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PAXEast 2013: DINO-PIRATES Sells Out!

Well, the Scratch Factory team (that's me, in case you haven't been keeping score) joined a bunch of other indie game designers at the massive PAXEast convention in Boston last weekend. I was there to sell copies of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

I was a little trepidatious going in, since my model predicted I would only barely break even, and I wasn't sure my model was very reliable.

But away I went. And am I ever glad I did. I had a near-perfect result -- a complete sellout of my game on Sunday afternoon.

How did I do it?

The Number

Remember that I'd chosen to watch a number I called Revenue Per Attendee. At tiny (but fun) little Hammercon, I'd made nearly 50 cents per attendee. At Game Summit, a con ten times the size of Hammercon, my R/A dropped by more than 80% to just 7 cents per attendee. Disappointing, but I don't argue with actual data.

Using that model, and assuming another 80% drop to PAXEast (ten times again the size of Game Summit), it looked like I would see a R/A at PAXEast of less than ONE cent per attendee -- 0.6 cents, actually. That predicted I would sell 15 copies, earning just enough to cover the cost of the trip (with maybe $50 left over). It was a risk, but I figured I'd take it. I also figured I'd take a few more copies of the game than the model predicted. Live in hope and all that.

So I threw 21 copies (I don't count so well is why the funny number) in a box, jumped into a Honda Civic and rode down to Boston.

The Selling

First of all, if you don't know, PAXEast is an AMAZING event. And I say this as someone who neither plays video games nor reads Penny Arcade. People are incredibly friendly, the staff are knowledgeable and there to make your time fantastic. The tabletop area, which is really a sideshow at this thing, is HUGE and utterly packed from morning till night, full of people having a blast.

Second of all, the gang I was part of, the Indie Bazaar, included some of the coolest game designers and people I will ever meet. Epidiah Ravachol, designer of Dread and Vast & Starlight, Emily Boss, designer of Breaking the Ice, Vincent Baker of Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, Joshua Newman of Shock and Mobile Frame Zero, Meguay Baker of 1001 Nights, Rob Bohl of Misspent Youth and of course Jason Anarchy of Drinking Quest all had their crazy fantastic games on display, and virtually everything sold like the proverbial hotcakes.

Frankly, if we'd offered FREE HOTCAKES I doubt we could have done better.

The Result

I sold the last copy I had of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND on Sunday afternoon -- a perfect result. Selling 21 copies instead of 15 produced a Revenue per Attendee of 0.9 cents, which means my predicted number was off by 0.3 cents. I think that's a very respectable margin of error (even if it is nearly 50% of the actuals).

Having my expectations set ahead of time really helped to reduce my anxiety, especially on the first day when Drinking Quest and Mobile Frame Zero were flying off the shelves but it seemed like everyone was turning their noses up at my pulpy baby. But I hung in there and Saturday was much better, just like my model had predicted.

And I learned new things. Games like Drinking Quest and Mobile Frame Zero are so easy to sell: their unique offering is easy to grasp immediately. While people invariably laugh when they hear DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, they can't so easily engage with the concept, and not everyone is going to sit still and listen while I explain it.

I doubt I could do much better with this game, no matter how I marketed or sold it. I have a few copies left which I'll take with me to the Calgary Entertainment Expo in April and sell, and then that will be it for the print version of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. It's been a great learning experience, and the lessons I've acquired here I'm going to put to good use when the time comes to start selling REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS.


PAX East will be the unveiling of the first all-new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND adventure in two years!

CURSE OF THE SNAKE GOD will be a wild adventure through and under the streets of Chang Lao, the biggest metropolis in the islands. Our heroes run afoul of a sinister ninja clan known as the VENOM, and must race to discover this clan's secret agenda, and hopefully save the whole city from ophidian doom!

I'll be running two sessions of this adventure:

Saturday Morning (10am - 2pm) FULL


Sunday Afternoon (12 noon - 3pm)

There are still slots open for the Sunday game, so let me know if you'd like in!

These sessions will use the standard DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND rules, as found at our website, or available for sale if you'd like to give me money.

Finding an Artist: Auditions

REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, the comic book I'm writing, started life as a set of conversations with my old friend, Claudio Pozas, who's a fantastic fantasy artist. Claudio and I tossed ideas back and forth and came up with a set of final character designs we loved. They were strong, bold and easily distinguished one from the other.

The original designs
But in the end, Claudio didn't want to do a comic book. So, character designs in hand, I needed to find an artist to take on the project. That meant finding some candidate artists, and then choosing the best of the bunch.

I had no idea how to do either.

Finding Some Artists

The first problem was relatively easy to solve. I know that if I tell everyone I know what I'm trying to do, SOMEBODY will have better ideas than me. So that's what I did; I told everyone I knew that I was looking for an artist. And sure enough, a couple of folks referred people THEY knew to me, and so I was building a list of candidates.

They all had sites where I could look at their work (if you're an artist and you don't have some sort of online portfolio, well, good luck with that), and it was easy to set up quick coffee-shop meetings with them, just to make sure they weren't obviously crazy people that I was going to hate.

They weren't. So now I had to solve my second problem: how to choose among the bunch.

Choosing One Among Many: A Paid Audition

The artists' portfolios weren't going to be sufficient for me to make a decision. It's impossible to tell from pre-existing art if an artist can deliver images to my own specifications, my own scripts, and I have no way of knowing how long it took them to do the work, if it was delivered on time or six months after the due date.

