Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Production Values

Yesterday’s little flap over the whole Frog God Games business got me thinking a bit about production values, specifically how I’ve regarded them over the years.

Keep in mind I come partially from a Palladium heritage in the hobby. That means books laid out by hand, not a lot of color, and black-and-white illustrations. Yeah, I loved the art from Ramon Perez, but I think we can agree that at least the interiors of Palladium products were not a layout artist’s dream.

From there, I jumped into a ton of different games. Some had nearly no art (Traveller), some had tons of it (D&D), and some had art, but I didn’t like it (MERP and Rolemaster, aside from Pete Fenlon’s still-peerless cartography). Looking back, here’s my one-sentence summation:

I didn’t need what I thought I needed in a RPG product.

To me, important production values aren’t in artwork or color splashes, it’s in a solid, legible readout, and easily-referenced rules. Yeah, I like my cartography to be evocative and engaging, but that can just as easily be someone’s hand-drawn rough map as anything.

I don’t want to say production values don’t matter, but how I define what’s acceptable in them has certainly shifted over the years. Give me rules, make them easy to read and find, throw in a treasure/world/dungeon map, and I’m on my way.

If I had to make a Big 4 ranking of important attributes in a product, it’d probably go like this:

1) Enthusiasm: Does this book get me excited about playing the hell out of your product?
2) Rules: How about the rules? Do they work for what I want to do?
3) Clarity: Can I find stuff? Do I understand it? Is the product easy to read/access/utilize?
4) Cost: Is this going to break my measly allotment for gaming stuff? Do I have to buy a bunch of other stuff to use it?

I think art contributes to #1, Enthusiasm, for a lot of people. I know it has for me, too, at times, though I think good writing and outside influences trump it easily any day. But this is 2010. You can’t go online without tripping over 150 pages of art and photography to use in your game. I think that’s one of the reasons art in a RPG product is just not that important to me anymore. It’s not that it doesn’t matter at all, it’s just somewhere well lower on the list. All other things being equal, I am not going to pay $40 for a product that does the same thing as a $10 product, just because it’s got non clip-art illustrations or a professionally-illustrated cover. I certainly don’t begrudge those who do, though. It’s not my wallet.

I suspect I’m pretty far off the mark when it comes to all this, and that’s fine. I think we all know by now my site is not exactly a fount for what’s cutting-edge. It’s a pretty eclectic jumble around here, which suits me well enough. I guess it’s easy to forget we aren’t always the target audience for a product. I know I do at times, and probably will again.


Rhetorical Gamer said...

I completely agree. My favorite gaming art, to this day, are the old Otus and Willingham D&D pieces. I often find that flash can be mistaken for substance - or less cynically - be felt to be required for substance.

I would also rather pay $10 for a great game with "Eh" art over $100 for a boxed set full of pretty trinkets...

You are not alone in these values.

Loquacious said...

I think layout (a vastly under rated and under appreciated aspect of RPGs) and a good index are the most important things in a game book. As much as I love WOD (because they KILL in enthusiasm), their layout makes playing their games difficult at best. To me, 4 or 5 different (and often conflicting) sections on a rule or mechanic is not helpful. I want it all in one place.

Bonemaster said...

Sadly, I think we do tend to be in the minority. I don't know how many times I've talked to people who said that one of the most important things they get when they purchase books is artwork. If the artwork isn't good (or there isn't any), they will not buy the product.

Of course one problem is, what is good artwork anyway? Some of my personal favorite artwork is still the old pen and ink style from AD&D. I talk to some people and they say if it isn't in color it doesn't count. Heck Artwork is subjective to viewer, that's why it's called Art in the first place.

Overall, I do agree with your big four. I don't know how often I've looked at a product and I had Zero Enthusiasm for it. It's one of the reasons I don't play D&D 4ed, for me personally, It didn't do anything for me. It's also the same reason, I skipped D&D 2ed. In both cases, it had nothing to do with artwork. If it was, I would have never played D&D 3.0(or 3.5), I wasn't a big fan of the artwork in there. Like you said Zach, many people seem to get Enthusiastic over Artwork, I just know that I don't.

For full disclosure,what I consider really really bad artwork, can lower my enthusiasm for a product.

N. Wright said...

Only sincerely bad artwork bothers me, and that's because I have to show people the rulebook and be like, "Yeah, I know the art is bad, but the rules are good, I promise!" and that's a crappy day.

If the art is anywhere from nonexistant to awesome, we're in business. But bad art kills my enthusiasm for a game so hard. It's like "Is that really supposed to be a person? And what is that, a rope made of rats?"

Anonymous said...

