Sunday, October 23, 2011

Allow Game Piracy...And Get Paid Anyway

Somebody once said that requiring a cash investment filters out those who are truly serious.  If you've ever seen those  hideously expensive workshops or conventions, you'll realize quick that not everyone is allowed to play in that sandbox.  But it's not just like that with "walk over hot coals to my new self-help book" seminars that cost 900 clams.  We're like that with EVERYTHING.  Money's got this crazy all-encompassing power that makes us hem and haw and consider our purchases.  And as a result we love getting free crap.  "Want a free sample?"  "Get a free mug!"  "The hotel soap isn't actually free."  "'Free the slaves'?  Does that mean we can get some free slaves?  Where do you go for those?"

Money is a psychological barrier.  It represents an investment.  And games challenge this barrier.  Video games spring for 50-60 bucks a pop.  Some roleplaying games go that high too.  Collectible card games take money over and over again like a Nigerian prince playing a Ponzi scheme during a bank robbery.  And there's no guarantee that these games won't suck when you drop the bomb.  How can you tell?  Easy.  You try and get it for free first.

And for some people, that opens the big city gate to Piracyville.

And people try to fight against all the torrents and Rapidshares.  They throw down free previews, 30-day software trials.  They understand that education kills fear, that if they learn what the game's about with free previews, they might fork over their green and copper presidents.  But there's still the prevalent thought of prevention, that it's all intended to shut down would-be pirates, postponing their plot to plunder because once they've procured the prize, then what's the point of trying to get them to make the purchase?

Objection - there is a monster point!  Because with the right attitude, a bippity-boppity-boo of marketing magic, you may win that pirate to your side just yet.

The assumption is that once a pirate has pirated something, he will never buy.  It could happen.  It could ALSO happen that you apply such splendid charm that he offers his wallet ammo anyway.  However, the barriers of PayPal and RPGNow and whatever don't apply at this point.  You can't try to force him to double back and cross them - at this point, as far as the pirate's concerned, he's already won.

How to Free Your Andrew Jacksons from Blackbeard

So don't try to win.  Unleash your inner Gandhi powers.  Acknowledge that he may have downloaded your game without paying, and that's fine.  Because now your goal now isn't to get him to buy out of an "obligation", a societal belief that he's already chosen to ignore.  Here's the new goal - getting him to buy as a "compliment".

I dig how Maid RPG did it.  Near the beginning they acknowledge that Blackbeard might've swiped their PDF, and they answer that to the effect of "Hey, if you like what we do, paying for an actual copy tells us we're doing it right and that you want to see more cool stuff, which we'll be happy to make".  Instead of asking for a customer/retailer relationship, you're asking for a partnership.  Now the pirate has the chance to contribute to that company's future, and feel awesome about it.  "Yeah, I downloaded it at first, but they did such a great job that I went back and bought a copy.  I want to see what's next."

Postmodern Press did something like this too.  They're behind a little cosmic freakout called Eclipse Phase.  Piracy was inevitable, so hell, they just dumped it onto Creative Commons anyway!  It's free to download and redistribute.  And by letting that drive their marketing, running on a donation model for this prime and free RPG, their sales have never been better.

Now, you don't have to take the Postmodern Path.  You can still ask for payment up front, set up the normal barriers like buying through RPGNow.  And you'll still get people cashing in through these channels.  But never quit reaching out, even at the post-piracy phase.  Try offering a hand of partnership instead of a fist of die.  And you never know.  Maybe Blackbeard will hang up his beard.  Totally ripping it off his face like a total badass.  Because he liked the cut of your jib.

Not that piracy doesn't have its own inherent evils.  What do you think?  Can piracy be turned around and used as a selling tool all its own, or is it far too risky to be used for good?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How To Microwave Interesting Characters In About Four Minutes

I had a feeling Transformers 1 and 2 were going to suck out of the gate but I ponied up anyway.  And I'll actually sit here and defend the first film.  Dumb as hell, but the final fight in the city was awesome and even Shia leBouf was kinda funny sometimes.

