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.

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