There’s often a lot of talk about the RPG “industry” or “hobby”. I tend to use the term “hobby” more, since most of the smaller-press publishers and endeavors I interact with don’t do it full-time, any more than I do with this blog.
Of course, there are people who make a living from doing this—companies like Paizo, Palladium, Mongoose, and others still have staff that do this full time, not to mention a pool of freelancers that depend on writing opportunities to pay the bills.
Yesterday’s awesome interaction with Margaret Weis Productions really got me thinking about how the line is blurred between the hobby and the industry. The professional and the fan in RPGs are often closely tied together, and depending on the situation, the professional in one case may be a fan in another.
There are thousands—THOUSANDS—of RPG systems listed at RPGNow. There are dozens upon dozens upon dozens of games available, some for free, some for $39.99. Assuming that art, mechanics, and writing tastes will vary, what can one game do to give it a boost over another?
Really, as we’ve seen with the early editions of D&D, if all the gaming companies in all the world closed up shop tomorrow (St. Cuthbert forbid), there are plenty of RPG survivalists with enough gaming material stocked up to play merrily for the rest of their lives. So what can RPG companies offer?
Well, it isn't just releasing a new RPG from an ivory tower, that's for sure. The RPG company today has to strike a personal chord of support, interaction, and empathy with fans. If they’ve got the talent and the shiny new books, that isn’t enough. You need to make people’s opinions feel like they count. That doesn’t mean adding plasma rifles to your next Bronze Age supplement, but listening and responding to feedback online (even if to just explain your differing position) helps immensely.
Be there to answer questions. Maybe you can’t get to every one, but there’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like there’s no support for a product you just blew $30 on. Even small press companies can ensure they have points of contact prominently listed.
Support doesn’t need to be in the shape of new supplements. Palladium fans have been waiting for some sourcebooks for more than a decade, but they know every Holiday season brings a X-Mas Grab Bag, each one complete with a personal touch from the Palladium staff. Sincerity, and taking a moment to add a hint of personal recognition and consideration can make up for a world of difference.
Gamers like sales, like promotions, like special offers. Maybe that means doing a host of YouTube videos about the RPG. Maybe it means writing some bonus downloads, or running a contest. Maybe it means giving fans an outlet to share their creations. Heck, maybe even a “recommend a friend program”. But if you aren’t excited about promoting and utilizing your game, how is the customer supposed to be? You don’t have to be a shill—just be honest and helpful. People respect that a lot more than acting like your ruleset is infallible and your game perfect for everything. Heck, if you prefer a low-key approach, let the product "sell itself", so to speak, but be there for support.
Fact is, you don’t need a dedicated forum with hundreds of members to build a community around your game. You can do it by having Alerts set up and following conversation about your game across gaming message boards and blogs. If you follow the gamers, they’ll follow you.
I’m not saying anything particularly revolutionary here, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saying. Fans want to have a relationship with a publisher, they want to feel valued, and they want to feel like they belong. There are too many gaming companies out there for them to feel like they “need” to put up with shoddy behavior.
You can talk industry, you can talk hobby, but if you aren’t talking community, then chances are you need some language lessons. Now I’m not a publisher, but I am a fan. And as fans, we know what we want.