A retrospective on the Electric Zine Maker, making tools, sharing the $ numbers, and more (after launching the really big update…)

Over this weekend I finally launched the really big Electric Zine Maker update that I have been working on for the last few months. This is a notable update featuring a UI overhaul (it’s less intense now!), new templates, and a lot of fixes.

I spent a lot of time making the UI friendlier. I couldn’t help myself so pop-up windows are cute pixel art. There’s animation to many elements, but I think it’s much more refined now.
The main menu UI was always very “placeholder”, and many decisions in it had been for the sake of compromising for the speculated “lack” of features. Since interest grew in the Electric Zine Maker so quickly, and (along with that) many features were introduced, the UI no longer served that purpose.
I’m happy to say that it much better represents the Electric Zine Maker now! There’s also a “nightmode” that has been introduced, which tones down the background color. You can now make zines under a starry sky!

The reality of working on an open source, free, and very “different” tool is a lot like the realities of working on a indie game.

I’d like to cover that a little here, starting with sharing the numbers…

The very first version of the Electric Zine Maker was published April 26, 2019. It has existed now for about two years. A little longer if you count the time when it was not published, but just being privately shared with friends.

Since then it has made a total of $6,803.43 from 995 payments out of 22.5k downloads on itch.io and…
$106.93 from 27 payments out of 861 downloads on GameJolt.
It’s only available on itch.io and GameJolt.

It was also purchased as part of the following bundles…

* Queer Games Bundle 2021 (Pay What You Can Edition)
* Queer Games Bundle 2021
* Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality

What it earned in the Racial Justice and Equality bundle was given to charity.

All that said…

If everyone that downloaded it payed for it, it WOULD HAVE made $113,361 over the expanse of two years.

As it is now it has made a total of $6,910.36… this does not include the store fee that I give to itch.io.

The Electric Zine Maker also received support from the Clinic for Open-Source Arts, University of Denver to open source it.
As well as being in a residency at Carnegie Melon and receiving financial support from The STUDIO – OSSTA there. This recent update was made possible because of them.

Edit (for the sake of complete transparency): I also have about 4,621 followers on itch.io. This does contribute to the visibility of my stuff on that platform, how many people are allerted to things like updates, etc…
If you are new, accumulating a following on any storefront is important. This should be factored in too.

So all THAT said…

A total of $6,910.36 over the expanse of two years is the reality of this type of tool. I can’t speak for everyone, or really know how this compares to other tools like this, but I think that’s pretty amazing!

I personally don’t like our cultural metrics for success. I think it’s terrible to weigh the success of a game or tool based on how much money it has made, how much the retention is, how many players it has accumulated, how much you can milk your userbase for… To me, success is the value people find in it. The time they spend in it, and what it brings to the handful of people that it has become meaningful to.

I gave a talk about that at GDC, you can read the transcript of that here, but I think it’s funny that all you have to do is make a case for how “money isn’t everything” and you’ll have a bunch of guys walk out of the talk.

That’s my mentality tho, and it’s a constant challenge to balance that value system while also trying to just support myself so I can keep doing it.

Over the weekend I watched “He’s All That” on Netflix. It’s hardly worth bringing up, but I think there was this really funny moment where one of characters told her friend that one of the students at the School just “sold their game to a company” and is set to be super rich. I laughed. You get that reference a lot in pop culture or movies… the person that made “an app” (any app) or “a mobile game” (any, it’s always non-specific) and became ridiculously rich. That’s a trope now!
In reality, that CAN happen, if you are extremely lucky and meet some very specific conditions that lead to success… then maybe. Otherwise I get a kick out of that misconception.

If you are a man, if you are white, if you are already coming from money or have a support system that backs you while you do nothing else with your near-to-distant-future but build the thing, and if you have a support system that will also support your travel so you can promote the thing, AND if you are already well connected enough in the industry or space (that last bit is very important)… then, yes. You will be successful!
Everyone else is tremendously lucky to just have gotten as far as one article on a major outlet.

I hope that doesn’t sound too pessimistic. It’s just… reality. I don’t think our current model, our current metrics for success… is sustainable.
All that especially if we care about marginalized people, vulnerable people… all the people who don’t fit that mold of a “success case”, then that’s something that needs to be challenged because that entire structure is fundamentally hostile to anyone that is different.

The reality is that it’s REALLY hard to work on something like the Electric Zine Maker, while supporting myself from it, while also fighting with a culture that has pretty much made it clear to me that I should not exist (let alone be alive)… I’ll go over the latter later in this post because it’s an important part of the journey to making the Electric Zine Maker.

If the Electric Zine Maker made $113,361 ($56,680.5 being one year of the total that it would make if everyone payed for it), I could support myself from this.

