Something is Rotten in the State of Gaming

I think we all know it. We all feel it, at least. Some people think we’re going to go the way of model trains, other consider this edition or that trend to be the DEATH OF GAMING AS WE KNOW IT. I’m here to dispel the myths, speak plainly about the truths, and apply some regular business sense to an industry that has so desperately needed it since the eighties.

I have years of experience in business management, I’m currently in school for my BA,  and I’m also an avid gamer. I speak with candor, and I get angry about things. A lot of things. You might get upset at some of the things I say, or disagree. That’s okay! Disagree! I welcome it. Just don’t be surprised when I defend my points. I want to see the industry reinvent itself, to prosper in an age where it’s difficult to do so. The reason for this blog is to attempt to discern how that can happen.

Gaming is broken. Let’s fix it.

Kickstarter, Change, and the Great River

It’s true: Kickstarter is the new big thing in indie RPG publishing. You can barely bump around on the site without finding something cool and awesome to pledge for, and a surprisingly large number of these campaigns are funded, and at double, triple, or even ten times their requested funding level. Everyone is flocking to this, and not just in the publishing world; Obsidian raised four million goddamned dollars to make a video game. Reaper Miniatures clocked in at nearly $3.5 million, nicely debunking the notion that video games are somehow more revenue-intensive than tabletop games.

All of the really successful Kickstarters combine two essential elements: they take a niche product and connect it to customer enthusiasm  Before you dismiss that as marketing-speak, take a look at how that applies to us. The tabletop industry has been defined by those aspects for decades. We’ve discussed on this blog how traditional gaming is, almost by necessity, a niche industry. Crowdfunding, where slathering fans with pockets full of money get a chance to give as much as they want to see the projects they love come to life, is practically made for us.

I have been cautiously encouraged as I watch old guard companies (from the once-defunct White Wolf to the nearly-obsolescent Palladium) embrace crowdfunding and revitalize their efforts with an influx of cash. Not all have, of course; you can read here if you want to see a huge, fallacious justification for not accepting paying customers’ money.

What’s more exciting, though, is the fact that new blood is getting into the industry this way. This is the perfect venue for doing the things I’ve been talking about. No longer are you shackled to up-front effort and sunk costs. Now, small cottage companies are springing up left and right, just a few people and an idea, sink or swim. The fantastic part is that most of them are swimming, and doing it in style.

Crowdfunding presents the perfect situation for an infant gaming “company.” Yes, there is a great deal of effort that goes into pulling off a successful campaign. However, that effort is directly proportional to the rewards; if no one is interested in your product, your funding just languishes. You lose nothing (except, of course, a few dozen hours). It’s only when a Kickstarter hits that you start to see people spending a month with nothing on their table but answering customer queries and scampering to find new stretch goals.

The strangest things find a market. Want some dice rings? I would have never conceived of such a thing, and yet there it is, $300,000 worth of customer interest in little rings that let you roll numbers anywhere!

Who would want a card game version of Advanced Squad Leader? Apparently 1500 people, to the tune of almost $250,000. Chibi fantasy monsters? $105,000. A roleplaying game to learn Korean reached ten times its goal. The list is endless.

This is it. This is how how we stop making piles of shitty games no one wants and start crafting a new industry based on demand, not tradition.

My apology to Ryan “Steve Jobs” Dancey

It has been noted in several venues that I was critically off with my estimation of the Pathfinder Tech Demo Kickstarter. To be fair, I enjoy a failure as much as a success – the algorithm I used for that prediction has been nicely refined and now does a passable job of estimating the final pledge value of a funding campaign – but then again, so does KickTraq.

Let it not be said that I am without shame, though. I do owe Ryan “Steve Jobs” Dancey an apology. I said some very mean words about him, which I’m quite certain he has utterly ignored since there’s no way he’s the sort of megalomaniac who Googles himself compulsively, and even if he was, we’re just peons below him in the RPG world. I mean, he’s the fucking Steve Jobs of MMO Marketing.

So, Mr. Dancey, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for underestimating the success of your Kickstarter that rode to over $300,000 on the strength of not your MMO, but some random supplements that are going to be part of that MMO, maybe, sort of. I apologize for not realizing the strength of your rabid fans, who will pay money for anything with the name Pathfinder on it. What’s more, I’m very sorry for saying that your tech demo wouldn’t be released. It’s definitely a good sign that even your apologists on the Paizo forums aren’t impressed.

