Friday, June 26, 2015

STEM-Punk: Gearing Up With Victorian Sci-Fi

Grab your top hats and monocles, it's time to dive into the wild world of steampunk! One of the liveliest genres of speculative fiction today it showcases humanity's propensity for invention and exploration by men and women alike. PONDER using steampunk texts to stimulate student interest in STEM careers! MARVEL at the handmade DIY projects to bring into the classroom! GOGGLE at math-heavy games with a Victorian flare! This way to see the egress.

Presenting this today at CAMT in Houston.


What if "What does the fox say?" is our equivalent to "Who is John Galt?"

Monday, June 22, 2015

When the Clock Stopped

The collapse of Cracked Monocle, publishers of Tephra, is one of the more preventable tragedies in gaming history. There were dozens of instances that could've aided the company in surviving longer, but at every crossroads the wrong choice was made. Studying these bad decisions can help other independent publishers make the right call when they are faced with similar decisions.


Cracked Monocle began as an indie game publisher with strong potential. It was a mainstay of multiple Texas conventions during Tephra's beta period. It had a developer pool of several dozen enthusiastic supporters. Its Kickstarter went above and beyond expectations to give the company a starting revenue of over $20,000. These were all ingredients to make Cracked Monocle a strong new entrant onto the table-top scene.

However, as years went by, problems arose. More and more developers left. In 2013, there were around 20 core developers. They were sorted into 4 teams with different tasks. By the middle of 2014, only one team of developers remained active. By the end of 2014, there was only one developer left. In that span of time, hundreds of pages of material were written and polished - only to be tossed or shelved. A scant few expansions crept out the door. The momentum Cracked Monocle had after the publication of the core book could not be sustained.

In February 2015, Cracked Monocle officially closed its doors after the owners realized they could no longer sustain it. It stopped sponsoring Monday night events, pulled out of all conventions, and ceased all development of projects. Tephra joined the ranks of hundreds of other independent games that have fallen by the wayside.

Currently, Cracked Monocle is in a "house cleaning" state, releasing items that are years old in a desperate move to pay off the thousands of dollars in debts it still has. However, the company is dead in every sense and this last bit of activity is the equivalent of an abandoned house being stripped down of its contents before being torn down.

Here are twelve reasons Cracked Monocle fell apart and the lessons that can be learned.

1. No vision.

Tephra started as a D&D clone. It expanded to a more original steampunk world with only science, no magic, successfully moving away from the D&D world mold. Unfortunately, it never escaped a view of clashes that remained thoroughly hack-and-slash.

It lacked a definite vision behind its main conflicts. There were individually good ideas, such as the Salvagers who run amok across the countryside Borg style, but the game lacked a sense of central theme. There were superficial ideologies present, but no sense that the game was being driven by any of them. The settings were vague homages to genres of steampunk, but there was never an effort to inject elements that might symbolize and capture the zeitgeist of the Victorian era.

Tephra captured the steampunk aesthetic, but it ignored many of the steampunk principles that could have unified its conflicts under a common banner and improved cohesion. In this sense, Tephra was more low steampunk rather than high steampunk. This lack of polish negatively impacted the overall quality of the product and setup many conflicts between developers over what direction to take for future releases.

Lesson learned: Don't have your world be a series of disconnected fights. Pick a theme and choose the aesthetics and conflicts based on that theme. For steampunk, this can be anything from the "triumph of industrialism" or "the pressure of modernization" to "the increasing rate of change." A broad, but concise, unified philosophy can keep the message of the game's material consistent and avoid a disorganized mishmash.

2. Failure to expand the market.

The main competitions for an audience with any table-top RPG are Pathfinder and D&D. The main focus for these games? Combat. People play them to slay fantastic creatures and beat the enemy into submission. People who want more than that will therefore be the ones you need to appeal to. Cracked Monocle refused to allow Tephra expand beyond a combat system (see "Stay in the box" below).

At the same time, the company only marketed to convention attendees and game retail store visitors, a narrow band of the overall potential market. During SXSW Gaming 2014, an attempt was made to attract parents to buy the game for their kids, capitalizing off the appeal of crafting systems to younger players and the inherent math content of RPG systems. The attempt was wildly successfully, with parents accounting for 25% of sales there. However, this success was never followed up on and future documentation stressing Tephra's appeal to parents were scrapped.

Lesson learned: Grow, grow, grow! Never pass on a chance to go beyond who you think your product is "right" for. Success can come from unexpected audiences. Look at "The Room:" what had been intended as a serious drama became a "so bad it's hilarious" - and the creator rolled with it! His success was because he knew how to pivot to new markets, not because he stuck slavishly to what he intended his demographic to be.

