In typical fashion I’ve once again neglected the blog and entirely missed mentioning that my latest crowdfunding campaign is currently running on Kickstarter as part of Zine Quest and comes to a close this Saturday! Hopes and Dreams of the Orbital Bound is a slice of life sci-fi RPG about normal everyday life when you just happen to live on a gigantic alien space station. It’s inspired by the Wayfarer novels by Becky Chambers and the cyberpunk RPG Remember Tomorrow by Gregor Hutton. Follow this link to check it out.
As the campaign approaches the end I want to talk a little about The Dyson Eclipse, the larger setting that the game is a part of. If you’ve already played Signal to Noise then you will be familiar with how it starts – sometime in our near future humanity detects a signal from the stars. They discover that it originated at Tau Ceti and that the star is surrounded by vast megastructures that were not present during previous surveys. Within the signal is a message – we are here and we invite you to join us when you are ready.
Decades later the Generation Fleet departs the solar system, three great vessels built from asteroids and supported by dozens of auxiliary craft. Two complete the journey, during which generations live and die aboard the vessels and contact with Earth is lost. When they finally arrived in Tau Ceti they discover thousands of orbital structures, the Arrays, and six Habitats, each the size of a continent on Old Earth. But there is no sign of the entities who could build such wonders. With no sign of their Builders humanity expands across the system, though the majority live in Habitats 1-5. The sixth lies in ruins, destroyed long before their arrival.
These are the people of Tau Ceti and it is this period of expansion and exploration that the majority of material will focus on. My plan is to slowly release details of the timeline and the truth about the Arrays but right now my aim is simply to explore the setting through a variety of lenses.
Why is it called the Dyson Eclipse?
The name is inspired by Freeman Dyson’s speculation of the type of structures an advanced species might build in order to collect energy and support an orbital civilisation. Numerous sci-fi shows have popularised the concept of a complete Dyson Sphere, which fully envelops a star, but his original concept proposed the use of many satellites, arranged in intricate constellations to efficiently collect and distribute solar energy.
As for the Eclipse part of the name, well that’s a secret for now.
What’s already available?
At the moment the Dyson Eclipse spans the following:
Signal to Noise – a bittersweet two player epistolary game that charts humanities journey to the stars and the slow loss of communication with Earth.
Rock Hoppers – a solo Wretched and Alone game that transports you to the edge of the system as a prospector trapped deep within an asteroid following a cave in. Will you escape before your resources are depleted and what will you make of the secret at the centre of the rock?
The Kandhara Contraband – a system agnostic adventure build that sees a crew hired to retrieve cargo from the Kandhara Independent Impound Yard on behalf of a crime syndicate.
You might be wondering though why I am writing a series of games and supplements rather than develop a single core sci-fi game (or even just write material for games such as Traveller, Coriolis or Orbital Blues). The simple answer is that I want to zoom in and focus on specific genres and emotions. Signal to Noise is meant to be a bittersweet journey about connection and loss, it simply wouldn’t work using a generic system designed for general space opera stories. I want that to be the same for each release, with mechanics that are specific to the story I aim to tell.
Will I eventually write a generic game to run adventures such as The Kandhara Contraband in? Probably, but if I do it will be a small and lightweight entry that I can offer as a free bonus to support adventures and settings.
But that’s not all…
One of the great things about writing a setting that spans many games is that I’m not tied to my own systems. The Kandhara Contraband started life as a Firefly adventure but the current edition could be used with a wide range of sci-fi systems. As the setting develops I want to be in a position to provide guidance on using other games to tell stories about it.
The very first Dyson Eclipse story I ever told was a solo play through of Chiron’s Doom – another great game by Nick which is currently Kickstarting to raise money for an updated print edition as part of Zine Quest. That story helped guide the development of the setting and will inform my own personal canon as it develops further. At some point in the near future I’m planning a run through of Notorious, a solo game of bounty hunters by Jason Price to explore Shan, one of the planets in the system. The list is endless and later this year (once the work on Orbital Bound is complete) I’ll look at how I can pull together a list of recommendations of other indie games for exploring the setting.
So that’s the big picture and I’m really excited to see how the story of Tau Ceti will develop over the next couple of years (at a minimum). Hopes and Dreams of the Orbital Bound is going to be central to that story so the next few months of work so expect more about the setting as the game develops.
In part 1 of the review I presented some raw numbers from another year of publishing, in this (rather late) post I want to add some context but first some summary stats. Compared to 2021 my total 2022 income was down, from £2362.41 to £2379.94 while my costs went up significantly. As a result I went from a healthy profit of £1280.69 to a loss of -£148.20.
That’s not great but it was also not unexpected and not as bad as it looks because of how the tax year falls. Signal to Noise brought in approximately half the amount of money that Project Cassandra did and virtually all of it went on art and fulfilment. The entire reason I ran a campaign for the game was so I could afford to commission Val and add her fantastic art to the game so that’s what I did, even though it meant my ‘profit’ from the campaign was non-existent. In terms of subsequent sales I think it’s paid off with the game selling well throughout the rest of the year and a number of people at Dragonmeet commenting on how great the art is. Project Cassandra used stock art throughout and its only non-production cost was editing so I came away with a much more substantial profit (~£600, which didn’t actually pay me a fair rate for the work).
