Producing Content, Part One – WILL THIS EVEN WORK??

July 13, 2022 Dungeon Master 322 No Comments

THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO PRODUCE A TTRPG SHOW. There, I said it. This is the first year in the last nine that I haven’t attended, or even presented remotely at, Gen Con. I typically run a sold-out How-To seminar on running streamed RPGs in addition to several live events. In lieu of offering this info at Gen Con I thought I’d try something a little more evergreen – a blog post!

I’ll be honest – I have a VERY hard time believing folks are putting up their games on Twitch or YouTube just for the heck of it. I think many streams might’ve begun this way, but deep down every producer hopes that their stream will be the one that breaks the mold again and makes it big. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Quite the contrary, I think recognizing and acting upon it will help you succeed.

I’ve heard from many people that they “just want to play a game with [their] friends!” And that’s 100% reasonable. But why film it? Why broadcast it? Why invite an audience who will inevitably come and judge that content one way or another? I can think of few reasons to subject myself to that every week just because I enjoy a hobby. I didn’t get into RPG streaming to be famous, but I did get into knowing it had income potential, and I knew I had a subset of skills that, combined with my love for the hobby, could dovetail well into achieving that potential. I didn’t get into it to wade through YouTube comments with angry grognards. And I doubt you did either.

I’ve heard from a number of professional streamers who take great umbrage to these questions. “Don’t worry about this stuff,” they say, “Just start creating!” And while that’s fine advice on the surface it actually creates a problem for all streamers. It unnecessarily encourages a glut of content – content most audiences won’t even find, let alone share. It makes it harder for new streamers to be found, for good streamers to develop into great streamers, and it continues to perpetuate and enforce the cult of personality prevalent in current TTRPG streaming. Perhaps even more damaging, it makes it appear as if there are no roadblocks to success, and so if you do experience hardships (and you will) it makes you feel like you did something wrong (you didn’t).

So you’ll forgive me if I offer this free advice to you – I’m not doing it to stymie your dreams, I just want you to come at this from a balanced and, hopefully, advanced perspective.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about your first steps in producing TTRPG video content.

The big questions.

1) Do I enjoy playing TTRPGs?
2) Is this just a hobby to pass the time?

3) Do I want to make money playing TTRPGs?
4) Do I need money to make this happen?
5) Am I willing to sacrifice some of my enjoyment in order to make money?
6) Do I actually want an audience? Am I prepared to grow an audience?
7) Do I have the time to commit to this endeavor?

Let’s break these down a bit further.

1) Do I enjoy playing TTRPGs?
If you don’t enjoy TTRPGs and are instead hoping to cash in on some craze – begone with you! First off, there’s very little money in this biz to begin with. Second, the industry doesn’t need more drivel content. Now, scram! The rest of ya, listen up! If you enjoy TTRPGs in any way, shape, or form congratulations! There IS a way to turn that enjoyment into a business – from reviewing products to discussing rules to even playing the game with friends! But, as you’ll soon discover, having a love for something doesn’t necessarily translate into easy money.

2) Is this just a hobby to pass the time?
There are many that just need a creative outlet and that’s 100% ok. If this is true for you then you can throw out everything I’ve said. But I offer this analogy. Producing streamed TTRPGS is a lot like working in community theater. Personally, as much as I enjoy acting, I recognize that part of my enjoyment is having someone see and react to my performance, and to do that I need to put in the work. I need to be trained, sure. Need to learn my lines and practice so the audience (hopefully) enjoys the performance. But my role is only a small piece of the puzzle. A crucial one, yes, but it alone cannot guarantee an audience on opening night. Audiences also need to know when I’m performing – and for that I’ll need marketing. They need to know where I’ll be performing so I’ll need a space to perform in. I may need props and costumes. I may need a lighting designer, a set designer, and people to build and operate these things. I need fellow cast members – oh god do I need a cast! All of that takes time, money and knowledge. If you can eat those costs yourself and still attract people to see you, great, you are independently wealthy and can do whatever you damn well please. But in all likelihood you alone can’t keep that up. Or at the very least you shouldn’t. 

3) Do I want to make money playing TTRPGs?
This is a much more difficult question than it seems. For a lot of folks the quick answer is “No,” “I just want to play a game!” or “I don’t care.” All valid, sure, but they usually lead to a follow-up – what would you do if someone handed you money to make something? “Well, I’d cross that road when I got to it.” Only, few people take the time to actually think about the impact of income and revenue on a production. If your intention is to not “sell out” or otherwise accept revenue – great. Articulate that clearly with both your cast & crew and your audience. Once you start to generate income, even just a little bit, you’ll be surprised how quickly “just playing a game” turns into an enterprise with a lot of monetary demands.

