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[GenCon 2006] "untitled"

Started by Ron Edwards, August 20, 2006, 02:01:08 PM

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Ron Edwards


We fucked up really badly this year. I will tell you how.

All right, "untitled," because it has no title, was a Ronnies winner from last September. Keith Senkowski, the author, set to work from my comments and his own musings and completed his vision of the game as a physical artifact. In this case, it was to resemble a collection of strange, disturbing materials found discarded in some city location, like an alley or wedged in the seats of a train. It's matted with blood, too.

It is also a fascinating, compelling game which is going to reward play to a degree that "rat" and "hatred" will burn straight into your brain. Keith put enough work into making this thing look like a fevered madman's prized document that he must have had to be a fevered madman making his prized document. It includes a CD and has hand-stitching and all sorts of stuff. He brought a number of copies and priced it at $40.

I want to emphasize that the Forge booth makes no promises ... if your game does not sell, then it doesn't. Keith's didn't. For most games, and I can name about ten over the last few years, I'd stop there.

But in this case, I won't. Because "untitled" doesn't present simple failure in the market. It illustrates a failure in the Forge vision and a failure in ourselves as booth participants. If this event presages any more such events in the future of the Forge booth, I can tell you this: Adept Press will shut it down. As far as I'm concerned, the booth is on probation.

1. Some responsibility lies with Keith. He did not make it clear to the rest of the booth what he had. It's an unusual artifact, as an RPG, and as such, we needed to learn about it. Especially, people with new product of their own are usually too addled by the Forge booth practices to take the extra step that "untitled" required. It's Keith's game, and he should have opened up a folder and shown it to us. He also should have opened it up to its shocking pages, sat down at a demo table, and looked up expectantly.

2. A great deal more responsibility lies with me. I did not take the time to open the folder and see what a brilliant collection of art lay within it. I totally fell down on my responsibility as Ronnies judge, to follow these games and to put the extra hand out for support for them. You know what? I didn't even buy it at the booth. Keith had to give it to me on Sunday night. I sometimes use the phrase "I'm a bad person," as a joke, when I say something funny ... this time, I'm not joking.

3. The greatest responsibility lies with the collective Forge booth. Am I saying we all should have bought copies? No. Obviously, you buy what you want. What I'm saying is that I bet my ignorance of the game, beyond a glance at the folder in the rack, was shared by pretty much everyone there. I'm also saying that "untitled" was priced at the same level as Burning Empires ... and that we, as a group, were so juiced by the latter's glitz and weight, that we totally forgot where value is found in a game.

I'm going to elaborate on that one for a minute. Burning Empires is a brilliant logistic achievement ... but people, ultimately, all that covers and shininess require is money. You have money? Then you can make your book shiny and heavy. That equation is reeeeeally easy. As I pointed out to Luke, and as he pointed out to me earlier at Forge Midwest, Burning Empires is a mousetrap. The gamer buys it, drooling over the weight and color, assured in his fandom by the license, and he discovers (snap!!) that he is learning a Narrativist game. That's a fine thing and I'm all for it.

But the value of the game is not found in those covers, in that license and its related art, in the smell of the pages, in the weight of the book, or anything of that kind. The value of the game is discovered in play. That value is founded on Luke's authorship, Thor's professionalism, and similar effort and qualities by other people. If it were not for the refinements of the Burning Wheel which define the Burning Empires game, the Burning Empires book could look the way it does right now, and be a steaming, gooey pile of yellow dogshit.

Instead - and here's my point - the Burning Empires book is a physical artifact which underpins, supports, clarifies, and reinforces the Burning Empires game.

Read that sentence again. Read it again twice!

Now turn your attention to "untitled," and recognize that the very same sentence applies. It applies in full. It applies totally. "untitled" is worth forty fucking dollars for the same reason that Burning Empires is. I am not saying, "oh, poor Keith worked so hard, so his game needs to be pricey," I am saying what I just said about Burning Empires, about "untitled."

