My Ashcan Confessional, or How I Dropped the Ball

I have a confession to make, and I've been toying with whether or not to make it for around a month now: I totally dropped the ball on my ashcan game at the Ashcan Front last GenCon. To be fair, I'm not trying to be a critic of the ashcan model in general, but I'm criticizing my own participation in that model. Hopefully, other folks thinking about the ashcan model will consider what I have to say here.

Background: Initially, I wasn't going to do an ashcan of Know Thyself in time for GenCon. I saw some other people talk about getting their ashcans ready by GenCon in a way that I thought felt like rushing to publish -- notably John Wick's Houses of the Blooded. (John later decided against it.) So, when I got to interview Matt & Paul about the Ashcan Front for Master Plan, I asked a question based on this: "What do you think about people rushing to produce an ashcan?" I have to say that I was surprised by Matt's answer: "I wish more people would." Granted, that was in reference to them having, at the time, a low turnout for people buying into the booth, but I was still surprised.

Fast-forward a month or so, when I finally sat down to edit that interview and put that episode together. By then, I heard that Paul Tevis was going to have his game, A Penny For My Thoughts, at the Ashcan Front. Since our games came out of the same contest three or four month prior, I knew Paul hadn't been working on his game for all that long. That, combined with Matt's answer, led me to think about whether I could do an ashcan for Know Thyself. Two more factors lead me to go for the idea: (a) my game, while not in the 80-90% range, had a physical component that would make outside playtesting problematic; (b) I thought my game was more complete than it was.

So, I told Paul & Matt about my game, about the playtesting I had done and projected I would continue to do, and I was honest that my game wasn't quite at that 80-90% but I had the physical component issue. They let me buy into the booth, and I started the arduous journey of making the game in my mind into an ashcan product.

Here's the kicker: After signing up and doing more playtesting, I found a big flaw in the game. I can't remember the details at this point, but I know we actually changed the format of play dramatically, from the playtest at Go Play NW (early June) to the format of play found in the ashcan of the game (printed in early August). After the Go Play NW playtest, I seriously considered pulling out of the Ashcan Front booth. A combination of (a) having publicly declared on my podcast that I was going to be a part of the booth, (b) not wanting to leave Matt & Paul in a lurch by pulling out (or, perhaps, not wanting to feel guilty for that), and (c) a pep talk from my local crew convincing me that I could get this done in time lead me to press on.

In hindsight, I should have pulled out then, seeing that I was still too early in the development process to release a reasonable ashcan. But I didn't. I went through four more playtests with my local group and two more draft revisions before I got the text & cards I had for sale at GenCon. I seriously rushed to publish, and I let being pressed for time blind me to the remaining large issues of structure my game had. Instead of tackling those problems, I did something that, to this day, I'm pretty pissed at myself about: I said, "That's okay, it's an ashcan. I'll look for feedback in some of these issues."

So, I sold copies of my game at the con. It was during the convention, and specifically due to being on that side of the booth for the first time, when I started having serious doubts about my game being as finished as everyone at the booth was claiming it was (not specifically, but in being a part of the collection of other ashcans). On Sunday night, I had a quick demo with Fred Hicks & Rob Donoghue, where Rob schooled me on how to more effectively use my cards. The idea required a slight re-design of the deck, which would then invalidate one of my rationales for putting the ashcan out: the physical component necessary for play. If I re-designed that, then the decks I sold would be obsolete, and I felt like at the point, my credibility as a designer would be out the window.

This leads me to the aftermath. After GenCon, I had several ideas for fixing issues with Know Thyself, primarily due to discussions with my group and on Master Mines, with a couple people I gave free copies of the ashcan to providing some comments after reading the game. To date, I don't know anyone who has played it outside of my play group (though I do know of one Celtic cross reading done with my cards -- apparently no good reading can come from my deck). But, because I exchanged money for that version of the game, and because of the implicit promise that my game is pretty close to done in that form, I feel locked into fixing the ashcan edition rather than knocking it down to the foundation and trying again, especially since I have no playtest reports from anyone yet.

