Fred Hicks

Sep 042015
 

WHAT'S IN THE BOX?!!!Nearly ten years ago I got fed up with working on Spirit of the Century, asked Lenny and Rob to fix it, and took a side-step through insomnia to invent Don’t Rest Your Head, which turned out to be the first game Evil Hat ever published commercially, coming just a few months ahead of SOTC.

Don’t Rest Your Head, ironically, really refreshed me at the time, creatively and professionally — the sort of side-project you kinda have to do in order to be able to get back to the bigger project that should be getting all your attention. And against all my expectations, it turned out to do pretty well for us as a tiny, nobody-done-heard-of-us RPG publisher. To date, it has sold nearly 7000 copies (physical and digital combined).

This month, round about September 14th, Evil Hat is releasing Don’t Turn Your Backa board game inspired by and set in the same world as Don’t Rest Your Head. (Backers of the Kickstarter have started getting their copies already. Maybe you know one of them and can check it out early!)

I love this game to tiny, bloody, quivering pieces. And, sure; I’m biased terribly. But I didn’t design this game (unless you count its graphic design) — that immense task fell to Eric B. Vogel, who did an incredible job. So I’m gonna tell you why, as if I weren’t biased. Because I just don’t think it matters here. :)

Here’s the thing about Don’t Turn Your Back. It’s a genuinely new game experience for me in gaming. Set aside all that stuff about how I created much of its setting, and focus with me on how the game plays. It’s something new, but it’s made of familiar parts (whenever someone pulls something like that off it always seems to be catnip to my drawn-to-innovative-systems brain).

It’s a deckbuilder, sure, but the deck you build isn’t, by itself, the point; it’s how you curry favor with the Nightmares of the Mad City.  It’s a worker placement game, but the workers are the cards you play, with far more personality and distinction than you typically see in the genre. And it’s an area control game, where you can duke it out with other players to make use of dark, strange services in the Bizarre Bazaar; or exert influence over the cliques of Mother When’s Finishing School; or harvest dreams from the slumbering, navigate the ever-changing laws of District Thirteen, or encase the “workers” you no longer need in wax as tribute to the Wax King.

And it’s all dressed up in the psychedelic, horror-inflected, photo-manipulated art of George Cotronis, giving the game a look you don’t typically see in board games. (I’ve heard a couple folks compare it favorably to the art used in Lunch Money which is a high compliment indeed.)

Hot. Stuff.

Evil Hat has been pushing hard to establish a foothold in board & card games. It’s slow going because, in essence, we’re starting from zero again, same as when we were publishing Don’t Rest Your Head (but a little bit worse really, because back then we’d at least gotten a small following for our RPG work before we founded the company). But bit by bit, we’re making it. Just this past week, our first board game Race to Adventure! finally got out of the red and into the black (we’re celebrating with a li’l promotion, too). Our first card game Zeppelin Attack! (also by Don’t Turn Your Back‘s Eric Vogel) has been a solid success for our scale as well, cresting over $20k in the black.

Don’t Turn Your Back isn’t in the black yet (having relied only on Kickstarter revenue and our own bank account prior to its release), but I’m hopeful for this one. We’ve combined the lessons learned with our first two games to make this the best possible product we could, to deliver the best damn design I’ve seen in a long time. I hope you try it. It’ll do all sorts of wonderful, horrible things in your brain, and leave you coming back for more.


Want to learn how to play? Check out the tutorial — also made by the game’s designer. And, later this month (Sept 14th-or-so), look for it on the Evil Hat webstore or at a local game store near you!

 

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Jul 272015
 

I’m back! It’s been a while. Mostly because the first half of 2015 has been overwhelming. I may talk about that at some later point, but right now, I’m more interested in talking about the present and the future.

