Reflections of a Gaming Industry Freelancer

GenCon Indy 2007 | Contest Winner This year marks the fifth year I’ve been active within the gaming industry as a freelancer. Within five years I’ve worked on two dozen games, dozens of reviews, attended approximately 35 conventions and gatherings, met hundreds if not thousands of people, spoke on panels, and built some awesome memories. Here are some of my take-a-ways from working in an industry saturated with creative people and a desire to have fun.

(1) Got an Idea for a Game? Great. Then What?
There are dozens if not hundreds of people out there who have a natural ability to design games. Game design is a multi-disciplinary function that may blend psychology, group dynamics, mathematics, strategy, engineering and creativity. There are many folk who run circles around me in game design, but there are just as many that don’t understand what that critical next step is and how it relates to running a business.

(2) Working in the Gaming Industry is Often a Labor of Love
There’s a common phrase that I hear all the time, “If you want to make money in the gaming industry, stay out of it.” Because the people behind-the-scenes are in this industry for different reasons, there are multitudes of levels of professionalism and business conduct. It is not uncommon for a person not to get paid–even when a contract is in place. Communication can either be sparse or excessive, which may create challenges with how much time it takes to complete a project. Yet, people keep coming back year after year because they love what they do.
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What’s in a Licensed Setting? Covering the Details When Writing a Book

Wrapped up my novella work last week for the licensed setting based on the game Aletheia. In this world, there were characters with psychic powers, mysterious villains, and a highly detailed setting–a sprawling, remodeled Victorian mansion called Hepta Sophistai in the town of Seven Dogs, Alaska. Inside the house, there were portals within the house that opened up to other parts of the world in unique environments, a long list of signature characters, a solid history of events as well as a general sense of what the possible future might be.

What I just described is not uncommon to any licensed setting. Ensuring that your story’s details match what’s in the setting can be exhausting, painstaking, almost data-driven work that can suck the creativity right out of you. My particular style of writing is more of a weave where I often take small details and mention them throughout the story, to provide a more subtle backdrop. It is extremely easy to fall into the trap where you spend more time describing the setting than providing an actual story because as a writer, you have two goals. One goal is to ensure that you are appropriately translating someone’s intellectual property (IP) and the other is to tell a story.

I resolved the technical details of the setting I was writing for by focusing on plot first. What story did I want to write? What kind of characters would I want to develop? From there, I first mapped the character details, to make sure they fit the setting, and then focused on the world-“deconstructing.” In my case, this was especially useful because I chose to write in the first person so that their voice reflected the world around them.

As a side note, I should mention that first person gives you a bit more flexibility when you’re working with a licensed setting because, as a character, the point-of-view (POV) by default is through one person’s eyes. One character’s POV is limited because of what they see so the emphasis is more on “thoughts” or “feelings” of that character. On the flip side, a reader’s expectations of a third person narrator may require more setting details because of the narrator’s omniscience.

I feel that many of my setting limitations were self-imposed, even though this is not a common or mainstream property, because of the way that I view IP. Within any licensed setting, there may be any number of signature or iconic elements that readers and fans glom on to; with the amount of dedicated fans out there, I feel that even if one IP isn’t as popular as another, there still may be that one fan out there who doesn’t want it screwed up. (Or the publisher for that matter).

Take, for example, the difference between Superman and one of the movies I really like–Pitch Black. Superman, by himself, is an iconic character who has other, signature characters around him with a few, key setting locations. Riddick, by contrast, is also an iconic character who initially has signature characters surrounding him in a key setting. Now, remove a few signature characters through death and the key setting by escape; you’re left with Riddick as the primary component of the setting. In the second movie, the setting around Riddick is completely removed from Pitch Black, and takes on fantastical elements. Is this still a Pitch Black movie? In my opinion, it’s not–it’s a Riddick movie.

If you were to write a story about Superman, you’d have a lot of flexibility within the boundaries of the IP to make your story ring true like the big man in blue. Writing a story about Riddick, on the other hand, may not be that easy because the elements that surround this dark hero (of sorts) need to somehow tie back into Riddick in a believable way that isn’t formulaic. An interesting challenge, in my opinion, in a setting that I feel hasn’t been explored all that much. Sometimes, just because you have more creative flexibility doesn’t necessarily make a project less difficult.

Of course, you aren’t the only person responsible for how well your story matches a licensed setting. There are layers of editors and other folk who do a lot of work to ensure that a story fits. In my experience, it’s part of being a professional to try to fit within the confines of what you’ve been assigned to regardless of what you’re doing. The easier you are to work with, the more work you’ll get.

By prioritizing your project into a plot-character-setting format, you will be able to save yourself some headaches in the long run and provide an entertaining story for the reader. It may sound cliche, but it more cases than I can count, story should come first.

Human Flipbook is Really, Darn Cool

On the YouTube! front, sometimes advertising is better than the home-brew videos. Check out this pretty awesome human flipbook that a sub restaurant, Erbert & Gerbert’s, put together for their store. Viral marketing at its finest; over 475,000 views on YouTube! alone!

