Monday, July 8, 2013

Sell Me on a Game: Play on Target Ep. 13

For this episode of Play on Target, we tried a slightly different approach. Each of us presented a game we like and pitched it to the others. I always enjoy the chance to advocate for good games. And in this case I learned about a game I’d only heard off and then had to go out and buy immediately. At first I thought all four of our choices were out of the mainstream, but I’m not entirely sure there is a mainstream in rpgs anymore. I suspect for the next time we do a show like this one I’ll try to pick a more conventional or bigger selling game I enjoy and talk about that.

We’re enthusiasts talking about games we like- trying to explain what we like and why others might find fun in them. I try to keep up with what’s coming out and in doing my various histories of different game genres I’ve had to read through a ton of material: introductions, publisher blurbs, websites, back covers and the like. From that I have a few suggestions on how to sell a game- to me, at least. I others will have different things they look for and love, hate or tolerate. 

Genre is Not Enough: Saying you’re offering a steampunk, Western, superhero, or horror game can pique my interest, but you’d better go past that. What kind are you? What are you simulating and why? Steampunk’s especially bad in this regard- smart people have such dissenting opinions about what that means. But I’ve read games where I have to dig a long way in before I realize that your particular flavor of steampunk includes Elves and magic. Explain upfront what your spin on the product is.

YAZG or “Yet Another Zombie Game”: Even if you’re picking out a sub-genre, that’s shouldn’t be the end all of your marketing. In putting together the horror lists, I saw several games which simply pitched themselves as “Have you ever wanted to play in a Zombie setting?” Yes, yes I have and I had All Flesh Must Be Eaten to do that with. You really need to address and accept the existence of other games in the sub-genre and show how yours does something new. Take for example John Wick’s The Shotgun Diaries which puts the simplicity and almost boardgame nature to the player competition up front.

Generic isn’t a Great Selling Point: I’ve seen a good deal of push back against generic games over the last several years. That seems odd to me because we had a long period where that approach grabbed people’s attention. But I can understand the counter-argument: generic systems are too common and don’t emulate any one thing particularly well. That means that if you want to sell me on a generic game, you need to do a great job of talking about the mechanics, the interesting systems, and what the core engine really brings to the table. Just saying “you can do anything with this game” isn’t enough, and from what I’ve seen actually puts readers on the alert. At the very least don’t make that universality the sole or key component to your spiel.

I Don’t Want to Read Your Novel: When I go to look at a new rpg, if there’s more than a couple of pages of game fiction at the start, I usually put it back. That’s especially true if there’s no set up to what the game’s about before that. I don’t want to have to plow through a short story to figure out the game’s premise. A couple of pages works- a teaser that sets up ideas and leaves me asking questions. I’m more forgiving for supplements, like WW books, where I’ve already bought into the line. But even there I usually skip the bits. I don’t know if I’m in the majority or minority with this.

I Don’t Want to Read Your History Dissertation: I like history- I primarily read historical non-fiction. But when I hit a wall of that in an rpg my eyes roll up into my head. As with game fiction, a few pages is fine- especially an overview that sets up the context of the game. But you need to put some kind of preface or introduction that lays out the basic premise and key concept of the game. I really dislike a dozen pages of history presented cold that start all the way back at the dawn of pre-history and work through wars and conflicts in the distant past. I want to know what the world looks like now- I want to know what’s happening in the present. I understand you have to set some of that up- and offer secrets the GM can pilfer for stories. But more of that can go in later sections. Be economical with your historical info dump.

Cover Art: If your cover art depicts something cool, that ought to actually be in the game. I’ll make an exception for more mysterious or strange games, but generally if the game cover has cool steam trains and an industrial city, I expect that to be pretty front and center.

Mystery is Not An Excuse: Here’s a problem I hit on with several horror games. You clear have a strange or surreal setting with secrets or hidden motives. You don’t want to give away too much, so you pretty much simply point and go “trust us, that’s weird and wild.” That’s not enough to make me want to play or buy the game. You need to offer something more. Don’t Rest Your Head and ImagiNation both handle this well- with enough tease to make me interested.

Character Sheet: You should have one at the back of the book I can flip to easily to check out.

Maintain Your Website: If I want to find out more about your game, I’ll usually check your website. You should have an easy to get to blurb or explanation there. Not a couple of lines, but a more substantive explanation. Copy the game’s introduction if you have to. If the game has supplements, have a quick and easy list of those so I know what’s available. This applies even if you’re doing your site via a blog.

TELL ME WHAT WE DO: If I’m playing in the game, what am I doing? Is it geared to investigation, dungeon-crawling, social conflict? Are we playing adventurers, empires, planets? I understand that authors don’t want to narrow the possibilities, but I really need some kind of tag line. Not just what the game’s about, but what the premise looks like in play. If I can’t figure that out easily, I’m much more likely to just put the book back.

And that’s what this is really about- keeping me from putting the book back or clicking on. We live in a golden age of rpg media- I have far too many games to ever play them all. But I love reading new ones. I have a limited budget of time and money for that. If a game doesn’t sell me quickly and clearly, I’ll move on to something else. Unless I get word of mouth, I’ll probably never learn how great your game was. Keep in mind the implied IMHO on all of these suggestions- they're about personal preference and what I look for. 

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  1. I don't know that I've ever not bought a game because it opens with fiction, but like you I don't tend to read it. Maybe a couple of times in all my game purchases, and none of those made me glad enough I did to be memorable.

  2. I pretty much always read the fiction, often before I get into anything else in the book. I guess I do want to read their novel, usually.

  3. Yes- I remember there being a solid 50/50 split when I talked about Game Fiction before. I was honestly surprised how many people really enjoyed it. That's made me go back and look at it more seriously. It becomes a decision-making moment for me when I'm checking out preview PDFs for rpgs I'm interested in. I'll often download the preview pdfs from RPGNow to check out what's going on in a game. If that preview consists almost entirely of game fiction, it doesn't give me a good sense of what the product's about. Several times that's changed my mind about picking it up. I think that's not a smart tactical decision on the part of the game publisher.

    I think my reaction's generally negative about lengthy game fiction at the start of books. But that's definitely a personal opinion.

  4. I think it depends a good deal on the genre and style of the game.

    You'll notice the few if any Supers games have game fiction and when they do it's a short comic book format story. I'll look at since it's visual and I eventually get around to reading it. It doesn't have an effect on my interest in the game though.

    World of Darkness was largely inspired by a new (at the time) literary subgenre of horror typified by Anne Rice's Vampire LeStat books. With that as the basis for developing a vampire game it's not surprising that the RPG featured fiction in a