Art Team Change and Hiatus
I haven’t done a gigantic news post in over a year, but news has been piling up. Get some snacks and settle in for another...
We are losing Lauri
First of the news is the worst of the news. Lauri Ahonen let us know about two months ago that, after a stellar run as Erfworld’s inker/colorist, he needs to move on. His last update will be page 275, which will post on July 4.
We knew right from the start that Lauri could only firmly commit to about a year or so of drawing Erfworld, because it would fit with his wanting to work from home and care for his toddler daughter before she starts school. I figured we could wrap up Book 3 in that span, nooo problem. After that, we’d see if Book 4 was something Lauri wanted to take on, or if we needed to find someone else to fill the role.
Well, you can read below about how that worked out (and what we’re going to do about it), but the fact is that Lauri extended his tenure to 90 weeks to try and get to the ending, and we’re just not there yet. So he needs to change his focus to the next phase of his career as an artist.
Lauri, we wish you the absolute best with everything your future holds, and thank you for everything you’ve contributed to the story. I think the fans and the team would agree that your tenure here has been the high-water mark for Erfworld’s art.
Xin still penciling, please welcome Lillian on inks/colors/shading!
Stepping into Lauri’s big shoes will be somebody you might remember. Lillian “Honey Badger” Chen almost nabbed the role two years ago. Her audition work back then genuinely wowed us. It was tough to tell her she didn’t get the gig, so it’s nice to be able to hand her the reins now.
Lillian has committed to take over the role, and Lauri’s been generously spending his time working with her on technique and workflow for more than a month. He has also made his illustration files available, so she can refer to them as a learning tool.
That’s not to say that Lillian is going to try and faithfully imitate Lauri’s style. She brings her own tremendous skills and eye to the project, and we want to take full advantage of what she brings to the creative equation. With Xin remaining as lead artist and penciler, I do think this will be a much smoother visual transition than we’ve had with artist changes in the past. Here’s a taste of Lillian’s practice line-work:
Both artists have expressed an open-ended time commitment to the project, so I really hope and believe that we’ll have the team of Xin and Lillian doing Erfworld for the rest of Book 4 and way beyond.
Book 3 splits - is now Books 3 & 4
Did I say “Book 4?” Yes, yes I did. We are in Book 4 now. In fact, we’re much closer to the end of Book 4 than the beginning of it. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
A few people who were at the fan gathering at Gencon last year heard me mention this possibility, that Book 3 might need to split and count as two books. When Page 141 went up, a lot of people commented that it felt like an end-of-book page. It definitely does, but I wasn’t ready to call Book 3 done yet. I had more stuff (such as the Bunny arc) that I really wanted to include. But I said that if the story went on at least another 141 pages, then I would call the second half Book 4.
So “Erfworld Book 3: Hamsterdance vs. the Charlie Foxtrot” ended on page 141. We are now in “Erfworld Book 4: Lies and Dolls.” We’ll tweak the archives and probably figure out a script to update the wiki soon. For reasons of spoiling, I will not say how close we are to the end of this book, but it certainly will go past page 282 (page 141 of Book 4).
July and August hiatus for main story
Okay, so some of you might argue that this is actually the worst news in the post, but we need to take a big long break with the main story arc. After Lauri’s final page on the 4th, we don’t expect to return to our normal update schedule until Friday, September 1st.
There are a ton of reasons we need to do this. At the top of the list is giving Lillian all the time she needs to get comfortable in the role. But there are also some lessons to be learned from the past 2+ years of doing the Toolshed, and especially from 2017.
We posted an average of 65 updates per year (not counting Backer Stories) in the eight years before we rolled out the Toolshed. I always thought we could do better than that if we just got some additional firepower on the art team and developed the right workflow. But that was always sort of hypothetical.
Now we have some results to look at. We’ve been on an on-time update pledge system for a little over 2 years, and we have posted 228 updates in that span of time. It’s around 100 a year.
So it has worked really well from the standpoint of productivity. Having a concrete figure associated with missing an update has led to a lot of “doing whatever it takes” to get the page finished, correct, up to snuff, and posted on schedule. I wouldn’t say the quality has suffered, either.
