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First to Market

Sandy Antunes April 14, 2000

There's a presumed "first mover" advantage on web stuff. The idea is that you establish the dominant brand for your newly invented niche before copycats move in. I used to think RPG.net was in this category. But I think 'first to market' actually distracts from the real approach to creating something new. But first, one of my patented tangential digressions.

Some background is useful. After all, we were the first movers-- the first indy game web portal. "Portal" wasn't even a term then, so we used the phrase "unified central resource". But while the shorter term works, it still isn't really what we were, or are. Web portals want to maximize traffic. Our point was to maximize information. It's a subtle point.

We wanted to simplify the hunt for materials. So our focus was on content and demographics, which is to say, we wanted to make sure that people who wanted to find the material could consistently find it. Portals, in comparison, work by trying to build up an audience. It's information-based versus revenue-based, in the end, and we took the library approach.

We'd noticed resources would frequently disappear from the net-- not just the web, which was new, but Usenet and ftp sites and archive drops. Students would graduate or workers would move and, *poof*, their material would be gone, ghosted. Remember, this was also back when internet access was mostly a techie/academia thing, and hard to come by.

The market now is different. Web space is cheap or free, and fairly permanent. Visitors are suddenly a commodity, and lots of quick start-ups are constantly appearing to lay their claim to a given niche. The concept of 'first mover' is still king in venture capital lands.

But for real success, the first rule is to ignore the current trends. Anything released on the web has gone through a hidden development time, so any copycat has to play catch-up. Then you have to spend time comparing themselves to the dominant brand.

So part of success is being first, or at least early. But it's pretty clear that RPGnet's success wasn't just because we were first to market. First mover was very useful, yes, but in the past four years there have been several competitors who rose, then fell. Why did they fall?

Because RPGnet originally created something new when it was hard to do. That makes success a matter of cleverness and perseverance-- two aspects that run almost perfectly counter to 'first mover' dot-com startups.

Our rivals fell because it was expensive to get web space, time consuming to gather the links and materials for the gaming hobby, and not directly profitable to do so. It's that simple.

Today, it's ironic that most start-ups are simultaneously trumpeting how unique they are, and yet pirating existing sites and business models to define themselves. Truly maverick startups are becoming very rare. It's almost like Hollywood.

The first movies were by definition unique experiments-- the first silent, the first comedy, the first talkie. People just made them and hopes they would work.

And in Hollywood today, we get sequels and genres. Someone makes a 'giant asteroid hits the Earth' movie, it sells, two other studios have to make their own versions. "But giant asteroids are in!" they cry. But to succeed, theirs has to be bigger and flashier-- in short, more expensive.

So the first mover has an uphill battle, because they are making new paths into the territory. But they have an edge in that they are new and inventive. At that point it's a die roll to see if they are something that people want.

"Aha!" you might cry (startling your coworkers.) "But Hollywood sequels often make big money! Genre films make a fortune!". But, they also cost a fortune. And they rarely yield as much as a good new idea. Remember, "The Full Monty" was an experimental, new thing. "Caddyshack II" wasn't.

And cost is key. New ideas can be developed for less because you have a clear field. Brand differentiation is easy when you're the only brand. And you can cut back on gloss-- showy stuff that doesn't really fit your main purpose. The one advantage of being a first mover is that you can focus on the main idea and not have to worry about standing out.

But again, that's not saying "First Mover" is a good strategy by itself. There's always some outfit with deeper pockets out there, and if you choose a clever idea, that's not enough. You have to choose something that is hard to do.

If "The Full Monty" had been a straight-to-video job worked up on a weekend by a couple of talentless film guys, Hollywood would have stomped all over it. Before it showed in one theatre, someone with big money would have made "Bigger Monty Than You" and had it in 2,000 theaters. First mover loses to the bigger pocket.

But First Mover and _hard_, that's great. If the task you are tackling is difficult, money won't help other people compete. They'll have to also be clever and thoughtful, and that's a pretty rare combo in business. Again with Hollywood, look at most genre knock-offs. They mimic the spirit of the original, but often go straight to video because making a good film is hard work.

Computer biz, it's similar. Dell Computers did well because they figured out how to sell custom-ordered computers that shipped out quickly but required a minimum of inventory and overhead to create. That took hard work. Many companies still don't get it. Instead, they try to give out free PCs and wonder why people still buy from Dell. The answer is, of course, that doing things right in that field still requires hard work.

Or look at RPGs. D&D was a first mover. At the time it came out, self-publishing was still rather difficult, but could be overcome by doing a lot of the work yourself. And they had a new idea, a new niche. They then mined it with good skill by constantly putting out supplements and modules, even as competitors thought "Ah, great idea, I'll make a fantasy game too!"

Now, anyone with a computer can sell-publish off LPI with a minimum of effort (relatively speaking). The market has hundreds of for-sale and free RPGs. And yet many startups think "I'll make a fortune, I'll be the next D&D!"

Well, sorry, the "next D&D" ended up being a totally different thing-- a trading card game made at great effort by a small company called Wizards of the Coast. They worked hard, negotiated deals with artists to keep costs down, and brought the new idea to market darn quick. It wasn't a totally new idea, but they did a unique take on it and did a lot of work to get it done right.

Oh, and then CCGs were popular and every company said "Oh, I'll make a CCG, it'll be the next Magic!". Hmm... see where this line of thinking leads?

It's not enough to be first. You have to be first, choose a project that is sufficiently difficult that copycats can't scoop you on it, then do a damn good job.

So what does this suggest for future growth of RPGnet? Well, there are a dozen clone sites that are also mining territory we made. It's inevitable-- the barriers for entry now are so easy. Anyone can get cheap web space, and knock up a couple of forms. A few of them can afford to design a good site and give us a real run for the money. It's become relatively rote.

Most of them won't make significant money. Or rather, they'll have a brief run during this current internet boom. Costs will rise as they fight to differentiate themselves. Most will fold when they realize they just aren't profitable enough to sustain that level of competition.

It also means, for RPGnet, that have to yet again explore into new areas. Areas that other people aren't doing because it's hard to do. We're already laying the ground work, that sort of "we can't talk about it yet" stuff. self-referential note: if you've wondered why we haven't done the "new look" redesign, it's because we're pulling long nights trying to build something cool from what is and what will be.

And it means, for my next start-ups, that by definition they are going to tackle things that aren't easily categorized. New territory. Projects people haven't quite done yet. Something that takes hard work.

It's risky. But that's how to build successful things. And fortunately, it's always more fun to move into new frontiers.

Until next month,

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What do you think?

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