Online my digital sales were down on drivethruRPG and slightly up on itch. The difference at drivethruRPG almost entirely comes down to one factor – The Synth Convergence being the deal of the day. That single boost brought in a substantial bump in sales in 2021 and many of those buyers then bought the rest of the Sprawl mission bundle. It just goes to show the power of promotion and I sort of wish I’d held on to the points to use with either Project Cassandra or Signal to Noise as it’s going to be a long time before I have enough to run another deal.
While my 2021 numbers on itch were boosted by being part of a couple of bundles pushing both Signal to Noise and Rock Hoppers throughout the year compensated for not being in any large bundles during 2022. Signal to Noise in particular caught some welcome attention including being mentioned by Sam Leigh (GoblinMixtape, who also did the playlist for the game) on one of their popular tiktok roundups. My attempt to run a ZineQuest bundle failed to gather sales and really reiterated how limited my online reach is (and how important it is for contributors to actively promote a bundle).
So what about my output in 2022? It was up from 2021. I released Signal to Noise: Interstellar Edition, Rock Hoppers, The Kandhara Contraband and Numb3r Stations. All of those got a print release and various combinations are now stocked at Peregrine Press and IPR as well as my own Etsy store. Given at the start of the year I only had a single product in print it’s a massive achievement to end the year with 5 distinct releases. Numb3r Stations turned out to be a tremendous surprise on all fronts – I could not have foreseen Albi approaching me about developing the game but the collaboration turned into one of the highlights of the year and I’m keen to work with him again in the future (also check out his upcoming Zine Month kickstarter for These Stars Will Guide You Home). The game also sold really well at Dragonmeet and we’ve discussed the possibility of extending the project further with duet rules so fingers crossed you’ll see that later in the year.
The big step forward during 2022 was Dragonmeet. I’ve already posted a four part round-up of that event so I won’t go into it again in too much depth but I think it provided a massive boost for me as a creator. I was able to get my games in front of so many people that hadn’t heard of me before and got to meet so many people in person that even if I had come away with a big loss (as opposed to the small loss I actually had) that I think it would have been worth it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything lines up this year as I really want to attend again and showcase the development of the Dyson Eclipse and, hopefully, much much more.
With all that said what’s coming up in 2023?
Top of the pile is Hopes and Dreams of the Orbital Bound, my slice of life sci-fi game and the next entry in the Dyson Eclipse. That will be kickstarting in February as part of Zine Month / ZineQuest and I’m busy trying to pull everything together for that. I’m excited about how this game will start to develop the Dyson Eclipse setting and my hope is that it will lay the foundation for the wider world by allowing players to generate a home they can return to repeatedly during, and in-between, playing other games in the setting.
My second goal is to complete at least one of my outstanding projects. Those include Red Roots of the Rose, the Espionage Protocol for Project Cassandra and a few small games that are currently at the concept stage. I’m keeping this goal to a single project because I’m slowly learning what I can realistically achieve each year. If I can publish more than one then hey, that’s great but I’m trying to avoid setting myself up to fail.
Third is to work more on promoting my work. I’m aware of how limited my reach is and while I appreciate the audience that I do have I’d like to grow it. I’ve already seen a small boost in subscribers after shifting the newsletter over to substack and am going to be looking at other ways to actively promote my projects. Part of that is a small twitter bot that will post links to my timeline a couple of times a week. Promotion is one of these things that I know a lot of creatives both hate and struggle with, I’m no different but I’m all too aware that you either need to put the work in or be incredibly lucky if you want to get your name out there. The bot is my fuck it, who is going to complain about a couple of tweets a week when others are regularly shitposting dozens of times a day. Yes, that’s a rather crude way to put it but in some ways I think that’s how I need to start thinking when it comes to self promotion.
The final goal is related to promotion in that I’d like to take on some freelance work and start to build more connections in the industry. It’s part of why I attended Dragonmeet as a trader and while I did have some discussions with other industry people running the stall dominated my attention. I’m not really all that sure how to approach this goal and it’s something that I’m going to keep on the back burner during February while I focus on Orbital Bound.
For this first year in review post I want to talk solely about sales numbers. As I’ve stated repeatedly I think it’s important to get these values out there for others to see as most of the time when people do feel like posting them it’s because they’ve done really well. I want to show what it looks like at the small end of the scale.
Dyson bundle (Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers, Kandhara Contraband, £25) – 5
Stealing the Throne (£12) – 14
Home Amongst the Stars (£0) – Many!
Total sales before any fees: £818, after card processing fees £805
Peregrine Coast Press – 10 x Signal to Noise, 5 x Rock Hoppers at 50% retailer discount, total £85.
Indie Press Revolution – 130 copies of Signal to Noise, 50 copies of Project Cassandra. These are on consignment so I will get paid quarterly as and when they sell. At the moment I’m due $145 from 16 sales which will pay out Q1 2023.
Project Cassandra is also now sold out / unavailable at both Leisure Games and Rook’s Press after they bought copies in 2021.
11 sales (7 of which were post-Dragonmeet in December) comprising:
Project Cassandra (£10-12) 7
Signal to Noise (£12) 2
Rock Hoppers (£10) 4
Numb3r Stations (£5) 5
The Kandhara Contraband (£5) 3
Total Etsy earnings: £166 before fees, £129.99 after.
