2012-03-27 : Indie POV pt 3: A Small Pep Talk

If you try to compete with conventional RPGs on money or infrastructure, you'll lose. They can buy thicker books with fancier illustrations, and get them into more stores, than you can.

If you compete with them on the strength of your vision and your design, you can win.

Be as bold, as fresh, as incisive, as aggressive as you can be. If you want to make profit on your time, you have got to design sharper games than they do.

There is no secure ground. Don't design a good game then get comfortable. If you're not stretching yourself, you're falling behind!

1. On 2012-03-27, ndp said:


Also: be weird.


2. On 2012-03-27, Marhault said:


Thanks coach!


3. On 2012-03-28, Troy_Costisick said:


And design something you want to play, not something you think is going to sell well.  People will get excited about what you are excited about.




4. On 2012-03-28, Vincent said:

I don't think that's borne out.

If you want to make profit on your time, you do need to learn to judge what other people will get excited about, and target your efforts. (I've written about this here, for instance.)

If we start listing games that didn't do well, we'll still find passionate creators behind them.


5. On 2012-03-28, Bret said:

This is well-said. I have felt recently like there's a group of noisy advocates saying in order for indie games to be good they need to compete with the bigger games on their own terms (better design and layout! better editing! better art!). And it's great if you have the money, but most of us don't and those who are advocating for these things either have the skills themselves already or have the money.

Design good games. Worry about the other stuff if you want to, but not before you can afford to.


6. On 2012-03-28, Simon R said:

It's not just game design, though is it? There is no excuse for mediocre layout, poor illustration or ugly books. Inexpensive doesn't mean bad. No art is better than bad art and a simple text document is better than poor layout.

You are making it hard for yourself and your audience if your game is not as good-looking as you can make it. This does not mean lavish illustrations, hardbacks or full colour. I have a shelf full of COP games and many of them look amatuerish - almost enough to put you off reading thme. Others which didn't cost any more to produce, look exciting and approachable and there are many COP fans willing to help with layout and design advice.


7. On 2012-03-28, Bret said:

I'm glad you agree, Simon!


8. On 2012-03-28, Jay Loomis said:

I don't know where thise persistent myth that expensive-looking books (glossy color pages, etc.) sells games comes from. It seems akin to the myth that a system is "supported" when a stream of supplements is published for it.

I have a ton of RPGs on my shelf. The indie ones, on average, have better typography and classic design than the fancy ones do. I'll hold up, say, Apocalypse World as a well designed printed publication against 90% of the more mainstream publishing houses.


9. On 2012-03-28, Vincent said:

Don't derail this into a conversation about book design, please. We can talk about how to make a game look to sell later. Making money with your game starts with game design.


10. On 2012-03-28, Gregor Hutton said:

Really great design, for me, has bite.

I ran a game of My Life with Master out in Galway, Ireland this month. The Master was Snow White and the minions were the Dwarfs, but behind that Disney facade there was _truth_ about relationships that we all brought into play. It was horrifying and painful, and for us hugely enjoyable.

MLwM is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive now as it was when it came out.

Two of the Galway crowd ordered the game online right after the game finished. Where had this game been all their lives?

On vision and design MLwM absolutely blows away most mainstream games.


11. On 2012-03-28, Graham said:


There is a thing about book design, though. How you should design your book to support your vision. How you should ignore what's gone before and go back to basics.

And, most most most importantly, how there's a trap in that idea of Making Your Game Look Professional, because it means Making Your Game Look Like Every Game Ever.

Also, game design, that's important too.


12. On 2012-03-29, Bret said:

I'm not sure how you could design a game without stretching yourself.


13. On 2012-04-02, Roger said:

It's sort of two sides of the same coin:

There's no good reason to write a game that GURPS or D&D or DitV or AW could do just as well.

There's no good reason to publish a game that WotC or AEG or Mongoose could publish just as well.

Write yourself a game that can't be played with any other system, and that couldn't be published by any of the major houses, and you've got yourself something.


14. On 2012-04-03, stefoid said:

I wrote my game for me!

Im hoping Im representative of a large group of players with lots of money though...


15. On 2012-04-03, Troy_Costisick said:

Roger, I think the OSR might be an exception to that rule.


16. On 2012-04-03, Roger said:

Hrm, yeah, the OSR...

I think my points largely hold.

Point the first:  Yes, you can sort-of play OSRIC with Labyrinth Lord, or vice versa, but there's not really any good reason to.  And off in the corner Mutant Future and Encounter Critical stand on their own.  You could use the original books if you happen to have a big wad of eBay cash burning a hole in your pocket, sure.

