Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Funding A New Generation Of Bedroom Coder

Back in the 80s when gaming evolved past a few lines of Pong on a floppy disc, there were several ways of acquiring new games for the home PC (an Amstrad 464, not even sorry). You could buy them on tape, usually from a branch of Tandy, Woolworths or sometimes a randomly progressive corner newsagent; you could ‘borrow’ them from a friend, an hilariously analogue process involving a tape-to-tape machine and an eyepatch; or you could write your own.

My command of BASIC didn’t go much further than copying syntax from back of hefty magazines, but a handful of intrepid bedroom coders created the foundation for British gaming. Though to be fair, the 80s wasn’t that long ago. But still, pioneers like Jeff Minter, The Oliver Twins, Peter Molyneux, Jez San and many more were experimenting, innovating, and working out how to make money from something they were doing anyway.

Games are fun. No-one disputes that except the occasional Daily Mail writer and angry parent group that give my Custom PC column so much fodder. Making games is not fun. It’s incredibly hard work of the head-banging sort for rewards that sometimes include threats from angry entitled teens, and if everything goes particularly badly, bankruptcy.

So independent developers today, just like bedroom coders in the 80s, are trying to balance ‘make a fun game because I enjoy coding and art and problem-solving’ with ‘pay the rent and have enough left over to eat ramen’. Profit is secondary to covering costs, which is secondary to making the game you want. You might even have a day job. Mike Bithell, creator of the million-copy-selling Thomas Was Alone, completed the game whilst in full-time employment, but is now able to work solely on his follow-up, Volume, using profits from his first release. A rare situation, but proof it can be done, and few indies relish the thought of creativity-sapping investors breathing over their shoulders. That’s neither in the spirit nor the psychological makeup of the bedroom coder.
But funding for developers is scarce, so we shouldn't be surprised or cynical that crowdfunding has become a serious option. For a few years now, coders and producers have been experimenting with publicly-sourced "investment" (of the no-return type) with mixed success. I backed DoubleFine Adventure/Broken Age whilst high on nostalgia and hype, ignoring the nagging voice saying “pretty sure this game isn’t going to live up to its development cost”, but although I personally didn't love the finished product, it certainly can't be knocked for attracting pre-orders and proving a concept.

Although sadly the scale of Broken Age's funding is atypical, it's not unique – Broken Sword, Leisure Suit Larry and others all had successful crowdfunding drives - but nostalgia alone isn’t enough, as the failed 2012 Dizzy Kickstarter showed. In a few years, point-and-click will be again be passe, platformers will be the new black, and a vaguely forgotten developer will get lucky with a reboot of, oh I don't know, Speedy Eggbert. But that's also fine. Games are subject to trends same as anything. We should welcome innovation alongside sentimentality.

While we wait for the Next Big Thing, there are many excellent indie developers trying to get their small thing out there. If you have a spare few quid, take a chance on one of them. When we back a games Kickstarter we're doing exactly what we did in the 80s when we copied games on tape for our friends. Sharing our niche hobbies and obscure finds with like-minded people, and there will always be a market for that.

A version of this article first appeared in Custom PC Magazine in April 2014

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Advice For Independent Projects: 1) Crowdfunding Rewards

After recently participating in the 2014 Nine Worlds Geekfest panel on the indie game life and how to break into it, I thought I'd post some advice on the business, marketing and production side of making your own games. This advice also applies to other industries (indeed my company makes animations as well as games), so hopefully has something for everyone considering an independent project. 

Disclaimer! The advice on this page is free and therefore worth what you paid. I am not responsible for any issues arising from the advice on this page, it is merely suggestion. Nothing here is a rule or an instruction, and we haven’t entered into any agreement. If you want the paid-for advice, drop me a note on Twitter

Crowdfunding Rewards

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have had their fair share of successes as well as modest and sometimes huge failures. Although an incredibly worthwhile avenue to consider for funding, there are a few really huge pitfalls that I see well-meaning but inexperienced crowdfundies fall into time and time again. 

The cost of rewards
Physical rewards! Rewards are usually seen by backers as being the thing they're actually paying for, a sort of pre-order. Check your user agreement, as many crowdfunding sites legally obligate you to deliver rewards. So in that regard they are no different to simply opening up a shop. Imagine rewards as products and your backers as customers and prioritise accordingly.

A backer may think they’re giving you extra money by supporting a bigger reward, but without knowing what the actual cost of that reward is, they may be wrong.

As an example, let's say you've promised a physical copy of your game to backers at a certain level. Here are some potential steps in producing a physical reward compared to digital downloads only.