The financial reality of building a tool, and then marketing it, giving talks, taking it to events, also including having to pay out of pocked expenses for all that travel, speaking, showcasing… Even just submitting to events is a lot of money.
For example, submitting to just ONE category in the Webbies will cost you about $150. There are MANY categories in the Webbies. You can’t just submit to one if you want a chance of being noticed there.
So, in reality, submitting to a place like the Webbies is really only accessible to studios or people with money.
In reality, submitting to most of the festivals is really only accessible to you if you have a publisher.
Also, in reality, doing press blasts, and press releases, is really only accessible to you if you can pay someone to do that because… it takes years to accumulate a press list (emails to contact), and then it takes just as much effort to do that PR. Post launch is A LOT of work… (all that said, it is also only accessible to someone that didn’t have to fight with game journalists for two years so they can be safe and not be put in danger by their abuse… being put in a position of having burned every conceivable bridge with that group of people. Sorry for the rant. I couldn’t help it.)
Furthermore, in reality, in the event that your game (or software) does well, and it does get into festivals, then the travel costs are huge. You are lucky if you have a friend’s couch that you can crash on so you don’t have to pay for a place to stay. When I traveled (pre-pandemic) I would often forfeit eating altogether (so basically fast for a week), so I wouldn’t have to worry about food.
All that said, even more reality, if you are a solo-dev and you are traveling to places to showcase, speak, do PR… then you are losing valuable time working on the app. If you’re the only one working on the thing, then EVERY second counts. Time management is as difficult as it is vital.

Something should also be said in terms of cost for your own software licenses (like Creative Cloud), paying just to have a computer… But I don’t feel like going there because it gets extensive.

So, all that said, that’s just the basic financial reality, there’s also a cultural reality. It really helps to understand that before just jumping in thinking that it’s all going to be sunshine and butterflies (it can be very rewarding, amazing, beautiful, but also it’s hard)…

The climate surrounding software is that users expect it to be free. Good software is both free and open source.
I think that, over the years, the idea of what open source is and why that’s even a good thing has changed a lot. Some things that are open source are not always good things. Similarly, making something open source isn’t always the defining factor of it being good.
I’ll try not to turn this into a rant, and please don’t get me wrong, I too love open source… What I do take issue with is the expectation of software being free. Like it’s a public service.
Users tend to work really hard to avoid paying, even if it’s not made by a major corporation (so all the excuses made to get it for free don’t really hold up).
We often talk about how people expect to get games for really cheep. A $15 indie game these days somehow is “too much”, but I think software has suffered longer from this deterioration.
It’s really hard to sustain yourself in a climate where people expect just the act of making something to be enough of a reward.
It’s wildly unrealistic and kinda exploitative if you think about how hard people have to work just to make a good thing, then deal with people complaining that it’s not good enough (even if they got it for free), and for you to keep working on it, even when the financial incentive doesn’t exist.

I offer the Electric Zine Maker with an option for free because I don’t want to rule out people that actually can’t pay for it. It’s a tough economy!
I do have trouble with people who get it for free, even if they could pay, and then complain (really rudely) that it’s not good enough… that last bit doesn’t happen a lot but it sure sucks when it does.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too pessimistic. I’m trying to be real. I think there’s a cultural shift that needs to take place in terms of how we define value, and how we pay our gratitude (respect) for it.
If you get it for free, then please respect the sacrifice the person made in order to build it and sustain it.
If you get it for free, and you can pay for it, please pay for it.
It’s kind of like we want things for free, but we don’t value them. We value things that make a lot of money (they are our success stories) but we don’t really examine how exploitative they had to be in order to accumulate that wealth.
For example, predatory design practices win in the end because those are the ones that make the money. Non-predatory ones don’t, so they are not a success story, and don’t deserve the same “respect”.

This type of software, made by smaller devs who do it because they love to make a difference, occupies a precarious space in this environment. It clashes with the values of exploitation, consumerism, and capitalism, but also offers some level of hope that things can be different.
My hope is that, one day, we can appreciate that difference and celebrate these tools, games, works… just as much as we laud our current “success stories”.

Working on the Electric Zine Maker has been amazing. Despite all the darkness surrounding me, it has been a ray of light. The enthusiasm people have shown for it, the love they have for this weird silly thing that is so different, the compliments they give, and all the kind words… Just hearing how so many people got introduced into zine making because of it has been tremendous. It’s been a lifeline.

It is hard for me, however, to separate working on it from the things that have been happening in my life, surrounding it.

