Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer- Part II

If you haven't read last weeks blog, you'll probably feel like you just dropped into the middle of a conversation. You'd be right!

So then, how did you become a freelancer?

Ah yes, now that the history lesson is done, let's get back on topic. So how did I go from BattleTech fan, to freelance developer? As you will recall, from last week, my first flippant answer was "don't ask". This isn't as flippant as it sounds.

I've been reading a lot about getting started as a freelance writer. The mantra there pretty much boils down to, "write, finish, submit, rinse and repeat." The key to that process is the "finish" part. If you don't finish your story you can never try submitting it. This is a process I'm still learning on the writing side, but Jason Schmetzer, Editor of the BattleCorps site, pounds on this one for how to get your stories accepted by BattleCorps. This is awesome advice and I know Craig Reed did just this, becoming a fairly regular writer on BC as a result.

For basic freelancing, this is essential. For becoming a freelance game writer/developer it is also good general advice. If you lack basic writing skills, it will seriously hinder your aspirations to be the next Gary Gygax. It is not, however, a barrier to entry. I've been writing for BattleTech now several years, and I've yet to get a story accepted to BattleCorps. It's a different medium and different requirements. I'm considered good for game writing, but for full on short stories I've not passed the bar.

Digressing again, back to the core question.

Welcome to the 21st century, the age of online/social media. By the time you get your name in print, the odds are you've developed an online reputation that is going to follow you for years to come. This is an essential fact of life and something we all have to come to grips with. I face this in my professional life on a daily basis. It got to the point that I seriously considered changing my writing name to separate my writing "hobby" from my day job. In the end I realized it wouldn't do much good at this stage. If an author writes under four pen names, it will take you probably two minutes to find out all their names and their real one. Welcome to the digital age!

No, I'm not digressing this time. Becoming a successful game freelancer, and I would argue a successful writer, speaker, consultant, any job that requires good public perception means you have to be very aware of your online reputation. Heck, entire sites have risen about measuring this reputation. Klout.com and Peerindex are two prime examples of this.  And my own growth to a freelance game  designer for Catalyst mirrors these principles.

It was my participation in the 3048 Fan Council (An online post based RPG) that started it all. Several people were impressed with my writing and more importantly my drive to work with people and be inclusive. CBT Moderator and BattleTech factchecker, Worktroll, asked me to help grow the still young BattleCorps Legion. I was the first and only non-mini painted character in the regiment. I was invited to playtest not long after that and to be a moderator after that. This was all a result of my online presence on CBT and BattleCorps. I was nice, I was inclusive, I contributed to the conversation. Everyone knew I was a hard core House Davion /FedCom fan, but I was on great terms with fans from all walks of the game.

And this is exactly how many of the ASF Cabal and Master Unit List team were recruited. All of them had shown a marked expertise in some area. William Gauthier had built his own fan Objective Raids document, Luke Robertson regularly wrote in character essays on aerospace usage and so on. But that wasn't everything. After that their demeanor went under the microscope. William is a great example of this. In the BattleTech community he is know as "MadCappellan", a more ardent fan of the Capellan game faction you would be hard pressed to find. And while being dedicated to his faction, William has never let it take him to far. His online interactions are commendable.

Do you have to have a really good online reputation to become a freelancer?
No, you don't. But you have to be very damn good, very good. And you still have to find a way to get your foot in the door. There are a few that I know, but they are the exception, not the rule.

So how did you go from Fact Checker to Developer?
And this is where you do ask, sort of.

But that's for the next blog.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer

Success is what happens when you're not looking. I'm sure someone famous said that at some time. As tax season draws ever closer I had a small nudge that gave me an inkling that I might just be a successful freelancer. My 1099 form from Catalyst came in the mail and I realized "Hmm that's going to affect my return." Mind you, it's no New York Times Best Seller paycheck, but for something I started out doing as a hobby, it certainly isn't anything to sneeze at. So while not sneezing I started thinking about just how I'd gotten to the point of being considered a "freelance developer" for Catalyst.

This will be a multi part blog.  I'm only the second paragraph in and I already know that. One of my ever present banes, is my ability to write about absolutely nothing, for pages and pages. When unconstrained by a Line Developer ready to chop my words (and fingers) off for going over count, I can really cut loose. I'll have to do a future blog on the challenge of writing 300 word, in character, news articles. But anyway, as I said, this will be a multi part blog, it's the only way to do the topic justice.

How do I become a game writer / developer?

First, you need to lose your mental sanity. Seriously, this is not the place you make your fame and fortune. Writers like Mike Stackpole have shown that you can certainly get a start in a niche universe, but few people get rich in the game industry. You can make a living, after many long years of selfless devotion, but from what I've seen and heard, making it rich in games industry is up there with winning the lottery.

I've got a day job. It's my first priority, every day. It's what pays my bills, supports my family and keeps a roof over my head. Freelancing is bonus money, a little extra to buy my wife a present or to get a new catalytic converter on my car (The irony is not lost on me). I freelance for Catalyst essentially as one of only two hobbies I have, albeit one that more than pays for itself. When my day job is done and my family is settled, I break out the keyboard and crank out word count like a madman.

