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All Gamer Money Isn't Equal

 

We'll start with a non-contentious point. In general, people who play games don't necessarily play roleplaying games, anymore than people who eat necessarily like hummis. Now let's add some contention: the most successful RPG companies do not, for the most part, sell RPGs.

Oh, and one last point. If you're reading this article, you aren't worth as much as people who don't visit this site. There, have I set the stage for some debate?

The focus of this soapbox is on the the value of the niche roleplaying consumer, the ethics of business, and on techniques that could boost roleplaying in general. But it's rooted in the three statements above.

Somewhere out there, the famed "invisible hand of adam smith" is making an obscene gesture at this industry. Idealists talk about the core gamers. Business folks talk about the mass market. On the surface, one group wants to appeal to people who game, and the other wants to convert people into gamers. Both groups want to make money. On the surface, all this is good. But not necessarily for roleplayers.

We'll take the second case first (just because I'm a backwards sort of person). Some companies are aiming for the mass market retail chains first and foremost. Their justification is 'if more people buy our games, by definition we have better games'. This derives from the pure 'free market' school of business, which basically states "if the customers want it, it's good. You should provide what they want. Reaching the largest market is key."

That argument just doesn't wash. You believe that, just go out and sell crack cocaine to middle school children. After all, they want it, you're just providing it, and you can make a heck of a lot of money at it. Just making money, or just appealing to the largest number of people, is not the sole end-all be-all of business.

But, it is an important part. The definition of an art house would be a publisher that sets making money as their second goal; producing quality product is their first. A business, on the other hand, produces as high a quality as is necessary to fulfill their business plan to make money. The two diverge strongly in direction.

I'd say RPG companies are split between art houses and businesses, really. And that's a tough decision to make, which path to take. At a certain point, many businesspeople look and think "do I want to keep true to my original plan, or make money". This is more true with roleplaying games than with most industries. RPG companies are founded by people with evangelism. They generally want to share the fun experience of gaming with as many people as possible. So they make cool games and then work hard to sell them to as many people as possible.

Then they realize the meager profits in doing what they originally intended, making roleplaying games. Now let's throw WotC into the mix. WotC owns TSR and publishes D&D, and also publishes M:TG and Pokemon. They make a fortune from M:TG and Pokemon. They bought a series of shops called "The GameKeeper" that sell board games. And, of course, they are accused of being the antichrist (but that's beyond the scope of this essay).

Their technique lately has been: supply cards to the mass market, make lots of money, try to reach the mass market more strongly. And lo and behold, what they are selling to the mass market isn't "A Paladin in Hell" but rather, neat little family-style card games.

In short, they are catering to the existing mass market tastes. They aren't really evolving the market to make new roleplayers. GameKeepers are not secret recruiting grounds for D&D. Pokemon does not lead to Paladins.

Is this good or bad? Well, it's annoying-- to see the largest RPG company not really making new gamers. But it's their path. They are aiming at reaching more gamers.

But not roleplayers. All gamers are not equal. WotC makes products that appeal to the mass market, and deliberately so. They consider reaching millions of card gamers more important than reaching hundreds of thousands of roleplayers. They've made their choice.

In short, they're not just in the roleplaying industry. They are in a strange middle land between mass market toys and roleplaying. With one foot in RPGs, they are straddling the divide to make it into the Hasbro league of things (where their naughty middle bits are swaying, I'll leave for our readers to determine).

So if WotC talks about their plans to reach more gamers, expand the market, and so on, it is regrettably at the cost of alienating the core roleplayer market. The only benefit to roleplayers is peripheral: a small spill-through of mass market folks who are preinclined towards RPGs and might notice WotC. And, that outside money means TSR can stay around, sort of a subsidized child of WotC.

Roleplaying gets only a very peripheral benefit from this, then. And indeed, if you look at a lot of the recent success stories within the RPG industry, they show that companies on the rise (like Cheapass Games, Fantasy Flight Games with 'Diskwars', et cetera) are making money selling, essentially, board and family games.

WotC (aka Peter Adkison) was the inspiration for this piece with his statement that 'the game that sells the best is by definition the best game'. But (and this may sound surprising), I don't think this is an error-- for them. It's worth stating that what WotC believes is not necessarily what other companies should. Again, WotC is largely out of the roleplaying market. So they are driven by different rules.

