Measure of Success: Publishing, Cons, etc

In thinking about this post [Choosing price as a design element](http://Choosing Price As Design),

I wonder: How do we measure the success of a product, an event, author, or a publisher?

There are a lot of models in our little community. A lot of different events, cultures, conventions, publishing houses, etc. A lot of these seem to have different intentions. Some examples off the top of my head:

  1. authors and publishers that intentionally and meaningfully publish women and PoC in an attempt to make gaming more diverse.
  2. An author who uses harassment as a advertising strategy, and generates a reasonable amount of cash before being excused from the community. [ Probably the least said on this one the better, but it is a model.]
  3. Talented people designing games and living in poverty and near-poverty, reliant upon the continued investment of a community built off DIY principles.
  4. A DIY camping and gaming event that meets every year, has some ups and downs and generates a lot of community love while relying on all volunteer labor. (BTW: campnerdly.org, reg is open)
  5. A con company that uses a lot of volunteer and near-volunteer labor, that espouses and lives values of inclusivity
  6. A con company that has large scale cons for thousands of people while generating boatloads of cash for the investor class.
  7. A community’s expensive, well-designed, and well-modded forums intended to advance a community spirit and spread a particular cool culture of gaming.
  8. a gaming table that uses it’s own material and is diverged from all published material over the past decade.

These are not meant to be exhaustive nor inclusive; there are more models and I have intentionally fictionalized these to highlight the differences. These are not meant to refer to specific people and organizations, but to highlight the difference in models. And in particular, these are not meant to cast aspersions at anyone (well, one. You are not him.)

Which of these can be called successful? What are the relevant components to these being successful? Is there a difference between a successful business and a successful community? If so, what is it?

Can an organization consistently be both a successful community and a successful business?

5 Likes

I tend to think success is self-defined. If I meet my objectives, that’s a success (for me). If I fail to meet my objectives but deliver someone else’s needs it could be a failure for me but a success for them.

17 Likes

I’d argue success is subjective. I’ve seen this sort of discussion all the time in the indie fiction publishing/writing world. One writer’s/company’s success is another writer’s/company’s abject failure.

I approach it in simple concepts: Am I happy doing the work I’m doing, whether it’s writing, publishing, freelanciing, etc.? Yes? Success. No? What do I need to do to feel successful?

Anyone else’s opinion on whether they think I’m successful or not doesn’t matter to me–it’s their opinion and they have the right to it.

I think an org can have a successful business and a successful community, just as you could pull the levers on either and switch them around. An unsuccessful business could have a great community, and a successful business might have a terrible community.

A writer or a company might even be successful even if their values or practices aren’t things that mesh with my values or practices.

6 Likes

In terms of successful community vs successful business. I’d say the key to this is the objectives of the two being aligned.

A community focused on the enjoyment and appreciation of one company’s products is a thing that can and does exist. In that case, the business is benefiting from the existence of the community and vice versa.

Similarly, a business whose objectives are to deliver a vibrant community in exchange for money can marry the two effectively, as long as the monetary cost is acceptable for the benefits being delivered.

So I think yes, you can have the two together.

8 Likes

I agree I think it is self-defined and moreover it should be. Because a one-size fits all approach is not really helpful and not only ends up with me comparing myself to Critical Roll and getting so down I give up designing games, but also means our community is less interesting.

Success for me is:

  • having a shelf of books with physical things I made on it.
  • making things that I find meaningful or interesting
  • making games that people play

The last one is the biggest for me in terms of measuring my personal success. It matters to me that people play (and enjoy) the games I make. Feeling like I’ve affected someone across the world and helped them to have a super fun time is really powerfully motiving.

It isn’t to say that sales don’t matter to me - they do. But I started designing games for people to play them never imagining I’d sell them and so that is still the measure by which I think about it.

Also I have strong views on capitalism and social responsibility and I’m still working out how they sit with ‘selling games’.

12 Likes

I’d love to hear them and maybe act as a sounding board! This is probably a good place; if you’d rather go private feel free to DM me.

Ok so I am deeply suspicious of capitalism. I feel like it is a system and a tool which at some point started to use humans instead of humans using it and soon enough it will have chewed through the planet until there are no humans left. However it is utterly pervasive and if I want to exist as a designer in the system then my existence is a series of trade offs.

I want people to play my games, I want my games to be published as books. I want art in my books which shows an inclusive approach to the world in the hopes that if I help to normalise it then it will move the world to a better place. I have the capacity to make change through my art, my art will be more widely spread if I engage with the system and it exists in tension with it all the time. Which sounds way more dramatic than it really is.

This is really indicative of my larger disquiet with the system. About once a year I half-seriously consider running away to Wales and living off-grid. As it is I live on-grid in Derbyshire on 1/2 an acre of land where we grow some of our own food, mend our clothes, make jam, smoke our own bacon and sometimes keep chickens and pigs.

But… I don’t believe the system will change by opting out of it. The system will change by being in it and living my values and normalising a different way of behaving despite the system.