3. No PDF's of the main book.

A standby for many modern RPG releases today is to release both in print and in PDF. Print books satisfy the bibliophiles – like me – who enjoy holding the books in our hands. PDF's, however, are great for those with huge gaming libraries and prefer to carry their reference materials on their mobile device rather than in crates.

While Tephra used PDF format for smaller releases, the main book was never put out on PDF format before the company went under despite high demand. No real reason for this avoidance was ever given, but it certainly limited the reach of Tephra by a significant margin.

A PDF of the main book was eventually released in April 2015, two months after the company ceased all other operations. By this point, interest was so low that it barely made a blip. One wonders what impact such a release could have had even one year prior in 2014, when the company lay dormant. In the end, it was too little, too late.

Lesson learned: Electronic, for good or ill, is key to printed material these days. I may love printed books, but the convenience of PDF's cannot be denied.

4. Blond hair, blue eye syndrome.

A disturbingly large number of NPC's in Tephra have blond hair and blue eyes (BHBE). Both iterations of the iconic characters are lead by guys with these traits. The original iconics also have a BHBE farishtaa woman. It's so bad that Velkya Luthricien, founder of Evangless and one of the key historical NPC's, was drawn with BHBE even though she's canonically of Middle Eastern descent!

There were attempts at diversifying the character models, though. The second round of iconics had one character based on Lando Calrissian, for example. Unfortunately, it also had a red headed woman who wore an impractical midriff into battle, something that many took note of in a snarky manner. Still, sameness of character design plagued Tephra across the board, which is what this point really boils down to.

Lesson learned: Variety is the spice of life. D&D 5th edition did an amazing job at creating a diverse range of characters. People like to have avatars they can latch onto and to see examples of those avatars in the world you create. Make sure it's there so they can feel welcome. And for the love of god don't use impractical armor! Especially in steampunk, which is all about function over form.

5. Restricted access to product layout.

In addition to writing and testing, there's the final step for a release: getting it laid out on the page in a format that's easy to read. This usually means InDesign or one of the myriad alternatives combined with image templates and iconography.

In Cracked Monocle, only two people knew how to layout releases. This meant that if either of those two were busy, nothing could get released. In the year plus preceding Cracked Monocle's collapse, this is exactly what happened: neither of the two people who had the ability to layout items could make time to do so. Had developers been able to layout their own material, this could have easily been avoided.

Lesson learned: Use design templates you can share with developers. Don't be afraid to let them get the ball rolling. So much time could have been saved - and so many products delivered - had this been delegated.

6. Poorly managed website.

Keys to driving web traffic are a site's blog and website. In Cracked Monocle's case, their blog and website could only be updated by a single person (not the owner). This meant the site tended to sit, with no updates, for long stretches at a time.

Once, the owner of the company tried to generate more content for the website. He went to the developers and asked for blog posts he could use, since he didn't have time to make posts on his own. The developers stepped up and gave months worth of article length quality pieces - none of which made it online. Why? Because the only person who could post them was busy. The efforts of a dozen people were wasted and the supply of material quickly dried up, never to be refreshed.

Lesson learned: Bottlenecks are bad. Make sure you have a team of people who can access and update the site. Make sure it's an easy to use system and not a custom job that only one person can decipher. When content is given to you to release - release it! Sitting on it just shows lack of commitment. People won't volunteer their creative energy if it's clear nothing will come of the investment.

7. Isolated knowledge of lore.

Chief to any role-playing game is the world it's set in. A deep and broad lore helps make the world interesting and fun to explore. It's crucial for players to be exposed to it in a variety of ways so they will latch onto the game. At the same time, a central lore repository that developers have ready access to ensures that geography, characters, and technology remain consistent from adventure to adventure.

Tephra, unfortunately, had serious issues with the lore. There was plenty of it, but only one person - the owner - knew it in complete detail. Problem? Hardly any of it was written down! Worse, if a developer tried to create something that contradicted the unwritten lore, they'd be told to change it. The result was developers unable to take creative liberties with what was in the adventures they were planning for fear of trampling on some unwritten canon.

Lesson learned: If it's not written, it doesn't exist. "Head canon" works for fanfics, but not media properties. Put it on paper so other people can see it and reference it. If you don't, then expect others to trample all over it - and you should let them.

8. No standards.

Another difficulty in the development process was dearth of feedback. This owed to a failure of the owner to establish guidelines and standards for feedback from other developers. New projects would be put out for people to review, but some would ignore it, while others would contribute a little, and others would refuse to touch it because they wanted to test something else of lower priority. There were no expectations that to continue being a developer there would need to be contributions made.

