2012-03-12 : Indie POV pt 1: the Very Basics

What does "indie rpg publishing" even mean?

Small Company / Small Press

We all know it: there aren't any big companies in rpgs. Maybe 1 or 2. Most rpg companies consist of like 3 people.

Everybody here is small press.

Creator Ownership

If a publisher buys copyright from a creator ("work for hire"), the creator doesn't own the work. Down here, Chad Underkoffler says that all the freelance work he's done has been work for hire. Freelancers typically don't own the intellectual property they create.

When I hire an illustrator, I license her work for publication, I don't buy the work from her outright. She still owns it.

Some rpg companies publish games for their creators, but without buying the games' copyright. The company publishes it, and the creator still owns it. This is like Chad's arrangement with Evil Hat Productions, or Dev Purkayastha's arrangement with NDP Design (here); Galileo Games and Cubicle 7 do the same thing too. This is kind of uncommon now, but getting more common all the time. My guess is that it will become pretty widespread in the future, as creators find that they kind of hate publishing and someone else can do a good job of it for them.

Creator Control

The publisher of an rpg is the one who controls its publication - that is, controls when, where, and how it's presented to the public. The publisher decides whether to print or distribute electronically or both or neither, orders print runs or lets the game fall out of print, sets prices and retail terms (including distribution), decides how many free copies to give away and to whom, and so on.

When I license an illustration for publication, I license non-exclusive rights, meaning that the illustrator is free to do (almost) anything else she wants with it. She can even sell rights to a competing publication if she wants (as long as they too are non-exclusive).

Publishing my own games means that they aren't just creator-owned, they're creator-controlled. I make all the publication decisions for my games, and I don't have to run them by anybody first. I personally like having this kind of control, but we all know that I'm a crank.

Ben Lehman sells his games for pay-what-you-want. As a creator-publisher, he's able to just decide to do it that way, and he doesn't answer to anybody else for it.

Which is Indie?

"Indie," the word, doesn't automatically or exclusively mean any of them.

Sometimes fights break out over who's really indie, whatever that means. But usually when a fight busts out, it isn't over the word, it's across the lines of creater ownership or creator control.

Sure, but Vincent, what does it mean to ME?

Probably nothing!

If you aren't an rpg creator or publisher, I don't imagine that it means anything to you at all. When you sit down to play a game, it doesn't make any difference on earth whether it's work for hire, creator published, creator owned, or what. Why would it?

Creator publication means that a guy like me can publish weird, pervy little games about teenage Mormon gunslingers, Satanist pirates, sexy postapocalypticans, or getting murdered by ghosts. If I had to negotiate with a publisher, those games probably wouldn't exist. In general, overall and over time, the fact of creator-publishing means a wider variety of available games. I dig that, and you might too.

If you're a creator or publisher of rpgs, that's when the difference matters. You get to choose how you're going to publish your creation, or how you're going to handle others' creations for publication. Which you choose has financial, ethical, and practical consequences (same as anything involving money, rights, and effort). But it's ultimately your own to choose, and you sure as hell don't answer to me.

(Coming next, Indie POV pt 2: does it pay?)

1. On 2012-03-12, Tim C Koppang said:

"Indie" to me has always meant creator owned *and* creator controlled.  However, let's be clear.  I am *not* using the "indie" label to make a value judgment.  It's descriptive of the ownership and publication status, not an assessment of the game's style or whether the game is good.

There are others who want to apply the term as a marketing label because they think it will help them sell games or maintain a certain reputation with their customers. I don't particularly like this attitude as it dilutes the term as I prefer to define it. It also strikes me as posturing, which I think is silly.

In either case, however, it is absolutely invaluable, as a creator, to understand the difference between ownership and licensing—and what rights are available to you under a particular licensing deal. It makes a huge difference when it comes to your legal rights and whether you will ever regain control of your work.


2. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

I've always called creator-owned publishers "COPs" to distinguish them from others. Indie is too vague - the fact everyone argues about what it means every time it pops up should be enough to warn us away from using it in the ownership/control context. It's just like you have to define "immersion" every time you start a conversation about it.

On creator control, there is both direct and indirect creator control. When you enter into a publishing agreement, you can set whatever terms or channels to market you want, and even insist on a veto. You can then have the control without the hassle, though of course there is always the potential for problems if there is a third party involved.

I'm trying all sorts of publishing models at the moment. Some of these are yet to come to fruition.