Sometime after I first launched it, I came forward about my sexual assault and named my rapist. He was famous so the game press jumped on it. It also caused a metoo movement in games.
Kotaku exploited the moment and published things that a self-respecting publication should never have published. It placed me in danger and I had to fight tooth and nail just for some basic dignity to be extended to me. First to have the non-consenting details of my assault that were published to be removed, then begging them to delete the article in entirety… because the dishonest way it was written and the factual inaccuracy kept making me a target to some dangerous and toxic people. It was not good for anyone that served as a source for it.
Game journalists apparently don’t like being challenged, especially if they’re the ones at fault and can’t drum up their own persecution complex. It’s a cruel reality that I was introduced to. Game journalists kept attacking me on Twitter with cruel subtweets about the situation and their takes, that just further made me a target.
I’m exhausted just thinking about all this because it’s beyond me how anyone who built their platform on social justice could treat someone so obviously harmed with more abuse. I really felt like, and still feel like, they all decided I was worth killing. Maybe that would make a good thread or Twitter take.
Subtweets belittling “my desire to heal” after one of them put me on blast, really reinforced that point. The same person that put me on blast then made a Tweet saying that contacting the parent company wouldn’t work (if you know you know!) when my family was asking people to contact Kotaku’s owners… then deleted that Tweet because hey, if you’ll harass someone you better make sure it’s vague… all that hard work on journalism’s part to prevent some justice from happening.
In a lot of ways I’m broken over it. All those accusations that I started a “hate movement” targeted “marginalized journalists who couldn’t do anything about it” (but hey, you sure used your same platform to discourage people from helping so basically that is a form of “doing something about it”)… I have trouble really comprehending the scale of the cruelty. It was so public, everyone saw it, but somehow they still managed to lie about it. I still get shit for it, for example
I can’t get out of my mind that I should just post all the receipts, so there’s proof of how I was treated, but I keep getting talked out of it because it would make me a target again.
Long story short, I will never really feel safe in this space again. At least I don’t think so.
People that understand what harassment is, what the internet does to sexual assault survivors, made it a point to make me a target (through their discourse, and calling me a liar). They were willing to let someone lose their life for it… yet business drums on as usual. The journalists responsible for abusively subtweeting are back to being championed as voices for progress. All the pain they caused washed away because they own the platform.

Sorry not sorry for the rant. Here’s why it’s relevant…

The Electric Zine Maker fits into that context because it’s what I was fighting with while building it. All the anxiety attacks I had to power through as I was making my daily Tweet begging Kotaku to do something, arguing with journalists as to why it’s not ethical to abuse sources like this, why that article should be removed, why it matters that it’s putting me in danger… All the seizures, sleepless nights, all the being talked off the ledge after a journalist put me on blast in ways really derogatory to the situation… It’s hard to comprehend exactly how I was able to pull off making this thing, despite all that (also despite a global pandemic, but that’s beside the point).
This space made it clear that it’s OK to kill me if it means maintaining some unspoken status quo.
This space will also not win.

I sometimes wonder how much further along the Electric Zine Maker would be if I had the advantages of people that didn’t have to fight with these horrible things… even if I just had the advantages of being one of these cruel journalists. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how it’s like for straight white men. They just make a thing and get to sweep the award categories, and get publishers?
At the same time, I know I can’t let myself think like that because it would drive me crazy. It’s so bad for your sense of self-worth.
Because of what I was going through I had to say no to some AMAZING dream opportunities. I didn’t think I would be able to honor that commitment because I didn’t think I would be alive at the end of any given month. It was hard to just honor the commitments I had.
Fucking brutal. I’m so fucking touched by the people who stood by me. Who believe that I deserved to be safe.
I’m so fucking grateful for the people who loved the Electric Zine Maker enough to tell their friends, and be exited about it.
EZM made it this far, and became something that people know about, because of all those people. I’m touched.
I keep telling myself that the bridges burned while fighting for my life where definitely worth burning.

I think what I was able to accomplish with the Electric Zine Maker is powerful.
The tool made it this far despite being restrained by all these ugly people, and horror culture, harming me and trying to eat my future.

I’m not done with it yet!
I’ll be dividing my time between working on EZM, and building that new game that I’ve been talking about. I would like to make it in Unreal, so there will definitely be a learning curve.
I really need to make something that’s new and independent of all these experiences. I think it will help me to have something that I’m pouring my time into that’s just brand new.

I have one closing thought…

I came into games as the outcast. My rapist made sure I had no future at either company. At the time, those companies were my big break. I worked hard to salvage something that I ultimately lost because he was a legend and his word meant more than mine.
I got as far as I did on my own. Without help, connections, any real opportunities… I worked, built my games on my own because I was alone. I bounced back long enough to be able to at least tell my story and make beautiful things.
To me, game journalists are the same as he was then. They’re the big abuser that sucked all the life and hope out of the air. Thieves of the truth. The ones that made sure I wasn’t going to make it, but somehow I did.
Despite what they did, I aim to grow beyond them too. The fact that I’m here is a form of accountability and justice. I’m not going to let them forget or change the narrative. As long as I’m here they can’t easily do that.
The fact that I’m here also means that I’ll be making more beautiful things that will thrive despite all these people.
I have as much right to exist as the abusers do. That same goes for anyone struggling with the ugliness of abuse and power in this space.
I will fight for my space, and right to occupy that safely.

That’s my Electric Zine Maker retrospective…

Anyway… The long anticipated Electric Zine Maker update is finally out! I’m so proud to have persevered and to be able to put it out there.
Thank you to everyone who enjoyed it.