A warm greeting dear readers, Sarp here, the dude who started this whole mess that ended up being a somewhat decent TTRPG Studio with high aspirations of being a bleeding edge TTRPG Studio! It's been slightly more than a year since we launched The City of Crescent on Kickstarter. We expected nothing, and ended up with a whole lot. A lot of love, a lot of faith, a lot of curious eyes, and ultimately, a lot of responsibility.
I want this Dev Diary to be about everything I learned about being a producer at a TTRPG Studio. Here are the lessons that the last year Sarp have learned the hard way:
Lesson #1: Team is Everything
This is not a cheesy "We did it because we believed in ourselves" trope. It is actually a very harsh lesson that we found out along the way - and luckily had the time to fix our mistakes by expanding our team as the project took off. In essence, if you are a four people team, you will make a four people product. If you are a twenty people team, you will make a twenty people product. The more eyes (that are actually dedicated and skilled), the better your game will end up. If you wish to be a group of enthusiastic friends having a go, sure, that "we-can-share-one-large-pizza" kill-team will serve you for exactly that, but don't expect to change the TTRPG world with it.
There is also a skill aspect of this mechanism. A good game is a product of skilled writers, awesome game designers, stunning artists, impeccable creative directors and overachieving visual designers. When you try to cut corners, it will show. We work with superstars, superstars make superstar work. If you care about quality, don't settle for less. It is well worth the investment, especially if you are in for the long run.
Lesson #2: Get Yourself a Damn Good Creative Director
People who have a "technical" background like yours truly, beware. You need someone who have an "artsy" background in your team to lead your creative decisions. And that someone needs to be damn good at his job.
A good game is a product of many creatives. The creative director will ensure that these creatives get good briefs so each piece of the puzzle is as good as it can be, and fits well together.
Here's an anecdotal demonstration: We were in our office, debating one of the final art pieces of The City of Crescent. I said, "Simple enough, we just need a piece depicting Istanbul burning and exploding - Whoooosh, BOOM!". I was laughed out of the room by our extremely proficient director that we are so lucky to have in our team (and I am totally not writing this at gunpoint).
The guy, Doğa, our CD, does things with briefs I can't comprehend. He says things like "lighting angle, color theory, dynamic poses, etc.". I have no idea if these words are actually the stuff in the secret sauce - if I can get him to write a Dev Diary, I guess he can explain himself.
And the value of a good CD does not end with art. You need someone who understands stories as stories, not as games. You need an as**ole who will shoot down your ideas, and make you feel like an idiot to mention them in the first place. The harder you need to fight for a page, the better that page will end up.
Lesson #3: Characters Matter, Locations Much Less So
If there is one thing I learned from Doğa through partnering with him for more than a year is, you will end up remembering the character, not the location. This idea is so out there, so simple, that it is mind boggling that most products completely miss this.
You don't need 20 villages 5 cities, 4 countries and a million playable dungeons to make a great adventure. The great adventure starts with your NPCs. And I know that this is pretty strange coming from a company whose entire deal was writing an adventure about a specific city, but hear me out. After the dust is settled, NPCs and their interractions will be what your players will remember the most.
I lived through the following twice: First in The City of Crescent, and secondly, in the Empires of the Silk Road. I usually end up as the guy who decides on the setting. And while doing so, I usually think of the places that they can go, and the overall feel of the world. And I go to our writing team with my thoughts.
Then the writing team punches back: "Okay, who will the PCs meet? Cause we don't care about the other details right now.". For us, the answer can't ever be the generic middle eastern guy with the longest face and the nose who appears on every goddamn movie that says to a cast of European/North American characters "Welcome My Friends!" in a very thick accent.
You need memorable NPCs with rock-solid motivations, with world-views that may change "slightly" through the campaign with player input, a solid art design, a good description of how they will react to the players, and how they react to other NPCs.
Once you have this, BELIEVE ME, the story, the locations, the entire f***ing game, magically writes itself.
Lesson #4: A Good Book Structure is Your Best Friend
Wanna hear something funny? We wrote all of these characters, the storyline, locations and all that with excruciating detail. And nobody talks about it in reviews. Don't misunderstand me, we haven't had a review with any negative connotation - people really liked what we produced. It's just that - this is so frustrating - they didn't get to the good parts yet!
I think I know why. Because those stuff start after page 200. Be smarter than us, put your good stuff first (Though don't f*** up your structure - it is very important that your book is an easy read that makes sense.)
Lesson #5: A Good Page Layout is Your Best Friend
You can have Caravaggio do your art, you can have the geniuses behind Disco Elysium write your text, but that won't mean much to your customer, if the pages these stuff are on looks bad, is messy, or overall a lackluster job. If you want an example, go through our demo PDF for The City of Crescent, and our final product. The results are night and day, and we keep improving ourselves with each iteration. Consider this the User Interface of a Video Game, it technically is.
The page layout is usually the result of the combined effort of your CD and visual designer, don't lazy-ball this.
Lesson #6: Being Easy to Run is Your Best Friend
Imagine you are making a video game. The video game needs a computer system to run on. Almost all video games will run better on good hardware - they will look and feel better. BUT, a good video development company can OPTIMIZE their game for older systems.
Never forget that after all this book stuff is said and done, you are producing a GAME, that needs ANOTHER PERSON to run it. While you can't ensure that that person will be, methaphorically, a good hardware to run your game, you can ensure that they get all the help they can from the product they are given - this is the optimization part.