But then here comes Revenge of the Fallen and oh God why.  The big hooplah was that two of the robots were racist caricatures.  The big hooplah we should've raised instead should've been about "oh this writing is five-year-old territory" or "well Hop on Pop might've made a more thrilling PG-13 film than this."  (And this is the part where you ignore that Cat in the Hat movie and pretend it happened entirely in an alternate universe, which was then collapsed by an all-powerful deity.)  I haven't even seen Dark of the Moon but I heard it actually tanked more, which I didn't think was even possible.  Then again I guess if you want a wizard of mediocrity, Micheal Bay's got those spells memorized for life.

So here's my point.  They say we should make interesting characters for fiction, like our novels and RPG scenarios and game scripts, but sometimes we're all lazy so we reach for old hat.  Making good characters is tough stuff, no doubt.  But I am one of a new breed of lazy people.  If there's a simple, systematic way to get great results, I'm all over that.  And during my quest to make writing great characters way, WAY easier, I stumbled upon a great trick.  By itself it makes more interesting characters out of the box, but you can easily use the results as a starting point for further fix-it-ups.

Here's what you do.

1.  Throw down a stereotype.  High schooler who can't talk to women, fat guy married to hot wife.  Just get something down to work with.

2.  Now, twist the expectation.  I got this from Orson Scott Card and I have used it ever since.  By expectation, I mean what the audience usually expects.  So Dorklad can't talk to women.  Why?  Oh, uh...he's just a goof.  That's the normal expectation.  Pass.  Change the answer.  So maybe now the geeky nerd can't talk to women because he's misogynist and proud of it.  Or maybe he thinks they're all shallow and only values REAL relationships.  You see what I mean.

3.  Do this ten, twenty times with different details.  Pick at least the third answer that pops in your head each time.  First two answers are usually more stereotypes and we're trying to avoid those.  So now he doesn't offer lame comebacks to bullies.  Maybe he's Zen, thinks there's better stuff in life to fuss over.  Or maybe it gets to him, BUT he's so smart, he usually sets up a gambit to get revenge like a chessmaster.  Just try something besides "W-Well, YOU'RE a butt too!"

I'll stress my disclaimer now: this may not get you supremely intricate characters.  But a half hour's thought sure made something cool to work with, right?  From there you can easily toss this guy into situations and watch him fumble, see what he does now that you've got enough to work with.  And for scenarios and scripts, this is your instant-NPC-in-a-bottle right here that isn't just "Welcome to Cornelia!" guard number four.  Your world will seem more alive and feasible with a few dozen unique, if simple, folk running about.

I'll do it right now with a character.  Name: Arnold Winchester.  Stereotype: snooty old white American businessman.  What do you expect from this guy?  He's rich, has a big house, wife and two adult children, a yacht, dabbles in the financial on and so forth.

Let's change things up.

1.  He doesn't have a big house.  He actually lives in normal suburbia.  Why?  He loves the energy of activity around him.  Hearing children play outside, hearing the neighbor mow his lawn, having the radio and TV on while he charges him up.

2.  Let's keep him in the financial district.  But he didn't work to where he was from the ground-up, he was given his assets by family.  Now let's imagine that, eager to learn and create his own success, he's maintaining his assets while building another company on the side, learning as he goes.  No, better idea.  He's working as an unknown to take over someone else's company, learning as he goes.  Evil, yes.  To him it's just business.

3.  But then again, ruthless old businessmen bore me.  Let's change it again.  He's back to building another business, but not to validate himself.  He knows he can do it.  He's just going to give the business as a present to a woman he wants to charm.  What better way to show your intelligence than to build something incredibly successful like that?  She'll get a kick out of his smarts.

4.  This raises another question.  If he's trying to charm this woman, where's his family?  Does he even have one?  You assume he either never married or got divorced or they were killed or whatever.  Here's a notion: what if this guy married a woman whose husband was AWOL, and then the husband came back?  Well, now this woman's torn, because she likes her husband, but Arnold's a swell guy too.  Arnold doesn't want to deny her the love her husband can provide, so he willingly divorces her and is now questing to find something else.  And maybe that business he's building is a parting gift.  That's rife for relationship drama.

I just sat down and blathered on paper, twisting expectations, and already I've got some interesting stuff to explore.  If I shot down a few more birds I could have a full character to run with.  The point is that I barely invested any effort, and here I am in happy-character land.

