Tuesday, March 30, 2010

You Don't Have The Industry Without The Hobby

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.


Tim Brannan said...

One of the things I always try to remember is this.

Pretty much everyone in the Industry got there because of the Hobby. Game Designers are gamers first.

Nearly every designer I know plays a multitude of different games and are very much fans. MWP is not only no exception, but maybe even a prime example of that. I know many of the people at MWP are fans of Unisystem, Cortex, D&D3 and tons of others.

So yeah. It is cool there is an overlap.

Richard Iorio II said...

My view is that my hobby is creating games for others to play as a hobby. The driving rule James and I have is a simple one: have fun. If we are not having fun designing a game, then we know no one will have fun playing it.

I know my view runs counter to some. My friends thing it is crazy I see Rogue Games as a hobby. Truth is, it is a business and I run it as a business, but, and this is the key, I still keep front and center the fun.

Keeping the fun, and reminding yourself that this is a hobby, keeps the feeling alive. I also play more now, than I ever did while I was freelancing.

Personally, I think if more embrace the "hobby" of the industry, we would see a more positive change in the "industry."

Still what do I know, I am hippie gamer. :P

Zachary The First said...

@Tim: Very good point!

@Richard: I think the enjoyment someone had creating a game usually comes through in reading and playing it.

Jason Richards said...

Great minds think alike. My blog for this morning is on some of these same themes. I don't know if the flood of small press is ultimately good for the hobby or not. It certainly serves to dilute the market a bit, and it's often tough to tell the good stuff from the "meh" which can lead to the idea that ALL small press is "meh." At the same time, the small press option presented to gamers undoubtedly hurts traditional professionals.

I think you're right in that the professional publishers out there, be they big or small, should find it in their best interest to nurture the hobby, lest the find themselves without a customer base OR fans.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Oh yeah. I think the really, really cool thing about the RPG industry is that connection. It's one of the few industries where you have the overlap of industry and hobby, and that's great. The RPG industry is a great big community too, and I think that's why I like it so much.

JoetheLawyer said...

I really think that the customer service, energy and enthusiasm of the staff, and constant interaction with the fan and user base is the big reason Paizo is so well respected and does so well. They are just head and shoulders above everyone else, and I say that as a guy who doesn't play their games.

Zachary The First said...

Paizo is truly a class act, top to bottom.