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.)
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.
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.
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:
- It’s my job to have conversations and be responsive in a genuine, feeling fashion.
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Harvest trending content from Friendfeed based on the intersection of net talk and sponsor interest.
- 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).
- Extend the property with Creative Commons, allowing remixing and free responses.
- Use the result to harvest content for the next webisode.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
To follow up on the Next Gen RPGs post I’d like to toss up a sample 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.
Between the CCP/White Wolf announcement and the obvious rise of e-publishing as a vital component in the industry it’s time to ask: What should electronically delivered tabletop RPGs look like?
The Current Formula
Electronic implementation is currently a user-organized exploit of current cheap technologies. You could express it this way:
Hardware + PDF + Native Applications + Web Tools + Community = Tabletop Simulation
Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this model:
It isn’t integrated. Even DDI is a jungle of web apps and PDFs that require individual kludging to wrestle into an easy process. My DM Steve has a DDI subscription and campaign notes in Word. As far as I can tell his processes uses DDI for prep and community insights but it doesn’t have much of a table presence. If it did, he’d be switching back and forth.
Steve doesn’t use electronic dice. I do, using an iPod Touch app. I also use the Touch to share relevant media from the Star Wars setting. I showed them a picture of The Force Unleashed’s PROXY when it joined the party, for example. It’s still clumsy, and I spend about 75% of my time using paper.
It aims low. Theoretically, GMs should be able to show rich media applications with a touch. Rules documents should be extensively hyperlinked, including links to FAQs, tutorials and community feedback. All of this is possible with current technology. Furthermore, PDFs are too wedded to the illusion of paper. Why can’t I have continuous scrolling for one big page, with page markers unobtrusively popping up to let me know my progress? Why can’t I get rid of unwanted art, or change its size and location? Why can’t I make a character as a read character creation rules? Why aren’t there a dozen characters available at a click?
It’s a slave to the tabletop concept. A new medium should inspire a new kind of game. Fandom RPGs already show us the way by building play into the community portal. that I suspect many companies are boldly striding toward dead ends by trying to simulate the tabletop on whatever technology looks cool and trendy.
For example, I’ve read a lot of dubious stuff about using augmented reality to create a virtual game table. Are five guys really going to squint through iPhones to look at a phantom battle map? Plus, even though I loved the demo too, the recent hype around using Surface as a game table disguises its impracticality. Even though we have desktop multitouch now we don’t have cheap, rugged Surface style tables, and won’t get them for a while yet (Surface machines cost about $14,000 now – drop it by half every 18 months and we’re talking about four or five years for viable consumer versions). Smarter, more practical ways to take RPGs in truly innovative directions are out there.
The New Formula
Instead of talking about how we’ll use sexy-trendy tech to replicate the offline gaming environment, let’s put together a new formula informed by the real potential of technologies that are going to be widely adopted:
Couch Computing + Cloud Portal = Integrated Gaming Environment
Now, to break down each component:
Couch Computing: The big trend in consumer computing right now lies in multitouch interfaces wedded to OLED and e-ink screens that are either built into tablet computers, or into laptops that easily configure into tablets. The rumored Apple tablet isn’t the only game in town, either. Nvidia’s Tegra chip is due to launch in at least one tablet. For those willing to navigate the chaotic Shenzhen OEM market, cheap resistive tablets are already available. These “couch computers” won’t draw users away from play with a clumsy interface, provided they host the right tools.
Cloud Portal: If we’re going to drop the physical book, why stick with the illusion of a book? I can visualize an interface that lets me look at the rules in “book mode,” but will also give me one touch access to a dice roller, character generator, wiki and community, all laid out in one window, not several. We can achieve this by using the browser as our primary way to interact with content. This is something folks partially kludge right now with tabbed browsing and online SRDs, but we’ll be able to take it a step further once browsers make the jump to HTML5, which will display rich content without needing plugins and support offline access to web resources.
