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and lead a happy life.

 

First Editions In a Perfect World

Nearly a decade ago, White Wolf released "Vampire, the Masquerade". The lush setting, strong art, quirky mechanics and fascinating in-game history caught the attention of many gamers. It was a wonderful release. That it completely lacked rules for creating vampire characters was seen as no problem. Fortunately, their first supplement book would have. And eventually, by 2nd edition, the rules would be put in.

After all, who should expect a first edition book to be complete? With all the difficulty in getting a book out-- writing, art, editing, layout, occasionally proofing-- gamers should be lucky that items are produced at all! They should be happy they have the chance to plunk down $30!

Yes indeed, "Vampire" without vampires was an unqualified success. And it set the standard for today. Like a bizarre twist on the old printer's maxim, games today often feature a Great Setting, Clear Rules, and Nice Presentation: pick two.

As you might tell, my concept of 1st Editions in a Perfect World is coming from a designers' point of view. There are really two perfect worlds. In one, the Gamer's Perfect World, products are of high quality and generally complete and robust when they first are released. In the second, the Publisher's World, designers release first works with rough edges, and rely on the benevolent and accommodating consumers to buy it without complaint.

Call my cynical, but I don't think we've reached either point yet. It does raise the point of what really makes a game.

  1. Cool Setting (Art)
  2. Readability (Craft)
  3. Consistency (Trust)
You can't get away with hitting just two of these, even with a first edition. You have to peg all three. Consider this the meta-game challenge of the game industry.

Art

No, we're not going to raise the debate of 'are games Art'. Instead, we're calling them 'art', as in, a creative work or expression of an idea.

For a game, the cool setting is the hook, and the underlying spirit of the games. No one says "AD&D, that's the d20 class-based game, right?" No, it's "D&D: fantasy RPG". Shadowrun is "cyberpunk with magic" versus CP2020's "straight-up cyberpunk", not 'the dice pool system' vs 'skill-based'.

Rules fold into setting. Different settings and different genres require different rules sets (or subsets). Rules also provide a strong part of the flavor: a table-happy number crunching system appeals to different people than diceless. All of this is really the meat of the game.

We'll also include overall style into 'cool setting'. Brooding goth, fun anime-fan, or encyclopedic thoroughness are all stylistic tacts a given system can have. Heck, make this a catch-all for the intangible called 'art' that writers and designers put into a game.

Rules. Setting. Style. Tone. World. Characters. Places. Maps. History. Backplot. Overarcing story. Agendas. All of these are part of the art of the book and kspring from the minds of the design team. Now to get them into print!

Craft

Readability then kicks in. This is where craft is involved, for the best works will remain forever obscure if they cannot be expressed. This is basic communications theory: does the presentation of the work enable the reader to understand what the designer is trying to get across? The answer should always be 'yes'.

I hate to say it, but this is the stage I feel most new publishers falter at. Their good ideas remain buried in a product that just fails to hit its mark. Lesson One: if one reader misunderstands, that's just bad luck. If ten readers misunderstand, you likely failed your 'writing' success roll.

Making a quality products requires talent, time, and effort. And no, again this isn't a 'pick two' choice. If you don't have the talent, hire it. If you don't have the time, outsource. If you don't want to put effort into it, you're in the wrong industry. It's not like our previous bit, you can't just say "I need these 3 factors, pick two." A good venture has to have them all.

Startups may wonder at this point, "but where will I get the money to outsource, to pay freelancers?" This, alas, is what separates game publishing from fan works: game publishing is a business. It requires money and time, and it makes demands on you that can verge on ridiculous. On the other hand, it can also be one of the most exciting adventures of your life, and at the end of it you'll come out with a hell of a lot of good stories and lessons on character.

Experience is a useful way to acquire craft. We've taken flack for some of the unprofessional writing in independent reviews on this site. But that's because we're aproving ground for new talent. So we get a lot of good writing, a small amount of excellent writing, and some really dreadful stuff. But these folks are one step above most:

  1. They write
  2. They let others read it
  3. Through critique and feedback, they improve their craft

Okay, maybe they don't all follow step 3, but the opportunity is there. Heck, even getting two of the three is at least a good start. Many would-be writers do balk at the actual submission stage, of letting others see their work. If you get past that, you're past one of the more subtle hurdles of being a professional. Ideally you'll go for all three points. Accepting criticism is very difficult, but there isn't another way to learn. Whether you start in among friends, in zines, online, or by launching your own company, your first works will have flaws. Sorry. It's far better that someone maul the english language here and now, and get critique. That way, when they are ready to release their 'first edition', maybe the rough edges will have been honed out.

