Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mona on Tech and RPGs

NeonCon has posted a lecture by Erik Mona titled "RPGs in the 21st Century." It's interesting, especially from the publisher-side view of things. He does spend some time slapping around the computer RPG strawman, but not as much as you'd think. He's far more interested in the possibilities of tech.

Paizo is probably among the best out there at building connections with their audience and making their customers feel like Paizo is their company. What I find interesting is how a similar dynamic is developing in the OSR. I feel invested in the success of folks like Mr. Raggi and Grubman. Mr. Mona's got quite a bit to say about that, including its use as a deterant to piracy and how important social media is to that mix.

What I expect to be really fascinating is the intersection of tech with the "old ways." For instance, it's a lot easier to include a CD in a boxed set than it is in a book. I don't think RPG publishers are ready to start including specialized handheld devices in their boxes, but software is certainly an option, as are collections of clip art, tile sets, and icons for use on message boards and gaming software like MapTool. I've also been contemplating the use of audio files; if the audience is, in fact, greying, that means most of a company's customers may now spend 30 minutes to an hour each weekday commuting. They can't read a gaming book during that time, but they could listen to one. Only, numbers and crunch don't work as well in an audio format, so you'd want to focus on style, setting, and flavor for your audio additions. If the boxed set revolution continues to gain traction, I'd be very surprised if some sort of digital additions didn't make their way into the box sooner or later.

UPDATE: Zak S. makes a strong (and completely different from mine) argument for raising the profile of audio media in our hobby.

Photo by wili hybrid.

14 comments:

Robert Fisher said...

For instance, it's a lot easier to include a CD in a boxed set than it is in a book.

You don’t include a CD these days. You provide them a link (and possibly password) to download the content. And that works just fine with a book.

It’d be nice if a company had enough digital content with a product, a DVD might be warranted, but that’ll be the exception rather than the rule.

Although box set with digital content on a USB key—especially a custom USB key—could be cool.

1d30 said...

A USB key shaped like a big-ass skeleton key :P

Also, I think a CD could be useful still if it's an audio presentation of the campaign setting or the flow of an adventure. Something to set the mood and psyche you up.

Because the difference between a referee who really gets his material, probably because he wrote it, and one who is just reading the boxed text aloud, is like night and day.

Oddysey said...

I know my dad (20-40 minute commute) loves audio-books. These days he's always got some set of CDs checked out of the library, whereas a few years ago before he discovered them he'd read maybe one or two books a year. Though he actually reads a lot of "real" books now, too; it was mostly a matter of getting into the habit. Regardless, I can definitely see that there'd be an appeal to that kind of presentation; particularly for audio learners, who'd have much better recall for setting material if they'd actually heard it.

And I'd love a custom USB key. Particularly if it was loaded with a bunch of setting-specific random content generators, perhaps? I love random dice charts, but there are certain things where a computer's capacity for generating a lot of material very fast comes in handy. Lists of names, for instance.

Stuart said...

An awful lot of talk about cool demos, apps, graphics in Erik's talk.

If everyone is noodling around with laptops and iphones, sending messages, updating stats, working with a digital maps, or "augmented reality" apps... That's not really a tabletop game anymore. At the very least it's not playing to the strengths of a tabletop game.

Robert Fisher said...

We don’t have a CD player in the house anymore. If a book came with a CD, I’d still have to rip it and transfer it to an audio player. And I was the last person I knew to get a digital audio player. Both my kids and my mom had them before I did. ^_^ The trend seems clear. Put that audio on the cool USB key.

trollsmyth said...

Robert: It’d be nice if a company had enough digital content with a product, a DVD might be warranted, but that’ll be the exception rather than the rule.

I really thought Ptolus was going to start a trend, but it didn't. more's the pity, but I suppose there's hope someone else might.

I was thinking disk because they're easy to make and relatively cheap to personalize. But damn, yeah, the USB key sounds like fun.

Stuart: I'd have to disagree. The greatest, most important strength of tabletop play is the feedback loop between the participants. Computers simply cannot react to the players in the same way a living, breathing GM can. Computers can only give you railroaded story or no meaningful cause-and-effect feedback at all.

The presence of electronic gadgets by itself doesn't dilute this (though the distraction they might cause can). In fact, I'd even argue the right ones could potentially strengthen it (though I'm hard-pressed to think of any examples right now beyond using the 'net to play with people on the other side of the world).

Stuart said...

Stuart: I'd have to disagree. The greatest, most important strength of tabletop play is the feedback loop between the participants. Computers simply cannot react to the players in the same way a living, breathing GM can. Computers can only give you railroaded story or no meaningful cause-and-effect feedback at all.

That's a matter of Computer-GM vs Human-GM, not tabletop vs computer game though. I spent a lot of time playing MUDs and MUSHes back in the early 90s. We even played with tabletop RPG rulebooks, and did all the things you just mentioned. There are other ways to play computer games without giving up the feedback loop and allowing a real-person to guide the events and avoid the railroaded story.

