Tag Archive | social media

How You Can Get Nice Things

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

Yes, last in the series, from here to here and now, next steps. Oh, there’s still plenty of room for negativity, but I think anybody who’s going to get it has taken time to look at themselves and their communities. I considered linking to numerous examples of screwed up things (like RPGNet using its anti-discrimination rules to protect Otherkin instead of people of colour) to set the stage for alternatives, but with an embarrassment of riches . . . of embarrassment . . . to choose from, I just couldn’t decide? Bitchy, entitlement-ridden power posters who are PDF pirates on other sites? Discussions on how to screw over the ENnies’ voting system? Easy. Easy.

Some communities aren’t so bad. Company forums are generally okay, but lack the vitality of general communities. Others (like ENWorld) sacrifice vital critical discussion at the altar of bland affability, but in the end don’t do either well. There’s got to be another way. Here’s what I’d like.

(By the way, this may look like it’s all about forums, but it isn’t — it applies to blogs and general social hubs, too.)

Intelligent Antidiscrimination

A smart antidiscrimination policy is aware that racism, sexism and other issues are not just a subset of generic discrimination against any fucking thing somebody whines about. It takes historical and cultural realities into account. It doesn’t deprive people who’ve been attacked of the ability to defend themselves, or autonomously raise objections without begging for moderation. It’s administered as a collective ally, willing to adjust itself according to criticism — but not criticism coming from a reactionary sense of privilege.

Critical Categories

By tag, forum or dinner social, communities need to clearly differentiate between their different functions. Nothing fucks up serious critical discussion like participants who expect support for their sense of self-worth, especially when they confuse comments on their game as comments on their personalities. I know some folks think their games are precious pieces of themselves. Those people are weak. Still, there needs to be a place for them along with anyone else who just feels like shooting the breeze. So devote one section to casual discussion and one to high intensity criticism. Create another, separate section for making things — house rules, mods, whole games. Again, this sounds like online business but it can just as easily apply to conventions.

Fuck Actual Play — Just Play

It’s time to kick Actual (Capitalized) Play in the teeth. No other thing is as representative of the bankruptcy of gaming’s vocal minority than its fetish for play stories because this makes them a commodity in a community that has come to believe that the most common outcome of trying to play RPGs is some form of failure. Lots of things deserve their own forums, but Actual Play isn’t one of them. Instead, community values should uphold regular play as the objective: not be a special occasion that draws applause from other hobbyists. Not playing  should be a problem we work together to solve with all the social tools at our command.

Are play stories bad? No, but it’s time to break them out into a secondary form of entertainment and admit that it is a creative act above and beyond describing what happens in game sessions (which they don’t do well anyway). So let’s encourage the JRPG replay tradition and put in the “make things” category.

Sincerity, Not Selling

By clamouring for decorum at the expense of authentic conversations we’ve made communities which should burst with creative vitality into a place where the worst behaviours vomit themselves onto the public stage. Perpetrators expect some authority to deny it or let it slide. That’s why rather than being marketing resistant as some commentators naively believe, RPG communities have been vulnerable to calculated, insincere persuasion at all scales. Worse, this makes marketing something fans do to each other. Just the other day I read a fan blog for one game where the posts were mainly about delivering pitches to sell the game to other people.

If a game designer promotes this, he or she deserves your contempt. If a community emphasizes this, that community deserves your derision. Yes, boosting what you like is natural, but there are limits. Instead, demonstrate your enthusiasm by creating things, being sincere at the risk of being controversial, and valuing participation over hands-off commentary. Let’s be raw, inspiring and truthful. Let’s play.

Why You Should Have Nice Things

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

So! Lots of people read and responded to Why You Can’t Have Nice Things. That means it deserves a follow up, but I can’t address individuals, so I’ll try to sort everything in to broad response categories.

We’re just resisting your marketing!

No. I’ve seen strong naiveté from the RPG community about what 21st Century marketers are really up to.The first thing you need to do is read The Cluetrain Manifesto. Recognize the sentiments? Things like You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention? That’s not resistance. It’s unconscious capitulation to the values of marketing as they have existed for over a decade.

