Over the years I’ve gotten asked to do a lot of interviews, text and voice. (Recently, I’ve been interviewed by the Washington Post, even, which was a bit of a head-spinner.) There’s a ton of questions that are the questions I often get.
Recently I agreed to do an interview for a student project, thinking I’d get 5 or 6 of the usual questions. Instead I got 32 questions (many of them variations on “the usual”). I’ll have to answer them briefly due to the volume. (Tip for interviewers: if you want longer answers to your questions, ask fewer questions.)
Rather than answer them just for this project, I’m gonna answer them here in public, so I’ve got something I can point people at when they come knocking. Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?
Name: Fred Hicks
Education: Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida. Did one year of grad school at Oklahoma State, but bailed when I realized I hated doing research & citations, which is pretty much the entirety of grad school.
Occupation: Tabletop game publisher
What is your history with Roleplaying Games?
I first got into them by way of a playground friend named Eamon in the 3rd grade who was tinkering with the contents of the red box in plain sight. Got fascinated by the dice. Pretty much started hacking and houseruling the games I played from the get-go, but didn’t frequently have friends to play them with until I got towards high school and college. Played a ton of Amber and Fudge over those years, along with Champions, GURPS, Beyond the Supernatural, and a few others. Playing Amber online via a MUSH (multi-user shared hallucination) server got me most of the lasting connections & friendships I took into my professional life, in one way or another. Eventually I spent enough time around one of those friends, Rob Donoghue, that our natural tendency to consume and hack RPG systems gave birth to Fate, based on the Fudge system… which was just a weird little side project we did to support our own gaming. But we wanted to share it, and so we did, online, free, and it kinda took off. Enough so that we ended up with the license for the Dresden Files RPG by way of another online friend from those MUSHing days, Jim Butcher. Which gave us the spurs to turn Evil Hat from a casual label under which we did our game projects into a “real” game company around 2006 or so.
How long have you been playing Roleplaying Games?
Let me do the math here… Looks like… 33 years or so.
Have those been mainly your own creations or others?
Most of those years? Others’ creations, with a healthy dose of house rules and hackery. So I suppose the answer is… both?
Before Evil Hat, to what extent have you written your own systems, campaigns and/or scenarios?
Eamon and I were hacking the red box D&D set from the get-go, mainly because as 3rd graders we thought that rolling 3d12 for stats was WAY cooler than 3d6. Go forward a few years, and my friend Merlin (yes, that was his name) and I would tinker with the random mutation tables from Gamma World to create our own superhero system. But usually I talk about “a hack” of an existing system rather than writing something whole cloth, until we get to the Evil Hat years. Tho Fate kinda-sorta preceded that by a few years — Rob and I first started working on that around 2000-2001. At the time, Evil Hat existed, but primarily as a label under which we ran convention scenarios for Amber Diceless at AmberCon Northwest.
What is your primary motivation in your writing processes?
Getting done so I can stop obsessing with the current project and move on to the next one.
Do you enjoy reading and playing others systems, campaigns, scenarios?
Honestly I usually don’t enjoy the reading. RPG setting-writing had a bad rap with me for a long while because so much of it was just dull to me. I don’t have a lot of patience as a reader; you’ve gotta grab me by the hair right out the gate, then do your world-building in as little space as possible so I can have a context for starting to play as soon as possible. To an extent this was part of the motivation behind creating the Fate Worlds series of supplements for Fate Core — most of the worlds in those books are 30-40 pages in length, which is about right for my taste.Playing, tho? Heck yeah. My play & others’ play is how I absorb most of my info about gaming systems and worlds.
What, is for you, the pros and cons of others and your own creations and writings respectively?
So basically in just a few words, explain the entire world or gaming? Easy peasy.
No, not really. But I’ll cover what I can as briefly as I can.
When a game fails for me it fails because it hasn’t made it easy to get into its head-space. Maybe the system is too baroque, or the system’s just fine but the writing around it is opaque, or maybe they just didn’t hit me with a hook up front that compelled me to keep investing time and attention in it.
When a game succeeds it’s usually because it fits the system (and hence, the play experience) very tightly together with what I think is cool about the setting or genre it’s matched with. Folks have talked before about system and setting being separate things, but I don’t think they are, not really. When you get them existing and acting truly separately instead of each informing the other, you have a dysfunctional whole.
I’m not going to name names but that’s the easiest, if most abstract, way I can talk about “the pros and cons of others’ creations and writings”. There’s a ton of great ideas out there that are seen as great by a great many people. I love the variety of this hobby, even if big chunks of the hobby aren’t “for me”.
As far as pros and cons of my own writing and creating goes, the cons are “I had to write it, which is hard work” and “I don’t have time for that any more now that I’m more focused on running the company”. The pros… man, you are asking the wrong guy. Other folks should tell you what’s good about my stuff, not me.
Are there any non-Evil Hat publications you regularly enjoy (or at least want to enjoy)?
Mark Diaz Truman and crew are tearing it up with the Fate Codex. But in terms of stuff I get a chance to regularly enjoy, it’s hard to come up with a list. I have young kids and a game company to look after, which leaves precious little time for other things.
