Persistence Ain’t All That

This post may come across as something of a rant, and possibly also as a humble brag. I have to concede that I’m ranting a bit, but I would like to emphasise that there is nothing humble about the bragging parts, and that I am entirely serious about the humble parts.

This rant was inspired by my misreading* of a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s blog by a (different) successful author. In it, she repeats the claim that persistence is essential, even the only essential thing, and illustrates it with her life story. It is true that persistence appears to have led her to success. There are a number of other famous examples of this available.

The overwhelming level of sample bias here robs the evidence of all meaning. What about all the persistent people who haven’t succeeded? Nobody listens to their stories, because they are nobodies. Why would you take life lessons from someone who has failed? Well, because if you only listen to people who have succeeded, you get a seriously distorted picture.

So, in full awareness that essentially no-one is going to read this, because I’m not famous enough, I’m going to tell the echoing ether that persistence isn’t enough, and isn’t even necessary.

Let’s take “not enough” first. I write and develop roleplaying games. I need to say that because hardly anybody has heard of me. I’ve been doing it professionally for 20 years; longer than Chris Pramas at Green Ronin, and a lot more people have heard of him. He even has a Wikipedia page.

I’ve not had a rejection letter for roleplaying games since I returned to them after deciding that they were not Satanic, around the age of 18. So, that thing about everyone having to collect piles of rejection letters? Not true. I’ve won an Origins Award and a gold ENnie award, helped out by the name recognition of Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen, but for a product, Ars Magica Fifth Edition, that was essentially my work. The previous four editions, which were not my work, did not win. I’ve been developing Ars Magica for longer than anyone else, and I’m getting close to having done it for longer than everyone else who has had the job put together. John Nephew has not fired me. He’s even given me pay rises and bonuses from time to time.

I do not suck, at least not as a roleplaying game author and developer. Because I am not depressed, I know that I do not suck. I do not suck, and I have kept this up for 20 years. Talent and persistence, getting published, I must have succeeded, right?

Wrong. Obviously, I don’t make a decent amount of money from roleplaying. Nobody makes a decent amount of money from roleplaying (except Robin Laws). But further than that, I have almost no name recognition. I’m working on a new roleplaying game, Kannagara, but does the fact that I am working on a new roleplaying game create any buzz anywhere? No. Now, we aren’t talking about fame. While people in the industry will recognise the names I’ve been dropping, I suspect that only the most dedicated roleplaying fans would do so in general. That’s the level I’m aiming at, and haven’t reached.

So yeah, persistence doesn’t always work.

I’ve also written a novel, and tried the online crowdfunding model. That was Tamao. That didn’t work, either. People I didn’t know did send me money. One guy even sent me $25 a couple of years after I’d finished, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any more story out of it. So, it doesn’t suck. Strangers don’t send you money because you wrote something that sucked. And I finished it. Wrote the whole thing in a year. That’s persistence.

No success yet.

Then there’s my blog. Not this one. I’m not so brazen as to claim persistence here, but my Japanese one. Every day, for nearly eight years. Recently, at least 1,000 characters (roughly 500 words equivalent) every day. Frequent and regular updates with new material, sustained over a long period of time. That’s how you make a successful blog, right? I’m averaging about 100 views per day, and no comments. That’s not a successful blog.

But I’ve not given up. I still do it every day. It has been great Japanese practice. Lots of persistence here.

No success, though.

On the other hand, let’s consider an area where I wasn’t persistent. Philosophy. I got a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge 15 years ago. So, yes, I was persistent enough to finish a dissertation. I then spent five years trying to get a job in philosophy. Failed.

So I chucked it in and came to Japan.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a job, which I’m still doing, based on having that PhD. The content of my work has steadily got closer to the content of my dissertation, to the point that, this year, I will be directly applying my PhD to my work, in the private sector. The job doesn’t currently pay brilliantly (start up), but it pays a lot more than minimum wage. And a lot more than roleplaying games, novels, or blogs — at least for me.

This means that the area where I wasn’t persistent, the area that I abandoned pretty much completely for eight years, is the area where I currently seem to have the most success. It has at least as much promise for future success as any of the others as well.

Persistence: not needed, and not enough. Rather overrated, all round.

When you are struggling with something you want to do, but are not succeeding at, the big question can be framed as “Which story am I starring in?”. Are you starring in a story of someone who holds on to their dream, struggles through the difficult years of no recognition and piles of rejection slips, before finally succeeding? Or are you starring in a story of someone who wastes his life producing things that no-one wants to read, dying with piles of manuscripts that do not become interesting even posthumously?

Obviously, if you’re in the first story, you should not give up. Keep pushing! Keep writing! Persistence!

If you’re in the second story, you should quit now. Do something more productive with your life. Everyone has something to offer to the world. In your case, this isn’t it. Abandon the illusion that is holding you back, and find your calling!

So, which story are you in? It’s really, really hard to tell. In fact, I suspect it’s impossible to tell. That makes it unfortunate that the two stories recommend diametrically opposed courses of action.

This is why living a good life is hard. The decisions are not easy. There are no universal prescriptions that will always lead you to the right decision. Sometimes, you should give up. Sometimes, giving up will actually lead to success in the area where you gave up. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should be persistent.

