Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Starside Armory 2015 review

This week is the one year mark for Starside Armory.  In February 2015, I resigned from a pretty decent but mundane job in order to focus on my long time passion for cosplay.  I had saved enough money to cover all of my expenses for a year, plus some funds that would ultimately go almost exclusively into Smooth-On's and Home Depot's pockets.  My plan was straightforward: make high quality props/costume pieces, and sell them.  I believed that between choosing the right projects and perfecting every detail, my work would sell itself.  With the cosplay scene gaining momentum, I finally saw what seemed to be a viable way to follow the advice I have received all my life: "Do something with your creativity".  I always appreciate when people tell me that, and it long ago became a deeply rooted, if fuzzy, goal.  Like many things, it is easier said than done, especially when one of my only other life goals was to play lots of video games.

T-shirt Gundam and duct-tape Knightmare.

The very notion of ramping up my cosplay efforts with profits in mind raised a few doubts in my mind.  The most obvious one was whether it was even economically viable, so I tackled that first.  Having moved to Hawaii when I was 19 with $500 to my name, I have become very good at budgeting for a simple but comfortable lifestyle; video games remain far and away the best bang for your buck (the beach is nice but receives very few content updates).  After I figured out a comfortable monthly budget, I realized that during the last few years spent eliminating debt and saving money, I had already been living on a stricter budget.  Buying myself a year's worth of free time to pursue my ambitions would actually afford me more financial freedom than when I had a job - depending on how you look at it and how far into the future you look, of course.

Another issue I was mulling over was balancing passion and profit.  I wouldn't say I'm morally opposed to earning money, but at the same time, I didn't like the idea of applying a business plan to my hobby - a hobby full of people who regularly act solely out of mutual passion.  Of course, it was not long before I decided it would be inordinately better than continuing to do menial work to earn money for someone else, so this paragraph is similarly not long.

Last, the entire plan was obviously a pretty big risk.  But if languishing in tedium is the alternative, (calculated) risks are worth taking.  The move to Hawaii was a similar risk, and after 12 years of slowly but surely improving my quality of life here, I think I can say I conquered that one.  I also ride a motorcycle everywhere, because the experience and practical benefits far outweigh the risk.   I worked hard, and I wear a helmet.  Risks marginalized.  Focus, determination and planning go a long way.  I will admit that Luck has a lot to do with it too.  If my high school buddy in the Marines had not been stationed here a week after I moved to Hawaii and lent me my second month's rent, I might be a beach bum right now.

Anyway, enough about me - let's talk about cosplay stuff!  It seems my goals for Starside shift with every project, as new considerations come to light and reality sets in.  My first objective was to build a Destiny Warlock costume and attend WonderCon.  I envisioned handing out business cards and collecting commissions.

The costume came out alright, but I spent way too much time in the construction phase and not enough in the painting/weathering.  I opted for a custom Starside-themed palette because I like customization, but I probably should have drawn the line at re-coloring the exotic Voidfang Vestments.  In Destiny, exotics are the only gear that never have alternate color palettes.  I also barely weathered it at all, because most Destiny gear looks pretty shiny.  There is wear and tear, but very little grit and grime (my take on that is like the filter in Star Trek transporters.  Destiny characters constantly summon new guns and hats out of thin air - why reproduce foreign elements?).  I should have just grimed it up anyway, because it always looks cooler that way.

At WonderCon, my first con, the reality set in quickly.  Besides the fact that hardly anyone liked or even recognized Destiny by that point, an even smaller fraction of those people are actively looking for costumers.  They have forums for that, and the con is more a time to bask in the results of everyone's hard work.  I don't much like marketing anyway, so I was happy to not promote myself in any way and just enjoy the event.

The next project on the agenda was Destiny's MIDA Multitool.  I had hoped to get this ready before WonderCon to go with my costume, but that first couple months of being my own boss left a lot of productivity to be desired.  Destiny was also quickly falling out of favor among the community, and I had already abandoned the prospect of making more costumes.  Nonetheless, I had already planned the project out and bought a few supplies for it, and I wanted to see it through.  Using the MDF layering method I learned from Bill Doran's videos, I assembled an extremely faithful reproduction of the gorgeous rifle.

Partly due to picking up an easy/lucrative temp job (gotta diversify) and largely due to playing too much Destiny, the master copy took me a ridiculous four months to finish.  I should also credit the long build time to this being my most intricate prop to date, plus my relative unfamiliarity with the methods and materials.  Eventually I had a solid, detailed replica with a decent degree of shiny lights, interactive parts, and big plans.  As many Destiny scout rifles shared an identical or similar base model, I designed my Multitool to be modular.  The plan was to make a few different front ends - easily the most distinguishing part of each scout rifle - and be able to offer a variety of popular scout rifles all based on the main receiver of the Multitool.  In fact, this vision was part of why I named my company an armory instead of a studio or something.  I pictured racks and racks of rifles on my walls (incidentally, I am now working on this vision from a different angle).

