Nov 092011

Today’s Dear Deadly comes to us from Matt, who had a number of questions, but one in particular that I thought I might answer better in public.

How did you first get started working in the industry?  How did you get in the door?

Okay, first up, follow these directions:

  1. Decide to be in the industry.

You’re done. You’re now in the RPG hobby “industry”. Easy, right?

Obviously it’s not that easy, but that is something of the trick of it all the same. The notion that the “industry” hides behind some unclimbable wall riddled with secret entry-points is largely bunk.

But the reality is that the biggest barriers thrown up against entry are very likely in your head. The industry is made up of folks who decided they were the industry; therefore, the decision is the key.

Maybe the better question is: What happens when you make that decision? You:

  • Build a body of work
  • Build an audience that likes that work

The Big Wall might have been more of a reality in the days when self-publishing wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now, but these days the barrier is the quality of the work you create, and the effort you make to connect that quality work with folks who want to consume it.

There are a lot of side effects in that process, of course. Social media connects you with other folks who work in the field. Attending conventions gets you a chance to talk to people face to face, and for them to put a face to your name and work. (Networking is not a dirty word; it’s the only word, when it comes to “breaking in” beyond the “self-publisher with a name” level.)

The only way to get noticed is to make yourself noticeable — and I’m assuming that in this question, that’s sort of what you’re driving at. Not so much “how can I make myself be in the industry?” so much as “how can I make the industry include me?”

That networking gets you there, and works well when paired with a demonstrable body of work. Rob and I published Fate in the early 2000’s. It got noticed, eventually, by some award-givers. That award got us a phone call from an old friend named Jim asking if we wanted rights to a novel series. That phone call lead to our decision to try to become a “real” (commercial) publisher. Years passed; lots of hard effort happened.

During those years, a guy named Lenny Balsera made noise at us in our existing Fate-based community that made him look real smart. Time and again he had good ideas and good contributions on the mailing list. He and I would break into private side-conversations plumbing the details of the Fate system. I asked him to come on board and help us work on this Spirit of the Century project we were struggling with. Lenny got himself noticed with a body of work (just not in a traditional sense). Suddenly he was on the same path as us to “the industry” (you’ll note his name went on the cover of SotC, just like Rob’s and mine).

Along the way, I worked on a side-project that became our first commercially published game, Don’t Rest Your Head. Spirit of the Century followed close on the heels, but not before GenCon. Don’t Rest Your Head got noticed by some folks and I was invited to sit at the booth and provide some industry relevant customer testimony. Note that I wouldn’t have thought myself to be “industry relevant” in more than a scant sense at the time. But that got me meeting plenty of folks (including Robin Laws). We released SotC a few months later and made a splash.

Next year rolled around and I found myself going to lunch with Kenneth Hite at Origins, and helping Indie Press Revolution run their booth, their website. Somehow I was “in the industry”, but all that I’d ever done was just do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, building work, building audience, meeting people.

How have you been gathering freelance projects these days besides Evil Hat?

The body of work does the job: It’s as much a resume as anything else you might do to “break in”. Even early on I was open to doing layout for other folks, and did work on books like Beast Hunters for Berengad Games and The Zorcerer of Zo for Atomic Sock Monkey Press. The work I’d done on DRYH and SotC were what got me there.

The audience does the job: With games I’d worked on as a public resume, I got invited to an industry mailing list. I’d also joined the GPA and got on their mailing list. When Hero Games posted that they were looking for a layout guy, it sounded like I was a fit, so I spoke up, and have since laid out over a dozen books for them.

Your work is your foot in the door. If it’s good, someone will notice your name in the credits. If you can be found easily, they’ll ask you to do some more for them. The network you’ve built on your way to an audience will help make those connections that get you work, too. And when those connections and jobs aren’t coming — there aren’t necessarily a lot of them, and each company usually sticks to its favorites unless they’re trying to grow or a standby is unavailable — you do your own thing and get that out there. That’s the industry, and that’s how you do work in it.

At least in general principle, that’s the how. The specifics of the how have to do with the specifics of you, and that’s not something I can magick away with my advice-stick. If you’re not building the body of work, or if you’re not finding an audience, you need to dig in hard on that and figure out the why.

What are some of the biggest concerns you have running Evil Hat?  What problems are you always seeking solutions for?

This one’s sort of a wibbly-wobbly one, and I’m not sure I can answer it right on the nose.

But the biggest problem I think I encounter with the company is simple deadline management, both in terms of figuring out what it should be at the start of a project, and in terms of enforcing them in a way that doesn’t tick off the folks collaborating on the project. I’m not sure I’ll ever get all of that 100% figured out. Related to that is the whole outlining thing — some folks need the outline determined already before you come to them, and when you’re more used to lobbing a loose concept-ball at your friends and seeing how it bounces, that’s rough. And related to that is stuff like word-count estimates. We’ve sucked at that. Still learning. Getting better.

