What’s driving modern successes?
While the successes are smaller these days there are successes that can grab people and make an impact. I’m not going to limit myself purely to tabletop RPGs. There are overall trends in games of most kinds that it’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly in computer games and social gaming.
Not just a buzzword, social networking – in whatever form – makes or breaks a great many games across ‘platforms’ either in the form of cheap promotion as people pass on the good word, integration where achievements and fun in the game are ‘broadcast’ to people’s friendship groups OR due to being designed to be played on that platform in the first place (facebook/myspace/etc).
RPG companies that are switched on to social networking, blogging and make the effort to reach out to communities seem to be having greater success because they’re forming an evangelical and motivated fanbase that’s involved in what’s going on with the game and the company. Establishing that base can be very difficult and time consuming – unless you luck into something – but looking at the guys who do make it a success can maximise your chances.
Tying game aspects to real life and vice versa is a bit of a trend at the moment. Achievements in things like 4square have made people more interested in and more likely to use various apps and turning chores and work into games seem to encourage people to do them. How this might be integrated with tabletop RPGs I am not sure but it might be a way to encourage people to buy direct from a company’s own web store – if it could be hooked up with facebook. Doing much more isn’t really possible, given the small scale that most RPGs work on and the way that they’re played, though some sort of ‘honour system’ could let people express interest in the games as well as announcing that they’ve done particular things, achievements and badges like:
“Ran my first game of X”
“Ran X at a convention.”
“Bought book X.”
“Got a character to level 10 in game X”
Free at point of entry
You wouldn’t think that this might work in tabletop RPGs but the experience of the Eclipse Phase guys suggests otherwise. They released their main book for free right at the beginning, on PDF at least, a way to expose a lot of people to the game – which had a lot going for it in other ways – and as a counter-example to the seeming trend of more restrictive DRM and withdrawn PDFs, anti-piracy measures and so on. It may be a one-off, it’s hard to know, it did come out at a time of annoyance and reaction to the withdrawal of other PDFs from the market and was a diametrically opposed way of doing things – and it worked. Whether that’s something that can become an ongoing trend remains to be seen.
In social gaming the ‘free to start’ thing is huge, most games get people hooked and then offer them premium services later on. Extra options, ways to do more, ways to get one-up over others who play the same game. In tabletop games that’s a little harder but our supplementary material fulfils much of the same role and if we have more money or expertise providing online tools or subscription services. A free opener, a ‘loss leader’, can be a good way of getting people into your game – providing it’s good enough to hook people in the first place. Otherwise it’s a horrible risk.
If it’s worth time it’s worth money
Once people have spent time on something they, apparently, apply more worth to it. If you can bring someone into a game, make them spend a bit of time and effort on it then they’re going to be more willing and more ‘able’ to spend money on your products. This is skewed a little when it comes to RPG gaming because people seem to expect a lot more value, a lot more bang for their buck, than you would with other forms of entertainment – as well as there being a tendency to think of an unsupported system as a ‘dead’ system.
Dip in and out
One thing that has driven the change and scope in computer games is the rise – and apparent profitability – of casual games. Their secret, if it is a secret at all, is that they can be picked up and played as and when people want. They can pick them up as and when they have time, play for as long as they want and then put them away. While many of these are called ‘social games’ they aren’t particularly, but in others people can compete against each other and their actions interrelate. RPGs don’t lend themselves well to ‘pick up and play’ normally, but perhaps we can tap into some of this by encouraging the idea of an ongoing game where things can happen or be done between individual sessions. Downtime actions – as LARPs sometimes call them. This is more pressure upon the Games Master but it might also be possible to experiment with hybridisation where social games give characters benefits in tabletop sessions, tracking characters in ‘the cloud’. This takes some control from a Games Master though so, if we do try and exploit some of these changes from other media we’re going to have to put a lot more thought and effort into it. It also reverses the (good) trend of easier accessibility and the thriving indie and PDF game scenes.
Another aspect of this is ‘instant availability’. When people’s fancy takes them or on a whim, they can buy – say – a mobile game or sign up to a facebook game instantly. We’re halfway there with PDF market, but the bar is a little high to create apps, even with Android, requiring a confluence of skills that’s harder to bring together. Books are harder to read on smaller screens and colour e-books are thin on the ground, tablets have their own issues. That’ll change as time goes on but in the meantime looking into formatting for tablets and phones might be another means to check. A game with a ‘dice’ app built into it could be an accessible way for people to opportunistically play and even a way to overcome some of the physical limitations that dice have to them.