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Customers are your creative partners



If you are reading this because you want to earn your living being a creative then I'm going to explain something important that I think should influence everything you do, and if you are reading it because you are a general fan of The Grinning Frog or in particular a player of Starship Scavengers then stay with me, because I will be taking you on a creative journey.


This article was sparked earlier this month when I was approached by a group of creatives in another country who were wanting to do what I do i.e. create game content for a living.


They'd approached me because their first kickstarter had failed badly. They had twice launched it, and neither time had it gained even a tenth of the traction they wanted. They had seen a couple of my campaigns and wanted my advice.


I was flattered, and it gave me the opportunity to sit back and consider what I've done that I feel works, and the things I'd avoid doing if I had my time over. Having been a corporate trainer for fifteen years in the past I couldn't help but rank the do's and don't in my head. Which ones were absolutely critical, and which were more optional?


The one that is mentioned in the headline for this article is the one I want to talk about, and I believe it is vital in this modern world of small online enterprises.


Customers are your creative partners

That is literally the heading of this blog post and is one of the key things that I believe I have done right over the last four years.


Let's go run through an example - Starship Scavengers is my solo play RPG sci-fi game. It is also the most successful series I have released to date, in terms of both revenue and number of purchasers. I don't think that is a coincidence either. I think it is in part down to all the things I've learnt up to know.


Starship Scavengers came out as a rulebook with a starting adventure, HMS Brutus. You can actually think of them as the same publication as originally Brutus was in the back of the rulebook. Then, whilst talking with a group of gamers about solo games, I realised that it would be more practical to have the adventure as its own book. That way you can keep the adventure page open whilst looking up a rule etc.




It actually costs more to print them as two books, and it means handling and shipping two books not one, but the benefits at the game table are worth it in my opinion.


As part of the Kickstarter campaign for scavengers a bonus adventure was unlocked and Moon Crash came into being. I had always planned for it to be a surface adventure to contrast with the interior, ship based adventure that Brutus was. What I hadn't planned was how long it would become, what started as a 32 page adventure grew to 52 pages, matching Brutus!





In part, this was from talking with backers over things they wanted to see in adventures. They wanted mystery and surprises, things that might help you and situations where you had choices. Those requests inspired the following:


  • mystery and surprises - I kept the whole (moon) crash site part a secret during the campaign and in preview videos, there might be an occurrence at the end of a type we haven't had before, also each hex of overland travel has randomly generated events. Every trip will be different.

  • things that might help you - you have the chance to reprogram a dangerous robot to be on your side. Success is not guaranteed but if it works, it might make all the difference over what happens next. This idea has come back even more so in Firebird Down.

  • choices - there are three landing zones and I reworked the map to ensure you have to make a considered decision of which one. One you've landed the route you take is entirely your choice - but I gave you things to consider in a risk vs. reward sense so you do not make a casual choice but rather a deliberate one





Oh yes, and backers got to vote on which of the three following adventures they got next. What became known as Station Thirty-One was picked. I wrote that one next.

Before writing it though, I asked for feedback on Moon Crash and HMS Brutus

and I got some excellent feedback.


I had a stack of positive thoughts from people, and then a long time backer sent me a comment that really resonated with me:

They wanted NPCs

And that was because they loved them in my Zilight solo play zombie games. Which is actually really interesting as Scavengers is an RPG, whilst Zilight is not. They felt that scavengers would be enhanced by having them. This was something missing they felt.


I added NPCs.


Which is a three word sentence that does NOT convey at all the amount of design work that went into making NPCs function in a solo play situation without reverting to a choose your own adventure style format - which is not the format of scavengers. That was bloody hard work but I think what I came up with works... we are two adventures in with them now (Station Thirty-One and Trouble on Helanga), plus a short scenario in Frontier Gazette number 2 and the feedback is extremely positive.


It is still really hard to work out the details but when I test play the adventures, I'm having moments between characters that are exciting and unexpected (within the boundaries and framework of a solo play tabletop RPG game).


Fesqu Montrak (Ten Days on the Tarquin Plains, Frontier Gazette Issue 2) is, if we are being honest, a spoilt rich kid but when she overcame her fear of death and took down a charging phangor beast in my last game, I mentally hugged her off her feet and spun her around in delight. (My character was down to three health at the time.)




Their inclusion makes the adventures better, and that's down to the customer who asked for them.

