Category Archives: business

Detour into Collectablity

Stepping away form the GM metrics thing today due to a topic that came up on twitter and demanded more than 140 characters.

The idea of a collectable RPG has been with us pretty much since the initial success of Magic: the Gathering. The idea of producing an RPG with a similar sales model – collectable elements, variable rarity, repeat sales – has always held an appeal, but has never really materialized. This is probably just as well, since I’m not sure the CCG model holds up well for RPGs, but the model is not the idea.

Lately, I’ve been starting to see collectability show up in RPGs from an entirely different angle, and it’s kind of intriguing. I trace it back to Fiasco, which is not itself collectable, but which created the model that allowed it. Fiasco uses “playsets” as part of its model, and while the book comes with a number of playsets (and the forthcoming Fiasco Companion will have more) there have been many more playsets released on the internet. As rules material, these are more truly “modules” than published adventures which use the same term. They an be seamlessly swapped in and out, added or removed, all without changing the game.

When Apocalypse World came out, it followed a similar model with its “playbooks,” each of which was basically a character class. As with playbooks, the core book came with several, more were released, and they could be seamlessly swapped in and out. Simple enough, except for one simple change: friction.

Playbooks and playsets tend to be pdfs, which means that distribution is easy – all it takes is someone putting them up for public consumption. The AW playbooks were never distributed that way. There is no central reference for them, nor place you can download them. They’ve been distributed under distinct circumstances (such as parts of promotional bundle) and, unless you actively follow the game online, it’s hard to even know these are out there.

But they’re not just thrown down a black hole. Instead, the expectation is that they will be freely swapped and shared from person to person. The files are still easily moved around, but the lack of central reference means that their distribution needs to be at least somewhat personal. That is to say, they’re collectable, traded and swapped in a manner more reminiscent of bootleg tapes than CCGs.

This is an interesting model, and its strengths and weaknesses both tie to how well it pays off for the fan. Once a fan knows about these things, he needs to dig around to find out more (which is rewarding in and of itself), get his hands on one or more of them (rewarding for cachet) then share them (rewarding for being able to help). In short, there’s a huge emotional payout for putting in the work (and, of course, keeping the game in mind). Certainly, some will be alienated by this – it takes time and effort to engage in this kind of viral marketing – but in a fashion similar to ARGs, the enthusiasm of those who buy in tends to offset any losses.

Obviously, there are some community-building benefits to this, but the biggest advantage is one of pure marketing. Forced scarcity is a classic way to increase demand, and this is a great example of it. I’ve been a believer in the commercial advantages of the “rules module” approach in general, but the introduction of scarcity & collectability is really the sharp end of really canny marketing.

A big part of what makes it work is that it needs to be paid for with effort and interest, not cash. Cash is nice, but invested effort guarantees future buyers, which means more cash. It also means you avoid backlash. For comparison, look at WOTC’s cards for Gamma World and other products. The cards themselves follow the CCG model (where some are rarer and more powerful) but WOTC has been bending over backwards to NOT market them in that fashion. And for good reason – the idea of being able to buy a more powerful character doesn’t sit well with most folks. Collectable rules modules get around this in two ways – first, they don’t offer more power, just more options, but second (and perhaps more critically) they don’t require money, they require investment. If there’s a playbook you want and you don’t have, you can get it, you just have to want it enough to hunt it down and initiate a trade (or make a request).

Which is to say, you can’t really complain about it, because if you care enough to complain, why haven’t you just used that effort to get the module?

I underscore that this is brilliant marketing. Consider: it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. Everything I’ve listed as a benefit is going to be off putting to someone, but that very alienation is an essential element to making those who have invested feel like they’re more on the inside. If we were dealing with just money, this would have nowhere near as potent an effect, but we’re paying with things that carry much more weight (effort & investment) so it’s a force multiplier.

Anyway, I expect to see more of this in the future. Even if it’s not used to market a game, it’s a great way to keep a fan base engaged, so there’s a lot of advantage for a company that has a game that can support this and a willingness to put in the work. Hell, if anything, I expect to start seeing more interesting developments in the metagame that this kind of trading represents.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a game in the pipeline with some of these ideas in mind, Guestbook, a project from David Hill which is also doing something interestingly experimental on kickstarter.