If I had some playtest reports, I could say "Well, I milked the ashcan for what I could, and it tells me I should start over, so I will!" Right now, though, I'm looking to do this while making all those ashcans obsolete. But I digress. The point is: I charged money for something that wasn't as done as it should have been, and only through hindsight to I now understand that it wasn't truly ready. I feel crappy about that, and I'm looking to rectify the problem by offering refunds to those 15 folks who bought my ashcan. While I learned a lot going through this process, from many points of view but especially the behind-the-scenes of working a booth at a convention, I heavily dislike that others paid for my education while not getting their money's worth.

Granted, if you actually play the game, I will totally and happily take your feedback, if anyone is actually interested. I suspect I won't see any at this point, since I've pretty much said "Yeah, that thing you bought, it's obsolete," but knowing where you have problems could help me understand what I need to highlight in any future versions.

Refund information: Email me at products@tomorrowtheworldgames.com with either an address to PayPal you or an address to mail you a check. Sadly, I won't be able to give refunds until January. (I have most your email addresses, and will email you in January if I haven't heard from you by then.)

In case you want to buy one of the remaining decks: So, I still have a bunch of card decks left. If you're interested in getting a copy of the deck, well, hey, I want to get rid of them. I think I have around 20 or so decks left. If you want a copy of that & the game book, I'll ship it for $7 in the US, and something more internationally. Whisper or email me if you're interested.

Comments

  • It's cool you're doing this Ryan. In the the end, though, the only way you learn is by trying and trying sometimes means messing up along the way. This goes double for self-publishing roleplaying games. In 2003, I announced this game Argonauts in an issue of Matt Snyder's zine Daedalus, with 10 pages of description about how awesome it was. I was only redeemed because John Harper inadvertently borrowed some of the better ideas from it and made Agon (which is way better than my game would have been), which let me off the hook a bit. Live and learn.
  • Thanks, Jonathan. I totally agree. I'm really glad I went through this experience, because I learned so damned much. I just hate in the pit of my stomach that others paid for it.
  • Yeah, I agree. I think part of the transaction in actually purchasing an unfinished game is the understanding that it may crash and burn (I feel this way, anyway). Unless you are abandoning the project entirely, why not commit to sending the polished, fully baked final product to all those people who supported you at the abortive ashcan stage? That would be a great thank you.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarUnless you are abandoning the project entirely, why not commit to sending the polished, fully baked final product to all those people who supported you at the abortive ashcan stage? That would be a great thank you.
    Actually, I'm still considering this in addition to the refund. The consideration is less "maybe I will and maybe I won't" but "maybe I'll figure out how the hell this game works and maybe I'll never figure it out, thus never have this game to offer."
  • Hey, I'm one of the folks that bought it but I'm not bothered about a refund. Of the Ashcans I got at GenCon I've managed to do some testing of Acts of Evil, which leaves Sweet Agatha, Know Thyself and Psi Run on the list of games to play through. It's been tough getting people together to game the last months (and family issues have been a kick in the stones too to be honest), but I'm hoping to get into these over the next few months.

    As Jason says, part of buying these games was knowing they were not finished. We are not talking about these games being 90% done and just need 10% of text added. I understood that the reason they were Ashcans was that there was (at least) a stumbling block in there preventing publication. At worst the game might be in real trouble and need rebuilt. These games needed play and would be illuminating as acts-of-design-in-progress themselves. And all the games ahd a kernel, a hook, that was worth buying into.

    So, hey, I was happy spending my money. I would be interested in any changes you make so that I can amend playtest sessions according to your new stuff though.