One of the most transformative things that the Fate Core KS made possible for Evil Hat was the addition of Sean Nittner as our project manager. With Sean’s oversight and schedule-wrangling, Evil Hat has managed to run dozens of projects simultaneously at its peak. Combined with bringing in Chris Hanrahan to focus on business development and Carrie Harris for marketing, our output over the past two years has been well in excess of the 7 years or so prior. And it shows.

Sean’s role, bringing process formality and much stronger schedule management for Evil Hat, is a big deal, giving us a big step up over business as it used to be. Frankly, I was pretty crappy as a project manager, and when I was the primary guy doing the company-running stuff, it meant that any number of things had a tendency to stagnate. Two years later, stagnation is pretty rare, and the Fate Core product line is a testimony to how well the new way of things has been going.

As the company has grown, my ability to really pay attention to or drive all of the things has diminished — we may be doing more, but my personal supply of time hasn’t suddenly turned up with an extra day of the week. This also means I’ve been delegating more. And that’s where some problems have started to creep back in — I’ve had a tendency to talk to the executive staff (Chris, Carrie, Sean, and Rob), identifying issues I’m seeing or directions the company should consider, while also saying “but I’m not the guy to do that.”

Often as not that’s lead to an idea or direction seeing some discussion, but with nobody actually making sure that folks take up their possible respective parts and run with them. (Remember: Fred is a bad project manager.) It’s taken a while for us to realize that that’s a pattern, but now we have, and that means we can start addressing the problem. (The savvy reader might recognize that this is how our improvements tend to go — some variable amount of time to recognize a problematic pattern, and then once it’s seen, we go after it aggressively.)

Towards that end, we’re making a move this month to shift the executive organization (“The Head” as I’ve come to call it) away from its current “committee style” arrangement and into something a bit more explicitly hierarchical—something I’ve honestly resisted in the past because at heart I’m a collaborator rather than a leader. But with that reluctance in mind, we’re continuing to discuss matters as we always have. End of the day, the new hierarchy is here to make sure the authority (and responsibility) to assign tasks is as clear as possible — which in part is as much for me, to make sure I remember that it’s my job to tell people what they need to go do. But it’s also for everyone else, so when something needs to run up the chain, it’s clear that there’s actually a chain and where it goes.

With that in mind, we’re putting Chris Hanrahan squarely in the role of Vice President, with a mission to make sure all that stuff happens at the top of the company, as a mirror of what Sean has been doing for our project teams. He’ll be making sure that we’re communicating well and clearly with each other, that emerging issues are not only caught but acted on, and that all executive tasks are getting assigned and done.

This goes hand in hand with Chris’s already-current role as the Head of Business Development for the company — he’ll be pursuing new business opportunities, attending trade shows, and riding shotgun on a variety of our business activities.

It also means he’ll be holding me accountable for the stuff I need to be doing — delegating where I should, making clear requests of the Head and the company instead of my past fire-and-forget pattern, and so on.

Going forward we’re also working on getting project and marketing assistants in place for Sean and Carrie; they’ve received the brunt of my prior delegating, and it’s got them both loaded up pretty full. Ah, growth! It always comes with greater burdens.

So what’s it look like, now? This:

Org Chart

In day to day practice Evil Hat is still operating as it has been over the past two years… but much like Sean transformed the company over that timeframe, we expect to see some positive results of this new change, at the top, over the next two.

Exciting times!

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Dec 012014
 

The difference between good game and good product is something we’ve been focusing on at Evil Hat over the past couple years. This is a tricky space, and some folks make the (faulty) assumption that they’re one and the same. A game can be excellent in its design but still fall down as a product, a thing to be sold, bought, and consumed.

Putting a finger on what fills the gap between game and product is tricky stuff, so I asked the folks of the Head (those who help me run the Hat) to quantify it as much as they could. That’s what follows, below. The lion’s share of this comes from Chris Hanrahan, no shock.

The product should solve a problem for the market without creating new ones.

The product should be at a good (competitive vs. its peers) price while still paying people decent wages to produce them.

