Jul 11, 2013

Hard Lessons in Project Management

Doing Laser Lace Letters has taught me a lot of things, but project management and time estimation have to be the biggest ones. Some of these have been tough lessons to learn, and really exposed the flaws in my thinking.

Having learned those hard lessons, I present them here.  If you’re a grizzled veteran producer, some of these things may seem obvious – but I have a feeling that this discipline takes a lot of insight to practice properly.

Don’t just guess at how long things will take.  I didn’t know how much time it would take me to get Episode 1 out the door, so I just took a random stab at it – and it turned out wrong.  When I went to figure out how much things would cost, I created a big, complicated spreadsheet to estimate expenses, but I didn’t take that same rigor with estimating time.  The result was predictable: a project with a stable, manageable budget and a messy, slip-prone timeline.

Know the size of your project.  Laser Lace isn’t a full blown ARG with live events, an online game tie in, and daily character interactions, all leading up to a film release.  That’s the scope of project I’m used to working on, and in my mind, Laser Lace is a “small” project in comparison.

Laser Lace was designed not to roam too far and stretch itself thin. It seems the more you concentrate on franchise and story extensions, the less you save the good stuff for your core product.  I cut the extra stuff down to a minimum (episode summary/teaser pages, and the Twitter prequel.)  But even that focused, undiluted story series is still a pretty hefty chunk of work – basically equivalent to a seven-issue comic.  I don’t know anyone who could turn out a seven issue comic series in four months with one project manager/writer and a remote art team.  Do you?  I’d love to meet them.  They must have one of those Tony Stark heart batteries.

Be realistic about your workload.  When I was doing my touch-and-go time estimation, I looked at what I had done in the past, and thought, “yeah, I’ve been producing at x rate, but once the Kickstarter is over, I’ll work even harder.”  In reality, I was already working at an exhausting pace – doing 20 hours of work a day, cancelling all my social engagements, trying to find time for things like haircuts, and burning out regularly.  My inner perfectionist, though, kept telling me I was half-assing it all.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that having a budget didn’t endow me with any work superpowers.

Find partners ahead of time.  One of the things I did for Laser Lace was pre-approach some artists and crafters to do work on the project when the time came.  I should have done the same with writing consultants and typesetters, and written them into my budget.  Better yet, I should have had full partners on this project from the start.  The next time I do a project of this scale, it will be with at least one other person.  Preferably two.  Doing everything myself is crazy.  What was I thinking?

Taking notes saves you hours and hours.  One thing about working with yourself is that you assume you’ll make the same decision, or understand every decision, even when there are days, weeks, or months between making the call, and implementing it.  Hahaha, you fool!  Next week you’ll come across a piece of code in your spreadsheet or a plot note and wonder, what the hell?  I’ve forced myself to establish a good note-taking and note-reading habit.  I’m still working on it.

Always be communicating.  When I started Laser Lace, I had an irrational fear of answering email.  I’ve killed that habit out of sheer necessity.  Now I answer most email in one or two sentences, usually explaining what I need next or when we can speak on the phone in more detail.  I go with my instinct more when giving design notes, and don’t waste time trying to finesse or finangle.

Spend time planning.  Plan to spend time planning.  When you’re head down, working on content, you’ve badly underestimated your deadline, and you’re feeling the pressure, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that tomorrow you have to run something to the post office.  I’m still working on putting time into my schedule to step back and look at the big picture.

It’s actually OK to prepare more.  This has been the hardest one to come to.  From the first four items it’s pretty clear that I was (and probably still am) suffering from a manic impatience that creates crazy expectations about how long it takes to do good creative work.  I had a bias against preparation, and I pushed myself to just Get the Work Out – to figure things out along the way.  I didn’t enjoy the feeling of stasis that you got from NOT shipping things.  Now I understand that I could have taken more time to better prepare for the KS launch, and the sky wouldn’t have fallen.

At the time, I felt like that push was exactly what I needed. I was unhappy that my previous project, Research & Development(s), hadn’t gotten as far along as it could – that, a few months after talking about it at StoryWorld, it wasn’t already finished.  I thought that meant I was stuck in a preparation loop – that I was puttering around with no intention of getting to the final stages. (This is a depression thing – where I manage to convince myself that I’m acting in bad faith.)

With the wisdom of Laser Lace in my system, I can see now that Research & Development(s) was pretty much where it should have been in its production cycle – it had a script, interaction design, product prototypes, and was ready to be shopped around to stakeholders, have its team assembled, and move into production proper.  In fact, once Laser Lace is done, that might just be what I do.

Nov 27, 2012

Summon: Laser Patron

There’s one more reward to feature – and it’s a whale. We call it the Laser Patron.

What is Laser Patronage? It’s your name on my laser cutter, but it’s more than that. It’s a laser cutting service at laser owner prices – without having to install, maintain, store, and learn to operate a laser.