Digital download
Uploading (time and bandwidth)
Creation of interactive menu and graphics
Hosting and bandwidth for downloads
Blank DVDs
Generating unique download codes
DVD burning
Emailing codes to backers
DVD disc printing or
Dealing with issues/questions
DVD label printing and application

DVD cases

DVD case cover design

DVD case cover printing

DVD case cover insertion

DVD insert design (optional)

DVD insert printing (optional)

DVD insert insertion (optional)

Delivery to your/storage address

Storage if applicable

Padded envelopes

Address mailmerge

Address labels

Printing of address labels (ink and time, or just buy a few sharpies and write them instead)

Address label application

Return address labels (as per address labels)

Padded envelopes

Insertion of DVDs into envelopes

Paper and ink for covering letter

Writing covering letter

Folding covering letter

Insertion of covering letter

Postage cost

Application of postage (stamps, franked labels)

Delivery to post office or courier pickup

Emailing dispatch notice

Dealing with email problems/enquiries

Dealing with “goneways” (returned to sender packages)

Re-sending lost or stolen DVDs (you will have to absorb the cost of this)

Way more than you might immediately assume. You can outsource a lot of the above and I heartily recommend you do unless you have a lot of spare time, but you must factor in time for briefing the third party and communicating regularly. The idea is to minimise surprises! Don't fall into the trap of thinking it's cheaper to do it yourself unless you have costed your time, storage, etc first to get a true comparison.

Time is a cost
Every minute of your "spare" time that you spend on your project is time you could be spending earning money doing something else, so even if you are not physically paying yourself, you still should factor in the cost of your time. If you decide to stuff envelopes yourself, that's time you can't spend online replying to customer tweets or updating your website. If you decide you update your website yourself, that's time you can't spend building your game. And so on. Time is a cost. Plan your time as effectively as you plan your money, because if you run out of time you will have to pay someone else to help anyway. 

GET QUOTES BEFORE YOU LAUNCH YOUR CROWDFUND. I can’t stress this enough. I have seen so many “the rewards cost us more than we realised” laments. This should never, ever happen. Your backers do not want you to go broke for the sake of a colour-changing mug. You have a duty of care to them and their money.
Below is some advice to help you navigate the world of quotes.
  • GET MORE THAN ONE QUOTE. It doesn’t matter if it’s your brother’s mate’s t-shirt company, get a like-for-like quote from three different suppliers. This has several benefits:

a.       You will get an idea of what the industry average for the job is (and so whether that amazing deal really is one).
b.      You will have something to barter with. Get on the phone and say “hey so I really like you guys but this other company is 10% cheaper, can you match that price?”
c.       You have a backup in case your preferred supplier can’t do it.

  • NEGOTIATE. It is expected. See (b) above for a simple script. Your aim is to get the best value for your money. If a company you really want to use can’t budge on price (although it would be very unusual if they gave you their best price first), see if they’ll do the job quicker, or throw in free delivery. If there is no flexibility, find another supplier.

  • ASK ABOUT MINIMUM ORDERS. Do not forget to ask what the minimum order is when getting quotes. This is a common mistake. If it’s high and you are not sure you will sell enough of that particular reward, think of a different reward instead. You don’t want to order fifty t-shirts and only sell twenty in the rewards, or sell a reward based on minimum sales that you don’t meet.

  • ASK FOR SAMPLES. You really don’t want to be surprised by lousy quality when the final product is delivered. If you find it cheap and nasty, so will your backers. Cheaper items are usually sent to you free in the post, but for more expensive items you may have to visit the supplier.

  • ASK FOR PRICE BREAKPOINTS. Any printing company will have price breakpoints, a volume at which the price per item goes down. It is not twice the price to have 200 books printed compared to 100 books. This is because a percentage is for setup, printing plates, delivery which are fixed costs regardless of quantity ordered. So, the more you order, the more your price-per-item goes down. Being aware of the breakpoints can help you make the most of your rewards by allowing you to give a better reward more cheaply (and thereby selling more of it).

  • REMEMBER THE VAT! Quotes are often exclusive of VAT. If you are not VAT-registered, make sure you get the VAT-inclusive price. Otherwise you will have a nasty surprise when you get the invoice. Some items are VAT-free, for example books, printed brochures, leaflets/flyers, so use that to your advantage.

Hope this is useful. Next time I'll be covering how to prepare a budget. Good luck with your project!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Janitor or the Dude Who Ran the Water Slide

"Throughout history, every mystery ever solved turned out to be...not magic" 
- Tim Minchin, Storm

About seven or eight years ago when I was fairly new to organised skepticism scene, a major TV channel invited me to participate in a show about ghosts. I was to spend the night in an allegedly haunted castle and debunk whatever claims the owners made. I was very excited to be a real life Daphne and too inexperienced to realise that no payment, including no travel expenses, was a huge red flag.

