Wednesday, April 2, 2014

[A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Game Store] - You Ruined It So You Could Keep Selling It

"...there will be no riches at the end of the rainbow for the creation of content in any medium. Deciding to self publish rpg material is no road to riches... In fact the very issue of work for money is in flux - with movies and music being available free online (leagally, hulu, pandora, anyone?) how will anyone support themselves with creative effort? It is very likely they will not be able to."
C- of Hack and Slash, 'On Fracture'
A former gaming acquaintance of mine - we'll call him Mike, for 'twas his name, although I believe he should also have answered to 'Fun Murderer' - argued, eloquently and at length, that the very concept of a 'games industry' leads to bad design in the cause of creating and maintaining a functional business in order for developers to support themselves.

A business has financial responsibilities; bills, wages, costs, overheads. To satisfy those responsibilities, it must continue to produce and sell product, either by creating new games, or adding either supplements or splatbooks to existing ones. Extension of existing games is easier, in terms of development, than creation of new ones, and so this is frequently the preferred option. On top of that, there's the oft-noted issue in selling an RPG, the proverbial elephant in the room: you don't actually need everyone at the table to own everything in the line. One or two copies of the essential rules and that's it. RPGs, as products, innately limit their own sales volume - turning them into a going concern involves creating the illusion that everyone at the table needs STUFF, or that the game itself needs more STUFF to function. So far, so business-sensible; but is it actually good for the games?

Supplements tend to be okay, in my book (arf arf). They're the ones which add new settings in which a system can be used, and/or provide a substantial increase in replayability through additional mechanics. Dark Ages: Vampire was one of my favourites; new morality mechanics, new (or rather old) clans, quite a few differences in Disciplines, and a new context for characters, as lords of the night rather than skulking predators hiding behind a Masquerade. Victorian Age: Vampire was a less well-done product; although it remains an enjoyable enough experience to read, and does a credible job of showing us what the World of Darkness was like in the 1880s, it's all style and no substance, all fluff and no crunch - there's no practical difference between it and the parent game.

Splatbooks, meanwhile, I have more of an issue with. People who've bought a splatbook will want to use it, and fie on anyone who's convinced that there is aeons of potential play in the core materials alone (which there is, in most halfway-decent RPGs). They introduce padding to both mechanics and backstory, stuff which is 'in the rules' and which people will frequently feel bad about ignoring. This can then be 'stripped out' by the bright, clean, new edition, which will promptly generate splatbooks of its own the second sales start to dip, creating the need for a new clean slate. All very salutary business practice, but deliberately poor design: you're cluttering your game so you can fix it so you can declutter it again...

If you want to make games for a living, though, this is the path which you will sooner or later end up going down. The problem with the RPG industry isn't that games are a product for which money is charged, it's that a lot of people are trying to make their living off them, and when you have a living to make you need to keep making the things that make you a living. At least, that's what Mike told me.

While I agree with his analysis of the nature of game development as a business, I'm not sure that it's impossible to make a game and make some money off it. C-'s answer to the question he posed was that development should be done for the love of the game, and while I agree in spirit, developing a good game takes time, time is money, and too much time spent not making money means I'm having the pay the rent with Bullshit Integrity Dollars, which no nation on the world accepts as viable currency. Putting it simply, if I'm going to sink my time into making a game, I want that time to provide a viable stream of income. This doesn't, however, have to mean that I make my living as a game developer.

I spend a lot of time thinking about (and relentlessly attacking) the idea that we need one job, one stream of income, one vocation by which we can tidily identify ourselves and go about the means of living, and relegate everything else to 'hobby', stream-of-outgoing status. Personally, I am capable of doing quite a few things; I teach, I research and write, and I play, think about and occasionally even design games and game materials. Each of these things can become a stream of income, and I can identify as myself, rather than being 'a teacher' by vocation whose 'hobbies' are literary criticism and gaming.

This piece is now about three years old. Despite that, it's getting a repost - I would like to use it as a foundation for some further discussion about roleplaying games and how they're made and sold in the age of Kickstarter. Take this as "the way things were" - we'll talk about "the way things could be" and "the way things should be" and possibly even "the way things are" in the coming weeks.

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