Books, Bangs, Bucks & Budgets

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As a producer, I tend to think of Eldritch Errors as a machine with two modes: burn and coast. When the production is in burn mode during a Book, it costs more to keep Eldritch healthy. When we come into an Interlude, that cost goes down ... but if you coast too long you'll lose too much of your momentum. When Eldritch is in burn mode, I have budget goals for what I want to keep the expenses to each month in addition to GMD Studios' standing team. Budgets can be horribly boring, the mere mechanics of implementing ideas, but they can also be where you find the best "bang for the buck" approaches that make an idea a success.

What follows is intended primarily for other interactive storytellers or those really interested in the mechanics of what makes Eldritch work behind the scenes from a budget perspective as an independent production. It isn't intended as a tutorial or a comprehensive budget model. It is just one producer's notebook about ways to think about how budgets -- of live events, especially -- can become useful tools for both qualitative goal setting and for making small budgets look bigger than they are.

The burn rate for Book One and for Book Two were almost identical: Book 2 was 4% more expensive on a straight "budget-to-duration" comparison to Book 1. I'm not saying we spent 4% more on Book 2 than Book 1, I'm saying we spent about 70% less than we did on Book 1 because Book 2 was also about a quarter of the length. These budgets might still be a little sizeable for a lone storyteller or grassroots team, but are tiny when compared to we work with in commercial projects. They all work on the same general planning principles anyway (at least if I have any control over the budgets!)

I spend alot of time of thinking about how to get the most bang for each of those bucks, bang that the audience sees and experiences. Getting that bang/buck ratio means looking at each element you spend money on in terms of the impact it creates on the experience with a critical eye. In a perfect world, your time is just as precious of a commodity as your money, so you could just as easily be measuring production labor against that same yardstick.

While I'm certainly flattered that "the boys" at the ARG Netcast thought it felt like a big commercial event, examples are useful. So, let's look at the Eldritch expenses associated with just the West Virginia live event. I'd make the first pile of expenses related to "providing the participants with the physical experience" in Cass and on Bald Knob. Pretty easy to account up:

Company house, $129/night x 3 days = $387
Wilderness cabin, $44/night x 1 day = $44
Historic train tickets, $20 x 5 participants = $100

At this point, I'm feeling pretty clever. $106.20 per person with them all car pooling to the destination. Seriously not a bad vacation value, the place was absolutely goregous and dramatic: you almost couldn't take a bad picture, I tried. However, I haven't started to add up the less visible expenses associated with making the story happen in addition to the "vacation":

5 airplane tickets for performers = $2,000
Snowshoe condo for team, $249/night x 3 days = $747
Two rental SUVs for 3 days = $650
Camping & surival equipment = $1,100
Food, pies, gas, misc. = $450
More historical train tickets, $20 x 5 cast = $100

You could think of this as a "per non-participant" cost average of $841.17 since there was a team of six of us there (Brooke drove in!) which is almost 850% more than the expenses "per participant". That team is also almost exactly half "on stage" and half "off stage" (if you excuse my brief uncredited appearance as Nodens Thug #55, "Psion Hat Man".) Miguel and Caroline were almost entirely "on stage" in activities, Brooke and I were almost entirely "off stage" in activities, and J.D. and Dee were some strange middle-ground between the two.

So let's look at that like a production budget for a moment, divided into three rough categories as an illustration:

Set & Setting (100% audience visible): $531.00 (9.5%)
"On Stage" (almost all audience visible): $2,523.50 (45.25%)
"Off Stage" (almost all invisible): $2,523.50 (45.25%)

This is just one slice of one particular budget, mind you, but it does let me as a producer start to conceptualize ideas like "more than half of the budget for the event was directly visible by the participants" and to ask questions like "would it be worth it if more people show up to rent a second company house?"