Players of a networked computer game (Internet, LAN, linked handheld devices, WiFi) can also have varying amounts of direct feedback from other players from text only, voice, video, up to physical presence. That doesn't change them into a tabletop game though. A LAN party with NeverWinter Nights 2 (etc) isn't the same thing as tabletop D&D or Monopoly. :)

Undoubtedly computer games are fun and popular (there's a Wii controller about 2 feet from me right now), but they're different from what make people also continue to play tabletop games. Take a look at Board Game Geek and it's easy to see it's a healthy hobby / industry.

That relationship between the Hobby and the Industry is an interesting one, and the RPG "Industry" has some real challenges compared to Board Games or Computer Games. I can't sell you much if the game is just pencils, paper, some dice and your imagination. I can sell you a lot more if I can turn the game into something that makes you want to buy *stuff*. RPG players often use "The Hobby" and "The Industry" interchangeably, but they really are different things. ;-)

Robert Fisher said...

Yeah. To me the judge is the key component of this hobby. Yet, other aspects—being in the same room with everyone else, using real dice, rules that are simple enough for everyone at the table to understand and execute without technological aids, etc.—are all also important to me.

I enjoyed a campaign played with WebRPG, but I would’ve given it up in an instant for a face-to-face game. I sometimes video-chat in on a game when I can’t make it, but again, I’d be there in person if I could.

I tend to use technology in preparation for the game but not during the game. (I guess I have to recognize that paper and pencils and dice are technology, but we understand that we’re using the term for more advanced stuff here, right?) Some tech, however, has started to sneak into my games. OK, personally, I’ve needed a calculator all along; I’m horrible at mental arithmetic. But I’m also looking forward to trying an iPad as a PDF viewer and note taker during the game.

Re: Hobby v. Industry: Well, I’m on record as saying that the hobby might actually be better off without the industry. ^_^ I think my view on that is softening a little, though.

I really thought Ptolus was going to start a trend, but it didn't. more's the pity, but I suppose there's hope someone else might.

The truth is, though, that I get information overload real quick. Products like Ptolus for a tabletop game don’t appeal to me.

On the other hand, I would love for a computer game company to take a simple, proven engine (e.g. Ultima IV or Tomb Raider) and produce a game with it with such a huge amount of content. Give me more content instead of upgraded engines.

trollsmyth said...

Stuart: Then yeah, you and I are using completely different definitions of the term "tabletop." And, I have to admit, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the difference in your distinction, as well as any relevance in a distinction between "hobby" and "industry" in this discussion.

I know it's right there in front of me, but my brain isn't in the right mode or something to see what you're talking about. Is this something you've discussed in more detail on your blog?

trollsmyth said...

Robert: Yeah, I draw the line in different places than you and Stuart do (the idea that using a calculator might make a game no longer tabletop is bizarre to me), and I'd much rather text-chat a game than do face-to-face. The in-the-room interaction is completely ancillary to my enjoyment of the game; it's a nice bonus, but it can actually detract from the things I play RPGs for.

That maybe ought to be the subject of my next post.

Robert Fisher said...

Well, I don’t mean to suggest that a calculator means it’s no longer a tabletop game. In fact, I think that’s part of what I’m saying. Some tech aids the game in a way that doesn’t really change it. Some tech gets in the way of aspects of the game that are important to me.

The calculator doesn’t really change the game, and I can struggle through without one.

I guess for me questions of tech in the game has to do with adapting tech to the game rather than adapting the game to the tech. The latter isn’t wrong, but it does mean that you are at least starting down the road to a different game.

Stuart said...

Then yeah, you and I are using completely different definitions of the term "tabletop." And, I have to admit, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the difference in your distinction,

If we all sit at my dining room table with our laptops and play a computer game like Never Winter Nights with one person using the DM Client that's not a tabletop game. Even though our laptops are technically on the table. :)

If we both download Risk and play that together, either online or in person, that's not a tabletop game either. Even though it's exactly the same rules as the classic Tabletop game.

Both games are based on the tabletop game, but they're computer games. You need the computer to play them, and you interact with the computer to play the game.

I think a calculator, a laptop with PDFs on it, or even some Iphone Apps don't change the nature of a game. Some other things, like "augmented reality" or "microsoft surface" absolutely do change it into something else.

as well as any relevance in a distinction between "hobby" and "industry" in this discussion.

"My" hobby is what I do for fun. "The" hobby is the overlap between my hobby and your hobby and his or her hobby. The industry is the things publishers want to sell all the people in the hobby.

The goal of the industry is selling you stuff. That makes designing games that make more use of stuff that can be sold to you a good strategy.

The goal of my hobby is having fun. Buying more stuff isn't my goal.

It's very possible that a game that requires buying less stuff would be good for my hobby, but bad for the industry. Which is why I don't think they can always be used interchangeably. :)

trollsmyth said...

Stuart: Ah, ok. Thanks for taking the time to write that out.

For the record, I do not currently play tabletop RPGs by your definition. For most of the discussion on this blog I see the difference as academic, but I certainly see how it matters when the rubber meets the road.

Stuart said...

I don't think either style of game is better or worse than the other, but I do think that some approaches are better suited to each.

Coincidentally I just posted this morning about dice mechanics in games that are evocative of whatever they're trying to represent (Holtzman Shield Generator). Now that I think of it, it's a good example of something that works better for In-Person but probably not very well for Online play.