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.

The Independent Movement

Pardon me, for it is time for me to hike up my slacks up to my chest, jingle the coins in my pocket, and tell you about the good ole days. Yes, that's right, I'm going to tell you about how things used to be when I first started out in this business, and how everything old is new again. Pull up a rocking chair and pass the mason jar full of moonshine... This semi-greybeard is gonna do some bloviating.

Back in the day, there were tons of original, interesting games on the market. Noir, Little Fears, Blue Planet, The Whispering Vault, and dozens I can't remember. I would get together with the likes of Robin Laws, Kenneth Hite, Jonathan Tweet, and we'd discuss what great, original game we'd pick up at GenCon. It was like an Easter Egg hunt, with creativity and originality as the prize. John Tynes would say "there's a game in aisle two where you play a hat" and we'd run over to see it. Maybe there was an interesting mechanic inside...

Then along came something called the Open Gaming License (OGL). This open-sourced the rules engine of Dungeons & Dragons, allowing anyone to create content for the biggest game on the market. You can't argue with a potential customer base of one-million people. It gave publishers a chance to jump on those coat-tails and perhaps earn more money. Some second-party publishers made out well; many did not. But what did happen was that people stopped being creative. I never did see an innovative D&D setting like Planescape or Dark Sun from a second-party publisher. It was monster manuals, class/race guides, and people's homebrew D&D settings. In fact, the shelves groaned under the weight of so much OGL stuff, that even if there were a Planescape or Talislanta, I wouldn't have been able to find it.

The problem is that the rules should serve the setting. There is a tension between rules and setting, in order to convey to the player what he is playing, what his goals are, and allow him to feel as though he's doing something different. Games that start out as just rules are abstractions; games that are pure setting really should be novels. Most designers I know create the rules and setting in tandem. For example, when you play Call of Cthulhu, you feel as though you are playing a game of supernatural horror. The sanity rules reinforce the idea that you are combatting monsters beyond human comprehension. The rules serve the setting. By shoe-horning all games into the D20 system led to a dearth of creativity. Gone were innovative rules that conveyed a sense of the setting. All games were now Taco Bell.

One of the things that made originality difficult was the high cost of printing physical copies of the book. Noir is a perfect example. They put out one book, then... nothing. Producing your cool, creative game was quite a risk. You had to place a huge order and pay that money to the printer up front. If your game didn't sell, you took a bath. Only those with money to risk, or the foolishly optimistic, could take the chance. The guys who published Blue Planet still had to come up with the cash to pay the printer, warehouse, and ship the game; unless you won the lottery or took a mortgage on your house, you were taking quite a risk. One not everyone was willing to take. Why not publish D20 books under the OGL and improve your chances of profit? I get it. Logical business decision. But it killed creativity.

Now, at GenCon 2012, I saw tons of little, independent games out there brimming with creativity. Mortal Coil, Hollowpoint, Technoir... and many others I didn't purchase. I haven't even touched on the numerous board games and card games I saw. These are guys with an innovative mechanic and creative setting, and the ability to publish their games. What changed?

The advent of .pdf files has certainly lowered the barriers to entry. As has the continued improvement in print-on-demand. As we all know, and was a continuing topic of conversation at GenCon, Kickstarter eases the financial burden to publishing. No longer does a game have to shoehorn everything into the race/class/level template in order to be profitable. Indeed, the current state of affairs has redefined what "profitable" means. All of this combines to bring creativity back into the hobby gaming industry.


The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity. Long story short, it looks like I'm coming back to game design and writing. I had a ton of productive meetings, wherein plans were planned. In fact, it was such a whirlwind that I'm not sure where to start. It's been a long time since I blogged about game design, and I'm actually finding it difficult. Not the writing part, but I can't seem to find the tongue-in-cheek tone I try to achieve for this blog. I'm just going to muddle through and get back into the swing of things.

I've been out of the business for a long time, so it was important to me, once I made the final decision to return to my roots, to do market research. The changes to the industry are such that I could write an entire blog on the subject (and that'll be coming later). Today, I thought I'd run down the list of my acquisitions, with some notes about what made me pick them up and why I'm excited about them.

