Monday, August 20, 2012

The Indie Movement -- The Negatives

I'm sitting on a balcony in Nashvillle, surrounded by what appears to be pine trees. I don't know if they're pine trees for certain, because I come from New York City, and the closest I've been to a pine in at Christmas. If this keeps up, I'll end up drinking sweet tea. While I sit here, I've been thinking about the indie game movement. I know I was all positive about it in my last post, however I see some problems with the format. It's not all pine trees and sweet tea...

Size: All of the independent games I purchased are the same, monograph size. I don't have a problem with that, because I never understood why RPGs were printed on 8 1/2 x 11 paper in the first place. I'm also cheesed  off by the large number of games these days that are printed in hardcover (and I know I bear some responsibility for that from my time with LUG/Decipher), so the soft-bound books don't bother me.

By size, I'm referring to page count. A lot of these books are short. Just flipping through a few, I see that Mortal Coil is 176-pages, while Hollowpoint is 110-pages. Mythic Iceland, on the other hand, a game published by Chaosium, is around 272-pages. The latter is published on 8 1/2 x 11 paper, so if you condense it down to monograph form you'd get a game that tops out at around 400+ pages.

Moreover, there is a lot of wasted white-space in these indie games, which makes me wonder if they don't understand page layout. I'm certainly not advocating padding a book with lots of useless information; when a game is finished presenting it's rules, it's finished. In the end, however, I feel as though I'm getting a lot less game for my money.

Art: In a lot of these games, art is minimal. That's certainly understandable, because art costs money. Money a guy working part-time on a game, in his den after work, doesn't have. I get that. Moreover, popping in artwork requires more work (such as writing art descriptions and importing the picture correctly). However, art is an important element of any game. It conveys visually a concept or idea you're trying to explain in writing. This can be helpful, particularly with getting the player excited about playing the game. What do the characters look like? What does the world look like? My sword looks like the sword on page 32... Including art can also help with that white-space problem I mentioned above.

The supplement to Mortal Coil, More Things In Heaven and Earth, has way more art than the basic rules, for which I am most grateful. There are character sketches, and nifty full-page chapter openers (which are photographs, which must have cost a decent amount of money). They break up the text, and give me a sense of what's going on in each chapter. I don't know if Brennan Taylor just got more confident in his layout abilities, or earned enough money to splurge on art, but I think it would be good to go back to the core book and add art. Perhaps with a Kickstarter...

Cost: Given the size and amount of art in these games, I think the price point is way too high. Core books hover around the $25 mark, supplements around the $15 mark. Given that most professionally-produced games cost $40 (which, again, I bear some responsibility for from my LUG/Decipher days), I suppose I shouldn't complain. However, I get the feeling I'm paying more for less.

I don't know the economics of independent games; I'll be honest. I do, however, know the costs of publishing a book the old fashioned way. I can buy the game as a .pdf for a reasonable amount of money. But when I go to buy it as a physical book, the price goes up. I understand why, because you have to pay the printer. I have it on good authority that print-on-demand has a unit cost of about twice that of traditional printing. Thus, if a game costs $3/copy to print the old-fashioned way, it costs around $6/copy with POD. Your profit margin goes down.

I wish I made $21 per game sold. We had to ship and warehouse actual product, which ate up the profit margin. Indie game guys don't have that problem. Nor are they paying artists and writers (since most of these games are solo productions). So it seems to me that the price could come down a bit. Then again, on this point I may be terribly wrong, and am eager to learn the economics of POD.

Releases: I am used to a system where products come out regularly (sometimes, a little to regularly). I generally think the book-a-month model gluts the distribution chain and doesn't give the end-user (the gamer) time to absorb and incorporate the new information. I think once a fiscal quarter is more than enough to support a game. Moreover, every game reaches a critical mass of releases, where there is just too much to buy to get into the game or keep current.

Indie games have the opposite problem. They are often produced by one guy, sitting alone in his home office. He's got a company to run, as well as writing to do. And he's got a day job. So these people just aren't going to produce new content very quickly. And since they're garage operations, bringing in freelance writers and treating each game as a product line may not be feasible. So while I want to see more Mortal Coil and Technoir, it may be a long time in coming. (And since they're a one-person operation, a certain amount of myopia might creep in).

So I have some reservations about the Indie Game Movement. I'm loving the increase in creativity, but wonder how these companies will overcome the inherent limitations of the form. Will they get big enough to start offering Kickstarters? Do they even want to become like the "big boys", such as Pinnacle or Paizo? I wonder what the future holds.

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