I'm still on #3, OK? The greatest responsibility lies with the collective Forge booth. When a game like this appears there, I can understand that its presentation does not initially provoke a surge in the superficial, spasmodic reactions of the typical boothgoer. But in us? The Forge? People who purport to understand that the core of this hobby, and its commerce, is play, and who also claim to understand that presentation serves a specific purpose? We should know better than that. We should know that if a game has certain play qualities, then certain presentations are perfect for it, and we should sell those presentations and play - and if that means taking the extra step toward customers to remind them of this, then it does. That's why we're fucking there at the booth ...

Keith was screwed. By us. Badly.

Best, Ron

P.S. Disclosure about this post: I composed it in a dialogue with Julie and Ben on the drive home to Chicago. After coming home, I learned Keith has blogged about this issue. I haven't read it yet, because I wanted to get this posted first, and I'm making it clear that no one guilt-tripped me into it.


Eh....I'm actually going to push back pretty hard on this one Ron.

I COMPLETELY agree with your sentiment that the production value of Untitled was 100% in line with the game in the same way that Burning Empires was.  I can get behind that and the price point.

But this:

1.  Some responsibility lies with Keith.

3. The greatest responsibility lies with the collective Forge booth.

is nonsense.

Reverse that, and I'm on board.  Yes.  The collective Forge booth does have a responsibility to learn what's on the shelf and how to pitch it, absolutely.  But the "greatest" responsibility?  No.  The "greatest" responsibility for marketing ones own game lays with oneself.

That's what being indie means.  It means you take ownership of the entire process from beginning to end.  From concept, and design, and production all the way down to marketing, pitching, and generating buzz...everything...the parts we find fun, and the parts we don't.  When you're indie, nobody has the responsibility to do that for you.  As a community we have the responsibility to HELP and I bet that if help had been asked for, it would have been forthcoming.

I read Keith's blog...and his first comment was "don't tell me that demos lead to sales" that point I have to say I lost interest.  The Forge booth is ABOUT the actual play.  Its ABOUT the demo.  I've seen the sales numbers...and I observed who was demoing...and yeah...demos DO lead to sales.  I didn't run a single demo at the booth this year.  I was happy to let the other folks get their demo on and get the buzz out.  My sales were the lowest they've been...and I'm totally not surprised...nor upset by that.  I made a choice to not run any demos knowing that would impact sales.  What sales I got were from folks who already new Universalis and wanted the 2nd edition.  I had enough built up buzz to grab a fair number of sales without doing any demos.

Why does Burning Wheel sell?  Why does Burning Empires sell?  Cuz Luke and crew run a crazy non stop promotional campaign, running tons of demos at all kinds of cons.  Luke didn't even get to play any after hours gaming because he was running late night game sessions.  THATs why he sells.  To suggest BE sold simply because of the production values is not giving proper credit to the sales effort that followed.

Its entirely a valid choice to choose NOT to launch a major sales effort...being indie means you can do what you want.  But inherent in that choice is the expectation of fewer sales as a result.  I'm afraid I cannot accept responsibility for someone elses sales when no effort was made to demo the game or even pitch it to fellow booth members.  If you're not going to participate in the activity of the booth, I'm not going to shed any tears about disappointing sales.  You can't take a "if I build it, they will come" approach to game design (or the Forge Booth) and expect to generate sales. 

Sorry, Ron, this isn't about turning ones nose up at a game because it has less glitzy production values...if it was I'd be with you.  But its not...Primitive sold well...Primitive is Indie-punk game design at its raw finest.  Primitive was demoed, and pitched, and SOLD.  There is an atmosphere of reciprocity in the booth.  When someone watches someone else pitch their game, they're that much more likely to return the favor...that's a GOOD thing.  When someone can't be bothered to even pitch their own game let alone any one offense...but that's not my problem.

