Today, COG had our second ever face-to-face company meeting, and we signed papers to incorporate as an LLC. In the spirit of introspection, then, I want to talk about some broad issues in this post. NB: This is all my opinion, and not the official stance of Choice of Games.
The four issues I want to address are our pricing (and payment) models, our philosophy as a company, our audience(s), and our plans for the future.
Let me begin by thanking @Duck for his independent analysis of our payment terms. What I’m not sure about his comments is if he realizes that they apply to non-RPG publishing as well. Thus, while our sales volume may be small, we pay better than almost any other publishing house out there, especially for an author on the first rungs of the professional ladder. Personally, I find it almost embarrassing that established publishing houses treat their talent so poorly, but that is the way of the world. Also, @Duck, to answer your question, the 25% is of our gross on the title; we absorb all peripheral costs.
Allow me to point out that Dragon is only 23k words, whereas Broadsides is about 44k. Those were our benchmarks for length, and based on their success, we concluded that a 50k+ word game, professionally copyedited and with professional artwork, is worth $2. Compared to a novel of similar length, that’s a steal.
Similarly, when you start to get into the neighborhood of 100k words, we think that’s worth $3. Vampire was 163k at first release, and was raised to $3 about two months after release. Heroes Rise was 110k. Star Captain is about 130k.
Note that this does not take into account structure. Heroes Rise is a very long 110k words because it is very linear, whereas Vampire is much wider.
Philosophically, we have several major objectives as a company. The first, and nigh-explicit one, is to promote equality of gender and sexual-orientation in video games. We feel that we can meaningfully contribute to the improvement of our culture through giving players equal opportunity to tell their own stories in our games. Secondly, we want to lower the bar for entry for the writing and game-design professions. Right now, if you want to be a writer or game designer, you move to Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, and beg, borrow or steal to support yourself while fighting to get a very few number of positions that in turn have a very high churn rate (meaning, people who give up and pursue other careers).
By offering the Hosted Games program, free development tools, and a community of devoted testers, we hope that we can help both hobbyists and the aspiring writers and game-designers of the future break into that world. If that’s because you’re producing three or four games for us a year, awesome. If that’s because you use a publication with us to get your book read by an agent or your spec script sold or to get hired by EA, good on you. The point is, you can get started on this from Kansas or Ontario or Manila. You can do it in your spare time, lowering both your risk and opportunity costs.
The next topic I want to address is the one about audience. When new authors start talking to us about what kind of game they should pitch us, they ask us what our target demographic is. My response is that we don’t have one. By which I mean, if you can write good *choices, I don’t care what the actual content of your idea is.
I suspect that some of the negative feelings of late have come from people who felt disappointed by Eerie Estate Agent and To the City of the Clouds. To put it bluntly, those games weren’t written for you.
If you haven’t gone to grad school, I’m not sure that you would get a lot of the humor in To the City of the Clouds. I also remember reading a complaint about Eerie Estate Agent that was basically, “I don’t want to be a jerk real estate agent”. If you can’t pretend for an hour and a half that being a jerk real estate agent for a haunted house is humorous, then Eerie Estate Agent wouldn’t be for you. Further, if you didn’t enjoy the interactions with Lloyd, you probably didn’t enjoy Star Captain.
Conversely, we’ve had conversations about producing games for a younger audience, even in the 3-5 year old range.
If we find artistic merit in a work, we will continue to publish games that our original fans don’t understand or even just don’t like. And that’s ok for several reasons. The first is that we will continue to publish games that *are* for you. Secondly, Hosted Games will continue to produce games more in line with what most of the forum members are looking for. Thirdly, we want to expand our readership to demographics that are currently untouched by Interactive Fiction.
Consider Jim’s dealings with the Xyzzy awards: COG has helped to expand the audience for IF by orders of magnitude. But we think we can make even deeper inroads into the market. However, to do that, we need a lot of games, and, in particular, a lot of very different games.
As a side note, something that I find to be interesting is that while Heroes Rise and To the City of the Clouds were both written by professional authors, they responded to the question of interactive game design in very different ways. Zachary stuck with what he knew, and wrote a relatively tree-like game; Catherine, on the other hand, wrote a very bush-y game. As much as I like Heroes Rise, I probably prefer To the City of the Clouds because it is more dynamic and has greater replayability. Again, your mileage may vary.
Which leads me to discuss the future. Personally, I hope to be able to afford to work full-time on COG sometime next year. That will let me produce sequels to Vampire faster, and better supervise our outside authors. In the meantime, however, my day job – which allows me to support my parents – takes priority. The situation is similar with Dan: he has a wife and toddler to support, and his day job must continue to be his priority.
Make no mistake: our company was born out of the Great Recession. We want to make a living and support our families. Moreover, we want to give other people the opportunity to do the same. Along those lines, we stipulate that if you can get to the point that you can write three COG games a year, by the second year on the royalty plan, you would be making $45k+/year. And that’s a career.
We do strive to be as sensitive to our audience as possible. For example, one of our core constituencies is the visually-impaired. You may not realize, and neither did we when we started, but text adventures are some of the only games that blind people can play. Right now, with the upgrade to iOS6, something in the text-to-speech isn’t working, and crashes our games. We’re going to invest a lot of resources (ie Dan’s time) into figuring this out in the near-term future. Is there going to be a clear return-on-investment on this time spent? Very unlikely. But it’s important to us to keep those fans engaged.
We intend to keep publishing a game a month next year, maybe even two a month for the fourth quarter. We have our first licensing deal with the Tekumel foundation almost finalized (allowing Danielle to continue with Petal Throne). We’d like to start recruiting authors higher on the established publishing rungs to write games for us. Moreover, I eventually want to start a non-profit arm of COG that gets college students and other young adults to go into middle- and high-schools to teach kids ChoiceScript / elements of programming and game design. In the 21st century, critical thinking and the fundamentals of programming will be at the core of education, and I think we can add something meaningful to that dialogue.
In other words, we have a lot of big dreams involving using technology and storytelling to improve both our lives and yours.
I hope this goes some way to explaining why we do what we do.