Unfortunately, “whatever it takes” has included a ridiculous amount of personal sacrifice for all three of Erfworld’s creators. And it has cost Erfworld a lot in other ways. You’ve probably noticed a lack of Toolbox content and pin-ups. That’s not us not caring, it’s us literally not having the time. In 2017 we have been spending every productive waking moment we can, just trying to keep on schedule.
Likewise with Dwagon Master badges, posting news items, approving Hamstards, updating the IRC quote and the wiki, and posting any of the Backer stories that I still owe to our patient and generous supporters, I used to have time in my weekly routine to spare some attention for some of these things. At this point I can barely answer reader emails and PMs and Erfworld Facebook page messages. I haven’t updated the “Last Book Rob Read” widget in a year and a half, because I literally have not had time to read a book in a year and a half. For an author, that lack of input is toxic.
There are genius writers in the world. There are flow-state writers who can bang out a quarter million flawless words of prose a month. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. I’m a grinder. I can fuss for forty minutes just to get two stubborn paragraphs to work together and convey what I need them to. If Erfworld is good, it’s only because of brute force thinking, just hours and hours and hours of close attention to detail. (And I still miss things.) Even lettering a page has been known to take me eight or ten hours of fretting over everything from the line breaks in the dialog, to brain/google-storming a funnier SFX gag than I put in the script, to evaluating 40 different tail placements on the same damn balloon and trying to decide which pixels are most important not to cover up.
This stuff matters, in ways I can’t always adequately describe. I care a whole lot about not letting it suck, so that you guys will enjoy it. And even so, I still miss things. When I get something wrong (yes, Parson already knew about Bonnie telling the Minds about Charlescomm, and I will Retconjure that), it eats me up way more than you’ll ever understand.
So I need to face the tough reality of what it takes to create this story to the standards we’ve set for ourselves, and how much I can really do in a week/month/year.
Last week marked 10 years since the last day I worked for a paycheck. I forget the exact day, but sometime in late June of 2007, I left my IT career to follow my creative passions. At the time, I had two webcomics and a comedy music career going, and I made funny t-shirts to sell at conventions. Every project that wasn’t Erfworld has been jettisoned since then, but I haven’t done any other kind of work in that span.
When I was a data analyst/developer, I can remember working at places where they only really needed about one day’s worth of hard work out of me per week. I also remember some places that looked at you funny if you left while the sun was still up and you weren’t in the office at least every other weekend. Writing Erfworld is harder than any of them. It’s by far the most demanding work and the longest hours that I’ve ever spent at any job or school.
In 2014, we didn’t know how fast we might theoretically be able to turn out the comic. But now we know what the maximum sustainable pace looks like. And while we can certainly do better than 65 updates a year, 100 updates a year just can’t continue. Something needs to change about the production schedule. I don’t know what that is, but we’ll give it a lot of thought during the break.
For now, I am taking advantage of the handover and letting Lillian build up her skills and confidence and a buffer of finished pages. I realize this is in the middle of the Book 4 climactic actions, but the timing is what it is.
I’m taking a big long rest to catch up on my reading, my sanity, my humanity, and some of the promises I have made to our fans and supporters. I need to see a dentist (I have a cavity I keep poking with my tongue). I need to see a movie in a theater (the last one I saw was Zootopia 15 months ago, thanks to my friend Wayne for dragging me to it. Hi Wayne!) I need to throw a frisbee around in the sunshine. I need to go to Finland and marry the love of my life, who is more patient with me than all the rest of you, combined. :)
Lots of stuff posted during “hiatus”
Nevertheless, I am going to try and post backer story updates every Sunday until we return. (If you’re thinking we’re going to miss the revenue from these updates while we’re gone, you’re not wrong. So if you’re a Tool, you might consider updating your pledge to include the backer stories as well.)
I will also post Toolbox stuff, approve some Hamstards, and get caught up on Dwagon Master badges (can anything compete with Chickpea, though, seriously?). Xin has already started to turn back to the pin-up art. We hope to get them all caught up, and postcards too. Anybody who was a Level 2 or above subscriber during the last 10 months will get access to the pin-ups, whether or not you are an active subscriber.
And we’re going to do other stuff to the website, but not so much work that it feels like I am still on the hamster wheel. We’ll spend a little time on gametable.erfworld.com, rpg.erfworld.com, and the unit collection system, which have also been chucked under the bus all year in favor of Kickstarter fulfillment and keeping the updates coming. Speaking of which...