In addition, I want to say that I’m very excited for the actual, real Kickstarter for Pathfinder Online, which you assure us is not to actually produce the MMO but instead to speed its development. I’m absolutely stoked that an extra million dollars will help so very much when most MMOs are developed on budgets of tens or hundreds of millions. You’re a brave man for wanting to put out an MMO that is basically just Fantasy EVE Online with the name Pathfinder stamped on it (but without any of those bothersome Pathfinder mechanics), in a time when MMOs are at the peak of quality and still performing poorly financially.

I’m impressed that you’ve already ridden a cavalcade of promises and completely unrelated product shilling to half a million dollars, and that you’re sticking it out to the end like a warrior (in spite of KickTraq’s rather gloomy projections). It’s probably because you invented a new word: crowdforging! Crowdforging is like crowdsourcing, but not! Brilliant!

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to all of your fans, who are so incredibly and unrealistically optimistic about this project. It’s good to have that kind of energy behind you, it will keep you going through the dark times. Your blog posts about this game fill me (and all of your fans) with confidence that you know how to design a next-generation MMO and are not just repeating the same mistakes made by studios for the last ten years.

I think it’s important to foster an atmosphere in which we admit when we’re wrong, and make amends. In the end, you are absolutely brilliant. It takes a really intelligent, cunning man to do what you’ve done, and I wish you all the best in the new year.

Something really beautiful happened today.

I’m back!

If you’re into the RPG community, you might be familiar with “transmedia designer” Gareth Michael Skarka. He’s worked on quite a few projects, most notably the ICONS RPG and, recently, a wildly successful kickstarter for a game that sounds awesome: Far West. Far West is all the best parts of westerns and wuxia, smashed together in a really awesome mashup.

Or, well, it would be, if the game had ever come out. Originally slated for GenCon this year, Mr. Skarka has managed to sit on the game and fifty thousand dollars of his backer’s money for nearly a year and a half now. Now, these things happen. People with little experience in the industry underestimate how much effort can go into producing an RPG – or a “transmedia project” as Skarka refers to Far West as. His grand total of five apologetic updates have become more and more desperate over the last year – which is funny, because it turns out that behind the veil, Gareth Skarka is a scathing douchebag.

Other authors have noted previously how full of shit Skarka is. So much that someone created troll accounts just to mimic him.

In this case, however, he’s gone around the internet to whine about how people are stating real, true facts about his game delays. Witness:

We have delivered some of the material already, just not all of it — and I’ve constantly updated my backers as to our progress.

I’m tired of “grinning and bearing it” when faced with this kind of libel. Knock it the fuck off. Now.

That is some winning customer service, especially when facing the “libel” of people observing that you’ve taken a year and a half and slipped every possible deadline. But okay, people get worked up on the internet. You can almost forgive a guy for losing his professional demean-

Your minimum-wage retail-job understanding of consumer behavior has no application here, despite your concrete assumption that it must.

Oh ho. Now that’s rich. People try to give him a bit of a tip on how to not drive away his current customers, and he insults them. That’s some great service! As someone (who is a lawyer) points out to him,

I have no doubt that being reminded of your professional failure to deliver a product in a timely fashion is embarrassing and personally uncomfortable for you. That does not make it a personal attack. If someone hires me to do a thing, and delivery of the promised work is a year or more late, they have every right to go about town and complain about my services. In point of fact, they could probably file a bar complaint and I would be compelled to correct the matter by the body that governs my profession.

But apparently there are no customers until a product is released. Potential customer aren’t worth winning over, no sir. Not when you have a cool fifty grand already in your pocket. Who’d want more money?

He’s not a customer.  Period.   Here’s the thing:  _There are no customers for FAR WEST yet._     There are backers, which is not the same as a customer — that’s somebody who has invested money to back a process (of which there are 717, and he isn’t one), each of whom is receiving some amount of stock of various products in the line in return for their investment.   Kickstarter is very clear about this.  This is not a consumer process.

