Sat
Sep 20 2008 7:23pm

I’m Holding This Game For Ransom!

Ransom NoteThis piece has two interviews—two interesting people answering the same, hopefully interesting, questions—but first some scene-setting.

In 1999, I read and and was fascinated by the Street Performer Protocol in an essay by security aces John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier. (A tip of the hat here to Chris Meadows, who called it to my attention.) The protocol is a response to the fact that copyright is hard to enforce in a lot of situations, and seems likely to get harder to enforce without huge resources to devote to the hunt, or even with them. After looking at some often-proposed ways of making that enforcement work and explaining why they disbelieve in them, the authors suggest instead a sort of fund-and-release system. The creator makes a public announcement of a project and its cost, and the potential audience can donate their money. If the creator gets enough money, they do the work and then release it to the world at large.

Six years later, along came Fundable, which makes it easy for creators to set up a variety of funding requests and expect their dough, and also makes it easy for the public to contribute money in a variety of ways and expect their money to be safely handled along the way. It’s a specialized escrow service, basically, and it quickly earned a reputation for great reliability, prompt attention to customers of both kinds, and just plain goodness in operation.

As all this was going on, the tabletop rolegaming industry has continued to contract quietly with intermittent noisy spasms. The long-term state of the market overall is the subject for another post, but the practical effect is that the traditional path for talented freelancers—lots of work for hire culminating in the possibility of a line developer’s position—is really contracted, and so is independent publication of works that call for multiple people’s efforts. So some of gaming’s inventive people decided to give Fundable a try. And they’re doing very well with it. So here are Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze, discussing their experiences and their thoughts about it.

Greg Stolze

Q1. Let’s talk terminology, first of all. Who are you, anyway? :) And how do you prefer to refer to the donation-driven process of creation and publication?

I’m Greg Stolze. Last time I stuck my name in Amazon.com, over 80 game books came up. Since then, probably another 2-3 have been added. I’ve been at the business something like fifteen years and I prefer to call my sometimes-used method “The Ransom Model.”

Q2. What led you to ransoming? It’s not a secret to those of in the business that there’ve been some lean years in rolegaming, due partly to external constraints (declining real wages plus rising real costs = less entertainment spending) and partly to problems inside the field, like less-than-competent retaining and distribution. I remember that when discussion of ransoming first turned serious, it was out of a mixture of frustration about good work going unseen and genuine hope in the potential for better connecting creators and players. But it’s a long way from talking about it to doing it. How did you start, and how did it go?

I had this half-finished thing, “Meatbot Massacre,” and Daniel Solis was really fired up about it, so we whipped it into shape. There wasn’t really any game magazine to send it to and I’d worked a little to hard to just hand it out for free. People were just starting to sell .pdfs, but piracy was this big unknown boogeyman and besides: building an online shop sounded like work and once someone had bought it, how was I to keep them from distributing it? “If only,” I thought, “there was some way to get paid to give it away for free. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about piracy because I’d have the cash in hand, and anyone who distributed it would basically be advertising it for me. But how?” I probably didn’t literally turn on NPR and hear a pledge drive then, but I had some kind of “Aha!” moment.

Q3. What all have you put out funded this way?

“Meatbot Massacre” was the first. “...in Spaaace!” was a short experiment, and “Executive Decision” I did as a charity fund-raiser. I did my big fantasy game REIGN as a printed volume, but all the supplements for it (nine so far) have been ransomed out in 10,000 word, $1000 chunks. I’m in the middle of another charitable collection—a kind of creepy hard-boiled crime story is on the line, with the money going for charity.

What sort of reactions has it gotten?

Overall, it’s been quite positive. At first, people were doubtful, and some actually seemed offended that I expected them to pay before I released it but, once it was released, everyone else can get it free. But most people got with the program, and every time someone posted one of those “This’ll never work, you’re naive to think it can, people aren’t that generous you fool!” comments, I’d immediately get 2-3 donations.

What went the way you expected, and what didn’t, for good and/or ill?

I also tried to ransom out a novel chapter-by-chapter, but it didn’t work. (You can see the first chapter on my web site, it’s on the internet library page called “A Romantic Weekend Getaway.”) People like me better as a game designer than as a fictioneer, it seems, so that’s one thing. They were unwilling to buy a book chapter by chapter, especially without the guarantee that it would ever END, that was another thing, so I can’t really blame them.

One positive surprise is that most people, early on at least, donated more than the minimum.

Q4. One of the common concerns about ransoming as a way for creators to make more of a living at work they most love is that it strongly favors those who already have a customer base built up. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, yeah. It’s built on trust. Trust doesn’t start from nothing, it has to be carefully constructed. If you want people to pay you for your work, they have to have seen examples. I imagine one could start a web comic, release the first hundred strips or so free and then start ransoming the rest. If your fanbase is big enough, you can keep it going. If not, well... not.

Q5. Have the details of the process you use changed much since you started? Are there refinements you’d like to see?

