Cab Driver - Customer, The First
In which our hero laments continuous re-hashing of 'classic' ideas and sourcebook saturation in tabletop RPG systems, suggesting the industry may wish to try other business models to thrive. A rambling dissertation from someone that makes MTV's Jimmy seem old-skool.
Before I sound too jaded, let me note a few things: being laid off sucks, healthy competition is a good thing, and watching businesses in your line of work fold is never nice. The business world is never certain, fickle things like entertainment or imagination are especially unpredictable. Thus endeth the caveat.
Today, we're off to the industrial park.
Driving by the people standing around the soapbox, someone announces the end of the RPG world is nigh. The chant is taken up and someone or something is burned in effigy as some kind of protest. The dark, moronic rumour mills turn, spilling greasy smog over the stars to the distant screams of Usenet monkeys, irritated mandrill posteriors and posturing the only visible thing in the flame-gutted ruins of discussion forums.
I hear on the news that Car Wars is being re-released by Steve Jackson. Car Wars is a good game but inwardly I groan. I still have my little black box. I know a few people who went further, buying the big blue box and the GURPS setting. The setting and the games were fun and I wonder if SJG will do a Car Wars/In Nomine supplement; as cross-genre is often a hit. I'm ambivalent to all of the new editions of RPGs. Fail to reprint and you fail to keep the game active. Too little work and you rip off the fans. Too much and you're accused of using the previous edition to play-test bad rules or risk alienating those who thought you got it right first time. You also re-hash everything to make it usable for this new edition - but hey, you get to put out a revised product with minimal work and that's good for business, apparently.
We cruise past the shopping mall, computer stores setting out stands for new versions of the same old software with only a few changes for your buck but with ever-increasing demands on your hardware. Stimulate the market this way and you hit a limit known as your user's needs. This is apparently the source of the current IT recession - the users have what they need. What now?
Have RPGs over-extended their roots in the same way? Some games demand more of their players and referees than others - are those games better than their simpler counterparts solely by virtue of the extra time put in by the players?
Returning to the computer game industry - do you buy the new FPS or MMORPG and finish coding it yourself before you play? There are tools to code FPS levels for games such as Quake, but they start out with a finished product. Does a developer steer your thinking in this way or do they create new games with expanded scope and functionality?
Now travelling past the gaming store with such a variety of games, and the matching sourcebooks for each. Will some players wonder if these books are needed to play? Can you play 'out the box' or do you need 'em? If so, are those sourcebooks for other games that are out-of-print? Or books that aren't out yet? Are some books all you need or do you need all of them (that would be good for business!) just to play?
Past the comic shop with its pneumatic yet cardboard women, shelves groaning with original comic books, the spin-offs, sidekick limited series, their own comics, the cross-overs, the cross-genres and parallel universes. Factor in the memorabilia, merchandising and all of it at higher prices than before due to collectable geek chic.
If you parody it right, your fans laugh at their folly as they snap it up. There is a dark side to this money-making: comic books rarely endure - many are absorbed into next year's lines or are supported by a rabid fanbase. Is the comic book industry the way of the future in the RPG industry? I shudder, and barely avoid running down a mob of kids scrambling over each other to buy the latest anime trading card craze, hologram flashes signalling a fistfight.
You ask what the solution is since I'm a cab driver right? If I were a real cabbie, I'd solve the problems of endless new editions, badly-edited products causing fans to spend months working out answers to questions left unanswered by designers -- the idea they sold you becomes your game, mostly having been re-written by you. You see, there's a solution but the industry won't like it. It reveals their work as shoddy goods sold to their customers. They'll yell they're only human and I'll be vilified from now till eternity on Usenet. Ready for the truth?
Quality. Smell the caffeine we all consume to pull those all-night gaming and writing sessions - the goods you've been sold are not up to scratch. The industries in this article all make disposable goods. The car coughs and you curse as I pull up with steam rising from the hood. I fix it, though you're unhappy about the delay and frustration. That dissatisfaction is the legacy of gaming -- for 30 years, customers have tolerated poor production. As companies rise into the circle of game gods, their feet of clay show.