When FAR WEST is released, THEN there will be customers, when we release it wide.      So perhaps your argument that he is a “potential” customer is true — we don’t know.  Perhaps the President will get an itch and buy a copy — it could happen, who knows?   Meaningless to speculate.

Oh man. I wish someone had told Reaper that. Then they could have forgone all of that wonderful customer service they are famous for. I mean, that must cost money and shit. Kickstarter clearly is just a place for people to throw money away, and there’s no real promise of delivery. I mean, when I put fifty bucks down for an RPG, I just hope the dude has a few drinks with it and maybe someday shoots me a PDF. That’s the point of Kickstarter.

Oh, did I mention that Skarka’s Buckaroo Banzai RPG is almost a year past its release date?

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Why are we surprised that D&D Next is bad?

By now, the “D&D Next”  materials have made their way out into the interwebs. I spent a good ten hours participating in an all-day playtest of the system.

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. However, someone else made a point I think is important:

The game system we have in front of us is exactly what they told us it would be.

I can’t emphasize this enough. This playtest meets all of the stated design goals: it plays like an old-school game, it is ostensibly “modular,” and it has already been lauded among many players as a return to pre-3e design sentiments.

What this really speaks to is how isolated and unsupported the D&D team is at WotC. I remember stories from 5+ years ago where any team that wasn’t Magic had to go around begging for playtesters any time they released anything. With the growth of the Magic brand, this has obviously only become more of an issue. The reason this looks like the product of a couple old dudes in a basement is because it really is.

D&D is a drop in the bucket as a brand when compared to the $200+ million that Magic brings in. (Even generous estimates had D&D bringing in about 1/20 of that revenue per year.) In a sense, I kinda feel bad for Mearls & Co. They are working on something they love, but they have the dual burden of being under corporate supervision without any sort of support from the rest of the company. Somebody gave them the goal of “reuniting the editions” after Pathfinder has eclipsed D&D, and then gave them no money or time to do it in.

I remember opening the 4E PHB and my jaw dropping – not because of the rules, but simply because of the production values inherent to that book. Full-color 3/4 page illustrations for each class and chapter. Beautifully templated, color-coded power descriptions. It was the first time I’d felt that since I opened the GURPS 4E Characters book, and the only other time I’ve been so taken was with the Mouse Guard RPG.

That was the height of branding D&D for WotC. They released one of their flagship games in full force, and it still didn’t make a tenth of what Magic does. It’s over. They’re done throwing that kind of effort into a brand full of toxic fans and endless bickering about products that won’t get sold.

I’m not saying it won’t sell, or that it won’t get played. However, I can tell you that we aren’t going to see the support for D&D that we saw for third or fourth edition. D&D is officially a legacy brand now.

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“What Use is a Business Major?”

I’ve taken a lot of flack in the reactions to the blog for being a useless business major. So, allow me to show you one of my OTHER nerdy hobbies! It’s called regression analysis.

For those of you who haven’t taken higher-level math, regression analysis is essentially using existing data to develop a model that can predict future behavior. Such models are used extensively in everything from stock trading to horse racing. The most simple type is a linear regression, which is used on websites like It’s great if you have a steady progression of pledges; however, it’s often true that the number of pledges starts out high and then trickles off.

I’ve found what I consider to be a best-fit exponential regression curve for the data present, and then used a median pledge value to calculate a projected ending value for the Pathfinder Online Tech Demo Kickstarter. Keep in mind that this is a projection only, and that any change in behavior (such as people pledging greater values) will change the results.

My analysis results in a total figure of $120,463.20 at the end of the thirty days. (For those of you who know what this means, the coefficient of determination is 0.89.) I’m throwing my “bet” up here; I may revise it as we get more data, but I sincerely doubt that the result will be altered without a significant change in pledging behavior.

Also, I want to throw a link out to UnSubject, who has written a fantastic critique of the Pathfinder Kickstarter. Allow me to quote my favorite bits:

Perhaps I’m missing something there, but it appears that the Tech Demo isn’t offering anything more interesting than was available in BioWare’s 2002 title Neverwinter Nights. Maybe the “basic game mechanics” will be a bit different, but that term is so vague as to be meaningless. It’s unlikely that a $50k budget is going to show off any real sandbox potential, despite ‘sandbox’ being a key feature that PathO is trying to stand out on. Even linear theme park MMOs look sandbox-ish if there are only 5 people in-game.

