Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Say "Industry," I Say "Potato!"

Recent discussion about Monte Cook bowing out of the development of 5e has lead a certain someone to declare that her initial decision to not care about 5e has been validated. This (all happening on G+ where the cool kids hang out and your humble troll occasionally lurks) lead to the requisite argument about the importance of the industry to RPGs.

I think this is one of those areas where people are talking past each other. Watching Zak of all people poo-poo the industry is a bit twitch-provoking. Sure, he doesn’t need the industry, but I don’t exactly see him sending the money WotC’s paying him to advise on 5e back to them.

The DIY community can absolutely point to things like Fight On! and the gorgeous books shipping from Raggi’s living room and proudly proclaim that they can produce high-quality products just like (and often better than) the industry. But that only begs the question of where, exactly, is the line between the industry and the DIY folks.

The line has gotten really blurry with 5e. So far, 5e marketing has largely been about getting the blogging world yammering about it. In just under a month, WotC is promising to unleash a playtesting blitz similar to what the Paizo crew did for Pathfinder. Are all those playtesters part of the industry? What about people who drop some cash into a kickstarter project and get their names in a book? I think they are, and I’m fairly certain Paizo and WotC want them to feel like they are. The products Paizo sells are not nearly as important as the culture they foster, with their wide-open playtests, their organized play, and their RPG Superstar contest all working to blur the line between industry and hobby. Spend some time on the Paizo boards and you’ll discover that Pathfinder isn’t so much an RPG as a friendly, geeky cult. The fans send the corporate headquarters pizza for crying out loud! Even Apple fanatics don’t got that far.

It was recently announced that Tor is going to drop DRM on their ebooks. They can do this because the relationships authors have with their readers is becoming warmer and closer. Readers want to pay for books because they know that’s how writers keep the lights on and afford time to sit down and write. They want to say “thank you” to the authors for what the authors have given them. Paizo’s fans want to do the same thing, as do the fans of Steve Jackson Games. WotC is trying to build the same sort of rapport with their audience.

It’s coming slowly, but the relationship between consumers and producers is transforming. It used to be we just bought what we were offered. More and more, however, we’re developing relationships with the folks who make our stuff. I think RPGs are ahead of the curve here because the line between producer and consumer has always been rather hazy, and is only getting fuzzier with time.


taichara said...

Antics around 5e -- and every other "e" -- continue to keep me off the radar, I have to admit.

I'm happier staying out of the scrummage and just keeping the occasional weather eye on the news.

(safthep: winged but flightless humanoids created from lapwing stock, staff and guardians for pyramid temples)

trollsmyth said...

Taichara: Sorry to hear that. It really is a tempest in a tea pot, but being the sort myself that has an antipathy towards certain flavors of conflict, I certainly can sympathize.

taichara said...

I do continue to hope that someday I'll poke my head out of the gopher hole for longer than a moment, but as it stands the drive just isn't there.

Sometimes I feel a bit bad for it; but then I remember the stress from trying to keep up when I wasn't feeling it, and I remind myself this is a better plan. Eventually things will settle, and I'll wander back again comfortably. I just need patience X3

trollsmyth said...

No worries. :) Your stuff is worth waiting for. This post is very much the product of posting because I felt the need to put up something. Zak would be completely justified in taking me to task for glossing over his full (and rather nuanced) argument on the topic.

And I'm the last person who should be tsking anyone for not posting regularly. >.<

Dungeon Smash said...

Very astute line of thought. Thank you for sharing!

Will Mistretta said...

I'd probably point at whether a given work is truly creator-owned as one place to start.

Another: Is a game "company"'s imprint essentially a novel pseudonym for the single hobbyist behind it, or are we talking a legally-incorporated outfit with officers, employees, and possibly even shareholders?

If the answers to these two questions aren't "yes" and "the former", there's less than a snowball's chance in hell that I'm interested. At this point, I'm all about hobbyists supporting hobbyists. Because the best RPG game resources are essentially not for profit. They grow from passion and love, not the grim need to keep the lights on and food on the table. The concept of the "RPG day job" makes for inferior products by defintion (not always bad, but always missing out on their maximum possible potentials as plain old labors, rather than labors of love. It's great to be gaming at a time when all this high quality "amateur" stuff mean that there's no conflict between my ideals and my enjoyment.

trollsmyth said...

