Monday, May 28, 2012

I am the RPG 1%

Browsing through Lumpley’s blog on a lark, I came across this lovely article on how to sell Dread to people who don’t already want to buy Dread. Now, I’ve never really had that problem because the good folk of Whyte Ave in Edmonton are a role-playing lot, and they love them some innovative design. Dread’s Jenga-tower resolution mechanic is about as innovative as design in role-playing gets, so all I have to tell interested parties is “When it looks like the shit could hit the fan, you take a block from the bottom and you put it on top.” I’ve sold out of Dread.

But there’s a concept in that article that I found particularly interesting, and that’s her use of what seems like an entirely made up statistic that 90% of players show up to a role-playing game to consume the medium, 9% are occasional participants, and 1% are active participants and content-creators. I’m a content-creator. I like to fiddle around with game design, and I appreciate design from a consumer’s point of view. I am like a million other role-playing game enthusiasts who is “writing a game” that will likely never see the light of day. More importantly, I write a blog, and while my level of participation is low, I’m still creating content that some people find interesting or valuable. That’s really important.

But I’m not. In the role-playing game industry, at least at a design level, I’m nothing, nobody. I’m certainly important in other directions, mostly in sales and community leadership, but people should not be designing role-playing games with me in mind. I’ll play damned near anything and find something to like in it. Hell, I played RIFTS for years, and had a blast.

The 1% of people in the role-playing game industry aren’t the people you need to design for. You need to design for the 99% that aren’t us, because if you can get those people buying your product, you’re going to make a lot of money. You need to make product for the guys who just want to show up and play, who spend hours reading the books because they’re neat. And to go back to RIFTS for a moment, nobody does this better than Kevin Siembieda. One of the constant refrains I hear in my position behind the counter is “I can’t believe this game is still around.” Then four people come in and buy RIFTS: Lemuria and they’re super-stoked about it, not because they’re going to go home and play it, but because they’re going to sit at a Starbucks and read the book cover to cover, Oohing and Ahhing at the awesome pictures of Dragon Mech Warrior King Insect Demons and the stats for power armor that makes no godly sense whatsoever. This is why Kevin is still in business, he understands the Wow Factor of your average gamer better than most of the people currently designing role-playing games. If he could get his feet back on the ground and start pumping out product like he was in the late nineties, he’d be laughing.

And this is sort of what the guys at Wizards of the Coast have been trying to do for a while, now. You can see it all over the design of Fourth Edition, and having played the Fifth Edition playtest thingie, I can see a lot of work being put into getting some of those people back. Fourth Edition had REALLY COOL POWERZ and your hero was a balls-to-the-wall ass-kicker from the word Go. There were entire books full of COOL RACEZ and WICKED GEAR that were trying to reach something in the 90% gamer that made them go “Whoa!” One of the problems, though, was that Fourth Edition was dedicated to a sterile brand of balance that made it impossible to reach that visceral WANT reaction. I think some of this came from a miscommunication between Brand and Design, and like one of my friends constantly says “The biggest problem with Fourth Edition is that it was built to fix all of Third Edition’s problems, and it did, but then nobody liked it because it didn’t feel like D&D.” It made balance a primary concern, and while that’s great, while that is a brilliant goal to try and work towards, it’s a goal that makes players like me happy. It doesn’t make players like my friend Matt want to play.

Matt doesn’t want to play a balanced game. If we’re using Mark Rosewater’s “Timmy, Johnny, Spike” chart, Matt’s a Timmy. He wants to experience something, and he wants that something to come in the form of Awesome Wish Fulfillment. His favorite character was a troll called DeathSlayer. He wanted a character that was Huge and Powerful and Awesome and Strong and nobody ever fucked with him ever. Because that’s the sort of thing players like Matt, players who are the 90% of gamers, really want. I think Matt’s a pretty extreme example, for sure, but what about that quiet guy who shows up and uses his powers but doesn’t really say much? He’s probably just there to watch the story unfold and have a drink with his buddies, and designing a game that gets players like him involved is actually really tough.

Designing for the 90%

Some of this comes back to my Busted Game Theory.

ShadowRun, D&D 3.5 and RIFTS are the three games that most immediately come to mind when I think about how to design a game for the 90% of gamers who aren’t me. They are both, intrinsically, games about wish fulfillment. You get to be exactly as cool as you want to be, in whatever direction you want. You want to be pretty, agile, flexible? Be an elf. Looking for big, brutal and smashy? Rock a troll. Want to be smarter than everyone? Hackers and rogue scholars. Looking to be faster, stronger, better than normal? Juicers are the way to go.

If you’re looking to design with these players in mind, you need to understand that what you’re looking to build isn’t a game that’s cool. Because wish-fulfillment is seldom actually “cool.” It just seems cool to the players who are into that specific direction of wish fulfillment. You need to cater to the people who want to be an Action Movie Star and the guys who want to be in World Wrestling Entertainment. You need to build a game that is complicated and fiddly, a game that can be “broken” in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different directions.  Third Edition D&D did this flawlessly, and it’s still the most popular version of the game ever printed.

With that in mind, it also has to be fun. Setting has to take a back seat to your player characters’ awesomeness. Have you ever really looked at the setting of RIFTS? It’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of settings and milieus that serves as nothing more than a backdrop for how awesome your character is.  Sure, there are dragons out there, but they’re mostly there in case you get a hankering to prove you’re more awesome than a flock of dragons. There’s a tyrannical cult-nation of human supremacists, too. You should probably go kick their asses so that you can punch Future-Hitler in the face. The setting for Shadowrun is, honestly, no better. It’s a stew of fantasy tropes and horrible 1990’s cyberpunk bullshit. Why? Because trolls are cool. You know what’s cooler than a troll? A troll in a trench coat punching Future-Corporate-Hitler in the face.

Importantly, power creep is not a thing you need to avoid in a game that caters to the 90%. It should be actively embraced. It should be crammed into books as often as it can be justified. One of the lessons game design has learned from Yu-Gi-Oh and Warmachine is that if everything in a game is broken, nothing in the game is broken. If you put a bunch of crazy over-the-top machine-gattling-rail-guns in your first book, you’d better have something that one-ups that bitch in the next book, because that’s gonna need some one-uppin’. Power creep allows those players who are enjoying the media while expressing their wish fulfillment to continually reach for a new wish to fulfill. If you already have a Hackmaster +10, the +11 coming out in the next book is going to look pretty sweet, whether you can obliterate small villages by yourself or not. This keeps people buying books, it keeps people playing your game (or buying your game without playing it, in the case of many RIFTS folk), and it makes sure that no matter how “cool” the last stuff was, the stuff in your next book will be even “cooler.”

And this isn’t going to make people like me very happy at all. I will probably complain about your game publicly and wonder why the hell I can’t keep it stocked on my shelves, because seriously, who plays this garbage? But I already know who plays this garbage, and there are a bunch of people I could point towards it with a clear conscience, because that’s the game experience they’re looking for.

And there are more of those people than there are people who could appreciate Burning Wheel.

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