent yourself and reeducate yourself because you want and need to do different things and tell different stories because you’re a different person. And that’s just art. That’s just getting a thing in your brain into the physical world. It’s an agonizingly difficult process that is not safe nor comforting nor particularly satisfying and doing it all is hell and doing it well is confusing.
And then there’s literally everything else. The art of moving your art to an audience. And the art of getting some kind of return for that. Both of those things are tremendously difficult, and rife with there own bottomless pits of despair and hidden reefs of agony.
The internet in a weird way doesn’t help. It’s democratized creativity but that also means it democratized access. Yes, you can get a stall at the market but the market now serves every human being on earth. And Kickstarter doesn’t help much either. Yes, it helps immensely to get the money upfront – as long as you can sell people an idea, which they can’t play with first. It does help, but it also requires new skills to learn.
It took me half my life – forty years – to be okay with making something creative and going “there, it’s finished, it’s good enough”. I hung it on my wall and said “yes, that is art”. Or chucked it on a website and one or two people even looked at it. I call this the “Art Bucket” solution. I put things in the Art Bucket and if anyone cares, they can pick through the bucket until it gets thrown away when I die. But just last week I ran into a desperate need for money so I had to try to sell something things from my Art Bucket. And oh god, the uphill curve.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen my games for sale. That’s the problem. I’ve reached the end of my market with thirty people. I have now hit the limit of my current abilities in the arcane art of Moving Art To Audience.
I’m not saying this to discourage anyone, it’s just to bring it up. We often forget to even talk about it. It’s usually chapter nine of a ten chapter book on How To Be A Writer. When it should be part two of a three part series, at the very least.
Propitiously, I’ve just met the folks at Invincible Ink who have learned much in the art of getting games to those who want to play them, but Talen has tweeted often about the non-trivial nature of this struggle. These guys work their butts off going to cons to be visible, which must cost a fortune. That’s one step. But still, the face an uphill battle. Still learning by experimentation and trying to unlock a black box that few have mastered and fewer talk about. The getting the game to the person who wants to play it. It used to be that the publisher would do those kinds of things for you, and that CAN happen. If you live in America or the UK and can get to pitch sessions (although at last those have started in Australia now). But those companies don’t publish many small games and usually not RPGs. As much as indie RPGs are a thing, the days of the Forge are past now, and good luck being seen among the herd.
Now I’m trying to figure out if I go to cons with hard copies, will that get copies into hands. How much do I run demos. How much do I WANT to run demos or go to cons. How much does that “cost” in all the ways things can cost? And how much return do I need based on that cost? How do I balance that against just throwing it in the Art Bucket and setting up a Patreon for those who scoop things out? Do I advertise? How? When? Where? How much does it cost? The moment I put my work up on that Go Fund Me, I had to face these questions. And looking at Invincible Ink’s successes (especially with cardgames as fluffy and light as mine, like the hilarious CrowdFund This which is close to my game about insane movie pitches), do I print my own card game ideas? Do I take them to cons? Do I throw them onto DriveThruCards and hope and pray just one person buys them? Or do I hope a hundred people buy it and try Kickstarter? (Heck, Crowdfund This is a satire of this whole question, just to come full circle.)
I also had to realise that getting money was a skill. I was lost for a few days when that started happening. Then I was much more lost when it STOPPED happening. I had to learn not to check my total every few days. And then I had to also learn that tracking it was important. But not to let important things drive me insane.
And in all of this I’ve actually skipped over the whole aspect of publishing. Again, there are wonderful tools to help these days – you can get free or cheap stock art, you can kickstart to get more, GIMP is free to download, Officeworks or Kinkos can print and bind things for you, but boy do I suck suck suck at any kind of desktop publishing and are my word documents okay? Are they worth the price of entry? Or do I cost out trying to learn these things? I can’t find anyone to help me (the lesson of art seems to be “you’re on your f*cking own, son”).
And RPGs are at the simple end of this pool since they don’t need much artifice. My friends at SmithSoft designed this awesome phone game recently called Pandora’s Books. It’s great, you should go download it. I saw it when it was just a working game with a mechanic (figure out what the scrambled word) and a goal (before the monsters shoot you). Then they spent another year or so adding art and a cool character design to identify with and levels and achievements and social media networking and in-game advertising to make money and now it’s so much more than a GAME…it’s all the things a game needs to be just to get people to play it. And they have as much of a social media presence as they can get while doing all that.
And it’s free. It’s goddamn fricking free. But getting people to play it?
The old saw goes that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. But it’s a lie. Mousetrap still sells by the truckload, and nobody will beat a path to anywhere without being led by the nose and offered free samples, and even then, well, there are free samples next door too. Fame is a lottery, and all the internet has done is increased the ticket sales to everyone on earth. And fame isn’t a shallow thing – at its heart it is connection: it’s getting the people whose souls most need your art to get access to your art.
Luckily, connecting people to what may enrich them is something I’m passionate about and skilled at. It’s why I’m a critic and why I’m a teacher and why I’m what I like to call a nerd dragoman. And there are many like me. Social media is full of people saying “hey, this is good, connect to this, people I know, you may like it.” But still it’s not always enough.
So my point, or points I suppose are these:
1 – respect the impossibility of the task, and be ready to learn as much as you can and deal with how tricky and frustrating it is
2 – do everything you can to be a good dragoman and link people to content, we need that more than ever. Understand that this isn’t advertising, it’s about connecting art to audience which matters so very much.
3 – be okay with it mattering, because of course it matters that you have an audience. Of course it sucks to not get one. Also money is food and shelter and you deserve them and capitalism ripped away your chance to get them any other way.
4 – never ever forget that the task is hard and is ZERO reflection on the quality of your work itself. In the howling tornado of everything on the internet, even the greatest things of all can be completely missed. Art isn’t Sleepless in Seattle, it’s Brief Encounter. Things get missed. Van Gogh knew more about painting than maybe anyone who ever lived and he painted over his work over and over again just to try to stay alive.
It’s a tragedy, but it’s also okay.