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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Read Before You Write

by Mike Martinez
Oct 07,2003

 

Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez
mike@spacebuckler.com

Read Before You Write

Hello, again, and thanks for stopping by. If you're new to this column, I'm writing a game called Spacebuckler for the d20 system, due out in December in the .PDF format and, hopefully, in print by next summer. I'm just a person, like many of you, who had a good idea for a game. This column will detail what my compatriots and I have gone through to get this thing published.

Last time, we talked about getting a reality check for your game idea - making sure that other people would be into it. Let's call that your first foray into market research - and it won't be your last. It's good that friends, family and fellow gamers like your idea, but that doesn't mean your idea will actually sell...which is, presumably, at least one of the reason's you're trying to publish your game. Write for love, but publish because you think it's good enough to make a buck or two.

Of course, if you've had your Grand Idea, you'll probably be itching to write it. I know what that's like. There are still many days where I can't wait to sit down and add a new idea, tweak a character description or do a rewrite of that nifty fiction bit in Chapter 2 (which, by the way, can now be seen on the Spacebuckler Web site). However, even if there's no stopping you from starting to write, you also have to make time to read...a lot.

Before you get too far into your would-be game, you need to do two kinds of research - let's call them "idea research" and market research. The first kind of research lets you know whether somebody else had the same idea once upon a time, while the second idea is to figure out if there's enough interest in your game for it to sell.

Idea Research

There's a saying that goes something like, "There are no more original ideas in the world." I tend to disagree with that, since it implies that all human progress is pretty much sewn up. And that's a depressing thought. However, there are a ton of ideas already out there, and there's a good chance that somebody out there has thought of your Grand Idea before. How do you find that out for certain? Start reading.

As I said in my first column, Spacebuckler isn't necessarily a completely and utterly original idea. Indeed, you'll find shades of Treasure Planet, Castle Falkenstein and Horatio Hornblower in my game, along with numerous other inspirations. Indeed, as I've let details slip about the game, the readers of this column have been extremely helpful in pointing out other, similar works of literature, film and gaming that I hadn't even heard of. And believe me, it wasn't for lack of trying.

I'm looking right now at the stack of books I've purchased for research purposes - it's easily several hundred dollars' worth, everything from 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America and The English Heritage to Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin novels and Avalanche Press' Black Flags d20 piracy supplement. And my friend Drew has perused every historical text on alchemy readily available - and a few rare ones, I'm sure - as he prepares to write the game's first supplement, Spacebuckler: The Great Work.

Now, I recognize my game is sent in an alternative historical time period (the 1780s), so I have a lot more historical research to conduct that most folks. But even if you've come up with a setting or adventure or game all your very own, you still have a lot of reading ahead of you.

Let's say you're writing a campaign setting for a fantasy RPG. You have some original ideas and want to publish them. Unfortunately for you, the fantasy genre is massive, and there are a million variations on Tolkien, McCaffrey, the Weis sisters and many other outstanding authors, both in RPGs and in the broader literature.

So what do you do? Take your most original elements and run some Google searches, for starters, to see if anything comes up. Go ahead and set aside a few hours and surf through as much as you can. Then head off to the library, your favorite book store, your gaming store and the video store. Check out anything you think might have some bearing on your idea.

Now, bear in mind that you're not just looking for duplication - you're also looking for inspiration. You may very well find ideas that are very similar to yours, and that's the idea of this exercise. For example, within a few weeks of starting my little Spacebuckler odyssey, I remembered a game from my high school days called Space: 1889, about an alternate Victorian era in which humanity sailed to the other planets - pretty much the key setting idea in my game.

Needless to say, I have a fair amount of Space: 1889 material now. And yet I'm still writing and planning to publish Spacebuckler. Why? Well, first of all, Space: 1889 was published in 1988. Despite a recent reprint effort by Heliograph, the game line is nowhere to be found in any game stores I've visited, including the big Compleat Strategist in New York City. (I got my copies via Amazon).

Secondly, the feel of the game is different. Spacebuckler is a game of swashbuckling excitement, alchemy, mysticism, alien exploration and epic adventure. Space: 1889, on the other hand, is a game of Victorian melodrama and science-fiction, with the first elements of what would later be known as Steampunk. The distinction may seem minor, but reading the older game gave me ideas on directions to go in - and directions NOT to go in that might later seem derivative.

Your research, like mine, may uncover games that are similar to games or books already on the market. If that's the case, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Does this game/novel/whatever perfectly encapsulate what I was thinking? I had a friend once who had a great idea for a journalism book, but once she began work, she found another book that had exactly what she plan to wrote. It happens. It sucks, but it happens.

However, that's pretty rare. Chances are, you'll find that the other work in question will be different somehow. It could be better than yours, which could send you back to the drawing board. But if you think you could have done a better job...then you're still on. Granted, you have a tougher job ahead of you, but if you believe that your interpretation of the idea is better than those you've seen, then you should feel free to put yourself to the test.

Idea research will also give you inspiration. You can't rip off concepts entirely - that's Bad in a big way. But you can take concepts and view them through the lens of your own experience, perspective and your own creative efforts. The idea of alchemy, for example, can be found in many games. The idea of alchemy's role in the society depicted in Spacebuckler is my own take on the subject and, as far as I know, a unique take.

There may very well be no original ideas...but there are unique combinations of ideas, and you can combine them in your own unique way.

Market Research

The other thing you have to do is figure out if there's a market for the game you want to publish. Whether you're ready to publish an entire game line in print - and if you are, we should talk deal some time! - or if you're like me and you're preparing to release a .PDF game online, you should get an idea of whether anybody will buy it.

What does this mean? Talk to people. The forums here on RPG.net are a good place to start. Check out the Open Gaming Foundation e-mail lists to see what kind of issues publishers are dealing with. Talk to your local game store owner to see what sells, then see where he gets his information. Look at the top sellers on RPGnow.com.

And speaking of RPGnow.com, I'd urge you to spend the $20 and buy the ePublisher's Guide on sale there. A number of the industry's best authors and publishers teamed up to write this book, and even if you have some business experience, it's worth every penny. If nothing else, it'll let you know the scope of the project you're undertaking by trying to write and publish your own game.

The object here is to determine whether you have something people will want to buy. According to the ePublisher's Guide, for example, some of the best sales on RPGnow.com are for "toolkit"-style books, like Mongoose's Quintessential series - books that you can use in any campaign. The worst sellers happen to be non-d20 settings - in other words, entirely new games. It's tough for consumers to trust something completely new, even if you have the best game system in the world. Even brand new settings and campaign worlds in the d20 system don't really do well.

Why, yes, Spacebuckler is a new campaign world for the d20 system. And yes, while I certainly believe it could be a huge hit...realistically, I'm not expecting to make a dime. OK...maybe a dime.

Do your market research. If you do it right, you'll recognize that you really don't have much of a chance to make money, and you should certainly keep your day job. However, keep in mind you're going through all this because you believe in your game, and deep down, you know it's good. Through the Internet and sites like this one and RPGnow.com, we all have a shot at creating the next big game.

Expect the worst and hope for the best. Take your shot. You'll never know if you don't try.

Next time, we'll finally get to the good part - sitting down to write your game, which is different from sitting down to write out your idea. Stay tuned.

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What do you think?

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