16 April, 2012

My overview of the past few years in indie gaming


Over the past few years I've used this blog to look at RPGs from a variety of angles.

I spent a year going through game mechanisms, one per week. Looking at how they might be used, the effects they produce within the play environment and methods for using them in unconventional manners. This was a great exercise to see what sorts of play mechanisms exist within the RPG community, beyond simply rolling a d20, comparing it to a nmber and interpreting the result.

I spent the better part of a year developing my own metaphor theory for how RPGs actually work. A lot of work has been done by numerous people to describe how players interact with the mechanisms and pushing into the social theory behind roleplaying games, but this project had the aim of describing the fundamentals of play...when is story told? when are decisions made? how do these two options feed back into one another? What types of play experience tend to manifest when you change the feedback mechanisms between story and game?  

While I"ve been plugging away a these projects, others have been going about their business designing games, the forge has declared it's impending closure, Story-Games has fanatically followed "the next big thing" from one of it's game design darlings, Kickstarter has launched some amazing games by American design teams (Indiegogo has has smaller success but allowed access to an international design community), and WotC has stirred with it's D&D 5th Edition.

A lot has hapened in the last few years, a lot always seems to be happening within the turmoil of the RPG design community...but has this all been for the better?

When I really started getting active in game design a few yeas ago, things were a little different in each of the fields I've just mentioned. I'll go through them one by one. These are just my experiences and my opinions, so bear with me.

The Forge
When I started out at the forge, it was just after the big discussions developing the concepts of "The Big Model", "GNS" and all that stuff that has informed a generation of gaming products. I fervently read through the essays describing styles of play, creative agendas, the lexicons that used familiar words in a way that didn't exactly match our understanding of the English language but were close enough to cause semantic arguments. The time for discussing these issues was over, so I felt a bit behind the eight-ball. But there was still a subforum for game design, a place where you could pose your new system ideas and get some great critique from other amateur designers. I liked the Forge for this reason.

Then the Forge closed down the subforum where you could raise questions about theory, everything had to be related to "Actual Play" experiences. I understand why this is useful, theory without practice is just conjecture...but the place for proposing new ideas was gone. Talking about new ideas on RPGnet is basically akin to screaming at an empty canyon vaguely shaped like two letter Ds with an ampersand in the middle, either you get an echo or some troll screaming you down because it isn't their favourite game (and there's no place on RPGnet for games that don't sell fifty-thousand or more copies). Story Games created
its Praxis Subforum, but that's a ghost town at the best of times.

Besides the flurry of activity each year when Game Chef comes around, I don't know of any places that talk game innovation. That's a shame, and I think that is a step toward the direction of hubris...I'll get to that a bit more later.

Story Games
Publicly on the forum, there is no "in-crowd" on Story Games. They are a group of like minded independent publishers and folks interested in roleplaying games. That's like saying all people in a communist community are created equal and the essence to the society is to ensure their equality throughout their lives. Theory and practice a different, status games are always at work and if you aren't in the in-crowd you might as well leave. The only people who will listen to your ideas are the ones who'll produce a vaguely veiled clone of your work and then gain "huge kudos and indie cred" because they are already a part of the in-crowd.

Story Games as a whole seems to have a passionate dislike for the Forge and it's theories. The often accept that the theory work of the Forge had to happen in order to move the hobby forward, but in every second thread there seems to be someone stating how they resent this or how they've moved on to a "post-forge" paradigm. Story games is for the folks who missed the first new wave of game design for the 21st century, they still worship at the feet of Vincent Baker (which is ironic given his links to the Forge and their hatred of it), but they've become caught up in their own spin doctoring...another step toward hubris. One prominent designer could wipe their arse on a character sheet, and in the tone of art critics they'd be in awe of such a post modern statement about gaming. Another designer could merge two old games in a way that might have been happening on tabletops for the past thirty years, and he'd be hailed a genius for his ingenuity. A less prominent designer might honestly look for a way to tell the stories of race and culture, only to be shut down by the screamers in the story-games community...."you can't say that"..."That's racist"...or my favourite "cultural appropriation". Someone else might raise a subject like "Synnibar" or "Metascape", and then the true rubbishing and insults begin.

Oh, I know I'll probably get a whole heap of posts saying "but Story Games isn't like that", I'll also get a bunch of private messages saying "really, I hadn't considered that, but now that you mention it..." or "Thanks for saying what I've been thinking".  