Razed - Will Hindmarch is using the GUMSHOE ruleset to devise his own post-apocalyptic game. I suspect we are going to get a print-ready PDF, though he might ask us to source some illustrations. We'll give feedback and do the playtest process, but it's up to Will what he includes. We'll share net margin.

Project J - we'll get a print-ready PDF, again, we'll handle playtesting and share margin.

New World, this is a game written by Bill White based on an idea I had; it's his game, but we'll probably illustrate and lay it out and share net margin.

Owl Hoot Trail. This was originally to be published under the same arrangement as New World, but Clinton didn't have time to finish it and assigned the rights to Pelgrane to be finished and published.

Trail scenarios: for licensing reasons writers can't retain copyright of their exact text for the Trail of Cthulhu adventures, but they could strip out GUMSHOE and Trail references and republish. Again, this is on a split of margin.

DramaSystem is Robin's first major non-work-for-hire project through Pelgrane and we are still considering the options.

This discussion is helpful from a publisher's POV because it helps me make sure I consider the needs of the creator more, even those they haven't considered themselves.

@Vincent I don't agree that you'd have had any problems finding a publisher to take your games exactly as they are, but you actively enjoy the whole publication process, the relationship it gives you with your audience and the additional margins. You don't mind the extra work.

Personally, I'd love to see a COP game compendium in a hardback for a mainstream audience.


3. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:


It's a teeny bit a betrayal of my inner militant idealogue, and I fight with myself about it, but I think that these kinds of I-own-it-you-publish-it arrangements are pretty damn cool. They seem like the future to me. They seem like a better way for creators to get their visions out than trying to build themselves up first as freelancers, and like a more efficient, shared use of skills and interests than my dumb hardcore thing. Cool all around.


4. On 2012-03-13, Moreno said:

There is a specific case that point to possible problems with these kind of arrangements, I suspect.

Someone here is familiar with the Columbia Games - Robin Crossby case about Harn and Harnmaster?  I don't know the details of their contract, but after years of Harn books written (or co-written) by Crossby and published by Columbia Games, they had a falling out. Both parties declared that they had the legal rights to the game and the setting, and that the other's publications were in violation of the contract. Both parties decided to avoid going to court about the matter (too costly, I suppose). So each one published a new (different) version of the game and setting material. This not only did split the player base, but caused a lot of problems with fan sites, who could be accused by either party to giving help to publications that violated their copyright.

I don't think that they had one of these "creator-owned" arrangement, but the point of the example is not that. The point is that a contract isn't worth very much, if you can't afford to use it in court.

And I am not talking only about companies screwing the designer: what if the designer, after signing the contract, enter in another agreement with a bigger publisher? What if they simply have different opinions about the best way to promote it, so that the publisher is acting in good faith but the designer believe that he is getting less that he should because of something that he consider a publisher's error?

What can be done to lessen these risks for both parties? (apart from the usual "work only with people you can trust", I mean)


5. On 2012-03-14, Leftahead said:

The 'COPP' (creator owned/publisher published) model is particularly good news for me as a retailer! It means that good and innovative games (see Do: Pilgrims, etc) will get on my radar much more quickly and be more easily available to me. I certainly dont mind dealing with individual creators when the games are good, but having that built-in vetting and more experience dealing with stores is a huge help. Daniel Solis should be spending his time making achingly beautiful games, not packing boxes for me (unless thats what he really wants to do, of course!)

-Jim C.


6. On 2012-03-14, Leftahead said:

Heh, the Columbia mess also largely killed Harn as a viable property in shops.


7. On 2012-03-19, Paolo Guccione (RosenMcStern elsewhere) said:

> It's a teeny bit a betrayal of my inner militant idealogue, and I fight with myself about it, but I think that these kinds of I-own-it-you-publish-it arrangements are pretty damn cool. They seem like the future to me.

I suppose you are quite right about this. I have been using this model since 2009, and it has not betrayed me (yet). It creates room for a lot of other variants that are halfway between self-publishing and work for hire. Another important point is that the creator might wish to get his rights back and become a self-publisher at a later time, without taking the risk of starting his own small business at the beginning. Does anyone have an example of this? I might have one such case at hand in the near future, but in fact it has not happened yet.

@Moreno: it is true that such things can happen, but the likelihood is not so high, so in the end the potential danger is totally offset by the advantage of having creator-owned materials enter the mainstream distribution channels without being forced to obey the market-driven content policies of big companies.


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