As Laser Patron, you’ll be able to send me design files, art, or concept specs, and the finished laser cut items will magically appear in your mailbox. Yes, there are services that will do this for you – but while the Laser Patron is a large reward at $6,400, it’s also a highly economical way to get these services.

For example, one popular online laser cutting service said it will charge $8-9 simply to laser the doily, the main part of a Laser Lace cameo – an extremely intricate part. By contrast, the Laser Patron can laser 25 of a comparable part with one hour of his or her 100 hour laser reserve, at a cost of $2-3 a part. Materials are provided.

The laser our Patron will be sponsoring can cut through fabrics, plastic, leather, wood, and many other materials (softer than metal, ceramic or glass.) It can etch any art on the surface of the material, and cut it into any shape, and can also etch anodized metal, stone, and blast the silver off the back of a glass mirror.

There’s more technical stuff on this page. If you’ve ever wanted to have a laser at your disposal and can afford the $5,000 price tag, I’d love to be working on “The (your name here) Laser Cutter for the Arts.”

Nov 25, 2012

The Laser Princess Ascendant

We are close.  Laser Lace Letters may well happen.  In the next 68 hours, we’ll know for sure.

I’ve talked so much about this project.  I’ve talked about the rewards, the philosophy, my inspirations and creative vision, but now I want to talk about the future – because that’s what Laser Lace is.  It isn’t just one (magnificent, daring, improbable, beautiful) project.  It’s a turning point in my creative journey.

Some of you have known me for a long time, long enough to see the beginnings of my journey as a CNC-enabled creator.  The past three years have been a love affair with laser cutting, as I learned almost everything there is to know about running the Dallas Makerspace’s machine and used it to make all sorts of arty and technically ambitious stuff.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say working with the laser is my favorite thing in the world.  Sometimes, when I’m stressed or worried, I’ll drive out to the Space and just design something on the laser.  I hear those stepper motors singing, and I feel like all is right with the world.

But about a year ago, something happened that made me think about what this love affair with the laser means – I got a BIG order for laser cut items for an ARG.  I was lucky – the order had to be fulfilled during this very time of year, just after Thanksgiving.  No one else was around at the hackerspace, so no one else needed the laser.  I worked with it for eight hours a day, for two whole days, without any interruptions.  But that experience made me realize that I was about to hit a wall.  As the space grew, laser time would become more scarce.  Today, the space is almost twice the size it was then, and gone are the days when I could prototype uninterrupted, let alone produce a large order of items.

Laser Lace Letters is going to open a door for me, one that can’t be closed.  I will end up with a robust writing credit, sure, and be ready to take Laser Lace to stores and events – and that will be very cool.  But more importantly, I will own a machine that, in the hands of a skilled designer, can do almost anything – and it will always be with me, no matter where I go from here.  This isn’t just one dream project –  it’s all of them.

I want to make more laser cut felt mosaics like the one I made for Desert Bus.  I want to start a line of jewelry that shows little girls that technology isn’t just for boys.  I want to make Research & Development(s), my tangible storytelling masterpiece, as good as it can possibly be.

You guys – my backers – are doing something incredible.  I’m not going to forget this soon, or ever.  And thanks to you, the world will soon witness the firepower of this FULLY ARMED and OPERATIONAL laser princess!  Anything – anything – will be possible, if we can just do this.

So, let’s.

 

Nov 18, 2012

UNLOCKED! Limited Edition Mechanical Companions

The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s companions were my first steampunk storytelling project , created in 2009.  I designed and sculpted a little clockwork robot, asleep in his holding fob, and called it the Ladies’ Mechanical Companion.

The original sculpt, made from clay and metal.

To go along with it, I wrote a short user’s manual, with copy like this:

2. Operation

Your unit will now take orders.  When giving orders, you should address your unit by its chosen name and follow immediately with a word of command.  For example, “Aloysius, fetch me a some ink” or “Jeeves, throttle that cacophonous feline.”

BE ADVISED! LaMech has a limited memory capacity, and can only hold up to twelve months of experiences in its standard memory tube.  After its memory tube has been filled, LaMech may begin to exhibit signs of automaton dementia.  This includes erratic and even dangerous behavior.  

Signs of automaton dementia include: spontaneous demounting, kleptomania, suicidal behavior, homicidal behavior, spontaneous hiding in luggage or undergarments, spontaneous lockpicking, spontaneous shearing of friends or strangers, industrial sabotage, and stuttering.

The manual set up an imagined relationship between the little robot and you as its owner, and gave you ideas of how to incorporate it into whatever persona you might want to step into when you step into a steampunk costume.  In every box, there is also a resin key that, according to the manual, is your last defense against the dangers of automaton dementia.

As Laser Lace Letters developed, two stories emerged that center around these little guys, and what happens to them when they go insane.