3 Ways To Get My Money On Kickstarter

On the off chance that you’re unfamiliar with it, Kickstarter is a service that lets you post an idea for a product and get backers for it. The exact form this takes varies, but most commonly it’s something like an expanded pre-order. Some people might just throw a few bucks to support the idea, others might pay enough to get the finished product, others might pay more, often for some sort of deluxe version . If the kickstarter makes its goal, everyone pays and everyone gets their prize (eventually).

Kickstarter’s stability and functionality as a platform has started making it a popular choice for game designers with an idea but looking for the seed money to cover production costs (There are non-game kickstarters too, but my focus tends to be on games). Kickstarter’s gaining more awareness these days, at least in part because of the runaway success of the Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple kickstarter from Daniel Solis. While his level of success is a definite anomaly, it’s the sort of thing that inspires hope and interest.

For the curious, purple Pawn has started keeping a list of games on Kickstarter, and this is a great resource. I definitely would not have found these all on my own. For kickstarters like Do or Amaranthine or whatever Greg Stolze’s working on this week, I’ve depended on word of mouth to hear about them, so a central reference is super useful. Lots of interesting projects out there, but also enough with clear enough problems to make me wince. So with that in mind, if you’re thinking about doing a Kickstarter and you want my money, here are a few things to consider.

1. Your Goal Must Make Sense
Anyone who’s been following Fred Hicks’ blog probably has picked up a good sense of how much it costs to produce some of these games. It’s not necessarily comprehensive – Evil Hat has never looked at a big box, for example – but it sets enough of a baseline to suggest that some of the numbers people are looking for might seem a little high.

Obviously, you can’t just assume that any high number is unreasonable, but it’s a fair red flag to suggest you look closer. When someone suggests that they need twenty five thousand dollars to complete their game, I admit I’d like to know a bit more about their strategy and why that makes sense. In the absence of such information, I’m inclined to think that either they’re just digging for gold or that they haven’t really done the math. In either of those situations, that perception is far more off-putting than the cost.

2. I Must Feel Appreciated
This is another big part of setting your price, but it’s much simpler. A high price makes me feel like my contribution isn’t going to help unless you really make it clear to me that you will appreciate it. A big number is daunting, and no one likes to get in on the ground floor of something they think can’t possibly succeed, but they’ll do it if they have a reason to believe. That reason needs to be you and your product, so you need to convey exactly how much you value each contribution.

One element of this that can plague even small projects is the velvet rope. If you don’t have low-price options for contributors (PDFs are great for this) then it’s easy for me to feel that you’re greedy or don’t want my money unless I’m willing to shell out. Even if I am inclined to make a bigger contribution, I’m still going to judge how you treat the small ones. If you’re doing nothing for anyone who gives you less than $50, then honestly, to hell with you.

3. You Must Let Me Know What Your Project Is
Compare these two cases

First, we have Startup Fever. It had an ambitious $10,111 goal which it’s already blown past. It’s got photos, examples and a comprehensive website. These are the things I need to look at it and understand what this project is going to look like, to such an extent that the dollar figure seems worthwhile. Now, it’s worth noting that Startup Fever got featured in TechCrunch, and that kind of coverage can really drive funding, but that’s not the whole story. If they did not have a comprehensive writeup (and an even more comprehensive website) there would have been nothing for TechCrunch to write about. It’s a great illustration that no matter how good your idea is, people aren’t going to talk about it unless you give them something to point to and talk about.

On the other hand, look at Epic Conquest. This one breaks my heart. The financial goal is reasonable, $1500, and it’s clear that the creator is intensely enthusiastic about his idea. but there is virtually nothing about the game except enthusiasm at the site. The author is “concerned about other designers stealing my idea until it is copyrighted” and I fear that’s shooting him in the foot. It’s clear he has ambitious goals (Ambitious enough that $1500 seems lowball) but he gives people no reason to buy into his idea.

The bottom line is people are willing to back ideas that excite them, but you need to be willing to share enough to let that happen. I hate to sound cynical, but if you’re worried that your idea can be stolen without a lot of hard work, then you’re operating under the impression that you can deliver on your idea without a lot of hard work. There’s a flaw somewhere in there which is going to resolve itself at a time and a place not of your choosing.

So there it is. Three simple tricks. Have your goal make sense, make me feel my contribution is appreciated, and let me know what I’m backing. Seems like common sense, I know, but if you spend some time looking around Kickstarter, you’ll quickly see that it’s not.