There are a lot of interesting discussions around the net about handling the business side of the hobby and it's a topic that interests me quite a bit. My job involves running projects - budgets, schedules, meeting deadlines, that kind of thing - so I'm always interested in seeing how game companies manage that process. Today I thought I would look at two projects I was interested in that have run into some difficulty.
Sometimes things go well and sometimes they do not. Game companies experiencing delays is nothing new but sometimes an extreme case pops up and makes for an interesting case study. Sometimes two cases pop up in a similar time frame and make it even more interesting.
This was the subject of a fairly well known kickstarter. The Kickstarter funded in April 2012. The original schedule was to have a PDF of the dungeon out in June and hardcopy books in August.
- The writer claimed "Family Health Issues" and the timing was revised to PDF in the fall, Books in the winter.
- Communication with the writer seems to have slowly decreased and stopped completely in November of 2012 with the final versions still not delivered and further progress impeded due to IP rights issues.
There was also an impression that the material was already written and just needed to be cleaned up and laid out for printing because the dungeon was featured prominently on his blog. The amount of writing and the time it has taken has led some to conclude that it was not anywhere near "complete" or at the "just needs some polish" stage, and of course the author has not been online defending or correcting this impression, making it worse.
The latest stroke against the project was that negative reviews of the playtest material came out in multiple places, even places that might have been expected to take a fairly favorable view of the thing. I was a little surprised to see that, but I probably shouldn't have been, on the internet anyway.
There are long educational threads here and here and more in other places, some of which get pretty ugly.
So the biggest issues associated with this project have been the lack of communication, the lengthy delays in completion, and some disappointment at the quality of the content. A lot of the comments on various forums have been "if only he would communicate with us then people would not be so upset". This would certainly address the lack of communication, but I'm not sure it clears up the other two issues. Right now there is no projected release date for Dwimmermount.
In complete contrast communications-wise I give you:
The Team-Up pre-order was announced in July 2011 with a release date of October 2011 for the PDF and November 2011 for the printed copy.
- The rpgnet thread asking if we would ever see it started in January of 2011. Adamant joined in and stated that there were printer issues but they hoped to release it by the end of the month.
- In March it was announced that it would be released at the end of March.
- Later pre-orders were extended to April of 2012 with the promise of the PDF later that month and the print copies to follow shortly after. The art was mentioned as being locked in April as well.
- In late April Adamant announced that it would be two more weeks, placing the release sometime in May.
- In May Adamant announced it would be out in June.
- During June this was revised to end of June.
- In July the release was announced as "before August".
- In August this was revised to "end of August".
- In September the designer said he was sick.
- In September the original creator of the game reclaimed it but due to the contractual situation cannot publish Team-Up directly himself
- Subsequently the designer stated the PDF and print copies would be out in "the coming week"
- A week after that it was going for approval "this week" and then the PDF would be going after that (this is all still in September 2012)
- The next update is that it's going for approval in November. This is reiterated several times during the month and the designer claims depression as well
- In December the designer promised next week again.
- On December 30th the designer promised that it would go out this week and claimed family stuff as the reason for the delay. He also brought up that files had been deleted from dropbox which would appear to have happened some time prior to this announcement and there is some finger-pointing at this unnamed other person who deleted the files
- In February it was announced that it would be by 2/13 at the latest
So having spent time looking through the information on these two troubled projects, what did I learn?
First, I'm not sure that over-communication (ITU) is any better than under-communication (Dwimmermount) when a project is really really behind. At some point a line is crossed and the only good answer is "here's the product" and even then I suspect people will be far more critical of the content than they would have been and this will only add to the damaged reputation of the project. Maybe a slightly more refined lesson might be that over-communication is better but it absolutely must consist of more than yet-another-iffy release-date.
Second, gamers online seem to be extremely forgiving of missed release dates, especially when caused by health issues, family issues, or depression. I was kind of surprised at this. I'm onboard with it too when we're talking hobby but I'm a lot less forgiving once someone has taken money for a product - that's not just a hobby any more, that's business. But a lot of gamers don't seem to care when the force field of "sick" is raised, not even when the health issue happens when the project is already way behind. The commitments made on these and other projects don't seem to carry much weight with some of the people who made them and that's not a good place to be if you're trying to make a business out of this.
Third, I don't think Kickstarter is the source of all problems as some detractors cry - clearly people can blow it with good old-fashioned pre-orders as well. At least KS has the built-in safeguard of having to meet a goal before any money is taken, which is more protection than a pre-order has. The downside is that it seems to have opened up funding options that exceed some people's ability to deliver and that's a shame. Again, reputation is a big deal in smaller industries and I expect this will become a bigger deal in the future, especially Kickstarter-specific track records as Dwimmermount's creator seemed pretty solid on the surface.
Fourth, if you're going to have delays, make sure the project is good. Well, really it should be good regardless, but if it's delayed AND it's not that great, well, no one benefits from that. People say on forums that they're willing to wait to make sure a book is really good but I don't think most of the delays in these projects were related to making the project better - I think they were mostly long periods where the project was not being worked on at all. Extra time does not automatically equal extra goodness.
One note: Tavis Allison has been the communication focal point for Dwimmermount even though he is not writing it and is just trying to manage it out of a hole as best he can and he has been a stand-up guy during some pretty heated discussions. The contrast in approaches has been amazing, and he has shown serious professionalism throughout this episode. Also, on Team-Up, Steve Kenson has been a model of professionalism as well, being the creator and now publisher of ICONS but dealing with a situation he can't directly resolve. Both of these guys have shown a remarkable restraint when it comes to bus-tossing and finger-pointing, probably more than I would have. As in some other tough situations, fire can reveal strength as well as weakness.
What would I have done different? I'm not sure I should even venture into armchair-quarterbacking since I don't run a game company but having run other types of projects I will say this: At some point you have to step back and look at the project and assess where things are. Sometimes, the right call is to end it now, uncompleted, to stop any further waste of time and money. I think once a project is six months past due, there have been health issues, there have been other delays, and the writer is flat-out stating they are having trouble focusing on getting it done, well, I think you call it right there. Return the money, apologize for the problems, and try to wipe the slate clean. If this had happened with Dwimmermount last year I think that given the forgiving nature of gamers that things would be better for everyone involved and there's no reason a version of it couldn't be published at some point in the future when the author recovers some enthusiasm for the project again. Same with Team-Up - refund the pre-orders, return the work to its various authors, and let it go. Now of course these have gone on for so long that there are tax issues, Kickstarter's fee for KS projects, card expirations, and the simple fact that a lot of the money may already be gone. Those are big obstacles and the only way out now may be to forge ahead on some kind of game-writing death march - I'm sure that's going to lead to a quality product.
I guess my final conclusion is that as forgiving as gamers are, no one likes broken promises and that's what we're seeing here: a release date is a promise, taking payment for a product is a promise, and a company or writer's prior work is a sort of promise regarding the quality of what's coming. There were a lot of comments on those forum discussions about not taking money on something before the manuscript is done - that's good advice! Whether it's a Kickstarter or a pre-order I think that's a solid approach. Hopefully enough people learn enough lessons from troubled projects like these that things get better next time. I'm sure some will and I'm sure others won't, but the lessons are there all the same.