Why Adult Gamers Get Such a Bad Rap

Gamers. By itself, it’s a word that innocently names people who play games. But who would you call a gamer? Somebody who plays fantasy football? Poker? Pokemon? Chess? More than likely, if you call someone a gamer it’s probably because they play tabletop, computer, or video games on a regular basis.

Do you want to be called a “gamer?”

If you’ve avoided the label, you’re not alone. While I don’t have the stats to say for sure, it’s not uncommon for me to meet so-called “closet gamers,” which are people who enjoy the occasional game ( or play the Nintendo Wii which some don’t consider to be true gaming ) but don’t really want to be lumped in with the stereotypes.

Gamers often get bad reputations because really gaming is about having fun and escaping the real world. That’s scary to a lot of people, because we’re trained to work and be productive. Games, cartoons, comics, and anime are supposed to be for kids, right? Never mind the success of Sin City, Resident Evil IV the video game, or Blood: the Last Vampire anime. Even though there are dozens of examples of adult-themed media that are out on the market, I often get the impression that society infers individual examples are okay as long as they are popular. A well-loved comic book like the Dark Tower series by Stephen King is then “socially acceptable” because it’s an exception—not the rule.
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What to Expect from Gaming and SciFi Conventions When You’re Speaking

Thanks to everyone who recommended RSS feeds for me; I’m going through the list and love the recommendations. This next post was inspired by a question from Facebook; it was such a great one I wanted to write about it so everyone could read it.

So you’ve come to a milestone in your writing career; either you’ve published a book or designed a few games and someone has noticed your product. Congratulations! You’ve been asked to be a part of their gaming, science fiction or similar convention. Never been to one before? Piece of cake!

Before you Go

The benefits to speaking at cons are pretty easy to see. You can develop relationships with new readers, fellow authors and promote a few of the other pros that have helped you along the way. Before you hop in your car, keep in mind that when you do go to a con (no matter how big or how small) you’re representing yourself as the “creative face” behind your product. That creative face becomes your persona, something that you can use as a promotional tool both on-and-offline.

Before you book your trip, you might want to ask a few questions:

  • How much of my expenses (convention pass, food, hotel, etc.) will be covered?
  • Will I have space in the dealer’s area to sell my books? Will I be charged for that?
  • Will I have the opportunity to perform an author reading for my book?
  • What type of speaking will I be expected to do? Panels, workshops, monologues, roundtables?
  • What is the expected attendance of the con? Hours?
  • Will there be any media coverage?
  • Do I have any other responsibilities as a guest or speaker?

Depending upon the size of the engagement, you may run into a situation where the environment is smaller and more focused, so you’ll have more one-on-one time with the people there. Generally speaking, the larger the con the more professional it gets. GenCon Indy, for example, has a Press Room but more often than not this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

The most common type of speaking engagement at a con is a panel-based structure with a moderator. Featured speakers often provide a fully-developed, professional speech in a monologue format during key moments of the con.

As A Speakers or Guest

As a convention guest or speaker, you have a behind-the-scenes look at the fan culture. Many of the attendees that go to these cons are rabid readers and collectors, who follow authors religiously. In my experiences, there are often very knowledgeable attendees that are truly passionate about what they’re into. If you are not into gaming or science fiction or fantasy, be transparent with your potential readers. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing a fan loves more than to tell you why they love Firefly or Babylon 5. To navigate around unfamiliar territory, many conventions will post their schedule online: I highly recommend either renting, playing, or learning a little bit about some of the events you might be interested in before you go. While you would not be obligated to be accessible 24-7 for the entire convention, appearing stand-offish because you’re uncomfortable in a room full of World of Darkness fans might end up giving people the wrong message.

Your first con might be a little overwhelming, but as you keep doing them you’ll find you can develop techniques to be professional, polite, and entertain your audience. Like most things, it takes work because there will be things you enjoy and things you don’t. A lot is riding on how well the convention planning holds when the day arrives. Take it from someone who has mentored others on running cons: it’s a lot of work. If something gets screwed up because your event was delayed or the room’s not perfect, be gracious. There is nothing worse than an unhappy guest in the middle of a busy con.

As an Attendee

So what does actually happen at a con? Well, if you’re going to something that involves gaming, there will be game demos–usually in blocks of time–that people may be pre-registering for. You might see a bunch of folk rolling dice or running down the hallways with feathery hats and leather vests; a lot of different kinds of games are played at gaming conventions. Sometimes sign-up for gaming is free, sometimes it’s not, so coordinate your schedule if you’d like to play.

You’ll probably see a variety of attendees dressed up in various costumes; dubbed “cosplay” there are some folk who enjoy donning a well-designed costume to support their favorite character. Age will vary from con to con, depending upon the games available and the events. Other events might include contests and awards, celebrity signings, a dealer’s room and/or art show, room parties, seminars, interviews, charity tournaments or auctions. Attendees often gauge what events they participate in based on their intent for attending the con; people are either finding work, having fun, reconnecting with old friends, networking, speaking, or are simply curious about what all the fuss is about.

Special note: Many of this year’s conventions will offer memoriams to one of the founding fathers of gaming, Gary Gygax. Be sure, if you are a speaker this year at a gaming con, to attend at least one of them.

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