The real danger behind post-Cluetrain thinking, and the line peddled by the likes of Clay Shirky, Seth Godin and others is that it is so easily adopted by adherents as a progressive ideology instead of the vapid simulation of honesty that it is. The indie community has basically been completely compromised by this kind of bullshit. It’s seductive because it consists of this internal programming:

  1. It’s my job to have conversations and be responsive in a genuine, feeling fashion.
  2. My empathy and responsiveness can be determined by objective metrics.

Is sincerity or integrity actually required? No. In fact, it’s probably something of a hindrance. Sincerity includes arguments and other unpleasantness, but “the conversation” doesn’t need any of the messy parts of genuine communication.

You might not notice it, but it affects you. It explains why being nice in gaming communities is so often a tense, passive-aggressive affair, always on the verge of breaking down. To gamers, good online behaviour is internalized marketing values — fake-positive, inhuman values. You’re not being yourself. You’re selling yourself. It’s a capitalist panopticon.

Think on this: My essay could never appear on ENWorld (because of the language) or RPGNet (because, incredibly, it would be against rules banning “group attacks” — RPGNet would moderate it as if it was racist hate speech).

I know you are, but what am I?

Some argued that by saying unkind things, I was the very thing I protested! Y’know, that’s not a bad objection. I don’t think it’s true, but it does emphasize the problem that we have when it comes to engaging in useful criticism. Right now the RPG community is stuck on competing dogmas that don’t honestly truck with the fact of their own subjectivity. Things are “broken.” “Core stories.” “Railroading.” “Toolkits.” “The Big Model.”

Some of these ideas are decent as folk terms, but they’ve been raised up as the basis of unity for a bunch of asshole subcultures. In some cases, the dogma is so strong that it will go to extreme lengths to exclude contradictory voices or evidence. I’ve read lots of essays describing how RPGs are made and developed that don’t match my direct experience. None of the writers ever bothered to email the people whose jobs they believed they were detailing. The capacity to own your own beliefs as an artistic stance has atrophied behind a pretense of RPGs as some kind of technology.

(That pretense also explains why games that try to aim for the stereotypical sense of art are so often clichéd and uninspiring. If you lie to yourself about the nature of your creative stance it’s going to draw shallow results due to a lack of critical introspection.)

So what’s left? Pushing back. Pushing hard. And it works. I was pleased to see some serious self-analysis on ENWorld and in comments on my own blog. But that’s not the best way. We need critical communities that work, that don’t force us to choose between flames and the banality of internalized conversation marketing.

Hm, maybe, but doesn’t every group have that?

Like I said, we noticed that out of all the groups we worked with, the gamers stood out. It may be that every scene has the same number of jerks, but RPG jerks are remarkably easy to meet compared to non-jerks. They dominate conversations about how games should be played and designed.

That’s a big problem. Why?

  • Jerks act as if failure is the default result of trying to get a game together. Success is difficult.
  • Jerks think of other people as instruments to be manipulated, and assume they’ll be treated that way in kind.
  • Jerks focus on superficialities and technicalities, not intentions and aspirations.

Putting assholes in  the drivers’ seat takes games and the scene away from a place where it could be influential not because gamers are some kind of counterculture, but because their ideas look like the results of annoying personalities and deficient values. There’s better stuff beneath the surface, but if your initial scouting reports look bad here and better elsewhere, why dig? Nobody has an obligation to get to know you better.

Why do you hate us?

That’s easy. I don’t.  I think most gamers are cool people. I’d like to hear some of these cool people speak out.

So why should we have nice things?

So after saying all these bad things about a subset of gamers, why do I think they should be a part of all the cool stuff that’s happening in media and fiction? The answer’s easy: Once you correct for assholes, gamers are pretty much guys with flamethrowers in a world trying to bang the rocks together. I’ve said it before, and I’ll talk about why in more depth in a future post.

Why You Can’t Have Nice Things

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

A couple of years ago I had this client — great guy, worked with him a few times. He’s a former tabletop RPG player and was really interested in bringing some of the ideas he loved from that into a new arena in the form of some cool online tools. We looked at the market at the time and determined that the service was pretty much tailor-made for roleplayers and that they were the most natural early adopters.