Tallying all of that up (and adding some other miscellaneous income such as direct sales outside of a platform) my total earnings for 2022 came to £2379.94 and after all my outgoings (-£2528.14, a considerable increase this year) my total profit was -£148.20.
I’ve already spent many words talking about my stand and how much money I made but what about the important question, what was the convention itself like?
Fucking amazing. Exhausting, but amazing.
I’m not going to give an hour-by-hour run down here but want to focus on a few things. First up, it felt busy almost all day but never overwhelmingly so. This is one of the things I’ve always loved about Dragonmeet, the space always feels appropriate for the number of visitors. As I noted in my Tabletop Gaming Live convention report there’s a fine line at which an event feels alive and vibrant. Tabletop Gaming Live never quite got over that line while Expo, despite the massive amount of space, typically goes too far past it into crowded and unwelcoming. Dragonmeet gets it right so it will be interesting to see what happens if, as rumours suggest, it moves to the Excel next year.
It was busy enough that, with two exceptions, there was a constant flow of people wandering the trade hall and while many of those people stopped at the stand it was never overwhelming. Those two exceptions were around 2:30-3:30pm and after 5pm. I think the first was due to a mixture of people attending afternoon games and having already done loops of the halls by then. This was the longest period in the day where I went without a sale, ~70 minutes in all. The second quiet period can be easily explained by it being the final hour of trading and people heading off. Despite it being quiet I still made 4 sales as those that were still around were generally there for last-minute shopping.
If you want to take a look at how sales broke down across the day then tada!
So what’s the takeaway from these? Primarily, that excel makes some ugly graphs and I couldn’t be bothered to create nice ones in R. I mean, look at the x-axis on the first one where I just could not get it to just list things on a 1 hour time scale.
More seriously the takehome is that while I had a fairly regular sales pattern throughout the day (with the exception of that 70 minute gap) over half of my sales (and total income) were during the first 3 hours of the 8 hour trading window. Are the differences statistically significant? Who knows, I can’t be bothered to check. But it tally’s with my perception of the morning being busier and then tailing off as the afternoon progressed.
Those numbers are all useful but really I want to talk about the experience. As I’ve said, it was amazing and exhausting. First up, a big thank you to everyone that came by specifically and said hello. Lots of faces I knew and far more that I didn’t but have interacted with on Twitter or discord. I even had people whose only prior interaction was playing in my games previously make a point of stopping by. As a designer with limited online reach, these interactions make it worth it. Knowing that people have been playing and enjoying my games was a massive ego boost that kept me going throughout the day.
I also had a stream of people who had heard about Numb3r Stations and were there to pick up a print copy. The game was by far my best seller of the day (27 copies) which I think can be attributed to a trio of factors. One, it’s a brand new game so even people who had supported earlier projects didn’t own it in print. Two, it was cheap at £5 (as it’s an alpha) which puts it into the impulse buy category. Three, Albi and I had both been promoting it fairly heavily online. Taken together it highlights the importance of having a new product available at the booth, even if it’s just a small one and of talking about it in the run-up to the convention. This year I’d focused on promoting Numb3r Stations and just the fact that I’d be attending as a trader, next time I’ll do more to highlight individual products and build some interest in them.
One thing I hadn’t expected (but should have) was how polarising Signal to Noise would be. Many people, on hearing the premise, declared that the game was too emotional or touched on things they weren’t quite ready to think about after the last few years. As an outlet the game really was my “lockdown baby” and I poured a lot of my own emotions into it concerning isolation, distance and losing contact with people. It was cathartic but it seems some people just aren’t far enough from those early days of the pandemic to want to revisit that yet.
Of course, it goes both ways. Dragonmeet attracts many gamers who do want to explore those sorts of feelings and it sold well throughout the day (plus has done well on the IPR booth at Big Bad Con and PaxU). I really hope that the people who bought it enjoy it and want to continue exploring the Dyson Eclipse with me.
I’ve said that the convention was exhausting and it was. I made the decision that I was going to avoid sitting down as much as possible and energised by the event took that a little too literally. From 10am to 6pm I didn’t sit down at all, something I’m not used to in my day job. Surprisingly, my legs weren’t too bad the next day.
Why did I make this ridiculous decision? Because, in my opinion, a stand with a trader who is sitting isn’t as engaging. I wanted to be in a position where I was actively encouraging people to check out my games rather than relying on passive traffic approaching me. That meant being at eye level, handing out flyers and talking to people as they passed by. I appreciate not everyone can physically manage that but it’s a decision that I believe helped bring more trade to the stall.
Running the stall by myself proved to be easier than I had expected. It meant things like my approach and sales pitch were consistent throughout the day and as all but one of the games were mine I know them inside out and can talk about all of them in depth. That said, there were definitely a number of times when having two people would have been useful, primarily when someone approached the stall while I was already talking to someone. I’m hoping that next year I’ll be able to share my stand with someone else so we can split the work a little. A second person will mean a wider range of games on offer, which should draw more people in but will also mean needing to rethink the layout of the stall. Another bonus is that it will allow me to get away from the stand for a little and actually experience the halls.
Not being able to take a walk around the halls is perhaps my biggest regret of attending as a trader. I bought only a couple of items (the One Ring starter set and core book, Coiled Spaece) plus did some zine trades (Lichcraft and Stories to Astonish the World) but that was it. Sure, it saved me a lot of money but getting to talk to people is one of the things I love about Dragonmeet. Now that I’m attending as a trader it becomes even more important as it’s an opportunity to network and try to build connections for the future.