Point the second:  Yeah, theoretically, a big house could have published OSRIC.  But at the time, no one was really sure if they were going to get their pants sued off or not.  It was the sort of risky move that characterizes independent publishing.

Bonus point:  We have the benefit of retrospect here.  The financial success of OSRIC surprised everyone.  It ended up filling a niche that no one knew was there.  Which, again, is characteristic of independent publishing.

But if I've missed your point, Troy, as I fear I might have, hit me over the head with it.


17. On 2012-04-03, misuba said:

Most OSR games aren't a game that D&D could do as well; they are D&D, and that's the point. They don't make you learn a bunch of new crap to no avail.


18. On 2012-04-04, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Troy, that's half of the equation. You have to be passionate about it, but there also has to be a niche that's passionate about it. After all, if it's a game that takes three players, at least two other people have to enjoy it.

This is something really important about the indie age we're living in (and I'm proud to be participating in): you don't have to be popular. You have to find your niche.

More strongly stated,

Write for the people you want to play with, not just for yourself.


19. On 2012-04-04, Troy_Costisick said:

@Joshua A.C. Newman

That makes sense to me.  I like the way you put it better anyway.  :)




20. On 2012-04-05, Vincent said:

I'll say it even more strongly. There are things we tell ourselves and each other that are good for life happiness, but that aren't very good for designing and publishing successful games. When you're trying for success, not happiness, you have to set them aside.

One is: as designer-publisher, you choose what success means to you, nobody else.

Another is: all you have to do is design a game you're excited about yourself.


21. On 2012-04-05, Moreno said:

Vincent, but doesn't that means that you MAYBE will be successful.... but you will not be happy?


22. On 2012-04-05, Jay Loomis said:

Vincent, what do you mean by success?

Seriously, if you don't define success as a business owner, how do you know what it looks like?

Let me put it in the form of a real-world: Who's more "successful", you or Luke?

I think that within the realm of indie RPGs, you are both regarded as successful designer-owners. You both have a good amount of visibility for your games. But, based on recent conversations here, Luke is barely breaking even, while you have done pretty well for yourself profit-wise, relatively speaking.

The difference in your two types of financial success suggests that you view success differently.
(As an aside, I intend this as a mostly hypothetical question. In no way do I want to spawn a debate about who?s more successful)

Also, success for a specific game and success as a creator-owner (a business) are two different things. You can build a successful business plan where success for a specific product is defined as getting visibility even if it doesn't make money. Successful businesses do that all the time.

All that being said, perhaps you merely mean that defining success at a low bar so you don't have to work hard is a cop-out. I'd go along with that.


23. On 2012-04-05, Vincent said:

Maybe that's all I mean, yeah.

Luke and I sometimes do sit down together and compare our various ventures' successes and failures. We do it by establishing terms, like copies sold, overall profit, actual play threads, and product quality per cost. His games are more successful by some measures, mine by others.

We don't choose for ourselves what success means, though. If we're talking about product quality per cost, Luke's games are more successful than mine, and there's no "well I define success for myself, so mine are just as good" about it.

Being able to say "this new game I'm working on is a failure unless it's as beautiful per cost as one of Luke's," for instance, is extremely valuable. It shows me what I need to learn and where I need to work. It lets me see my game as a failure when it is one, and that's crucial to long-term success in any craft.


24. On 2012-04-05, Roger said:

Vincent, are you talking about selling-out?

If not, how not?


25. On 2012-04-05, Vincent said:

No. Fuck no. I'm talking about getting good at what you do. I'm talking about coming from nowhere and knocking the wind out of the status quo.

If you define your own success so that you've already achieved it, you don't outdesign shit.

(Hey, check it out! Mention selling-out to me and I start swearing. Who knew?)


26. On 2012-04-05, Bret said:

Argghhh I have been saying that first thing nonstop recently argghhh


27. On 2012-04-05, Jay Loomis said:

There's two key successes here, I think.

The first is success as an entrepreneur: does your game make money? This success is about making smart choices, both in design and in production, that keep the profit margins as high as possible while reaching as many customers as possible.

The second is success as an artist: does your craft develop and grow? Do you produce works with aesthetic integrity, founded on your artistic vision? This success is all about designing the game, engaging the players, making it consistently fun, and all the million other little details of design. In short—the things where indie art shines.

