Demo and Release Considerations

I’m very excited to demo Serafina’s Crown at the upcoming Six-Pack Demo Night at Earthbound Brewery on February 18th. Demoing one of my games will be a new experience for me. I’ve had friends play the game while I watch, which is a blast, but that’s quite different from presenting it to total newcomers in short bouts of play-time.

The challenge with show-casing a visual novel, of course, is that it’s a heavily story-based game, and most of the “playing” aspect comes in the form of reading large sections of text. So how should I present Serafina’s Crown in a way that’s quick and accessible, but still gives the player a good sense of the story and overall feel of the game?

The best plan I can formulate right now is to include a video at my demo station that provides a general idea of the story and play style – in other words, a trailer:

Then, the sections I will open for demos will be the Duma Debate sections, which involve using the Divinity Dial to pick numbers that will beat your opponents’.

I am excited to demo the game, and in addition to that, I’ve started to think seriously about my release plan for this title. I’ll be frank with any of you reading this: I don’t make enough money from my games or books combined to support myself. That’s probably no huge surprise. Although I’ve had successes here and there, I’m far from producing a massively popular hit. I don’t charge much money for my books or games, and some of them are completely free. That’s because I want my creations to be accessible to a wide range of people, and also because these days, a lot of players and readers expect to get things for free. So it’s often the only way to get exposure.

But I’m nearing a crossroads of sorts. With Serafina’s Crown, I need to start making enough money to legitimize my company as a sustainable business, or I need to focus on a full-time job (or lots more freelance work) and set this aside as more of a hobby. It pains me to say that, but otherwise I just can’t justify spending as much time and effort on projects that pay me next to nothing in return.

With my re-release of Serafina’s Saga, I added in-app purchases in the form of costumes. These have provided some revenue, but nothing significant. So that leaves me to wonder whether I should continue to add more in-app purchases, perhaps in the form of story content such as additional plot paths, or whether I should abandon that model altogether and sell my game at a set price. It’s going to be a difficult decision. And if you’re reading this as one of my players, or perhaps a fellow game developer, I hope you’ll give me your opinion.

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.