They’ve definitely changed, and the biggest change has been Fundable. It’s an internet escrow service, basically. It serves as a disinterested cash holder between me and the donors. They pledge on Fundable, which holds the money until the entire sum is gathered. Then it gives the money to me. It tracks a 25-day time limit, and if the goal is unmet, they give everyone’s money back (or maybe just never collect it in the first place, I’m not sure). This helps because it offers another layer of trust for donors (who pay nothing unless they’re getting something) and removes a layer of book keeping from me (because I have enough to do with writing, illustrating and laying out the work, plus minding two young sons, without having to handle refunds as well). The drawback is, Fundable has a $10 minimum donation, but most people were giving that much if not more already. Still. I think people like to feel like they could donate less, if they wanted.

Q6. Is there anything you’d have done differently early on in light of what you know now? Or is it one of those things that just worked?

Well, I wouldn’t have tried that novel. I figured out pretty early that it would be geometrically harder to get bigger sums for bigger pieces. If I’d written all 90,000 words of the supplement stuff for REIGN and then asked $9,000 for it, I don’t think I’d have gotten that in 25 days. Furthermore, I’d have had many weeks of work dangling out, exposed, potentially wasted, instead of 10 days.

Q7. If you care to, ramble a bit about what kinds of works ransom well and what don’t. Feel free to draw on what you know of others’ experience as well as your own for this.

Keep it short. That’s about it, really.

Q8. Inevitably, in my experience, there’s some question I wished the interviewer would ask, but they didn’t. I assume I’m not immune to that. What are the questions you’d like to address that I somehow forgot to ask? (For extra goodness, provide some answers for them, too.)

I’ll just ramble on with the observation that the whole model is premised on not being greedy. There’s a ceiling to how much you’ll make. (Okay, I leave the ransom open and people can donate above the limit if they wish, but it’s not a huge margin of profit from that.) I’m fine with that since there’s a limit to how much you make off a single magazine article, too. But if a million people start playing a game I ransomed out to a thousand, I’m not making any more money than if the thousand people had paid and then it sank without a trace.

Dennis Detwiller

Q1. Let’s talk terminology, first of all. Who are you, anyway? :) And how do you prefer to refer to the donation-driven process of creation and publication?

My name is Dennis Detwiller and I’m an artist and writer involved in all those fields since 1989. My most popular artwork appeared in the earliest sets of MAGIC: The Gathering. But I’ve done all manner of work for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse Comics, Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft and more. Now, I develop video games for Activision/Blizzard. There I’m feverishly working on my own game video game opus — created with Tim Bennison and Eric Holmes — [PROTOTYPE], coming to XBox360 and PS3 next year. In the past I’ve worked on such video games as Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Scarface: The World is Yours. As well as more than my fair share of cancelled projects; but that comes with the territory.

Roleplaying games — that is the classic pen and paper model like Dungeons & Dragons — still remain close to my heart. My most popular roleplaying game work is undoubtably DELTA GREEN; a setting of modern conspiracy and horror for CALL OF CTHULHU created with Adam Scott Glancy and John Tynes. It takes a modern poke at the Cthulhu mythos, updating it in what is hoped to be a daring, intriguing way (or at least in a way which was daring in 1997). Luckily, today, it’s still going strong.

If you want to check out any of my work, direct your browsers to http://www.detwillerdesign.com or http://www.prototypegame.com.

I refer to the donation-driven process of creation and publication as ransom.

Q2. What led you to ransoming? It’s not a secret to those of in the business that there’ve been some lean years in rolegaming, due partly to external constraints (declining real wages plus rising real costs = less entertainment spending) and partly to problems inside the field, like less-than-competent retaining and distribution. I remember that when discussion of ransoming first turned serious, it was out of a mixture of frustration about good work going unseen and genuine hope in the potential for better connecting creators and players. But it’s a long way from talking about it to doing it. How did you start, and how did it go?

Honestly, it seemed like the only way to go to continue making the RPGs I wanted to make. In my own opinion, the gaming industry is an illusion—kind of like a mirage of an economy. It looks great and big and productive, but then you get there and it’s just dust.

Our hobby (which I love dearly), is like a small zit on the backside of the science fiction/fantasy industry, in terms of generating income. As such, it is very, very difficult to support any endeavor in the area in a realistic or stable manner.

Considering the money to be made elsewhere for what is effectively the same work in video games (creating worlds, characters, concepts and constructing a clear and interesting background to explore), I realized I needed the monetary aspect of RPGs to support the work that goes into creating them—or, at the very least, to offset any monetary losses I would take directing my energy towards them. Right now, with ransoms, I’m breaking even, which is good enough for me.

As for how ransoming started on my front: I stole from the best. Greg Stolze was getting some marvelous stuff out there with his ransoms, so I figured, I’m half as good as Greg, and half of what he’s ransoming was far more than I was generating in the “normal” model, so what the hell?

Q3. What all have you put out funded this way? What sort of reactions has it gotten? What went the way you expected, and what didn’t, for good and/or ill?