They don't market RPGs to the mass market. They aren't trying to convince the masses that they really want to roleplay. Instead, they found a good vein of what the mass market wants, and they're mining the heck out of it in order to grow. Alas, poor WotC... I knew him, Peter. Heck, Peter games. He just doesn't run a company that focuses on only what he likes. He runs a company that grows or dies by the mass market.

WotC is not an RPG company and are playing by rules that other companies should not emulate. We can support them for TSR's benefit, but otherwise ignore what they say on business philosophy because they aren't our industry. They've shifted to the larger mass market and left the hobby niche. What we call gamers are no longer their main audience (even if they love us, their money is elsewhere).

So are you, the roleplayer, not valuable? No, you are actually essential. Therein lies the secret of niche industries. You are the only strong market for roleplaying products. Anyone can sell games to the mass market. Not everyone can sell an RPG.

Roleplayers are a smaller market, but they are also a distinct one. They have specific tastes and they do have cash to spend. As a result, there are many pure RPG companies that survive precisely because they have targeted and focused on this niche. By doing so, they as a company deliberately made the choice to not appeal to the mass market, but to appeal to their chosen audience.

Is this bad, or foolish? Are they turning down "free money"? Not at all, unless you believe in only free market. What they have done is made a conscious choice about the sort of business they wish to run. They have chosen to market to roleplayers, a highly specific group. Roleplayers and general mass market family gamers are different.

Thinking otherwise is akin to saying 'both opera and musicals have stages and singing, so if we just market Verdi to the masses, *whammo*, we can pack the opera house each night'. It just ain't that easy.

Nor is it necessary desirable. It's highly likely that, in order to attract the musical-going audience, the opera producers would have to make their productions more palatable to their style. A few minor changes to get better cross-audience appeal can't hurt, can it?

But if the audience wants X and you deliver Y, a mix of XY isn't the best way. It likely doesn't have enough of that mass market 'X' to really attract and keep the mass market. And you've diluted that rare element 'Y' so much that your original core audience is no longer happy.

In the end, to gain that mass market, you haven't gained a new audience. instead, you've made a new, bastardized form that, in seeking to please everyone, satisfies no one. We'll cover bastards a bit more later.

There is and has to be more to a business than just making money. You need a vision. Much as Goethe's review criteria, it isn't enough just to do a good job. The job itself must be worth doing.

But growing the market is a desirable goal, and should be done. The primary question is how. Some want to take a new stance in growing the market. They argue that the term RPGs have been co-opted by the computer folks and therefore, computer RPG folks are a natural target for playing our games. So we should market to them (goes this theory) and suddenly, *whammo*, there are millions of new tabletop roleplaying gamers buying our products.

That's just opera versus musicals again.

It's important that we realize CRPG players are not simply "RPGers-in-waiting", but are as mass market as the rest of the world. Very few people really know what roleplaying is or if they want to do it, so to get a new roleplayer, you have to first teach them. This is expensive. Someone will have to do marketing that sells the concept of roleplaying-- not a specific game-- to the masses.

There are two conventional approaches to marketing. In one, you try to figure out what the masses want, then provide it (market-driven). In the other, you make something really cool and then convince the masses that they want it (we'll call that marketing-driven).

To sell a game, you have to figure out your market. Either you go out, find people who would like your game, and inform them of your product. Voila! A sale. Or you go out and convince people that your game is really what they need. Then they buy it. A sale!

Not all sales are equal. You generally want a repeat customer, so you want to make sure that what you created really is something they like. But if you do a good job with either approach, we can assume you've succeeded.

Now, finding people who are predisposed to like the kind of thing you do and convincing them to buy your stuff is just ordinary promotion and marketing. It's a lot of work, but most everyone knows how it works. You put out ads like casting a net, and hope that people see the ads, understand what it is you are saying, and therefore make that causal connection "Oh, I want this" and go find it.

The second approach is the more enduring one, and is what makes ordinary companies into titans. In this, you first have to believe that you are making the best darn thing in the world. Then, you grow your customers-- you teach the masses that what you have is something they really want.

Do we really grow up thinking "I want to drink a fizzy beverage... hey, here's Coke/Pepsi, just what I wanted?" No, image marketing has convinced us that drinking Coke and Pepsi will lead to a fun and exciting life. So we try it out, and it's appealing enough we stay.