Once we got actual tabletop gamers from the “leading edge” of the hobby, he discovered they were so insufferable he changed his business model to stop attracting them. They were bad for business. They weren’t the gamers he remembered having fun with. They were assholes.

How were they assholes? My client used a bunch of methods to tag RPG players and monitor them moving through the system. This is what he found out about them:

  • Instead of having social conversations, they focused on concrete goals.
  • They related to content in a cynical fashion.
  • They dissuaded other users from getting involved with the content.
  • They resisted most desired behaviors (that is, the stuff that actually might make money).
  • They complained all the goddamn time.

Because it was easy to track user origins, we knew this was more true for gamers, than general users. So the counterargument that everybody on the internet is like this doesn’t work. They aren’t.

This story of mine — a true story, though I’ve kept names out of it — is not unique. It’s why even though there are millions of lapsed gamers, transmedia developers shy away from developing them as an audience. Over on Twitter Gareth-Michael Skarka talked about how transmedia takes lessons from RPGs, but isn’t interested in the RPG audience. Yeah, that’s pretty much true. There are millions of lapsed gamers, but in my experience they’re largely considered no benefit to or a pox on growth.

I’ve met plenty of great gamers, and I don’t think the bad traits listed above belong to the majority — just the ones who have a strong online presence, who the CMO and co. are going to look at after the nerd in the project makes an argument for his peeps.

Meanwhile, the tabletop’s anti-intelligentsia are roaming Outer Fucking Space complaining that they don’t get enough respect, service and other super-good stuff that nobody with a good long term business plan should be especially eager to provide. They are right to think that as a bloc, gamers (not just them, but the whole group of people who are familiar with tabletop RPGs) could have significant power in the market, but don’t understand that they are undermining this power.

One of the first things you learn in any marketing program is that you not only don’t have to cater to everybody, but that you shouldn’t. There are customers out there who can faithfully buy from you and still run your company into the ground. Effective marketing includes making these people go away with a minimum of fuss. Smart folks avoid the temptation to poach from toxic segments. For example, if you want 10,000 subscribers/buyers by a given date it might be easy to grab early adopters from a certain segment to hit this target, but if that segment drives other people away, you’ll miss future growth targets.

This applies to tabletop RPG companies as much as it does to ventures that might pull gamers from the tabletop to somewhere else. WotC’s D&D Encounters may look a bit desperate but it’s smart enough to provide alternatives to the established D&D community. Lapsed gamers can take a fresh look at D&D without getting involved in the war between edition adherents, meeting character-build zombies, or dealing with other public killjoys. The killjoys . . . well there’s a point where you realize that rational decision making doesn’t come into it.

When the visible side of a fanbase doesn’t react with nuance, who wants to deal with that? It means that group will be difficult to work with, conservative and socially intractable. There might be great people beneath the surface, but not everybody has the time or money or interest to do that. You’re not going to get a second chance when there are much nicer people out there to please.

How could gamers be nicer people? Do the opposite of what you did in bullet points up at the beginning of this piece:

  • Be friendly, casual and socially full-featured. Shut up about storming the castle every once and a while (and don’t just replace that with combative garbage about some other field.)
  • Demonstrate that you appreciate the content instead of developing some fucked up hateful relationship with it. If you don’t like it by all means, move on.
  • Respect neophyte insights that jerkwad gamers think are naive or problematic.
  • Make peace with the fact that people want money for things and have models for doing so. If you don’t like the model, stay the hell away from the product.
  • Create/mod in response to preferences that you will own instead of some inevitable truth you’ll crap on something for defying.

I would really like the tabletop RPG community to be at the center of roleplaying in all media, sharing their insights, but it’s not going to happen unless that center attracts.

Fight the Power (Law)

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

The Purefold presentations constantly refer to a social media power law — one that resembles (and might just be) the Power Law of Participation described here. The law (really a simplification of complex trends) says that in any community:

  • 90% are passive observers — lurkers, subscribers and occasional commenters in online communities.
  • 9% are active contributors — in online communities, power posters and second tier collaborators.
  • 1% are leaders and creators — dedicated creative folks, organizers, people who shepherd long term projects and so on.

This trend is strongly measurable in online communities because each level of participation leaves a different electronic footprint, but it applies outside of the Web. You’ll always have the communicators and obsessives at the heart of a scene, at least as a common reference point for quieter, more casual folks.

