Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How to Go out of Business

It is an unpleasant fact that even when America is dealing with a surplus of good economy that game companies go out of business. A lot of persons blame a soft market on various factors. The truth is that it's probably a combination of most of them. Gaming is a niche market at best and if the trends keep going the way they seem to be going, it is a niche market that is getting steadily older. There are also a lot of games out there and card games,electronic games, and computer games are steadily eating away at the profit margins and at the disposable income of the consumers. In such a climate, even really good games with solid content and a staff with some business savvy can go tits up.

I am not professional gamer. I have known a few in my time and I have seen a few things in the course of my perambulations. So maybe I've got a thing or two to say. Nobody wants to be crabby and bitter like Gygax. Nobody wants to have the fun and love sucked out of the only real hobby they've got, by having the business end of it run to shit.

So, with that in mind, here are few thoughts on how to flourish in the gaming industry with illustrative stories and stuff. I will be busting on people...Yes even people I love, because I don't want RPG's to go the way of the Dodo.

1) Treat your customers like crap.

Lately many games have come out with a sort of sarcastic tone that rips on all things gamerly. It seems that some games market themselves as hip by pandering to the basic urge to dis others in order to feel better. Usually this hip sarcasm is accompanied by the hastily added aside " But not YOU guys....You guys are cool like us." Sometimes though that get lost in the shuffle. But hey, you know how it is, right?

Granted, gamerdom has it's share of full on hardcore, copper-plated losers. I've met some lamers who've had even less couth than a bunch of monkeys playing Battletech. I've even seen some Usenet posts with more tact and class. These people are not to be encouraged but it should also be remembered that every field has people that couldn't get a clue if they were standing in a field of amorous clues, slathered in clue musk and doing the clue mating dance. Developing a seige mentality about gamer-kind is detrimental to your product ("Dude...They aren't gonna get this.") and it's detrimental to company public relations. ("I heard Justin Achilli punched some dude out who started talking about his character...")

My thought is this: If you are assailed by the forces of jack-assery, all you need to remember is that the assholes arrayed against you will inevitably hand you the means of their destruction. Long critical letters with lots of four letter words and little to actually say should be prominently displayed on the web page under the heading "Special friend of the week." (My god that could actually be entertaining.) Asshole behavior that is actually threatening should be turned over to their ISP for denial of service or in extreme cases to the police.

Having dealt with the worst of that, it then becomes easier to take each gamer as a person rather than some kind of loopy asshole who just happens to be obsessed with our product.

although it might be a good idea to come up with a hand gesture that means "get to the point." so that game developers and game store owners can actually deal with folks who don't notice that their eyes are glazing over. For my part, I always try to keep the story short.

2) Treat your talent like crap

I'm going to tell you a true story:

Once upon a time there was a handsome prince. This prince liked nothing better than to write. This prince knew some fellows who owned game company. Being an enthusiastic sort he sent them some material to publish on their website-ezine. He also sat down and worked on a bit of a game supplement. It wasn't huge and he only worked on it occasionally but it grew until it had a bit of heft. Certain friends perused it and many read his column and it was thought by the prince that all was good.

The Company changed hands. The prince didn't think much of this and was fairly sure that it didn't mean anything to him. The Website was due to be re-launched and the company was to put out a Best Of issue of the E-zine. The prince worked diligently to create some new material for that issue and awaited it's release.

The Prince was shocked to discover that not only none of his material was chosen for the Best Of issue, but he was no longer listed as a regular columnist! Distraught and distressed he learned that in order to become a regular columnist again he would have to jump through a series of editorial hoops and produce 3 whole columns ahead of time. He was also told that he would have to clean up his editing (a true failing of his) and that he would have to submit proposals for each column. He was also told that anything that was used on the Zine would not be allowed on his own web page. (this turned out not to be true. I'd like to believe it wasn't a vicious lie)

It was at this time that the prince began to hear whisperings in the kingdom, that the Duke who was in charge of the Zine, didn't like his writing. This was certainly news to the prince especially since the Duke printed everything that he'd ever sent. In fact,issues of the old Zine contained mighty amounts of his writing and little of the writings of others.

Now the prince is not an asshole. He's written professionally before and understands that these strictures are fairly common in games publishing....If you are working on a paying basis. The prince had not seen a farthing for his efforts and counted as his only rewards the warm glow of seeing his words reach others. Now they wanted him to piddle around with these proposals for articles and whatnot? More like, they had imposed these strictures without telling him, even though his email was widely available.

