Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Subscription Model for The Infinite Cathedral

Photo by David Schweighofer
I’ve been developing a medieval fantasy roleplaying game setting – The Infinite Cathedral – on-and-off for longer than I care to remember. It’s undergone refinements, revisions, and expansions as I’ve worked on different portions throughout the years. I’ve drafted and reworked various chapters to one degree or another. I have sections ready for publication and others consisting of sketchy notes, ideas in my head, and good intentions. But over time my expectations for the project’s format have evolved in line with my more recent reflections on publishing and my personal aesthetics about game material. What’s the best method – from the perspectives of both publisher and readers – to release this grand opus? Do I spend time building a vast sourcebook in the traditional publishing model or do I release bits as the inspiration energizes me and smaller portions reach completion? How can I establish the setting and expand upon it within the parameters of these forms? The conventional publisher part of my brain leans toward the standard sourcebook format, but the player within me (and the one seeking more timely remuneration) seeks a route that allows me to release short-but-sweet morsels on a more immediate schedule.

The earliest, dated notes I can find about The Infinite Cathedral come from April 2005. At the time I was immersed in writing pulp roleplaying game material, what would soon release as Pulp Egypt and, a few years later, Heroes of Rura-Tonga. I’d only recently returned to writing medieval fantasy since my high school days of Dungeon & Dragons; I contributed material to West End Game’s Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game (the obligatory solitaire tutorial adventure), wrote a few short scenarios for Fantasy Flight Games’ Legends & Lairs Instant Adventure series during the d20 boom, and completed assignments for Decipher’s Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game that never saw publication, the latter two during my “desperate freelancer years” after West End’s bankruptcy. I’ve always preferred medieval fantasy despite my various forays into other genres; I received my bachelors degree with a minor in medieval studies and always had an interest in that historical period, even before indulging in through D&D. During these periods traditional formats like hefty sourcebooks remained a publisher’s preferred means of releasing setting material. Yet the internet was slowly developing other formats for disseminating game material in both “traditional” forms via PDF and in more “living” formats, such as blogs and wikis, useful to everyone inhabiting the vast landscape encompassing corporate publishers, independent writers, and even “amateur” gaming fans (some of whose efforts rival those of established corporate publishers).

I started developing The Infinite Cathedral as a traditional sourcebook with different chapters covering various aspects of the setting further subdivided by subject, peppered with vignettes, sidebars, and other bits to better illustrate concepts and engage readers slogging through a massive tome. This was the “standard” means of releasing material both as I experienced as a gamer in the 1980s and 1990s and during my work on staff with West End Games and freelancing for other companies. Authors worked for months to write vast sourcebooks companies published with much fanfare before moving on to the next month’s releases. Sometimes a popular product persisted in the minds of the gamer market, but usually they caused a modest splash and disappeared to the dusty corridors of the company’s product backlist. Yet such a substantial sourcebook would take a while to write and develop before bringing to publication; and with a sandbox-style setting, it would leave lots of room for additions (and lots of expectations for the coverage)...for a setting with great potential for expansion it might never really seem completed.

Thanks to the Internet Age publishers of all levels now have different options in approaching design and release strategy for setting material. Certainly websites like DriveThruRPG and RPGNow (both owned by One Book Shelf) have provided corporate and independent publishers with a means to market PDFs to their consumer bases. Some offer material in daunting tome size, while others release tidbits as small as one or two pages. Platforms like these provide e-storefronts for publishers along a traditional sales model. Yet a new content-delivery platform has emerged in the electronic marketplace, one offering greater flexibility for creators, more interaction with fans, and a producer-customer relationship based on the classic patronage system (a subject I’ve discussed before in the context of Kickstarter, but one that remains even more relevant in this case). The recent popularity of Patreon among the gaming community online and my experiences supporting several creators using that platform helped me decide that this is probably the most advantageous way to bring The Infinite Cathedral to publication. Patreon allows creators to set up a patron subscription service; publishers regularly post content and patrons are charged per month or per creation, based on a previously pledged donation amount. The platform encourages patron-creator interaction – often depending on pledge levels – ranging from basic feedback to suggestions for future content. I’ve enjoyed receiving content from several creators using Patreon, including Tim Shorts and his micro-adventures, Michael Prescott’s short adventures with phenomenal cutaway maps, and, of course, the prolific Dyson Logos and his inspirational maps. I’ve found encouragement both in their success and the different ways they’ve used the platform. Perhaps the most relevant for my plan with The Infinite Cathedral is Simon Forster. He’s used Patreon at first to publish monthly lairs, one set for wilderness monsters and another for urban creatures. He later compiled the individually released material into two books of lairs for sale (in both PDF and print format). Now he’s embarking on a new Patreon setting, the Spire, releasing periodic locations related to a towering, 12-level spire dungeon. (Prescott also hopes to release material previously published on Patreon in a future compendium.)

I see many advantages to releasing The Infinite Cathedral as small missives through Patreon rather than one massive sourcebook through conventional channels. Both the delivery and payment systems are far more timely; I can release pieces to supporters and benefit financially on a monthly basis. The format offers me encouragement to complete functional pieces of the overall setting while giving me the freedom to explore it as my inspiration comes. The cyclical nature of this cycle – release content, receive payment for and feedback on content, release more content – naturally reinforces productivity with greater frequency. It gives patrons the option of joining for a short period or hanging around for the long haul to see where the setting goes. The structure for making some meager income from my published creations through this endeavor seems no more or less reliable than that provided through regular online sales at the One Book Shelf e-storefront websites. Much as I like to adhere to deadlines and goals as best as rea life allows, I have the freedom to produce as much or little as I like if needed. It’s not just a content delivery platform, though; it offers the chance to cultivate a fan following and community built around the creator and his creations. Releasing material piecemeal like this also gives me the option of compiling it into a larger release later, with special deals for previous supporters.

Patreon seems to offer me the best means to present The Infinite Cathedral as a “living” setting I can expand over time with small, satisfying pieces delivered each month. I’m just starting to research the Patreon interface but am already working on how best to present The Infinite Cathedral to potential patrons, including content format, patron levels, and engagement. We’ll see how this goes in the coming months. Although I’m hoping to harness Patreon’s format in delivering content to gamers, I’m preparing a free, mini-sourcebook “teaser” to provide prospective supporters with some impressions of the setting and ideas where I’d like to take it. Once that’s complete and I’ve determined some strategies for using Patreon, I’ll be ready to see how well the subscription-based patron system works for this project.

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