The next time you want to make a compelling character to drive your scenario, give this a shot.  Whatever you come up with, it'll probably be better than Revenge of the Fallen.  Domo Arigato for sucking, Ethnic Robot Sidekick.

But this is only one of many potential tricks.  What do you do to write decent characters without any hassle?  Or do you think toughing it out is the only way to make good characters?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Quit Netdecking Your Writing

In collectible card games, "netdecking" is when a player builds a deck using a list of cards someone else posted online.  By itself, it's frowned upon because someone else did all the work of making the deck playable and you're just blindly copying their idea.  And when tons of players do this, it turns a game about deckbuilding skill into Simon Says Act Like A Xerox.  People seem to agree, though, that a netdeck can be a good starting point for a type of deck you want to play, provided you make your own changes.

You should do the same too, but not just in card games.  When you netdeck blindly, you're just plugging and playing.  Not even thinking if anything could make it better.  Oh, this printer works fine enough, whoops running out of virgin blood ink, better go a knifin'!  Same's true for your writing process.  If you plug and play, you might miss out on some great ideas that could make your writing kick ass.

In fact, I'm gonna suggest that you'll be the King or Queen of the Sucking Prom UNLESS you quit netdecking.  And I'm not talking about changing up your word quotas or writing different genres or other low-level stuff.  If you really want to quit netdecking your writing, you need to quit netdecking life itself.  And that means challenging all the beliefs and opinions forced on you by The Colloquial MAN.

I Gotta Believe

I mean, think about it.  You started writing because it was fun.  And I bet you kept doing it anyway even though you got sick of bopping through life listening to people tell you that it's a waste of time, that you'll never make serious dough off of it.  "What a load of crap!" you said.  "Eat THIS, Grandma!"  And then that Christmas would never be mentioned again.  But I think you can take that further.  Hell, I think we all can stand to look at what we've accepted as true and really see which beliefs worth keeping, especially the ones we have about writing.

I used to believe that, to write good fiction, you had to practice with stories first, then move up to the novel, and writing outlines was evil and my sentences had to pass some imaginary CIA skillful-metaphor pop quiz in my brain to be good.  Nowadays?  I just play RPGs.  Got no problem with telling cool stories about interesting characters there.

I used to believe that networking and promotion wasn't my bag because I needed self-confidence to talk to people about "business".  Le screw that.  I decided to make it fun and rewarding, and I'm doing the same to cold-calling/pitching  because thinking that I have to pitch prospects that ONE EXACT WAY is no good.

Getting back to that whole writing topic.  When you quit netdecking your writing, you start asking yourself what you can do different.  You ask how you can be unconventional, but effective.  "How can I do it the way I want and still get the results?  And if there's no getting around some things, what angle can I approach it from to make it easier and worthwhile to do?"  Ask about everything.  Writing, revision, getting ideas - the whole brain factory.

Kick, Punch, It's All In The Mind

Now, I'm not saying everyone else's ideas suck.  In fact, I want you to learn even MORE.  But then you do the Bruce Lee thing.  You absorb what is useful and discard the rest.  You don't toss it into the garbage along with Mom's Russian Roulette of a casserole because you never know if it'll help you later, but right, doesn't suit your thing.  And that's fine.  Your path to success is gonna change over time, but right now you're better off doing it the way you want.

It's all about taking the road less travelled, passing the one that everyone says is full of gangster wolves with tommy guns and taking the one over that sweet river that doesn't shoot back.  "Oh, it's hard to write this much a day."  Oh yeah?  I'm gonna shake-a my fist at you and find a way to do it with mimimal effort and maximum fun.  It's not about trying to show up people, though.  Don't be one of those fist-shaking buttheads of legend.  But just don't buy what you hear at face value.

It can be tricky, no doubt.  But I love working that way - strategizing over how to make everything smooth and fun.  Life's all about making this current moment as awesome as possible.  Why shouldn't your writing be like that too?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

18 Dexterity - Using FATE Character Sheets To Write Great Fiction Now

The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game is currently my favorite game yet outside of Oregon Trail III: Dysentery Avenger.  I mostly play RPGs to tell cool stories about interesting characters.  And after I tried out DFRPG, I realized just how well it fit my needs.