If Goblinworks couldn’t find $50k to develop their own Tech Demo, then forget about PathO – the title should be considered the walking dead already. After developing the Tech Demo comes the period of time shopping it around to potential investors and publishers. The team pulled in to work on the Tech Demo will either need to be let go or continue being on payroll during this period and both options effects PathO’s resources moving forward. Publishers / investors will want time to consider their options. Time will burn money. So, again, if Goblinworks couldn’t afford $50k now for a pre-pre-pre-alpha build, PathO is already on the edge of a cliff.

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The Kickstarter That is Almost, But Not Quite the Pathfinder MMO

Also Ryan “Steve Jobs” Dancey takes credit for every major achievement in the RPG industry

Well, here, have a looksie. It’s quite an impressive product page, visually. I got about twenty words in before I started laughing. (Well, that doesn’t count the video, which is fucking hilarious.)

You see, in his opening section, Dancey takes credit for a number of things. Some of them are very much his fault – like the OGL D20 licensing, which brought us such wonders as the Book of Erotic Fantasy. It makes sense that they’d list that as an accomplishment, though, since most of the principals of Paizo owe their current success to the OGL’s completely unenforceable wording.

Most of the list of “accomplishments” hangs on the idea that Lisa Fucking Stevens worked for Wizards for ten years. She’s an amazing businessperson, and you won’t hear me say anything other on that. However, it seems a bit ostentatious to take credit for the success of Vampire: The Masquerade and fucking Magic: The Gathering singlehandedly. Sounds a bit like a marketing wash…okay. They’re trying to play up their strengths, to put a successful foot forward. Why are they working so hard to get us to believe?

Wait, wait. Something isn’t quite right here…

We’ve had to do all three of these things in parallel because there are a couple of intersecting “chicken and egg” problems here. Investing at this stage of a project is very much about having faith in the people working on the project—and we have some amazing folks who want to work with us, but they have careers and family obligations, so they can’t just pick up and relocate to Redmond on the hope that we’ll get the funding we need. We’ll also need to show our investors specific details about our financials, which are affected tremendously by the deal we can secure for our middleware—the engine that runs the game. Our business experience and social networks have provided us access to some awesome middleware deals that aren’t readily available to outsiders, but sealing those deals is tied to the staff and funding issues as well. In short, we need to move forward before we can move forward.

Ryan “Steve Jobs” Dancey, Master of MMOs, Swinger of Deals, World Poker Tour Pro, apparently can’t close a contract for a god-damned thing. He apparently can’t convince his friends and family to have faith in this project. He can’t convince strangers with money to have faith in his project. They’ve been doing this for six months, and haven’t landed ANYTHING. Not a single dime, delivered or promised, in value or cash.

As they say in the business world: “Uh-oh.”

Now Dancey wants to crowdsource his funding to build a technology demo so that investors will take him seriously. How cute. I’m sure the $50,000 someone else has put into this game for him will look amazing on a prospectus. Investors will sure think a small demo for a computer game that looks like it came out two years ago shows progress. His friends will flock to work for him when they know he has enough money to pay their salaries for…maybe a month. Possibly two.

Judging by the flock of people that have come to donate (as of right now, it’s at 10% funded just a few hours in), maybe it’ll work. Perhaps his genius plan is to undershoot, and get a BUNCH of money to started out with. Hell, I have no idea what goes on in Ryan “I Can See The Future” Dancey’s head.

What is telling to me is that despite her involvement, Lisa Fucking Stevens is playing it safe. She’s a sound business mind; if she thought there was enough money in this, I have no doubt she could pull $50,000 (and a lot more) out of her business. She does, after all, control the Best-Selling Fantasy RPG! If she had, we could be spelling out the end of Paizo (and with it, Pathfinder).

As it sits, we just get to watch Ryan “Steve Jobs” Dancey play out his mid-life career crisis in public. Give it up, dude. Everything you touch turns to shit. The President of EVE Online had to apologize publically for your direction before they locked you out. You were run out on a rail once your OGL D&D fever dream turned out to be suicide for the brand. You were personally responsible for shutting down the White Wolf print lines.