Alas, while I was proud of the finished product, the production process was extremely taxing.  My silicone molds were far from perfect and caused a lot of extra work and grief.  I used six different Rebound 25 jacket molds with fiberglass mothermolds, and rotocasting for certain parts - all new processes for me.  For every successful cast I pulled there were three with a thin/brittle section, misaligned seams, excessive air bubbles, or any combination thereof, and a few molds had inherent structural flaws that were faithfully reproduced each time.  The SmoothCast 300 tended to leak into the mothermold and compound the problems.  Taking a sanding drum to the mothermold between pours was a huge waste of time and coated me and my work area in itchy plastic and fiberglass fibers.  Hawaii was suffering record breaking heat and humidity levels that summer, so I often worked in shorts and a t-shirt.  Temporary irritation from the debris is one thing, but I soon developed week-long rashes from exposure to the resin - at first only in places were I spilled some of it on me, but eventually those same patches of skin would break out just by being near the fumes, even though I worked outside with a fan on me.  After only about six successful sets, the mold and mothermolds alike had deteriorated far enough that the work and resources required was just not worth it, and I retired the molds.  I retired them into the trash bin from my second floor balcony.

The first and best pull.

I could have made new molds, but I decided to cut my losses as my attention was already rapidly shifting to my next project - Venom Snake's bionic arm from Metal Gear Solid V.  Among the many lessons I learned from the Multitool, I was sure that smaller projects were the way to go.  The larger projects carry larger material and labor costs, larger price tags, more difficult shipping, and so on.  I never calculated the profit margin on the Multitool, but I'm sure it was not great even without factoring the months spent on it.  Snake's arm promised to use a fraction of the resin, could be set at a much more attractive price point, and would be way cheaper and safer to ship.  Perhaps most importantly, MGSV was shaping up to be a major hit and I was eager to distance myself from the soulless RNG-grindfest that was Destiny.  In just one month this time (which was still a long time, considering), I finished the prototype and molds for the Snake arm.

I was able to launch this project on September 1st, the same day that MGSV launched.  I only advertised it on the /r/metalgearsolid subreddit and my social media, but that's all it took.  A convergence of factors, some of which I had not even anticipated, rocketed the project to resounding success in a matter of days.  Timing was key, as the fervor surrounding the long-awaited and promising game was at an all-time high.  I had not considered that Halloween was two months away, but as it turned out, probably 75% of my customers wanted it just for Halloween.  The fact that Venom Snake is relatively easy to cosplay was a key factor in the project's success as well - the red arm was the centerpiece of the character design, absolutely iconic, with almost every other piece readily available to the average consumer.  If a prospective Snake cosplayer were so inclined, he could get away with wearing nothing more than pants, an eyepatch, and the bionic arm.

Or whatever floats your boat.

I knew the significance of the arm to the costume would make it a valuable product, but another lucky factor was that seemingly no one else was offering an arm at the same quality and price as mine.  Additionally, seemingly originating solely from the reddit post, my product proliferated among countless video game media outlets hungry for MGSV content.  Etsy tracks where traffic comes from, and I have never heard of 99% of the websites that directed people to my store.  Thank you, video game media outlets!!!  I just wish the pictures that circulated were not of the very first arm I produced, which had a paint job that I quickly improved.  That's what I get for finishing it the night before the game launched, though, and not taking new pictures.

And reusing the same picture here.

Up until the Snake arm project, I may have spent the vast majority of my purchased time enjoying life rather than making money.  September through November were a totally different story.  At my peak, I was producing four arms a day.  My daily schedule for three months straight was something like:

7:00: Wake up, apply next paint steps to last night's batch (Batch A & B).
8:00: Sand, sand, sand, sand sand Batch C.
12:00: Apply first paint step to Batch C
1:00: Assemble Batch A.
3:00: Box and ship Batch A.
5:00 Play MGSV
7:00: Cast new Batch D.
9:00: Next paint step, Batch B & C
10:00: Play MGSV until sleep (batch designations shift one letter back)

Before I figured out an efficient batch schedule.