Ron Edwards

For any other game, Ralph, my response is 100% the same as yours.

Not for "untitled," though. My response there differs. Yes, Keith is responsible as primary point man ... but the rest of us should have at least looked at it. That's what I'm saying. Other games have failed at the booth and my call has always been "the market speaks." I think that we should have taken one extra step with this one to make sure it made it to the market.

In another thread, one boothgoer remarked that such a thing as "untitled" did not belong at the booth. It was an ignorant and incorrect comment, but I can't fault the guy. It was our fault that we were not primed against such reactions, and not displaying the game in a fashion that would gain the correct reaction.

It's OK to disagree with me, and I'm not really into debating the points, because this isn't about who's right. Your points are noted and in my view are totally correct regarding any other game.

Best, Ron

Eric Provost

Quote from: RonNot for "untitled," though.

If I had been working at the booth this year, how would I have been able to tell the difference between the game that warranted the extra attention and the ones that did not? 



Ok, so lets not debate it.

Help me understand why untitled is different.  I understand why its different for you...being a Ronnie winner and all...but why for the booth?.  Why should the booth have a different responsibility towards this game than any other?  If there's a good reason then perhaps we can make sure to account for that next year so it doesn't happen again.  But right now all I'm seeing is a product where tons of effort went into production, and none went into promotion.  The expected result of that is very low sales.  Which is what occured.  So in your view what should "the booth" (i.e. individual participants of) done differently with regards to Untitled.

QuoteI think that we should have taken one extra step with this one to make sure it made it to the market.

What extra step would have accomplished that?  And in terms of reciprocity, what steps should Keith have been expected to take...both before and during.

Its the reciprocity thing that I'm focused on.  Because if I had to point to something and say "We fucked up" it would be with Blankshield, and James.  In terms of effort spent for other's benefit few compared to James...I feel far worse about the sales levels for Death's Door than for Untitled.

Tim C Koppang

It used to be that everyone knew all about the games that were to debut at the Forge booth before they even got there -- at least that's how it was for me when I was a customer. Nowadays, however, with the plethora of games and the gradual spread of discussion away from the Forge, I just can't keep up. Even my game, Hero's Banner, was a flying under the radar until I got to the booth this year. I suspect that Untitled suffered a similar fate: no one knew anything about it. Should I have made an effort to learn about it? -- absolutely. As an exhibitor at the booth, I think that I have an obligation to find out about every single product at the booth -- every single product. On the other hand, Ralph's comments speak to me as well. The responsibility of marketing falls, when push comes to shove, on the shoulders of the author at an indie booth.

What I would have loved to have seen is a a sheet, much like the game menu, with an actual description of what each game was about. What I really would have loved to have participated in, was a pre-con meeting wherein we each said three sentences about our games to everyone else working the booth so that I wasn't forced to simply learn as I go. I'm not saying the current system is broken, but I am looking to avoid situations like the one you've described above, Ron. With so many new games coming out every year it's just plain difficult to learn about everything without a bit of prep work, even if that has to come in the form of an attendance-required meeting.


The attention that seems to be lacking here is one of sales & marketing.  If the core folks who talked to the customers by the racks, said "Hey, X game is awesome because Y" and encouraged sales on that basis were doing that for untitled, untitled would have moved more units.  For every game that needs to move, someone needs to be on deck and pushing it.  I think I happened to luck into having a few people other than me excited about my game and doing a little pushing of it, even when I wasn't there.  In order for each game we have at the booth to have a good chance at moving, it needs people like this (along with a hook that connects to customer interest -- but as with fishing, without someone to cast the line, the hook isn't getting to the fish).

But here's where I think we deserve giving ourselves forgiveness, and not turning the self-flagellation dial up to eleven: as a community, and more especially as a sales and marketing force, we're very new at this, and, honestly, pretty amateur-league.  Compare the gains of last year's booth sales pitch and customer contact strategy to this year's.  Improvement is possible, and improvement is happening.  By leaps and bounds.