Have you tried to publish your own or someone elses work before starting (at) Evil Hat?
Nope. I wasn’t a publisher before Evil Hat, save to the extent we made the earliest versions of Fate a free download before Evil Hat formally existed as a commercial entity.
What were your experiences with this?
Like I said, nope… but see below.
Is there a difference in the possibilities of publishing now and then?
When we started moving towards that commercial entity state, we approached it all much as individual, self-publishing folk would at the time (2005-2006). Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century, our first two products as a company, were published by way of print-on-demand technology, which was pretty young at the time but just starting to get internet-accessible and affordable. Outside of PDFs, e-books weren’t really a thing. The options for print on demand have really expanded in the 8 years since, and thanks to Amazon and others there’s more interest in e-book formats than before.
In your own words, how would you describe Evil Hat?
An alliance of incredible people making amazing games that they’re passionate about.
How many people are employed at any given time?
Our “regular” folks who help me run the company, including me, number five: I’m essentially the day to day operations of the company; Sean Nittner is our project manager and makes sure the calendars and schedules always make sense and that projects largely stick to their timelines; Carrie Harris focuses on our marketing and fiction efforts; Chris Hanrahan keeps his eye on the future as our business development head; and Rob Donoghue safeguards the soul of the company and comes up with strange, beautiful ideas.Past that core we’ve got at least a dozen or so freelancers working on something at any given time. During busiest times, even more.
Where are you situated and how spacious are your offices?
We don’t have offices. We’re a distributed company, everybody working from home from a variety of time zones. So my own personal office space is as spacious as my living room, because it is my living room.
How and why did Evil Hat Publishing get started?
Jim Butcher asked us to create the Dresden Files RPG for him. Our public tinkering with and subsequent sharing of Fate got some attention, got some awards, and made its way to his agent, Jennifer Jackson. She encouraged Jim to talk to his “award-winning designer friends” to make sure the RPG was something he would be proud of and comfortable with. It was exactly the kick in the ass that Rob and I needed to go from house-rule hackery to a real effort to publish things for actual dollars.
How has Evil Hat evolved since its inception?
Every time we’ve made a significant step forward it’s usually been because we looked at who we were working with already, realized we were doing too much with too few people, and then reached for new folks to help us bridge that gap. Leonard Balsera started working with us when Rob and I realized we weren’t the equal of getting Spirit of the Century done on our own. More recently, I brought on Chris Hanrahan to help me figure out how to expand what the company was doing in the wake of us finally publishing the Dresden Files RPG (June 2010). He helped me see the way to start a number of new projects in the year that lead to the launch of the Fate Core Kickstarter (December 2012-Jan 2013). And it was the profound success of that Kickstarter campaign that brought us both Sean Nittner and Carrie Harris, completing the formation of the “Head”, as it were, that runs the Hat. Thanks to all that we’re more capable today than ever of creating tons of new stuff, all at the same time, without actually blowing our schedules all to hell… which is a huge evolution for us compared to how long it’s taken us to deliver some projects in the past.
Which project/product are you most proud of having contributed to?
Don’t make me choose my favorite baby. If you put a gun to my head, tho, it’s probably a tie between Fate Core and the Dresden Files RPG.
In your own words, can you describe a normal workday at Evil Hat?
It’s gonna vary person to person, but my normal workday involves waking up, stumbling a few dozen feet to my laptop, and getting to work on my email. Most of my time is spent in my email because I use it for tracking what’s “on deck” for me to get done. Sometimes it’s a little bit of layout work or art direction. Other times I’m sorting out packaging or cover design for a new product, or talking with Sean Nittner about project priorities and timelines. It’s an aggregate of a lot of little jobs and conversations here and there.
Which positions do you have at Evil Hat and how are they staffed?
Well, I talked about this above already, I think. We’ve got the five folks running the company. For me, it’s full time, for the rest, it’s more of an evenings and weekends and free time sort of thing. Everyone on the Head gets a monthly payment, tho in most cases since the Head is pretty new and the company’s still pretty young & small it’s not much money at all. As we grow the company, so too will the payments.
Outside of that our creative, development, editing, art, etc, is all done with freelance folks who get contracted to do that work on a project by project basis, usually paid by the word or the piece.
How free are employees to pursue personal projects?
Pretty damned free given the above. In a way, Evil Hat is the personal project for most folks, who typically have a day job for actually paying the bills & getting health coverage, etc.
Which procedures does a project go through to be greenlit?
I don’t know that we have procedures that lead up to a green light. Mostly it’s about coming up with an idea, discussing it with the Head, and getting enough people (at least me + one other person, often Chris Hanrahan) convinced that it’s worth doing.
Past the green light, Sean has been defining a lot of this for us over the past year-or-so. We start with a vision document that talks about the requirements for the project and what we’d like to see in there. After that, an outline. After that, the writing of the first draft; then editing and playtesting and revisions; then production and manufacture.
Since you say that you want to “make things that don’t suck” what is your quality control process like?
