ALL THE YOUNG DUDES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I had been designing board games for three years or so before one of them finally saw the light of day.  During that period, there were about a dozen games that never made it past the first playtest, maybe another dozen that I spent weeks and months testing and developing only to abandon them, and about a dozen that I pitched fruitlessly to publishers (though two or three of these would finally see the light of day years later). And of all those games, I had one that got published, at the tail-end of 2012. The next year, I had another, and the year after that, another, until suddenly I find myself with nine games coming out all in the same year - and that was before we started Hollandspiele.

A musical treat while you read, Mott the Hoople performing "All the Young Dudes"

I'm not going to pretend that I'm any great success as a designer. Certainly, I have some games that have sold well, and some games that have not sold as well; people seem to be more aware of my work now than they were a couple of years back, and on the whole, it's been received favorably. But I'm more successful now than I was seven or eight years ago, when I was struggling to find publishers for my games, and anxiously wondering if I was really any good at this at all.

Three years is a long time to spend in that kind of headspace. It makes you hungry (which might be a good thing?) and it makes you anxious and desperate (which is not). And during that period, I "met" designers - as much as electronic correspondence allows you to "meet" someone - who were in the same boat, and experiencing the same feelings. And while I'm not in that same space anymore, I do still run into new folks who live there, and, yes, into some of the old ones who didn't quite manage to make the transition from "aspiring" designer to published one when I did, and who have become increasingly bitter after long years of living in that hungry, desperate place.

I'm not going to pretend that this experience is necessarily universal. I've only ever seen it among folks in their twenties, and I think that's telling. People in their twenties, with rare exceptions, don't quite know who they are yet, and are anxious to find that out. And for some of us, there's a very real fear that we won't find it out, or, worse yet, that there's nothing to find out - that we'll never amount to much of anything. Folks who are trying to break into game design (and especially wargame design) in their fifties and sixties, on the other hand, don't get quite so anxious about it. They already know who they are; they've known for years. Gaming for them is a sideline and a hobby that, on a good day, pays for itself. And if it doesn't? Well, three or four decades into a professional career, you're probably making enough per year that it doesn't matter.

But if you're in your twenties, and especially if you're both (a) creative and (b) living paycheck-to-paycheck (or, worse yet, aspiring to do so), there's a pernicious delusion that you can make a living by designing wargames. And folks will tell you, "no, that's not the case, there's like three people who make a living solely off of being a designer", but there's a voice in your head that says, "you're going to be the fourth." 

And, you know, I do design and develop games full-time, but I don't make my living as a wargame designer. Mary and I make our living as a wargame publisher. And that is a pretty meager living at that; we make enough money to pay our bills and to put food on the table, and that's about it. A good month allows us to breathe a little, and a bad month is like a punch in the gut. I'm not complaining; I get to push counters around and write the words six point nine: minimum movement rule, and before that I spent the better part of four years looking at pictures of mold and faeces all day long. (You're probably wondering, how do I get such a wonderful-sounding job?) 

And maybe, if some of those young, hungry, desperate twenty-something aspiring designers (and bitter, angry, former twenty-something aspiring designers) are reading this, they're thinking, right, publishing, that's the ticket. But publishing doesn't work like ghost baseball; if you build it, there's no guarantee that they will come. Before we started Hollandspiele, we needed to learn, and to practice, our craft. As a designer, I needed to work with developers, and I did - I worked with some of the best in the business, and also with some of the worst, and I learned valuable lessons from all of them. I had sixteen games published by five different outfits before we had even registered the Hollandspiele website address. That's not including thirteen different titles by seven other designers on which I did development work (mostly uncredited). Mary in turn was responsible for the publication, layout, and production of fifteen titles prior to starting Hollandspiele.

I absolutely believe that if we had not obtained this practical experience, Hollandspiele would not be as successful as it has been - successful enough that we can do it full time, and successful enough that I never need to look at another photo of mold or of faeces or, God help me, of a mutilated human body in a freezer (boy, this job just sounds more and more intriguing, doesn't it?). And, strangely enough, if not for that job, I don't know if I ever would have been able to learn my craft as a designer. Because that job (eventually, if not initially) relieved a considerable amount of economic pressure that was keeping me anxious, hungry, and desperate.

When you're not making enough money and trying to break into some kind of creative field, there's a tendency to think of that creative field as the ultimate answer to those problems. You get impatient and you get antsy, and especially for something like game design, which is extremely iterative and requires very structured thinking, "impatient and antsy" don't give you the best results. Painting? Sculpture? Interpretative dance? Sure. But game design, not so much.

By finding a job that I was good at (and I was good at it; I am the best at looking at photos of mold and faeces, you guys), that enabled me to advance (being promoted three times in my first two years, and serving in a management position during the last two), and that paid semi-decently, I no longer had "making it as a game designer" and "eating tonight" intertwined in my noggin. I still wanted to "make it" (whatever that meant) as a game designer, of course; I was still eager, and sometimes I still got anxious about it. But I wasn't being driven by that anxiety any longer; I was able to approach the games with a clear head. The games got better, and I got better at designing them, as well as at targeting publishers who would be a good fit for them (instead of just sending everything to everybody and crossing my fingers). Which resulted in more games being published.