It’s easy to interpret the power law in a misanthropic way. You might say the 90% is a pack of people who won’t take control of their own subcultures, or that the 10% are obsessive dweebs.  That’s the wrong way to go about it. People who lurk in one scene might be powerful participants in another. The number of communities we belong to usually outstrips our capacity to take active roles in them all.

Mover, Shaker . . . Shoveler

It’s in a social media guru’s interests to pretend that the influential tenth represents everyone else. If I (as a Social Media Guy) influence 10 people to agree with me, that’s really 100 — or even 1000, if they’re in the 1% of leaders! I don’t have to bother doing difficult research if I pretend that every loudmouth is backed up by at least 10 quiet allies.

It helps that the vocal 10% want to believe it too; they want to be important. So we’re all in it together, perpetuating this heap of bullshit.

Unfortunately, while the ultra-visible 10% can organize consent to their opinions from the 90%, they do not necessarily represent them. In any community with a low investment (fans of a band, forum members) the majority may have very strong opinions about the topic, but just don’t care about sharing or promoting it. It might be hard for that 10% to understand how holding an opinion doesn’t lead to the urge to share it and as mentioned before, there’s a natural tendency for joiners to want joining and acting to count for something and persuasively represent the whole. And it is so very tempting to take communities at face value so you can work less and believe in their positive feedback.

Surely, nobody wants to hear that they should distrust the Vocal Tenth and take what it says with a grain of salt, but I’m still going to say it.

A Little Something for Everybody Else

If you’re making games, telling stories and generally getting creative on stuff for a mass audience it’s not your job to obey the Vocal Tenth. Don’t create through regurgitation; if that’s what you’re doing, nobody needs you. Quit. You don’t need to be an original precious flower, but there should be that extra thing holding it all together.

To put community feedback in perspective you absolutely need this kind of creative integrity. Part of your job is to protect it and the majority from the Vocal Tenth.  Otherwise, the Tenth undermines your efforts with:

  • The desire to be experts, which leads to making shit up, whether it be in the form of conscious fanon or something that’s just wrong, but repeatedly stated by someone who won’t shut up.
  • Criticism that dismisses something you think probably serves a less vocal segment of the audience — often, one discouraged by the Vocal Tenth from participating.
  • Emphasis on open participation and structural issues over a strong, holistic creative direction. Things are more accessible once you break them into modular chunks, but the stuff made from those chunks tends to be dull or ugly.

. . . and other problems. The Vocal Tenth has a tendency to grab stuff and run with it to the point of undermining your original vision and alienating the other nine-tenths.

Creative stewardship means giving the majority of your audience license to have opinions at odds with the ones people broadcast, and exploring lines of development implied by your work whether or not they come preapproved by the Tenth. It’s also about developing your work as a leader, not a servant. People talk as if they want and shout outs and other forms of deference, but that’s only going to reflect what they’ve already brought to your work. Why are you doing something they can do themselves?

(I see this kind of thing in tabletop RPGs all the time, when some fan says “I can’t possibly play this game because they didn’t include this idea that I spent several months developing and several hours describing, because it would be too hard to do it without official support.” Really?)

Ultimately your audience wants new ideas they wouldn’t develop themselves. It’s risky — you can choose something that sucks — but regurgitating community consensus will always lose, given time. You’re not adding anything original, and that hollow lack of direction won’t go unnoticed. The danger here is that the Vocal Tenth love this. Their constituents like having the official stamp of approval, and as diehard fans it takes them longer to get bored with autocannibalism.

Meanwhile, and without raising a fuss, everybody else abandons your project. They don’t lurk on your site. They stop buying your books. Whatever. While you’re partying it up with the Tenth, nobody else cares any more. You lose. Isn’t pleasing your network fun?