Does that mean that we are a flawless, golden, glorious sales force and no games ever fall through the cracks as a result?  Of course not.  Keith's game is an unfortunate example of this.

But is it grounds for issuing ultimatims?  I think no.  And I have to wince and want to distance myself when I see people feel they have to approach it that way in order to encourage growth and change.

Ron Edwards

I knew I'd get the backlash on this.

1. You guys are all lovin' each other out there in blogspace, and that's great. The booth was Teh Awesome, yes.

2. Now I come and guilt-trip you about something. "Gahhh!" Not only is it a downer, but it's also a big authority-trip, isn't it? Here's Ron telling us how to feel, what to do, and what he'll do if we don't. Well, fuck him!

Whatever. It's fine to feel like everything's all right when your game sells well, in large part because a bunch of people busted their asses to help you promote it and help play it. I'm dashing cold water on everyone's feelings, and I'm sure to get a big roasting across all the blogs for it. Whatever again. But here's something every successful seller at the booth should know ... not everyone got the help you got. I'm saying we ignored a game that should have received it, and that's my little emotional reaction.

Should I respect others' emotions about GenCon and how it went? Yes? All right then - respect mine, and at least consider what I'm saying.

Best, Ron


Ok, so.

We have a game by a returning booth member that got no love, and consequently, no sales.  One of the major booth sponsors, also coincidently the guy with the points to get us prime placement and LLC love, says it's a problem.

Ok, it's a problem.

It's not a problem because it's Keith, or because it was a Ronnies entry, or because it happened to have the same price point as the brick.

It's a problem because it was a cool, innovative game, produced by someone at the forge, and we did fuck all with it.

So, was this a one-off "oops, sorry Keith, won't let it happen again" or was this symptomatic of a bigger problem?

I think it's a bigger problem.  I poured out a lot of love over the weekend for a lot of games.  I did Clinton's demo thing on Wednesday night.  I roped and shilled for damn near everyone but me (which, I will point out, isn't a problem, but was a choice) and put a lot of games into people's hands which then went to the register.

Until this thread, I didn't know Keith had a game there called "Untitled".  I had to go and look in the booth menu and doublecheck.  "Damn." I thought "Right there under CoS."

However, Untitled is in some pretty good company.  It's sitting with Timestream, Perfect and Fastlane.  Drowning and Falling, SNAP, Don't Rest Your Head and a whole raft of stuff that I must assume is D20 related, and/or IPR guys that weren't at the booth.

All of those are games that I didn't sell, because I didn't know what they were.  Many of them are games I don't even remember seeing on the shelf.

What do I think the problem is?  I think our volume grew more than our technique this year.  Friday afternoon, I was asked to go over the menu with a forge regular/mostly lurker (Hi Chris!) and wasn't even aware of what half the stuff was.  I fixed that, and right fast, but there were still holes in my knowledge you could drive a truck through.  We just didn't have anything in place to deal with that.

So, for my part at least, I appreciate the reminder that all was not sunshine and roses, and that we have at least one big thing to fix for next year - as big a thing as fixing the 'hard sell' was for this year.  I don't think this thread is the place to solve that problem; I don't even really think that it's a conversation that will work well on a forum (even this forum), but this ain't my thread so it ain't my call.



I write games. My games don't have much in common with each other, except that I wrote them.


Quote from: Blankshield on August 20, 2006, 05:50:03 PM
I don't think this thread is the place to solve that problem; I don't even really think that it's a conversation that will work well on a forum (even this forum), but this ain't my thread so it ain't my call.

I ... have stuff I would recommend in terms of how we can address this very real problem better next year.  But, yeah ... talking about that might well run at cross-purposes to recognizing the emotional import of the problem.

