Evil Hat has gone through a number of changes over the years. We’re going through a new one now. But to talk about that, perhaps we need some context.
We—Rob Donoghue and I—established the company late in 2005, right on the heels of getting an offer from an old friend of mine to do an RPG based on his series of novels.
Right away we knew we weren’t the equal of the job that offer set before us. We had zero publishing experience. We’d gotten onto the radar as a possible team to make that RPG because we’d put some well-laid-out house rules for the Fudge system online, named them Fate, and gathered something of a community of interested gamers around them, which culminated in us getting a few awards for that work. Those awards got noticed by my friend’s agent, who in turn asked my friend if he’d rather have people he knew working on the game rather than a company of folks he didn’t know.
Looking at that lack of experience, I started charting a course that would get us to it. I severely underestimated the time involved in crossing that distance, but we did cross it over time. Early on, in 2006, we leveraged the early rise of affordable, online-friendly print on demand to release our first two games, first a “one-off” that I wrote called Don’t Rest Your Head, and the second a few months later, Spirit of the Century. That latter one was in essence an unadvertised-as-such public beta of the system we were working on for the game that started the company off in the first place.
That game was the Dresden Files RPG, and it took us four more years to get it to where we released it at Origins in 2010. We went at a slow and careful pace in all the years in between, putting out a few more things here and there, all relatively small, and supporting the hell out of the Fate community along the way. Open licensing for Fate and my strong tendency for (as Jeff Tidball puts it) pathological transparency helped give us an online presence that was far bigger than we actually were. We were a loud, small indie throughout.
When the Dresden Files RPG launched, a few things happened.
First off, we suddenly ended up bringing in considerably more income for the company than we had previously. Not tons, mind you, but enough that I started paying myself more than $0 a month for the work I was doing for the company, and enough that I was able to pay back both Rob and myself the money we’d put into the company to get it started back in 2005 (a total of about $10k).
Second off, we started getting into bed with traditional games distribution. Previously we’d been solely selling our stuff through Indie Press Revolution (I am a very big fan of paying specialists a cut for doing what they do best when what they do best is something I don’t do particularly well — in this case, running an online storefront and handling shipping; ESPECIALLY shipping). But the Dresden Files RPG was a big enough deal that it meant the distributors came to us asking to carry it, rather than the other way around. And that gave us some power; we were able to dictate a few terms (which a few years later we relaxed towards more standard rates, etc, because it meant we’d sell more), dip our toe in to exactly the depth we were comfortable with, and see how it went. Over the years that followed we eventually expanded beyond IPR and Alliance, and today we’re carried by most major RPG distributors.
Third, it prompted a conversation with Rob. I sat with him in his house one evening and said something like this. “So with Dresden Files money coming in, we’re at a fork in the road. We can consider us done, since we’ve achieved what we set out to do, but I don’t think either of us is interested in Evil Hat stopping where it’s at. We can continue to be an RPG publisher, which is us doing pretty much what we’ve been doing for the past 5 years, just on other things. Or we can look at what it will take to turn Evil Hat from a roleplaying game company into, simply, a game company.”
Rob and I both felt that that last option was the way to go. And this was the first big pivot for us, really. You can tell when you’ve hit a pivot point, because the clock gets reset to zero. We were back to a point where we were about to go and do something … and had no little experience in how to do it, just like we did in 2005.
The next four years, the time between 2010’s Dresden Files RPG release, to 2013’s Fate Core Kickstarter and its release late into that year, is what followed. That lack of experience meant a lot of experimentation, of selecting incremental “stretches” for the company where we’d take a few steps in a new direction, testing our footing, making mistakes, and learning how not to repeat those mistakes. We tried publishing fiction (my conclusion: not something Evil Hat should do unless it’s willing to really focus on the fiction market; it does not work well as a half-measures thing). We started looking at publishing board and card games, making a series of newbie mistakes both on the Kickstarter and manufacturing side as we did so, but still producing a game that as of today is in the black (Race to Adventure). And we pushed towards producing that no-setting-attached Fate system book we’d been promising our fans for years.
Honestly, it was a pretty messy time. We got some great work done in that time, and I at least started getting smart (I’ll let you know if I ever actually succeed at that) about running the company, by bringing Chris Hanrahan on towards the end of that time-span to help me chart a trajectory for the company’s growth. I was aces at implementing, at getting stuff that was ready to go out the door out the door, that sort of thing, but I needed help to do more than just fight the daily fires well. There was plenty of stumbling, and Chris had his work cut out for him, but he’d built other businesses before, and I knew he’d eventually compensate for enough of my stupidity that we’d start to get somewhere.
When Fate Core hit, we had another “Dresden-class event” on our hands, a big influx of funding that put us into a bigger weight class than before. This prompted the second pivot, the one where I started getting better about admitting that I was carrying too much on my plate and that we needed all sorts of help to have any hope of delivering what we promised. Chris, what with it being his job and all, blazed the trail, encouraging me to bring on Sean Nittner as our project manager (if you like how we manage to deliver our stuff on time and as promised, thank Sean, he’s the reason why we didn’t belly-flop after Core happened), and Carrie Harris as our head of marketing. This was our “and I’ll form the head!” moment, where the leadership of Evil Hat that we have today first really started to coalesce. If we hadn’t made this move, Core might have been the beginning of the end, instead of starting a new chapter of growth.