Similarly, no one needs a pair of $120 sneakers, but Nike is just darn effective at convincing us that we want them. In fact, most of the big name companies are masters of this. It's a useful lesson that may or may not apply to gaming.

We can make bastard products. And remember, the bastard sword was one of the best D&D weapons, so I use the term with affection. These would combine mass market tastes with roleplayer tastes. The risk is alienating some of the core RPG players in the hopes of getting more people overall into the hobby. It's risky, but such an approach, given enough marketing and time to succeed, could be fascinating.

Naturally, there's a strong component of building your image even when the market is already there. One friend cites Quaker Oats for this (and it's just so plausible I'll speak it as if it were researched truth and not hearsay). People used to just buy their oats from the local store from a barrel. Once the railroad was built, Quaker had to convince people to buy their (slightly more expensive yet otherwise equivalent) product instead of the local ones. Thus modern marketing arose.

But the important part of the Quaker lesson is that people wanted oats. Quaker was just trying to get them to buy their brand of oats instead of the local ones. This is akin to the advertising most game companies do.

We advertise in gaming magazines, at gaming conventions, and in gaming shops. We are trying to convince gamers to buy Us, not Them. Growing the market is largely left to retailers and to word of mouth. There needs to be more-- there needs to be active creation of new roleplaying gamers.

In order to make money, then, it seems there are three choices, not just two. You can be a mass market gamer, at the cost of your roleplaying soul. You can be an art house, mining the niche and hoping your products excel above your competitors'. Or you can grow the market by spending millions (yes, millions) on advertising to generate new roleplayers that everyone can then sell games to.

This last bit is a hell of a lot of work. It's more than just informing CRPG players that RPGs exist. It's more than offering an RPG alongside a CCG and hoping people pick it up. Those two approaches, often raised with "hey, why hasn't someone thought of this?", generate only small crossover sales because they miss the main point.

Roleplayers are made, not born. Games are sold by word of mouth (Young's Law). Roleplayers are made by being introduced to RPGs by other roleplayers, or by seeing an RPG being played and wanting to join in. Entertainment as is generally marketed and understood by society is simply not predisposed to building roleplayers. We have to make them ourselves, the old fashioned way, by hand.

RPGs are not a game by mass-market standards, i.e. a competitive activity for people to play. As put forth in the AD&D 2nd edition Player's Handbook, "Remember, the point of an adventure is not to win but to have fun while working toward a common goal." That's a pretty hard concept to get across to the competition-driven mass market gamer.

Try to tell a non-RPGers about roleplaying. The first question out of most mouths is "How do you win?" That's easy to answer for a CRPG or a CCG. Yet the answer is irrelevant for an RPG. To make a roleplayer, you have to get past the competitive block, to emphasize (apologies to Shakespeare) that the play's the thing.

So most gamers are not automatically predisposed to be roleplaying gamers. By aiming at the mass market, then, the big money companies generally aren't selling RPGs or selling to roleplayers. But for the companies that do live and breath RPGs, you are the most essential part of their business. You, the created roleplayer, define the industry. Other games aren't a substitute for an RPG, anymore than musicals are a 'substitute' for opera. Fortunately, you can like both. The niche player has an edge over the mass-market junkie, for they have a wider selection of tastes open to them.

The lesson for companies is simple. Make sure you have a vision. Set a reasonable fiscal goal, and then go for it. It is more important to make a good living doing what you want, then to make millions but lose sight of why you do this. Know who you want to reach and what you are setting out to do.

Ultimately roleplaying is the world of imagination, and that is a precious quantity in this world. Selling ways to release imagination is perhaps the most altruistic industry one could be in.

The following people (unbeknownst to them) provided inspiration material for this soapbox. Special thanks to John Nephews of Atlas Games for pointing out that idealism can drive a company if the staff are willing. Thanks to Sean K Reynolds for posting the PHB quote in an online list, reminding us that this stuff isn't new. And thanks to Peter Adkison for being willing to speak his mind on WotC corporate ethics in several private and public forums, from which we cribbed the above paraphrased quotations. Any errors in citation are due to this author, not the source material.

Until next month,
Sandy
sandy@rpg.net

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