We tolerate eccentricities and accept poor-quality games and expansions; yet the reprints never solve problems, only bringing more errors. They can even use the web site they have to provide errata, clarifications and corrections. Would you be so tolerant if the sci-fi novel you bought had bits missing and you could download the missing chapter from the publisher's web site?
Editing and proof reading are vital - not optional. If you put out poorly edited games with unclear, inconsistent rules, everyone else must work twice as hard and you may still crash and burn if there's no substance.
Less is more - how many times have you heard that phrase? How many d20 sourcebooks have you bought in the last year? Whilst you can argue for the proliferation of the industry through the d20 license, do we have comic store syndrome to look forward to as the smaller presses form their independent lines admired by hard-core fans? With the shops groaning under the weight of all it's products, can they even afford to carry them all?
From the business publishers: "That's all well and good but we sell products to customers on time. Deadlines wait for nobody." To borrow a tailoring adage, isn't it good sense to "measure twice and cut once". To quality assure your work? These people can afford editors, spellcheckers and proofreaders too! So why make mistakes?
From the vanity presses: "This is just for fun. We can't afford editors, we're small press." It's still good business sense to measure twice and cut once. Remember the businesses? You can set yourself above them by playtests and proofreading involving third parties.
Both of them are symptomatic of the real problem - it's not a perfect game I'm asking for, but one that works. Test your creation - see if it stands up in a stiff wind or in the fire of a playtesting session. See what's broken as a result and then fix it. If your playtesters find it is too hard to understand - they are right. This isn't an easy process, onlya rewarding one - if you can't find gamers to playtest, then you aren't trying hard enough!
Here we are, the industrial park. As you climb out, you ask how businesses can survive if they create fewer, higher quality products. Look at the niches in the market. Examples of "how to play" are good - from new characters to the ones with a little more experience to the movers and shakers who push the upper limits of the game. Introduce characters as examples of how to play - they will be adopted as such.
Make your products accessible but don't be afraid to experiment with styles - make sure that every word you've written counts and that the art enriches the experience. Don't be afraid to put out material allowing the busy to play your game and showcases your strengths. Try not to change the rules or bring new ideas that so fundamentally change how the game is played that you need a supplement to play. If the idea is good enough, it has to be put into a new game.
My eye is caught by a group of football-shirt clad folk with a battered ball. Laughing, they talk animatedly about what's been going on - and it occurs to me that perhaps the RPG business is following the wrong business models. Overheard gamers talk about their hobby loudly? Scary stuff but it's not just an image problem we have.
Look at the merchandising potential for football, money pouring in from all angles - there are TV channels with major airtime invested in it. Obscure rules, scary fans, large gatherings by particular groupings and tight woven cliques. Sounds familiar? We don't see it re-invented annually, no new rules to make it more accessible products (and movie buffs can recall Rollerball to see how changing rules can make a game stale) - introduce too much merchandising and there is a backlash from concerned fans.
Feeding frenzy tactics endangers interest in any field. Build to endure, re-print what works but be consistent, do the experimental stuff with new games and keep it accessible. You'll maintain interest without having to put out sourcebooks or patches every month. A tip? Thank you but I've already given. What? You insist? Well, far be it from me to be rude and refuse it.
I'd like to end with an open challenge to the gaming trade. Put out a game that doesn't need errata when you release it. That doesn't depend on it's comedy value to be worth the cover price but that has consistent rules that can be followed easily (simple is optional). A game that isn't dependent on a sourcebook every quarter or more to provide more than the barest bones for key character types.
A game that isn't dependant on high attributes to guarantee success or even competence. Oh, and make it interesting - get our imaginations fired up.
After all, how hard can getting it right possibly be?