Wednesday, August 31, 2011
You get what you pay for
This is going to seem like a very odd argument coming from someone who released free games. Bear with me and I will explain at the end.
The Fear the Boot interview with Ryan Dancey is extremely informative. The guys do their usual stellar job. Ryan is mercurial and interesting, as usual.
However, Ryan basically paints a picture of RPGs being destroyed by time. I want to challenge that. Ryan says that there is no intrinsic need for a product to exist if customers don't want it. i.e. if people are not willing to pay for the RPG products that are being produced, then RPGs probably shouldn't exist. And that if they are going to continue to exist, they must innovate so that people want to buy their products. And the basic conclusion I drew is that these industry folks are not going to innovate and gaming is going to die. Kind of a depressing message.
But then the conversation drops. There is no further discussion of how to innovate. So let me offer you a solution.
In the video game world, the most successful and respected companies have a few releases that they do really really well. Blizzard, Bethesda, CCP (Ryan's old job), Valve, and others. They have really really long time horizons for their products. They put in the hours, they invest the money, they make things fantastic. And people buy on that reputation. It's that simple.
In the RPG industry, we have a different model. Put out a reasonably well-written book, but nothing earth-shatteringly awesome. Then release a stream of overpriced supplements to said book. The "death of RPGs" that Ryan seems to be painting is merely the market rejection of that model of business. It is unsustainable. And for all the praise that the Open Gaming License gets, it contributed to that unsustainability. 4e D&D is the epitome of this strategy.
RPGs are not moving off the shelves because RPG customers have been repeatedly betrayed and shat upon and fed lines of bullshit. That is why RPG companies are dying. Because they are selling snake oil and people are tired of buying it.
If we want RPGs to survive, we have to move to a model where we put out high-quality products for a price that reflects that high-quality. Anytime someone tells me $30 RPGs books cost too much, I point to their monthly WoW cost. RPG books don't cost too much. The problem is not the price. The problem is the quality that you get at that price.
This is not the fault of the writers or the artists. We give them short deadlines and limited creative freedom. We dictate to them. We control them. They are not the problem. The industry that controls them is the problem.
Now Ryan rightly pointed out that the biggest problem facing these small companies is going to be capitalization. Except for WotC (or perhaps even including WotC), RPG companies do not have the capital to invest in a single huge high-quality product. They have to make short-run products to meet their next payroll and keep the lights on.
So how do you escape from this model?
To follow from my post on Steve Jobs earlier today, you have to buck the system. You have to refuse the dominant model and make another model.
I am open to suggestion, but as far as I see it the best solution here is Kickstarter or a similar service. People have to be willing to take the time risk. People have to say "I am going to work on this project for five years and make it really really badass and then I will get my just reward." You have to invest the human resource for the long haul. Because there is no capital to sustain it otherwise.
You have to love it.
Therefore it is my prediction that the most widely played RPGs in ten years will be written not by some dream team at WizKids or WotC or White Wolf that produces some book in six months time. It will be some team of creative people who underwrote the game themselves; with their blood, sweat, and tears. It will be those who poured their heart into their project for a long long time with no reward except the satisfaction of a job well done until that fateful day when the super-product was ready.
Or you can just stick with the current model until RPGs are pushed into a bathtub and drowned. Which may not be that far away.
Now why is this argument coming from someone who writes free RPGs? Because there is no free lunch. The free games I have been making have been my education. I put in the work and you all are the judges. I don't see people selling the work they made in their university classes. They may even be ashamed of some of that stuff. But it was necessary to get through that stage and into doing better work.
And I feel like I am moving out from under that banner now. I have a secret Kickstarter project of my own, which I am determined to make with such a powerful and well-crafted style that blows you away. Stay tuned.