The product should have good shelf appeal (clear identity, attention-grabbing, aesthetically pleasing) from all sides and all angles (top-down, edge-on, full-front, backside, etc) as much as possible.

The product should explain itself, and it should help you explain it to others. (Imagine the product as a person, meeting the reader for the first time, and it’s love at first sight. How would our product-person explain itself to that reader?)

Good UI throughout the experience (presentation/layout/reading-experience of rules set, board, cards, etc)

Attractive hand-feel (size, weight, finish) where appropriate.

There may well be more to it, but that’s the list we’re “starting” with. What’s on your list?

cross-posted with Google Plus! https://plus.google.com/+FredHicks/posts/RyW5kU5kzzU

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Nov 052014
 

The gaps are where we’ll talk! Or I’ll catch as catch can. Or eat empanadas. Or, I dunno, get some much-needed rest. Forget about it, Jake — it’s Metatopia!

(If you’re attending and want a chunk of my time, let me know!)

Every Day

Rob is a strong believer in breakfast each morning as a time for hanging out with folks and having all the needed conversations. I am a strong believer in following his lead. You should be too!

Thursday

Rob and I probably arrive midday/mid-afternoon, and hang out and talk extensively with whoever’s available for it. The whole con is, on purpose, open/schedule free this day, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Great time to network, meet folks, talk about the weekend ahead, maybe play some pick-up stuff.

Friday

  • 9AM-11AM: R093 – [BETA TEST] “Terra Incognita” presented by Vivian Abraham. (Going into this knowing nothing, which is a great way to start Metatopia.)
  • 11AM-1PM: Open! I eat!
  • 1PM-2PM: *D015 – “Self-Publishing 101” presented by Joseph Bloch & Fred Hicks.
  • 3PM-4PM: *D019 – “Planning Your Crowdfunding Campaign” presented by Joseph Bloch, Fred Hicks, Kevin W. Kulp & Joshua A. C. Newman.
  • 4PM-6PM: Open! I eat!
  • 6PM-8PM: R190 – [BETA TEST] “HYPERREALITY” by Brooklyn Indie Games; presented by Tim Rodriguez. (Last time I played this completely mental/gonzo near-future reality TV game, I had a blast. Rock the Boat! *guitar riff*)
  • 8PM-10PM: R225 – [BETA TEST] “Noir World” by The Writer Next Door; presented by John Adamus. (Salivating. Mainly for John’s delicious brainmeats, but sure, the game too.)
  • 10PM-midnight: R247 – R247: [BETA TEST] “Fate Divergent” by Magpie Games; presented by Mark Diaz Truman. (Super interested to see this Fate hack in action!)

Saturday

  • 9AM-10AM: [FOCUS GROUP] “Medias Res” presented by Vivian Abraham. (Storytelling card game. Yes please!)
  • 10AM-11AM: “Worldbuilding Mechanics” presented by Cam Banks, Fred Hicks & Jason Pitre.
  • 11AM-1PM: [BETA TEST] “Dreamfall” by Sweet Potato Press; presented by Laura Simpson. (Apocalypse Engine dreamworld stuff. Sounds great! And thrilled to see another female designer on my beta testing docket for Metatopia.)
  • 1PM-3PM: Open! I eat!
  • 3PM-4PM: “Executing a Smart Crowdfunding Campaign” presented by Fred Hicks, Joshua A. C. Newman & Hannah Shaffer.
  • 4PM-6PM: Open! I probably don’t eat until after…
  • 6PM-7PM: “Coming Up in the Indies: From Newcomer to Company Owner” presented by Fred Hicks, Shoshana Kessock & Tim Rodriguez.
  • 7PM-9PM: Open! Probably when I eat!
  • 9PM-10PM: [FOCUS GROUP] “Fate of the Galaxy” by Genesis of Legend Publishing; presented by Jason Pitre & Mark Richardson. (Hell yes.)
  • 10PM onward: Maybe I discover I’m old and need sleep! Or I stay up for whole minutes! Open-ish.