Sometimes you should do what you love. Sometimes you should recognise reality and do what is necessary to live. Sometimes your family should come first, and sometimes you should prioritise work for a while to make sure that your family has a home and food. Sometimes you should stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you should keep your head down and wait for the persecution to pass.

There are no easy answers, and most people never get to know whether they made the right decisions. So, if you are a struggling writer, you have to decide for yourself whether you should give up. I’m not going to recommend either option. Giving up worked for me; persisting worked for other people.

I’m afraid you have to run your own life.

* The original post was by Kameron Hurley, and it turns out that her point was that she had redefined “success” in terms of persisting, so that the lack of other kinds of success wouldn’t put her off. Since that is what I have done for my Japanese blog, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The post above still stands, however. Back

Mimusubi in 2013

Following in the footsteps of people like Fred Hicks at Evil Hat, I’m going to post about the business side of Mimusubi, with actual numbers. I can be open about this, at least for now, because I have a lot of things going on apart from Mimusubi, so these posts will tell you very little about my personal financial situation.

The summary is: lots of red ink.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, I haven’t sold anything, and I have had expenses. So, here’s the breakdown.

Internet Presence: ¥18,780
Advertising: ¥55,015
Labour: ¥214,500

Internet Presence is basically the hosting fees for this site. Yes, it’s higher than it could be, but I want the site to be on a reliable server that will scale, and I can afford it from my other income.

Advertising hasn’t happened yet. I got in on a couple of Kickstarters, one with someone I know directly, and one with someone I know indirectly, and paid for levels that will have them advertising Kannagara some time this year. So I need to get it moving. This will involve convention demos in the US, something I have trouble doing personally, and provide a channel for marketing to people interested in RPGs and Japan. I have no idea whether they will actually pan out, but they both provide something strategically useful.

Labour is paying me for the time I have put into the project. I’ve figured the hourly rate as the rate that I could choose to get paid if I dropped Kannagara as a project, so that it accurately represents my opportunity cost. As this isn’t an out-of-pocket expense, the number is a bit notional, but Mimusubi won’t be really profitable until it has paid for all of my work, as well as anyone else’s.

So, I’ve been going for a year, more or less, and I have lost ¥288,295, or around $3,000, depending on where the exchange rate is. The investment is still quite small, but I haven’t finished developing the game yet.

Playtest Results

Over the new year, I arranged for two playtest sessions of Kannagara. I was involved in one, but not the other, which was deliberate. For the game in which I was involved, I could see how things went for myself, and have a direct sense of the dynamics, but I also, inevitably, guided the game in the way it was supposed to work. For the other game, I only have a written report, but I do find out how the game goes without the designer helping out.

Unsurprisingly, it goes better when the designer is present.

The other thing that became clear was that the first draft does not work.

This is not really surprising. Kannagara is quite different from existing role-playing games, particularly from the ones I have most experience of writing, so I don’t have any close precedents to rely on. Even when one does, when writing an Ars Magica book, for example, the first attempt does not always work. I am not, therefore, very disappointed with the playtest result. It would have been nice if everything had worked first time, but it would also be nice to win the lottery; I don’t make plans on the basis of either happening.

The main problem is information overload. The players felt that there were too many new words, and new ideas, coming at them too quickly, and they had trouble keeping track of where they and their personae were up to.

I was aware in advance that this was likely to be a problem, but obviously did not do enough to address it. I want to avoid requiring people to read a thick book before they can start playing, but I also want to introduce a setting that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. That was never going to be an easy task, and I haven’t succeeded yet.

As I still want to avoid putting a huge book in front of new players, the only way to solve this is to restructure the initial scenarios so that information and background are introduced more slowly.

That will also be connected to a couple of other problems that arose. Because the personae are created in play, some people complained that they didn’t know enough about their personae to roleplay, while others said that they didn’t initially realise that the options available to the personae were presented by the rules. These are connected, of course: because the players do not know enough about their personae or the setting to make sensible decisions, the rules tell them what those sensible options are. I think I need to make this more explicit. Players will become able to make their decisions completely freely (based on what the personae know) after they have played through enough scenarios to understand the world and their personae, but in the initial scenarios they are still learning the game and the setting. Of course, players could read all the background material first and start off with a wide range of choices. That will be an option when I have the full thing written.

One other thing that came up from both groups was that they thought cards would be very useful. There are a lot of elements of the game that could be printed on cards, and arranged to help the players keep track of what they have created so far, and both groups thought that this would be a good idea. Since I have been wondering whether I should use cards since extremely early in the development process, the next draft will.

However, it will not be a card game. It will be a roleplaying game in which the cards do some of the record keeping for you. They may end up doing quite a lot of the record keeping for you; I’ll have to see how development goes. This is not completely new; Everway had something similar years ago, and Shadowrun seems to be doing almost exactly that with its gun cards now.

The bright side of the playtest is that I got very positive feedback about the basic ideas behind the game. It is true that I was playing with friends, or having friends do it, but about half of the playtesters have professional RPG writing credits, and are not going to encourage me to waste my time. The executive summary of the playtest report would be this:

It needs serious revision, but please do revise it.

So, that is what I will get started on now.