4) Do I need money to make this happen?
Naw, you don’t. Not at first anyway. You don’t need fancy cameras, a switcher, expensive mics, a beefy computer, tons of crew, etc. There are certainly some tech basics you DO need – but most people have at least entry-level versions of these. Beyond that? Ask these follow up questions: Are you planning/hoping to pay people to work on the show? Do you need to buy games while you wait for sponsorships to start giving you systems for free? Do you need to pay a crew member who can facilitate the stream/video while you focus on the content? Basically, what are you trying to accomplish? And with that start budgeting it out. You may be able to get everything for free or on loan – that’s great! But eventually if dollar bills start coming in you’ll need to determine how that money gets distributed. I’ll talk all about revenue streams in a separate post. So for now, just read on…

5) Am I willing to sacrifice some of that enjoyment in order to make money?
This goes hand in hand with the above. Producing content is rife with compromise. You’ll have people from all sides – your cast/crew, fellow creators, the audience, potential sponsors – all asking something of you. You may need to change your preferences for a lot of things, from session length to presentational format. You may need to change who you play with. What rewards you may offer your loyal audience in exchange for income. And much, much more. If you become dependent on an income to keep your show afloat, you will likely encounter some compromise in order to keep that revenue stream viable.

6) Do I actually want an audience? Am I prepared to grow an audience?
You can’t answer one without the other, so let’s tie these two together. Do you want an audience? By broadcasting your gameplay you will garner an audience one way or another. That audience could be a few remote friends, or it could be for thousands of adoring fans. By broadcasting your experience you are tacitly agreeing to the connection between audience and performer. Audiences exist to absorb content and their reaction to that content is your lifeblood. Your content should be designed with your hopeful audience in mind – it should engage, entertain, and maybe even challenge that audience. But you will need to decide who that audience is and what makes a perfect member of that audience.

A lot of established streamers will argue they don’t actively care who watches them. That they put no (or little) effort into finding, establishing, or retaining an audience. That the people who do follow them do so of their own volition and discovered them through some strange magicks (we call them algorithms, but who’s counting?). This is disingenuous at best. People follow you because of the content you produce and the way you produce it. Plain and simple. There is some truth to the “do what you would enjoy watching” mantra, sure. But even then you’re needing to adapt to at least one member of your audience: you!

To pretend you have no control over your audience in a bid to remain indifferent to their desires falls flat pretty quickly when you’re looking for people to back a Kickstarter or raise money for charity.

Where people get really hung up, I think, is on that second question. Do you want this audience to GROW? If you’re “just playing a game” and are only broadcasting so your friends can watch from across the country then the answer is resolutely “probably not!” Easy peasy! But if you desire to grow an audience and (hopefully) have people enjoy and share your work, you need to take things like marketing, networking and outreach into consideration. 

Building an audience takes time, yes, but it also takes sacrifice. Maintaining a presence, even when you’re not streaming (especially if you’re not live streaming) is draining and difficult. It means a LOT of networking which isn’t just “liking” a post; it means engagement. A lot of it is, let’s not mince words here, small talk. It’s congratulating someone on a show release. Commiserating with someone’s post about technical issues. But it should never be disingenuous. Beware of becoming a sycophant – blindly replying with toxic positivity. That is to say, before you post, consider these timeless rules: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? A lot of my post ideas tend to fail at that last check point and so I tend to err on not engaging. To be fair a lot of successful people ignore that last point altogether and it seems to work well for them. So take this advice somewhat with a grain of salt. Maybe instead of “is it necessary” consider amending that to “is it productive?”

7) Do I have the time to commit to this endeavor?
What kind of time commitment are we actually talking here, though? Tough to say. Let’s assume you’re planning a streamed liveplay of a TTRPG. There’s all the time going into securing a cast, covering safety tools, building characters, hosting a session 0, making sure tech needs are met, running tests, fixing problems, etc. Then there’s the show day which takes all of a few hours. Then there’s editing, posting to platforms of choice, marketing. Honestly sometimes just going through all the YouTube metadata on a video can take me a good hour to create (thumbnails take time, yo). Now multiply all that by however many shows you want to have going concurrently. 

Quickly you’ll find that your time can easily be usurped by this endeavor. So you cut back, which is a smart move for your mental wellbeing, but you find that you’re now not growing as quickly as you’d like or need to to keep up with your expenses. So you ramp back up again. Lord help you if you’re like me and have a bad brain day and just…can’t. 

So think about it. Make up a mock schedule for yourself. Look at it. Does it provide you with a quality of life that leaves you happy and fulfilled? Do NOT pin all hopes of happiness and fulfillment on a goal that has not been attained. If you stress yourself out because you’ll only be happy if 500 people start watching your show then you’re in the wrong business. Set goals for yourself, for sure, but don’t sacrifice yourself to meet those goals. If you find that happening reset the goals to something more easily achieved. And then build from there. It takes a bit of trial and error, but it’s important and it’s necessary.

Again for the kids in the back – There is no right way to produce an RPG stream. But answering these initial questions for yourself will help drive the direction you want to go. From there you can either start with nothing and piecemeal a show together as issues arise, or you can skip those growing pains and heed my advice.

Bottom line, however, is to never let a lack of access prevent you from producing.