If you want to keep your entire audience around, here’s what I recommend:

  • Stick to your vision. If you don’t demonstrate forward looking leadership and simply react to reactions, your IP will eventually sink under the weight of mutually referential garbage.
  • Define participation. Develop a canon policy and degrees of recognition that create one vision for the community to form around, but doesn’t discourage fan works.
  • Question consensus. When the Vocal Tenth settles on an idea, privately explore its downsides and publicly give yourself room to maneuver no matter what the “true fans” decide. Sometimes, you may settle on something similar to what they’re talking about, but it should never be because that’s what they’re talking about.
  • Seek alternative sources of feedback. The Vocal Tenth is a limited slice of your total audience. You need information from other sources, from face to face encounters to reliable research. Looking outside the hard core’s demographics is critical, otherwise you might get lured into appearing racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory.
  • Recruit, acknowledge, reward. Don’t take what I’ve said to be a straight out dismissal of your most vocal fans. Be guarded, but provide a thoughtful place for their contributions. Get them on your side. Send them cool stuff. They do have pull, even if (as I said earlier) majority consent isn’t the same as vigorous agreement.

Nowadays we have a few tools to measure near-total interest that anyone can use, at least for rough estimates. Silent Majority or Vocal Tenth, everybody Googles, so Google Trends is a handy way to make comparisons. Check out the difference between Vampire RPG brands, for example. Whatever you do, remember that you can’t go wrong by following through on your original ideas with dedicated craftsmanship. Your success is always bound by the quality of your core effort. Nine-tenths or one, everybody knows when you cut corners, and they’ll turn their attention elsewhere.

Lessons From the Fall of Purefold

Originally published at Mob | United | Malcolm | Sheppard. Please leave any comments there.

Purefold was supposed to be everything social media wonks, democratic Web advocates and SF nerds wanted – oh, and it was supposed to make money, too. It’s based on Blade Runner! They hired Cory Doctorow! It was going to use Creative Commons! Friendfeed! MIT experts! Purefold was the Platonic form of what was supposed to be good transmedia.

On paper (or in transmedia seminars) the Purefold process looks really cool. In a nutshell:

  1. Harvest trending content from Friendfeed based on the intersection of net talk and sponsor interest.
  2. Get an agile production team to turn these keywords/ideas into an episode, which would include prototype placement (think Will Smith’s car from I, Robot).
  3. Extend the property with Creative Commons, allowing remixing and free responses.
  4. Use the result to harvest content for the next webisode.

Take a look at this presentation via Vimeo and this one on VodPod. Bask in the forward-looking confidence. Too bad it’s dead. No money, you see.

What’s wrong with Purefold? Why wasn’t it worth the money?

“Branded Content Initiative”

Do those words fill you with excitement? Me neither. And believe it or not, they don’t even thrill marketing folks much. Traditional product placement attaches a brand to worthwhile storytelling (and even bad storytelling is worthwhile if it attracts eyeballs). People know there’s something insincere about straight marketing.

Product placement makes raw branding’s bitter pill easier to swallow by linking it to emotionally provocative storytelling. Emotional power makes an experience feel truthful enough to drag associated signs along for the ride. But if you make storytelling a brand’s servant you’re left with marketing that people can see a mile away – and avoid.

The audience tolerates your brand when it can either easily identify the moments you’re pushing it (commercials) or when it doesn’t disturb the story’s verisimilitude. Otherwise, the story and branding fail. Nobody’s going to believe in Binging.

That’s why “branded content initiatives” have little value compared to real stories. The audience expects you to protect the integrity of the story, including its plot and world. At best, it can be no better than direct advertising, so that’s what companies will pay for instead of webisodes.

Screw Attention, I Want Money

The Vimeo presentation linked above fielded some thorny questions about attribution. The team plans on ripping inspiration fresh from the Web. Many content producers naturally wanted to say that, *cough* they owned those inspirations, thank you very much! At one point, the Ag8 guy makes the incredible statement that attribution is better than money.

But attention is only valuable when people can convert it into money at rate proportional to the effort. Collective marketing initiatives typically exploit other people’s content through aggregation and share distribution. The base service or element (such as Adsense) takes a big chunk; everybody else gets salami slices. Purefold didn’t even offer that, opting for a glorified handshake in return for the right to use its open content. But anyone who isn’t interested in profit will already use your content, licensed or not. Nobody’s suing people for their Blade Runner fan pages now, so why care about licensing that makes it legal?

In other words, Purefold wanted fandom but had no idea how to structure itself to avoid appearing exploitative. This isn’t just an image problem but a legal one. Creatives know that they need to be very cautious about naming inspirations and work within a careful framework of disclaimers and best practices.