I did get a chance to catch up with a number of friends on both the Friday and Saturday nights which I greatly enjoyed and is another reason I make a point of attending Dragonmeet over other conventions. Gaming is, at the heart of it, about friends and having previously lived in the South East there are many people that I now only see if we cross paths at the event. That, in and of itself, makes the travel and hotel costs worth it.
For this second post looking back at my first time attending Dragonmeet as a trader, I want to focus on my stand (part 1, focusing on sales is here). What went right, what went wrong and what I would do differently. So let’s start with a picture. This was my stand as I set it up on the Friday evening. With the exception of the banner, which I moved about a little, it’s also how it looked during the rest of the convention.
You can see immediately that it’s quite utilitarian. Six sets of zines, flanked by signs and leaflets on either end. Each zine has a little blurb that also states its price and number of players. While there is a copy of everything standing vertically the majority are lying flat on the table. Behind all that are copies of each product prepackaged in a card back envelope while my remaining stock was stashed behind the table.
So let’s start with the good and I’m going to immediately shift away from the table to this beauty: my roller banner.
Seriously, I loved how well this came out and it really sells my brand. The images stand out, my company name is clear and it’s got useful information at the bottom. The only things missing are my name and email address, issues that are apparently blind spots of mine as they came up more than once.
With regards to the actual stand, I felt like the limited number of games worked in my favour – I had enough of a range to grab people’s attention but not so many that you couldn’t look at them all. It was also a small enough number of products that I could give a customer a quick rundown of everything without losing their attention, a fact that I believe contributed to a number of sales.
The blurbs turned out to be a star asset, especially when I had multiple people at the stall so definitely something to repeat. They’ll also be invaluable when I have a larger range on offer and have to focus my pitch on a subset of games.
The other factor that helped was that I had two clear themes. I repeated the phrase “can I interest you in sci-fi or spies?” so many times during the course of the day that it almost lost meaning by the end. But it’s a concise and clear pitch that worked. While my personal interests are wider than just these two genres I expect they will always be a primary focus so it’s useful to know that people can be drawn in with a focused sales pitch like this.
So what, in retrospect, didn’t work or would I do differently?
First up are the envelopes. I’d prepackaged a number of zines in the card-backed envelopes that I use for postage and added download codes directly to them. While customers seemed to appreciate this it did cause a little confusion, as people would pick things up to buy and then I’d put them back down and hand them an envelope. Once I’d explained they appreciated it but it was a little hitch that I could easily smooth out. The bigger issue is weight and space. Using the envelopes made my bag heavier than it needed to be, something I could have done without (and more about that in a bit).
As for the download codes again, a great idea but as they were just small slips of paper they’re easily lost. Next time I think I will print them on small stickers and just add them directly to the inside cover of each zine. Again, it’s an easy solution that just speeds things along.
Stock wise I brought far too much. I’d received advice from someone with experience that around 25 copies per product was a good number and with the exception of Numb3r Stations this would have been sufficient. How many copies did I bring? 40-50. Of everything. My case weighed a lot. Why did I do that? Honestly, a mix of “what if it’s super busy” panicking and because I had space in my case to do so. While I did manage it next year I’ll aim for fewer copies of each product and hopefully make life a little easier for myself.
What I could have used that space in my case for was some vertical stands. Compared to others my table was quite flat and below eye level. A vertical stand would have allowed me to put multiple items on display, at eye level, while also only using a small portion of the table space. I could have also used it to make the price lists more visible, as people seemed not to notice them.
One thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to get people to take a freebie. I had produced mini A6 leaflets containing the Home Amongst the Stars micro games and a sign-up to my next Kickstarter. People were really reluctant to take them and even when they were at the stall didn’t seem to realise they were free. If I print a solar leaflet next time then I’ll put some really big ‘FREE GAMES!’ signs next to them. I was also a little disappointed that while I did hand out 100-150 of these leaflets that’s translated to only ~5 signups on the Kickstarter page. Not a great conversion rate. I knew it would be hard but had hoped to get 10-20 new signups to the landing page.
The biggest issue with my setup though was the lack of contact details/indication of who I am. Of the six products, I had for sale on the stand the only one with a name on the cover wasn’t mine! To top this off I forgot to order extra business cards and quickly ran out of them and for some stupid reason didn’t add my contact details to the flyers. Not great given I was hoping to build awareness of who I am so it’s definitely something to go to the top of the planning checklist for next time.
Overall though I was very pleased with my stand setup, especially given it was my first time. I’ve attended a lot of conventions so I think I’ve subconsciously built up a picture of what I do and don’t like on a stand, which reflects where I focused my own attention on. For part 3 I want to reflect on the day itself then do a final roundup in part 4. I’ve had a lot of encouraging comments about part 1 so I hope that this is also useful to people considering running a convention stand.
This weekend (3rd of December, 2022) I made my yearly trip down to Dragonmeet. It is by far my favourite convention but this year was different. Why? Because it was my first as a trader. I’m planning to write a series of posts about the experience as I think it’s important to have this information freely available. For post number one I want to talk about money, so here’s the raw numbers.
