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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back on 2014

Steve Cole reports:
We had a plan for 2014, which was a list of the products we planned to do and the order in which they would be done. The problem was that everything took longer than expected and any prediction of when a given item would get done (the month, not the sequence) went out the window with those renowned Texas Panhandle winds. As General von Clausewitz once said: "In war, everything is simple, but the simple things are very hard." What was hard was learning to improve the quality of our products. For all of the jokes about "Only a professor of English grammar would care about that typo," the reality is that to expand the company beyond the elite uber-gamers means doing books to the standard of the real book industry, not the garage game industry.
We actually had several lists of products. The Main List is the one everybody talks about and the most frustrating. We will get to that later.
The Captain's Log List simply said that every time we finished a product from the Main List we would decide if it was time to stop working on that Main List and do a Captain's Log. When we finally finished A Call to Arms: Star Fleet Book 1.2 we decided it was time for Captain's Log #50, but by then it was early December so that issue will come out in January, probably very late in January because of the continuing dearth of publishable fiction. At least Captain's Log #49 was a superb issue and since Captain's Log #48 came out four months late (in March of 2014) we not only did two issues this year but any publication date for Captain's Log #50 before the Ides of March will be an improvement!
The Starline List was derailed by outside contractors who simply didn't bother doing their jobs and a lingering design flaw that refused to be fixed. Everything that happened was for 2500s; the new 2400s are still waiting in line behind 2500s that didn't happen on schedule. In March we released the revised 2500 King Eagle but ultimately decided that the original was better. We also converted the 2500 Kzinti DN from resin to metal. Then, attention turned to Master Mold One, with eight ships (five Orions and three Tholians). The problem was that the company doing the prototypes simply failed to do them. Mongoose had to search for a new vendor and then wait weeks for ships, delaying the whole thing three months. Then the mold was made and masters were sent to us for approval. We had a master sculptor try (again) to fix the defective 2500 Tholian PC, DD, and CA designs, but in the end, only the DD survived the molding process and once anybody saw it they realized that it had been scaled way too big, so that whole empire needs to be done over. [Given the under-scale 2400s we may ultimately scrap those and do a new Starline 2425 series (designed to work with both the Starline 2500 and 2400 series) of all of the Tholians and Neo-Tholians.] The five Orions (DW, BR, CA, BC, BCH) survived every step of the process and reached the hands of gamers over the summer, but the market for 2500s seemed to show little interest in the pirates. Then we began work on Master Mold Two, but we had to wait months for the prototypes and then more months for the molds. (The mold company that our casting house uses is very convenient and reasonable in cost, but has a tendency to just close up shop for weeks at a time without warning. We have asked the casting house to find a new mold maker.) Once the mold arrived with four new 2500s and the first 2450 (a 2500 ship rescaled to 2450), things went off the rails again. The 2500 Vulture broke under stress (despite over-designed wings that should have worked) and the 2450 Klingon D7K masters revealed a design flaw that meant it had to be done over from scratch. The other three ships (Klingon SD7, Orion DN, Kzinti NCA) survived and will be released early next year. Work on the 2425 jumbo freighter, more 2450s, the heavy war destroyers, and other new ships remains in line, waiting for other things to move forward.
The original plan did not have a Gary Carney List but he produced two great books: a revised Federation Commander Omega Playtest Rulebook and the new Federation Commander Magellanic Playtest Pack. His products were inserted into the List out of their turn, but arrived so nearly perfect that nobody minded. They did not delay anything else more than a day or two.
Let's not forget that the Communique List released a dozen new Federation Commander ships and a dozen new Federation Commander scenarios. Ever if we didn't get paid for those, they were products and play-value material for the customers. (Remember that everything the company does takes at least some "Steve Time" and even this blog cost most of a day of work on actual products.)
The Main List proved that the Friction of War still exists in the business world. The Federation Commander Tactics Manual, SFB Federation Master Starship Book, and SFB Hydran Master Starship Book all took twice as long as expected as we had to keep re-re-re-proofreading them to get all of the mistakes out. As Jean Sexton says, "First you move the mountains, then the boulders, then the rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand, and finally the dust." Her point is that the bigger mistakes almost always hide smaller mistakes and corrections of mistakes create more mistakes, so one round of proofreading doesn't get things done. Curiously, the product Jean did by herself (Prime Directive: Away Team Log) sailed through quite easily. Maybe she knows a secret?
One could argue (as we did for decades) that a book full of trivial mistakes today is better for the company than a book without mistakes that takes two extra months and wipes another new book entirely off the schedule. The reality is that doing sloppy books limits the potential market as less intense gamers actually expect a book without misspelled words and with rules that don't take a three-judge panel to interpret. While this new attitude did cost us three or four new products during 2014, it produced better products with better sales, and we're getting the hang of doing nearly perfect books in the time we once did fairly sloppy ones. As Jean Sexton said: "You wouldn't spend so much time fixing your mistakes if you learned how to do a book with fewer mistakes. Now quit whining and start learning."
After a break in the Main List to release Captain's Log #49, work resumed but quickly fell off the rails again. The already finished Master Starship Books consumed more time as mistakes in the PDF versions were found and fixed. It was our first experience with having to do more work on a finished product, but nobody suspected that it was not going to be the last. Jean's efforts to work on the Traveller Prime Directive RPG books ran into issues in the published books that won't be resolved until next year. We could have done the new Starmada books but were so busy that we simply forgot to send needed source materials to Daniel Kast; at least he's working on those now. Tribbles vs. Klingons never happened because "the bar" for a successful Kickstarter program (requiring graphics, videos, and a lot of other bells and whistles) climbed higher and higher faster than we could pursue it.
Steve Cole sat down after finishing Captain's Log #49 to "simply do the layout" for A Call to Arms: Star Fleet Book 1.2 and ran into a highway paved with molten tar and literally spent half of the year on that book. The layout project that could not possibly have taken more than three weeks actually took over 10 as many rules had to be edited and clarified. (This is no fault of the designer, Tony L. Thomas, who was doing his first published book and had not yet mastered the nuances of rules-writing to control the efforts of alpha-gamers to make starships do things impossible under the laws of the universe. He also had to learn that five different ways of typing the same game-speak term was not as good as picking the best way to do something and standardizing on that one. Jean has been teaching the two Steves the same lesson all year.) We then began what should have been a week of proofreading and corrections, which turned into six weeks as Drill Sergeant Jean proclaimed: "You're going to fix it again and again and again until you fix it the right way." Once the book was actually published and Steve Cole thought he could move on to Captain's Log #50, we learned (again) the ancient proverb: "A thousand gamers will see in a weekend what a dozen playtesters did not see in year." Because of the "public relations" importance of ACTASF-1.2, we had to arrange the system to release the PDF three months before printing any paper books, and spent six weeks fixing pebbles, sand, and dust in a book that was already finished. (This became time that was not spent on Captain's Log #50.) This was a very expensive command decision, and one we felt we had to take. The original hardback ACTASF book was so full of problems (rules, universe, format, style sheets, and typos) that the choice was clear: either show good faith by delivering a "very nearly perfect" book (we will release Revision D within days and Revision E at the end of January) or give up on the whole project. Not only do the long-suffering ACTASF players deserve a better book than we have ever done before, but the whole point of ACTASF was to break into new market for faster-playing games suitable for a much wider audience. We also need to start doing every book to this improved standard.
So in the end, not enough got done in 2014, but we learned valuable lessons in project management and product quality that will serve us well into the future. We must write the books to a higher standard before they are proofread, get control over non-performing miniatures vendors, and better leverage outside designers.