As a creator owner, I think these two measures of success get confounded. You become responsible for all the measures of success, and it can be hard to tease them apart.


28. On 2012-04-05, Josh W said:

I think there are loads of possible criteria for success, but having criteria requires comparison, and internal comparisons (make this thing that was in my head appear) miss some things that actual competitiveness has:

People in competition don't want to copy from each other, even when they want to do the same things. They'll want to do them differently, not because they're looking to differentiate themselves with water-weak "selling points" like "we do everything with d4s instead of d6s", but because they want to do what that game does better than it does.

Oh and yeah, sometimes this is being daft, and you'd be much better off copying a great idea and giving credit, but that should just encourage you to do something new and interesting with it.

People in good natured cooperation also give each other kudos, and build a network of games that do different things "ok, I admit it, this game is better than mine for this..". If everyone keeps comparing their games with other people's, they'll probably be able to tell people a lot about them.

Course, too much dwelling on other people's games is also daft, because if people already do have a head start on you, making some random thing that you enjoy will be more satisfying than pining away looking at games other people have made.

I can't really make a "point" from this, so I'll stop there!


29. On 2012-04-10, Matt Snyder said:

Dear Mr. Sellout,

Post No. 20 there is my favorite thing you've said about games in, like, years and years. Years.

Can I claim I've been trying to say that for years and not only suck at saying it, but also at doing it? So claimed.

-Sold Out


30. On 2012-04-11, Vincent said:

Ben warns me not to set up a false dichotomy, so:
It's possible to be happy and successful.
It's possible to be unhappy and successful.
It's possible to be unhappy and unsuccessful.
It's possible to be happy and unsuccessful.
(If you want my advice, I recommend numbers 1 or 4 for happiness, numbers 1 or 2 for success, and number 1 overall. Like my sainted mother used to say, it's better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick.)

So successful and unsuccessful are in ongoing crisis in the indie rpg field.

On the one hand, yes, you get to set your own goals, weigh your own interests, and decide for yourself whether it's worth it to you to create and publish your games. Obviously you do! We won that fight.

On the other hand, I have to hear over and over again about how I'm a one in a million astronaut X success, and how if you're somebody else you shouldn't expect the kind of success that I take for granted.

These two views of success are at odds.

When a newcomer comes around asking questions, and I give my answers, there's a rush to make sure they're setting their sights low anyway. "Sure, but Vincent's Vincent, you can't expect that kind of success. Just make a game that satisfies you, and be satisfied with the audience it attracts." It's terrible advice. When I made Dogs in the Vineyard, THAT'S NOT WHAT I DID. It's never what I've done.

If you don't want success like Dogs in the Vineyard's, great! Set your own goals, weigh your own interests, and decide what's worth it. I'm right there for you.

If you do want success like Dogs in the Vineyard's, or even more success, for god sake don't set your sights LOWER.


31. On 2012-04-11, Bret said:

What do you mean by successful and unsuccessful are in ongoing crisis in the indie rpg field?


32. On 2012-04-12, Moreno said:

Vincent, your last post is the clarification I was searching for, too :-)

But there is something fummy in all this talks about DitV success.. as you said many times, it's not a game about something that grab people and force them to give you money.

(this surprised me by the way. When I did hear that there was a game where your character went around in the Fae West, a Colt in one hand and a Bible in the other, fighting to save cities, all I could think was that I HAD to play that game, it was like it was written specifically for me. As a premise, beat playing Jedi, elfs or space marines so hard to make them run crying mummy.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that most people didn't share my enthusiasm. OK, well, you don' have to imagine it, you are the one who sell that game at gamer convention...)

Apart from the people like me who were drooling at the premise...  what do you think was the key to the game's success with other people?

OK, the game is good, very good, and deliver what it say. But there other good games that don't get that kind of success. Making a very good game is a good start, but then, how you make people try a game with a uncommercial premise, so that they can notice the good system?


33. On 2012-04-12, David Berg said:

The premise of Dogs in the Vineyard isn't commercially viable?  Are you kidding?  It's familiar and relatable human issues multiplied by an entertaining dose of violence and drama and set in a popular genre.  "You cheated on your proud wife and now maybe I'll shoot you with my cowboy gun" looks to me like commercial gold.  ("Messy people doing messy things until the protagonist maybe shoots them" seems to be a proven formula for success in police TV shows!)

Vincent, I assume part of your success was having the eye to pick this one out of all your ideas as a game that would have an audience.  Right?

