Sunday, August 14, 2011

I could build them up brick by brick, but they never stand quite as tall

"Sally convinced me to buy her that new video game." Yeah, talk about unpalatable alternatives.

(Okay, I've been trying to pin down what happened between Extra Credits and Escapist Magazine. It's a tangled nightmare, and it's going to spawn at least three entries due to all the cross-linking and commentary. Ack.)

(Oh, and if you've never seen Extra Credits, try it out--that's nine minutes of smart, funny commentary about why microtransactions in most current business gaming models are done wrong. And they've got more--well, at least until the Escapist stops carrying the vids.)

So, the next few entries (not kidding about that) will feature my take on the battle between Escapist Magazine and Extra Credits. Now, I will grant you--while Extra Credits is generally the smartest of Escapist fare--and pretty funny most of the time along with it--I admit, I usually go by Escapist to watch Unskippable, Zero Punctuation or Escape to the Movies. But like I said, the smart and the funny is a big draw for Extra Credits. (That, and it reminds me a little of the Phil and Dixie strips from the old Dragon Magazine backpages.)

So just what happened? I'm drawing largely from a huge and ungainly forum post buried on the Escapist magazine forums themselves. Bizarre, huh? (And I'm serious--that thread has gone way beyond long, and it's getting worse every day--unless you have a couple days to kill, I wouldn't recommend reading through the whole thing.)

We'll start with Alexander Macris:

Hey guys,
Thanks for your comments and insights. It's very valuable to me to hear from you on these issues, both in terms of where we've gone wrong and where you think we could fruitfully go. I am regretting that I didn't have a frank discussion about the situation with our site before now - perhaps in a moderated discussion or thread. I think I will do that, but not until things have settled down around here a bit.

As far as the new shows v. old shows thing, one thing I wanted to clear up is that in the last year or so, we have been using a new business model for our video shows. Our old business model was to pay a flat fee for content production plus a bonus for high traffic volume. The new business model for virtually all of our new shows is instead based on a revenue share of advertising.

When we add a show that uses the new business model it actually *improves* our financial situation because the second show is still generating traffic that we can sell ads against, but it doesn't cost us money if we have a bad advertising month. The model is not too dissimilar to YouTube - which also doesn't really lose money when a user posts a video, even if they don't have ads for it.

Okay, that seems fairly straightforward. More ads = more money for the Escapist, and more shows = more eyes on the site, and the whole thing should sell more merchandise and give every contributor a healthy pay rate...right?

Well, maybe not. For that, we're going to be digging into the commentary from a lot of places. Like this bit from the Overclocked forums:

Originally Posted by Ifrit
I really don't like seeing this kind of thing happening to anybody for any reason, and I really don't like to point fingers, so I'll try to be objective. However, as I've been reading through the facebook messages and forum posts between James and the management from The Escapist, it becomes more and more apparent (to me) that discussion of what to do with the excess funds was made without inclusion of feedback from The Escapist until the announcement to develop an indie company, which at that point, exposed a bevy of unresolved conflicts between everyone.

"He said that; she said this" and so on. Basically, James was upset at the unreliability of payments from The Escapist and The Escapist was simply wanting compensation for materials and expenses encountered for providing the bonus content for donations. If the long-distance communication between all parties had been more fluent, I don't think any of this would have happened. I still hope that both Extra Credits and The Escapist can work things out.

Addendum: As far as I understand, The Escapist did come through with donating some money to Allison's surgery/recovery initially post haste and have made no effort to recollect it per se.

So here's the basic situation. James Portnow and Daniel Floyd made a show called Extra Credits. They asked a friend of theirs, artist Allison Theus, to do some quick sketches for the show. This was the team behind the show.

For various reasons--some not intuitively explainable--they were pretty much funding their own show to be hosted on the Escapist site. For over a year. Then Allison hurt her shoulder, her insurance decided it was a pre-existing condition for some reason, which meant the shoulder surgery that she needed to continue her career--as an artist, remember--would be impossible to get. And she turned to her friends for help.

Only James and Daniel weren't getting paid, so...they started a fundraiser to pay for her surgery.

That's where things started going pear-shaped.

From Daniel Floyd:

I see where you're coming from. There's definitely a "he said" vibe about everything that's come out over the last 24 hours, and I'm certain some of the frustration can be chalked up to miscommunication between The Escapist and ourselves. I kind of wish the whole situation hadn't turned into a drama storm, but oh well.

The lack of payment isn't the main reason we decided to leave, but money issues did set things in motion. I've not been nearly as involved with everything that's happened, but I can try to explain the basics.

We'd gone for a year with very little in the way of payment, and the Escapist guys had been open and honest about the hard times they were going through. Totally understandable, times are tough, etc. We were happy to cut them a little slack. But Allison still needed to be paid for her work (the show takes way too long to animate for us to ask someone to do the art for free). So James was paying her himself, and by the end of the year, he was personally 20k in the hole, and some family issues combined with Allison's injury put a lot of strain on that situation. Like I said, the Rockethub thing was a desperate last-resort thing, and the Escapist offered to contribute with the Publisher's Club memberships and t-shirts. They later backed out on that, but that was later after some other stuff happened, so it wasn't anything sinister.

After the Rockethub thing was a huge success, we eventually came up with the Publishing Fund idea (like I posted earlier). But the whole affair had made us a little concerned over the lack of payment for the show. When we approached them about the possibility for working out a deal for getting our IP back in exchange for some of the debt owed (so we could make a little money through other means), they countered that they were contractually entitled to a large percentage of the Rockethub donations, which would cover the debt they owed and then some. This came completely out of the blue for us. At no point had they ever mentioned that before. Even if it was true, it seemed in very bad faith to pull that sort of contractual thing on us after a year of us cutting them slack when they failed to meet their end of the contract. Yes, the Rockethub donations were meant to "save Extra Credits", but only in so far as it was to help save Allison's career. It wasn't at ALL intended as a "help The Escapist pay for more Extra Credits episodes" fund. It was at that point we got the feeling we weren't really on the same team here. It's possible it was a massive miscommunication, it felt like a huge dick move, and we were getting pretty fed up.

Re-examining our contract, we started finding a lot of stuff we weren't too happy about, and after weeks of trying to push them on the issue and negotiate for the rights to our IP back, we were only feeling less and less sure of our working relationship. And that more or less brings us to now.

So the breakdown seemed to be--at that point--that James and Daniel had agreed to not be paid for their narration/editing/commentary/occasional animation/artist work, which resulted in at least one new episode of Extra Credits a week, because...why exactly? That's the part I don't get. Daniel says above that James went over twenty thousand in the hole, paying for the show himself. I can see that that's easily possible; what I can't see is that he had twenty thousand in the first place to put into it. Does that make sense? I'm not going to go out on that limb and say he was flush to begin with--from the way everything sounds, they're pretty much pauper performers, at least at this point--but still, I only know a few people who can toss twenty grand into a project before it starts to hurt. A lot.

['Pon the re-read, this seemed uncomfortably long, so splitting this entry into two. You're welcome?

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