Project Cassandra (£12) – 5 Numb3r Stations (£5) – 17 Espionnage bundle (Project Cassandra, Numb3r Stations, £15) – 10 Signal to Noise (£12) – 10 Rock Hoppers (£10) – 7 Kandhara Contraband (£5) – 8 Dyson bundle (Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers, Kandhara Contraband, £25) – 5 Stealing the Throne (£12) – 14 Home Amongst the Stars (£0) – Many!
Total sales before any fees: £818 Banked after card processing fees: £805
So attending the convention as a trader cost me money and there may be a couple of costs I’ve forgotten to add to that list. The biggest single factor was accommodation – two nights in central London is expensive, especially over a December weekend. I could, if I wanted, make arguments about why certain costs don’t really count. For example, I’d have spent that money on accommodation and travel if I’d gone as a visitor while the printing and envelopes included enough stock that I probably won’t need to order reprints until at least next summer.
Was it worth it though? That’s a topic for future posts but the short answer is yes. Some of those costs such as the banner were one offs that I wouldn’t have to pay for again while I already have thoughts on how to reduce other expenditure. The big reason it was worth it though is the exposure. So many people have now looked at or bought my games that, over time, it will start to add up and boost future sales. But as I said, that’s for a future post.
I’ve been thinking about the Mythos lately while I work on bashing into shape writing up Red Roots of the Rose for publication (initially for The Cthulhu Hack but with plans for a Call of Cthulhu version to follow). One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the question of why hasn’t the world ended already?
It’s a simple enough question – if those dabbling with forces beyond human comprehension are constantly trying to bring great old ones into the world surely one of them would have succeeded by now. If we look back to the original Lovecraft short stories then the answer is, largely, because people are not trying to. The majority of the stories are about personal revelations as the protagonists stumble across evidence of the Mythos or, alternatively, personal quests for power. The type of large ritual trying to summon ancient powers to bring about the end of the world is relatively rare so why do we gravitate towards it in gaming?
I think the answer is fairly simple: In traditional mythos games we regularly position the characters as heroes. They are rarely the protagonists of Lovercraft who uncover a horror and seek to escape and forgot what they have encountered but proactive individuals that work to unravel the mystery in front of them and stop the great plan that is taking place. As a result games often tend towards situations where the world quite literally needs saving, especially when you’re running a campaign and need to build the threat and tension. It’s the same problem that games such as D&D have – there’s only so long you can murder goblins before you feel the need to murder increasingly bigger foes, slowly working your way up to dragons.
Taking that into consideration raises the question of why, in games where world ending situations are common enough for the characters to consistently encounter, has the world not already been consumed/corrupted/destroyed? These are a few of the explanations that I’ve been considering:
It’s exceedingly difficult, to the point that the people who attempt it would fail most of the time even if the investigators never got involved. Sure there may be chaos and death on a local scale, explained away as mass suicides or a natural disaster but not the arrival of a great old one or elder god that those involved were hoping for.
Humanity is incapable of actually summoning anything powerful enough to end the world. This is related to the above but draws from the idea that to the most powerful entities of the Mythos we’re simply so inconsequential that they don’t take notice and ignore our attempts to attract their attention.
Something, or someone, acts to counter every attempt. While this goes against the concept of a hostile and uncaring universe it does work well with the idea that the various factions and entities are locked in an eternal struggle against one another. Followers of Dagon trying to open a portal? Well maybe Hastur surreptitiously arranges for the PCs to be in the right place to intervene. Combined with 1 or 2 it is the approach that I personally would favour if I even ran a long campaign within the wider setting.
Finally there’s the possibility that they have already succeeded but humanities perception of the world is so restricted that we haven’t noticed yet. Maybe we’re so incapable of handling the truth that humanity has fashioned a collective hallucination of the world we know. This is, perhaps, the most intriguing approach but also the most difficult to fit into the gaming side of the genre. How would you even approach this in such a way as to reveal the truth of the world? Certainly not with the more traditional systems out there.
So which approach am I taking in Red Roots of the Rose? In typical fashion the answer is none of the above. The scenario, while built for ‘heroes’ intervening in a deadly mystery is also built around personal power and what individuals will do to maintain their own small slice of it. It’s mythos with a small m, driven by human greed. Failure won’t tear open reality or summon an endless wave of unspeakable horrors. It may leave the investigators scared, broken or dead but that is all.
Barring any packages going missing during delivery I’ve now completed the primary fulfilment on Project Cassandra, my ZineQuest 3 kickstarter. That covers finishing the game, layout, distribution of digital copies, an initial print run and physical fulfilment. While I still have to finish the final stretch goal I wanted to provide an update to this post on how I’m feeling about the campaign, hurdles, costs etc.
But first, a promo shot.
That’s my game! In print! Honestly, when I first started work on Project Cassandra I never thought it would end up like this. I fully expected to release it as a digital only game that would hardly be noticed by anyone outside of my immediate gaming circles. The game is available now in print and PDF from my ko-fi store or just PDF from itch.io and drivethruRPG.
For a breakdown of backer numbers take a look back at the first post in this series. For this post I’m going to focus on production and spending.
During the campaign I stated that I was expecting the game to be around 40 pages. The final count was 52 pages, including covers, printed in full colour on 115gsm paper while the covers were 170gsm with matt lamination. Slightly heavier to give a clear difference in feel but not the 250-300gsm card stock I know a lot of people prefer for covers. For the initial print run I ordered 160 copies, coming in at a price of ~£1.30 per copy.