I look forward to who you’ll blame for this next failure. Oh, let it be Erik Mona. I’d bet he would react well to that.

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How Not to Design Your Game System, Part 4: Killing Trees Won’t Bring Back Your God Damned Money

Today I am going to write a few words about why publishing your homebrew RPG book is a bad idea. Well, that’s not fair. It’s a terrible idea. For one thing, it’s a book.

A book has to be written around the limitations of putting paper in a binding. Namely:

  • The pages need to be in a fixed order, so the content needs to be structured around that fixed order. You can’t easily create multiple task-flows that use the same content in different contexts. If you expand the content, you’re stuck with the structure of your first publication.
  • There’s no capability to seamlessly cross reference information from one part of the book to another. Side bars, boxes, callouts, and references to go look at another page are all band-aids put over the top of the basic problem.
  • You can’t change the content after publication, short of publishing a new edition. Errata documents are what you get when people who are tied up in the process of print publication realize that you can push an updated version of your content to the web in about five seconds, but don’t follow that capability to its ultimate ends.
  • You need to worry about all the irritating vagaries of print production. Pages breaking incorrectly, tables running out of bounds, graphics not rendering correctly, and so on are all artifacts of the print production process. Don’t use print production software unless you are planning to put a book in hard copy. And for the love of God, never source your original content out of your print production software.
  • You can’t design the rules with interactive enhancements in mind. Several companies are releasing software toolkits to go along with their rulebooks, but as far as I know, no one has gone the final step and unified the two areas. It is not difficult to put all the rules for character creation into the same context as the character creation utility you are providing, but big companies won’t do it since they are used to selling the rulebook and then selling the tools. That’s great when you can keep the money you used to get just for the book and then pile on a subscription fee for the tools as well, but small publishers don’t have that luxury. And, when you step away from the need to produce a printed copy, other capabilities become possible.
  • Producing a print book, which is the only reason to write in the book format to begin with, is a capital investment. Even Print on Demand set-ups are going to jack up the price of your product and raise the barrier to entry. You’re not benefiting from print unless you’re already an established publishing company. Hint: you’re not.

If you’re trying to produce a book (or a PDF, which is a file format for those aspiring to produce a book), you’re probably using some software tools like Word (or OpenOffice) and Acrobat, or an XPS writer. The first thing you should understand is that a tool like Word is a WYSIWYG editor for a markup language.  If you don’t understand what’s going on inside your tools on at least a rudimentary level, you can’t really do anything with your source files other than produce crippled electronic imitations of print books. So, let’s take a field trip over to the magical land of the Microsoft language specification for Office Open XML! Fortunately, ISO makes the standard available in four easy ZIP files.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 1 is a mere 5,588 pages! And you’ll be happy to know that Microsoft has considerately refused to completely adopt their own specification, so Word does not fully comply with these standards.

At this point, you are probably wondering what all this garbage has to do with producing and distributing small-scale RPG products. The problem is this: the tools you’re probably using are so hypercapable that most people have no idea what they can really do with them, and so difficult to understand that most people give up long before they can leverage the real capabilities they have available. The bigger problem is that these formats are only accessible through heavy-weight, opaque authoring tools like Word that don’t give you an easy transition from WYSIWYG “dumb editing” to a real understanding of the format. And you need a real understanding of the format you author in if you want to do something cool with your content, like turn a flat page of text describing character creation into a fully functional character generator and advancement tool. Or turn a page of text about war-game combat into an online turn tracker that tells you what moves and in what order. Or automatically optimizes your character’s ork murdering abilities with the weapons you specify in a handy drop-down menu.

So throw your tools away. We live in an age of freely available authoring tools (and supporting tool-chains) for light-weight, easily comprehensible languages like DocBook, DITA, and good old fashioned HTML. You can set yourself up to author in one of these formats in a couple of hours (for free) and transform your source to attractive output in a few more with style sheets. Web content management systems are a dime a dozen. Instead of setting up a cargo cult around the print distribution system, play to your strengths: you have no legacy customers to placate, no legacy content to manage, and no legacy business agreements to honor. No one in your shop is going to start a turf war with you when they realize digital publishing obsoletes their job. If you don’t feel liberated by that, you should.