So, as our next unlockable in the Laser Lace Kickstarter, I’m going to make a small batch of very limited edition Mechanical Companions. Like the ones offered at HighLondonMechanical.com, they either come in the form of a necklace or on a fob watch chain.  Like the regular ones, they also come in a special box lined with Fox’s own art.
However, a few things are going to be different on these.
  • They will be made using “cold cast” brass resin, as opposed to the painted resin used on the originals.  This stuff is shiny, scuff-proof, and has a pleasant weight to it.
  • They will have red eyes instead of the classic bottle-glass green, because in our mythos, the robots’ eyes change color throughout their lifetimes, and the final stage, in which they go crazy and start stabbing people, is the red eye phase.  And both of the Laser Lace stories about them deal with this state in one way or another.
  • They will be accompanied with TWO different tangible Laser Lace stories about the tiny robots.  (No cameos, but you will get a mini cameo of your choice.)

Each of these will be numbered and the manual will be signed, and we’ll be offering them ONLY during the Kickstarter campaign.  We unlock them as soon as we hit $10,000.  Go up there and pledge today.

Oct 25, 2012

Laser Lace Launching


After six months of constant prototyping, intense planning and caffeine-fueled story development, my new project, Laser Lace Letters, is finally going up on Kickstarter today. It’s a unique project with elements of handcrafting, fragmented storytelling, and design. Also, it brings together two of my favorite things: steampunk, and lasers.

(If for some reason you LIKE reading press releases, you can also get that here.)

Laser Lace Letters is a line of laser-cut felt cameo pins that I designed and prototyped at Dallas Makerspace.  I’ll be making for everyone who pledges for them during the Kickstarter. They’re designed to be worn like a button or a badge: on a lapel, a backpack, a purse, or even on a hat.

If you’re familiar with laser cutting, you know that most things made on a laser are made from sheets of material, which means they’re usually quite flat; but that’s where Laser Lace will surprise you. The cameos sit in the center of a special doily, which is cut flat, but designed to be woven into itself to create a wreath of twisted color around the image in the center.

But inside the beautiful packaging for each cameo – a laser cut envelope tied with twine and sealed with wax – is a little story world for you to dig into. There are seven cameos in the line, and each represents a character living in an alternate version of Victorian London, where an all-woman airship corps keeps the peace, tiny robots ferry messages to secret lovers, and the rich build extravagant country homes in the sky.

Their stories are told through items like:

  • A charlatan’s pamphlet about the appearance of aethereal cities in bolts of lightning.
  • The letter a young socialite left for her family, the night she ran away.
  • A help wanted advertisement, calling for door-to-door sales girls to hawk pocket robots.
  • Plans for a machine designed to evaluate people’s souls – and act accordingly.
  • The report of a police officer who saw his partner vanish right in front of his eyes.

If funded, I’m going to release the stories two ways: as tangible stories that include their respective cameo pins, and as a digital book that you can read anywhere.  On the Kickstarter you can buy either one, so whether you like the crafting side of the series more, or the storytelling side, you can get what suits you.

I’ve also been working on some online supplements – or teasers, if you will – that will give you an idea of what to expect from each story before you decide which cameo to buy.  The characters have distinctive stories – from Sarah, the aviatrix who left her lover for a chance to fly one of Her Majesty’s airships; to Linnaeus, the mad scientist looking for a way to cross over into the other universe to find his missing son; to Lucy, an assassin who uses a fleet of tiny robots as her weapon of choice.

When Yomi Ayeni launched his project Clockwork Watch, I knew immediately that we shared a perspective on steampunk that would make for a good collaboration. So for the past several months, I’ve been working with Yomi to mesh our two stories. Our stories both take place in the world, and bits of Laser Lace are already scattered across the Clockwork Watch in-game blog, the London Gazette.  Most of the voices in the above video are also from members of the Clockwork Watch team who beamed their recording across the ocean to bring life to the characters.

Inspiration for Laser Lace was drawn from Jordan Weisman’s artifact-laden book projects – with Sean Stewart on “Cathy’s Book” and with J.C. Hutchins on “Personal Effects: Dark Art.”  Laser Lace stories are like miniature versions of those books.  As far as I know, no indie creator has attempted something like this before – and I can see why.  It’s calling on all the tools in my mental Swiss army knife, and I’ve even had to hack together some new ones.  It’s been a long, big, complicated road to get this project to the point where money is the most needed resource.

Here’s what that money is going to buy: a small hobby laser cutter, around $7,000 in printing services, and supplies ranging from felt to card stock to sealing wax. Once I have the laser cut parts, the cameos will be finished by hand here in Texas. I hope to be able to do all of the handwork myself, so everyone gets something I created from start to finish.  It will be a rare auteur project in a world of big teams.