I decided against a higher print run than that as I’ve heard too many horror stories of people ending up with boxes of unsold books. 160 copies should cover the kickstarter backers, a missing in the post margin of 10%, a small number of copies going into retail distribution and still leave me with ~20 copies to sell directly. Selling those final few copies would also cover the cost of a second printing should I decide there’s enough demand for one.
Sadly, when the initial print run arrived I discovered that 30 of the 160 were damaged by scratch marks on the covers. While not a significant visual issue the problem was very obvious to the touch due to the lamination. Thankfully Mixam were quick to respond to the issue and did a replacement print run, which arrived within 2 days of being submitted. Excellent customer support and ensures I’ll look into using them again in the future.
Post Kickstarter the game is on sale at a RRP of £6 for digital or £10+p&p for the print edition, including a digital download. Conventional wisdom seems to be that print copies should sell for approximately 10x the cost of the actual printing so based on that logic £13 would be a better price. I’ve gone for £10 for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think that’s a fair price given the size and what other games in shops tend to go for.
Second, this was primarily a vanity project. While I would like to make a micro-business from publishing games Project Cassandra was written as a labour of love so the profit margin was never a driving factor. I could have opted for black and white printing or keeping to that original 40 page estimate but I wanted the game to be the best I could make it. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like it to continue to be successful but knowing what the average ZineQuest campaign earns it was never going to earn back all the labour that went into it.
So what about the costs?
If you remember I put together an initial Kickstarter goal of £400, which broke down roughly as so:
Lets look at this in detail. I budgeted printing costs at £1.50 per unit, shipping at £2 for UK backers and £5 for international backers. All of these were slightly over my true estimates to provide a small safety net at every level. The print tier was priced at £10 during the Kickstarter which included the shipping for UK backers while the rest of the world paid a £3 surcharge top top it up to the £5 I’d budgeted for.
Fixed costs included part of the editing (with the remainder paid for by profits from previous projects), a 10% contingency, test prints and some packaging materials. I made sure to include both the final Kickstarter fee (5% of the total) and per pledge fees that cover payment processing (3% + £0.20 for pledges of £10 and over, 5% + £0.05 for pledges under £10).
I also set up the budget and goal with the worst case scenario assumption of every single pledge being from an international backer at the print tier. The reason for this is that these backers have the highest per pledge costs, primarily due to the shipping. So the budget was set up to ensure that it would break even in this worst case scenario. Every UK or PDF only backer I got increased the final ‘profit’ margin (see below for why this is in quotes).
The two biggest costs using this model were the fixed costs and shipping. The shipping costs covered postage and a supplement to the packaging materials budget. The fixed portion of the packaging materials ensured I could purchase a bulk pack of envelopes while the per pledge supplement ensured I could then scale up if necessary.
You’ll notice that the “Personal earnings” section of that chart is non-existent, or in other words it does not make a profit. There is a lot of discussion amongst the indie RPG scene about paying people fairly, including yourself, but by the point Project Cassandra got to Kickstarter I had already invested a significant amount of time into the game and it was going to be released regardless. The Kickstarter was there to push it over the line and provide the funds to both pay for an editor and an initial print run. If I had just released the game online I can guarantee that it would have failed to achieve enough sales to fund either of those and I still wouldn’t be getting paid for the work that went in.
The budget was set up so that once we’d hit the initial goal I would start earning a share of the pie, to the point that the final post-fulfilment spending looks like this:
As you can see “Personal earnings” in that chart, which accounts for ~£650, is actually a significant chunk of the final total. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Amongst indie developers there’s a push to pay a writing rate of 10 cents per word, which equates to ~7.5p (GBP) per word right now. Paying myself at that rate would account for ~90% of my personal earnings.
Which seems OK, until you add in all the design work, playtesting, sourcing and editing art, layout, packing orders for shipping and admin that I did. The only reason I “made money” on this was because I did all of that myself, I couldn’t realistically pay someone a fair rate to do it and still compensate myself in any way. I was also fortunate that I was able to use stock art, hiring an artist at standard rates could have easily blown through everything I earned from the campaign.
The second biggest chunk of that pie chart is shipping. I expected this, budgeted for it, included a buffer and thankfully came in slightly under my original estimate. Even then it was a significant proportion of the budget and we’re only talking about a zine here. I don’t want to imagine how expensive a 200-300 page, standard sized hardback rulebook costs to ship and if I ever get to the point of producing one I will definitely look into professional distribution or print on demand.
Being under budget on the final shipping helped offset a cost that I hadn’t originally factored in – purchasing a second hand label printer (which I’ve added under the supplies slice). I bought one after seeing them being discussed by other ZineQuesters and had originally expected to take the cost of it fully from my personal earnings. I can say without a doubt that it has been worth every penny. The amount of time and hassle it has saved is enormous and I fully recommend investing in one if you plan to run even a small Kickstarter. The Zebra GK420d I picked up typically sells for £120-150 second hand on eBay.
Those are some of the raw numbers but how do I feel about the whole thing? Honestly, pretty good. With 175 backers in total the scale of the project was more successful than I’d expected but still manageable. I know a lot of people find running a Kickstarter can be overwhelming but personally that wasn’t the case here. I think I can attribute that to 3 factors.
