"Making Cool Games Is Class Warfare": the San Jenaro Co-Op
Making cool games is class warfare?
On an ideological level, capital benefits when I, as a Work Unit, am so tired and downtrodden I can barely function and it takes all my energy to make it through the day and I’m dependent on capital’s output for entertainment during the few hours I have to veg out before I sleep. So when I take up a creative hobby and I make my own entertainment and I put my energy into something that actually pays me for my time and labour, I’m actively working against the interests of capital. Class warfare. Simple as.
And you’re not doing this in the mainstream games industry because?
At the start of 2019, champing at the bit to start putting my research into practice and make better role-playing games (or at least different ones), I pitched my writing services and research expertise to three mid-tier RPG companies. One of them needed chasing to even say “yes, we received your application”; one of them said I was on their shortlist and I’d hear from them if they had anything a lead developer thought I could do; one of them was tremendously excited about my CV and my research and agreed it sounded like I could do quite a lot for them, and would I let them know my rate per word?
I don’t get paid by the word in any of my other writing gigs — never have — but I worked out a rough conversion from my current gig, based on the average article length, and sent them that. Nothing. I followed it up and pitched a slightly lower rate for bulk jobs — nothing. Finally, spurred on by the jungle drums I was hearing from friends who’d been inside the sausage factory before, I low-balled and said “what rate are you offering?”
After currency conversion, it worked out at tuppence per three words. An 80% pay cut. Bear in mind that I have eight years’ experience as a freelance writer; I’m nobody’s ingenue or intern. Bear in mind I had no indication of how many words they’d want over what timeframe, so no way of converting that fee into anything concrete or establishing any sense of what the gig was worth. All I could do was direct per-word comparison, based on my usual “how much will pay my rent” standard, which told me I’d need to write 64,000 words a month. Something tells me there aren’t 64,000 words of writing that need doing every month.
That’s about the time I wrote off any dream of writing for a conventional RPG company anything like full time, and realised it’d probably never pay its way as a part-time gig. That’s also about the time those friends and contacts from the industry were setting up the San Jenaro Co-Op. That’s why I joined.
OK, so what is the San Jenaro Co-Op?
We’re a loose affiliation of self-employed, independent games developers, writers, illustrators, editors and designers. Some have years of industry experience; some have literally never more than thought about making a game before they joined us. None of us are a company director, IP licencor or investor. There’s no boss to make a dollar while we make a dime (if we’re lucky - five cents per word is about what the veterans could ask for, with much grumbling about how it’s stretching the budget). There’s no spectre of long-retired, often-deceased developers hanging around, embodied in sacred-cow rules nobody’s “allowed” to change or discard. Everything we make is 100% creator-owned and 100% profit-shared. The more work you do, the more shares you get. We’re like pirates, except we haven’t had to keelhaul anyone yet.
What kind of things do you actually make?
We’re putting out a quarterly short games digest — a big zine with a dozen or so small but perfectly formed RPGs in it, plus a handful of other microprojects from our members — and our first Kickstarter is ticking along at time of writing. We’re also in pre-pre-pre-pre-pre planning stages for something Like D&D But Left — a sort of People’s Dungeon, if you will, for people who like D&D but aren’t really into its manifest-destiny-with-swords-and-sorcery underpinnings.
For a new indie publisher to put out one (1) issue of that Short Games Digest and have it rocket to the top of DriveThruRPG’s bestseller list and sit there for a week with nothing but word of mouth behind it is pretty impressive. For a new indie publisher’s first Kickstarter to fund in two days — bearing in mind we launched on Free RPG Day, which also happened to be Origins weekend, because we are masters of timing and preparation — has blown my socks off.
The Kickstarter — the Roleplayer’s Guide to Heists — is the first SJC product I’ve written for, and it’s the kind of RPG material I’ve always wanted to see in the world. Everyone and their dog has an idea for a proprietary system and setting and intellectual property that will only take off if it somehow cuts through the noise of everyone else’s. There are, to pull a figure out of Epidiah Ravachol’s ass, twenty thousand RPGs out there and nobody has time to try them all. What I’ve always wanted to bring to the table is system and setting neutral material that helps you get the most out of the games you already own and like. Not more stuff for the IP — more canon, more options, more crunch — but more of the stuff that you need at the table whatever you’re playing.
The #RPG2Heists (see, hashtag and everything) is exactly that. Sooner or later, your players will end up stealing something. I’m terrible at creating the kind of believable details that players want to hang their plans off. How big is it, how does the alarm work, how many guards are there, what time does their shift change… that’s all detail that doesn’t interest me enough to plan it out in advance and isn’t easy to come up with a rigorous version of at the table. I love the idea of having a pre-planned set of heists which aren’t tied to any particular game system, so I can pick them up and go “right, this is a wizard’s tower/train job/bank vault kind of deal” and adapt those details to the nuts and bolts of whatever RPG I happen to be running at the time. Those are the relatively tame ones too; our backers at higher tiers get to set their own terms for a heist and have one of our developers build it with them. Some of those are real mythic stuff, fire from the gods kind of territory.
I also love the idea of a heist story where the heist is over in the first session and everything else is aftermath. What can I say? I watch a lot of Guy Ritchie movies. That’s the inspiration for my contribution, a framework for character-driven storygaming that bolts onto more or less any of the heists in the book. And I get paid my day job rate for writing it. Which is nice.
What’s the bottom line? What have you learned from doing this?
There really is power in a union. We have no starting capital, no marketing budget, and limited access to the whisper network on which all conventional PR is based. Most of us are industry outsiders, a few of us are outright bêtes noire (bête noires?), and we don’t have the money to burn on promoted tweets or pay-per-click or any of that sort of thing. We didn’t even have our own storefront — whoever led on a particular project sells that through their own channels.
What we do have is twenty or so voices who can all speak at once, to our own circles, and ask them to speak to their own circles, and so on and so forth. We can say “here we are, we’re making something different and we’re making it differently, it costs less than the corporate stuff and it pays the actual creators more.” And it’s working.