For me, it comes down to how a book is priced that affects my decisions. If a book is $10 in print, then I'm probably looking at a used copy at a second hand bookstore. If it's new, then I don't expect it to have many pages or much in terms of artwork.

If the book is in the $20-$40 range, this is what I'd pay for a typical small hardback or a large paperback. Artwork and production value can be in black and white or color, but at this point, it needs to be really evocative and high quality. If the art looks like my 8 year old nephew drew it or I see hand-drawn maps that any Joe Schmoe could have drawn, I'm not going to buy the product...period.

Anything higher than $40 for a book needs to be hardback, quality paper, color art, and high production value. I will easily pick up Paizo's stuff or Fantasy Flight Games, but anything else that doesn't match their quality I tend to ignore.

Granted, rules and stuff are critically important, but what's going to catch my eye and give me the "feel" for the game will have to be the production work when I'm going into the game store or walking the dealer's hall at a con.

I have no comment on the DIY movement going on. I'll download the free stuff and take a look at it, but I don't play them.

barrataria said...

I'm glad to read this- I also look for content over artwork, by far. That goes for maps, in spades: color maps with textures and so on utterly devour printer toner/ink, and if they're for the DM, no one else is going to see them anyway.

But the prettiest map in the world is useless if it doesn't clearly convey game information or is flat out wrong.

Eric Wilde said...

I have to agree with you, with a nod toward Loquacious. My current game system of choice (Pendragon) just came out with a new version (5.1) that has a number of good changes to the rules.

I purchased the rule book; but, the layout is such that I will not use it while gaming. I may cherry pick a couple of the new version rules (such as berserk attach, which was greatly clarified); but, in general I'm sticking with 5.0. Its unfortunate because I'd love to support the publication of new material for this truly awe inspiring system.

Steve Muchow said...

Layout is KING. A bad layout in this tech-savvy world is instant death. Useful (not filler) art is a big plus. As a small-press publisher, I don't have the budget for a lot of art, but I feel that if the art is helpful to making the product easier to reference or read, then it should be used. For example, My next Tankard Tales product has eight character vignettes - people you meet in a tavern. Having a small facial snapshot helps define the intent of the section and separates each vignette to make the package easier to read.

Andreas Davour said...

Art makes you notice a book. Make no mistake about the value of a great cover.

That being said, when using the book, nothing beats the old classic Chaosium books. That's the gold standard. Layout like that and you are twice as good as most competitors.

Rhetorical Gamer said...

After talking with a friend, we also had another thought about this... most of us (YMMV, of course) see it as a plus if we don't have to pull out our books constantly once we've learned a system...

Meaning, all that art is kinda like candy. It's sweet when you first get it, but after that -- you don't really think about it anymore.

Can't agree more that Layout and Design really, really matter.

Greg said...

I know it is probably not your style of game, Zack, but I would be interested in your opinion on the production values of my book that just went beta this week.

Please keep your opinion unvarnished, the book is in a beta for because I want to get criticism and improve it.

Zachary The First said...

@Greg: I'd be happy to! I'll take a look at it this weekend, if I can! :)

Shawn Merrow said...

I'm in the easy to read camp. I will take black text on a white background any day. That background graphic on the page may look nice but if it makes the text hard to read all you did is annoy me.

On art I actually prefer B&W artwork but also have a soft spot for B&W photography. Seen my share of horrible color artwork so color does not equal better.

What I want the most is something that gets me interested. Make me want to grab my dice and get a game going ASAP.

Aaron said...

Art isn't a necessity. And it's true that some companies go overboard with splashy artwork. But my personal experience has been this - I have yet to see a game that has "solid, legible readout, and easily-referenced rules" married to childlike or otherwise very poor-quality art. Quality takes time and effort. And people who are asking their drinking buddies to scrawl crap on copier paper just to fill page space aren't doing to so save money to hire people who know what they're doing to manage the meat and potatoes.

Don't get me wrong. I've had lots of fun playing games that are amateurish, at best. And there are some games out there that have art that manages to be relevant and evocative, despite looking like it was drawn by an epileptic third-grader. But I don't think its the norm.

I'm a little, but not much, more generous about clip art. My general feeling is that the space used by clip art could almost always be better spent in either simply cutting page count (and thus, cost) or adding in examples or clarification. Most clip art strikes me as decorative rather than illustrative, and I'd rather have a walkthrough of how to properly use special powers in combat, or even just the cleaner layout that comes from less clutter.

I've seen a few games use clip art really well. But you can tell that someone took the time to make sure that the artwork was relevant to the game, rather than just filler.

I've found that overall quality does correlate with the artwork. Not overly strongly, but enough to have some predictive value.