They wouldn't let me wear this :(
My then-husband Phil and I drove several hundred miles and met the crew. There were other people being filmed too, a young girl who "definitely" believed in ghosts, and a young guy who said he wasn't sure but had the air of a creduloid. They filmed us pretending to arrive together. We had to get out of a people carrier, stand in a line and walk purposefully across a vast lawn towards the castle. It was silly and less Scooby gang than it sounded.

As the resident skeptic couple, Phil and I needed to be split up. They sent him off with the young guy and a camera, and paired me with the girl. We had to walk around the grounds filming ourselves talking about whether ghosts are real. I told her about the research into industrial fans making eyeballs vibrate, causing hallucinations which are easily confused with ghosts. She looked skeptical which annoyed me. That was my job.

As it started to get dark we were introduced to the owner and promoter of the castle, a nice earnest fellow. We walked all walked through the grounds and graveyard chatting, as a warm-up. He told us the story of a couple in the 80s who were driving along one of the nearby roads and hit a white figure, probably the ghost of a woman who had drowned herself in the pond. When they stopped and got out, the figure had gone. "There's an owl sanctuary on the grounds", I said. "Wasn't it more likely a white owl that simply flew off?". "That's a possible explanation, yes", he said kindly. "That's a good point, can you say that when we're filming?" asked the production crew, so we did it all again. This time, when I asked "could it have been an owl?" he looked at me and firmly said "no".

I was cross now. Telly was a lie. We did a tour of the church and he told us gruesome spooky stories. I presented alternative explanations and got ignored, although the crew continued to film everything. There's always hope for a friendly edit. But then the tone changed. "Back to the castle!" said the crew. They gave the believer girl and I a torch between us. "We want you two to spend the rest of the night locked in the haunted bedroom with the lights off". "What for?" I said. "That's hardly the environment for serious skeptic study". I knew why. It would be good TV. Scare the skeptic. We were supposed to sit in the dark spooky room and read the guestbook by torchlight. It contained all the messages from previous guests about what Terrible Spooky Things they'd experienced while there. 

Meanwhile they'd got rid of Phil by sending him off round the castle on his own with a handheld camera. Phil wasn't good telly, too stoic and unshakable. I went to find him and told him about their ridiculous torch-and-locked-room plan. "I'm not doing it", I said. "It's stupid. It's not why I'm here. This is bogus and I feel used". Phil agreed. We went to the producer and said there was a family emergency. It wasn't a lie, I did have a close family member in hospital at the time and could have done with leaving early anyway, but it wasn't the main reason we left. It was about 1am. I should have been honest. I could have said my piece and suggested something different. I didn't have the confidence or experience to do that, and I was under the distinct impression that my 'role' had been decided already. It just all felt dirty.

On the five hour drive home we had to pull over so I could throw up from stress. Or ectoplasm, I don't know. 

When the show came out, it was actually quite skeptical in tone. I'm still sure they were trying to get footage of a skeptic being scared, but it didn't turn out to be entirely the anti-science puff piece I was afraid of.

Then a few years later I saw an article about the castle in a very reputable publication. It said that "a well-known skeptic" had been "frightened away in the middle of the night". The castle were using me to sell their ghosts! If I'd stayed, they wouldn't have been able to do that. Then again, the story might have been "skeptic scared to death from reading spooky stories by torchlight; new ghost sighted at castle".

Monday, 23 September 2013

Women Speakers At Events

Today is a sad day for scientists because someone claiming to be one of their number wrote this in the FAQs of a forthcoming science event:

I am a fanatical, misandristic 'feminist'. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters? No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for. We're actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.

Alrighty. Deep breaths all round and let's tackle this in a constructive, practical way.

Yes, it is often difficult to get female speakers, particularly from male-dominated sectors like science, tech and gaming. However, there are reasons why this is the case and if you take the time to understand those reasons, you will succeed in getting a balanced lineup. As the organisers of Consensus don't seem to be professionals, and I am one, having organised events for fifteen years including both TAM Londons, here is some free advice for them and anyone else who is struggling with getting female speakers.