Integrated Gaming Environment: When I fetch information from the cloud, summon, mash and dismiss elements at will, and jump straight to community content without tabs and self-bookmarking, it means the game becomes a place instead of an artifact. This place includes community forums, blogs, character databases and campaign wikis. My players know where to go to either continue the game of the table or run new games in a shared setting. This environment should be designed to capture the bulk of the player base not only because it’s where my game comes from, but because the features are attractive in of themselves. Players become interest groups within a bigger community and can opt for any level of interaction they want. Beyond these traditional-style groups, the community should also be able to self-organize massive multiplayer games.
The next time I talk about this I’m going to throw up a few diagrams to butter explain what I’m talking about. For now, take a look at Wired’s tablet concept:
. . . and Time’s (with Sports Illustrated):
Today’s been an interesting one for White Wolf, CCP’s tabletop imprint. At ICC it announced that it was “freeing” (and dismantling much of) the Camarilla, developing new community and game management tools, and kinda sorta maybe not printing game books as we know them any more. Ryan Dancey was quite a bit firmer in a Gamasutra interview where he declared the whole thing a “legacy business.”
I’ve been aware of what was coming for a while and suspected it since 2008, when I heard some serious shifting of the tabletop release schedule, ranging from the EVE RPG being shelved to some other developments which were leaked to the tabletop gamer public, but as I found the rest out in confidence I’m not going to repeat them here.
Can I tell you exactly what’s going on? This is difficult as there are some things I know which I think give me a somewhat informed opinion, but which even couching in weasel words would make for a breach of ethics. But I can use it as a way to comment on trends I think apply to the situation and are relevant to a wider audience.
Tabletop RPG Producers Are the Best Open-Ended IP Developers in the World
Is this a hubris-ridden statement? Maybe — but it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true. There are multiple occasions where RPGs have had a drastically positive influence on intellectual properties. Star Wars is the best known example. As an open-ended property, Star Wars essentially owes its chops to West End Games, which managed the thing while it lay fallow and turned what was a closed, small story into a possibility-laden narrative field. Oh, and you know how Enterprise turned from a lousy series into something passable by the end? You can in part thank Paramount sending an intern to the Merril Collection to photocopy its Trek RPG archives. They didn’t keep them around at Paramount.
(That last bit of info comes from the collection’s curator, by the way, when I toured with Justin Mohareb a while back.)
Also, about ARGs? You’re welcome.
Now aside from these examples (which I’m sure will spark their own special nerd war) this particular skillset has managed to earn me a fair chunk of change for clients outside the tabletop gaming field. Fans tend to believe that this kind of work is at its best when done by the IP management team with the most money. These fans are wrong.
Unfortunately, well-heeled IP management teams tend to believe this too — and so do tabletop RPG developers who would really like to have as much money and prestige as folks in mainstream media and games. So with the exception of some visionaries, this kind of thing isn’t well known. On the Big IP side you get closed concepts without backbones. (Terminator, anyone? Yes, I am really saying that a Justin Achilli or Matt Forbeck could make it a bajillion more dollars.) On the RPG side you get creators learning the wrong lessons because they mistake a fat wad of cash for an applicable creative style.
(This is one reason why licensed games often under-perform. Game designers and developers are at the mercy of people who really do know less about how to transform their IP into an enduring success than they do.)
What does this mean vis a vis CCP? They’re pretty smart guys who seem to know the kind of talent they acquired. Do they know how to fit it into their own culture? The folks who were on the White Wolf side seem to be doing okay and I trust them. But this is a fragile situation. When you’re trying to show how a process that moves thousands of copies is legitimate in a culture used to a few orders of magnitude more, you have to be really goddamn convincing. And if you do convince them, why would they want you earning them beer and toilet paper money from tabletop RPGs? Even if you win, tabletop gaming doesn’t.
Converged, Mashable, Hackable Content — and Confusion
Think of DDI. It sucks — and it looks successful. It’s an underwhelming set of tools and resources but it still meets a need. We feel the need because familiar technology has primed us to do so. We’re reaching a convergence point right now where cheap ebook readers, mobile applications, netbooks and PoD technology are poised to radically change tabletop gaming. I currently have the rules for all of my go-to games on a tiny touchscreen MID that cost 150 bucks. Want a book? High quality PoD is simple and cheap; OneBookShelf nearly has the option ready for its merchants. It’s already easy to hack together exactly the game book you want, use it in multiple forms and share it if you’re an early adopter of the necessary tech. By 2011-2012 a physical RPG book may well be an affectation and right now, it’s only a marginal convenience.