A lot of it has to do with giving our creative folk the freedom to create something they’re proud of rather than just hitting the requirements. For games, playtesting is critical too. By the time we reach the production and manufacture stage we need to be confident that we’ve got something that reliably produces fun, both in play and in learning and reading.
When working on licensed products, such as Dresden Files and Atomic Robo, have you experienced any issues with conflicting policies?
Our licensing deals usually come about because the licensor wants to work with us specifically. That eliminates the lion’s share of potential priority conflicts. Our value is already known to the licensor, rather than it needing to be proven at every step of the way.
Beyond that, tho, we typically don’t start up a licensed game project without talking to the licensor somewhat extensively about what they want to see. If they’re coming to us, they’ve got to have ideas of what they’re interested in us — specifically us — doing, and how strongly they feel about those ideas. This helps form our requirements for the project. After all, the licensor is the originator of the ideas that birth the project in the first place.
We also do our best to really study the source material and make sure we’re reliably producing writing and play experiences that feel like they’re coming directly from the property. The Dresden Files RPG, in play, feels like the Dresden Files universe. Same with Robo. Super important. And also another way in which priorities don’t end up in conflict.
Working with Freelancers
How many freelancers do you usually employ at any given time?
Believe I answered this already, but: it has ranged from a handful to a couple dozen.
What are the pros and cons of using freelance work?
For a tiny company — which practically every company in the RPG field is — it’s a practical necessity. RPGs don’t generate the kind of cashflow that can fund many salaries, if any salaries, so you’ve got to do payout and team-assembly on a project by project basis.
The cons? Well. There’s no guarantee your freelancers will be available for every project you have them on. That said, we do our best at Evil Hat to make working for us a fun time, so folks want to come back and do new projects.
Kickstarter & Patreon
Why did you choose to use crowdfunding as a means to launch and drive your projects, as opposed to traditional financing?
Traditional financing requires more paperwork and is less fun.
But really, we spent ten years before our first Kickstarter building up an audience. Crowdfunding is an excellent method for converting audience into cash, and it doubles as a marketing/launch/buzz-build campaign while it’s doing it. It’s a LOT of work, but all of its work involves putting something out there for your fans and being available to them while you’re doing it. That’s something I love doing personally, so it’s simply a really good fit for how Evil Hat’s been doing business before crowdfunding came into the picture.
How have your experiences with crowdfunding been?
Stellar. Like I said, it’s hard work, and I think there are always some heavy frustrations to deal with, particularly during the “complaint phases” that every project seems to go through, but the direct connection with the fanbase can’t be beat.
Has crowdfunding changed Evil Hat Publishing and how?
See my comments above about how the Fate Core kickstarter changed the company. It’s a big deal! That campaign alone gave us two years of product line to work on, at the very least, and spurred us to formalize our methods more and expand the leadership team for the company. It’s a sea change, no doubt.
With the wish for high involvement of your community, what channels do you use for interacting with said community?
Primarily social media. We reach out to our fans on Twitter, Google Plus, and Facebook. We also show up occasionally on forum sites like RPG.net and Board Game Geek. We’ve also started using MailChimp for doing direct emails to folks who’ve opted in to learn about what’s going on with the company. And our website has been getting an incremental facelift over the last year-or-so as well, which acts as the hub for all of this.
Does your community play an active role in your creative processes?
Yup. We encourage our designers to “design in the open”, to take their ideas out into public and to the crowd when they’re looking for feedback. Often we also run product preorders where the early-adopter customers can get a look at the PDF of a game right away and send us feedback if they catch typos or other problems from the finishing phase.
How much time and energy do you spend managing and interacting with your community?
I don’t “manage” my communities very much at all, partly because I try to create a culture where the communities don’t need management, exactly. We orient strongly on positive interaction and collaboration and avoid tearing stuff down — that’s a fun geek sport for some folks, but I think it’s poison for a community. And I try to keep an eye out for folks who I can “deputize” to keep that culture on track and take care of any lightweight moderation duties that come about. That’s worked for the Jim Butcher forum I run, for the FateRPG Yahoo Group, and more recently for the Fate Core community on Google+, so I’m pretty comfy with it all as a method.
With that in place, my interaction with Evil Hat’s community is at a kind of constant, but pleasantly low hum. I peek in, listen to what’s being said, occasionally weigh in, for a few minutes here & there all throughout my waking day.
How do you support and interact the Friendly Local Gaming Stores and customers?
Our biggest point of support is via the Bits & Mortar Initiative, a multi-member alliance of RPG publishers who are willing to give FLGS customers free PDFs of any eligible physical book they’ve bought through the store. This grew out of Evil Hat’s own Brick & Mortar PDF Guarantee policy (which was mirrored by/arose along with similar policies by other publishers). Customers love it, and it means they don’t have to choose between supporting a publisher vs. supporting their favorite game store. PDFs are not the enemy; we’re happy to use them to make our fans more happy with us and more happy with their local stores.
We’re also super transparent and if a game store contacts us with a problem involving one of our products we give them the same high standard of customer service and attention we give all our fans. Game stores are out there every day representing our stuff and giving it a home. They’re taking a chance on our stuff and helping us find new fans. That’s huge. They deserve all the support we can give them.