  1. Offer to pay extra for childcare. One of the most common reasons for women not being available to speak, or cancelling, is because of childcare. Yes, it is 'unfair' that you may have to spend more money on speakers with kids, but it's also 'unfair' that women still, despite everything, are the primary caregivers. Even women with careers. I know, awful isn't it? There isn't any evidence to support the notion of women being innately better at childcare and yet there it is, our society, going along with it anyway. Single parent families usually have the mother as the main custodian. Not your problem? Guess again, look at all the crap you get if you don't get some female speakers. Offer the childcare allowance to men too, if you know they have kids and it could interfere with their ability to accept.
  2. Ask more women. If all the women you asked said no, ask some more. And some more. Keep going til you succeed. It isn't the easiest path, but it is the right one. If you invite a woman and she says no, ask her if she has recommendations for other female speakers in her area of expertise.
  3. If you are consistently getting declines to invites issued to women, maybe it's you. Given the attitude of the Consensus organisers, it's hardly surprising they could only get men. Hire someone else to do your speaker liaison - perhaps even a woman. That would certainly help to send the message that the event is women-friendly, which is very important in male-dominated sectors.
  4. Use registers of speakers to find experienced women, ask for recommendations on Twitter or from other event organisers, or take a chance on an unknown name. Chances are your big ticket names are male. This is a problem I've encountered many times. You need to sell tickets, and to do that you need the famous people who are on telly sometimes. Most of those are guys, more of that frustrating imbalanced society. You will just have to live with the fact that there are fewer big-draw women than men. If your event is good and well-marketed, every speaker doesn't have to be Brian Cox. You can afford to mix things up. Newsflash: audiences enjoy diversity! It makes for better events.
  5. Publicly commit to gender diversity. Just state up front, "this event is committed to gender diversity", before you even announce your lineup. Once you've said it, you have to stick to it. 50/50 in STEM industries is a big ask. Aim for one in four. If you can't manage that, see above.
  6. Avoid gendered language unless an event or panel (or blog post) is about gender. Saying "female gamers" makes "gamer" male by default. Female scientists? Nope, they're scientists, same as the men.
  7. Look very very hard at whether you can afford a creche at the event. You will attract more women speakers AND audience members. Hey, entire families could come! Imagine that.
  8. Offer to pay for female speakers to be accompanied. An event organiser I know once invited a 19-year-old girl to speak then refused an extra conference ticket for her mother. She did not want to travel alone to a huge city to a conference in a male-dominated sector, and so cancelled. I don't blame her. I'm 37 and used to travelling alone, and I still take my partner whenever I can because it can be intimidating or even outright unsafe sometimes. Again, that may seem unfair but again it is simply a rebalancing of something already unfair on women. If you want to fix the whole getting-hassle-while-alone problem society has, that would be great. Meanwhile some women don't want to travel alone, and it's in your interest to accommodate that.
Is all this positive discrimination? Ask yourself why your industry got to the point where these extra steps are necessary and if it's okay for you to simply maintain the status quo. If you still aren't sure, ask some women.

Edit: some more tips from @janl here.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On Massive Tellies

Perhaps the telly looked massive because the room it was in was tiny. I don't know. I wasn't there, so can't say what transpired to make Jamie Oliver so contemptuous of a family's choices. That they chose a different priority (entertainment) over his (nutrition) is not surprising in the least. You can't stare at the wall. Food is fleeting.

Poverty is a trap and a cycle. There is no future when you're dirt poor so who cares about avoiding cancer or heart disease? Fat tastes nicer than lean. White bread is delicious. Chips are too. See the Orwell quote doing the rounds and try to empathise. Buying a big TV on credit is a thrill and watching Sky is a distraction.

When I was growing up, under the adorable hell regime of Thatcher, you could get a free telly from the council because TV was on an 'essentials' list. Telephones weren't, because those were a luxury easily replaced by letters. If you were too poor to afford a TV, even Thatcher's government was sympathetic. They didn't specify how big was too big, and I'm wondering what size now qualifies as massive.

It's a simple mistake, assuming someone makes an economic choice by weighing up the benefits and disadvantages of each and educating themselves on the long-term effects. In reality, hardly anyone does this. When you're poor, you buy expensive stuff on a whim to cheer yourself the hell up because depression is common and life is hopeless and bleak. You don't buy it with cash, for you have none. You use credit, not understanding compound interest or its implications. You make yourself financially poorer by trying to become emotionally richer. Culturally relevant. Your kids will be bullied if they don't speak the same TV language as their peers. You will too, subtly. On council estates, no-one speaks in brown rice and organic carrots. On ours, we were bullied sometimes for being a bit different. Snooty, you know. Not about food though. Lunch was a white bread fishpaste sandwich, a snack was a chunk of black pudding. I'm middle-class now and still eat both, or sometimes oysters and caviar, in front of my massive telly that I proudly paid cash for. Food is cultural, not all cultures are the same. No amount of wealth is going to change my tastebuds or rewire neural pathways so a blue Slush Puppy is no longer a nostalgic thrill.

Jamie Oliver has done some great work in schools. One slip-up doesn't undo that. He advocates for nutrition because kids need it for brain development and being clever is how you break the poverty cycle. It is important, intangible, unquantifiable. A gamble, as all health choices are. A massive telly, though, that's something else. Solid, dependable, visible. I'm glad I no longer have to choose.