So why do you want a distribution middle-man if you’re going to do all your business online? Payment processing? PayPal and other options are far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than a distributor that takes a big cut of your earnings and gives you no direct access to your own customers. Publicity? I’m sure the authors of all of the thousands of RPG PDFs on sites like DriveThru RPG are cashing fat checks thanks to all the publicity they get. Experience? Well, they’re pretty good at extracting enough revenue from the corpses of a thousand failed dreams to keep their own doors open, so they’ve got that going for them.

More to the point, distribution chains assume a fixed, boxed product like a PDF or ebook. For all the reasons I already talked about, that’s a really counterproductive thing for a small outfit to produce. An actual print book isn’t quite as bad (at least you are hamstringing yourself for a reason), but they’re far more cost-intensive. Either way, putting out your content as a book essentially puts you in the same game as Wizards of the Coast or (insert the big player in your genre here) and you’re never going to be better than they are at producing a book. You can think of alternatives as apps, or services, or site memberships, but they’re all different methods to the same end: getting out of the cage that print publication puts you in. You can take yourself out of that box entirely.

All you need to do is let go of the idea that producing a game means writing a book.

Lions of the North!

I talked about funding at length in another article, and it’s worth mentioning that Kickstarter has become a haven for funding games. One particularly promising, original game is Lions of the North, a post-post-apocalyptic game with a fantastic take on humanity might turn out.

Lions of the North is a roleplaying game that takes place in the future after the destruction of our current civilization. New nations and states have appeared in Northern Europe, struggling for their place in the sun. The new nations have abandoned the dead past and have embraced equality in a way our society hasn’t. Racism and sexism are things of the past.

The nobles of Peimar, the traders of Kirkoslet and the despots of Hanö are all seeking fortune and power. The pirates of Bornholm seek to gain wealth by raiding merchant vessels and the Gotlanders try to keep control of their island when the great powers of the age start encroaching on their territory. It’s The Age of Lions, and it means means that anyone is free to carve out their own destiny on land or at sea. It’s an age of free women and men, an age where your birth and gender don’t mean anything, having a strong swordarm or a cunning mind means a lot more.

Beyond this struggle, mythical creatures and strange magic appears on the new frontier. What are the dark forests hiding and are you brave enough to find out?

I really like the idea, and Kemper’s blog puts out some more fantastic details about his setting and system. Please support this awesome project by pledging!

Dooming Yourself From Day One

I have a friend who decided to start a small press (Small Tomatoes Press) to print her books and a few others authors’ works. She reads this blog, and she asked me for advice on how to make it successful. Mind you, this was after she set up her business, ran to a high-cost POD distributor, and set up her Amazon, blog, and all those wonderful things that people call “marketing.”

I like her. I wanted to help her. I want her to be successful. If she’d asked me a month or two before that, I might have been able to help her. If I’d had a hand in catalyzing the business concept before it was all set in stone, maybe, just maybe, I might have had some miracle to increase her sales. However, the sad, cold reality is that her ship was scuttled as soon as she launched it.

Self-publishing in any industry (including tabletop games) is just a thin green line from vanity publishing. If you publish, they will not come. The real mistake here, however, is not the type of publishing venture she entered; it’s that she dived into it with very little research or consulting. She had it all set up before she even called me.

She’s not alone; actual, real companies do this all the time. Mongoose Games spent tens of thousands of dollars on a POD setup, only to realize it didn’t work. In the process of trying to fix it themselves, the managed to break it so that an actual expert couldn’t fix it without spending a lot more money*. Wizards of the Coast pushed hundreds of thousands of dollars into a virtual tabletop for Fourth Edition that never materialized (I still love the ad in the back of my original printing PHB).   As I write this, Paizo is sinking time and energy into a Pathfinder MMO that reeks of vaporware.

It’s one of the largest mistakes you can make in business, and even the wisest aren’t immune; if Lisa Fucking Stevens can be convinced, anyone can.

So let’s be clear: don’t doom yourself. Don’t dive in. Do the research, do the work, and do it right. Stop writing your game; start planning your business.

*I would link a source, but they have apparently taken down that State of the Mongoose. So much for their whole “transparency” bit.