(And let’s not forget about piracy. It matters. The tabletop RPG business isn’t the music business, folks, and it’s not the work of Cory Doctorow either.)
Here’s the rub: Nobody really knows what this means yet. My feeling isn’t that this isn’t a new way to play tabletop games but a new type of game — a “third way” of gaming that isn’t a managed electronic property or traditional RPGs, but draws a lot from self-organized social networking — something that White Wolf fandom adopted early.
(You know those chat games everybody craps on? Rough and tumble stuff like that is called “innovation.”)
The community is primed for a new type of game, and letting loose the reins on fans will help CCP understand what that is as long as management doesn’t listen to attractive, high level prognostication that tries to force it all from the top down. That’s always that danger when there’s a big difference in the monetized accomplishments of one group (CCP) compared to another (the nerds running a zillion chat games and fandom RPs).
And if you can’t get into this new game there’s always PDF and PoD. With piracy rampant, CCP probably has to emphasize the convenience of their own option by building better fulfillment and exerting some fearsome downward pressure on pricing. The price of an OBS-hosted game is already approaching bottom-tier smartphone app levels and CCP already has plenty of content in the system. Adding new content that lacks additional features isn’t cost effective unless it exploits fan contributions (always risky) or uses a new scheme to draw them into the sales funnel gracefully.
I don’t think anybody really knows what the next step is here, but let’s make one thing clear: LARPing with an iPhone or Droid isn’t going to bring back the earthshaking Mind’s Eye Theatre hordes of the 90s any more than a slide rule App is going to replace your calculator App. But is CCP going to give it a serious shot? Making money off of this sort of thing isn’t easy, and social media-based schemes are vulnerable to fads and fan refusal to participate in the moneymaking side. (Most Facebook ads and apps have a shitty most desired action rate, for example). Plus, some successes are bad example from a creative point of view, a la Mafia Wars.
Come on: We all know Mafia Wars blows. But it sure makes bank.
Yeah, a lot if it probably is about that — after all, it’s probably coming next year. The question is whether CCP will use its assets properly, or kill off what made White Wolf’s in-house style special. This is not to say the rest of CCP should just learn, since from what I’ve read, the tabletop staff seems to be get real inspiration out of their current roles.
The Unsolicited Advice
What do I think CCP should do? Aside from finding some excuse to pay me significant sums (which I am qualified to receive — email me!) I think they should stick to some form of traditional gaming as a form of rapid IP prototyping. Tabletop RPG design is an ideal technology for developing and testing intellectual property with a minimal budget in a short time frame. It’s inherently social and provides a way for quick, meaningful feedback. Plus, you’ll build fans and anticipation cheaply, and might even get a new idea or two about game design.
But about that feedback: Let’s filter the online RPG community. If we map by fan/non-fan and player/non-player we get a nice set of quadrants we can use to figure out what matters. I can’t help but suspect that the New World of Darkness reacted to the wrong quadrants — guys who want to fantasize about certain structures in games (5×5 splatitude!) instead of having a vivid participatory experience. We all know that there are very vocal folks out there whose opinions don’t really have bottom-line relevance. You want to make retired gamers happy, but you want to see what compels people to play more. On the fan/non-fan axis . . . that’s tricky. Some fandoms are toxic and closed, but some are open, and draw people from the non-fan category. The boundary between the two types isn’t fixed. Open fans identify with closed fans. The Games Workshop approach is to fire fans likely be in the closed category by demographic (defined as “boys with hair where there wasn’t hair before”). Use RPGs to fine tune an IP for an open fandom, but see if you can grab the odd grognard.
I’m not saying this as a stuck in the mud tabletop guy. I love that medium, but I’m working on my third electronic games/media project now and it’s awesome. There are substantial differences in presentation and practical role. Still, I think the tabletop (or wired post-tabletop) medium can enrich every stratum of IP development. Use it intelligently, respect its assets and keep its budget sane, and it won’t steer you wrong.
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