Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Product Concepts

I'm not quite ready yet to discuss the importance of an outline yet. Mostly because I can't think of anything else to write besides "an outline is important." And a phone conversation with Alyssa Faden made me think of another important topic I really should discuss -- product specifications and concepts. This is all about the importance of defining what your product looks like, not only in terms of trade dress, but also the types of products you release. I was going to write about my deep and abiding enjoyment of a Facebook game called "Social Empires" -- I even took screen grabs -- but now that I think about it, maybe I should write about product concepts. 

One of the first things we did at Last Unicorn Games was develop all the stuff you'd need to define a product line. I'd never done this before, never even heard of it before, but a lot of thought goes into this kind of thing. Or at least it should. Presumably you're not interested in putting out only one game. You really want to put out a game line. You want supplements, a back stock of titles, evergreen titles -- you want lots of books. Because putting out only one RPG means a) no one will really buy your game; you don't have "shelf presence." And b) gamers will eventually want more information about your game, and you're not ready for it. 

For example, what's an "evergreen" product? Good question, Scott from Oklahoma. An evergreen product is one that always sells. One that you must always keep in print. A core rulebook or player's handbook is an evergreen product. For the Star Trek: TNG line, the Vulcan book was considered an evergreen product (because people will always want to play Vulcans), even though it was a supplement. A book of adventures is not an evergreen product. Eventually, you can let that go out of print, and no one will miss it. Now certainly, the whole pdf and POD revolution changes these definitions a bit. You still want to define vital, core products -- evergreen -- versus fire-and-forget products. The latter mean you can put less time and resources into them. 

Most importantly, you don't want to stack your production schedule with several evergreen products back-to-back, because your fan base isn't going to be able to spend a lot of money on your game every month, and evergreens take a lot more work. I would never want to have to develop a core book, companion, and setting book back-to-back. Because each of those books are rules heavy. If you screw them up, you've screwed up your game. You want to stick something small and useful in between those more-important products. 

That's just one consideration. (Oh, and you should be at least thinking about your schedule ahead of time. Plan for a year's worth of products ahead of time. Someone ask me why, so I can write an article about production schedules.)

So. At LUG, we define what a product line looks like. I'm not going to talk about trade dress, because I'm not a graphic designer. There's a reason a Pinnacle book looks the way it does, and you can instantly identify a Pinnacle book on the shelf before you even pick it up. That's good trade dress design. Instead, I'm talking about what the physical product will look like. 

For example, every rulebook was 256-pages, glossy magazine stock, hardcover. That was defined before the first word was written. Why 256-pages? That was a price point consideration. Why glossy paper stock? Because we were going to use screen grabs from the movies and TV shows, so that has to be on glossy paper. We even decided on the paper weight, so the pages wouldn't tear when you flipped through the book. Why hardcover? To keep all that weight between two covers. With a soft cover, you have to use glue for the binding, and the pages might fall out. 

All supplements were 128-pages, rag paper stock, black-and-white. Boxed sets would always have three books and a map. I think there was another tier of book -- maybe the Federation book? It was something full-color, hard-cover, but not 256-pages. Whatever. The company is out of business... But these were all defined at the start. Every mid- to upper-tier company makes these decisions early. Or they should. 

Why? First of all, for production schedule purposes. Again, I don't want to have to assemble three full-color, hardcover books back-to-back. That would break me. It would also break the graphic design department. And it would break the bank. Moreover, I can't expect you, the consumer, to buy a $35 book each month. I'm going to have a backlog of unsold product, and production costs to pay. 

Second, and this is even more important, when someone eventually came into the office with a great idea for something, the first question we could ask is "where does it fit in with our product identity?" This would happen all the time. Someone would come in with an idea for a 256-page mega-campaign involving the Tholians. Usually me. Is it full-color? No. Is it a rulebook? No. Then it's not a 256-page book. ONLY rulebooks are 256-pages. We do not do 256-page, black-and-white books. Period. Make it a boxed set. Make it a supplement. 

We don't want to confuse our customers with non-standard products. 

Flash forward to last night's conversation with Alyssa Faden. She was torqued off about something I'd said or done, and was giving me a piece of her mind. Admittedly, a small piece. (It's a cheap joke, I know). So I talk her out of her wine-induced rage (because I'm charming that way), and we get on the subject of how impressed I was that she'd already thought of her trade dress. Because now I'm trying to placate her. Because she holds the checkbook, and a gun (did I mention the gun?). And I get to the subject of product identity. 

For example, if you buy a miniature from Torn Torn of Torn, Inc. there is one mini in the blister, and that's a hero character. If there is more than one mini in the blister, then you are buying a squad. At no time, ever, would you find a blister of the same hero outfitted with different arms and equipment (tracking, say, the hero's evolution from minor hero to great hero). Because that would confuse your audience. You've trained them to expect "one miniature = hero" and "several minis = squad." So if you put three minis of the same hero in a blister, someone might confuse them for a squad. You've broken your product identity. You've befuddled your audience. 

Now, I don't know if Alyssa will take that advice. And I just know someone out there is itching to explain to me that what I just described is not necessarily the case; it's entirely possible to train your audience to expect three minis to equal "hero with different weapons." You know who you are. That's not the point. The point here is that once you define what your product identity is, you have to stick with it. That's why you're defining a product identity. 

This way, you know what to expect with your production schedule. You can effectively come up with a schedule that matches your time and resources. And you know how to place new product ideas into your existing framework. Because now you have a framework. 

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