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Open game design project, Part 2

[ Read Part 1 ]

So, make your case! Why should a designer get involved with this open system idea?

The most important thing is that this can expand the reach of your designs, with less effort on your part. You will have a target audience who turn to this game system to meet their needs. You’re a part of that, and it improves as more designers participate. If it works, it’s a virtuous cycle for stuff you create, which also means you get more time to design new stuff and need to do less in marketing to reach a larger audience.

Obviously, there is a trade off. You have less freedom in design if you’re going from an existing frame work like this open design would be. I think the trade off is worth the benefit of a wider audience.

But, I want to know more about what kind of game system this will be.

Without a finished game system, it’s hard to completely answer. And, the explanations below could easily evolve or change.

I see two options for this game system.

First, it may be possible to begin with an already existing game system. I’m open to that possibility, but I want the system to meet goals I have in mind (I’ll get to those below). I’d prefer an existing game by a published designer. And, I suspect it would be modified for this. That would be up to the designer, of course.

Second — and this option seems more likely — we have a team of designers create the game system following agreed upon guidelines. I have guidelines in mind, as well as a target audience in mind.

Interesting. Let’s hear about the guidelines.

Fair enough. Let me start with a few quick examples that I think are in the ballpark, so to speak.

Keep in mind, these are just shorthand for the kind and scope of game I have in mind. I’m sure there are many other relevant examples.

Now, on to more specific guidelines. My assessment is that the game needs:

  • Modular design — designers (and players) can add and subtract components.
  • Easy session preparation.
  • Quick, but compelling and rich, character creation.
  • Versatility – suitable for one-shot and campaign play (say, 12-20 sessions).
  • Simple learning curve – easily explained in minutes, including a dice/resolution mechanic.
  • Enough complexity (e.g., exceptions-based rules) to keep game compelling.

These guidelines will develop and shift through initial phases, then again in design and playtesting. But, it’s a start.

What if those guidelines aren’t my thing?

I guess that leaves three options.

  1. Don’t participate. Do your own thing. And, you can always use the open system later if you change your mind.
  2. Just modify the game system (once it’s ready) to do what you want. Of course, the more you stray from the core concepts, the less benefit you get from the audience. But, the idea here is to allow for variations upon the core game.
  3. Get involved right away, and help design or advise the actual game system core.

What about that target audience thing? Do you think a target audience is really worth considering in this small niche?

I do. If I’m wrong, I doubt the downside is any disaster.

The idea I have in mind for this audience will shift as this develops, no doubt. But, it’s still worth examining. Here’s a “persona” I have in mind (who is male here, but could be female, of course):

  • He’s as an existing gamer. He’s around 30+ years old, and has been playing different RPGs for a while. He’s not a hard core, D&D only person.
  • He works full time, and maybe has a family or active social life with a significant other. He’s busy! He needs a game that fits those constraints in his life.
  • His game group is also busy, and they have similar needs!
  • He’s either the frequent game master, or an early adopter of new games — the guy who has a ton of games on his shelf.
  • His group isn’t as interested in early adoption and new games. He has to convince them to try new games, sometimes unsuccessfully. They may even voice reluctance for “those indie games.”
  • He’s interested in character driven play. But, he still wants enough “fiddly bits” to make play interesting, too.
  • He’s creative! He’s has lots of cool ideas, and needs a good solution for those ideas.
  • He has a fondness, even nostalgia, for a few particular RPGs. And, he’s a bit disappointed that he now realizes so many of those games have disappointing rules, but exceptionally cool ideas. Or, maybe someone in his groups hates the game he loves. These games he loves have great settings or back stories or other components. He wants to run the settings “in another system,” but he can’t find the right one.
  • He’s not interested in distinctions between “indie” games and “traditional” games. They are just RPGs. He just wants to enjoy games.

Ok, that’s a lot of information. What now?

I want to assemble a small design team. I’m particularly looking for 2-3 comrades who’ve designed and published, and who are willing to help design the core. It’s no small feat, and will require serious effort.

Following that, we’ll need more design work from other designers following that. And, the project requires plenty of playtesting as well.

Consider this the announcement the project is underway. Contact me via replies here or by email if you wish to be involved.

I’ll add more blog posts here with additional next steps, including how the open license will work, who’s participating, and more guidelines and frameworks for the game system.

Open game design project, Part 1

Last winter, I posted about my ideas surrounding marketing co-operatives by teams of creator-owned RPG publishers. This new post is the evolution of that idea — my solution to the puzzle of shared resources vs. creator ownership. Indulge my self-interview:

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, co-creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad & crew!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

[ Read Part 2 ]

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

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.

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.


Introduction

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 ]

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.

44 by the numbers

It’s been three months since I released 44: A Game of Automatic Fear for free.

I’m pleased with the reaction so far. People played the game within a week of its release. I expect more will happen as time goes on.

Traffic to the 44 blog has been relatively steady, with the usual and expected initial release spike.

  • Page views were about 3,000 since October.
  • About 1,700 people visited the site (including this “main” blog). Slightly more than I would have guessed.
  • 366 people registered to my blog. Some percentage are certainly spam. But, nice!
  • I estimate around 250 PDF downloads, perhaps more.
  • There was notable activity from several countries, including the UK,  Italy, Spain, Poland and others.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pretty quiet and enjoying it. For one, I read most of the Pathfinder book, which was a hot and cold experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about publishing and desiging RPGs, the indie scene, business and marketing. I have far more questions than answers, more problems than solutions. Still trying to figure out where and how to go from here.

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