Will Mistretta: I'm mostly in agreement with you, but it's important to keep in mind that Michelangelo would never have even touched the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if the Pope hadn't put a gun to his head and told him, "I'm decorating it with your paints or your splattered skull and brains."

It should be kept in mind that people function best under unique circumstances. Some thrive on danger and skirting the ragged edge of destruction and others do their best work when they know their kids are covered by health insurance.

I used to say that if you wanted good-looking products produced in a timely manner with gorgeous art, you needed the resources of the bigger corporations to pull it off. Raggi, however, has been blowing that argument out of the water pretty consistently lately, while maintaining an exceptional edge in innovation in the stuff he publishes.

I still think that the industry giants have something only they can bring to the table, but I don't think they've really been bringing it lately. I like what I've seen from Paizo (organized play, putting old novels back in print and collecting the works of the old masters of sci-fi and fantasy). I'd like to see more of that sort of thing being done, and more innovation on what they do best to compliment the innovations we've seen coming out of the DIY community.

anarchist said...

Having an RPG business might be about creating a relationship with your clients, but so is prostitution.

I. said...

anarchist: Um, can you name any business that's not about creating a relationship with your clients? Granted, there are all sorts of different kinds of relationships; my relationship with the company that provides me electricity is vastly different from my relationship with my doctor, for instance.

So what point are you trying to make here?

anarchist said...

My point is that I'm sure some people think that Paizo or whoever are really their buddies...

trollsmyth said...

Anarchist: What's wrong with that? I mean, I doubt they're gonna call up Erik Mona when their car breaks down on the freeway or they discover they've had a drink or two too many and need a ride home.

But I have no trouble at all with folks believing, "Gee, those folks at Paizo sure do make stuff that's fun to play with," especially if it's true. I have no problem with them thinking, "Gee, those folks at Paizo do seem to want to make products that I enjoy playing with," especially since that's certainly true. That is how they make their money, after all. (You can't please everyone, of course. I haven't bought something from Paizo in over a year.)

In fact, the one questionable practice of RPG industry giants, the forced obsolescence of releasing a new edition, is something that Paizo actively works against. So even if you do believe that all corporations are run by mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes, Paizo's going to stand out significantly on that front.

Companies do make decisions based on the bottom line; I won't deny that at all. But in a niche industry like RPGs, there's not much distance between the bottom line and happy customers. Raggi's often said he's one bad product away from disaster; the reason he's still publishing is because he's consistently put out stuff people want to buy. Paizo might have a bit more wiggle-room than Raggi does, but they've still got to keep their customers coming back for more. Knowing what their customers want and giving it to them seems to be easiest way do to that, and that appears to be their plan to date.

Erik Mona said...

I am not a good mechanic, so please no one call me if your car breaks down!

Your buddy,

Erik Mona

anarchist said...

When people talk about companies building a relationship with their clients, they usually don't mean making good products or giving good value, or even treating the customers well.

trollsmyth said...

Anarchist: I work in an extremely personal business environment. My reputation and relationships with my clients is paramount, and the only way I know to build that is to be dependable and valuable. That's very much the point-of-view I'm coming from.

But I'm also not a large corporation.

So what do they usually mean when they talk about companies building a relationship with clients?

anarchist said...

Well, I think I was wrong to say that people use "building a relationship with clients/customers" to mean something other than customer service, having good products and so on.

What I should have said was that when people talk about "building a relationship with clients/customers" as a new thing that businesses are doing they don't mean customer service and good products.

What they usually mean - although they obviously don't express it this way - is creating the impression in the customer's mind that that customer has a personal, friendly relationship with the company.

trollsmyth said...

Ah, yeah. That seems an extremely dangerous game to play. While it might make customers more likely to buy, it also means that any failure on the part of the company isn't just business; it's a personal betrayal. Like, if I buy something from WalMart, and it breaks, I'm annoyed, but it's no big deal. But if my insurance guy, with whom I have a personal relationship, tells me I'm covered in a certain situation, and then that situation happens and I'm not covered? That's a completely different level of repercussions.

I think Paizo's in this boat currently. Because their customers do feel a personal relationship with the company and it's employees, it means Paizo has to be very careful about how they fire people. Even more so than that, they are strongly tied to 3.x-style RPGs. They can tweak that (as they did between 3.5 and Pathfinder) but if they left the 3.x/OGL mechanics behind, I think their customers would see it as a personal betrayal, and respond accordingly.