    Oh, and you do realise that getting your Ashcan done allowed Rob to help you, right?
  • edited December 2007
    Gregor,
    Of the Ashcans I got at GenCon I've managed to do some testing of Acts of Evil, which leaves Sweet Agatha, Know Thyself and Psi Run on the list of games to play through. It's been tough getting people together to game the last months (and family issues have been a kick in the stones too to be honest), but I'm hoping to get into these over the next few months.
    Real quick, I want to say that I'm not trying to say "gah, why won't people playtest my game!" It's only been a couple months or so from GenCon, and I didn't expect overnight playtesting (hoped? sure, but not expected).
    I would be interested in any changes you make so that I can amend playtest sessions according to your new stuff though.
    You can find a lot of what I'm chewing on on the design group blog, Master Mines. I'm also happy to talk with you about the game, if you like. You can shoot me an email at ryanmacklin@gmail.com
    Oh, and you do realise that getting your Ashcan done allowed Rob to help you, right?
    Totally -- at least, getting it done did. Selling it didn't. But, I realize that's a chicken-and-egg thing, because I wouldn't have received that feedback if I hadn't done the ashcan, and I wouldn't have done the ashcan if I wasn't selling it at the 'Front.

    I've received some interesting comments on my blog (http://macklinr.livejournal.com/572656.html) about this as well.
  • I totally consider your feedback from Rob Donoghue a success of your activities at GenCon.

    I'll be in touch in the New Year about the game Ryan (when I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that I'll be playing a game at least once a week).

    Cool.
  • edited December 2007
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarYeah, I agree. I think part of the transaction in actually purchasing an unfinished game is the understanding that it may crash and burn (I feel this way, anyway). Unless you are abandoning the project entirely, why not commit to sending the polished, fully baked final product to all those people who supported you at the abortive ashcan stage? That would be a great thank you.
    This is exactly what I was thinking while I read it.

    If I were to buy an Ashcan it would be with the knowledge that it's not completely finished. If the designer changed a bunch of stuff and made that purchase far less useful to me, in the grand scheme, then a copy of the new game would rock - but I knew what I was getting into.
  • I think of an ashcan as a process, rather than a thing. To that extent, I think you should try to keep people who purchased your ashcan involved in the design process if they wish. I don't think you need concern yourself with the relationship that your completed game bears to the ashcan itself. Its a work in progress after all.
  • edited December 2007
    Posted By: noclueI don't think you need concern yourself with the relationship that your completed game bears to the ashcan itself. Its a work in progress after all.
    The problem is that because there was a monetary transaction and what I feel is an implicit promise, I must concern myself with that which I have sold -- whether it be for an object or a process. This is a strong ethical imperative for me. The key words are "I fell" and "for me" -- frankly, that's the person I have to deal with when I try to fall asleep at night, and I have had some nights where this has bothered me too much to do so.
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarYeah, I agree. I think part of the transaction in actually purchasing an unfinished game is the understanding that it may crash and burn (I feel this way, anyway).
    Posted By: C.W.RichesonIf I were to buy an Ashcan it would be with the knowledge that it's not completely finished. If the designer changed a bunch of stuff and made that purchase far less useful to me, in the grand scheme, then a copy of the new game would rock - but I knew what I was getting into.
    I've been chewing over how to respond to this type of comment all day. I've also received that on my blog. Hopefully this will help clarify what I'm thinking:
    On my blog, Sam Chupp wrote:I definitely see your point - you are saying *you* feel like *you* have cheated people out of the process. I'm saying *I* would feel, if I had sunk money into your ashcan, like I got a legitimate look into your idea. Even if you later on chose to trash it and start again - the look I got would be valid. AND - knowing that you scrapped it and started over made me say, "Wow, guess what? This is what happens in REAL Game Design."
    To which I replied:I definitely see your point - you are saying *you* feel like *you* have cheated people out of the process.

    Exactly.

    knowing that you scrapped it and started over made me say, "Wow, guess what? This is what happens in REAL Game Design."

    I don't want anyone to have paid for this. I'm accepting that people are voluntarily refusing the refund, and that's okay, but that is a look into the process that I firmly believe isn't one the end customer should foot the bill for.

