Stories You Play

Home of RPGs by Matt Snyder, including Dust Devils, Nine Worlds, 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, and The Ladykillers

Archive for the month “February, 2010”

Eric Mona talks RPGs, marketing and more

“You are not going to have much success in any side of this business unless you’ve got a network of customers who are interseted in buying what you want. You might have the most brilliant one-shot game that has ever been invented, but if nobody knows about it and you don’t have a way for people to try it out or to know about it, you’re going to sell probably in the hundreds of copies.”

“There are a number of strategies that I think companies can take to figure out how to sell their product ot a large number of people.”

— Eric Mona, speaking at Neoncon in February, 2010

His strategies summarized:

1) Use the open game license — essentially, tap in to the Dungeons & Dragons market. Sell to people who exist and have existing habits.

It may not be what you as a publisher want to do, he says. (Mona mentioned his own company’s Pathfinder license.)

2) Have an organized play strategy — a regular groups of people who have an ongoing connection to your game. He mentions Living Greyhawk. Also important for demo type exposure — e.g. a 4 hour game.

3) You really have to spend at least as much time working on marketing and getting word out as you do on creating, writing and designing the game.

Barriers and perceptions of the Forge

So, here my friend Kevin Weiser interviewed my friend Ron Edwards. They talked about the Forge, and the notorious “Forge cult” thing came up. That then had a small echo effect on Twitter, including this post by Josh of the Brilliant Gameologists (whose last name I don’t know — sorry Josh).

On Twitter, I remarked to Vincent Baker (also a friend!) that the cult label is a distraction, but there is something going on with the label. He basically agreed. Now, keep in mind, Vincent and Ron operate the Forge! And, that I have long been a Forge proponent and all that. But, in last couple years, I haven’t participated there much at all.

So, the “Forge is a cult” thing. What’s going on here?

Well, one thing that’s not going on is idenity politics and posturing. That has gone on (and probably will continue), but that’s not the issue here and now.

The “cult” thing is really about barriers. There are different kinds here.

First, there’s the barrier of entry — someone who observes the Forge, appreciates it’s mission, but can’t penetrate the language or the social rules or whatever thing. Despite wanting to participate, they bounce off the surface instead.

Next, there’s the barrier of ideas. This probably comes in two forms, and these two overlap some. There are people who see the philosophies of the Forge as single-minded or wrong or just not very useful to them. And, there are folks who see the business model (i.e. creator owned publishing) as not right for their purposes. So, at best they see the Forge (and to some degree the Forge sees them) at best as tangential, and at worst as contrary. Perhaps even to the point of challenging their very profession and livelihood. I’ve seen people describe themselves and their games as attractive in part because they are not associated with the Forge. In essence, leveraging their idenity and marketing as contrarian in effort to appeal to others who confront the barrier of ideas.

And, there’s the barrier of play. This is more true of players rather than of publishers or would-be publishers. There is a sense out there, I think, that if you interact with the Forge, “they” will critique your group’s play as wrong or awful or something. That you’ll be shamed. That you have to go through some kind of odd purification before you’re accepted. This is profoundly not the case. It’s an unfortunate misconception that contributes to the “cult” thing. But, still, it’s out there in people’s thoughts.

Finally, I think there’s an emerging barrier — the barrier of obscurity. I think we can confidently point to a declining trend in the Forge’s reach and relevance. It’s presence at GenCon is smaller. It’s influence online is lesser. Now, the Forge is still purring along as it always has. It’s still doing the same thing in its forums. But, there’s growing perception that it’s become quieter and less important. And, people and designers wander elsewhere as a result.

All of these barriers add up. People think, “Hey, there’s this thing over there called the Forge. And, you know what, it has some weird qualities to me. It sort of seems like a cult.”

And, then we’re all ships passing in the ether.

Now, so what? Right?

The Forge has a perception problem, whether or not the barriers have factual merit. Ron knows this, and he doesn’t wish to remedy it for various reasons. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do with the Forge as a thing in the hobby, as is his right, of course.

I still support the Forge with that. But, my activity there remains scant. I’ve just recently started to move in other directions that are, in their small way for just me and my games, confronting the perceptions described above.

Marketing Co-Operative Proposal, Part 1: Membership

(This is the second post. See Introduction and Proposal for the first post.)

Part 1: Membership Entry & Exit

Membership must allow for both entry and exit from the co-operative. Membership will inevitably turn over as publishers largely operate as a “spare time” activity.

Entry requirements will require both a vetting process from existing members and/or founders, and at least one existing product to begin.

