Friday, November 14, 2008

A Farewell to Fire & Movement

This year saw a long, eventful, encouraging, and frustrating summer. Lots of good things have happened to me this year. I got to brief the assistant Secretary of State, Paula DeSutter on deterrence, got to do presentations at several conferences and universities, and managed to get through my qualifying exams in one piece.

But along with the good things has come a fair amount of frustration, much of it having to do with being Editor of Fire & Movement magazine. To be frank, F&M has been a bit of a strange ride from the outset. On the one hand, it’s opened several doors and allowed me to network and become friends with a number of people whom I’d not have met otherwise. It’s given me a voice in the hobby, and, to some extent, in the milieu at large. For that alone it’s been a great experience.

But right from the start, it was clear that the magazine came equipped with a fair amount of baggage. In my early efforts to try and convince publishers to send review copies of games there was a fair amount of resistance. Many were convinced that, because they had already sent games in the past that never actually got reviewed, their games were going directly into Decision Games’ used game store Desert Fox. Others had their own reasons for not wanting to participate owing to some past disagreement with the publisher. One game publisher even threatened to sue me personally if I so much as mentioned his company in the pages of the magazine.

Despite these early problems, I pushed on with my agenda of trying to get better content. As a result of these efforts I managed to get articles from such people as Thomas P.M. Barnett of Pentagon’s New Map fame, and Dr. Richard Andres, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force, the highest ranking civilian in that service. Yet, while I thought such pieces would make a big difference, from my perspective as editor they were hardly noticed. Some folks commented on Barnett’s piece, no one even mentioned Andres’s. Instead, though, we got flak for including articles that updated older games, or complaints about one page of basic wargame tactics in each issue.

But the proof of whether or not the effort was paying off would be in circulation growth. As of this day I have no idea what the circulation of F&M is, whether it’s grown, contracted, or just stayed the same. The one thing I’ve learned about working with Decision Games over the past several years is that they are an information black hole. Around three of four issues into my editorship I wanted to run a survey to try and solidify the direction of the magazine. I wrote the survey and got DG to put in a blow-in card for responses. I never got a single piece of information on that survey. DG kept it all.

But my experiences with them are certainly not unique, and apparently not as bad as some other’s, relatively speaking. Whatever stains the publisher may have on their record, they transfer easily. Although I’ve never been an employee of Decision Games, and have acted strictly as a contractor throughout my editorship or any other of my dealings with them, the stigma of it remains.

F&M was frequently regarded as a Decision Games house organ. This was a perception I struggled mightily to overcome, yet it persists despite numerous issues that had no DG content at all, or had negative reviews of their games. But if it were just that, I wouldn’t care.

There are (let’s now say “were”) a few publishers that, despite not sending review games to F&M, I felt deserved to be covered in F&M’s pages nevertheless. Primary among those was MMP. In the past I’d purchased, or a reviewer purchased, an MMP game for purposes of F&M review. We were happy to do it. At one point, however, I was trying to convince Brian Youse to provide us with review copies, when in stepped an individual accusing me of double standards because DG didn’t send him a free game to review for Paper Wars. DG has a rather dumb policy of not sending out review copies of anything with retail value over $100.00, one that I had nothing to do with and that applied to F&M as well. This individual went so far as to accuse me of colluding with DG on the matter. (The same individual showed up in the International Gamer Awards forum cautioning against including me because I was a “DG employee.”) Suffice it to say we never got any review copies from MMP. I still have the utmost respect for their work and believe that they are one of the premier publishers in the industry. But I stopped purchasing their games for review, nevertheless. The pettiness of the event left a bad taste.

Unfortunately it didn’t stop there. In later issues of F&M I started a column called Scenarios, which was to contain new scenarios for popular games. Scenarios for Memoir ’44, ATS, and Gunslinger have appeared in the column so far. I had hoped to include an ASL based scenario or two as well, as I know that many of F&M’s readers are ASL enthusiasts. Despite several attempts, we never got one. What I did get though was a midnight phone call from a fanatic member of the Southern California ASL Group, who accused me of being a “Decision Games thief” and expressing his disgust at my audacity in requesting a scenario from their group. That was on top of the letter I received from an officer of the group claiming that several members had raised concerns about my request owing to my and Decision Games questionable business practices, and as a result was banned from their little cabal. All that for offering to run one of their scenarios in the F&M scenario column; apparently F&M is beneath the dignity of ASL, which I gather has ascended to some higher plain of gaming existence, which low-lifes such as myself can only aspire to. Some lucky fellow got my entire ASL collection a few weeks later for the happy sum of 800 dollars.

Finding content for the magazine was always a challenge, and I was never entirely happy with what we got. The quality of the reviews was uneven, as were many of the features. A lot of folks don’t want to hear this, but this hobby has lost a lot of its brain trust, and many designers are simply coasting or copying. But they’re also a persnickety bunch. Writers often expected that, after sending me four or five versions of their work over the course of months, I had some magic sorting method to keep track of it all. And when something went in that was not current, I’d get an earful, sometimes in public. The problem of version management was complicated by the fact that any related online content went through DG, and they had, understandably, little interest in maintaining a version history. Had I not needed the content so badly, I’d have rejected any second draft with a note saying “submit when you’re done!”

Sadly, rejecting pieces was something I wish I could have done more of (yes, I ended the sentence with a preposition. Deal with it). The largest portion of my time as editor was not doing editing, but complete rewriting. Sorry to say that many folks out there don’t write anywhere near as well as they think they do; some don’t write at all. Despite the urge to reject, I was often struggling to get content right up to deadline.

But when you get right down to it, F&M was, for me, a charity. I got paid the whopping sum of $550.00 per issue. Out my own pocket I paid for layout, art, review game shipping, and comp copy mailing to contributors and publishers. DG would supply me with about a dozen issues, about all of which I would mail out to folks who contributed in some way. When I got done with all of the expenses, I was pretty much doing it for free, occasionally even paying for the privilege.

As of last month Decision Games decided that they would no longer support F&M with review copies of S&T or WaW magazines. What’s more, it’s no longer even advertised in their dispatches (at least I couldn’t find it). Over the course of my editorship I’ve tried to get advertisers into the magazine. Despite sending several their way, they closed the deal on none of them. So I’m forced to ask myself, if the publisher doesn’t care, why do I?

For me, the downside of F&M now outweighs the upside. To their credit, DG never tried to influence my editorial direction or force me to put in or alter content. But the fact is that with the baggage must come at least some commitment to see it succeed. That commitment appears to be gone. F&M was a great experience, but it is an experience that for me must come to an end.

I resigned as editor of Fire & Movement effective as of issue 150, meaning I will submit two more issues before departing. I wish whoever takes over the best of success and I’ll be happy to help them out in any way I can.

As for the future, who knows? I have a couple ideas I’m kicking around, but it’s hard to imagine any print venture having much success given the Internet. We’ll see.