Since late 2013, then, we’ve been inside of Evil Hat’s third phase. We’ve expanded from making just books to also making dice and the occasional board game. We’re starting to realize that goal that Rob and I set for the company in 2010, and to push beyond it. A great bit of which culminated in the big success we saw with the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game near the beginning of this year.
Which brings me to Origins 2016 and staying up late Saturday night there. I’d just finished trying out Tim Rodriguez’s excellent new deckbuilder design when Mark Diaz Truman came over and started talking about how companies in the “indie” space who are still around, like Evil Hat, should start thinking more heavily about the business side of things, and about how it might be time to transition from being indie publishers to operating at the smallest end of the “mid-tier”.
This dovetailed also with a conversation I had with Chris Badell from Greater Than Games where we talked about our different perspectives on risk (grossly oversimplified, me bearish, him bullish). And in the background over the past couple years leading up to both of these conversations, Chris Hanrahan, incrementally laying the groundwork for when I’d be ready for us to pivot again.
All of these conversations together started to get me clearer than I had been on how Evil Hat has still been running like an indie, and maybe shouldn’t be doing that any more, not at our scale of success, and certainly not with our ambitions factored in.
It didn’t really gel until I had a follow-up conversation with Mark a couple weeks later. I opened up the Evil Hat books to him and had him look over elements of cash flow and such, some deeper accounting stuff that I hadn’t really “got” before. Lots of light dawned with Mark able to point at specific numbers and such in our accounting to back it up — pointing out how we were keeping more cash on hand than we really needed to, for example — and then I had an afternoon eating call with Chris Hanrahan about all the stuff it made fall into place, particularly along the lines of realizing it was time to really, fully put people into jobs instead of treating all the work of running Evil Hat as something folks could just fit into their available time whenever. And so we realized we were now at the point where Chris had been trying to get us for a few years — so now it was time for us to start clicking everything into new positions, spinning dials, etc, to get all that happening.
The new pivot, the third-ish one, was here. And that started kicking off for reals around early July of this year. (Those paying close attention will notice that Evil Hat’s pivot opportunities have lined up with the biggest and most public successes we’ve had — DFRPG’s release in 2010, Fate Core’s big KS in 2013, DFCO’s big KS in 2016.)
The upshot of all of that goes a little something like this.
Thanks to the success of the DFCO KS, now is as good a time as Evil Hat will ever have for taking some risks to grow into the next-phase company we’ve been looking to become since 2010.
Chris Hanrahan, who was already acting as the company’s Vice President, has gone full time for Evil Hat. He’s working harder than ever at making sure that Evil Hat continues to grow and continues to seek new opportunities where we can find them (and where they fit our ethical and corporate and fans-of-games perspectives).
Carrie Harris’s head of marketing position has gone full time as well, bringing along with it an attendant increase in authority, scope of action, and marketing budget for the company. (Some time back we also brought on Tom Lommel to help us with our social media presence, freeing Carrie up to focus on bigger-picture marketing things.)
Sean Nittner continues to work for us in a part-time capacity, but we’re bumping his salary to pay him closer to what he’s worth (but it’s hard to pay someone whose work is priceless to the company what they are actually worth, let’s be honest). We’ll grow his project management team as needed, too. (We brought on Sophie Lagace and Chris Ruggiero a while back to help, already. Sean will tell us when he needs more help.)
We also brought on Brian Patterson as our “artist in residence”, generating original art for our marketing and product needs, as well as heading up our art direction efforts. Brian’s a multihyphenate talent, and he’ll be lending his support both to marketing and to product development.
That all said, this latest pivot isn’t just about putting people on the payroll and giving out raises & responsibilities. It’s also about shifting our perspective on how we handle our product releases, our crowdfunding strategies, and more.
We’re still sorting out what all of that means. The newest pivot is far from done with its “spin-up” really!
But, as one example, it does mean we need to stop doing things like this famine-or-feast release pattern we’ve been mired in for years. 2016’s been rough on the retail and distribution channel largely due to us focusing all of our releases into the recent Fate More kickstarter: folks looking for what Evil Hat’s releasing in 2016 have seen essentially nothing-nothing-nothing-nothing-nothing-OH HOLY CRAP HERE ARE SEVEN BOOKS ALL AT ONCE-nothing-nothing. Frankly that runs a real risk of undermining the individual books there — we’re having a tough time helping each one of them shine individually, if at all, when they’re all muscling through the doorway at the same time. (Mmmm, smell those metaphors mixing! It’s a heady aroma.)
That’s the sort of thing we absolutely need to stop doing if we want to continue to grow, and that means we need to stop the last few years’ pattern of trying to kickstart entire product lines — at least in scenarios where they all print, ship, and release at once. There are probably other things like that that we need to work on too, all part of this pivot, as we try to cement the company in that “small mid-tier” category and rise out of our indie, seat-of-our-pants roots.
It’s going to be a LOT of work. Work that I can’t, and shouldn’t, do myself. So I’m grateful as ever for the team we’ve been able to assemble to make Evil Hat’s continued growth and success a reality. It’s a scary time ahead, well out of my comfort zone as far as risk goes — but that’s what growing up as a company involves. I’m excited to see where the journey takes us next.