What Should Purefold Look Like?

Okay, I’ve knocked down Purefold. Let’s rebuild it. What should the process be?

  1. Develop an extensible narrative world. Yep, that means creating fiction instead of “branding initiatives.” Purefold should be a speculative world that revolves around a tight cluster of meaty themes. The world’s main narrative arc is pure back story that inspires other stories through multiple media.
  2. Identify branding needs. The world should suggest opportunities for brand integration that don’t feel forced, and marketing staff should find branding partners to fill these roles. The failed version of Purefold forced partners to create prototypes for glorified commercials. This Purefold identifies the branding and product placement needs of the world. This makes sponsors look like contributors, not exploiters.
  3. Extend the property with Creative Commons and open development teams. CC shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. Fan-intensive IP managers know that establishing canonical status is am important part of management. Purefold needs opt-in communities that will create work worthy of promotion – something that requires management from the top, but can forego the restrictiveness of traditional licensing. I envision a development authority (“canon monkey”) managing communities and giving high quality items a stamp of approval, creating a basis of unity for the extended Purefold community.
  4. React, extend, redevelop. Feedback guides the team’s approach to the narrative world and future episodes. It’s more than tallying keyword votes. This is a counterweight to the 9% of creative contributors in the 1/9/90 split. Creative staff needs to think of the other 90%, because that 9% might run off with the property by loudly inserting fanon and other elements that deviate from the property’s core themes.

It wouldn’t be as cheap as the old dream of Purefold, but I think it would work better, prove a little more shock resistant, and present far more room for expansion than the vision of veiled commercials in the Blade Runner universe for products that don’t exist, based on whatever keywords Friendfeed can grab.

Story is So Over

Originally published at Mobunited.com. Please leave any comments there.

It’s easy to bring creatives and managers together in a fiction-based media venture by emphasizing “story.” A supposed story focus makes writers feel good because they can take credit for it, and managers feel good because (aside from the fact that many are also writers, former writers or the people who have to do the writing if nobody else does) it’s cheaper than doing the heavy lifting and sausage making of solid IP foundations like worldbuilding.

I mean, does anything make folks feel more legit than saying, “We cut down the IP bible to next to nothing because we realized that story is what really matters!” Hell, I feel like more of Almost an Artist for even repeating it. But that’s bogus. Here’s why.

Worldbuilding Isn’t Where Your Elves Live

Many fans and a few game designers think building a world is about establishing a kind of extended backstory and almanac that tells you what religion your dwarves are, where trade routes go – crap like that. Most people think this way because this type of thing is what teenage gamers are good at and what Tolkien and successors did.

Real worldbuilding is about creating a context where you can implement multiple narratives across multiple media without getting thematically neutral pap, where there’s always a very strong tendency toward a particular look and feel. This includes:

  • Establishing core themes and motifs
  • Defining sensory (visual, audio, etc.) characteristics in concert with the appropriate departments (mood boards, justifying the visual language and branding in the world)
  • Taking stock of core/launch media requirements (integrating the world with game play, matching elements to available production values)
  • Creating exemplars to anchor themes and motifs (signature/iconic characters and locations, epistolary elements)
  • Creating social relationships in the world that can be adopted by participants (factions, guild support, relationship maps)
  • Creating conflict points that can be extended into stories and foci in statements of fact (backstories that generate conflict, faction conflicts, mysteries, general story hooks)
  • Inspecting drafts for excess contrivance and artificiality

I am not making this shit up. I’m just telling you what I actually talk about with clients in RPG and transmedia projects in cases where I have faith in the end product succeeding. Note that getting the creation myth or technology down serves everything above. Hard facts aren’t absent at the beginning, but they don’t rule the roost as much as people think.

Sadly, getting this done is expensive and since it’s an obscure craft, it’s hard to get the same degree of satisfaction from the end result. Nobody cares if you brag that you created a context that made it possible for a cool story to exist at all, and to be part of a huge, extended transmedia narrative. They care about what happened last episode, or whether elves live in the mountains. It’s expensive and hard for anyone to get excited about. Plus, these days, some clever folks think they can just get the fanbase to do it for them, which is a fatal misreading of how fandom works with media.