If I still had that obnoxious anxiety about the whole thing, I don't know if I ever would have gotten better at it. If you're impatient and anxious, it's hard to do the proper amount of research, and also to research with an open mind (instead of just skimming so as to cherry-pick bits of chrome that fit into your preconceptions); it's hard to be honest with yourself about the game's quality and balance; it's hard to do the work.

I have a great deal of empathy for folks who are stuck in that kind of head space because, again, I was stuck there too, and I was stuck there for a good long while. Sometimes I feel this overwhelming compulsion to help them, to give them unsolicited advice. Most times, they're not receptive, and sometimes, they're quite hostile. Which is quite natural, really. It's a realization folks have to arrive at themselves, and some folks simply never do, their frustration metastasizing into bitterness and grudge-holding about how it's "impossible" to break into games.

I know a guy (who thankfully probably isn't reading this) who will tell anyone within earshot that no publisher wants a game from a first-time designer, and that game design is akin to the waitress's dilemma. I'm gonna call this guy Basil, as I was recently in the cabinet with the dried herbs and saw some (BTW, guys, apparently you shouldn't use fennel in twice-baked potatoes). Basil has said that one publisher offered to publish his first design only on the condition that it come out under another, already established, designer's name. I have no idea if that's true or not, but I have to believe that that's a red flag against working with that publisher and not something that's even remotely close to normal. There are certainly some disreputable outfits out there - and I know another designer (let's call him Herb) who has incredibly bad luck, especially with US-based publishers, some of which still owe him money many years later - but we designers and publishers are a chatty bunch, and awful people generally get a reputation pretty quickly for being awful.

But Basil thinks that that's how publishers work, that it's impossible for a first-time designer to get anything published, and all the first-time designers who have had something published obviously have some kind of "in", that they schmoozed their way into a contract, or, God forbid, used the wargames equivalent of the casting couch. (I would say this doesn't exist, but I've slept with the person who runs Hollandspiele multiple times, and it's been very good for my career.)

But if you ask Basil, the deck's stacked against him. It's "impossible" to break into games. Or filmmaking, or acting, or music, or video games, or novels, or comic books, or politics.

And the thing is, games are way easier to break into than any of those other things! I know, because I tried them all. For everything else, you need an absurd amount of talent and the ability to schmooze. There's very little schmoozing involved in board games. There are few gatekeepers, and less competition. It's not about knowing the right people, but it is about developing and maintaining a reputation for dependability and clear-headedness. The deck's not stacked against you, unless you're the one stacking the deck.

I said before that I feel compelled to try to help folks like Basil, because again, I was in the same place once before. (I felt it a lot more acutely when trying to navigate the often savage repeat of middle school that is the indie film scene than I ever did with board games.) Mary's pointed out to me, more than once before it sunk in, that it's not my job to help all the young dudes who struggle with this, and that it's often counter-productive, and she's right. I think part of what was compelling me was the fact that if things hadn't clicked for me when and how they did, maybe I could have ended up as bitter as Basil is, as anxious and as desperate, never quite cognizant of the fact that there's a circular, vicious cause-and-effect relationship at work: you're in this toxic headspace, which prevents you from succeeding, and you're not succeeding, which sinks you lower into that toxic headspace.

In Basil's case, I think it makes him difficult to work with, but in the case of several other young, aspiring designers, the work itself is half-finished, uninspired, or derivative. And, again, I was there once too; most of my eurogames especially were innovative and fun when they were first designed by Uwe Rosenberg or Andreas Seyfarth. And then there's a tendency to want to get something, anything, published. I remember pitching a wargame to Dana Lombardy, where I basically said "I can make whatever game you want, however you want me to make it", and he said something that was very helpful to me at that stage, and in retrospect helped get me out of that desperate headspace. He said that he didn't want to tell me what kind of game to make. He wanted my design, my passion, my point-of-view. I needed to figure out what made my game special, and what made me special as a designer - what justified the game existing.

Which probably makes the whole thing sound a little arty-farty, and really, it's not; my own experience is less about being "inspired" and more like how John Ford described directing - "a job of work". But my games have a certain flavor and a certain point-of-view, and that's what allowed them to get published, and ultimately, what allowed Mary and I to start Hollandspiele. 

And they didn't really develop that quality until I was able to think straight. Until I wasn't so anxious, so needy, so desperate to "make it", so convinced that I could and would defy the odds and make a living just from designing games. That year before we started Hollandspiele, when I had nine games come out? The money I got for all nine games was less than a thousand dollars. I should note that we've paid nearly that much in royalties to one designer for one game, but that's still not very much. (Like I said, the real money's in publishing, but the financial risk is there too, looming over you.)

Especially if you're just starting out, and perhaps even after you've been doing it for forty years, you're not going to pay your bills by designing games (and as far as publishing goes, it took us several months and a couple of big hits for Hollandspiele to get in the black at all, let alone to the point where we could do it full time). You need to give yourself time to learn your craft and to find your voice. You need to have time to pay attention to all the little details. You need to be on the look-out for opportunities ("yes" opens doors) and you need to follow-through on your promises ("I dropped the ball" closes them).

I can tell you from experience that these are hard things to do when you're twenty-eight, and easier when you're thirty-five.

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