I suspect that many folks who say, "That's just Vincent, don't expect his success," are thinking, "I don't have that eye, and I bet you don't either."


34. On 2012-04-12, Moreno said:

David, personally I agree about that description of Dogs in the Vineyard. As I said, I was excited to play it when I first heard about it. And I didn't even post at the Forge at the time. I had no idea who this "lumpley games" guy was, and I was GMing CoC at the time in the most illusionist way imaginable.

But these days I am sometimes behind a convention table trying to sell indie rpgs (not too often, I am not a very good seller so I usually am at the demo table playing games), and I see the face that a lot of people do at the mere mention of the word "western" (and it's even worse with "religion").

Sadly, the western genre is not "popular" anymore, its place in popular culture was taken by the action movies in the '80s (my explanation for this is that western got too intelligent, problematic and full of human issues. While what Hollywood need is mindless violence, and identifiable enemies to blow up with no second thoughts)

For what I have seen (maybe the situation is different in the USA), the people gets much more excited about the system. If you get them on a table rolling dice and they see how the conflict works, you get a sale a lot of times. But it's difficult to get people at the table if you talk too much about the premise ("it's one of the best selling indie games in the world" works much better) and the usual question after that in forums is "could I use this to play Jedi or D&D?"

And now I have revealed my secret agenda in asking that question to Vincent: I want to know how to become a better seller of DitV books!  :-)


35. On 2012-04-12, Frank T said:

You wanna know why BARBAREN! took two years longer to come out than it could have? Because I couldn't get over how the text was not yet perfect, with the benchmark being Dogs in the Vinyard. (Finally I settled for "good enough".)

If you want to talk about the success of Dogs, you cannot dismiss the superb writing. Which is not to say I disagree about the design, of course. But we are not only game designers, we are also writers and we need to be good at both.


36. On 2012-04-12, Vincent said:

Moreno, David, I've been saying this for a while: there are two parts to it. What does the game promise? How does the game make good on its promises? To succeed as a designer, you have to nail the latter. So no, David, it's here in followthrough where you have to judge your audience, not so much in content or concept.

It should be easy to come up with more promising setups than Dogs in the Vineyard's, for instance. The game's strength, though, and what drives its success, is how it makes good. Apocalypse World, same thing. To succeed, a game has to be so compelling that it wins people over to its content. It can't settle for people who're already fans of religious Westerns or post-apocalypses anyway. It has to get people who aren't already fans excited to play, despite their natural indifference.


37. On 2012-04-12, David Berg said:

Moreno, gotcha.  I wonder if this speaks to the marketability of unique core mechanics that visibly drive momentary play?  As opposed to the complex web of systems it takes to parse most RPGs.  I like Sorcerer's dice mechanics, but I kinda doubt that seeing a Stamina roll would sell someone on the game.


38. On 2012-04-12, David Berg said:

Vincent, I didn't intend to gloss over your point about delivering on promises in spades.  I agree it's absolutely vital to a game's success.

That said, my understanding is that delivering breeds success via word of mouth.  Some people try the game, they're impressed and happy with how it delivers, they talk it up online and at cons, and other people try it.  So I'm wondering about how to achieve that first part: "some people try the game".

How many people is enough to potentially start a word-of-mouth epidemic?  How do you find them, and how do you get them to try the game?

While answering those questions is no substitute for good game design, it seems to me like a necessary complement.

Everyone I've talked to about answering those questions seems to think that game concept is a big part of it.  In the effort to reach out to folks who'll want what you're offering, the more folks you can legitimately reach out to, the better your odds.  What do you think?


39. On 2012-04-13, Vincent said:

David: Oh, I think that's useless. Maybe worse than useless, if it lets you put off designing when you should be designing, or if it lets you blame your concept for failures of your design.

Bret: "What do you mean by successful and unsuccessful are in ongoing crisis in the indie rpg field?"

I've been thinking about how to talk about this, and I don't know if I can.

I don't think there's any live and let live between these two views of success. We can't arrive at a common view, we can't divide into coexisting camps, and we can't even settle it within ourselves.

Here's one reason why: financial success, popularity, and influence are visible to everyone, but personal creative fulfillment and happiness are fleeting, contingent, and invisible, let alone mutuality. People stop designing games over this stuff. My successes strain my friendships.

Here's another: when someone talks bad about a game, it's good for the game's success, and often good for future games' designs, but bad (we can only presume) for the creator's fulfillment and happiness. Consequently, undertake to criticize a game thoughtfully and you wind up all unexpectedly in a genuine fight with people sticking up for the creator's feelings.