Let’s see, since 2005:

  • Music From a Darkened Room
  • Insylum
  • Future/Perfect 1, 2, 3 (4 is on the way and already ransomed!)
  • NEMESIS Horror Roleplaying
  • WILD TALENTS Hardcover Limited Edition
  • DELTA GREEN: Eyes Only Hardcover Limited Edition
  • DELTA GREEN: Targets of Opportunity (on the way, but fully ransomed!)

Q4. One of the common concerns about ransoming as a way for creators to make more of a living at work they most love is that it strongly favors those who already have a customer base built up. What are your thoughts on that?

That’s definitely true, though we all started somewhere. There seems to be a large group of people who believe they deserve to be rewarded for creating something. This population seems to be greatest in the RPG community. I think it’s pretty clear why: there is effectively little or no bar of entry for RPGs. A comic book takes a bunch of effort, a movie even more so, a video game—forget it! But slap some rules on paper and print it or put it up and bam—you’re a member of the RPG creator’s community.

While it’s certainly nice to be rewarded, creation does not automatically guarantee a monetary reward (nor should it). I created reams of stuff with no other desire than to get it out there. I don’t see that drive as much out there except in very small circles (Ben Baugh and Jared Sorenson jump to mind). In short, and this may sound crotchety:the people up and coming in RPGs today seem to think they deserve stability, money and accolade for simply putting a bunch of thoughts together on paper.

Like I said, it’s a mirage. The only stability in this “industry” is the stability you make for yourself.

To those out there who love creating, my best advice is: start creating stuff, give it away, get people excited, build a community. Then, and only when the demand is there, ransom.

Q5. Have the details of the process you use changed much since you started? Are there refinements you’d like to see?

Nope. It’s pretty much the same. Though we have moved into producing full-color hardcover books just two years after starting with 32-page PDFs. I definitely prefer books. It’s where our focus will move in the future. They are more tangible, draw more attention and sales, and seem to drive later ransoms more briskly.

Q6. Is there anything you’d have done differently early on in light of what you know now? Or is it one of those things that just worked?

Greg pretty much led the way on this front. I was lucky. I watched what he did, and mimicked it. I think I avoided a lot of problems that way.

Q7. If you care to, ramble a bit about what kinds of works ransom well and what don’t. Feel free to draw on what you know of others’ experience as well as your own for this.

Well, in my case, DELTA GREEN seems to fly off the virtual shelves, but that was a no-brainer. I think Scott Glancy and John Tynes were a bit shocked when the DELTA GREEN: Targets of Opportunity ransom hit $20,000 in 36 hours. Shane Ivey, my business partner and I were shocked as well, but only with the amount of time it took, not that it filled. I think Scott and John thought we had set the bar too high.

{Bruce notes: Scott and John were Dennis’ long-time partners in crime, er, creation at Pagan Publishing, where DELTA GREEN got started. They are also both interesting fellows and I should make up an excuse to gab with them, too.}

Q8. Inevitably, in my experience, there’s some question I wished the interviewer would ask, but they didn’t. I assume I’m not immne to that. What are the questions you’d like to address that I somehow forgot to ask? (For extra goodness, provide some answers for them, too.)

Hm. Can’t think of anything. Chalk it up to 9-month pregnant wife and the daily grind of the 100-hour a week job. My mind’s like a flat-tire right now, flopping along. Apologies.

[Image by Flickr user Redjar, CC-licensed for commercial use.

5 comments
Phil Frederick
1. flosofl
er... That should be Brice Schneier. No "d" there.

I admit I was looking at the author names and going "Bruce who?" (I'm in the field). I figured you meant Schneier (and that's what it says on essay page).

I haven't read this in a while, but one thing jumped out at me. It looks like the RIAA is trying the Traitor Tracing schemes in their lawsuits. But without the indisputable fingerprinting required by the technique, such as unique serials or watermarking. They're relying on IP assignations via DHCP (MAC logs), and discovering that those aren't as cut and dried as they assumed when it comes to non-reputability.

Back to your article, I really think in the mid to short term the Street Performer Protocol is the best answer to the current situation where a content creator has a low to no cost distribution system.

As for calling it "ransom", I'm not necessarily sure I'd agree with that terminology. It implies an implicit prior ownership to the person supplying the money. But I have to say I don't have a term that is as succinct as that other than donation-ware, but that doesn't quite capture the model. And publicly-solicited-funding-ware just doesn't roll off the tongue now, does it?
'nother Mike
3. 'nother Mike
Is ransoming the same as the Storyteller's Bowl (or Street Performers Protocol) that's being used for some book projects? If not, what's the difference?
Bruce Baugh
4. BruceB
It's pretty much the same idea; "ransoming" happened to be a term favored by folks who started doing it. I'm not in a position to say or even guess how much people using Fundable might have known about the Storyteller's Bowl scene.
'nother Mike
5. Digributor
I have implemented an alternative model of Street Performer Protocol, where:

1) The product must exist, uploaded and reviewed before collecting bids from buyers.

2) There is no limit on the total amount of money; author can release the product at any time and those who promised to pay will be charged and granted access to the product.

3) It is up to the author if the product must become publicly available afterward or continued to be sold.

Everybody are welcome to my website: digributor.com

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