I like to think that I'd have thought to add them at some point in the process but I tell you openly and honestly that we have them now, because they were requested. Which in my book, is a positive collaboration.


Trouble on Helanga was built around NPCs in that they form the core of the storyline and very much the highlight at the end - I won't say more for fear of spoiling the plot. Having provided NPCs in the adventure before, I wanted to continue to work with them and in my mind, it was about what could I do that the players would get a kick out of, in relation to the NPCs.



The latest adventure Firebird Down, is on Kickstarter right now. And we just had a round of voting regarding unlocked stretch goal content that will be added to it. From that has sprung not one, but two new robots as well as an excellent side suggestion that, whilst it might not feature in this adventure, is being worked into the scavengers world at some point.




It is seldom easy to create good content and I think there is a danger when creatives work on projects that they hold their work too precious, too personal to them.


Being open to suggestions and feedback can empower the creative process. My advice would be to start with a 'how can I add that' or 'how could I make that work' mindset and then work from there.


It is not about saying you will provide everything that is asked, I have not done so with scavengers as there are things either I don't want to add in at this point or ideas that I just don't like or agree with as much. This is a collaboration - both sides get to say yes and no with the creative getting the casting vote. That's fair I think.


The other thing that makes this approach work, and I think it is the key thing to remember -

you are creating for your audience.

Yes, you the creative have to like it and you should stay true to your creative visions but if you are creating content for a living, then you have to create content that people want to purchase.


And you know what that is by asking them and listening to them with a constructive mindset.


Running a good kickstarter campaign takes a lot of time and energy, and when I say good campaign I am not talking about the money generated but about everyone having a good time and enjoying it.


Updates can take over an hour to write, especially if you are including new images that you have to select, resize etc but they are important. As is replying to comments and questions. (In case you wondered, this blog post took several hours.)


You know what though? It is through that work that you gain an understanding of what your customers want. (You can also make some great friends and acquaintances - it isn't all just work!)


By factoring in what buyers want, you can reshape and recraft your work to better fit.


You can also not do what they don't want. Sometimes when I run a poll for what content people want, the vote is for one of the options I didn't expect. That is actually a good thing, because instead of guessing about what direction to take the content, I have a road map. And that is massively helpful.


Going back to the new creative team who approached me. Summing all this up, what I tried to explain was that it isn't about producing a single piece of work that you have put together in secret - it is about offering something that people can influence with feedback.


Then produce another project with something else, ask for further feedback, be influenced by it and build up your work in collaboration with the customers.


Plan for multiple projects, plan to build a community that trusts you enough to share their thoughts and views, and give back to them by producing the best work that you possibly can.


Starship Scavengers now has NPCs, rules for drones, new robots, a future map campaign and a myriad of other small changes because people asked for them. It is better for that and I'm thankful to everyone who made a request and said 'How about...'


I could go on but I recognise this is a pretty long blog. Once we move offices, we will be launching our YouTube channel (something else people have been asking for) and I think video is probably a better format for these types of posts. Not to mention I spent my day typing and now I've just typed into the early hours of the morning. My fingers need a rest!


If you want to check it out, the current campaign Firebird Down can be found here:






Until next time, keep gaming.

Stephen

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Awesome! Great to get an insight into the Game Creator's mind/ thought process and in a sense core values. Bravo. Just received my core game bundle so just starting out my Starship Scavengers gaming and was shocked at how little YouTube and other Media exposure of this game there is. I hope that the upcoming YouTube channel will go some way to resolving this and goes some way to giving this game the exposure it truly deserves. (Can't believe there aren't 100's of review/ playthrough videos on YouTube and a FaceBook page at least).

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The lack of coverage is entirely my fault. Too busy/focused on writing to promote properly. Something to fix going forward. Thanks for commenting.

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Excellent Article, well done!

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Thanks Steve!

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Years ago, it was the NPCs you offered on DriveThruRPG.com that first drew me to the detailed wonders of your imagination. That they are still a big part of your productions does not surprise me at all.


I didn't really relate or care for Dragonborn and/or Tieflings until you made them real to me (well, you, and Erin M. Evans, with her Brimstone Angels series of novels).


That you've got me as a fan of the Starship Scavengers solo series is a further testament to your skills at creating delightful games. SF is a distant second to magical fantasy for me, but I love these adventures.

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Michael, you posted my first public review and I will always be grateful for that. You've then stuck by me through all these years - you are star my friend.

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