So why would you want to become a freelance game writer?
Two key reasons, in priority order.

1- It's fun: Seriously, if it weren't I'd find another hobby, because it sure as hell is hard work. I write for Catalyst because its fun. When I was writing the Caspar II Drone decision tree, for Jihad Hotspots: Terra, I had one of those geek moments and IM'd Randall. I had to ask him if it ever gets old to make **** up from scratch. Randall has assured me that no, it never gets old.

2- In second place, by a good margin, is the experience. When I first started freelancing, it was all about the fun. About the third time I was on the solicitation list, for a regular product, I started to realize that maybe I might be halfway decent. Writing is a lot about confidence. Having the confidence that you are good enough and the will to keep at it. I've been writing for Catalyst now for close to five years, and in that time I've gotten light years better at writing and communication. And this isn't just in my fiction work.  I know that writing for Catalyst has improved my professional career. When 90% of your writing related communications are by email, you learn to be good at communicating, that can only help your professional career.

The experience and confidence building is invaluable. I may not get rich writing for BattleTech, but the on the job training I've gotten will serve me in good stead for any future writing projects. I'm even using my writing skills to promote my professional development. I'd never have started my professional blog, if not for the confidence in writing I developed with Catalyst. I've recently been asked to put together a professional grade training course based on that writing. So I'd say the experience has been well worth it. And I still hold out hope of someday writing the next Honor Harrington fiction series (a writer can dream).

Okay, so I've lost my sanity and I really want to write for a game company? Now what?

Don't ask… Seriously, it was the best advice I ever got when I was getting back into BattleTech.  John "Worktroll" Hawad told me "If you want to be a playtester or moderator, don't ask. If you ask then you pretty much rule yourself out."

But, if I can't ask, how can I get in?
 Great question, really it is. One I struggled with when I was first coming back to the game.

So I've referenced "coming back to the game" a couple of times now. Let's step back a little and get everyone on the same page. I started playing BattleTech in high school. Memory fades a bit, but I'm pretty sure it was 1987 and the main GM for my gaming group brought BattleTech home. While it only lasted a couple of months in our group, I was forever hooked. I began buying every FASA BattleTech product I could find and devouring it. One day I was at a theatre rehearsal for an improv street fair. At the end of the class (it was on how to speak with a Victorian accent), the teacher got on a hay bale and held aloft a copy of the BattleTechnology magazine and asked if anyone played BattleTech. Taking the exact same copy of the magazine from my backpack I approached my future editor, Hilary Ayer.

You'll note, I didn't ask.

I worked for BattleTechnology for about three years, going from the equivalent of a gopher to the technical editor (Yes, every bad design that slipped through was my fault, sorry guys designs were all done with pencil and paper back then). Each step along my work for the magazine came at the invitation of my editor. And the reasons then, were much the same reasons as this time around.

So I have to take up acting?

No, that was pure luck. I certainly don't recommend that as the way to become a freelance game writer. And writing for the magazine would never have led to that anyway. The way its relationship was with FASA, I'd never had gotten the chance. Still I did learn and have a lot of fun. While at the magazine I got to read the galley proofs of Warriors of Kerensky, I got free copies of BattleTech and Shadowrun stuff, I got to playtest Shadowrun and I also created some stuff. Hate Battle Value? I may be the guy to blame. Before FASA ever created a point tracking system, I wrote Combat Efficiency Factor. It was a crude system that didn't give enough credence to movement, but I had fun. I also first created the Osprey and wrote my first ever short story, Ghost of the Twenty-Fifth. But in the long run, it was just a hobby for a college age kid.

So then, how did you become a freelancer?

Ah good question. One I think will be perfect to start the next blog with…

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Creating a new idea in an old universe

Or- The evolution of the Light Combat Team

This blog is targeted to BattleTech fans, but there are interesting thought processes if you are just interested in the creative process of making **** up.

I've had the absolutely awesome pleasure and privilege to break some really exciting new ground in the BattleTech universe (I can't continue without a quick nod to Herb Beas and Randall Bills, of Catalyst Game Labs, for giving me their trust and the chance to do this, thanks guys). Creating the Caspar II Drone rules was an awesome mental exercise that had me circling my own thoughts like a mad piranha. Creating the Devils Tower Castle Brian and game play rules for fighting in a Brian were just out right fun. And my heart swells with pride when I hear folks talk about their changing opinion of the Republic, based on how they are represented in TRO 3085 and its supplement.

But all of these were truly team efforts. Randall and the ASF Cabal were instrumental in the  Drone rules going from a somewhat disjointed idea to the great implementation they are now, and all I wrote was based on a base of rules written by Dave McCulloch. The same for the Brian rules and the shaping of the Republic Military, all team efforts.

Creating the Light Combat Team, on the other hand, that is something I am very proud of and a place where I got to tread into all new territory. So how did it come to be? What is the thought process to create an all new component to the game universe? 