I also had to prepare for and man a booth at the local Amazing Hawaii Comic Con in late September, at which I didn't even end up having anything to sell because I was falling behind on Etsy orders.  I still had a blast though, and considering I couldn't even make any more arms than I already was, I didn't really care that I didn't make any money there.  I definitely got a lot of exposure and could have made some sales, but it still seems that mass produced goods are the only way to really profit at a con.

Doesn't matter; fultoned Ghost.

Even though I specifically budget time to play video games, every day was still more work than any full-time job I've ever had, and I had just spent the previous 7 months being pretty lazy too.  Also, sanding 25 finger joints per arm got INCREDIBLY TEDIOUS.  Tedium is something I was trying to avoid by being an artist, dammit!  Luckily, I had almost zero failed casts - I learned a thing or two from the Multitool project! - and parts that did fail were so small that it hardly mattered.

The profit margin on materials for the Snake arm was very high, but the time spent on each still felt out of balance.  Additionally, the fact that I was pumping out multiple units per day meant that I was not able to put as much care as I wanted into each.  A good example is in the painting steps.  I started by masking off the underside of each piece where it would be glued to a glove, and painting the underside edges.  More painting phases meant more than triple the amount of time it took to paint each kit, and that was just not viable for the payoff it offered and considering the volume of orders I had.  I soon resorted to only painting the top side, something I am not proud of even if not many people noticed (or complained).

Great costume and customer!

I had a small break when the boat holding my materials order broke down in the Pacific and was sent back to LA.  I also closed orders a couple times to catch up.  During this time I reflected on the value of making stock before offering it for sale.  That was not an option at first, because I wanted to coincide with MGSV's launch date and I didn't have enough stock at that point.  I'm also glad I went with made-to-order because to be honest, otherwise there is no way I would have made so many arms.  Not even close.  I probably should have been charging more.

This hectic period is also when I officially retired the Multitool, because I was struggling to make one of those while Snake arm orders were pouring in and it was just not jiving with my schedule.  I converted the Etsy listing to a digital download of the Multitool blueprints - the first stage in making one for yourself from scratch.  I admit I mostly only did that so that I could keep the picture of the finished product up in my store, but it also turned me on to the immense value of digital items.  I only had to make that blueprint once, and every time I got a sale notification that turned out to be a blueprint that required no further work, I danced a little jig.  Five bucks is five bucks, and passive income is the holy grail of capitalism, after all.

By December, I decided to suspend Snake arm sales.  It was pretty much all because I was just burnt out on sanding those blasted little finger pieces.  Another motivating factor is that I had hit a convenient stopping point - if I made more arms, I would first need to order more silicone (it's really expensive), make more molds, and commit to another 50 something kits in order to get the most out of the molds.  At the time I was not feeling that prospect.  However, requests kept coming in, and sufficient time has passed that I think I can stand to premake a few per week.  I plan to make some more available in March 2016, this time featuring finger pieces with fully painted undersides, baby.

I'll make the Gold and Silver too!

The last reason I cut down on Snake arms is a familiar one - I was eager to get on to the next project.  I learned from Snake that having too many small pieces is almost as bad as working with overly large projects.  Luckily, my next project can be made with a single hunk of resin, and a handful of electronics.  This time, I sat down and made a nice spreadsheet to plan out my material and labor costs and fine tune a more appropriate price point.  This time, I will be making units in advance and making them available when they are truly available.


Starside Armory's next project is Rick's portal gun!  Rick and Morty is so hot right now, you've watched it, right?  Surely all of Starside's two staff members have watched it by now, RIGHT?!

I certainly appreciate the ease of replicating a prop from a cartoon instead of a 3D model, but I still wanted to make the prop be as functional and pretty as possible, without breaking the bank.  The portal gun will feature a programmable LED display, and a switched set of LEDs for the emitters in front and the, uhh, portal power pod thingy on top.  Nothing too fancy - I am trying to avoid dropping hundreds of dollars of electronics in the thing, and I hope to have the labor time on this down to a much, much more manageable level than my prior projects.

I don't want to sound like I'm setting a low bar here, but my experiences in 2015 definitely tell me that my projects for 2016 should aim for a balance between quality, affordability, and the ability to make them without tearing my hair out.  Down the line I do plan on moving the slider all the way towards quality for certain limited projects, but I can't focus on that until I have a more solid foundation established.  I still have to allocate a significant portion of time to video games, too!

I am also very interested in the digital realm, with my ultimate goal being to design and develop a video game.  That's been in the works for as long as I can remember, but it's going to take a lot more than just hours upon hours of sanding to get it out there.  When I do finish it, it's going to be spectacular.  And as with all of my projects, I hope you will like it :)

Seeya starside,

HokuKon '15

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