Holy Grails and Marching Moronsby
There is an old science fiction tale by C.M. Kornbluth of the Marching Morons, where the idiotic masses let themselves be led by the handful of intelligent manipulators. Like lemmings, they simply follow the path set before them. An older tale talks of the Holy Grail: the most holy of relics, which the Arthurian Knights did quest for most zealously. To find the Holy Grail, they were told, would restore the realm.
Most game companies are convinced their game is the Holy Grail of gaming: that product which (if only it had the breaks, if only distributors carried it) would revitalize the hobby, draw in new gamers, and appeal to all the unwashed masses. The gaming golden era would then begin. And they'd make scads of money in the process.
Those of the Marching Moron school of thought take a different tack. It doesn't matter what they produce (so this approach goes), so long as the product is marketed strongly and pushed through the distribution chain. The foolish masses will buy it, and we'll thrive.
We'll call these, for purposes of this essay, the world of Designers versus the world of Marketers. It's fairly easy to spot the differences. Designers work GenCon. Marketing and Sales work the distributor open houses. Designers use words like "clever" and "brilliant" to describe their work. Marketers use "easily learned" and "brilliant". Hmmm... come to think of it, maybe they aren't that far removed.
Fortunately, as with most things in real life, these divisions are not real constructs, and are not rigid barriers. In part, this is because, well, let's face it, it's very hard to make millions marketing RPGs. A good RPG marketer is still a gamer at heart, and believes in the hobby.
And now is not a good time to be a tabletop RPG designer. Companies are firing people left and right. Want to have a day job and self-publish in your spare time? Well, distributors are dropping smaller companies left and right. So even idealistic want to eat, and many smaller publishers are working less on quests and concentrating more on sales and marketing.
The World Wide Web is seen as the last, best hope for peace... err, success, that is. From a Designer point of view, it's an open field where size doesn't matter, only quality. From a Marketing point of view, it's home to millions of potential morons. Either way, it's a cheap entry point to reaching gamers who simply cannot get their choice of games any other way.
The LARP magazine I edit, Metagame, owes its survival to web sales. Truth is, we cut deals with distributors and retailers as frequently as we can... but there are still many gamers we cannot reach. So we do direct sales... not because we want to (the extra costs and overhead are a pain), but because we want to reach gamers. And we work with other companies and storefronts to help provide games to gamers. Is this cynical marketing? Is it idealism?
Yes, it's true, both through the magazine and through my work here at RPGnet, I am interested in reaching gamers. Now I did write last month that we should kill all gamers. You shouldn't believe everything you read-- or rather, people who cannot recognize sarcasm should practice before they write letters. But a few found the point, the balance between rampant free market pressure and unattainable artistic idealism.
"With the possible, and quite probable, loss of so many diversified games, appealing to so many types of people," notes Michael Marzilli, "thinning the game production company herd would only serve to leave a watered down and almost incestuous future for RPGs." He adds "People play games to relax and enjoy interaction among friends. The gaming market caters to this need." "Game companies, no matter how big or how small, are in the business of creating new ways to entertain these people."
That key-- to entertain people-- is oft forgotten in the battle of morons versus questers, direct sales versus distributors. The point is not to just sell a lot of junk. The point is not to write something that is art. Rather, the point is to write something that sells, that is art, but that first and foremost entertains.
"RPGs have similarly become specialized", writes John Morrow, "...people can now get pretty much exactly what they want... On the negative side, this factionalizes a quite small hobby group into even smaller segments where people are unwilling to move out of their little box and play with people different from themselves." Clearly, this runs counter to everything that motivated us to get into the industry in the first place.
So we leave the holy grail quests to others-- may they enjoy their struggle for the single perfect game. And we leave the soul-selling "sell at all costs to", as Ben Plopper phrased it, "these Mega-Corps [who] appear to be afraid to offer something new to the throngs of consumer-happy 15-25 year olds who are screaming for a fresh angle".
I suppose this is a "stay the course" message, a surprisingly moderate statement to end this column will. But when it comes down to it, gaming a people-based hobby, and the kind of people who we associate with are those who have common sense. With luck, the Holy Grail will appear to those who have struggled and thus are worthy, and perhaps they will share it with us. And the Marching Morons will gladly be led down the path to wherever. But if one keeps an open mind, has patience, and continues with the hobby they love, this gaming thing can work out for everyone.
All it takes is a bit of web work, an open mind, and the willingness to hunt out the games that you want, while not slighting others for their tastes. And a bit of cash to plunk down to support the games you like. Let's see... reasonableness, openness, and a suspicious lack of graft. No, this message will never work.
Game fast. Cheat lots. Leave a messy corpse.