Wednesday, 1 October 2014

J'Adore Asterix x

Most people have heard of Asterix but not everyone has read Asterix, and I’d like to remedy that.

Confirmed bachelors
A quick primer: Asterix is a small Gaulish (read: French) warrior from a little village that is under siege from the Romans. The village has managed to hold out against occupation because of a magic potion brewed by the village druid, Getafix, which grants superhuman strength. Obelix, the best friend of Asterix, fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and failed to drown. Instead, he became perma-strong.

But...strength alone is not enough. The truth is that the village survives because of the ingenuity, nay CUNNING of the titular warrior. Also bashing Romans, yes, but mostly the brains thing. So far so standard superhero fodder. Extreme strength plus superior planning plus being on the side of justice, liberty and roast boar for all equals success.

I had to wait for Google to be invented to get this
Where Asterix differs is the humour. Latin puns, history jokes, everyone’s name some amusing ancient variation of a familiar word or phrase. I used to write my name on the flyleaf, Tracyix Kingix. Asterix books felt smarter than other comics. Any kid could get the basics, but beyond that were references to plebiscites (get that pleb a seat), triumvirates (I’ll be one on my own!) and a boxer called Cassius Ceramix.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the wordplay works so well in English. The books were originally written by Rene Goscinny in French, and translated by the amazing Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, whose challenge was to replace French wordplay with something that worked in English on several levels: as a word ending in –ix if a male Gaul, and –a if a female Gaul; as a reflection of the role or personality of the character; and as a joke. Vitalstatistix is overweight. Getafix the druid is...uh...well he makes magic potions. Cacofonix is a terrible musician. Geratrix is very old, his young and beautiful wife Myopia seems not to see his flaws. In Asterix the Legionary, spy H2So4’s real name is Vitriolix.

Today, the books are written by Jean Yves-Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad but still translated by Anthea Bell, as profiled in thislovely Guardian article.

I started reading Asterix aged twelve, and still have my original copies. I even spent a few years searching ebay to replace my non-matching editions with the right ones.

Those editions are long over and I now have to be content with non-matching covers, but I still grab every new volume. If you’re going to start an Asterix collection, begin at the beginning, with Asterix the Gaul, and read them in order if you can. Watching the art style and characters develop from 1961 to present day gives as much pleasure (and a few raised eyebrows) as the stories themselves.
Early Asterix

My own comic – well, illustrated book – Storm is out soon, written by Tim Minchin, illustrated by DC Turner, and published by Orion. Asterix is also published by Orion. You can imagine my joy at this coincidence. During a recent meeting I straight up demanded they allow me to steal the large cutout Asterix adorning the windowsill (they did). Here it is.

Sorry mate, I have a boyfriend

Although I say begin at the beginning, you can pick up any volume as a standalone story. If you’re considering testing the waters, here are some of my favourites in order of volume number:

Asterix and the Banquet, #5 – look at the pictures carefully and you’ll see the heroes followed by a small dog who in the final panel is noticed by Obelix. This is the origin of canine sidekick Dogmatix.

Asterix in Switzerland #16 – a darker story than usual and hilariously cheese-oriented. If you find “a packed orgy for one” funny, you’re a shoe-in for enjoying this.

"Mom, what's an orgy?"

Asterix and the Soothsayer #19 – Asterix is a sceptic! This is basically the plot of Storm. A stranger arrives and spouts some ridiculous mysticism, the hairy protagonist objects, the stranger gets captured by Romans. Wait, that’s not the plot of Storm. Close, though. So close.

Sometimes the sceptic and the mystic find common ground...

And the latest is Asterix and the Picts, #35 – If you liked Brave then you’ll like this. A welcome return to form after a few years of post-Goscinny feet-finding, Asterix and Picts is evidence that there’s life in the Gaulish village yet and hopefully for  a long time to come.  



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".