Is there a 3D sculptor in the house?
With Lauri’s departure, we are also losing our modeler for the unit collection system. We’re looking to retool that idea (*cough*), and maybe go with collecting simple gamepiece-style units that will be augmented with sculpted versions later. For reference, here’s what we want them to look like:
If you are an experienced 3D modeler or you know somebody who can do work of this quality, please send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
World fan gathering in Helsinki - Rob and Linda’s wedding!
So this bit of news is the most joyful. We are still going ahead with our plans for a fan gathering at WorldCon in Helsinki, and Linda and I will be getting married at a Helsinki venue to be disclosed later. Date of the wedding is Friday, August 11 and Erfworld fans are invited! If you think there’s even a remote possibility you might like to attend, please let us know at the same email address as above.
Details about the fan event will be posted in the coming weeks sometime, as we get more details.
Kickstarter Wrapped Up, Rewards Sent, Cards Beautiful
We tried to streamline the Kickstarter for the playing cards, but it managed to be twice as expensive and five times as much work as we’d planned for. The amount spent to make the cards and the rewards ultimately exceeded the amount we raised, including for the stretch goals.
I realize that saying that without getting into the details why might kind of make it look like we still don’t know how to plan a project after doing six of them, but these were all-new surprises in all-new territory. Bottom line is that it was still a big success and I am not at all sorry we did it. We got the cards we really wanted, and I’m extremely proud of how they turned out.
Last week, we started hearing from happy backers who were getting their display boxes and decks. By now, I believe that all physical items have either arrived or are on the way. Let us know through Backerkit if you have not received at least an email notification about your backer rewards by the end of this week (or next week for non-US) and Linda will follow up.
We will add the cards to the Erfworld store soon, but we wanted to make sure that project backers got theirs first. And, of course, if and when we hit Milestone 4 on the Toolshed, we will be sending one deck of cards to every single Tool.
State of the Erfworld, closing thoughts
This news post is longer than most text updates, and it took me a long time to write it. I never know how much detail to share, because there are so many ways to misinterpret what’s going on.
I’m grateful for all the amazing work Lauri has done for us. I was hoping we’d have him forever, but we won’t. I’m really looking forward to working with Lillian, though. She has a wicked sense of humor and a tenacity I admire a lot.
The only thing “wrong” right now is just that it’s no fun to be facing my own limits. I do have a couple of chronic health issues that put some limits on me that I have to recognize (nothing life-threatening). But I’m mainly unhappy with myself for not being able to write the book to the end before Lauri had to go (rushing the ending I have in mind would have been a worse mistake, though). And I really don’t like that I can’t keep aiming for 104 strips a year. That doesn’t just affect me, it changes what we can pay everybody on the team. My not being a genius shouldn’t cost anyone else a single dollar, and I feel like crap that it’s going to.
Other than that, though, things are on track. The story’s where I want it to be. The rest of the web and art team is still here, and still doing great work. You all are still the best audience in webcomics, and I’m thankful every day for the ways that you show your love and support for Erfworld.
So, Lauri is leaving, but good stuff is coming. More books are ahead (hey, we gained one today!), plus the unit collection and gametable that will lead us inexorably toward Erfworld tabletop and video games in the next few years. There are so many stories still to be written...
Stand by for all of that fun stuff to come, and we’ll see you in Helsinki! Thanks as always from Team Erfworld.
Throwing in one more fan's voice on this:
- Rob - glad you're taking some time to tend to yourself! I think none of us here would ever want you to burnout; all that brute force you're putting into Erfworld shows. Hope your wedding is incredible, your dental-work painless, and the transition as smooth as such a thing can be.
- Xin & Lauri have been producing truly outstanding art, so I'm certainly sad to hear that Lauri must move on. That said, I was worried this post would be about losing Xin! So glad to hear she's going to continue to be part of the team, and I'm excited to see what she and Lillian produce!
- As others have said, don't fret over publishing less often. I agree that your art team's income shouldn't be impacted by you needing to reassess your update schedule. Like others, I'm more than happy to adjust my pledge to the Toolshed.
- It looks like several here have said something along the lines of "Shut up and take my money!" One thing that would be helpful is if you can post an update in a month or two to let us know how your revenue is looking after this has all shaken out. I suspect many of us are fine with upping our pledges, but it'd be helpful to know how much more is needed to keep Xin and Lillian well-compensated, to keep your cavities filled, and to keep a roof over your new family's head. You bring a lot of happiness to our lives, and Erfworld is worth supporting.
