Friday, November 25, 2005

Open Development

Game companies love keeping secrets. They don't want anyone to know anything about what their doing, until the last possible minute. There's a few reasons for this, the primary one is what they call "building anticipation". They want customers to be in a frothing frenzy to find out what the new thing is so they'll run out and buy it as soon as it becomes available.

Wait...that doesn't make any sense. How does just finding out about something translate into wanting it extra bad, extra now? Maybe this culture of secrecy has been a big mistake. Maybe the answer is to keep your customers in the loop about exactly what's coming the moment you can reasonably tell them. Maybe that notion can be taken even farther...

What if the entire R&D process for a game expansion were public. Throw out the usual bunch of playtesters (great as they may be!), throw out the non-disclosure agreements, and throw out the notion that if the public doesn't know what's coming, they'll be more apt to buy it.

Invite your customers to participate in the R&D process. If you game company owns its own intellectual property and its own game mechanics, it's not like your competition is going to be able to steal any of the ideas. Your fans, on the other hand, will get the chance to put in their opinions. Some of the are experts at your game. Then, and this is the hard part, you have to listen to them.

This does require R&D (the expansion's writers) to accept that the public's ideas are worth paying attention to, and a lets face it, a lot of stuff that you'll see won't be what you're looking for. Wait, here comes an important point: Some of it will be.

Another thing to remember is the expansion will still be in your control. The public doesn't get to make decisions, but they do get to question them. The public can't force you to use their ideas, but they do get to present them. You may be forced to better explain (at least to yourself) why you've made one decision or another. That's not a bad thing. It will be more work. Maybe a lot more.

So you've done it. You've posted weekly updates with new rules and PDF files so playtesters (that is, absolutely every fan of your product that wants to be a playtester, not just a few that you 'trust') can fabricate their own cards/playing pieces/whatever. You've read the comments based on those weekly reports and maybe even made some adjustments based on those comments. You've finished. In a couple of months, the expansion will be released.

Will a product like this, where the fans have literally been able to contribute to its content in a real way, have a better or worse chance at success than a product they've never seen before, because it's been a closely guarded secret?

I think I know the answer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Welcome to Game Guts

If you're interested in computer or console gaming, you're in the wrong place. Don't get me wrong, I love computer gaming as much as any die-hard gamer, I just don't know anything about them beyond what's included in the tutorial.

What I want to share are my opinions and observations regarding what I call "hobby games". We're talking RPGs, TCGs, wargames, miniatures, and the rest of this crazy business. The choices made by the big publishers and the small can be both inspired and insane.

Let's start with my favorite target. Upper Deck. A couple of years back they released the Vs. System – Marvel. I was working for Wizards of the Coast at the time and remember the talk. “The game that will kill Magic”, was the word. Needless to say, we were interested, if not exactly afraid. As it turned out, it wasn’t going to kill Magic. It was and is a good game with a monster marketing budget and a strong license. My issue wasn’t with what they did, exactly, but what they didn’t do.

Upper Deck conceived, planned, and executed a project designed to be #2.

The first thing they did was head-hunt WotC. I think something like 20 people were offered crazy-high salaries to jump ship from Wizards to Upper Deck. (I didn’t get an offer.) The allure of southern California being what it was, many of them left, including the head of the DCI.

What they did next is what really blew my mind.

They began to duplicate everything WotC does, to the letter. ELO tournament rankings. Check. Store Based Leagues with small, enticing prizes. Check. Million Dollar…er…TWO Million Dollar Pro-Tournament Series. Check.

And did they stop there?


Upper Deck’s strategy was to do everything Wizards does, only with slightly larger prizes and slightly more colorful ads. Nothing about what they have done has been innovative or in the least bit different. As a result, the only reason to stop playing Magic and start playing Vs. is if you really, really like the game (as in sell all your Magic cards and buy Vs. cards.)

While the game’s certainly successful, I can’t help but think the higher echelons of Upper Deck are disappointed with “The game that will kill Magic” languishing at #2. I wonder if they know why?

The point is, better isn’t good enough, because this entertainment. Nothing is ‘better’. You have to be DIFFERENT. If you look at all the most successful games in our industry, they’ve all brought something new to the table. D&D did this 30 years ago. Recently the World’s Largest Dungeon did this. It’s FRIGGIN’ HUGE!, which means it’s friggin’ cool. Magic, of course, was a revolution when it came out. Pokemon brought TCGs to the general public, and Yu-Gi-Oh perfected that process (which is what Upper wanted with Vs. and WotC wanted with DuelMasters. Clearly that ship has sailed.)

If you’re planning on making a game, or any sort of product, ask yourself what’s DIFFERENT. What are you bringing to the table that nobody else does. You've got great rules, they've got great rules. You've got great art, they've got great art. What don't they have? If you can figure it out, you've got a chance to make a big splash. It’s not easy, and it’s not guaranteed, but anything else is bound to come up short.