1.  The game uses the FATE rules system, which has a heavy focus on creating a cool story.
2.  Characters can influence that story by invoking and compelling Aspects.
3.  Aspects are an instant shortcut to awesome storytelling and great characters.

Aspects are basically little phrases that describe your character.  The spicier, the better.  So a strong guy can be "Strong Like An Ox", but it's better if he's "The Colossus of Oakdale".  Aspects can be invoked in-game to do better on challenges, but the real fun is when they're compelled - in exchange for Fate Points that can be used to change the story later, something interesting happens now. 

For example, here's Mr. Hacker with "This Script Kiddie Flatlined The Pentagon", and he's trying to get into some secret bank accounts because if NASA won't send anyone else to the Moon, he'll buy a shuttle and do it himself.  But if he takes a compel on "No Plan B...or Even A Good Plan A", he gets a Fate Point in exchange for security catching his data trail.  Then later he can use that FP to do something else he wants to succeed on.  Maybe hack into someone's heart monitor and spell out limericks or whatever playful hacker scamps are wont to do.

It's so simple.  A bunch of Aspects, and a set of ranked Skills.  That's basically it.  The game mechanics take care of the rest - you capture an instant, credible feel for what your character will and won't do once you dangle those tempting points in his face.  You don't have to answer lists of questions or write journals or OKCupid profiles or "what he did before he got hit by a Boeing" obituary.  All you need is the heat of the moment.

Choose Your Destiny

But let's say you don't play tabletop RPGs.  Let's say four guys in the basement sound more like a Saw film than a social event.  Can you still make great characters with basic RPG character sheets?  Sure.  And you don't even have to stick with FATE.  There's tons of narrative RPGs out there like FATE with great character mechanics.  But FATE gets RPG neophytes up and running fast.  Let me show you what I mean.

1.  Figure out his Defining Aspect.  If you had to describe this guy in four-five words, this would be it.  Maybe he's a "Guardian Scion of Freya" or the "One-Shot Outlaw".  Remember - spicy enchilada!

2.  Figure out four more Aspects.  What four things about this guy stand out the most, either to others or his own mind?  Strengths, weaknesses, hobbies, quirks, whatever. 

3.  Rank his skills.  You can just rank them from 1-5, but you can also rank them with adjectives if numbers aren't your thing - Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Superb.  Here's some skills you can consider giving your character, taken from several different FATE games:

Alertness, Art, Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Conviction, Craftsmanship, Deceit, Discipline, Empathy, Fists, Guns, Intimidation, Investigation, Might, Peformance, Pilot, Resources, Science, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Survival, Weapons...

4.  Figure out how often he'll spend his Fate Points.  If the chips are down and he's aching for a smoke, but he's Dating Cold Turkey, will he take a Fate Point and light up?

That's pretty much it.  Not a blow-by-blow FATE character sheet but close enough.  Now what happens?  Well, good Aspects are dynamic enough to be interpreted in a lot of ways.  Ask questions about them and why.  Go for the third answer, at the very least - the first two tend to be old hat, but the third may offer an interesting twist to the standard.

* Why is he the One-Shot Outlaw?  Did he get this name by chance of the draw or did he work hard for it?  Why?  How does it affect his world?

* Why does he have these four other aspects?  How do they influence his past, present, and future?  Does he try to fight against them or accept them? 

* When did he get the training for these skills?  Why does he have them?  Are there some parts of a skill that he struggles on?  Is he satisfied with his skill-set or does he feel they all need to be Superb?

* What pushes him hard enough to give in to challenges?  What might give him the willpower to see them through even if they go against his nature?  How often would he succumb to what fate throws at him in exchange for points to use later?

These are just some of the questions you can ask.  Go ahead and ask more.  Hell, you can ask none if you want.  You can just make a sheet and toss him into a scene, go from there.  Maybe he's caught in an exploding knife factory and he has to get out.  Take this as far as you want, but if you want to write and need a starting point, a simple sheet offers layers of detail for minimal effort.

So next time you're hashing over a character for a story, do it like your local gamers do.  And even if you play tabletop RPGs, give some other character creation systems a try on the side.  You might roll something pretty good.