This was part of the cause of the dozens of active contributors dwindling to a handful and then none: people became so adjusted to thinking, "I'm a developer," but they failed to make any active contributions to justify that title. The owner could have corrected this by setting guidelines and expecting active contributions, but chose instead to largely see if the matter would self-correct, which it didn't.

By the time action was taken - creating four teams of developers with leads that would hold them accountable - the pattern of ennui had become a mindset that even the team leaders could not overcome. This lead to all but one of the teams sputtering out in less than 4 months.

Lesson learned: When you grow to include other developers, define what that means! What do you expect people to contribute? People will live down to your expectations. While it's easier to expect nothing, that will tend to lead to receiving nothing. For an indie publishing group, "nothing" is highly costly.

9. No acknowledgement of developer feedback.

The lack of acknowledgement and respect for the ideas and suggestions from developers to the company leaders were endemic. All of the errors and missteps noted above were caught by multiple people over the course of years. The owner knew about every single issue here well in advance. The problem? He and others refused to listen.

Any suggestion was dismissed if no one felt like dealing with it. Bad armor design on a female iconic? "No one will notice" (they did). Requests for game play other than combat? "No one wants that" (they did). Demonstrating that parents were willing to buy the game for their kids? "We can't make money from that" (they could). And so on. Pushing the issues just resulted in even more stonewalling.

Eventually, those willing to speak up found it easier to stay silent because they realized nothing was going to change for the better. So Cracked Monocle drove right off a cliff.

Lesson learned: Listen to feedback. Own it. If you have a long term vision and the feedback conflicts, say so. Don't continually dismiss alerts when they're raised, though. Otherwise the canary will be dead and you're too deep in the mine to get out.

10. Stay in the box.

The Victorian era was one of many diverse kinds of discoveries and sciences. Aether, electricity, and air balloons are only some of the most widely used sciences in steampunk. There's a significant number of others, such as psychology and logic, that many steampunk games overlook. However, Cracked Monocle's leadership refused to allow exploration of these original areas.

Non-combat systems for Tephra were one of the most requested items at cons from players. However, anytime the suggestion was brought up, it was dismissed. "Oh, that's only a few players," "This is a combat system," and "We can't spend the manpower on that" became steady bromides. Even when people volunteered to lead those projects they were denied permission. Tephra's failure to expand creatively caught it in a rut that cost it both money and popularity.

Lesson learned: Extra Credits popularized the design approach, "Difference in kind." You need to have a variety of ways for players to interact with your game in order to truly capture them and to break up the monotony. Staying with the same approach and mechanics over and over goes against that and directly leads to a loss of interest.

11. Social standing over merit.

How did the owner determine who to listen to? Whoever was his friend. How good your argument was didn't matter if you weren't part of the "inner circle." In many cases, ideas only came about if you could convince one of those friends to speak on your behalf. There was an increasing reluctance in admitting more people to the developer pool after a point, which cut off several people with promising degrees of energy and talent.

Hard work and contributions were rarely if ever recognized. Developers who submitted dozens of pages had their work go unacknowledged. Hard work, dedication, and drive were never rewarded with praise or encouragement. Often it would be the opposite, with the owner going out of his way to marginalize or table things that developers felt passionate about if they weren't someone he was close to. Result? From 20 developers to 1 in a year's span.

Lesson learned: It's said that people don't quit jobs, they quit bosses. When you fail to recognize people of merit, they go to where they will be recognized. And it won't be with you.

12. No plan.

At only one point in the company's history was there ever a plan for releases. It didn't last a month. Organization was the biggest weakness of the company's leadership. Developers would spend months on a project only to find it had been canceled or deemed "unimportant" and shelved. As frustration grew, more developers simply gave up and quit, turning to side projects they controlled.

At the time of its closing, Cracked Monocle had hundreds of pages of unpublished work: three adventures; a pair of 200-page country expansions; and a host of miscellaneous smaller expansion materials. Most of these could have been released in 2014, but the planning was so poor that the time spent in development hell was measured in years, not months or weeks! There was publishable material being made - the will to get it out the door was gone from the top.

Lesson learned: No plan means no future and no company. Never focus entirely on what's in front of you. Always keep in mind the next thing. Try to lay the groundwork for it in advance. Be transparent and open about priorities and keep to promises you make to others about when what they care about will matter to the company.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Idea: adopt-a-shrubbery program to bring small potted vegetation into the home and office of the community. Call it "Plant Parenthood."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015