The vetting process will involve a vote either by member body or committee. Evaluations will be based on perceived viability of the product within the marketplace and confidence level of reciprocal activity from the member-elect. (Vetting will inevitably be a problematic issue; the cooperative needs clear rules to evaluate product and members, as well as means to resolve disputes during evaluation.)

Additionally, the cooperative could consider “associate members” who participate without a product – likely members who offer specific skills. Again, this requires explicit processes for member entry and exit, much like those of publisher-members. (The co-operative charter will also need to specify how an associate could become a publisher member should the participant choose to become a publisher later.)

Membership Obligations

The co-operative requires members to:

  • Fund the cooperative: This proposal version does not specify funding. Possible funding options include: One-time member feeds, annual fees, quarterly fees, or monthly fees;
  • Represent the cooperative: Represent the cooperative, its brand, and its member products while interacting with RPG hobbyists;
  • Participate in and/or volunteer for duties and tasks for marketing activities. Tasks will be outlined by member proposals and strategies, and assigned by member committees or member vote;
  • Write marketing proposals for any new product for which the member seeks representation by the co-operative;
  • Possibly modifying or amending product to improve market viability. This is also a potentially problematic requirement, and may require discussion and means to resolve disputes.

Membership benefits

The co-operative offers members the following benefits:

  • Improved visibility and sales;
  • Voting and input on co-operative decisions and activities;
  • Representation on co-operative marketing activities (promotions, web site, newsletters, convention appearances, etc.);
  • Team-written marketing proposals and critiques;
  • Collective bargaining with distributors;
  • Inclusion in marketing research, including online surveys;
  • Metrics for products (web traffic for product pages, sales, comparative data, etc.) .

Marketing Co-Operative Proposal: Introduction and Proposal

As mentioned in earlier posts, I have put together a “white paper” on how publishers might form a marketing co-operative. This post includes the introduction and core proposal. I’ll post Parts 1 & 2 in later posts.

This is a DRAFT. It is not in final form, and not edited much so far. In fact, I’m still writing part 2. It also means I’ll likely edit the post as thoughts and feedback arrive.

But, I think it worth posting the intro and Part 1 now so that I don’t delay much longer.


Creator-owned role-playing game (RPG) publishing (a.k.a. “indie” publishing) defines as its central tenet that: The creator(s) of a game product owns the majority of the product’s intellectual property and has ultimate responsibility for key business decisions for the product, including publishing decisions regarding distribution.

This definition of creator-owned publishing implicitly leaves marketing decisions in the hands of the owner. For example, decisions about distribution are key marketing decision.

However, such decisions need not be performed by the creator-owner for the publisher to maintain its operational goals (which are self-defined and often relatively modest). In that sense, marketing services are roughly analogous to other services used by creator-owned publishers. Many creator-owned publishers hire independent graphic design and illustration or art services from other individuals (or simply benefit from such individuals’ generosity). These creative services also impact marketing decisions, namely the product design.

In short, there is nothing definitional in the movement of creator-owned publishing that excludes marketing services conducted by individuals or firms distinct from the creator-owner.

And yet, to date, the vast majority of creator-owned publishers rely (understandably) on their own individual efforts. This proposal contends that this effort is largely wasteful. It prevents creator-owners from achieving greater levels of success, and absorbs resources and time that most would rather spend on other more rewarding creative efforts.

Indeed, because of this conflict of resources and rewarding efforts, many creator-owners perceive a dichotomy between creative efforts and marketing. Again, this proposal contends this is a false dichotomy that also prevents publishers from achieving greater levels of success. Compartmentalizing “marketing” as a process distinct from other creative efforts is a serious mistake.

Caveat: What This Proposal is Not

The preceding paragraphs may pose a challenge to assumptions or values held among creator-owned publishers. However, this proposal is not a condemnation of all creator-owned publishing. It is not a universal critique to all creator-owned publishers. As noted above, success among creator-owned publishers is self-defined. This proposal supports and respects this value, with a firm understanding of the history and purpose of that value.

This proposal does not claim to be the sole means to achieving greater levels of success. It focuses on a set of marketing strategies and distribution of resources among cooperating publishers. Many other strategies are possible, of course.

To be clear:

  • No publisher must achieve greater levels of success.
  • This proposal makes no claim as the sole means to achieve greater levels of success.

Small Press Publishing

This proposal defines small press publishing as small-scale RPG designers and publishers which include significant creative materials not own by the creator (e.g. freelance writers), and/or operations where key decisions (about publishing and distribution) are not made by a creator-owners. Such publishing is also frequently called “indie” RPGs.

