Value, Word Count, and the One-Game Problem

By | May 21, 2016

Attention is a precious commodity. From video games to TV to movies to social media, there is more competition for attention nowadays than ever before in human history. I myself feel this whenever I sit down to read a new book: if it doesn’t grab me in the first page, I’m done. I simply don’t have time to devote my attention to something that’s not going to give me a good return on that investment. Likewise, money has always been a precious commodity. Put them together, and buying (and playing) a new roleplaying game is a double-investment for customers. Our role, as game creators, is to make sure that investment is worthwhile.

I recently read two things that have shaped my thinking on this matter: Christopher Helton’s ENWorld article on paying what games are worth, and this thread on Reddit about a GM having to read thirteen hundred pages to play a new game. The problem is not one of customer cheapness or creator verbosity, the problem is one of value:

  1. Customers want high value for their money. This is not an unusual concept, this is basic economics. If I, as a customer, am going to buy something, then I want that something to be worth the money I’ve spent. If I make $15 an hour at my job, and I’m buying a new game book for $60, then I’d better get at least 4 hours of entertainment out of using that game book. The more hours of entertainment I get from that game book, the more value I’ve gained from the purchase. I think this is something everybody understands.
  2. Customers want high value for their attention. This is not an unusual concept either, but I think this is where many game creators get tripped up. If I buy that game book, there is a period of time where I won’t be getting value from it: that period when I’m absorbing it like a textbook. Is reading a textbook fun? For some, not most. Rulebooks, I argue, should be seen more like textbooks than novels: the initial investment in reading and understanding the rules is not expressly entertainment. Generating entertainment from the rulebook, then, would come from using the rulebook to create and run games, rather than reading the rules. I think this is a concept that gets lost as game creators try to provide value to customers – I’ll be talking more on this.
  3. Tabletop RPGs demand both money and attention. What this means is that the cost, to readers, of a game book is probably at least double the price on the cover. If I make $15 an hour at my job, and I buy a $60 rulebook that’s going to take me 10 hours to read, the cost for me is not $60, but effectively 60 + (10 x 15) = $210. And that equation changes the game for customers, because now they’ve got to make sure they’re getting at least 14 hours of entertainment out of the game book. What seemed like a relatively big monetary investment becomes a much bigger investment in attention.
  4. Game Creators want to deliver value. Of course they do. They feel their game design is worth attention and money and they think other people will enjoy what they have brought to the table. So they do the obvious and logical thing: they put more content in the rulebook. From fiction snippets varying in quality from bad fanfiction to taste-the-novel-I’d-rather-be-writing, to longer lists of gear and equipment, to more classes/playbooks or lists of feats, the more you stuff into the rulebook, the more content there is, the more ostensible value there is in it, certainly! And if my overstuffed book has all that value, surely customers will be willing to pay for it.

All of this attention to value leads to what I would consider the heart of the problem: game creators, in trying to deliver value to customers and vie for their attention, are making large, overstuffed books that don’t actually bring enough value to the customer to be worth purchasing.

Oh holy crap, that’s a bit controversial, innit? I even put it in bold letters that “games aren’t good enough for the money.”  Except that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying goes deeper than that.

  • Customers already have games they like. This is obvious: they got into the hobby, often by playing a game somebody else introduced them to, they enjoyed that game and now they want more roleplaying experiences. That means that the typical customer for a roleplaying game is already playing a game they enjoy.
  • Switching games is a cost to the customer. The cost of switching games (or even just playing different games) is much higher than just how much time and money the new game will cost to get started, it’s also in the fact that the customer will now have the additional burden of keeping multiple rule systems straight. And because of this additional cost, customers are reluctant to let go of the systems they’re already attached to and move on to a different system.
  • One game is often enough for roleplaying customers. Thanks to the versatility and do-it-yourself nature of roleplaying, gamers often do not need more than one game. If they find something that does what they like, why switch? They can pick and choose concepts from other games and roll them into their own games. Most actually-played games, in fact, are a pastiche of concepts borrowed from real life and a variety of gaming rulebooks, zines, blog posts, etc. Gamers tend to evolve whatever games they play toward their ideal game.
  • The opportunity cost in attention and money for additional games is daunting. This is something that everybody needs to understand: picking up a new rulebook can be a daunting experience, especially if it’s a big rulebook. It can be daunting enough to explicitly make a customer disengage from a product before that customer even picks it up. Looking at the 600+ page behemoths that are Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu 7, I wouldn’t be able to blame anybody for saying “thanks, but no thanks.” Especially when you have much more approachable books like D&D 5 delivering great gaming experiences at a fraction of the word and page count.
  • Customers choose the systems they can find players for. Roleplaying games are worthless if you can’t find anybody to play with. So customers will stick with “what they know,” or more specifically with “what more people in their area know.” There is no opportunity cost involved when you’re doing the same thing others in your area are doing, no wrangling or cajoling required, because everyone is already on the same page. Getting a customer to switch to a different game means not only getting that customer on board, it means getting that customer’s gaming group on board. Just getting one out of a group of, say, five players to engage with a game is ultimately wasted time, effort and money for that one player if none of the others go along for the ride.
  • The more daunting the experience of switching, the fewer copies will move. If I take a look at a lavish roleplaying book that’s going to be too big for me to ever wield at a game table, I’m probably not going to pick it up other than to scratch that collector’s itch. Many gamers do not have enough money to scratch the collector’s itch. They have families, responsibilities, etc. Past that, I won’t use the book. And if enough people won’t use the book, then it’ll sell fewer copies. If it sells fewer copies, as a manufacturer you’ve got to charge even more to recoup your printing losses and potentially profit. Essentially, the fewer books sell, the more expensive they have to be to be profitable, which means the fewer will sell.
  • In the zeal to provide value, many roleplaying books actually provide less value. All those things that make games more daunting (the iffy fiction, the bigger lists, etc.) are those things that get added to books by creators to add value. The thought is that if a rulebook is to sell, it needs to provide enough appearance of value (be big enough) so that it looks like it will provide more hours of entertainment to a player. But this is only the appearance of value, not actual value, as actual value is determined by the customer. Just take a look at how Fantasy Flight tries to provide value in its Star Wars books: they’re reprinting 70% of the content in each and slapping new art in. D&D 5, on the other hand, takes a different approach: write cleaner, leaner rules. Let’s use the latest Orr Report to see which strategy is winning: ah, it appears to be the “leaner, meaner” approach.

Of course the leaner, meaner approach works. This is something that the early industry understood and which got lost for a while, but is now being relearned:

The value of a rulebook is not in its content, but in what customers can do with that content.

Gamers aren’t cheapskates: they buy what gives them value. New games need to provide gamers with what they deem valuable, not with what designers think is valuable. By making smaller books filled with less fluff, customers are more likely to take a look. Customers more likely to take a look are more likely to adopt. Adoption leads to more players playing the game, which leads to more sales. More adoption leads to business success.

Because roleplaying isn’t just a hobby, and hasn’t been for 40 years.

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