Sunday

  • 10AM-noon: [BETA TEST] “Forthright” by Room 209 Gaming; presented by Ray Watters & Bryan Shipp. (I know very little about this!)
  • noon-2PM: [ALPHA TEST] “Interstellar Interventions” by Wrecking Ball Game Labs; presented by Henry Ulrich. (An ALPHA TEST. Awesome. Maybe it will be gloriously broken. Maybe not! A great way to end Metatopia.)
  • 2PM onward: Rob and I have small kids and I may be at Metatopia long enough by this point that I’ll want to see them again. 😉 So we’ll probably depart not too long after 2PM, if I don’t miss my guess. Gotta get home in time for bedtime. If we’re slow out the door, I’ll try to give y’all a wave!
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Oct 292014
 

Idea Explorer

I am interested in publishing an rpg setting, but I am having trouble finding information on how much it will cost, and how it is done. I would be extremely grateful if you could give me some information on publishing, and point me in the right direction for when our setting is finally ready.

Whoof! Okay, the “how it is done” part is kind of involved, as that’s sort of the everything of publishing. But, let’s talk costs, and I’ll try to touch on the hows along the way.

I’m also going to split each of these into “Deep End” and “Shallow End” thoughts.

  • The Deep End is going to talk about publishing at the scale I currently operate at, with Evil Hat.
  • The Shallow End is going to talk about how to do things as a newcomer without a lot of cash to risk.

Writing

Know your wordcount budget! Something like Fate Core runs around 80k-90k words. Something like Fate Accelerated runs around 10k-15k words.

Deep End: Professional rates for writing (including system design, tho some gearheads may want to price this differently) right now starts at 5 cents/word. Certain folks will cost you more, especially if they’re a “name” of some sort or another.

Shallow End: Some folks will work for less. Sometimes you’re doing the work yourself, and you’re willing to do work for yourself for no money. Beware the quality reduction traps that can lay in wait for you when you cut corners on paying your writers. That’s not to say you can’t find some folks of quality who are willing to work for less than the pro rate (above), but in general you should figure out how high you can make the rate, and make that the rate you pay, until you can start paying more.

Prior to the influx of cash that the Dresden Files RPG got us, when we weren’t writing words for ourselves for free, we paid around 3 cents/word. After we got that big increase in our company’s revenue, we went to the Deep End.

Editing

Deep End: Right now Evil Hat pays about 2 cents/word for editing.

Shallow End: Before Dresden (BD from here on forward) we paid 1 cent/word. Some folks can get away with paying even less. I don’t recommend underpaying for editing, because it’s completely crucial for a good product and you’ll get what you pay for.

Art

Deep End: We pay what has emerged as roughly the industry standard on art.

  • Color: $200 per full page; $100 per half; $50 per quarter; $25 for a spot illustration.
  • Black & White: $100 per full page; $50 per half; $25 per quarter; $20 for a spot.
  • Cover Art: Depends on the complexity, the artist, and the size of the piece (front cover only? wrap-around?), among other factors. Could run you anywhere from $500 to a few thousand bucks depending on who you get.

It’s worth noting that some of the smaller-size rates may be a little low; some artists want to see the rate on smaller pieces go higher because a reduction in size is not necessarily a reduction in complexity, and it’s complexity that’s the real driver of the amount of effort. So keep that in mind, and use the above numbers only to figure out what you should offer an artist for the set of pieces you want them to do, and be ready to boost that by as much as 25% if you’re primarily sticking with smaller pieces. Also, be very clear in your communications about what the actual physical dimensions are that constitute a half page or quarter page piece, and in general, size those proportionate to the size of page you intend to print on.

Shallow End: You may be able to find some stock art and public domain/royalty free sources that can fill your needs. You may find artists willing to work for less (but beware quality). You can also reduce your ambitions as to the amount of art used in your game. You can get away with fewer pieces than you think!