This isn't the same thing as getting to that "bang for buck" question, though: I can think of alot of ways we could have spent the same $5,578 that would have felt like less bang for that buck. Spending it all on pie comes to mind. For comparison, the similar expenses for the Altanta event were about $3,500, with more of it in props and less (none) in cast and somewhat less in travel (we all roadtripped that time.) Did the West Virginia event feel "159% cooler" than the Atlanta event? My gut says yeah, probably even better than that. I'll leave that up to the participants to judge, as the range of experiences in Book 2 was alot broader than in Book 1 and "your mileage may vary."

Ultimately, when the storyteller in me trumps the producer, I'll settle for each Book being better than the last, and work from the assumption that the next Book has to be even better to keep momentum on our side. The producer in me, though, wants to grow that momentum and top our previous high water mark on the same rough burn rate on expenses. That means looking for all those little ways to maximize the bang each buck gives me and constantly looking for ways to get more of the expenses directly in view of more of the participants ... which is what the bang is all about. Otherwise, I have to spend more each time to top the previous intensity level.

The same issues apply whether you're thinking about bucks by the hundreds, thousands or millions: you want to get the most out of that resource, and never more so than when you're spending your own money instead of someone else's.

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johnny_fiv3 Author Profile Page said (November 20, 2007 1:35 PM):

Interesting. I've meant to bring this up elsewhere, but here's as good a place as any.
Did you purposely not provide recording media for the cast for design reasons? The reason I ask is that for a small buck, you could have dramatically increased your bang by say, equipping every cast member with a personal recorder or similar so that the experience could be shared with those not present. Now, I'm not sure what your vision is as regards telling a story via transient methods (e.g. CL posts which disappear, shared experiences, etc. ), but to me it seems like you are creating a sort of fake legend (as opposed to real legends, based on historical events). I.e. There is evidence that something happened, but the details are left to the participants to flesh out and relate through word of mouth or other narrative means (e.g. Mapmaker's synopsis, chat discussions, etc.). This relates to your request for speculation, which could be interpreted as a snapshot of the evolution/progression of the "legend so far"(The legend of Eldritch Errors?)
Which brings me back to my question, was the lack of recording intentional or just an oversight?

That's a really deep question, actually.

We could have easily captured it all and we talked about it, but we were afraid that if we did you all would be less likely to do so yourselves. If we shot it "in story" (so that it could be delivered "in story") we would have needed to create "shiny-lensed observers" which might have changed the nature of the experience. Devon didn't seem like the "say that again for this camera" kinda guy to us. We also picked a particularly crappy place to be more clandestine about filming: we had no way to get to the cabin before you, because the train doesn't even run on Fridays in the Fall.

At the same time, I do so love legends, because they make storytellers and photographers and filmmakers (YOU!) out of the people who hear the stories. In this kind of story, under-documentation is less of a problem than in other kinds of stories, it just encourages you to play with the pieces of the narrative more.

I don't mean to turn mysterious, but this concept of "shiny-lensed observers" will come up more heavily in the NEXT interlude, my friend. If I WERE capturing more than I was showing, I might work hard to obscure both how I'm doing that, why I'm doing that and what I intend to do with it until the rhythm of Eldritch Errors experience is more familiar to people. Otherwise, the glare off a lens can ruin the natural setting of the scene ... unless it was YOUR lens.

johnny_fiv3 Author Profile Page said (November 20, 2007 2:40 PM):

unless it was YOUR lens.
Now there's a bit of conflict, because as I sat there at that cabin table listening to "Devon" spool up for the eventual "interrogation" my mind went to the camera in my jacket beside me. I so wanted to pull it out and start recording, but knew that it would be incongruous to do so and would completely break the moment, not to mention ruin my experience. (vid-cam dad at Disney, anyone?) So I decided against it at the time, and part of me still regrets that decision because the "folks at home" didn't get a whole lot of the experience from that night. We do so rely on our digital records nowadays. Now if I'd had a hidden voice recorder....I could have even captured Caroline's masterful Aria in Scream major...(and our 5 part harmony).

That's my punishment for playing with the communication channel in that Book, J5. I'll never get to hear that scream, I have to be satisifed that J.D. says I would have loved it :)