So, yeah, I think it's an ongoing crisis. Every time we're confronted with it, it seems to me that it turns into fights and animosity, and we can't stop being confronted with it.

How does it seem to you?


40. On 2012-04-13, David Berg said:

Er, yeah, let me clarify again that I am not asking about audience appeal as an alternative to good design.

Let me phrase this differently.  You talked about making AW to be Meg's favorite game, right?  You designed it both to appeal to her tastes and to fit into her life.  So, three questions:

1) Which comes first?  The audience or the apocalyptica?  Meg or the Maelstrom?

2) If the content/concept comes first, how do you then choose who you're designing for?  Do you think in terms of "who would like this concept" at all?

3) If Meg was a bizarrely atypical gamer with tastes and lifestyle shared by few, would you expect a game designed for her to achieve success?


41. On 2012-04-13, David Berg said:

Actually, given your earlier post:

"it's here in followthrough where you have to judge your audience, not so much in content or concept"

I should probably simplify and just ask, "How do you choose who you're designing for?"


42. On 2012-04-13, Vincent said:

Here, let me put it this way. They have an advertising budget and, like, the Hunger Games license and shit. You can't compete with that. You have to outdesign them.


43. On 2012-04-13, Bret said:

That makes sense and is really smart! I'm going to think about it. While right now I'm in the "my own personal happiness" camp, I see it more as a starting point with, hopefully, eventual progress towards the other types of successes. So I don't have a lot of animosity towards either view. I like what you say about criticism, though.

The answer to the question, "Why didn't you send them a message privately?" can be, "Well, if I did that I wouldn't be advertising their game and giving you the opportunity to advertise it." Not that it'll be an acceptable answer to the person picking bones about it.


44. On 2012-04-13, David Berg said:

Okay, I guess I was off-topic.  Maybe some other time.  I do think "who you design for" is a key part of the formula for indie success, but I'm not assuming anything about the answer.  Perhaps simply having an answer is the biggest factor.

As for success vs happiness, I see the tension, but I also see a confluence.  My happiness at learning how to design better actually outweighs my sadness that my last design wasn't perfect.  So if someone's criticism teaches me something useful, there's no negativity at all.

I try to gauge whether others feel similarly before criticizing their games.  No point in critiquing a game by someone who just wants to make one game ever and feel good about it.


45. On 2012-04-13, Ben Lehman said:

No point in critiquing a game by someone who just wants to make one game ever and feel good about it.

Uh, what? This presumes that the critic is operating for the benefit of, and strictly for the benefit of, the author.

Good criticism is an art in itself. It educates the reader and the critic onto the nature of the form itself. It provides insight into the critic's experience and, through that, the human experience. Good critique is not only necessary, it is sublime. It uplifts the form.



46. On 2012-04-13, David Berg said:

Ben, sorry, "critique" was a poor word choice on my part.  If I can think of a better way to convey my point, I'll try again.


47. On 2012-04-14, Joel said:

Okay, I guess I was off-topic. Maybe some other time. I do think "who you design for" is a key part of the formula for indie success, but I'm not assuming anything about the answer. Perhaps simply having an answer is the biggest factor.

Wait, IS this really off-topic? I'd really like to hear about Vincent's process for this.


48. On 2012-04-16, Vincent said:

Design for three people. Choose any three people you actually know, and design a game for that group. Or one person, or up to maybe six people. You can't design games for people you don't know, so don't bother trying.

You know they'll play it once, just to humor you, so all your content and concept have to do is not prevent that from happening. "Religious Western? Satanist pirates? Weird post-apocalypse? Okay, Vincent, you're a weird dude, but because you asked nicely I'll play. I'm not promising I'll like it."

Your object then is to design a game that those same three people will play again, spontaneously, without your having to ask them to. Where one of them will say to the others, outside of your hearing and in fact without even considering you, "hey let's play ___ again, yeah?" and the others will say, "you know it!"

It doesn't matter how good your concept and content are, if your game design doesn't win people over to actually playing it. It doesn't matter how fringy and odd your concept and content are, if your game design does.


49. On 2012-04-17, David Berg said:

Sounds like a productive approach to design to me!  I dig it.

Connecting the dots between that and selling a billion copies is certainly its own thing, but I get how what you're talking about provides some irreplaceable ingredients for success.  The image of 3 people you know deciding on their own to play your game again is an excellent illustration of that.


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