    They do every time they buy into a metaplot that gets canceled mid-way through. They do every time a core book promises supplements that never see the light of day. Sure, these are effects of our world that we have to live with -- even the best of intentions get hit too hard financially to recover, or critical line developers move on -- but I feel I have an ethical imperative to do all in my power to keep from having that happen with my own publishing efforts.

    This is my way of doing so.
  • Posted By: Ryan MacklinThe problem is that because there was a monetary transaction and what I feel is an implicit promise, I must concern myself with that which I have sold -- whether it be for an object or a process. This is a strong ethical imperative for me.
    The problem is that the promise you think you were making is not the promise you made. You're apologizing to people who you believe received a message you didn't send.
  • Yeah, I'm with Fred. I got what I paid for, fair and square. I haven't played the ashcan, but I have read it, and it gave me good ideas for my own things. No apology of any kind wanted here.
  • Do not be hard on yourself. I worked retail, and I've found that you can explain things over and over to people, put up signs pointing out where to go, and even tattoo information on your forehead, and some people still won't get it.

    You know what the ashcans are for, and you've gotten feedback like you were supposed to. If they didn't want to try out a "half-baked" game, they wouldn't have put the money out.

    I knew what I was getting into, and that's fine. If they missed the point, the fault lies with them, not you. I'd say that if anyone wants the new game, and they bought the ashcan, give them the new game at a bit of a discount. Salve your conscience, and call it good.

    This may be a change from some of the earlier misgivings I had about ashcans; all that means is that I've had time to think about it. After seeing some of the high-quality feedback that these ashcans have raked in, I think the basic idea is sound: you get what you pay for, and if you're interested enough to debug the game, your feedback will likely be of higher quality than you would have otherwise received.
  • Here's a different way to look at it. If you're concerns are valid that there is an "implicit promise that my game is pretty close to done in that form" such that you should "feel locked into fixing the ashcan edition rather than knocking it down to the foundation and trying again," the Ashcan is suddenly an obstacle to your furthering your design goals. I don't think the intention of the Ashcan Front was to create a situation that might hinder future development of the ashcan games. Regardless of why you feel you should scrap some of the existing work, you have to retain complete freedom to do so or it undermines the goal of ashcans in general.
  • Posted By: noclueIf you're concerns are valid that there is an "implicit promise that my game is pretty close to done in that form" such that you should "feel locked into fixing the ashcan edition rather than knocking it down to the foundation and trying again," the Ashcan is suddenly an obstacle to your furthering your design goals.
    Yes and no -- I have to unpack that a bit more, and I'm taking my time to find the right words for it.
    Posted By: noclueRegardless of why you feel you should scrap some of the existing work, you have to retain complete freedom to do so or it undermines the goal of ashcans in general.
    I have complete freedom, according to the model. However, beyond the model is me -- like I said in the very beginning, "I'm criticizing my own participation in that model." This feeling & decision stems from deeply-held personal ethics that I have recently discovered. However, it isn't enough to just say that -- and that's why I'm taking my time to find the right words for it.

    Things that folks have said, especially Fred and Rob on my blog, have shed some light on part of the model I was not paying as close of attention to in my ethical conundrum. But, as I took a couple weeks to think about what I was going to write when I first posted, I need to take a couple days to figure out how to write the follow-up, based on what's been said.
  • edited December 2007
    Round two: So, in talking with a friend, he said "Ryan, the only reason I understood what you were talking about is because we spent a week discussing it." So, clearly I wasn't going to nail this in one post.

    The crux of the issue is this: If, with just the briefest of comments and a long plane ride's amount of introspection, I'm ready to knock the game down to the foundation and start over, then it wasn't ready to be ashcanned. I've found this to be a really important deal for me: when I sell you something, I'm not going to switch it up on you. I understand well (and much better now, thanks to everyone whose commented) that the largest part of what I was selling was a seat at the table and buy-in to the final product.