I’m absolutely abuzz with excitement today!  Let’s come together and make this happen!  You bring the beer, and I’ll bring the party.

Aug 12, 2012

Laser Lace (something)

Hi everyone. Did you perchance visit the Great Ralpholio in his Google Docs fiction enclave, or check out this daring story of air bravado? If you did, you’ve already met two of the characters from my new project. (Or is it three? Hm…)

Anyway, I’ve been doing some work getting the website for the project ready, and I think I’m ready to unveil it (now that I’ve finally moved that pesky doily). Are you ready for this?

Ladies, and gentlemen, I present – oh, who the hell left their mail on my mockup?

Seriously, people, mail your Labor Day cards at your own desk!

As you can sort of see, the site is looking pretty tasty.  Links and more details as soon as I clean up this mess.

In the meantime, if you want to hear more you can follow me, @toenolla on Twitter, or if it’s more your style, you can follow the project’s brand spanking new Twitter account, @laser_lace.

Aug 7, 2012

The Great Ralpholio wants to see you.

Yet another little tidbit for my project, the Laser (Something Something).  The Great Magician Ralpholio needs your help with something.  Hop to and help him out.

Aug 4, 2012

The beginning of something….

Today, the London Gazette in Clockwork Watch reads thusly:

Angel Falls from Sky to Thwart Department Robbery

Angel Corps recruit Sarah Bittern, 19, unmarried, leapt from a damaged airship last night in an heroic effort to capture a robber fleeing the former offices of the Department for the Advancement of Sciences.
Ms. Bittern, who was patrolling the area aboard the HMD Desiderata, continued to chase the man first via motor glider and then on foot, after the Desiderata ploughed into an unlicensed wireless tower. The ship’s captain, Ms. Hildebrandt Beam, 41, widowed, was injured in the resulting crash. According to her shipmates…

(Visit Clockwork Watch for the full story.)

Who are these new characters, you may ask –  the daring Sarah, the mad Linnaeus, the brave Hildebrandt?  Well, they’re part of a project I’m working on, and throughout the coming months you’ll see them pop up throughout Clockwork Watch to help the story along.  Yomi and I are working closely to make our story worlds intermesh (like…clockwork, one might say.)

I’m still scuttling about, getting things ready for a proper unveiling.  At this point, I can tell you that this is a tactile project – meaning you will get some tasty handmade items in the course of interacting with it – and it will feature at least a few robots.  Beyond that would be telling, but at least I can tell you the name of the project, right?  It’s called…oh, who the hell left that doily there?

Your mother doesn’t live here, people.

Anywho, it starts with “Laser” and if all goes well, it will end in delight for a great many of you.  If you want to stay informed, you can add this blog to your RSS feed here, or follow me on Twitter here.  You can also find me on Clockwork Watch here.  I’ll be bringing you more on the project as the news develops.

Jul 21, 2012

The ARG Museum Beckons

If you’re one of the lucky ones who’s going to ARGFest-O-Con this year, today is your last weekend before we hit Toronto like a ton o’ bricks. As you go over your packing list, don’t forget to include your glorious swag from ARGs past to display in this year’s ARG Museum.

What is the ARG Museum?

It’s a pop-up museum that appears at ARGFest every year. Attendees bring their game artifacts together in one place to exhibit at the event. It’s maintained by a team of dedicated players and creators who organize the exhibit and keep track of everything.

Cool. But you don’t need MY stuff, do you?

Absolutely we do!  The museum is made of temporary loans from many attendees.  We need your in-game artifacts, mailers, live event souvenirs, and treasure finds.  Register them using this handy dandy form today!

While we prefer items that aren’t just a print run (for example, promo postcards), we welcome everything – from character business cards, to books on ARGs, to fake newspapers, to buried treasure.  If it’s from an ARG, we’re willing to include it.

I don’t want to give away my things!

Don’t worry, that’s not what we’re about.  You’ll be putting your items on loan with us until the end of ARGFest, at which point you can pick them up and take them home.

What if someone else brings the same item?

We don’t exhibit more than one of a given item.  We’ll email you if there’s any redundancy.

Are there any other reasons to bring my ARG artifacts to the museum?

While you’re in Toronto, we’ll be digitizing many of the exhibits and turning them into virtual objects that you can rotate in your browser.  We want to extend the experience of  the ARG Museum into the digital world.  As the online components of many games suffer from bit rot, sometimes these items turn out to be the most lasting component of the games.  We want to give everyone the chance to see them.

Isn’t it too late to register?

Nope!  We’re still taking registrations!  Go here and add your stuff to the exhibit.

 Still got questions?  Check out the wiki.

Jun 25, 2012

An Experiment in Object Turnaround Photography








A spinning barware set, built from photos taken with a time lapse feature in CHDK. Click left and right to rotate.

Learn how to make a spinnable “object” like this one at Instructables.