Thursday, October 6, 2016

Evil Hat Interview

Awhile ago I wrote a post that expressed my personal disappointment with Evil Hat, following an announcement (of sorts) by Evil Hat's founder, Fred Hicks.

Fred was quick to respond to my post on Twitter:



But Twitter is a horrible place to have an in depth conversation about diversity. So I asked Fred if he wouldn't mind if I interviewed him for a follow up article, giving him an opportunity to go more in depth about Evil Hat's challenges...and successes...with diversity.

Fred agreed, and was joined by Carrie Harris, Evil Hat's Director of Marketing.

SDM: First off let me say thank you for taking the time to discuss this very important issue with me.

FH: Like I said, the critique's legit: we need to do better. Better is going to take time.

SDM: When you say something like "better is going to take time", what does that look like to you? What sort of timeline is in place?


CH: I’d like to put up my personal experience as an example. I was brought on during the Fate Core Kickstarter in January 2013 to write the first Sally Slick novel. That led to a marketing consultant position, then to some more writing credits, my full time Marketing Director position, and now I’m beginning to creative direct some projects, which I’m super excited to do! It’s taken three-and-a-half years to get here -- we’re the slow and deliberate types -- but it’s been worth every minute. That’s the kind of thing we’re aiming to do more of.



FH: Representation in art is a big deal for us and was the first big push. I think a tour of the art we've produced in the past 4 years speaks to that well enough. While I do think we can always do better in this part, it's where we're doing the best, both because it's the first thing we pushed for and also because it's the easiest to address, no doubt. But to achieve a longer-term diversity goal you first have to present a landscape that looks like there's room at the table for everyone. For us, art's a visceral way to communicate that, and it's the thing that [Mark Diaz Truman] skipped right past in his review of our performance. We DEFINITELY have big gaps yet to fill, but I think our roster of artists is pretty widespread on this spectrum, whether we're talking the duo team for all the interior art of Monster of the Week (Kurt Komoda and Juan Ochoa; Kurt also did all the art for our flagship, Fate Core, and Juan's great and I hope to use him again), Crystal Frasier's work on Secrets of Cats, Kelly McClellan's recent work on Good Neighbors, Arthur Asa's artwork as directed by Claudia Cangini on Eagle Eyes, etc.


SDM: What about writers? Game designers?

FH: Authors and game designers is where we've had a rougher ride. We pushed hard for getting some diversity into the writer pool for Fate Worlds starting around mid-2014, just a few months after we launched the associated Patreon. Any World takes a good 9 months minimum to make happen, sometimes longer, so when you start a push to address a problem (our push was in response to an open call for authors, getting 95% white male respondants and not being happy about that), it takes some time for the very first fruits to be available to pluck from the tree — assuming they ripen enough. In some cases the ripening doesn't quite happen, leading to canceled projects for perfectly good reasons, but it exacerbates the appearance of the problem because the output doesn't show up. The only way to overcome that is to keep trying, incrementally, over time.


Doselle Young's Nitrate City recently saw release, probably our first real success for the Worlds line here with a person of color. The project took a while longer — he's not a game designer, he's an author, so we paired him with a system mentor to help guide that side of development while he rocked it on the setting side. We haven't done a lot of work where the setting-designer wasn't also the system-designer, so we had to work out some new processes there, and work out the kinks. Every time you deviate from an established template it adds time, and this was no different. But the result can't be argued with; Nitrate City's one of our strongest releases in the line.



SDM: That brings up a really good point...about helping to elevate minorities in the industry. Have you considered starting an official mentorship program?

CH: We’re still trying to make [our mentorship program] do what we want it to. I’ve mentored novelists before, but we’re still trying to figure out how to best apply those skills to creating successful games. We’ve started four mentorship projects and brought two over the line that Fred has already mentioned, and we’re super proud of them! Now we’re looking at what worked and what didn’t and trying to figure out how best to proceed.

As Fred said, this process takes time, not just to develop the process but to create the games. I find that tough to deal with myself, because I’m not the most patient person in the world, but I keep reminding myself that we absolutely cannot shortchange this. I don’t know exactly what it will look like in the end, so an official mentorship program could be in the cards, but mentorship takes up a lot of time, so we have to be careful to balance that load. We can’t take on more mentees than we can adequately support, because that would do more harm than good in the end. So that’s a part of our thinking too. It’s a delicate balance, and one that we’re still trying to find.

