Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for BusinessSandy Antunes January 6, 2000
RPGs are a niche. There's no natural law that declares this, rather, that's just the way things are today. This world is full of simple, easy decisions. Most of these are wrong, but that's no reason to worry. When it doubt, go with the familiar. In fact, I'm going to cheerfully reminisce about some recent holiday memories of my own.
Let's take a child at play. Why look! This child is watching TV! How cute, how calm. What a joy. But this child over here is talking to herself. Eek! That's creepy! Let's get her to stop!
Oh no, she's talking about Pokemon, as if it was real. Delusional! We'll have to restrict her Pokemon now. It's leading her into a fantasy world.
Oh look! Our first child is watching "Teletubbies" now, clutching his little stuffed Teletubby[tm] and saying 'Eh-Oh' just like the one on TV! Isn't he smart!
Hey, our second child is being rambunctious, charging about the house, playing off in her little fantasy world. What a hassle.
Let's make an easy call here. The first child is normal, stable. The second one, well, we're worried. Strong fantasy behavior is a problem.
My oh my, let's look at these young adults here. The ones here are teasing each other and quoting "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer[tm]" lines. How typical. I'm so glad I bought them a copy of the "Buffy Yearbook[tm]" for Christmas.
Wait, we have a disaffected teenager here. He's mumbling some weird occult stuff and hanging out with those weird friends of hers. They go over to one of their houses and do strange stuff. Good thing I'd didn't buy him that "Vampire Occult Game" book or whatever it was.
I know one Pictionary player who gets distinctly uncomfortable playing "Once Upon a Time" (the excellent card-bases storytelling game, currently available from Atlas Games). Is the game that intrinsically different from other family-type interaction games? Or is it simply a perceptual issue, that OUaT is a direction people don't usually explore?
It seems that, in our world, creativity is respected only when it follows the prescribed direction. Let's call this 'mainstream creativity'. Mainstream creativity results in excellent cooks, among its other virtues. Things aren't all bad.
Playing a fantasy computer RPG is thought of as normal. Reading the Harry Potter books is popular, and (outside of a few loons who want to ban it), normal. Certainly Monopoly is well understood, and therefore safe. Charades and Pictionary reward creative sorts and are commonly accepted past-times.
So perhaps creativity in general isn't the problem. Rather, it's the unknown. Engaging in an activity that other people were not aware existed is seen as unusual. This may not sound surprising, and it's almost a tautology. But it's a very dangerous one. "The different is odd".
I'm idealist enough to think everyone can be creative, but there appear to be accepted and unacceptable expression of creativity. The art world has long dealt with this, but artists as a stereotype are expected to be different or iconoclasts, so there's little conflict. But in the realm of 'ordinary people', we don't expect this.
So we see getting together with a bunch of friends and wearing other personas to play in relatively unknown alternative worlds as, well, weird. It's nothing inherent to roleplaying per se. Rather, it's partially a result of undermarketing. Computer RPGs used to be a geekish past-time by mainframe junkies, and now Pokemon for Gameboy is the world's best seller.
So our first point is that anything, creative or not, can become acceptable if you can just get enough people to know what it is. Make it familiar, and ostracism is reduced. Make it state-sanctioned like TV, and you're golden.
The second problem is effort. A child running around in a fantasy land is by her nature more 'disruptive' than a child watching TV. Heck, this doesn't even need to involve creativity. Getting someone to read the same books Oprah does is a lot easier than getting people to go outside and just simply exercise. So more activity means harder acceptance.
Now, all of this would be pointless philosophizing (and thus a rather self-indulgent soapbox, in itself almost another tautology) unless we can actually use this information. So let's have a go at it. We have two cornerstones. If something requires less effort, more people will do it. If something is familiar, regardless of creativity level, it's more acceptable.
So to make RPGs more mainstream, more acceptable, we need to make them easier to get into. Then, we need to market the hell out of the concept. Making it easier is a design topic, but the worst kind, because it's design where you have to invite those marketing folks. You know, the ones that may or may not game, but can convince millions of Americans that foot fungus is a major social problem.
So we get marketing people in on the design. We throw away the current design concepts. We don't care what makes a good game or evolves the state of the art. We want to know what people will use. Heck, we want to know what morons could play. And if you think this means the death of gaming, you may want to stop reading now.
This is, after all, how many mass market toys and games are created. There's really two paths. Path one is to take an excellent new concept and push the marketing. Path two is to take tried-and-true simple things and repackage them. A marketing concept is created, then lame toys are made around it.
If we wanted to take Path two, we can just dig up some of the old Microgames and use their principles. There, we're ready to go, and we just eliminated those pesky art houses and creative game designers.
Now we need to market it, and not just commercials (though they are a good start). Commercials tell people what they want and what to buy, but people want to know everyone else is doing it, too. So we need good PR. For example, testimonials by famous people.
The power of an off-the-cuff statement is immense. And expensive; that's what PR firms are for. But an actor talking about a wacky session of 'Toon' would get people thinking "I could do that". Imagine the joy of millions of gamers if the Washington Post reported a politician's quip that "the current FBI appropriations request is like giving a 7th-level cleric a +3 sword; good idea, wrong recipient".
How do you do this? PR. PR Firms. Insiders. A systematic campaign to inject something into the popular consciousness. Matt Groening was a good start, we need to go further.
Likewise, getting a newspaper to change their description from 'cult activity by misanthropes' to 'sweeping phenomenon among young adults' is more the Holy Grail of gaming than any new mechanics or spiffy concept. And it doesn't matter who does it-- regardless, the rest of the industry will get legitimized by this and gain a boost. Think the same concept as 'gateway drugs' here, only applied to a more positive activity.
The really odd thing is, we're gamers. We should be able to do this really cheaply. Our entire idea of fun is learning the rules for a situation, then maximizing our gain and finding loopholes to get even more gain. So what can take gaming into the big time? There's no reason this shouldn't apply to the game business.
Apply that much-denied creativity into getting the meme of roleplaying out there. Forget system design and rules and packaging (or rather, leave those to your staff). Focus on the campaign to get the whole idea out there.
And for skeptics on this approach, all I can say is that I can definitely speak that business is a game. RPGnet is now part of a multi-million dollar venture*. Is that cash in our pocket? No... it's about as real as game money, about as real as an Internet IPO (where you can be worth 40 million and still have to part-time to make rent), about as real as the US national debt. As in, it only really exists within the game framework we call 'the business economy'. But it does mean that this business-as-wacky-game thing has merit for boosting roleplaying as a whole.
At least, I certainly hope so, otherwise my unpaid time with RPGnet would be better spend, well, gaming. But I'm hopeful. We believe creativity is worth striving for, and that roleplaying is a great way to spend one's life. And that's the concept we've always tried to promote. So for this first column of the year, I'd like to recap the fairly simple path I hope my columns in general have suggested.
Until next month,
* "millions" always sounds like a lot, but really, $5-10 million is really just the start-up for a serious company. For example, an RPGnet volunteer recently got hired by a different game venture for 50K/yr. That company will end up spending about 30% over that just in benefits, and ultimately 2-3 times the salary in costs (office space, etc). So 1 million buys you perhaps 10 full-time employees for 1 year. But imagine what even a small venture could do with 10 full-time employees, given that the average small press company has maybe 1 or 2. Umm... tasty.
What do you think?