Perhaps the biggest issue with Story-Games lies in the fact that is a community of game enthusiasts and designers. These are people who go the extra mile for their games. In the recent post I linked about where game design might need to be improved, there was a rough ratio of 90% players, 9% GMs willing to run a game, 1% GMs who might be willing to write their own scenarios or tweak games for themselves (I'll reconsider those numbers later, but for this post they'll do). Story-Games is basically populated entirely with the 1%. These are people who know what they want from a game, they see the rest of the world as the unwashed masses. There was even a post recently where someone asked how to introduce gaming to non-gamers who might like some narrative games, but only know the brand name "D&D" so that's what they want to start with. Some of the responses to that thread were interesting to say the least, especially if you read them through the eyes of a non-gamer.

Getting cuaght up in your own hype is NOT a way to expand a hobby. Story Games (and to a lesser extent, the Forge) has hyped certain innovations such as the Jenga tower in "Dread", but like the upper eschelons of fine wine critiquing or fine art discourse, this has caused a distance between what the critics consider good and what the general public finds palatable. The innovators of the hobby are caught in a negative feedback loop, and it has taken Vincent Baker's failed attempt to sell "Dread" at a Horror convention for some of them to realise that maybe things have gone awry. There will be others who state that this was just a one off, and indeed there is a thread on story-games where people are simply stating that the wrong form of marketing was used for the product...maybe Vincent should have used different words in his marketing spiel.

Even in the RPG community, I can offer to run "Grey Ranks" at a convention. The organisers want a good blurb to draw the crowds. But when I write such a blurb, 90% of players say "that's depressing, I'm here for some fun and escapism". Meanwhile it seems that everyone in the Story-Games crowd is raving about how "dark and brilliant" the game is.

I could point to a dozen other examples (try explaining Ghost/Echo to a non-gamer), but to me they all point to a common pattern of insular designers trying to justify their own existence through hype. Sure there are a few interesting characters in the group who are developing some amazing games, and they are justifiably lauded as heroes of the indie scene, but how many of them actually doing something to keep the hobby alive beyond our generation of gamers??    

Kickstarter (and Indiegogo)
One of the truly positive things to come out of the indie community, and one that has been brilliantly taken up by the innovators of the indie RPG scene.

Print-On-Demand was just starting to really take off when I first got into independent game design. In fact, this was one of the primary motivators for publishing some of my first works. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are just as insular as any other community, if you know the right people it seems far more likely that your work will end up on the front page of their sites and thus gain the most exposure. But that's just life.

I know a few designes who would never have gotten their ideas off the ground without a sizable backing, and sites like this are providing what they need. I've supported a few projects myself.

I hope to be using sites like these more often over the next couple of years to get some really great games out to a wider community. But doing so, I need to ensure that a wider community is actually interested in my projects. My first attempt to use Indiegogo was both successful and a learning process. The Goblin Tarot was a very insular and specific product. Tarot card users aren't particularly interested in roleplaying and roleplayers aren't specifically interested in Tarot. The few Tarot based games I'm familiar with haven't been overly successful. But it was something I wanted to get out, and Indiegogo provided me with that opportunity.

My next few games should see a better uptake because I'm targeting a wider community with a more user-friendly product and have some useful advertising contacts for the work. I'll also make sure I pay a proofreader and offer some good playtest incentives (one of the valuable lessons I've learn't so far). We'll see.

WotC
When I started formally designing games, the big thing in RPG was D&D 3.5. A game I really enjoyed, with an Open license that allowed plenty of crappy products onto the market.

I figured that I could produce something better, and started to work. I thought I'd knock out "The Eighth Sea" while I thought of some good 3.5 supplements. By the time I'd finished "The Eighth Sea", 3.5 had been replaced with 4th Edition (for the better or worse). The OGL was gone and huge parts of the hobby were flipped on their head.

I think it was around this time that many people became disillusioned with the D&D edition changes and reverted back to their old gaming styles. Thus the OSR designers banded together to recreate the hobby the fondly remembered from their youth. Was this good or bad?

It certainly added to the variety of play styles available from "new" products, but did it help to advance the hobby across a wider community? I'd say not.Most of the old gaming products came from a wargaming ancestry, and these aren't known for being user friendly.

Pathfinder came, Wizards of the Coast ran in circles trying to find something that would save them from a maelstrom of their own design...not realising that the faster they run in circles, the stronger the maelstrom becomes.

When the big guy doesn't know how to move the hobby forward and becomes fixated on the errors of the past...what hope do the rest of us have for getting our products out there and our hobby growing again?

Epilogue
So where does that leave us?

A fractured community trying to work out where things went wrong.

Some of us looking to the future but so caught up in our own hubris that we can't see that no-one is following us.

Some of us looking to the past, not wiling to accepot that the world has moved forward.

Some of us trying to innovate, but being shouted down by people whop don't like what they're seeing in our work.

Some of us seeing the mistakes of the past and trying avoid making those mistakes as we innovate.

Some of us trying to find like minded game designers, but not really having a good community to discuss to future.

I guess I'll just keep working away at what I'm doing.
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