It is very easy to drown your book in piles of text and information, but not many GMs will be willing to go through that big of an hassle, ending up skimming. Ironically, this will end up with much less of your design being brought to your table if you design your page with less texts, and more heads-up info pieces, and bullet lists.
Never forget that, just as there are good GMs, and bad GMs; there are well designed RPGs, and poorly designed RPGs. Don't be the TTRPG equivalent to the Cyberpunk 2077 (the video game) when you launch your game.
Lesson #7: The Real TTRPG Publishing Company was the Friends We Made Along the Way
This is a small community of creators - for now. In case you didn't notice, the TTRPG space is growing fast as heck. But while we can still jump on friendly quick calls with one another, do so, it is important to set the tone of the scene.
We most likely reached to where we are thanks to some of the friends we made along the way. Looking at you guys who helped us out when we were just starting out - you know who you are :) From what I have personally seen, people are very receptive to sharing their experiences and helping each other out.
BUT, don't be that guy who copy-pastes cross promotion messages. That's just rude.
Lesson #8: You Are A Gaming Company - Act Accordingly
Get yourself a proper office, have a very strict remote-working discipline, have a slack channel, a well organized WORK discord channel, or whatever floats your company sized boat. The TTRPG space is growing fast, and if you treat yourselves as a proper company, you will grow with it. The groups who treat themselves like that are even getting Venture Capital money flowing in. Even we (a competitive but ultimately a small publisher) are receiving a lot of offers from local and international investors. Sharks smell money.
Soon, there will be a divide between those who are a group enthusiasts who are just doing fun side projects, and start-ups (and even scale-ups) who are producing acclaimed games as their full time work. If you have aspirations to be the latter, act accordingly before it's too late.
Lesson #9: Products Talk
The big, big difference between being a TTRPG Studio and a Video Game studio is, you are producing a physical product.
Don't take short-cuts, go to the factory floor - if you can't, ask for samples and confirmations throughout the process. This is one of the make-or-break moments for your company. Work with trusted and well referenced manufacturers (we almost lost everything because of this, but this is a story for another time). How your product feels at the hand of the customers will be AT LEAST AS IMPORTANT AS THE CONTENT!
Lesson #10: Kickstarter Kickstarts, and Won't Do Much Else
Here's a cheeky little insider knowledge from our company financials. Our Kickstarter revenue is but a fraction of our total revenue this year.
What Kickstarter allowed us to do is to have a company. What ended up growing us was our website, our e-commerce platform, our consultation work. Have a very solid website, and an e-commerce infrastructure. Once you have Kickstarter funds, invest in them via marketing. This is how you generate an audience, and once you have your product ready, this is how you generate actual revenue.
One important caveat here is that, there are some websites and online stores you can plug-in your stuff into. I wholeheartedly doubt that they are giving you a good deal, they get the traffic, you get a percentage of the sale of your own product.
Investing in our own platform was worth every penny and hour we put into it.
Lesson #11: Freelancers Freelance, and Won't Do Much Else
Remember what I said in the first lesson, that a dedicated team was everything. The dedicated part is extremely relevant.
To be fair, I have nothing against freelancers, you would do so well to have a portfolio of freelancers that you can reach out for all kinds of things, art, music, layout, etc. And we have gotten amazing full-time team members who were freelancing for us first.
But it is a different thing to have your artists right next to your writers and designers in the office, getting and giving feedback on the fly, adding to the discussion of how your BBEG will look like, getting an item illustration in a snap when a page looks to empty, etc.
As you grow as a company, you will want to have full-time team members for all stations, because freelancers freelance.
Lesson #12: Dear Midjourney and All the Other AI Art Tools
Tech is fancy. When our lead artist showed us what at the time was almost alpha midjourney, we were absolutely blown away. Then it passed.
Even if you put all the ethical issues surrounding AI art, they are a simplistic tool (currently) that will only get you so far if you want to make a good game. If I am being completely honest, we did use the AI art in some of our published material, BUT only as a tool. We used it to get a good looking composition, to decide on lighting, and poses, and all that fancy stuff our CD talks about. We then discarded the art the AI generated, and made a human generated one, being inspired by what the AI did.
Two weeks ago, I was at a pretty massive video game development convention, with a lot of companies showcasing their games. There was an indie section there too, with some teams proudly showcasing their Midjourney powered still images on their branding stuff. Most people just scoffed at these pieces, us included.
Lesson #13: Fulfillment Hell is Real
Here's where we royally f**ked up. Out of all the hard learned lessons here, this was the one that we couldn't take back - once you fail to deliver your product for months, there is no taking back, time doesn't work like that.
DO work with a good, reputable logistics partner. DO ask for references before you even start talking. DO send trial items, globally. DO fix your tax issues before you even start Kickstarter.
DO NOT pay upfront like we did. DO NOT expect a non-logistics company to handle your logistics for you like we did. DO NOT take answers from your in-hindsight-just-plain-horrible logistics partner without digging further, like we did.
DO be smart and meticilous about it, DO NOT act hasty and naive like we did. Otherwise you will end up producing a really good product, and wait eons for it to be sent out while you come up with band-aid solutions on the fly.
Fulfillment hell is real, don't fall into it.
So here's what I learned as a producer at a TTRPG Studio last year. This ended up as a massive pile of text - wasn't expecting that. I love logging my experiences so if this is of any use to you, or someone you know, uh, you are welcome I guess.
Feel free to ask questions, make fun of me, or post cute cat pictures below - or whatever you would want to do.
I'll be around.
P.S. Here's an image for the SEO gods. That stuff is important when you have your own website.