So game design is really a small part of a large issue for me.

8 Likes

interesting. I think success is entirely subjective and really down to the individual or organization in question to define what it means for them.

As the principal organizer of The Gauntlet, I frequently think about what it means for The Gauntlet to be “successful.” There are several different ways I measure it.

Financial
Between Patreon, KS projects, DriveThru sales, and a few smaller sources, I project our 2019 revenue will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 175-200K. Is that enough money for The Gauntlet to be considered successful? Yeah, possibly. We’re still not going to be super-profitable, though it might be the first year I can actually pay myself something, so that’s definitely a success in my eyes, haha. The money certainly allows us to pay our bills, put cash in the hands of worthy creators (including many women, queer people, and PoC), and expand what we’re able to do as a community. Importantly, money gives us the freedom to adapt to changing circumstances and explore new creative opportunities. The scope of The Gauntlet’s activities means we are still broke, but we get to do many things others do not, and so I consider that a success.

Influence
This is a more nebulous measure of success, but it’s one that is very important to the community’s organizers. In the broader hobby, we’re the tiniest of fish. But within the indie community, we’re a very big fish. (I mean, we’re not producing 6+ podcasts in order to not be heard.) But it’s definitely tough to measure. We tend to conserve and then very strategically deploy our influence—we don’t chime in on every industry conversation or controversy, and we don’t put our weight behind every project—and so it often seems like we’re not in the mix. But, when we choose to weigh in, we can have a major impact (see: our Zak S statement, which was viewed by 90,000 different people, or the success of the Girl Underground KS, which we muscled to the top of Zine Quest). But, even within the indie space, there are far more influential voices than us.

Gauntleteer Happiness
This is the most important measure of success to me. Are the people in The Gauntlet—principally our Slack, but increasingly the forums—happy? Do they love being a member of the community? Are they doing the best gaming of their lives on Gauntlet Hangouts? Is our community culture strong? Is our play culture the gold standard in the hobby? Between Codex, Gauntlet Con, and all the rest, are they getting a lot of value? These are the things I think about every day. None of the rest matters if we ever stop being a strong, values-focused community.

19 Likes

I think that’s all about right! My own views on capitalism go further, and as I don’t want this to become a politics post in a gaming forum I’m going to leave it at that.

But, to tie back to gaming: Capitalism is a game. The job market is a game, with income as the market of success.

It sucks as a game, as if you lose you can’t eat or be in the same room as a doctor (US centric). The stakes are really really high, but only at one end. The stakes go down really drastically as you have more and more income.

This is one thing I love about some conventions and other events: Internally, they can operate on an entirely different structure. Those communities don’t have to be capitlaistic, and can instead be run along more egalitarian lines.

2 Likes

This is really interesting.

First: Thank you for the transparency. Oh, and for straight-up deplatforming That Asshole. Your doing that is essentially why I am here.

Second: I have some questions.
Financially: About $200k in income (USD, I assume) is pretty reasonable. Is The Gauntlet incorporated? If so, is there an ownership class and is it essentially the case that everyone doing labor for The Gauntlet is your employee? Are Management and Capital separate? (assuredly not)

Sorry, that was a lot. I think I can simplify that to: Are you treating the Gauntlet like a business and yourself as Owner?

Influence: Lauren is a friend, and it was great to see her on a Kickstarter. Thanks! Do you have ongoing ways to measure this?

Happiness: Do you have ongoing means of measuring this?

1 Like

‘Suspicious’ is probably the mildest way I’d describe my views on capitalism - but this probably isn’t the place.

3 Likes

Reading your replies, @William_Nichols, I’m wondering if in this thread you’re more interested in financial sustainability and share of any financial benefits/burdens than in other measures of success? Is that fair? (This isn’t a prelude to trying to take your argument apart or whatever, I’m just trying to work out how I might make helpful contributions to the discussion.)

Nah; I’m interested in the distinction between business and community.

I’ve got conjectures about the two and how they interact, but am more interested in what others think than what I do. Afterall, I can query my own brain pretty easily.

Well, that’s just projected based on what I know we’re getting up to this year. We may fall well short of that (or even exceed it, I suppose). Last year’s revenue was nowhere near that. We’re organized as an LLC in Texas, mostly for favorable tax treatment. We may still organize as a non-profit at some point. Right now, most of the people who work for us do so on a contract basis.

For bigger publishing projects (Hearts of Wulin, Trophy, The Between, and a few that are so far unannounced), our model is more of a co-op model, with The Gauntlet splitting profits with the authors (it’s an industry-generous split, too—authors get 50% of all profits, forever). We do everything but write the text, including layout, editing, art, printing, shipping, and so forth. We also have a big playtesting infrastructure.

For Codex, we pay on a per-word basis (presently .05 per word, soon to be .06). That is somewhat misleading, though, since the authors retain 100% ownership of their text. Art that goes into Codex is paid at a higher rate than industry-standard (we pay $100 for a full page of black and white illustration, which is significantly higher than what even some big publishers pay). There again, the artist retains ownership of the illustration (although our contract requests they not use it for another gaming project). The main thing we own is the final laid out version of each issue of Codex. So, authors and artists own their work, but they can’t share it all put together in the way that we do.

