Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Shaking-Loose

Ha ha ha... saw a cool-looking tabletop RPG project on Kickstarter ( this one ) and was getting kind of excited, but then the narrator was like "book and book and pages and book and pages".

I thought "book?"

Okay, there's definitely nothing wrong with books. But as a tabletop RPG, I think it may not be the wisest choice due to high cost and restrictive layout.

I've talked about this before, the slow shaking-loose of tabletop games from the confine of the page. I've mentioned web-based technologies, I've mentioned that there might be other business models that leave everyone happier, I've mentioned a lot of things.

I'd like to try to spell some of them out in a bit more detail.

Let's talk about publishing.

In the end, everything comes down to getting your content to your audience (players and GMs, or whatever distinction you make). Classically, this has been a paper book delivered to the local game store. That hasn't been the best way in decades, but it stuck around because a paper book is easy to reference when you're eating cheetos with four other guys shouting about the length of their swords.

But these days, even that's being replaced. Modern gamers have laptops, smart phones, iPads, and epaper tablets. All of these can be brought to the table and used to display rules. A simple wiki could have quick reference links on the side and content in the middle - click and you shall receive. A giant stack of paper and dice, with a slender wafer of electronics reminding you of the rules and putting up pictures of the nameless monsters your players are struggling with today.

Today, the easiest way to get content into the hands of your audience is to simply give it to them, straight over the pipes they use to read their email and watch their cat videos. Free for everyone.

And, if it's a wiki or some other web site, it's not simply a matter of cracking some DRM and distributing a PDF. You would have to clone the whole site - which can be done, but it's not as straightforward. Moreover, the site can be updated - it can be a living thing.

Let's talk about types of play.

In a classic tabletop game, there are two kinds of play.

One is the kind you're probably thinking of, when a bunch of goons sit around a table (or, as is becoming steadily more common, a video chat hangout) and roll dice all night.

The other is the kind you may not be consciously thinking about: one person sitting and reading your book, thinking about the cool character build she wants to try, imagining what monsters would pop up, maybe even designing an adventure or a dungeon. Solo play. Not playing the "same game" as a bunch of people crowding a table, but still playing your game.

Solo play is important for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it's what takes a player from "newb" to "fan". Unless people can have some solo play, nobody is going to be able to GM your game because nobody is going to know enough about it to build an adventure.

Solo play is the "traction" of the game. Too much, the car gets stuck in the mud. Too little, the car wheels skate across ice. Either way, the car can't get anywhere it wants to go.

You probably already design your games with solo play in mind, although you may not think of it like that. All the flavor text, all the content, that's mostly solo stuff. It's never going to come up when there's guys sitting around a table, it only comes up when there's guys sitting alone in their room.

So, why not talk about making the two entirely distinct?

You don't need "a book". Instead, you need a reference section full of hit tables or whatever, you need a content section for finding cool stuff, and you need a tutorial section for learning more as easily as possible.

Okay, I split it in three, because "solo play" is actually split into "learning the game" and "combing the content" in this model.

Any way you slice it, it makes more sense to have completely different publications for each of these. And I don't mean "GM's guide" vs "player's guide". Use the technology we have!

How about a wiki for content. Cruise the monster list. A plug-in which generates random starships? Cue it up. Maybe some or all of it is restricted. Maybe there's a forum for people to post their own content - or maybe it's an open wiki and people can add their content right in!

A simple reference page for reference material. Add stuff from the wiki to it, maybe, depending on what you need. This is definitely free: character sheets, combat progression tables, etc.

As for learning to play...

Youtube videos.

Why are you teaching people how to play your game using a still screen? They won't be playing on a still screen! Teach them using a video, because they'll be playing in a moving world with audio and dice. So teach them using a video.

Not just a video of three human beings rolling dice, although that's a good start, but also introduce them into the content of the game using music and video images. IE GM says "you run into a dragon" - video cuts to a picture of a dragon and swelling music. GM begins narrating with the music about the majesty of the dragon and -zwwwwk- cut back to the players, one going "I stab it in the face!"

"But" you say "but how will I make money?"

For a lot of indie tabletop devs, it's taboo to talk about money. So you just go with the old standby and hope people donate to your store for their invisible stack of bits rather than steal it from somewhere.

Let's talk about money, instead.

We're not talking about vast sums of cash. We're talking about being able to make a living doing a tabletop game.

Right now, players can pay for a digital or physical copy of your game. Of course, those are pretty freely available in pirated form if your game has a following, and if your game doesn't have a following, you aren't making any money like that anyway.

So, screw that.

Give away your content. If your players can get it for free anyway, give it to them for free.

What other kinds of revenue can you get?

Donations: Obviously, you can allow people to just give you money.

Swag: Have a store which sells things that people want, but are status symbols not game content. For example, shirts, mugs, titles for the forum account names, mentions on the credits page...

Kick-in Content: Allow people to buy content that doesn't exist, causing it to exist. "If people donate $10,000 through this button, we'll release the Dark Sky update to everyone everywhere, for free! This button over here, same thing, but the Mars Forever update. Of course, if both hit $10k, we'll do both!"

At a lesser level, allow people to buy official NPCs with their name and face, corporations, legendary weapons - any kind of in-game content that can be branded without compromising the integrity of the game world.

Creator Access: Allow people to pay for more advanced content access. For example, access to the sketches and notes the authors create as they work out new content. Access to the content when it is in beta or a week or so before actual release. Alternately, the ability to contribute content to the public content wiki.

Advanced Content: There is some content which can be gated. For example, you could create a database of several hundred thousand random citizens and allow people to access that database. Or an app which generates random starships/nations/monsters/whatever. "Only people who pay $30 a year get full access to this app/data. Otherwise, you only get ten searches per month..."

Attached Game: Although not feasible for every game, it is possible to build a kind of metagame or secondary game which happens on-line. For example, a simple social game where you can fight monsters, using a simplified version of the game rules. Anyone can play, of course, but people who pay can stick in their personal avatars and character sheets.


And so on.

Let's do it something like this, instead of doing it in a horribly obsolete way that didn't work very well even in its prime.


Ellipsis said...

Totally agree. Of course, books can also be a kind of swag - even if you know you can access all of the rules online, some people will be willing to buy a book because they like books, or because it gives them a greater sense that they "own" the game. But of course publishing a book can be more expensive than a lot of the other swag people would want to buy.

Craig Perko said...

The time is not far away when it'd be cheaper to send them an eReader preloaded with your book than to send them a book.