Monday, July 31, 2006

Burning Empires: From Inception to Finished Product (Part IV)

Continued from Part III

Editing Phase I (March-April)
As we moved into the seventh month working on the Burning Empires project, I was deep in my editing pass. We had gotten to the point where we had established a rolling sequence. There was enough material to edit that Luke was working and redrafting ahead of the sections I was working on. As Luke received my edits, he'd input them and send the section to Rich, who would then take his pass. Once the section was in Rich's hands, Luke couldn't touch it.

"The hardest part was keeping my hands off the material that Rich was working on. That's where the process becomes counter-productive. I can't touch stuff that's with an editor or copy editor, even if I see a mistake! I’ve got concentrate on other stuff and hope the editors do their job."

It was also in this period that we decided the Alien Life-Form Burner would use a similar process and mechanics to the Technology Burner. With that decision in hand, Luke wrote the Alien Life-Form Burner and Playing the Game section, and heavily revised the Technology Burner based on the feedback from our outside playtests.

Luke also began an intensive, month-long conversation with Jordan Whorley on the background art and concepts during this period, as they sought to hammer out the layout concept for the book. They had begun with a very different concept from the eventual look of the book, one that was much more like Burning Wheel, but they just couldn't seem to get it right. But as Luke started going through Chris' sketchbooks, and the color plates started coming in, Luke settled on his concept, a sort of "future book from the past."

"The sketches would be the author's own illustrations in his future-past book. The color pics were from the book's archive. It's never explicitly stated anywhere that this is the case, but that's the concept I had in the back of my mine as I settled in to do the layout."

Once they settled on the concept, it only took Jordan a few days to put together the page border and the various markers that served as tabs and would allow the reader to know where he was in the book. Jordan even included a very fine grid that would underlay each page to hint at a screen.

The Art Comes Through (March-April)
While the editing phase was gearing up, preproduction for the art was also underway.

Black & White Part I
It was time to deal with the sketchbooks Chris had sent us in February. Luke and Drozdal spent a fair amount of time researching scanners. Chris' sketchbooks were hardbacks, and he had drawn into the spine on quite a few of the pages.

"We tried to find a book scanner specifically designed to accommodate for the spine bend. There was only one reasonably priced model. Everything else was tens of thousands of dollars, so we had to make do."

Luke, Drozdal and Alexander then proceeded to dig through the sketchbooks, noting which pieces we wanted and which pieces we didn't need. Once they had flagged everything, Dro scanned them all.

"He did several hundred scans in just a few days. It was pretty remarkable. Then Dro and I cleaned up the grayscaleswhich can get pretty ugly if you don't clean them upand began to crop out all the elements from the full pages scanned. We cropped heads, weapons, vehicles, characters, but I also kept the full pages in reserve in case I liked a detail and wanted to see what else was going on in that page. This process took a couple of weeks. We had these done before Jordan had delivered his finals and before Chris had provided the color."

Color Part I
On the color art front, the color plates from Dark Horse, mostly covers, arrived in March. Meanwhile, Chris supplied a list of all the originals he still had in his possession. Armed with the list, Luke and Drozdal began combing through the comics to correlate Chris' list with the pages and determine what we needed from the pieces he had available. They also compiled a list of the art we wanted that we would have to scan from the comics themselves.

Luke then passed the list on to Chris so he could begin scanning all the originals in his possession and burn them onto CDs. It took Chris about three weeks to scan all the art and send it our way. Luke rode him pretty hard through the whole period. We all recognized that it was a potential deadline killer if he took too long. We were sunk if he didn't provide the art in time.

As soon as he got his hands on the CDs, Luke sorted the images into three categories: unusable, usable in parts, and full page. The 'unusable' images were those that chopped up the action too much, or, based on a closer look, didn't fit the chapter they had initially been intended forthough some of the unusables did end up in the book in other contexts afterall. The 'unusable in parts' images were those in which the pages would be taken apart and the individual components would be used separately. And the 'full page' images were those images that would be used 'as is.'

Luke color coded each category for easier reference. He then proceeded to do some basic color correction and begin cropping down the usable in parts pieces by chapters (i.e., images intended for the Firefight chapter, images intended for the Duel of Wits chapter, etc.). Unfortunately, the images were so large at this point that Luke rapidly ran out of disk space. We had to run over to CompUSA one afternoon to pick up a new 300GB internal drive in order to accommodate the project.

"This process was a lot (a lot!) of work, but it was necessary. I had to dig into the material and get a feel for it. Doing cropping and color correction is a great way to become intimate with the artwork, especially when you're doing a lot of it.."

Luke also began negotiating with Chris about the book's cover toward the end of March. They had a very long conversation about it. Luke pitched an idea for a sort of Bayeux Tapestry of the Iron Empires, but Chris backed him down and got him to agree to something simpler. Luke though, insisted that it still tell a story. They agreed upon a concept.

"Once Chris gets rolling with the visual stuff, he's very vivid and precise. It's impressive. He sent me a sketch the next day. I made some revisions and asked, "What's next?" He said, "Now I paint!" He goes from sketch to painting. No finished pencils or anything! Scary."