Strictly-speaking, we’re a single-member LLC (I’m that member) but as we grow, that will almost certainly change. At present, I gain almost nothing financially from The Gauntlet, though I have recently made Patreon tiers that allow me to get paid a modest amount for my time, so that’s been a nice change. A major component of our success is that I am able to dedicate an uncompensated 40+ hours a week to The Gauntlet. But that’s pretty common in this industry. Fred Hicks basically paid himself nothing during the early years of Evil Hat, for example. It’s a very frustrating aspect of the industry that makes it REALLY hard for less-privileged people to break into (if you want to do it right, at least).

As for measuring influence and happiness, nah, there’s no way of doing that. It’s all gut instinct.

10 Likes

Ah, the intersection of business and community, or my entire life.

So, I’m reliant for my livelihood on curation and dissemination of other folks’ creative work. Ideally if I’m succeeding at my job, I am stepping in to help creators I admire navigate the capitalism part of the gig. I’d prefer to make enough money to contribute to my family’s welfare but have no particular interest in becoming more wealthy than I already am. I want to put games I like by people I like into as many people’s hands as I can in a way that multiplies their reach and amplifies their voices. There’s a totally legit case to be made that I’m just another rent-seeking middle-man, so I try to always be conscious of what I’m doing for the community besides just taking their money. I do better at this sometimes than others, of course…

The messy crossover in this hobby between consumers and creators and critics and merchants makes things complicated and weird sometimes. But it also means there’s a whole lot more paths to success (by whatever metric you have for that) than in other fields that are totally dominated by corporate gatekeepers and rent-seekers.

5 Likes

It seems depending on where we fall within the indie community we have to measure our success differently.

Since I am an unknown in the industry and also an amateur my biggest metric for success is whether or not people play my game. Without people knowing me or my game(s) it is near impossible to have any financial success or even fair compensation for my work.

I am running a KS for my game right now and it is likely to fund but the most it will cover is the cost of art, writing and editing. My own work will likely be compensated at pennies/hour.

This is, as far as I can tell, the most common first step that indie game designers have to make.

3 Likes

Agreed. I’ve been all of those things, and it’s bizarre. The difference in perspective from moving to one to the other is really strange. I find the cognitive dissonance of caretaking a community and seeking to extract wealth from it’s members particularly hard.

The solution to my cognitive dissonance has always been the same: Make everything free and ask for donations. That has it’s own pilfalls. I’ll admit I originally found it perplexing that individuals would give up wealth voluntarily for the sake of a community, then I saw it in action and understood.

That realization happened when, at a public event, we put out a hat to ask for donations. The organization needed to net maybe $50 per event. We had 50 people. We found twenties, placed there by multiple people.

Those folks knew they had more than others, and knew they benefited from the event. So, they wanted to contribute. I’ve seen that repeated over and over again whenever people are given a chance.

4 Likes

I try to define success and popularity differently.

If I made a game that I was happy with when I published it, that I enjoyed making, that says what I wanted to say with it, and others enjoyed playing, (and I managed not to bankrupt myself with a kickstarter or some other foolhardy scheme) I count it a success.

If a game I make someday hits it big and lots of people play it? Then I’ll count it as popular.

I’ll admit though that it’s often hard for me not to conflate or confuse one for the other.

4 Likes

Yeah, the fact that I’m a go-between means that my own ability to do something like a donation model is effectively non-existent, so that requires behaving ethically and transparently, and trying to bend the arc where I can.

3 Likes

It is interesting, in that your question is phrased about ‘us’ measuring ‘others’, but most of the responses are about ‘us’ measuring ‘ourselves’. That might just be an accidental distinction and not a real one though.

The examples are interesting because the way they are set out most of them have stated objectives and so success would presumably be defined by whether they successfully met those objectives. #6 is successful if it generates boatloads of cash, but isn’t if it doesn’t, while success for #8 might just be whether half a dozen friends are continuing to have fun!

For me, designing games is something I do apart from my full-time job, and I do it for the love of creating games and helping people have fun. I know of plenty of other people for whom designing games IS their full time job. I would imagine that there are some things that I and they would consider success that overlap. On the other hand if a game of mine wasn’t ‘successful’ it would be disappointing but I’d still have food on the table, so perhaps I can afford a narrow view of success?

Massive credit to those people who are able to do stuff (whether products, events, publishing, podcasting, art etc) as a full time job. One of my personal criteria for success is whether I can afford to employ people who are in that position for my art, editing for my games etc.

I started the thread about choosing price as a design element because I missed the panel which was essentially discussing that at metatopia, but it seemed like an interesting question. My understanding is the general thesis is that publishers tend to undercharge for their work, and that ends up harming everyone. Still something I’d like to understand more.

4 Likes