So I wanted to audition them, but I knew from working with Claudio and other artist friends that a professional artist doesn't exactly have a lot of free time. I wanted to be respectful of that time.

I decided to pay for an audition.

At that first meeting, I pitched each candidate my audition idea: I would give them two pages of script and they would deliver inked pages, at a date of their choosing, and I'd pay them $100.

$100 seemed like a sufficient sum for that level of work. I wanted the artist to know how much time they could spend on the audition pieces. And it was worth it to me to pay a few hundred dollars if I ended up with a great artist who could meet a timeline.

So the process was in place. Next I had to decide how I was going to judge the entries.

Choosing Part Two: Judging

Pole-vaulting is, well, about as hard as it looks.
I chose the two pages for the audition carefully. One was the "pole-vault" scene from the online prologue -- a very tricky bit of physical business. The other was a dialogue scene from a later issue -- where a couple of characters get into a tense debate about what to do right before the big finale. It needed comic timing, the ability to handle a bunch of characters in a room, and a quick transition to a new locale.

They were both challenging pages (in very different ways), and I expected artists to struggle with them. I also made it clear that I wanted them to follow the existing character designs, and I expected them to keep my up-to-date on their progress.

So now I had some good criteria for judging candidates:

  • could they draw what was in the script, and keep to the guidelines?
  • if they couldn't, would they reach out and ask for my help?
  • could they meet their own timelines and keep me posted on their progress?

Having those simple questions to answer made me feel like I could judge the candidates with some sort of confidence.

And I got fantastic stuff back. Not everyone got their stuff in on time, however, and that was a good lesson to learn early on. Not everyone was able to exactly picture what I'd asked for in the script -- some people asked for help in solving what were admittedly tough illustration challenges. Some folks didn't ask for help, and then didn't do what was asked, so that was interesting to learn, too.

It Worked!

And in the end the choice was clear: Dave Knox, who's now the artist for REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. His style was very different from what I'd originally pictured, but we had so much fun talking about the book, and he hit his timelines, talked with me all through the process, and followed the guidelines perfectly.

He also watched dozens of pole-vaulting videos so he could nail the five-panel sequence of Masayo's awesome triumph over Shima. You can see the final version of that in the online prologue: New Girl.

So in the end, despite not knowing really anything about art or artists, I was able to come up with a reasonable process for finding a good artist, just using basic networking and some simple criteria up front. It was actually kind of fun! And sure, it cost a few hundred dollars, but given that I intend to sell this comic book to make money, I ought to believe that it's worth investing a little money in it up front.

Who Owns the Owners?

This Audrey Hepburn chocolate bar commercial freaks me out. Not because of the ghastly-but-honestly-impressive effects work. Well done, you hideous ghouls.

No, what freaks me out is the whole idea of owning oneself. I can see where this is going, and it's kind of terrifying.

Owning stuff is a pretty basic idea. A 2-year-old readily divides the world into stuff that is "his" and stuff that isn't and woe betide you should you cross that divide. But the definition of "stuff" is steadily getting less clear.

Who owns a book? The person holding it, presumably -- oh wait, that's just the owner of that copy of that book. The right to make those copies -- the copyright -- is owned by, uh, whoever owns it. Most likely an enormous corporation (hang on to that idea, it's going to go somewhere).

Owning a copyright is a little abstract, to be sure, but it's a defensible idea. This commercial takes the question of what can be owned to an even stranger level.

It is said the ad was created with the approval of her sons, which begs the question of whether or not such approval was or even should be required, and what the implications on either side of that question are.

I know it's Audrey, but it doesn't
LOOK like Audrey
To the left, if approval is required, that implies that a person's appearance -- their face, their style, their presence -- is a thing that like the right to make copies, like a book, can be owned. This is a very strange idea. Your presence -- do you own it? And if you do, then, can you sell it? Can someone buy it? Can someone take it away from you? What do we do with identical twins, or two people who just happen to look very much alike? How alike will be considered "too alike"? What if I create a recognizable caricature of Audrey Hepburn -- does that require permission, too? Can I sue someone for looking too much like me (poor devil)?

When does this sort of ownership expire? Or can I pass the rights to my likeness along to my heirs and let them profit from it for all eternity? And what are the chances that these rights (whatever they are) will end up in the hands of an enormous, soulless corporation that will ruthlessly exploit them until they're worthless?

See, I told you that idea would come back. The answer to that last question is very close to "100%", by the way.

To the right, if approval is not required, then does that mean that anyone can create a photorealistic version of YOU and have it do whatever they desire? What recourse do you have, if they never use your name and the entire scene is completely fictional? How will you prove you DIDN'T do the things you are shown to be doing?

This isn't quite like slander or libel -- perhaps it is if I am made to look like I've done something impugning my reputation, but even showing me do innocuous things that I didn't do seems to tread on my rights, and it's not like tracking down the producers of random YouTube videos is necessarily going to be straightforward.

Both sides appear deeply flawed to me. Both lead to bizarre and unsettling worlds. Either we enter a marketplace of identities, where the battle to maintain ownership over my own appearance is going to be a very lopsided one in favour of massive inhuman entities (those corporations, in case you aren't keeping up), or I abandon any hope of being able to preserve my own reputation.

I'm not trying to say that my appearance is ever going to be as valuable as a movie star's -- that's not the point. But just as the notion of copyright ownership has now become an everyday problem for ordinary people everywhere, this sort of idea of "self" ownership may do likewise.

Who owns me? How is that ownership structured, and what rights to myself do I have within that structure?