Well as with a lot of good ideas, it started out with a conversation. That being with a writer's best friend, their editor. In this case that would also be the Line Developer for BattleTech, Herb Beas. As we were working on JHS:3076, I had several conversations with Herb about how to develop the Federated Suns. We faced an interesting challenge. How to explain how the FedSuns of the Dark Age was not a center stage power. BattleTech history, as written had always had House Davion in a pretty prominent role. In Universe history had shown it able to bounce back from crippling damage time and again (Post Kentares in the First Succession War, Post Clan Invasion, etc). And most importantly, BattleTech history had established that the Federated Suns was always putting its nose into other people's business. Whether politically, economically or militarily, the FedSuns didn't know how to keep still. So why were they so bloody quiet in the Dark Age. Why didn't they immediately jump to the fore when the Republic started to falter? In working with Herb, I came to realize that if we didn't lay the ground work now we would have a disconnect when we got to the Dark Age.

So the seeds of the LCT were founded not in anything to do with military formations, it wasn't done "just to do it". The LCT was an outgrowth of a plan to alter overall "fabric" Federated Suns. How did the Jihad change the personality of the FedSuns? What would be the outward appearances of that change?

The ground work was laid all the way back in JHS:3076 with the "Never Again" speech by Regent Yvonne. When if came time to give a snapshot of the FedSuns, in Masters and Minions, I had already written a multi page "state of the FedSuns" report that I'd handed off to Herb. It outlined not only where the Suns was in the 3077, but also broad brushstrokes of where it was going. Credit where credit is due, Pat Wynne (AKA Roosterboy) became a co-inspirer for this and in the end Herb made the final decisions. We had a plan for what to do and that plan rolled out in M&M, JHS:Terra, Field Report AFFS and future works to come.

"Hey! What about the LCT?"

Right, getting sidetracked again. I do that. You know there was the… Um right.

So Regent Yvonne decides to alter foreign policy. With a significant portion of civilian and military leadership gone and the majority of those remaining backing Yvonne (or at least her two largest supporters Tancred and Jon Davion), it was the first time since Alexander Davion that such sweeping changes could be made. It was probably the only chance. By the 3090s politics as usual would probably be back in full force, so Yvonne had to strike while she could.

The change in foreign policy meant a change to how the military was structured. It's mission was changing from concentrated offence to deep defense. Yes, the similarities to Alessandro Steiner's concentrated weakness were in my mind when I plotted this all out.  There is no promise or guarantee that Yvonne's policy changes were smart. That's an interesting thing about writing, sometimes the author is yelling at his own creations about just how stupid they are being. Not to say the FedSuns new policy is stupid, only time (and Herb) will tell.

So how to change the AFFS? Not the easiest thing to do. First off are all the in universe implications, which on the whole are the easy issues. Because then there is the fan base. The good news, House Davion is the most popular faction in the game. The bad news, see the good news. Doing anything with the FedSuns is bound to cause the fan base to react. Just the perception of 3085 short changing the Suns caused much teeth gnashing. So what happens when you change their beloved military?

And that's how I came up with the LCT. A mix of in universe common sense and not treading to far from what the paying fans love about House Davion.

Want to know a secret? Sure you do… One of the reasons I started out as a House Davion fan, was the Regimental Combat Team. I was fascinated with combined arms from the very beginning and I absolutely loved the concept of the RCT. But as I looked at the FedSuns I couldn't shake that the RCT was no longer a viable primary unit. In 3025 there were enough RCTs to send the entire unit hither and yon. But by the Civil War, RCTs were being parceled out in smaller commands on a regular basis. And the Suns JumpShip issues were only getting bigger, so moving those RCTs was a real challenge. How many RCT were stranded in the 50s and 60s for lack of transport? It's no wonder, when an RCT needs a minimum of 61 DropShip collars to move the entire unit. Even if you cut out the infantry and support units, you need 20 DropShips. That's a min of 3 JumpShips, if you can get your hands on two Monoliths, while on average you are looking at 5 JumpShips.

When I designed the LCT I had portability high in my mind. Whatever I designed, I wanted it to be easy to move. This would support the FedSuns low JumpShip count and Yvonne's focus to get more and more JumpShips back into civilian use. An LCT, without its support and PBI can be carried on one Star Lord. That requires using some big DropShips, but as a primarily defensive unit it would be deploying in mostly non-combat situations. (Yes, I am tempting Murphy, but again it is an in universe decision which isn't always a great one. )

Another issue with the RCT, was the command structure. Whenever it split up, you had commands with weird structures. Is the Armor Colonel in charge cause he outranks the Major in change of the 'Mech Battalion? To prevent this in universe command confusion, the LCT was designed to be the smallest contiguous unit. It would be built to operate as a single unit.

Finally I looked to the composition. The Dark Age has a much greater stress on combined arms. Seeing more than a lance of 'Mechs at a time is rare. So cutting the 'Mech numbers and boosting the Battle Armor made perfect sense. If you only have 36 to 44 'Mechs to go around, you probably will end up deploying them in packets across the world, backed by a larger combined arms force.

And so in the end I had the LCT. It was spawned from political changes, but became the first truly new military formation in at least of decade of real life.  The creative process was a blast and I learned a lot about taking in the "big picture" to see how even little things are changed.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner