Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I want to play the "Bang hot goth chicks" game

aka Social Context post #1

So this is the post which I had you read *all* of the Infamous Five for, although I hope that the process was edifying in its own right. If you haven't read the 27 threads yet, please do go and read them, because they provide a really necessary context for this post. In particular, I'm going to be trying to quantify a few of the many issues that they are talking about. (And, by "quantify," I mean "analyze" not "assign numbers to." Smartass.)

At GenCon 2004 (edited typo here, was '03), there was a decent amount of talk about what we're moving towards, in terms of progressive game design and games not just for gamers. (To those that were there -- I'm thinking in particular about the conversation at the Italian restaurant on Sunday night, after enough people had left that we condensed into one table.) One of the ways that people framed it was in terms of the "deck of cards --" some sort of gaming tools which could be used to play a wide variety of games (not a literal deck of cards, mind you, but a universal set of RPG playing tools.) Not being particularly interested in games-not-for-gamers, nor particularly interested in universality in rules, I didn't engage a lot in this conversation, although it was certainly interesting.

At Brand Robin's blog Yudhishthira's Dice he recently made two posts about solo (meaning one GM - one player) games: You and me baby, one on one... oh yeah.... and the deceptively titled Solo Games, post the first. One of the issues he talks about he frames as a frustration that advocates of solo play (of which there are not many) have shied away from the "solo play can lead to fucking" angle, which he thinks is a great aspect of it, and a huge advantage. (and, you know, he's totally right). He rightly decries the general lack of emphasis on sex in RPGs and in RPG circles, and that this is really a big attraction of role-playing, being that it is a highly intimate artform (in either one-on-one or in group situations.)

We get a lot of new game designers on the Forge, people who are totally unfamiliar with the theory work we do and just stumble in trying to design the game of their dreams. This is excellent! Frankly to say, the Forge is probably the best place on the internet for the amateur design to design the game of the their dreams, and a lot of that has to do with the theory that we've developed. Anyway, a lot of these guys, simply because they don't have the exposure and backing of the theory, explain "what I want to do with my game" in terms of techniques -- mostly mechanics and setting. Things like "I want it to use a 3d12 keep the middle die system" or "It is set in a ahistorical version of 19th century Central Europe, with a focus on revolutionaries and rabble-rousers," rather than in terms of the sort of play and the sort of interactions between players that they want the game to consist of, which is usually what they want. What often happens is that people who want Narrativism will try to get it by placing heavy emphasis on Setting elements of Exploration, and people who want Gamism place heavy emphasis on the System elements of Exploration, and both of them usually don't end up with a game that is particularly playable by anyone. It is a category error, and a big one, but it is also a totally reasonable error to make, because they simply don't have the vocabulary to even begin to think about RPGs outside of the technical level.

It is my contention that the folks who are talking about the "Deck of Cards" game that will be accessible to all and Brand when he talks about sexiness in gaming and two-player games, are making the same sort of category error that the Novice designers on the Forge are exhibiting. To whit -- both are trying to change the Social Context, but they are trying to effect such change without considering it directly at all, but latching on to lower-level concerns which may or may not make a difference -- Social Contract, Exploration, Creative Agenda and Techniques level stuff, in other words.

In specific, Brand is trying to change fix / alter the Social Context of gaming (sleazy guy reputations, etc.) by making alterations to Social Contract (two-player games) and and Exploration (sexy stuff.) The "Deck of Cards" discussion was actually about altering rather high level social context (how RPG play relates to our culture-at-large) but focused on something that is situated at the Technical level of the Big Model, or at best at the Exploration (System) level. I think that this path is as mistaken as the path of trying to get functional Creative Agenda play out of fiddling around with the Techniques level, or trying to get everyone to get along by changing setting elements (the wonderfully named "Elven Ear fallacy.")