Layout

Pricing this out can be a bit of a dark art.

Deep End: I tend to see flat rate payouts in the $1500-2500 range depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the layout required, and the use of color or black and white, etc. Particularly small projects may be able to go as low as $500. You may also encounter hourly rates, maybe $25/hour, maybe higher; I’m not as able to comment on hourly rates as I almost never operate with them.

Shallow End: You can try to learn this yourself. There’s a lot of ways to go wrong with this! But learning the ropes on a product that’s not particularly important to you can end up building skills that end up serving you well in your efforts to become a publisher. If you do consider doing layout yourself, please take the time to read and absorb the lessons in Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book as it’s probably the single best resource out there for a layperson to learn layout principles that can be applied to nearly any situation where you’re formatting text (emails, Word, etc).

Printing

Deep End: I can’t quote you specific prices, but at the Deep End, you’re requesting quotes from book printers to price out offset printing jobs for you. Ask for a range of quantities so you can see where the economies of scale kick in. In my experience the economies of scale don’t really start kicking in until the 2000-3000 quantity range, but really it’s something of a curve that plays out throughout.

I prefer to print domestically in the USA and I tend to give repeat business to folks who respond quickly via email and who give consistently strong customer service throughout the process. So my list of who I work with here is pretty short, because I find a good outfit and I tend to stick with them. You might be more inclined to shop around, and that’s fine.

  • Recommended for softcover, black and white interior printing: Bang.
  • Recommended for hardcover and/or color interior printing: Taylor Specialty Books.

If you end up using either of those guys, tell them Fred Hicks from Evil Hat sent you. They like to know when I’ve sent someone their way.

Shallow End: Consider pubishing digital-only on DriveThruRPG.com to start. DriveThru also has a solid print on demand program, too, which would let you print small quantities and on-demand-when-a-customer-orders-a-copy pretty affordably. In the RPG space I absolutely recommend you focus on them; DriveThru easily owns 70% or more of the eyeballs in the RPG PDF market, and their print on demand program gives you access to that same market with your print goods. It’s a lot more targeted than other POD options like Lulu or CreateSpace, tho those might work for you too.

With all POD, in general, I tend to recommend avoiding color interiors; if you do go for color, please consider paying for the “premium” version instead of the “standard” version, as the standard version, to me, usually looks a little muddy and kind of inkjet quality. And color printing is just plain lots more expensive in POD than black and white books are.

Shipping

Deep End: It’s gonna suck. If you are not already schooled in and capable of running a top quality shipping and fulfillment operation, shipping out daily and promptly, find someone else to do this for you, and find out how much they charge you per package and per item, and tack that on to what you charge your customers for shipping. That’s the “handling” part of shipping & handling right there. See Distribution, below, for more; Indie Press Revolution may be a good fit for you as a fulfiller interested in working with small press RPG publishers.

Shallow End: If you followed my Shallow End advice for printing, above, this isn’t really going to be a concern for you. If you’re all digital to start, there’s no cost to ship. If you’re using print on demand that’s consumer-accessible, then they’re paying the shipping cost themselves at the time they place the order.

Distribution

Distribution! It’s how you get your games out onto game retailer shelves everywhere, or at least somewhere, without a lot of very hard work hand-selling and trying to find the small percentage of retailers who are willing to buy product direct from a publisher.

Deep End: Diversify. Exclusives only really serve the distributor you get into an exclusive with; sure, you might get a few extra percentage points, but the loss of market access gotten from using other distributors too is probably not equaled by that. So diversify.

Distributors Evil Hat currently works with include but aren’t limited to:

  • USA: ACD; Indie press Revolution (IPR); Alliance; Peachstate Hobby Distribution (PHD); GTS Distribution; Golden Distribution.
  • International: Esdevium; Lion Rampant; Ulisses Spiele; Pegasus Spiele; Bergsala Enigma.