Why? To piss him off of course...And make him go away without appearing to be the shitheads they were. So the Prince took his ball and went home and gave them no more words. Are they poorer for it? Only time will tell. They certainly lost a talented writer and a good customer and a good friend. I only hope their success can keep them warm at night.

I was a volunteer and I was treated like shit on their shoes, But I have to feel for the poor bastards who work for the companies regular like and get treated badly. Game design,contrary to all our fantasies, does not pay fabulously well. Some companies lay off their talent on an almost regular schedule. (White wolf has done this in the past) and every time this happens, the game quality suffers. If you want to go out of business real fast, run your company like Microsoft without the money and assume that anybody is easily replaceable with the next shmuck that's naive enough to want to be a part of the industry.

3) Keep fucking with the franchise.

It should be noted before I go on, that sometimes game revisions are a necessary thing. Game systems that should have never seen the light of day can be fixed, Plot holes can be glossed over, Metaplot can be worked with and new things can be added for better enjoyment. All these things are positive. But just as with a good comic book you can lose consumer interest and credibility if you keep fucking with it and re-tooling it. As much as I love Call of Cthulhu, how many revisions is it up to? WWGS and AD&D are on 3 each, and some game revisions I'm convinced happened while the designers where flying on angel dust. (Champions/Fuzion leaps to mind.)

Sooner or later, they're not going to be able to re-tool Superman or Batman or Spiderman because in the end they simply get too far away from what was interesting or cool about the character in the first place. Games are like this too. Vampire's revision was welcome and necessary, but a lot of folks think that Mage's revision was rushed and badly handled. Me, I reserve judgment but I think they may have hurt that line badly...If only in perception.

4) Saturate the market

You know for a while there it was impossible to go into a game store without tripping over some new treatment of some corner of the Forgotten Realms. Don't get me wrong, I dug FR because I felt it was one of the few game worlds that had some texture and potential for telling interesting stories. But how much do I really need to know about Shadowdale or Waterdeep. I don't need to know where every fucking cobblestone is! When I stopped playing AD&D I certainly didn't miss the ravine-like hole it left in my finances every month. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. I can only pay for and read a certain amount of material per month. It's the same reason I had to stop following Batman and the X-men. When you have to take on a second job in order to pay for all the books, then you've gone too far. And besides that, Who can use all that material.

I realize part of this failing is my own fault. I am an anal retentive completist freak. I know this about myself. And I accept and deal with it as well as I can. But I'm going to point out something that maybe got missed. Gamers as a group are getting older. While this means that we have better jobs and make more money it also means that far less of our income is disposable...For crying out loud, some of us got kids of our own!

5) Fuck the Quality

This goes hand in glove with saturating the market. There is an old saying in Hollywood; "We don't want it brilliant. We want it Thursday!" I have seen game companies put out things that were sheer fucking genius and then turn around and put out material that was so bad that it jeopardized the credibility of the whole game line. (Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand and Jungles of Chult spring to my memory.) These were not game supplements that were to be tossed aside lightly. They should be thrown aside with great force! And the reason for many of these gaffes can be laid at the feet of rushed projects. Please. In the name of all gamers everywhere. I beg of you. If it must be late to be good. Then we are willing to wait. We'll still be here when you get done...Just please make it good.

* * *
Where does this leave us? I don't know. People have been saying that live theater is dead for decades because of T.V.,Film and Internet. But I'm a living testament that plays are still put on and people still go to them. Will there always be a market for RPG's? Time will tell but it's probably a good idea to approach it with the right attitude and as much business acumen as you can muster without looking mercenary. I have high hopes. As long as quality product is available...People will buy it. I know I will.

Sono Finito.

Postscript: Over the course of time, Many things happened. One of the things that happened was that the company that I wrote for fell on very hard times. It wasn't really caused by their policies vis-a-vis the writing help, as I predicted. It was in fact as the result of trusting the wrong guy with all the money. Contrary to what many may believe, I was not happy that this happened nor did my diabolical laughter ring through the iron-shod walls of my secret lair. I thought it was an awful shame honestly. I also believe that the fellow who perpetrated this act deserves a prolonged public kicking.
I had occasion to sit down with the "Evil Duke" and had a long talk at a party. Up until the problem occurred he and I had always gotten along and it came out that for the most part that he didn't really hate my writing. (although, he did say it was a huge pain in the ass to edit. On this score, he's on target. Mea Culpa.) The whole thing turned out to be an unpleasant mis-communication and after a few drinks, buried and forgotten. A fact ,of which, I am profoundly grateful.


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