To continue pounding on Brand (who really does get this stuff, I'm just being me): It is, in truth, not entirely possible to sell a game that can be used explicitly as a flirting / pick-up game in today's RPG scene. The unpleasant social context (too many gamer girls getting awkwardly hit on) poisons the great potential. Thus, if you want your pick-up game to exist, you must change some of the things within the game and around the game in order to make it more possible. Here are some considerations:

  • Make the goal of the game less obvious / direct, or possibly even sublimate it entirely, instead focusing on having it consist of activities that build trust and intimacy and sexiness.
  • Sell it to a crowd of people who does not have the prejudices and experiences that gamers have. This, of course, suffers all the disadvantages of selling a role-playing game to non-gamers.
  • Do something to change around the social context so that it does not mirror the past sleaziness of the gamer experience. For instance, you could sell it to the girls, and encourage them to use the game to pick-up guys. But you may want to adjust the rules, presentation, etc for your new audience.
  • Many other things

A great example of a game that fails to consider the social context level of play is my own Polaris. My self-identified "target audience" is people who have been through the Amber / Nobilis / Theatrix / Freeform cycle of play, and are frustrated at the stalling of those games and the "certain sameness" that creeps into the play of each one -- essentially a slow drift towards Gamism with a strong emphasis on precedent and pre-positioning. Systematically, Polaris can answer to this in a number of ways (giving strong system tools for making things happen without a heavy mechanical component), but it totally fails on the social context level. The players we're speaking of are largely mid-20s to late-30s. They are professional types with jobs, children, highly stable gaming groups, etc. The game fails in two ways. First, it requires a specific number of players (to be fair, optional rules allow for 3-5, but it should be four, and the rulebook says as much.) This may require breaking up the old gaming group, something these players would never do. Furthermore, it absolutely and totally requires everyone's presence at every session. (Eric Finley's group is playtesting some optional rules to divert this, but...) And, by presence, I mean full on-the-ball awareness. It has no concessions for sick kids, vacations, a rough day at work, whatever. This, it will be attractive to them as a game, but I imagine most players will find getting through a full 4-6 session storyline difficult.

So here are some hard questions for any designer about their own design work:

  • How do you want play of your game to be integrated into the lives of your players? Answers can range from "just like an ordinary RPG" to any number of exotics, but if your answer is "just like an ordinary RPG" do realize that that answer covers a great deal of territory. Have you done anything in terms of design, presentations, or marketing that would help them play the game this way? Have you given an indication of how you want them to play? How else might they try to play it? Do you need to add anything?
  • How do you want play of your game to relate to previous experience playing RPGs? Answers can range from "the bestest game ever" to "new players only" to "I don't care," but each of those answers, again, means a wide variety of things. Have you done anything to support this? How else might you support this?
  • How will the contents of your game seem to a role-player who has been exposed, previously, to the various sub-sub-cultures one encounters in gaming? How will they react to it? Does your marketing and game text answer the questions and concerns that they might have? Does it need to?
  • How will the play of your game integrate into the wider gamer subculture? What preconceptions are your players going to bring to the table? How will it be perceived by others? How would your players talk about their game experiences with their peers? Do you care?
  • How does your game text relate to other game texts, in terms of differences and similarities? What systematic parts and social assumptions have you borrowed from other texts? (Commonly: one GM many players, illusionism, etc.) What parts are "gestalt" and must be taught, and what parts can be learned from the text? Do you mind?
  • Given the general context of how gaming is perceived by the culture at large, how do you want your game to fit into that or not? What can you do about that, in terms of marketing, sales, target audience, presentation, game text, and rules? What can't you do? Can you accept the things that you cannot do? If not, what are you going to change so that you can?

*None* of these questions is written with a pre-determined answer, at least not from me. These are questions to ask yourself as a designer and as a game player, and I think that asking them will make your game better, and possibly make it sell better.

P.S. Two commendations I have to give: Both Ron Edwards and Emily Boss are extraordinarily forward thinking designers when it comes to Social Context and the hard questions listed above. While I may not like all of their answers, they have asked these questions to themselves and by God they know their answers to them.


Blogger Matt Wilson said...

See, what you call social context, I call a good relationship between marketing and product management.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Hey, I needed to be pounded on Ben, so don't feel bad.

At some point in the next week I'm going to take a harder look at social context in gaming and how I think we can/can't change it -- specifically around solo games.

I do belive it can be done, in specific, focused areas, and I think that some marketing techniques other than those the industry has traditionally used (sell to people who already buy everything and don't exclude anyone) could help with this.

The big error I made in my article was that I didn't consider social context fist -- I considered mechanics first. Stupid, really, but I'm better now.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Matt -- That's part of it, but not all of it. For instance, my first question, about how people integrate play of your game into their lives, has little or nothing to do with marketing, and a lot to do with rule strucutre, as illustrated by my negative example of Polaris.


9:26 AM  
Anonymous JasonL said...


That last comment to Matt has me confused. You're saying in the post, correct me if I'm wrong, that working to address these issues at the technique level (among other things) is wrong, but then saying that how a game gets integrated into folks lives (in the specific example of Polaris) is based on rule structure.

How is that not technique?


"Oh, it's you...

10:05 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jason --

The basic point is this -- it is foolish to talk about anything lower on the model until you have discussed the things that are higher on the model. Thus, it is fallacious to say "I'm going to write a game that uses a 3d12 task resolution setting and thus it will be fun?" Further, it is wrong to say "I'm going to write a game that has a Narrativist creative agenda and thus it will be accepted by non-gamers."

The trick is to look at the higher level issues, see what you want, and then use combinations of lower level elements to address that.

Does that make sense?

10:13 AM  
Anonymous JasonL said...


Yep, I'm with you now.



"Oh, it's you...

11:27 AM  
Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Matt -- That's part of it, but not all of it. For instance, my first question, about how people integrate play of your game into their lives, has little or nothing to do with marketing, and a lot to do with rule strucutre, as illustrated by my negative example of Polaris.

That's why I said "relationship between." And I stand firm that what you're talking about is old hat outside of gaming. We talked about EXACTLY this at my previous job wrt to cell phones and content at many a planning meeting. Model schmodel. You're reinventing the wheel, man.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Matt -- Cool. I'm cool with reinventing the wheel. I just think it is a lot of important questions that indie designers don't ask themselves.

Further, and this is a big further, I don't think it is just about "selling more copies of your game" which is what I associate "marketing" with. Rather, it is about making the experience of playing your game more enjoyable which is exactly identical to all the other design concerns (social contract, creative agenda, etc.) that we think about.


10:46 PM  
Anonymous Keith said...

I was hoping for something different based on the title. Interesting shit Ben. I have to say I'm in agreement with Mr. Wilson concerning what you call social context.

However, the series of questions you ask should be better layed out. They are good questions a designer should (for the most part) ask themselves. I think you should formulate it into a work sheet and post it to the Forge. Too much shit there is scattered and I think something like that is needed, particularly for those just jumping onto the boat.

I tried answering similar questions in my revision and I'm using those same questions again with Lies, Damn Lies when it was pointed out that in the first run of CoS I didn't explain how the game works. It works great when I run it cause I that is how I envisioned it being played, but the second someone else grabs it they have no idea what I intended cause I left all that shit out...

12:02 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

First off, on the Marketing front -- 'Marketing' is a much broader concern than 'Advertising'. Marketing is, in fact, planning out how your product-or-service fits into your consumers' lives, and communicating that to them. It involves positioning, comparisons, pricing, advertising (of course), and even inventory and distribution. Great gobs of what you're talking about are, properly speaking, marketing concerns.

You are right, however, that such marketing concerns should inform design and implementation of the product -- they should, in fact, be the second step right after you have the big idea / inspiration for the product in the first place. You get the germ of an idea -- a game... where you backstab eachother but laugh about it! (or whatever) -- and then figure out how that idea can be integrated into people's lives.

Look at cellular phones. Their 'marketing' doesn't begin and end with their ads. The marketing of cellular phones has made them an intricate part of our lives. It includes everything from putting little dayplanners on the phones to offering camera-phones to the cellular network coverage they offer to the pricing structures to... everything, really.

As I've said elsewhere before, I'd love to see an actual, coordinated marketing strategy for roleplaying games -- no one really has one right now, beyond White Wolf's rather profoundly countercultural campaign that did more to ostracize their audience from the general public than market to the general public (which can also be useful to a company). I think that's also what you're talking about here.

