The bus is leaving, and the RPG publishing industry needs to jump on board or it’s going to get left behind.
Growing the RPG hobby, for the future, is going to depend on getting the players involved in both the playing and the making of these games we love. Otherwise, I believe we will continue in this long, slow death spiral. But there’s hope – the landslide is already happening, right under the industry’s watchful eye. Players are leaving town to make their own games, and to play by their own rules – heck, they’ve been doing it for years. We all know that once you buy a rulebook; you really don’t need to buy another one ever again. It’s all about content: adventures, settings, character development, story development…
And to create immersive games, the “industry” should tap into the creative energy of the tribe they build. Players know what they want, so why not turn them into flag bearers for the games they play. Put them in the driver’s seat. Make them developers. Tap in and create fun, exciting games that can be played out-of-the-box with a buy-in that is the price of a movie ticket. Have games that are portable, and have a very low, near disposable, buy-in. New gamers can try out new games without fear of breaking the bank. Veteran gamers can add another game to their library, without killing a dozen trees or their wallets. Sure, there will still be a place for that large milk-crate full of rulebooks, splatbooks, and binders from past campaigns – but to grow the hobby, we need to think outside that box.
It Takes a Tribe, Not a “Customer Base”
As I mentioned, publishers need to focus on building a tribe: a willing cadre of fans (read: customers – but that’s so 1980′s) who have a direct and active effect on the products the game publishers produce. If the publishers don’t, the tribe will do it on their own anyway. With Lulu, CreateSpace, and others, it’s just far too easy, too irresistible, for them to become DIY publishers these days. And if that happens though, then everyone loses. The publishers need their tribe to come together, they need them to stay afloat, to be - dare I say – profitable.
The fans need the publishers too though. Without them, everything will become a half-finished, poorly done mishmash of mistakes. The market will continue fragment into a thousand tiny niches full of games that are low-quality, stock art abominations. The publishers are the ones who can shepherd new, groundbreaking projects forward. They can bring to bear their years of expertise to produce, hand in hand with their tribe, games that rock.
If we want to grow the hobby, and keep it profitable enough for it to be an “industry”, then the publishers need to do a better job at connecting with their customers.
Open Design, with its patron project approach, is probably the best example of this sort of combination of publisher excellence mixed with rabid fan enthusiasm and support. More companies need to reach out, ditch their old business models, and build their own tribes along similar, but perhaps not identical, lines.
Just look at the Ennies – this is the litmus test of this paradigm shift as it is happening. The number of Ennies nominations going to small press and indie press publishers is amazing!
A Way Forward?
The old paradigms of capture, crush, and buy-in are over. You can’t capture the exclusive attention of an audience that has grown up with 1000 channels, and 400 billion websites. You can’t crush the competition by dropping your prices below theirs. When prices are ZERO - all bets are off. There are just too many DIY, Free RPG alternatives already available out there in the wild. OK – fine – take “Free” out of the picture for the moment and you still can’t expect people to pay $100 buy in for a game when a $10 “buy-in” is just as good, if not better.
Pinnacle’s Savage World’s Explorer Edition basically says, “Hey, the ten bucks you spend on this book subsidizes the cost of making this awesome game. Enjoy it, and if you want some real content to go along with it, then come back and lets talk some more.” It’s genius if you ask me. Even the big boys and girls of RPG publishing, Wizards of the Coast, have realized this by releasing a “old-school” styled starter set to reduce the “buy-in” for D&D.
Although, some may agree that the amazing efforts of a small press, Mythmere Games, to make the point the old-school doesn’t have to mean old (and the White Box is amazing, btw). What’s the point here? Well… the “buy-in” is OVER. People want their games upfront, on the cheap, and to have the choice to make a bigger buy in later. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
How can the fans be included in the development of the games they buy? Simple. Have a conversation with them. Start a dialogue. Form a tribe, work together. Make something amazing with them. Engage them. The cheapest, best, and most viral marketing comes from passionate fans that will volunteer to be flag-bearers for your products.
This doesn’t come from giving away free stuff (although that helps), nor does this come from being the biggest gorilla in the room (although it’s also effective to a fault). It comes from engagement. Participation. The emotional buy-in – not a monetary one. If the industry can begin to make connections with gamers on a creative level, and honestly make them feel like they are part of the creative process – there’s hope and the future looks pretty brigh
As I mentioned above, established publishing companies have much to offer the community – designers, cartographers, artists, experienced project managers, a storehouse of intellectual properties, and some instantly recognizable brand names. What the fans can offer the publishers is a willing tribe of flag bearers, who have their own talents to share in the process.
The big companies need to bring it down to the level of the community – open up the process of development, have the unfinished products open for everyone to see before they are finished. Include the tribe in the development cycle at each and every step and ask them for feedback – and then implement it. What is missing today is this connection, and the freedom to make that connectio
And I’m not talking here about OGL, system licenses, etc. I’m talking about passion. Gamers love to create worlds and share them. They love to houserule anything and everything fit to print.
They love to make awesome sauce out of apples.
And, I’ll bet dinner and a bottle of Jack’ , that if they could put those creative energies into the finished, published games they play a whole new generation of RPG fans would be born.
So, Publishers: To grow the hobby, make the core mechanics of your games free for everyone to use. Make all your nice digital toys and tools free, extensible, and open source. Change your business model and focus on developing content and services, not supplements and editions. Reward your fans with royalties instead of pennies for developing content of theirs that you publish. Enroll them as freelancers, don’t punish them as pirates. Engage them, and bring the tribe to the table before they leave on The Bus. We are at an end in an era in table-top gaming, and the beginning of a new a new one.
At least – that’s the view from where I’m coming from.
Sorry, gotta go. The bus is here. Next Stop: The Future!