I started planning early. As I have mentioned previously I started investigating the feasibility of running the Kickstarter in November just to get a feel for what was possible. That included familiarising myself with the Kickstarter back-end, creating a test project and putting together basic budgets. Plural. I tried out a number of permutations before I settled on the one I used.
80% of the game was written prior to launch. That was mostly just a quirk of how long this game has been in development limbo but it helped with allowing me to show off a preview (including a full quickstart) explaining what the game was about and ordering test prints of the layout.
I kept the campaign simple. Of all the stretch goals only the final mission trilogy added any extra work to the campaign. Adding colour printing increased the cost of each copy but not the workload as the PDF was always going to be in colour. Similarly unlocking What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? to make it a PWYW product may, in the long run, cost me a small number of sales but it didn’t require any additional work or spending.
The things that I would definitely do differently are relatively minor. The first is a slightly heavier paper weight for the cover. As printed the cover works well, especially as I went for lamination but a denser paper would have added that little bit more stability and strength so it’s something I’ll keep in mind if I get to the point of needing a second print run.
The second is to rethink my approach to a special edition. Like many ZineQuesters I included a limited number tier for those wanting a copy of the game with some unique alterations. Keeping with the theme of the game I thought why not offer a redacted version, where I had gone through and blocked out sections of the text to the point that the game was unplayable.
I thought it would be a nice nod to the genre and it was fun to be paid to deface copies of the game. It was also incredibly time consuming. While I only had a dozen copies to redact doing it by hand was a far slower process than I originally anticipated and it contributed to a delay in sending out the final batch of zines.
Finally I’d make a slight adjustment to the design of my budget with regards the contingency funds. While I had included this in the initial budget at 10% of the goal I made it a fixed cost. So that £40 was going to be £40 regardless of how successful the project was. I got away with it this time but going forward I’ll be ensuring it scales with the campaign total.
I’ve already started thinking about ZineQuest 4, not so much in terms of content but logistics and planning. I think this campaign worked well so I wouldn’t change too much. If I run one next year my aim is to once again have as much as possible in place by the end of December. That will include bringing people on board earlier – an editor (probably Emzy if she is available) at a minimum but ideally an artist as well. That will obviously raise the campaign goal but for the direction I’m leaning towards stock art isn’t likely to be an option. My hope is that my sales this year will be sufficient to offset some of those costs and allow me to launch the Kickstarter with at least one showcase piece.
Obviously, unlike Project Cassandra, this won’t be a game that I’ve been working on for years which means I need to get it outlined and workshopped ASAP. Having seen the range of games on offer this year I think that I will aim for a less traditional system that embraces more indie concepts. Partially because I want to explore that space but also because the indie approaches I enjoy the most tend towards lighter systems with less mechanical crunch. I think Project Cassandra was about as crunchy as I’d be comfortable with given the constraints of the format.
One of the things that I need to change from this time round is promotion. While Project Cassandra reached more people than I ever expected I’m also not under the illusion that it was all (or even primarily) down to what I did. ZineQuest is one of those force multiplier events that allowed me to reach a lot more people than I normally could and I’ve no doubts that without its community I would have struggled to reach even the initial £400 goal.
That said I think with the proper promotion a future project could do even better but it is going to require work. Self promotion and networking is an area that I find excruciatingly difficult, both in gaming and my professional life as an academic. It’s also an essential aspect of this publishing gig – unless you manage to accidentally go viral with a new game it’s hard to get noticed unless you have an established following. I’m also extremely clear that this is an area where a) I’m going to have to push myself to consistently engage with more people and b) I’m in the privileged position that I can afford to fail. I’m doing this as a hobby and while I can day dream of one day making it a major part of my income I know how unlikely that is.
So what am I going to do about it? First up try and just put myself out there, primarily on twitter and to join conversations (while also being careful not to push myself into them when I’m not wanted). I’m also going to do my best to convert as many backers of this campaign as possible to being fans of my work. This is one of the reasons why I’ve started the LunarShadow Designs Newsletter, as an attempt to build awareness of my work and that of other indie creators. It’s slow going but I’ve made those first few steps. Once in person conventions return I’m going to do my best to attend as many as feasible, including looking into a stall at smaller events just to be seen.
The other important thing is to continue to release new material. I’m never going to be one of those designers that is constantly releasing games or supplements week after week but I’ve got a number of unfinished products in the pipeline. I’m slowly building up a portfolio that showcases what I am capable of and I think Project Cassandra is an excellent example of that but it’s only a start and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.
With the work on Project Cassandra well under way (the draft text is now in the hands of backers) the start of the month also saw another new milestone for LunarShadow Designs with the launch of the first Newsletter, which will be releasing at the start of each month going forward. My goal each month is to talk about what I’m personally working on and to highlight new releases that have caught my attention. As the organiser of the ZineQuest 3 Jam on itch.io I also want to talk about the games that have been submitted to the jam with a focus on a few that I’m personally excited about.
You can find Issue #1 of the newsletter here and if you want to get future updates direct to your inbox once a month please sign up. I’ll still be updating the blog when I want to talk about something in more depth, though I expect those articles will be a little more sparse while I work on completing Project Cassandra.