SDM: What other examples of embracing diversity stand out for Evil Hat?

FH: So, diversity. There are a lot of vectors at play there, and we certainly have had our troubles in hitting our ideal. It's doubly difficult when you're also trying to construct a sustainable business with regular output, so that enough cash is generated in order to be able to afford to pursue our social and ethical goals. Reality happens at the intersection of compromises that all of those vectors represent.

Shoshana Kessock's Blood on the Trail has already been released, and Tara Zuber's Loose Threads follows immediately after as our October release (look for it mid-month), and we have more Worlds in the works by other non-white-male voices as well.

SDM: In your opinion, what do you feel are the biggest challenges to hiring people from a diverse background?

FH: As I mentioned, we saw a real problem when our open call for authors was primarily inundated with white men. There are a lot of reasons that go into that, some of which we can control (to bring in diversity, you must specifically invite individuals, not post open calls, for one — but we hadn't figured that out at the time) and some of which we can't. And as I've noted, there's also the business priority of being able to produce enough content, regularly, that the cash flows don't dry up.

To abstract this a bit, this can produce a bit of a catch-22 scenario, when people of equal talent get to work, but the neurotypical able bodied straight white guy with societally enforced privileges accorded to all of those is able to produce, say, 3X work units while someone who doesn't enjoy all those privileges can only produce X work units in the same span of time. The business needs the output to be steady and regular, so our straight white dude's work, turned in quickly/on time, gets published because that's cash flow and it doesn't make sense to sell nothing while you're waiting for the other party to get their own work to the finish line. It's a difficult pattern to defeat, but it's a pattern that definitely plays into why we've had a heavily white male front-loaded time with the authors of our Worlds.

If you step away from the work-units part of that abstraction, and instead make that "encounters 3X opportunities vs X opportunities" then there's even more of the problem. Opportunities translate to experience, and experience is key to getting regular and repeat work in the creative sphere. We can and do mentor folks who don't have the same opportunities, to try to support building that body of experience outside of the white male population, but as we've said that takes time and leads to longer time frames. We're investing in that talent and those time frames, but that doesn't mean we have as much to show for it yet as I'd like.

And this sort of problem has existed for decades in the game industry, which means that the talent-building feedback loop has heavily favored building experienced hires among white men and less among others. That makes it extra tricky when your target is not writers, per se, but technical writers who've messed about with game mechanics enough to derive from them and build new ones with confidence and quality.

This is all explanation, not excuse. We do have to do better, but short of consistently finding at least 5 talented and trainable and deadline-delivery-capable non-white-men for every 1 white man hired in the writing and game design space, it's going to be difficult to counterbalance the weight of history for a while yet. The only cure is consistent effort over a long time frame, which is going to have little public manifestation for many of its early phases.

[I'd say] we're starting to find our feet there. In the last few months we've put one of our editors on the job of combing through our incoming submissions pile (see http://evilhat.com/work) specifically with an eye for finding diverse voices interested in working with us as well, so we can continue to improve.

SDM: Carrie, anything you'd like to add to that?

CH: Right now...we’re at our limit when it comes to full and part time positions. Frankly, we’re straining that limit a little, because all growth comes with a little risk. We’re all putting in extra effort to make sure that risk pans out in the end. So while we’re unable to bring anyone else on currently, we’re already working like mad to make our next pivot point. We’re working to increase our release schedule and develop the infrastructure we need to bring in more talented folks of all types to help us make great games. Of course we’d love to bring on some more fabulous female talent like the folks you’ve listed.

That’s where we want to be, but we’re of the firm belief that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that may be why it appears that things sometimes move at a glacial pace here at the Hat, whether you’re talking about diversity initiatives or our progress on that game you’ve really been coveting. Any time we try something new, we do so very deliberately. We test the process or product every which way we can think of to make sure it works, and that often requires multiple go-rounds to make it meet our standards. So while it may seem like we’re swimming along peacefully, we’re paddling away like hyperactive, caffeinated ducks underneath the waters.

