The guys at Harmonix, who created Rock Band, just summed up the biggest problem I see in indie RPGs.
Oh, a quick clarification: When I say indie RPGs I mean creator-owned publishing. I don’t necessarily mean “small press” although nearly all creator owners I know of are small press. Confused? Yeah, I know.
We naively believed that if we … created a game that was fun, it would be successful. What we failed to recognize was that you have to make games that are easily marketable.
This is strongly counter to approaches and philosophies that several of my pals and peers have, and counter to my own stated philosophies in recent years. I’m not saying people can’t or shouldn’t have different ideas about this.
Neither am I saying that creator-owned publishers aren’t profitable or successful on their creator’s terms. I know many that are both. My own games were remarkably profitable all considered, and I still own them which itself has value.
What I am saying is that creator-owned publishing has a big flaw. One of the defining characteristics of indie publishing is that the creator defines his own success. I’m still ok with that. I like that about creator-owned publishing.
However, suppose I define my success as “I will sell 2,000 units over the next 2 years” where a unit is a RPG “main” book/publication of some kind. Under the current definitions of creator-owned publishing, this is Herculean. I won’t say it’s impossible. I will say that almost no one has done it. Luke Crane, who’s a friend, leads the pack. Even he admitted it’s extremely difficult. I don’t think he sold 2,000 of any of Burning Wheel or Burning Empires in 2 years, but I’m not certain about that. He did it and more; it just took longer.
So, the problem is this: Creator-owned publishing doesn’t literally mean it’s impossible to achieve reasonable business goals. (I find it reasonable to have a part-time business that sells 1,000 things per year.) But, it does mean that it’s basically impossible in practical terms.
Why is this the problem? Well, just like those Harmonix guys said. Marketing. We don’t make games that the vast majority of gamers demand.
Now, there are a couple arguments about this — which I argued in support of myself previously.
First, one argument is that the indie scene creates games for non-gamers (i.e. people who don’t play role-playing games much or at all). In other words, people are saying that indie publishers need to create a new market. Anecdotally, sure, people converted “regular folks” into players of indie games. In practical terms, these numbers are part of the reason it’s nigh-impossible to sell 1,000 units a year.
Indie publishers are terrible at creating new markets. They have no idea how. They have basically no resources (certainly no budgets). They rely on information tainted by confirmation bias and absurdly small samples of info from fellow enthusiasts. (When I say “they” here, I include myself. I preached this idea about new markets. I now view it as a bad idea, especially because it makes people who are already doing EVERYTHING in their operation to work harder than new product developers at big marketing departments. It’s crazy.)
Second, another argument is that the indie scene creates games for disaffected gamers, so “gamers” aren’t their market anyway. For hobbyists who don’t find what they want in the mainstream products. I find no flaw in this argument! I suspect it’s quite correct, as far as it goes. Which isn’t too far, and that’s the problem. Even if there are somewhere, out there, a bunch of these kinds of gamers that would be well suited to a bunch of indie games, I believe they are wholly ignorant about indie games! They don’t even know they exist, let alone what they’re like!
In all fairness, I’ve got no data to confirm this. I wish I had data to think better about this stuff. I have a bunch of anecdotes that lead me to conclude that the indie scene is so tiny and contained that well over 2,000 potential buyers over the next 2 years are certainly out there … buying mainstream games. The indie scene is <i>hardcore</i>. Ultra hardcore. When I look at, say, a guy I used to game with in college and keep in contact with, I see a guy who would love, I dunno, Agon or Lacuna. He has never heard of Agon. Hell, he’s never even cracked open Dust Devils as far as I know, and he’s a good friend of mine. I doubt he even knows what Savage Worlds is about. But, Pathfinder? He just told me he’s all interested. We haven’t played together in years. He just knew about it and is interested.
Now, there’s a giant, deserved “So what?” brewing here. It’s fair. So what, indeed. I’m not saying creator-owned publishing in general is doing it wrong. Given its resources in particular, it’s doing pretty damn well! Why change? I see no need for any individual to change. This is a goals issue — a matter of how one defines one’s success as a publisher.
But, I do see opportunities for someone inclined to changed his or her philosophies about all this publishing stuff. That may include me. I don’t know. I have so little free time and resources these days it’s hard to commit to anything.
But, I think there’s a lot a person could do along a spectrum of publishing set-ups.
Before I spell out some ideas about that, let me say that each involves something I don’t think happens very much. It requires a publisher to make tough choices about what will get him the most sales and actual play. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that all games are not created equal. I think it’s slightly controversial to say that some games should have beenÂ left on the cutting room floor.
It’s controversial to say that because who the fuck am I to say what an individual “should” do with his game? To answer that, I’m no one. Seriously, I don’t want to tell some publisher that. But, I just did, sorta. Damn. My point is that I think too few creator owners abandon a game for reasons of success metrics, rather than, say, artistic vision or something similar.
I digress. Now, on to my thoughts on publishing frameworks.
Individual creator-owners could create a kind of publishing co-operative, pool resources, and reach more gamers with those resources. I believe they’d have to make very, very hard decisions about what games to market. In fact, I suspet that’d be a deal-breaker for some.
Another example: Someone could create a marketing entity where creator-owners pay to have their games better marketed. This may or may not dismantle creator-ownership because I see the marketing agent making decisions about positioning and possibly even price to make it succeed.
There is of course the more drastic answer, which is to say relinquish true creator-ownership and go in another direction. It needn’t be the traditional model of hiring freelancers for content and so on. It could be co-op or partnership ideas where the group creates whole new products/properties. That is, some kind of shared ownership, rather than owner-freelancer. Again, hard decisions about creative vision would have to happen.
Assuming any of the above works, just putting any ol’ game out there because it has creative vision and passion behind it won’t work. What’d those guys say? “What we failed to recognize was that you have to make games that are easily marketable.”
I know this first hand. My game Nine Worlds fails this test. Hell, it failed that test within the indie scene alone! It’s a strange beast to the vast swath of potential games out there. I love it; it’s just not easily marketable.
So, just from a personal perspective, I’d love to see indie games and mainstream games cross-pollinate. Indie publishers have crazy, awesome ideas. Some are revolutionary, so much so they’d turn off many “mainstream” gamers. Still, a lot of those ideas have a place at the table of mainstream gamers. I can see a lot of play techniques developed for indie games working in D&D and Shadowrun and you name it. By and large, that’s not happening much.
And, looking from the other direction, there are lots of ways mainstream games can get indie publishers a wider audience for things they create. This is particularly true with open licenses for games like Savage Worlds or Pathfinder and others. Assuming he even wanted to (which I’m sure he doesn’t, by the way), could John Harper create a remarkable Savage Worlds product that would sell 2,000 units in 2 years? Probably. It’d certainly be easier to do than him selling 2,000 units of Agon in 2 years.
Wrap it up
If you bothered to read this far, then chances are you’re aware I stopped publishing my games in fall of 2008. The thinking above was a major reason why. I had other reasons, too. This article is not meant as a poke in the eye toward any of my friends and colleagues. You all are doing a hell of a lot more than me lately! I think you create incredibly cool things. I just changed my mind about some (not all) of the underpinnings of why I’d want to do likewise.
I have no idea what I do as a creator now. I have two thoughts about it. I do relatively little, maybe publish some free games and material on my site. The other is that I start something new, but I’m almost certain doing so requires me to collaborate with others.Â I can’t accomplish what I want on my own anymore, but I don’t have some devious plan cooked up.
I welcome a conversation about all this from any publisher’s perspective.