The kickstarter for Project Cassandra wrapped over the weekend, raising £1830 thanks to the support of 175 people. Having had a few days away from it all, but with everything still fresh in my mind I wanted to do an initial retrospective on the campaign. I’m going to try and avoid giving advice here based on that experience. Partially because I’ve yet to actually produce and release the game but primarily because datum does not equal data. I could try and draw conclusions from what I did but looking at it with my data analyst head on the vast majority of zinequest 3 projects succeeded and many of those took wildly different approaches to my own campaign. So I’m going to stick to observations only.
Project Cassandra is a game of Cold War psychics trying to prevent an apocalyptic vision from coming to pass. Unlike many of the ZineQuest offerings this is a complete game using its own system. The campaign ran for 2 weeks from 4pm 20th Feb to 4pm 6th March with an initial goal of £400. Besides myself there was only one other person involved, Emzy Wisker, who I’d hired as an editor.
After two weeks of hustle the campaign reached 457% funded, raising £1830 from 175 people. We hit the goal of £400 in the first four and a half hours. With a relatively modest goal I knew we had an excellent chance of funding but I honestly did not expect to reach it that quickly. Privately I’d set a target of hitting it within the first 48 hours, as it would turn out that was approximately how long it took to reach the first stretch goal.
As expected the number of pledges plateaued during the middle of the campaign before picking up again around 3 days before the end. The quiet middle wasn’t a surprise, it happens to most campaigns but the uptick 3, rather than 2, days prior to the end was surprising. Kickstarter sends a reminder email 48 and 8 hours before the end of a campaign if you’ve saved it but not backed it so I don’t know where this increase came from. At launch the project had ~150 followers, which increased to 252 by the end and a final conversion rate of 28%. It sat at around 18% until the final stretch and from talking to other creators a final rate in the 25-30% range is fairly normal.
Breaking the backers down by reward tier there were 63 at PDF only, 96 bought print copies (with 2/3 of those being international, non-UK backers), all 10 redacted editions sold out and 2 of the 3 online sessions went. The breakdown is roughly what I’d expected based on looking at other campaigns. I’m honestly surprised that the redacted editions not only sold out but did so within a matter of hours. I had included those as a special nod to the genre and didn’t foresee them being so popular.
Not knowing how well the game would do I waited a day before announcing the traditional stretch goals. The first was full colour printing, at £800. That was reached within 48 hours. I set the next two as multiples of the initial goal with targets of £1200 and £1600. Based on just watching other campaigns I thought £1200 was achievable and £1600 was a big push. Thankfully we hit both, the last with a day still to go.
During the run up to ZineQuest 3 I promoted the game pretty heavily on Twitter and discord but less heavily elsewhere. Those two sites are both where I’m most active and where there is a visible ZineQuest community. I should give special thanks to the other creators this year – there was substantial cross promotion and retweeting that got links in front of more people that I could have on my own. I also receive boosts from many people that follow me, which I’m very thankful for.
During the run up to the campaign I was offered the opportunity to do interviews with the Yes Indie’d and Effekt podcasts which again, anecdotally, boosted reach. I know for certain that a number of the Effekt listeners backed the campaign while Yes Indie’d reaches indie gamers I’d have otherwise missed.
The big thing I didn’t do with regards promotion was run the game much at conventions. I’ve had a hard time engaging with them following the shift online but it would have been a good way to get it in front of people I have no connection to. That I’ve also been missing having a regular group over the last year should have served as an additional push on that front.
I said I wasn’t going to give any advice in this post but I do want to talk a little about the bits I would do the same if I run another campaign in the future.
The first is plan ahead again. I started my planning for the campaign around November, well before I made a final decision about whether I would even run it. That gave me time to both play around with my budget and to prepare my campaign page without rushing. While I continued to tweak both right up until launch I had completed drafts by Christmas, significantly reducing my stress levels in the run up to launch.
Second, get the majority of the text written before launch. While the draft of Project Cassandra is only 90% complete I’ve been working on it for years. That meant I could present a clear estimate of the focus and goals of the game. It also meant I could include demo material that people could read over and try out. While I can’t be certain of the overall impact of that it did lead to somebody not only backing the game at the highest level but running a streamed playtest while the campaign was underway.
Third, use stock art. While I would love to be able to commission artwork in the future I cannot overstate the value of stock art. The only reason I could justify the £400 goal was because all of the art is stock, either freely available or costing £3-5 per piece. I had the advantage of producing a game set during recent history, so there is no shortage of era appropriate photos available through sites such as Unsplash. If I’d been producing a Dyson Eclipse game I’d have been severely constrained in terms of low cost choices and would have required a significantly higher goal. If I run a campaign again next year I suspect that I will budget for either a small number of commissioned interior pieces or a full colour cover.
That’s a lot of what I’d do the same, so what would I do differently? The big one is probably launch a little earlier. With ZineQuest growing over the last few years fatigue is definitely an issue. Anecdotally I saw a big drop in people talking about it during the final week of February / first week of March. I don’t know how that impacts on final numbers across the event but I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest campaigns all launched during the first half of the month.
Ok, so this turned into a much longer post than I’d envisaged. The wrap-up is that as a campaign it was a far bigger success than I’d imagined and I think I did most things well. There are a few areas where I could definitely improve but as this one game has now blown past my total earnings from everything else I’ve ever released it’s a clear win. I’m planning to follow up with additional posts as milestones in production are reached and as I deal with the dreaded postage of the zines but for now I’ll leave it with one final thought.