Until we have a thread which is about "How do we fix it?" (whether that's this thread, repurposed, or a new one) I'll limit myself to saying this:  Yeah, I feel that I failed Keith.  I also feel that I failed a number of other people.  I want to do better next year, and I want the booth as a whole to do better.  I think there's a lot we could do to make that a reality.
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum


I'm going to disagree with some of you, but I'm also not saying something some of you probably think I am, though I won't say what that is as it should be pretty obvious.

Games that sell, do not sell because of the designer or design. Oh, he or she has a hand in it, as does the quality of the product, but that's almost after the fact. The consistent factor in higher vs. lower sales is the encouragement of sales interest through social channels.

The designer might give the big initial shove, or not. But someone, some person or many persons, say, "I'm going to support this game as innovative and interesting." And then their friends perk up and say, "Oh, what do I think about that. Hey, everyone, come look at this!" and "Oh, X says this game is pretty incredible. I do too!" and so on.

THEN people decide whether or not this thing is worth money. But they can't even make that decision until they know about the product, until they know it exists, and know why they should even pick it up to look at in the first place. That's what your network does, based on its social influence.

The games that sell high and retain long-term sales are also consistently the ones "pimped" the most by the recognizable Forge names and designers, taken up by the broader public who trusts the buzz being generated by that network. Quality has nothing to do with it.

--{ And before the angry poo monkeys take over the zoo what I am also not saying is this is selling empty material through the good-old-boys club, or passing off bad-games-as-good-games. Quality, good or bad, is irrelevant to this process. }--

I also know Ron probably doesn't want to hear anything that sounds like an accusation that Forge games tend to sell on name-weight popularity. Good, because this isn't that accusation, it is a very different observation.

I am talking simple word-of-mouth advertising buzz generating sales interest: "Hey, this is cool, come check this out." Point of fact: that nets sales interest and thus more sales. The more people doing that, the more influential/respected people doing that, the more potential (and actual) sales occur. Economics 101.

Think DitV would have gotten as much word-of-mouth and be as popular as it is without the Forge network out there talking about it? Despite it's quality? Or would it have gone the way of other brilliant, undersupported games?

Chew on it for a while.

A designer can stand alone on a street corner all day long hawking his product and showing it enthusiastically to everyone who comes by, it can also be the most amazing product ever, and if his network doesn't talk-it-up for him as well, he'll net less sales than he would have if his network is out there telling everyone they meet about it.

After all, we've seen it before: amazing design with a loving and dedicated publisher, steadfast core fans, whose product eventually ends up as pulp in the landfill.

And that situation? It's not just the market speaking. That is a failure of the network. Not of the designer. Not doing that network pimping? THAT IS a failure of the community as a whole. And it is wholly seperated from what the designer himself does.

Turning a blind eye to this overwhelmingly important factor in sales interest by trying to make some sort of great capitalist every-man-is-an-island and the-market-will-out claim is not going to make it go away.

In comparison to the social influence of a network on public awareness, the designer's work in pimping his own game is a pretty minor part in stirring up sales interest and reaching that critical mass of public awareness to produce sales consistent with product quality.

Providing public awareness about the product so the public can make an informed decision about that product is what the network is there for, and it didn't do its job in the case of this particular game.

Ron is telling you that the network failed in this case: "What's that thing on the shelf?" "Duh...guh?" is the sound of that network failing. And to claim it is really all the designer's fault anyways for not doing more himself. Oh pish.

That's what we're talking about here in this case: a product that faoled to receive the appropriate network support, completely aside from quality. "Duh...guh? What's that? Let's treat it like our other things that look nothing like it." is a failure, folks.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


QuoteProviding public awareness about the product so the public can make an informed decision about that product is what the network is there for, and it didn't do its job in the case of this particular game.

Ron is telling you that the network failed in this case: "What's that thing on the shelf?" "Duh...guh?" is the sound of that network failing. And to claim it is really all the designer's fault anyways for not doing more himself. Oh pish.

