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Perils of Coauthor Projects

So you and a friend have this idea, you keep geeking about it, and finally want to turn it into a project! Great! You’ve got someone who ideally has a similar vision as you, how’s hopefully as jazzed about it as you are. Unfortunately, this seemingly fun idea has a number of pitfalls, and more often than not, coauthor projects die on the vine.

The first time I dealt with all this was working on a game about “secret Catholic special ops monster hunters.” It was a cool idea, but we got caught up in asking each other for permission to write about ideas. We had different levels of commitment. And we let the project petter away.

Here’s how I’ve seen it done personally and by observing others:

Responsibility & Commitment

Unless you turn this into a serious project with a schedule (with the requisite sense of discipline that involves), there’s no sense of responsibility to the project. You might say “I’ll write something on this every week” but either life keeps you from doing so (as other responsibilities trump it) or it’s otherwise just not on your mind (because it’s not a responsibility).

Now, maybe you can turn it into a responsibility for yourself, but will your coauthor? That’s where things get tricky, because unless you guys are committed equally, this will become a problem.

Permissions

It can become easy to stall on a project you’ve talked about, because you’re nervous about working on some part of the project before talking it through. Like designing some mechanics or writing about some part of the world that just popped into your head. This gets into permissions and expectations.

You totally have permission to write stuff without asking your partner. In fact, you need to. You should write when ideas come to might, whether they’ve been previously agreed upon or not. Waiting can mean you’ll lose elements of the idea. Writing the idea out is the best way to explore if it’s worth bringing up to your partner or a dead end. And in writing, you’ll find out more about the idea than you would not writing it.

Nothing says that everything you write for a project will make it into a project. In fact, you’ll often have stuff on the cutting room floor. But that cannot stop you from writing. Even if you’re writing notes about something the other person said she wants to write, write those bits down anyway — she might see those notes as useful.

Mish-mash

Sometimes you’ll have ideas that are wholly grating to the other person. Those moments are useful for determining whether you’re actually a partnership, or if one person sees himself in charge and sees the other person as writing the stuff he doesn’t want to.

Talk those moments out. Communicate why you do like something, why you don’t like something, and the implications of having or not having that element is in the rest of the game. (That last part is key, because you can’t win an argument by just saying “it’s cool” or “it sucks.”)

Walking Away

Most of the time, partnerships that begin with two people loving an idea don’t form in a way that lets them continue to fruition. You have to know when that is, and talk with your partner about it. If either of you want to continue the project on your own in a commercial way, that’ll get thorny, so be upfront about that.

 

Do you have any stories of co-author perils (that don’t involve mudslinging)? Any advice for people who decide to go this route?

– Ryan

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4 Responses to Perils of Coauthor Projects

  1. Dan H. says:

    Hoo, boy.

    I’ve gone through this probably half a dozen times with one of my very best friends, practically a brother to me. He’s a coder who is always dying to come up with an indie game, and he’s always got an idea, and it never goes anywhere. Once he actually went ahead and paid for concept art out of his own pocket, and I had come up with about two notebooks of level design, play mechanics, and plot and story beats before he decided that he didn’t like the engine he was working on. Scrapped the whole thing and decided to start from scratch, then, ah… he got married. That shelved that.

    He’s still interested in working on something, which is fine, but since my words cost money now, I’m being very careful about exerting too much before I have a chance to examine his code. If I should get involved with him again, I’ll probably take the reins and drive the project (unless he’s willing to pay me), for a couple of reasons. One, he’s worked in software development, but not game development, and I’ve got a few years of that under my belt now. Two, I can supply structure and coordination, which is what he lacks big time. He’s really determined and works like a rabbit on meth, but meth rabbits are only good for short bursts before their heart explodes.

    Good article!

  2. Jonathan says:

    The walking away is the big one. Knowing when to walk away, and knowing that when someone is walking away from a project it isn’t a moral failing on the other person’s part.

    I know of a couple of companies that take it personally when a freelancer goes “This isn’t working out.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That last bit regarding walking away as a freelancer is a very different conversation. And yeah, it’s touchy.

      – Ryan

  3. Kat Smith says:

    My best friend from high school and I had an idea for a comic story while driving about our hometown. We were eager and excited and spent much of our time together thereafter working on the characters, the setting, the story, the really-interesting plot points. However, due to our differing schedules, writing styles, and art styles, it quickly became apparent that to do a full collaboration on this project would require a lot of formal negotiation that I had no stomach for. As a result, we sat down and discussed it one night and I relinquished my rights to the characters and story, thereafter acting as a consultant on the project while he proceeded on it solo. I have no regrets and we still geek out about the story and characters, but the project has thrived more under his care than it ever could beneath both our shadows.