Note to self: new RPGnet slogan "We let writers suck now, so they won't suck later?" Nah, it'll never fly.

So that's the picture on craft: it has to be taught and honed, and it has to be open to criticism and feedback. And quite frankly, no one really has it down pat (well, except John Tynes and a few others.) Criticism is part of the natural cycle.

If you agree with a critic's points, that doesn't mean you are a bad creator. What it means is your most recent work is not the greatest work you will ever do. And isn't that how it should be?

And even if you don't agree with a critic, there's a solution: learn how to write your ad copy so that type of person doesn't pick up your item in the first place!

Trust

"Art" is the province of writers and artists. "Craft" involves those folks, as well as the editor (and production and layout staff). There's also an overarcing concept, "Trust", which starts with the editors and moves to the line developers, almost like moving upwards through the ranks of a military hierarchy, and extends all the way to the top (the owner).

Trust involves consistency. This is, in part, simply keeping basic continuity in your works, and not violating the underlying spirit of the game. There is also consistency of promise. If you make a game that features pirates on the cover, having rules for piracy is a good idea. If your game promotes being part of a crew in a deep space starship, having starship engagement rules is a safe bet.

True, many foolish gamers might think make assumptions you aren't up to fulfilling. Or you can accuse the foolish gamers of missing the point, or not appreciating the depth of the work. I'm not suggesting a 'lowest common demoninator' approach to works: they should challenge and aim high.

But remember this-- foolish gamers pay your bills as well (or better) than wise ones. And when legions are upset, there is always the tiniest of chances that perhaps, the designers didn't quite hit the mark they were selling.

The idea of consistency between what you are promising and what you deliver is pretty crucial all down the line, from production through sales down to actual games themselves.

Look at stores today. Ostensibly, they exist to serve customers by selling to them. Yet there are many stores where I honestly wonder whether the staff are there to kill time, or to actually sell things. The difference between a 'clerk' and a 'salesclerk' is vast. What do such lame places say? "The customers are such trouble."

Or let's pick apart a game session. I was in a campaign that promised to be 'hard science fiction'. It later turned out to be Lovecraftian, the 'hard SF' promise being a mild deception. In retrospect, many of us were not annoyed because the game took a Lovecraftian turn-- GMs should experiment with genre twists and new directions.

No, we were upset because it was sucky at being hard SF. Which illustrates the basic point. Before you experiment, you have to fulfil your original promises. Otherwise, you're just playing prima donna with a captive audience.

A case of a job well done is Shadowrun. They promised rocking cyberpunk adventure. Then they tossed in lots of magic and mystic stuff. But they made sure they had the foundation down and didn't break promises before adding in the mystic stuff. So you got a game that let you play balls-to-the-wall cyberpunk action, plus it had a way cool backplot and fantasy elements. They laid a groundwork, and built on it.

A lot of games today seem to be skipping that 'groundwork' stage, and forgetting their promises to the audience. This creates a lack of consistency and schisms between audience expectations and what is delivered. There's a stage quote (I forget the source) saying "time on a stage is purchased, and it gets more expensive as it goes along." To a large degree, games as entertainment follow this. A player will try a bad game once, but you want them to buy your entire line. So you have to keep then interested and invested.

One consistency-related thing is 'say what you do, and do what you say' (aka ISO-9000). Its enemy is the unkept promise. Now, everyone wants 'buzz'. That intangible hype that preceeds a new release or cool announcement is one of the most sought-after of guerilla marketing tactics.

But, buzz has a downside. If you do backroom announcements and side mentions, eventually you have to follow it up with the actual product. Whether it's a new book, a new line, or a new web feature, promising vapour only goes so far. Promises, promises.

So take a killer idea, have well-crafted products, build trust, and do what you say. That's a decent recipe for a successful game company.

Grace

"Character" is, in part, how you deal with adversity, setback, and even with good fortune. Character is an important quality to cultivate. If you play games and want to publish, you can make a living at it (maybe), but it's not a profession for the money. So you'd really better make sure you have fun doing things.

If you're interested in publishing, it's important to look at why. Money? Fame? Artistic drive to create? Too much free time on your hands? Groupies?

I'd like to suggest that people who follow this and my earlier essays can become players in the grand game of the rpg industry, and lead enjoyable lives filled with leisure, fame, and enormous financial reward.

Pick any two.

Sandy
sandy@rpg.net

What do you think?

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