Cubism Ain’t Stacking Toy Blocks

A story though! That sounds reputable, doesn’t it? Your Favourite Literature has a story, so it’s obviously classy. Best of all, everybody learns the components of a story by junior high, so it everyone feels terribly clever because they can identify rising tensions and denouements and crap.

This means that when people talk about story, they think of all the good parts of media they experienced, but actually just work on plot and structure wrapped around some fan-friendly signifiers. (This is a love story with nanotechnology!) To refer to the section header, people sure love to pat themselves on the back for assembling the toy blocks.

Literary fiction long ago came to the conclusion that this is easy and a bogus thing to feel artsy about, and switched focus to style and characterization. That’s why Margaret Atwood can write Oryx and Crake even though you, the SF nerd, have read about post-apocalyptic biotechnology before. Stylistic innovation is a tough road, however, and often distrusted. There won’t be a magic realist Star Wars novel any time soon, folks.

Structure is easier than style. When you reduce story to structure, structure is cheap to implement. Just mate it with some motifs and lists of facts and you’re done! Your IP will eventually fall apart when fans get bored, because they’ll realize the world has no meaning and the story represents the minimum effort it takes to walk a product down the aisle.

At least it’s cheap.

Have You Looked Around Lately?

In the tabletop RPG community people think that skimping on the world is okay, because the fans can fill it in – everyone has a D&D campaign world, right? It’s also easy to believe that nobody really wants the infodumps in CRPGs because it’s not at the center of the play experience. This is the reverse of the truth. In the post-fanfic world where the greatest trend in user-driven RPGs is based on IP canon freeform, people who represent the progressive edge of the audience want the world more – they’ve demonstrated that they can create stories with its guidance.

Tabletop RPGs may be unique in misreading, ignoring and demonstrating denial-plagued pants-staining terror at the idea that its latest innovations are movements in the wrong direction, but I think you might find it in other media. That’s a pity, because tabletop RPGs have a bunch of things to teach about moving in the right direction.

The RPG EBook of the Future

Originally published at Mobunited.com. Please leave any comments there.

To follow up on the Next Gen RPGs post I’d like to toss up a sample interface:

RPG E-Book Interface

RPG E-Book Interface

This is probably a Flash application. You can resize, minimize or dismiss each pane in the interface above. The book screen is actually the second screen you’d get after opening up the game, after going to your library from the start screen (and seeing options to click through to campaign management, communities and play tools), though you’d be able to bypass that if you want.

I can visualize a lot of options, and a real danger in giving them near-equal standing that destroys the benefits of a minimalist interface. Funneling people to the most common functions without making it a total pain to go somewhere else is the challenge, and would require some experimentation to get right.

Let’s take it pane by pane:

Book Media Pane: Your book’s images appear here. They fade in when you hit an appropriate part of the text. Additional media plays here too. You can set images to appear in the text body instead, or link media to particular sections, so that clicking on them summons them to the media pane. If you want pure text, just dismiss the pane. Layout/design may configure the pane to automatically resize based on certain cues, to maintain its functionality while taking advantage of the aesthetics of traditional layout. You can also break out of the book completely to add media from your own library, that of the community, or any other mashable media object.

Book Text Pane: The game text goes here. You can select page by page layout, but the default is continuous scrolling, though not in the same sense as a big browser window. It may or may not have embedded media depending on the book and your preferences. The navigation pane makes it easily to find the content you want, but the text itself includes hyperlinks to other relevant sections, tutorials/FAQs, a as developer comments and community content (one touch brings up options and two goes to your default). You can also add your own comments in text regions to build in house rules.

Book Navigation Pane: The basic options here let you tab between text and gallery-style media navigation. In text navigation, the pane lists your current “page” (scrolling spot), chapter and heading, and lets you either navigate back and forth in each category, or pick from a pop up or drop down list. You can also perform a text-based search here. This sticks to the book by default but you can set it to search the entire game-as-service.

Tool and Community Tabs: Your tabs illustrate a major concept: Your book is never just your book, but one emphasis in the resource cloud. You really only need two tabs here because these can “rotate” through a list of options, including play tools like a dice roller, community forums and your campaign notes.

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