Please bear with me. You need to hear a little bit of a story, before we can talk about success and failure.
When I was 19 years old, I started writing my first game, called deadEarth. It was an adventure role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with crazy mutants and tons of violence. Exactly the kind of thing a 19 year old college sophomore would be in to. It was cheesy, and I took myself way too seriously, but it was so much fun! The original manuscript was only 9 pages. Over the next several years, with the help of a bunch of friends, it became a 174 page book that I self-published.
I didn’t even bother looking for a publisher. I borrowed some money from my father, found a printer, and away we went. I printed 2,000 copies, simply because it was the minimum I could print. I did no research on how much you should print or how much it should cost, or how many I could sell. I set the price at $20. Why? Because, reasons. =)
While I was working on the book, I had attracted an online following for it, and built the community up to more than 2,000 registered users. When the book went on sale, over the first year and a half it sold about 1,000 copies. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Unfortunately, sales died off shortly thereafter. I think a lot of it had to do with me no longer being active in the community. I had moved on to other things and wasn’t actively creating content for the game. Still, I made enough to pay back my father (with no profit to spare) and felt its was a huge success, despite having hundreds of copies left over.
It was about that time that I was getting more serious about programming. Instead of just using Perl for basic web sites and system administration tasks I wanted to build big apps. The first challenge I took on was writing an online game called Survival of the Fittest. It was a simple web game, with almost no graphics. It was set in the deadEarth universe, using a tiny subset of the deadEarth rules. The game was online for about a year. It attracted a couple hundred people total, and made a few hundred dollars. However, the education I got from writing it was worth every hour spent on it. I open sourced the code, and people continued hosting and developing it for years after that.
Sometime around 2007 I got the bug for deadEarth again, and decided I was going to remake it. This time it would be less cheesy, I would take myself less seriously, and it would all start with a novel called deadEarth: 365. This would be the origin story that would set the tone for everything that would follow. Unfortunately, without knowing it I had become an adult with responsibilities and a business to run. I just didn’t have the time or energy to take on a project that large. I wrote somewhere around 11 chapters and stopped. I did, however, make a couple of promo videos for it:
Recently, I noticed an article on io9 entitled The Most Controversial Pen and Paper RPGs Ever Made. In the comments, someone called deadEarth the worst RPG ever made, and pointed to a thread in a forum with over 670 posts. Sure enough, my little game from almost two decades ago was cited by lots of people as the worst RPG ever made.
I began reading the comments and noticed something. Despite most of them absolutely hating the game, they were having a ton of fun creating characters for the game and building plans to run a campaign. Several of them found ideas in deadEarth that they thought were worth porting over to other games. So despite all these people thinking it’s a horrible game, they spent hours digging into it, talking about it, and even playing it! Many of them even went out to Amazon and bought used copies of it. Don’t get me wrong, they still hated it, but they also found much joy in it.
After reading all of this, I was inspired to publish the game as a digital download on The Game Crafter. You can buy it and all of it’s supplements for just $4.99 in searchable PDF format.
So what does this tell us about success and failure? Is deadEarth a success or a failure? I think it’s all a matter of perspective. Success is where you find it. Success is determined not just by reaching goals, but in discovering things you didn’t even want to know.
Yes, deadEarth is a silly, albeit fun, game. Yes I took myself too seriously when I created it. Yes, it didn’t make a profit. And yes, a lot of people think it’s the worst RPG ever made. So I suppose if you looked at those criteria alone it is a dismal failure. But from this failure, I’ve gained so much.
I had a magnificent time writing the game with my friends. I learned how much I love making games. I took my first steps into becoming an entrepreneur, which utterly changed the path my life would take as a result. I learned to become a real Perl programmer, a skill that has brought me wealth, influence, and friends. And last, but not least, I created a game that has had a life of two decades and is still going, even though I’ve done almost nothing with it.
So I ask you, when you measure success, how will you measure it? Will you find scorn and bitterness in your harshest critics, or will you find inspiration? Will you look only at the ways you failed, or will you discover all the ways you succeeded?