- Oh cruel, cruel irony. I took a break from reading my webcomics over the very long weekend at the beginning of July, then could do no more than work and sleep the past couple days. Yesterday evening, I caught up on everything, which was terrific, but I put off Erfworld thinking if I can hold out until Friday, I'd have TWO pages to read...
But everyone needs a break. I came down with a bout of bronchitis last month that kept me off work for a week, and owing to the very rough doodle I made of our forum-spawned "Oxford Comma Man", I decided to do some other drawings that week mashing up Erfworld, Kerbal Space Program, The Avengers, and a couple other minor elements. After two more weekends, only four PANELS, and hours of re-editing, I was ready for a vacation too. So hey, I get it. I can very much see how these people need a break.
Management. You need management. YOu may even need someone to manage and direct you.
As I read your message, your time is the critical path. As much as you feel all of those functions are vital, you need to offload some. You need an operating officer. It may be that some of those in the project can pick up some of this. Reading comments ad feedback is useful, but maybe this should be filtered, only read 5% or 10%.
Even if you stay with the way yon do business, examine how long it takes to roll out an issue, say 4.5 days. Then set up new schedule: 48 weeks a year (plus 2 weeks (10 days holiday) and 2 weeks (10 days) vacation). 48 weeks x 7 days is 336 days. 336 work days divided by 4.5 is a little less than 75 updates a year, or 4.89 days per update. So your standard delivery is set to every 5 days; with occasional bonus issues. This does reduce you income, but unless you reduce the things only you can do, this is the best YOU CAN DO.
so, your production schedule is to the produce as best you can at 4.5 day a production and release at 5 days, building up a backlog. If you can not build up a 2 week backlog then you are not managing well. The figure of merit here is releasing new issues early in the day (showing there is a backlog. Each time the release is in the evening, shows that there is a problem with the management of the time. If this happens regularly, you may need to slip to 6 days or you may need someone to manage your time. When you have a 3 issue (15 days) backlog, then you can start allowing 1 week vacations for you and other team members. When it gets to 6 issues (30 days) is is time to start REQUIRING team members to take staggered vacations. And the 10 Federal holidays are built in. No one needs to work on (you choice) the real 4 of July or the federal 4 of July.
As you describe, your time is the critical path. Having two artists, removed the artist from the critical path. How do you remove yourself from that path? Reduce those things only you can do, or publish less often (and bring in less money).
That is how businesses do it.
No I am no longer a subscriber. Wile I enjoy what you do, as a retired person, $52/year is more than I feel I can afford, vs the $32/year I started at. I do participate in Kickstarters (Calendar and cards -- love the cards!), thank you; but those are not sustaining activities.
I enjoy what you do. I wish you well, but now I dodge the trolls.
"Nevertheless, I am going to try and post backer story updates every Sunday until we return"
I guess now that the wedding is approaching, we're not likely to start getting these soon, but.. Did this happen somewhere that I can't access, or are there no story updates? (I am a Tool as far as I know..)
It's been more than a month, and I am sad that there is no Erfworld. But I want to say that the reason I'm sad is because I love this thing you've created so much! And even though I'm sad, I continue to wish everyone involved all the best - hope that everything that needs to happen (including some RnR!!) during the hiatus is happening. Can't wait to have you all back, thank you for everything.
No backer stories, no updates, nothing to read, nothing to look at. You broke my heart Fredo. You broke my heart. :(((((((
You have nobody to blame but yourself, for putting out an incredibly prolific amount of seriously some of the best storytelling that I have ever encountered in any medium. There is a reason i have been coming back since early 2007 when I kept seeing "ads" for Erfworld on GITTP and wondering just what the heck i was looking at. And then i saw Giant Elvises dropping rhinestone gems off of their gear into a world where that gem meant just one more squad of axemen for the marbits...and ive been hooked ever since.
As much as it pains me, you all deserve a break. I cant think of any team that put out so much in such a short amount of time.
Thank you for everything you do, and I hope this post specifically is the one that makes you realize that its worth it to beat yourself up and ignore all other things until they are festering in order to deliver a story that has so many people so deeply engrossed.