All true.  100%.  But the part that I tried to highlight is that the network is a two way street.  IMO you don't get to be a part of the network just by showing up.  You get to be a part of the network...and expect that network will work on your behalf by participating in it.  Opting out of participating in it, IMO forfeits any expectation of having the network work on your behalf.  Its a mutual thing.  And a pump priming thing.

Justin D. Jacobson

We can't gloss over what someone has already mentioned in passing. There's little question in my mind that this is the result of the expansion of the Forge booth. There are simply too many games for everyone to know about all of them (to the point where they can funnel appropriate interest to them). I suspect there's a bit of the Prisoner's Dilemma going on as well. If you can't learn all the games, you learn the ones that interest you. Something like untitled that is so different from a typical Forge offering just screams high learning curve, leaving many people to say: "Well, someone else will take care of pimping that one." Unfortunately, when everyone says that you have a situation like what happened with untitled.

This will be improved (potentially solved) by assigned demo learning (as someone previously suggested in another thread) and by a more organized and dedicated (perhaps even quasi-mandatory) Wednesday night demo session.
Facing off against Captain Ahab, Dr. Fu Manchu, and Prof. Moriarty? Sure!

Passages - Victorian era, literary-based high adventure!

Ron Edwards


There is a crucial point that's being missed in this conversation. It's the reason why I'm talking about "untitled" and not about any number of other games at the booth with lower sales or lack of group recognition or both. This is not a general problem that I am describing. I am not using "untitled" as a representative example. I am talking about it uniquely and specifically.

Because "untitled" has a unique physical design. I wish people would realize that's what I'm hammering at. I'm saying that its particular physical design should have been recognized as a virtue, and that at least one of us could easily have realized this upon one single glance between its covers.

I'm saying the game did not receive even a glance from the collective Forge participants because of its physical nature. Which is something you'd think we, of all people, would recognize is something to be examined as a feature instead of a bug. That's the problem. That's what I'm saying.

None of this has anything to do with Keith. I have received way too many private messages arguing with me and bitching about Keith didn't do this and didn't do that. I am not talking about that issue. I stated his responsibility for that in my first post, and any opinion I have about that, beyond what I said there, is between me and him. You can talk all about how Keith was the point-man for making any of what I'm saying clearer to anyone else. It's true, but it's not what I'm talking about.

Imagine a big arrow with arrowheads on each end. On one end is "promoter goes nuts with enthusiasm, demos like a fiend," and on the other is "promoter skulks in the background and totally falls down on the job."

Now imagine another, smaller arrow crossing this one at right-angles. On one end is "Booth people sniff over game on the rack very thoroughly, open it, talk to each other about it," and on the other end is, "Booth people ignore it entirely."

To Ralph: yes, the first arrow is bigger. Yes, it's a primary issue. Yes, mutualism is a two-way street. I wish you'd stop posting as if I disagreed with you about any of that. I agree. What else do I have to say to get that understood?

I am talking only about the second arrow. I am talking about why "untitled" was slammed down to the bad end of that second arrow. I am saying that was wrong of us, specifically in the case of "untitled," because I think its physical nature was badly treated, mentally, by myself as well as others. I do not want the booth to subscribe to the myth that only shiny covers and massive weight merit attention from us, as booth participants. There are lots of game companies that are defined by this myth, and I think we're better than that. Or should have been.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 20, 2006, 07:21:06 PMBecause "untitled" has a unique physical design. I wish people would realize that's what I'm hammering at.

I do. Hence the statement, "That's what we're talking about here in this case: a product that failed to receive the appropriate network support, completely aside from quality. 'Duh...guh? What's that? Let's treat it like our other things that look nothing like it.' " I'm guessing that could have been clearer.

And Ralph, re: mutualism: I didn't say anything about it, and (as Speedy himself noted) he didn't say anything about that. So you aren't arguing with anything anyone has actually said. The antagonistic "yeah, but" cries are unnecessary.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio