Posts Tagged ‘business’

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The Devil’s in the Details

September 8, 2009

For the tabletop publisher, 4 measurements of success, beyond personal:

1. Number of games sold
2. Number of people playing
3. Profit
4. Longevity of play networks

Folks in the indie game movement are doing the usual bi-annual self assessment of scale, though at least this time they’re doing a better job of comparing apples to apples.

Probably the simplest context that gets overlooked in these discussions is that if your target audience is existing roleplayers, then you’re dealing with a target audience who has probably already invested a lot of time, money, and emotional investment (identity) into other games, and in part, is maintaining play networks for those games. This actually makes it an incredibly hard market to bust into in terms of gaining raw numbers.

You’ll notice that the mainstream rpg publishers which have survived generally continue to leverage the customer base they’ve already built (or, for Hasbro/WOTC, inherited) by releasing new editions or games which differ slightly with a core system (such as White Wolf). The indie publishers who tried to follow that model and jump on the supplement/edition treadmill usually fall hard, if only because you need to have an initial consumer base for that to work.

Where indie have been effective is hitting small scale profit. Which, sadly, is the easiest part of this, especially given PDF and print on demand options these days- can you do better than break even? Compared to mainstream offers for freelancers, etc. of pennies per word, the bar is so low, yeah, that got passed years ago.

The next question is how to increase the number of folks playing (and buying, I would assume) and the longevity of play.

Well, there’s always trying to break into the existing market. There’s been small victories in that, but little in huge breakout. Part of that is that generally the existing base of roleplayers form a small group or cell with a few extra folks and play either sporadically or regularly over the long term- either way, there usually isn’t a ton of cross pollination which you’d need for maximum word of mouth.

The traditional way is through retail, though the question for the small publisher is where is the magic breakpoint of cost- if one online sale gives you 10 times the profit of a retail sale, is it worth doing? Will you get 10 more players and will it lead to more sales or a stronger network, or will you just saturate your market for less profit?

The “traditional” indie way, is now primarily online through networks of gamers who are into indie games. This, too, has it’s limitations, and aside from more local conventions, has stabilized mostly into small groups with sporadic/long term play and little cross pollination outside of that.

I think we’ve reached the limit of how far that’s going to go, short of some kind of fad or trend causing the smaller game conventions to explode with numbers.

What’s next? Some folks are reaching out to other geek related cons- videogames, anime, etc. and this is something I’m surprised the indie crowd -hasn’t- been doing.

I expect this will probably be the next direction of growth for a while, though it’ll probably be awhile before we see the equivalent of a Forge Booth style operation -well staffed, well organized, with an intense level of play being pushed. Maybe if you had something like 5 people running short games at a con, you could see a spread effect- you need to hit a critical mass in an area to generate buzz that lasts after you leave. If 5 people who never heard of rpgs or barely touched them had a good time, that’s one thing. If 30 people have, then they can start looking at forming their own networks and you have something growing from that.

That’s what I’d like to see- taking the same mentality for the gaming cons to other situations.

We’ll see what happens though.

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Closed vs. Evolving rulesets

October 10, 2007

RPGs have a pretty fascinating history of design – until CCGs, this is the only hobby where many/most of the games have the expectation that further rules will be added to change the game in the future.

Most games you might play, of any type, are closed rulesets- the rules are designed and that’s the game.  Even if you add houserules, that’s your personal choice and not a design choice.  Chess is chess- you don’t get a yearly or quarterly “update” to supplement chess.

Most people expect the rules to a game to be the same and the idea of evolving or open rules that will see regular updates or have so many optional rules that they outnumber the basic rules is pretty foreign.

Not only that, but it’s a thousand times easier to build a workable set of rules that are closed than it is to build a set of rules that are modular and open enough to accept future designs.

From a gamist standpoint, it generally holds true that a successful game should be able to work as a fun core design, a closed one, if it’s also going to work as a fun evolving rule set.  That is, Magic the Gathering works well as a basic game, before you even add the millions of extra sets.  If the closed game is not fun, and you -have- to turn to the supplemental material for the fun part, you’ve got a fundamentally flawed design.

Another major point is that the difficulty is not just in the core game, but in making sure that the supplemental rules do not displace the core rules.  Many games suffer from “power creep”, in which new rules displace previous rules, often times rendering them completely ineffective or useless.   For CCGs, this isn’t -as bad-, since part of the game is building decks to meet these strategies.

For RPGs, though, it can be completely disasterous as a) players have to completely relearn new mechanics, b) long term strategic commitments (such as a character build) become useless and need to be replaced.  It’s not as easy as swapping some cards for a 30 minute game.

Historically though, few rpgs have been designed with explicit gamism in mind.  Most have a mixture of other goals in mind, which tends to lead to a mish-mash of rules that do not necesesarily balance from a gamist standpoint.   This is the area where you find communities of gamers sharply divided over what rules they will or will not use, seeing how some completely kick out other rules as viable options.

The onus falls upon each group to play the role of the designer by picking and choosing what rules actually function for their game goals.  This often involves weeks, months, or even years of playtime to hone this to a set they find fun.  Much of this becomes unspoken lessons picked up by the players, about which character builds to avoid, which play strategies work or don’t work, etc.

And then they get to do this over again when they choose to add a new set of rules…

At this point, though, this kind of design is legacy as opposed to well thought out.  Great strides have been made in design in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how evolving rule sets improve in the future, especially between the amount of play experiences we can pull from CCGs, MMO’s alone.