Category Archives: On Being Indie

Keepers of the Lantern

I designed a game tonight!

It’s time for Game Chef, which is an annual game design contest of sorts that’s been running for…um…ten years now, I think. A number of published games have come from this contest, including some significant ones like Polaris, The Mountain Witch, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, and A Penny For My Thoughts.

I somehow doubt that Keepers of the Lantern (PDF) will have the same kind of impact. It’s just a short one-shot RPG poem. Mostly disposable, in fact.

But I really wanted to write it.

This year, the Forge is closing down. The site will remain with an archive of threads, but that’s it.

Eleven years ago, I signed on to the Forge forums. (Aside: through a funny convergence of events, I actually have had a user account on the Forge longer than Ron Edwards. Serious! Here’s my profile, and here’s Ron’s.) And, for that eleven years, the Forge has been a major part of my life.

I’ve launched three games through the community at the Forge.

GNS/The Big Model/Whatever we’re calling it now was a major boon for me, as it helped me broaden my enjoyment of games by coming to see that different people are looking for different things from the same experience.

I’ve made friends and colleagues across the country through the Forge. In fact, I connected with Ralph Mazza largely through the Forge, before either of us lived in Peoria.

My thinking on rituals and ritual design was shaped in part by an article by Chris Lehrich that was posted on the Forge.

There were years–years, I say–where reading the Forge and grappling with the ideas being pushed around there was a major component of my intellectual life. In fact, the Forge proved to me that it is possible to have productive discourse on the Internet.

Over the last couple of years, my life hasn’t allowed as much room for interaction at the Forge. For better or worse, the Forge Diaspora moved on most of the people I was really interested in continuing to connect with. And, as my life changed, my ability to devote the time to this place was hampered. I stopped checking the Forge regularly. Then, over time, it fell off my radar.

I’m probably not alone in this. Ron’s right; it’s time for the Forge to move on.

But still, I like that the last hurrah for the Forge is about design. At its heart, the Forge was all about quality design, leading to quality play. And, from where I’m sitting, it succeeded brilliantly.

So, Ron, Clinton, Vincent, I salute the work you’ve done over the years. Thank you for what you built.

Thank you for the Forge.

No Indie Mercy!

I came across this video yesterday. He’s talking about indie video games, but I think it applies to all forms of independent art. Quality is quality, regardless of how many people worked on a project. And, yeah, giving something a pass just because it’s “indie” doesn’t actually help the independent artist. So, yeah, if you don’t have the money to make a blockbuster, then don’t try! All you’ll do is make a bad blockbuster. Instead, make a small film…but do it well.

A Shameless Shill for Mr. J. Medeiros and Some Thoughts on Indie Marketing

It’s no secret that I like Mr. J. Medeiros. I was first exposed to his “Constance” single a couple years ago, and I’ve been listening ever since.

So, when I heard that it was possible to get a download of “Holding On”, I was thrilled. And when I read the details, I was impressed. Medeiros will give away a copy of the “Holding On” mp3 plus a bonus track in exchange for a link to the video from a blog or social networking site.

See, as an independent artist myself, I understand the difficulty of getting solid marketing exposure. And sure, everyone talks about creating a grassroots buzz, but that’s so very hard to do. There’s a lot of clutter out there, and it’s hard to cut through it.

But this idea is fascinating. You leverage your existing fans by offering them a free sneak preview of something they were already going to buy. I mean, the kind of person who is going to post up a link to the new Medeiros video is probably already going to buy the new album. You know, like me. As it is, I’ve played the video a number of times, just because it’s such a pretty song. Sure, I was already planning on buying this album. But that means that I’m also the kind of person who would be eager to get my hands on some of the new material early. And, really, what does it cost? Just a link from my blog.

I think that the indie game design movement needs to give some consideration to how to employ similar methods.

So, yeah, this post is a shameless shill for Mr. J. Medeiros. If you’re looking for quality, clean, socially conscious hip-hop, then you really should check him out. And, as mentioned earlier, here is the link to “Holding On”, his newest single.

Passing the word

Let’s see.

Independent Christian rap being distributed for free.

Yeah, that seems like a bunch of stuff that I care about, all intersecting at the same place.

And check out this explanation:

Our music is purposely released independently. This guarantees that our message is not tampered with or compromised by those whose financial interests form the basis of their decision-making. We are committed to providing Christ-centered, excellent music that stays true to the authentic, rugged hip-hop aesthetic that we love while bringing glory to God -and at an affordable price. And when we can, we will give it away for free. And that’s the case with “The Grassroots” CD. You are important to us. We are convinced that a loyal few is better than a fickle multitude. Our hope is that you will enjoy our music, pass it along to others, and allow us to serve you again in the future.

That’s great for so many reasons.

(FYI, if you end up on a splash page instead of the download page, click through to and look for the Goodies tab. The album is called the Grassroots EP.)

More on being indie

Lost Garden: A Game Business Model: Learning from Touring Bands
I haven’t gotten back to my series on being independent, but this article lays out the indie business model in terms of computer games. Quite thought-provoking. I could see this model applying to many other service-driven businesses. Like, oh, say, restaurants.

On Being Indie: Who’s Your Audience?

(The previous installment can be found here.)

A question that is often asked by creative types is “Who’s your audience?� Who do you expect will enjoy or benefit from this work? This is usually asked during the creative process, as the artist is wrestling with various creative options. How can I communicate to these people? There are so many possible ways to answer this question. However, much as we artistic types hate to admit it, there is a very simple answer.

Your audience is whoever pays you.