The first step needs to be to grow the company to a point where we can support more permanent or semi-permanent roles—unless one of our salaried employees needs to leave their position for some reason! That’s a step that will take some time. To date, our pivot points have taken us a few years to reach, and while we don’t have a crystal ball to see the future, I think that’s a pretty reasonable estimate of how long it will be before we even begin to consider creating more salaried positions. But there’s a lot we can do in the meantime. In our early years, we tended to work with the same people over and over again. They are hugely talented; they know Fate, and we work well together. But an increase in production and infrastructure to support it will give us more leeway to add new collaborators and creators of all types moving forward. We’re looking to build relationships with a new, diverse group of people over the next couple of years. Those relationships will grow and change as we move forward.

SDM: What venues does Evil Hat use to recruit talent? What methods are in place to advertise that positions are available or that freelancers are needed?

CH: On our contact page of our website, we have links for artists and other creators to submit their work for consideration. If we’re specifically looking for creators, we’ll talk about it on our social media—FB, twitter, and Google+, but those links stay open all the time.

The members of the Head are also out at conventions, and we’re actively listening to what people are working on. While we don’t have the time to demo every game, we keep track of games in progress, and we’ve dropped people lines in the past to say, “Hey, remember that game you mentioned at GenCon? How’s that going?” to see if it’s something we might be able to work together on.

SDM: In his blog post, Fred mentioned that his "pivot" is very much about changing the type of company Evil Hat is, hinting at being more than just known as a "roleplaying game company". What directions is Evil Hat looking to move in, and what opportunities are there for diverse people to find employment?



CH: Of course we’re looking to build on the success of the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game Kickstarter and do more in the board game space, but I think this pivot is less about growing beyond RPGs and more about how we approach our business. I keep referring to this as “leveling up.” I think that’s more about realizing it’s time for us to invest in the company as much as we are in our individual products. That will put us in a place to do more of what we hold important—creating good games by good people of all types in an inclusive, welcoming space. Building the infrastructure to support that is a long process, and sometimes the progress toward that goal is difficult to see from the outside, but it’s one that we’ll continue to work toward.


SDM: Anything else you'd like to say?



FH: Yeah: We've got plenty of room for improvement. I don't think we're not getting 'called out about this shit', for what it's worth. We got called out over some unfortunate choices I made in the art direction on Spirit of the Century as early as 2006, and it's something I've been keeping an eye on ever since. If we're not getting called out a lot and loudly though [at this point in time], I suspect that may have something to do with the fact that we're making efforts, even if we don't yet have the fullness of results that people demand.



SDM: Thank you again to both of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to have this discussion with me. I'm glad I was able to get a better understanding of Evil Hat's efforts with diversity. I look forward to seeing the needle shift throughout our industry, when people from minority groups are regularly holding full time and part time positions for gaming companies like Evil Hat.

FH: Thanks Chris.

CH: Thank you!!!

3 comments:

  1. Questions that weren't addressed:

    Evil Hat operates out of Silver Spring Maryland--near Howard University and U of M and near a very diverse area including PG County which has the highest average black income in America--and one where gaming is incredibly popular (Games Workshop launched their US store initiative there). How in all these years have you failed to make long-term social connections with anyone who wasn't white to work on your games?

    You pay 5 cents a word--if you're trying to promote diversity, why are you giving out a subsistence wage? Especially considering the structural barriers to marginalized creators, don't you think taking some of the money you're giving to yourself and to white men could be used to keep diverse creators in the industry?

    Fred, you have a history of harassing other creators to promote your conservative, parents-first view of game are --like when you attacked Kingdom Death --and have a history of ignoring critique from marginalized voices like Stacy Dellorfano over at Contessa when called on it. Why do you do that?

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  2. Fred--you published a book by one of the heads of RPGnet, a site which repeatedly runs ads for "Male gamers only" because it refuses to change its ad server and whose moderators are responsible for harassing many marginalized voices. How does this promote diversity?

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  3. Aw, no mention of Deep Dark Blue? If there's a success story in Evil Hat's mentorship program, Deep Dark Blue is it, IMO. And I know my name is on it as well as Lore's, but seriously, it's Lore's baby, and they did a great job.

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