While small press publishing allows for greater diversity of marketing and design work than creator-owned publishing, in practice its small scale – and usually small team of individuals – results in similar resource limitations.

Therefore, this proposal also includes small press publishing, and suggests such operations are also likely to benefit.

Proposal: Marketing Co-operative

This paper proposes co-operative marketing entities owned and operated by the role-playing game publisher members (and, possibly, non-publisher associate members). The primary goals of the co-operative are:

  1. Increase sales for publisher members;
  2. Expand the reach of “indie” RPGs to other hobbyists;
  3. Free up resources and time for publisher members;
  4. Provide players simpler means to discover, purchase, and play members’ RPGs.

The following sections propose the general concepts for membership and operations. And, these sections outline marketing strategies. Finally, additional items suggest possible expansions of co-operative’s scope.

[ Continue to Part 1: Membership ]

Bringing it all back home

My preceding post was about how to proceed as a publisher. All well and good, but what does that mean in terms of fun games people can get and play?

First off, it would mean making Dust Devils available again soon. This will mean something simple — like Lulu or a comparable offering — in the short term. If that goes well enough, Nine Worlds could follow suit. 44: A Game of Automatic Fear will continue to be a free-with-registration game. I don’t have plans currently to offer a print version, but that’s possible.

My intention is that all of these games would be secondary products. Which implies I have at least one primary product. Well, I’m working on it.

In fact, my design notebooks, as always, fill up with a smattering of game designs. I can dismiss some more easily these days. I have a sharper yard stick to measure up ideas. If I don’t think an idea has broader appeal among RPG hobbyists than, say, Dust Devils, the idea is done for.

One game concept keeps coming back, which is a good sign it’s the right one. The working title is Exodus Squadron.

The short version: It’s my take on Battlestar Gallactica (the new one, of course — yes, I realize there’s already a licensed RPG).

The not-as-short version goes like this: Players portray space fighter pilots. Their job is to protect a human fleet as it escapes bondage by an alien race, racing home. Characters come from the various castes of humanity enslaved. Play rotates among three playspaces — space battles, the mothership/fleet, and “away team.” Each playspace feeds into the others in various ways.

The game will be aimed at a maturing gamer audience, one that has great interest in such fun subject matter, but increasingly less time to prepare sessions and conduct play. The point will be exciting tactical combats mixed with dramatically paced downtimes and interesting exploration. Ideally, each session of play is a single stellar system or encounter, easily prepared (or downloaded) on 1-2 pages. These series of “jumps” comprise a campaign — say, a dozen such episodes before reaching a conclusion at the home world (presumably earth).

That audience is not necessarily “indie gamers,” by which I mean story gamers or those interested in narrativist play. If they enjoy the thing, fantastic. But, my intention spend efforts and resources reaching some sliver of other gamers.

Design for Exodus Squadron is still in early phases. I have some working bits and bobs, but no playtest is close. I have a strong vision for both the look and feel of the product, and for the color and themes of the setting and game.

I’ll be posting more about it as the game develops.

Publishing intrigue and fatigue

I’m still toiling away on a conceptual “white paper” on how indie RPG publishers could form a marketing co-0perative. I sneak it in between toiling away on graduate classes, full time day job, and family life. So, for those I told to look here soon, patience please!

As I write this thing, I’m simultaneously intrigued and fatigued. I’m intrigued by the opportunity to work with others creatively and (hopefully) elevate successes. And, selfishly, I’m fatigued by the notion of spending such time and energy on things other than my own works.

Assuming I will indeed pursue some kind of publishing path, I will face an inevitable choice.

Choice No. 1: Start up this little (and boy would it be little) marketing co-operative venture and try to raise the bar a bit on indie RPG publishing for my self and a few others.

Choice No. 2: Reboot my own publishing ambitions. For my purposes, I’d have to assemble a small team of partners. I’d likely also have to abandon creator owned publishing.

To be honest, Choice No. 2 sounds more appealing right now. Both choices have uncertainties, of course. There’s little to guarantee a marketing co-operative will actually elevate the members’ successes. There’s not even a guarantee that members will agree on strategy and products and so on. And, since choice No. 2 basically means I’d be forming a new publishing enterprise, what makes me think I’d succeed in the face of all those obstacles faced by all?

Both choices also require a lot of effort for a little reward. While that may be my downfall in the future (it certainly was in the past), I recognize that’s a difficult part of the endeavor.

Regardless of my choice, I’ll post this marketing co-operative concept because I think it contains many good ideas.

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