Are there any practices you like to adopt to keep the writing and designing flowing as much as possible?  Did you do anything like this when working on Dresden Files, about which I read you pretty much had to reimagine from the ground up since FATE 2.0 couldn’t cut it?

I’m not the guy to ask this, oddly enough. I haven’t done deep/involved system design for a couple years now, and I’ve always found myself around superior writers (in terms of the ability to consistently and professionally deliver both setting and system content on deadline). Layout, where I’ve focused my non-business-running attention, does have a creative component to it, but it’s also got some routine elements to it that don’t tax me the way that writing does.

That said, I think the best way to keep whatever you’re doing is to plan for taking breaks from it. Distance is a huge win for any project; it’s how you freshen your eyes and your creative voice. (You’ll also more readily see the flaws. SotC’s core system got nuked from orbit after a year-plus of development; then we started over.) Long-term, the only way I was able to contribute positively to SotC was by taking a break from it during its development — that break lead to the creation & publication of DRYH. Without taking a break — hell, without asking for help when it was needed, as I did on SotC — I’m not sure either of those projects would have made it to the light of day.


  7 Responses to “Dear Deadly: Foot In The Door”

  1. This is really, really solid advice that I’m only recently starting to understand the wisdom of. I’d also like to add a few things; these are mainly relevant if your way into the industry is via freelance work, as mine has been, but worth mentioning, I think.

    1. Be reliable. When someone sends you an email, answer it. When someone asks for something, give it to them as quickly as possible. If you promise something by a certain deadline, make sure you do everything in your power to get it done by that deadline, and make sure the quality doesn’t suffer for it. I was recently told by Brennan Taylor that the main reason I got to co-author Bulldogs! with him was because I answered my email promptly, and nobody else did. That counts for something in this industry, and publishers talk.

    2. Be friendly. Nobody wants to work with a jerk or a robot (well, okay, maybe some of us do want to work with robots, but you know what I mean). Be polite and professional in your communications, but don’t feel like you have to be formal. Go to cons and talk to people. Shake their hands, smile, and do the networking thing. Networking is incredibly important if you want to do work for game publishers because, again, publishers talk. That said, try not to be too intimidated by all of these industry professionals that you’ve put on a pedestal for so long; remember, they’re game nerds just like you, and you’ve got that in common.

    3. Be genuine. If you’re faking it, people will sense it. It can hurt to turn down work, but if it’s not something your excited about, it’s probably best not to take the job. This may be true to a greater or lesser degree for people other than writers (I’m a writer, so I can only speak from that perspective). Working on something that you’re not enthusiastic about not only turns it into a soul-sucking task, but the quality of the work will probably suffer, and you may not turn it in on time because you’ve been procrastinating so much. I’ve said it twice already, but it bears mentioning a third time: publishers talk. This is a small community, and your reputation is important. Don’t put a stink on it be releasing stuff you’re not absolutely proud of.

    Did I miss anything?

  2. Because I (and my social circles) have such a strong negative reaction to the Reagan-era baggage “networking” carries, I like to think of it instead as “meeting cool people who’s company and thoughts I would enjoy”.

    You’re right, though, that it takes a bit more than just that—it takes a degree of putting yourself forward, being useful and interested. But it’s not one big horse pill that you have to take at once, you can do it in bite-size bits.

  3. Thanks once again for answering my ponderings. I’m all about cutting down resistance on anything, and distance definitely does help. Of course I find it’s also good to cut down on resistance for producing work, spreading it, getting in touch, and so on. My personal favorte tool for that is Mark Forster’s Autofocus – makes things a lot easier these days.

  4. Being useful and interested got me where I am now.

    You have to be willing to go into situations where that risk of rejection, failure or some sense of “this could go in a lot of different directions” exists, but not let it dominate your thinking and actions.

    If you know what you’re talking about, if you know (in addition to believe) that you’re good enough to be in the position, then the pressure can’t hold for too long – eventually you’re face-to-face with the person and you have to say something.

    Passion is a fantastic propellant and stimulant, but eventually you have to augment it with action. Action works best when it’s organized, regular and in easy-to-manage pieces. If you need help accomplishing any of those three traits, ask for it. And ask as often as you need to. It’s good for everyone involved.

    I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about this later….

  5. Fred, you well and truly read my mind. I was going to email you tonight asking this very question as a potential topic for That’s How We Roll.

  6. This was a timely post for me, since I am starting to build up a body of work (slowly). I would also second the Autofocus, and its cousin, Superfocus.

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