We've got the product -- or at least the basic outlines of the product known as 'roleplaying' -- now we need to find a way to connect the product to the lives of the general public. There are a number of ways to do that, from making it easier to use (we call this 'increasing form utility') to making it easier to see (increasing place utility) to making it easier to find out about (increasing information utility -- AKA advertising). You are right in that we need to develop a conception of how the product will fit into the customer's lives, but we also need to explore the variables we have to see what we can do to fit the product into their lives (a subtle distinction).

I'm running at the mouth, now, but at root, we can't change the culture that we are hoping to market to -- we can't directly make geeks less geeky -- but we can take a serious look at the market, realize the real characteristics of the market (what is geek?), and tool the product to appeal to that informed conception of the market.

2:12 AM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

La Lud just got about half of my next post for me, damnit.

Of course, the other part of my post is about how if the only market we ever manage to sell to is the current RPG market we're fucked and dead already, we just don't know it yet.

I think its time for some people to start taking real looks at marketing and gaming beyond the traditional geek RPGer market. If the only people buying your game already own both Vampire and GURPS, then it's all heat death. If, OTOH, we could find a way to link into the Celeb-LJers, the American Idol wannabes, and things outside our normal cell structure through both good design and marketing, then there may be some real money to be made. And some really good games.

As for how to do that, I'm still working at it.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Yeah, I elaborated on a longer post for my own blog, but then blogger ate it, and I was already well out of my lunch hour as it was.

It was sad. I cried a little into my pillow.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Ludisto (do you have a real name, btw?) and Brand --

See, I am totally agnostic about whether or not this means opening up new gamer markets. Frankly, through the miracle of direct-to-customer sales via the web (or indirect-to-customer through a fair-deal distributor like Indie Press Revolution or Key20) means that I don't have to worry about mass market. I need to sell 50 copies of Polaris to break even. 50 copies! That's just plain peanuts. I can sell those no matter if the hobby is shrinking or not -- I seriously doubt it will shrink to the point where I cannot move 50-100 copies of a good game in my lifetime and, if it does, I can switch to PDF distribution.

That's my response after reading those questions -- I am totally content to sell to 30-something hobbyists who are mostly AmberCon veterans. Yours is clearly very different, and that's also cool. The important thing is not the answers, it is that the questions are addressed at all.


8:44 AM  
Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


I agree. Sorry I didn't point that out more clearly.

For me the answer is that I'm getting tired of Gygax's sloppy seconds and having to recondition players to not think of D&D structure when they think about game. I'd like to move beyond that, and I think (for me) the easiest way is simply to move outside of that.

For everyone else the answers should be different. Hearing about your game should suck.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Real Name: Joshua BishopRoby Hi! Pleased to meet you.

I hear you about the 30 copies and breaking even, but I think it's important to point out that that will be breaking even on manufacturing costs -- all of your development and production time is not (I'm assuming) being counted in there. That's fine for a hobby, since a hobby is something you do with free time, but that's not a business model. It's also not something that will change gaming (except for thirty playgroups, presumably). And that is, of course, fine if that's what you're going for.

A lot of people go on and on with doom and gloom for the 'big five' gaming companies, but I for one wouldn't really mind if they faded out of the picture and the hobby went cottage industry. I don't really know if the big companies are necessary to sustain and maintain the hobby -- in fact every production cycle it seems that their products are geared more towards ostracizing and insularizing the market, making it safer for themselves in the short term but toxic in the long term.

Whether or not gaming will relate to the larger culture through a capitalist/corporate model (with big publishers dispensing books and disseminating culture) or if it can or should change tracks to a more participant-fueled and -directed model is the subject of (lots of) separate posts, though. Whichever is the case, however, I think it would be worthwhile for game designers to really take a look at the 'business end' of their products, and properly market them to make sure they're actually acheiving what they want to. Blue Rose is a good recent example; as has been pointed out on RPGnet, the game is geared towards girls who may not have been gamers, but Green Ronin has done nothing to actually make those girls aware that the product exists. If you go through all the trouble to make the thing, you should take the last couple steps to make sure it gets into people's hands -- whether you go corper-marketing or use other channels.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jason -- Nope, it isn't a business model. Then again, I am a proud amateur. Check out my statement of purpose here.

4:30 AM  

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