    I respect that scrapping and starting over is part of the design process, but I should be beyond that point if I'm selling seats to my game & design process. That said, I can accept if, after getting play feedback from my ashcan buyers, the result is that my game should be scrapped. But selling first and then even seriously deciding to scrap before getting any feedback, that I won't do again. If I do another ashcan*, rest assured that I'll only do it after I feel confident in the game but also need that sort of feedback. I won't sell that seat early. In fact, I give those early seats away freely, if you follow the design collective I'm in.

    So, where does this leave me and my ashcan buyers? Simple (I hope):
    • If you bought my ashcan at GenCon, I'm offering your money back. See the OP for details.
    • If you bought my ashcan at GenCon, your input is still very welcome. There's a seat with your name at the table, should you want it.
    • The two above are not at all mutually-exclusive.
    • If you want a seat but didn't buy at GenCon, the GenCon ashcan is available here as a PDF & link to card images.
    I give no guarantees to how the project will shape up, but when I start working on it in earnest again, I will announce that. Until then, I'm working on my project that is my way of getting perspective on Know Thyself, which is called Mythender (and, hey, free seat to that table). if you do give me play feedback, awesome -- that'll help me know which parts do and don't work. If I don't get any by the time I get back to working on it, hey, that's cool -- that tells me something as well.

    Everything else I've already said still stands. To folks who suggested I look at this from another perspective, I appreciate what you have to say and I have given it thought, but the ethical conviction I have hasn't shaken. It's about a level of commitment and expectation of personal excellent (which is different from "perfection") that I will hold myself to.

    (*Which I'm doubtful I'll do, as I don't think I'll want to exchange money during the design process again. But, if the ashcan model is a necessary component for a future game, I'll walk into that with the lessons I learned here.)
  • 1. It's your thing.
    2. Do what you wanna do.
    3. I can't tell you who to sock it to.

    And good luck with your game design.
  • Well put, Carl!

    Ryan: I'm surprised at the missing option on your list - sending ashcan buyers a free copy of the new ashcan when it's ready.
  • Mike, I had thought about that, and in a sense I'll already be doing that with the whole "open design" thing, in PDF form. I don't want to produce another ashcan card deck for KT, because that was a hellish amount of work and not a particularly cheap prospect. I may change my mind later on that, though - with enough time & space, I may forget the struggle I went through to make these decks. (And if I do, it very likely won't be under the same model as the ashcan model I used.)
  • I still think your ethics are getting tweaked on a "false reading" here, but hey, man. Do what gives you peace.
  • Dude, you've convinced me. You really suck.

    Just kidding :)
    I agree with Fred. You gotta get right with yoself.
  • I'd just like to echo everyone who said, "we bought your ashcan, and as per the Standard Ashcan Expectations Contract, we're cool with it."

    I wouldn't accept a refund for the game - I got what I paid for, and although I totally, fully understand your stand on it, design-wise and process-wise, I don't think you did any wrong by putting it out there at GenCon. And hey, now I've got some sweet cards. Win.
  • Heh, I didn't think I'd get this sort of reaction on "hey, I'm having an ethical dilemma and want to offer refunds," but gaming takes all kinds, eh? Perhaps I should have started with that rather then being my normal, far-too-verbose self. :)
  • Posted By: Ryan MacklinHeh, I didn't think I'd get this sort of reaction on "hey, I'm having an ethical dilemma and want to offer refunds," but gaming takes all kinds, eh? Perhaps I should have started with that rather then being my normal, far-too-verbose self. :)
    All kidding aside, ethical dilemma's are good things to talk about. I meant the "you gotta get right with yoself" part above. It feels bad to fall short of a personal standard and its important to ask how it happened, regardless of whether the "victims" consider themselves harmed or not. Even if its just about solidifying personal convictions.

    I'd rather be in a world where people ask those questions than one in which they don't.
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