Now, I don't want anyone's feelings to be hurt if I don't mention their game. There was a lot to see, and my funds were limited. (One big change in the industry: We used to trade games with each other at the end of the show. Nowadays, that's not the case. I got some stuff as swag, but most companies seem done with the swagging. Not sure why). Also, I'm not putting these entries in any particular order of priority; so don't read anything into it. Just because a game is listed at number five doesn't mean it's necessarily lower on my list.

Don't Rest Your Head: I suffer from insomnia pretty badly, so a game about it is right up my alley. This was more a guilty pleasure read than anything else. The idea that the longer you're awake increases the chances of the monsters getting you is really neat. I find some of the most interesting ideas coming out of the small-press indie movement.

Hell On Earth Reloaded: Man, I love the Deadlands setting, and can't wait for the newest iteration Deadlands Noir. This was the game we were playing at Last Unicorn Games the night we were robbed; Charles Ryan was running it for us, and I really liked the campaign we were playing. It's not an alternate history, but rather an alternate future, which I find deeply cool. I also tend towards religious-themed games, so having a Templar on the cover twangs a nerve.

Hollowpoint: Another indie game that I've heard nothing about previously. But it was nominated for two ENnie Awards, so it must have merit. The Sin City style cover conveys the kind of originality I'm looking for in games. The tagline, bad people killing bad people for bad reasons, doesn't hurt. I see Pulp Fiction in my head...

Technoir: Wow, indie games were clearly a focus of mine at GenCon this year. I liked this one because of the mechanic inside, about plot maps and mission seeds. As I flip through the game, I see it's got mechanics for the way I naturally design my adventures. That is, a web of inter-relationships between scenes, almost like a dungeon crawl without walls. Can't wait to see how the authors formalized what is, to me, an intuitive process.

The Chronicles of Future Earth: This one is a setting for the Basic Role Play system. The description reminds me of Moorcock's Corum saga, or something Gene Wolfe might come up with. In other words, it pings on one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction. (I can't wait for Monte Cook's Numinera RPG for the same reason -- the far, far, far future, when everyone's forgotten all about Earth).

Castles & Crusades: I have been a fan of the Old School Revival movement for a long time. Troll Lords seems to be doing it best. They had a huge, two-booth endcap at the convention, which bodes well (either their game is popular, or they like blowing money). I only had the Player's Handbook, and they were kind enough to provide me with the Castle Keeper's Guide, monster book, and more. They also threw in Amazing Adventures, which I know nothing about, but look forward to reading.

Savage Worlds Deluxe: Whenever I visit my favorite game store (Zombie Planet, in Albany. Make a pilgrimage), I always find myself drifting over to the Savage Worlds section. I've read good things about the system, and it's written by one of my favorite designers (and human beings), Shane Hensley. It's high on my "to read" list.

Necropolis 2350: Heck, may as well mention the setting that really grabbed me for Savage Worlds (aside from the aforementioned Hell On Earth Reloaded). It's a dark, futuristic setting with a religious theme. A lone planet, the last bastion of humanity; evil, necromantic aliens; the Church.... It combines a lot of my favorite elements.

Mythic Iceland: I knew nothing about this game until Charlie Krank put it in my hands. It's a Basic Role Play setting set in mythic Iceland. Which means Vikings. One of my favorite D&D campaigns was Peter Adkinson's Viking setting, so this game conjures up all kinds of nostalgia. Also, let's not forget The 13 Warrior, the best D&D movie that wasn't a D&D movie ever! And it's from Chaosium, which means it's high quality. I didn't know I wanted to read this game, and yet I picture myself frost giants.

Mortal Coil: I saved this one for last intentionally, because I've already read it. It was the one and only .pdf game I've ever bought. I liked it so much I had to have a printed, bound hardcopy. There's a supplement out for it, which I also picked up. I must admit, I still like having something tactile in my hands to read.

So that's it. That's what I picked up at GenCon 2012, and why. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.