It took Chris about three weeks to paint Lady Kate's final, tragic war against the Vaylen

Copy Editing and Layout (April-May)
By April, we had signed on Johanna Novales (who, like Rich Forest, was another veteran from the Burning Wheel Revised project) to make the second copy editing pass. Once Rich finished his edits, Luke would input the corrections and send the sections to Johanna. I was finishing my first editing pass through the text at the time, so the full process had sections flowing from Luke to me, back to Luke, on to Rich, back to Luke again, on to Johanna, and then back to Luke a final time.

"Keeping up with the edits as they were rolling in was a daunting process. I almost lost it somewhere in there."

I finished my first edit near the end of the second week of April, and Rich and Johanna finished their copy editing passes not much later. I told Luke that I needed a few days to recharge my batteries, especially as my day job was getting busy, but that I would dive back in and begin my second pass through the text after he finished inputting Johanna's corrections.

Meanwhile, as Rich and Johanna were finishing up, Luke began putting together the finalized layout, placing the color artwork and sketches. This process had to wait until the end, because the images were to be associated with the text, and the text would move and change according to the edits.

"There's nothing worse than redoing 600 pages of layout!"

It was at this point that the money for the project began to run out. It appeared that Luke would either have to call in some of the loan promises he had secured, or he would have to return to work before the project was completed, putting a severe crimp in our schedule. Luke and I began discussing a strategy for a preorder that would help cover the printing costs. If he could cover one of the payments to the printer with a preorder, it would give him a little more flexibility on the budget front. Fortunately though, Burning Wheel was selling very strongly in this period. We were averaging sales of more than three books per day, a year after Burning Wheel had been released. When the sales numbers came in from our fulfillment houses (Key 20 and Indie Press Revolution), it was clear that the loans would not be necessary.

In the meantime, Chris was looking at a draft layout and loving what he saw. With the project nearing completion, Chris also managed to clear some more time in his schedule for us.

"After the cover was finished, Chris started doing more artwork for us. He did a couple dozen finished pencils for the book, mostly weapons and vehicles."

He also found the time to paint a cnidaria makara, the great, intelligent jellyfish that plied the waters of the Vaylen's original homeworld, the first species to be enslaved by the Vaylen and still the preferred host of the Yaadasahm clan. It's one of my favorite pieces in the book.

When we began the project, Luke had promised himself that each and every weapon and vehicle in the book would have an accompanying illustration. So when we had a few holes after laying out the chapter, he turned to Chris to sketch some additional pieces. Chris was very open to the work and did it incredibly quickly, even when Luke commissioned him to draw a brick for the improvised weapon entry. The piece is Luke's favorite in the book, and I believe he plans to buy the original from Chris and have it framed. I'm pretty sure he's the only person who's ever commissioned Chris to draw a brick.

Finally, as this whole phase of the process began to draw to a close, Luke and I began discussing ideas for the fiction introductions to each of the four lifepath chapters. We hashed out basic concepts and assigned two each to Sean Bosker and Rich Douek, who had supplied the fiction in Burning Wheel.

At this point we also saw the production dummy of the book from the printer, which was very exciting!

In the next part: The Weeks of Pain and Post Production


buzz said...

You rawk so hard, Mr. Thor.

I would be very curious to see how the editing of a typical mainstream RPG compares to the thorough process you describe here.

FYI, Mike Mearls is tlaking a bit about BE over on his blog:

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey man, thanks! I have no idea how close this is to the editing of a mainstream RPG. I suspect what we've done is probably closer in process to that of a mainstream RPG than most indie/small press RPGs, but that's just a guess.

A lot of what we did was adaptation of the processes from our own professional lives. Luke works in layout and production and I'm a professional editor (worked as a newspaper reporter for years, edited one for a while, then moved to editing online stuff).

I was excited to read Mike's post this morning and I definitely look forward to seeing his reaction to BE. Part of what led me to post about the value of scenarios ( a couple weeks ago was going through some of Mike's adventure scenarios.

buzz said...

I guess you're a kinder person than I am, Thor, as I was assuming the typical mainstream RPG gets a fraction of the editing effort you describe here. But that's probably just my indie freak flag showing. :)

aramis said...

It's not just an "Indie Streak"... I can't say I'm much of an indie games fan (tho' I have several), since most of what I play isn't indie games.

BWHQ, however, seem to be editing nutjobs. Thor and Luke both have this passion for well edited text that results in incredibly well edited and low-error products.

Having done a little non-game editing myself (for Mental Health Association in Alaska, back in the late 1990's), I can say that our 200pp book went through a not dissimilar process. I'd revise the chapter, send it to Jan as a printout, Jan would make a further revision by scribbles in the margin and post-its, I'd edit to both revise to include Jan's changes, and typo correct as noted, and to add art and whitespace. Print and staple the chapter again, have Gini, Yvvone, and Erica all review for typos, revise, and send back to Jan for final approval or for further edit/review.

Our printer wanted PDF as a check-up, but printed from our pagemaker (pm5 mac) files. On syquest carts...

Process for smaller stuff was similar; (1) create content (2) draft self-edit (3) Gini, Yvvone, Erica, and/or Paul taking a look at it, making suggestions (4) re-edit (5) off to jan (6) back to me for reedit (7) back to Jan for approval, (8) last minute review by the gang, (9) print.

My impression of most main-stream game companies is that they don't take the editing process seriously. A few do.