Money talks, and that is as true in the arts as in every other endeavor of life. The creation of arts, especially the fine arts, takes time, and often the artist requires monetary support of some time to justify the time cost that he incurs while creating. This is not a new issue; one has only to think of the patronage by the Medici family of the artist Michelangelo to realize that money and the arts have been entwined for some time.

Once money enters the picture, the question quickly becomes an economic one. A general rule of business is that you want to keep your customer happy. This makes sense if you want to maintain a positive cash flow. So, as an artist, who is your customer? Who is paying the bill for your work?

In most cases, the answer is not who you think it is.

In my initial post on this topic (found here), I referenced a speech by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes. In this speech, Mr. Watterson talks about the syndicates. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know a lot about the market for newspaper comics, but my guess is that the syndicate is similar to a wholesaler of comics. A syndicate buys a comic strip from the comic artist. The syndicate then turns around and sells the comic to the newspaper, which prints it so that it can be purchased by a reader. The distribution chain looks something like this:


The distribution system in hobby games is similar. The publisher of a game sells the game to a distributor, who then sells to the retail stores, who then sell to the customer. The distribution chain looks like this:

publisher–>distributor–>retailer–>end user

Of course, the reality is a little more complex. The publisher doesn’t usually originate the game. This is often done by freelancers, who then sell to the publisher. So, the actual distribution chain looks like this:

designer–> publisher–> distributor –>retailer–>end user

The book and movie industries works in similar ways.

Each of those arrows represents a transaction. Thus, the general laws of economics come into play. Each buyer will be acting in his perceived best interest. As a result, each link in the chain acts as a filter. Ideally, good product passes down the chain, while bad product is weeded out by the market.

However, the best interests of each group are not the same. What the end user of a product wants, for instance, is very different from what a distributor wants. So, the criteria used to judge the utility of a product change along the supply chain, and movement of the product can be interrupted at any time. All the end user sees are products that have leaped the hurdles of the publisher, distributor, and retailer.

Moreover, each link in the distribution chain is really only interested in the links that connect to it. So, for example, the publisher is concerned about buying low from its freelance designers and selling high to the distributors. The end user barely enters the equation, and then only as a factor that might affect the distributors’ decision to buy or not. The end user is not the publisher’s customer; the distributor is the publisher’s customer.

(There are other factors that could be discussed here, like the relative economic clout of publishers vs. distributors or the return policies of different links in the supply chain, but these factors vary in different markets and are not immediately germane to the topic at hand.)

So, in this scenario, who is the artist’s customer? The publisher. Not the end user. Not even the retailer. It is the publisher who will decide if the product is shipped along the distribution chain. Therefore, who does the artist need to please? The publisher.

Now, let’s imagine that we have a young, starry-eyed writer. Like, say, me. Let’s say that I were to be working on writing a novel. (This is purely hypothetical, you understand.) And let’s say that I were to be dealing with some emotional issues (like child abuse) and using some controversial techniques (like cussin’) to “fulfill my artistic vision�. (All this is hypothetical, of course.) My desire to maintain my artistic vision may be all well and good until it runs full tilt into these harsh economic realities. If I were to pursue a normal approach to being an author, upon finishing the manuscript, I would begin to shop it around to publishers. In other words, I would be marketing my product to my customers. They would evaluate the manuscript primarily on their opinion of its marketability (assuming it even gets read), especially its marketability to the next link on the distribution chain, which is either a distributor or a retailer, if the publisher is large enough to do its own distribution. So, a publisher might look over the manuscript and decide that certain content (including the cussin’) would reduce the saleability of the manuscript. Therefore, it either rejects the manuscript or returns it for further “edits�, if the manuscript might be otherwise worth the effort. At this point, protesting that my “artistic vision� is being stepped on will help me not a bit. The publisher is operating a business, and he needs to keep his customers happy. He doesn’t want to buy “artistic vision�; he wants to buy marketability.

So, what’s the solution?

This is where being independent is a strength. As an independent artist, the distribution chain looks something like this:

artist–>end user

So, who’s the customer now? The end user. The person who was supposed to be the audience of my work in the first place. The person who I wanted to impress when I set out to create my masterpiece. The end user wants me to be true to my “artistic vision�, because, unlike the other links in the distribution chain, that’s what he actually wants to pay for. He doesn’t need to resell my work; all he wants is to enjoy the product of my labor. In return, I will be paid by people who are evaluating my work with the same sort of criteria as I am.

In other words, I’ll know who my audience is.

On Being Indie: A Definition

(The previous installment can be found here.)

So, as promised, I am returning to the topic of creator ownership of intellectual property. This is an issue that has gradually become more important to me over the last several years, especially as a result of my involvement in hobby game publishing. The reasons for my concerns should become apparent as I go through this discussion.

So, first, a definition. The word “independent� can have a variety of meanings, from “low budget� to “we really stink�. When I use the word “independent�, though, I have a precise meaning in mind: creator ownership of the intellectual property being developed. In other words, the copyright and creative control are maintained by the creator throughout the publication process. This does not necessarily mean the same thing as self-publication, where the creator pays for the production of the work, although being independent often requires self-publication.

With this definition in mind, let’s hop into our discussion.

(The next installment can be found here.)

On Being Indie (some links)

I keep adding to the list of topics that I should write about, so here I’ll open up a topic, so that I’ll get nagged to write about it later. The issue is creator ownership of intellectual property, also known as being an independent artist. The short short version of the argument is that the general approach to distribution and marketing of creative properties is fundamentally screwed up. Here are a couple articles that discuss the issue in a two different media:

The Cheaping of the Comics
by Bill Watterson (the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip)

The Nuked Apple Cart
by Ron Edwards (the creator of the Sorcerer roleplaying game)

And I’ll get back to this later.