If you’re getting into bed with distribution, you need to manage your costs pretty tightly. Distribution is going to buy stuff from you at 60% off of your cover price, typically: meaning that your $20 book will get you only $8, gross, for the distribution sale.

(The reason the discounts here are so steep is because a very big discount, close to or at 50%, is given to retailers; because when a retailer buys your book, they aren’t buying a sold book, they’re buying a book they’re hoping will sell. You give a big fat discount to retailers because they’re taking a gamble and assuming a ton of risk on a book that may tie up capital and never turn into that cash coming back to them. But you want retailers in your world, man. They’re the best kind of advertising & marketing for your stuff, at the end of the day, when things go right.)

Shallow End: If you’ve got physical goods, and you want a partner who can do direct sale orders and fulfillment for you as well as sell to a retail market that’s friendly to small press publishers, you really should look at Indie Press Revolution as your first step. They were created specifically for your kind of situation; warehousing with them is super cheap (possibly free last I checked), and on consignment, and Jason Walters (who runs it day to day) is a pleasure to work with.

Once you’ve found your feet, you can start diversifying your way towards a full Big End implementation of product distribution. But IPR? They’re where I’d recommend starting.

Keep in mind, my biases lean heavily against directly doing sales and fulfillment yourself. If you, in an honest and sober self-assessment, think you can do a great job and do right by your customers consistently, then, sure, think about doing your sales & fulfillment for customers & retailers yourself. For me, at every step of the way, that’s always felt like too much work, and has very clearly been the thing I should not be doing vs. all the other jobs that a publisher has to do.

If you don’t have physical goods or are in a strictly print on demand footing for physical goods, distribution isn’t really in the picture. Print on demand often won’t produce a low enough unit cost to make selling your product into retail make any sense.

Pricing Your Book

Deep End: Remember that distribution scenario: bank on getting 40% of your cover price on a sale. What should a sale do for you, exactly? In my opinion, it should pay for at least the unit sold plus one unit more. So if you have a $20 book, that sells into distribution at $8, that $8 should be enough to cover the unit cost of 2 of your books. So flip that around: if your printing cost is $4 per unit, you can price your book with a cover price of $20. 5x unit cost is your multiplier — and if you can make it higher than 5x, you’re in good shape. If you can’t produce a competitive cover price with your printing (see Printing above) method’s unit cost times five, you’re probably not using a printing method that’s friendly for getting into distribution in the first place. Over to the shallow end with you, for now.

Shallow End: Make sure you at least make a few bucks of profit. Ideally, make sure you make at least as much profit as an individual unit costs you to produce. But really, think about the distribution math from the Deep End, above.

Advertising & Marketing

Don’t look at me, man. It’s also a dark art. I have people for that sort of thing!

… Okay, that’s only mostly true. Advertising is kind of dying/changing/dying again/changing again right now. The Internet has exploded everything that everyone used to know about how it’s done. Yields are low and problematic. No matter which End of the pool you’re at, I just don’t recommend putting much money into advertising unless the yield is very likely to be pretty high. (And it almost never is.)

So instead you should focus on building audience. That only happens healthily, in my opinion, through an investment of a lot of years of work, being as transparent as you can be so folks never have to guess at what’s going on, interacting with fans, getting out to conventions and running games, providing good customer service, and so forth. There is no overnight solution; it’s all by increments, each fan hard-won.

This ties over into some of my thoughts about crowdfunding, at the end of the day. Folks ask me how we’ve found the scale of success we have when we use things like Kickstarter. They ask me what the secret is. My answer is: first, take ten years building an audience.

It’s all about the audience.

A Final Note On Paying People

Pay them. Pay them promptly. Establish a contract with them at the start of work that makes it clear what they’re supposed to make for you and how much you’ll pay them and when. Stick to it. And in general please avoid “pay on publication” contracts. Pay folks when they complete the work for you, not when you finally get off your ass and get around to publishing what they made for you. Their work is done, already.


Photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

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