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Author Topic: Half-Baked Games and Design Culture  (Read 20562 times)
Ben Lehman
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« on: April 24, 2007, 09:53:10 AM »

So we as a design community have a problem, which I think has been sort of flailingly addressed on Story Games, but it is a real problem and I think it merits serious thought.  It's a problem with our design community, it's methods, and most particularly the social structures surrounding it, so I think it should be discussed here, on the Forge, because the "us" I'm talking about is the participants on this site, which I include myself as a member of.

Here's the problem: People are publishing half-baked and unfinished games.  These games are thus confusing and frustrating to play.

(Note: I don't want to talk about what role, if any, other "diaspora" sites like GameCraft, knife-fight, or Story Games have in this problem.  I want to talk about the culture here, at the Forge.)

Also, just to let you know, I have no proposed solutions for these problems.  I don't even know where to begin to resolve them.

I think that the primary reason for this problem is a result of unplaytested games, games only playtested in awkward circumstances (one-shots, on-line play, etc.), and most especially games hurried out to get them ready for GenCon.

The first two are deeply related, and I think may be inextricably tied to the internet nature of the forum.  The internet is attractive to "lonely gamers" who would like to play, but can't because they don't have a play group.  I think we've seen a lot of games come and go here which are largely designed because the designer is bored and wants to be playing, and unplaytested or playtested poorly because the designer has no group to playtest it with.

I don't even know where to start with these two.

Here's the third one: The rush to get a game out at GenCon.  I think that this is a lot more thorny problem than those of us who have already published games and sold them at GenCon think it is.

Being a designer, here, has a lot of social status.  It's a complicated social status, compounded by when you joined the Forge, who else likes your game, how your sales are, if you're doing anything that's seen as innovative, etc.  But it's definitely there, and designers have a privileged role (their own forums, for example.)

I don't think that this is a bad thing!  Social reward for good behavior is an awesome thing, it's what makes communities (particularly creative communities) go, and that's all good.

I think that there are three things that distinguish insider and outsider social status at the Forge.
1) Have you published a game?
2) Have you met in person with a bunch of other high status people and gotten to know them?
3) Is your game, if you have one, financially or play-wise successful?

I think it's pretty obvious that all three of these things push people to having a game to sell at GenCon, our largest social event as well as a really good opportunity to kick-start your sales and actual play, as well as a chance to get your other games playtested and polished.

See, the thing is, it's all well and good for me or someone else who's already got a known, published game to go like "don't rush this game out the door for GenCon, sit back and polish it!  I mean, look at me!  I've spent three years getting Bliss Stage ready."  But that's beside the point.  I don't have a lot to gain from that: I already have the social status of being a designer.  To someone who doesn't, rushing a game out is a great idea, because the quality of your game is not nearly as important as the status of being a designer.

So how do we address this problem?  We're going to have to take a really hard look at how we apportion social status in the community, decide how maybe we ought to apportion it, and make an effort to try to re-align our thinking into a new social hierarchy.  We'll need to take a look at what it means to have joined the Forge when, what it means to be a designer, what it means to have a successful game, and what effects that has on our behavior and social interactions.

There are some positive steps: The Nerdlies, Go Play directionals, JiffyCons and Forge Midwest provide us with a new, intimate, social arena, where non-designers and others can pick up respect and social status.  The Ashcan Front could be *huge* in this respect but I worried that its reputation amongst those designers it's trying to reach has been undercut by its presentation.  But I think that we need to also think hard about how we interact here, on the Forge, and who we listen to and why.  That's hard!  Are we willing to do it?

yrs--
--Ben
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xenopulse
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« Reply #1 on: April 24, 2007, 12:36:05 PM »

All good points, Ben.  The push to finish something by a convention date is not just because of prestige, but also wanting to have the books there to actually hand to people.  I really wanted to have our game done by Gamestorm, our local convention, so I could have a stack of books to sell instead of just handing out little cards with our web site on it.  I didn't make it because a) feedback from our game at Go Play PDX necessitated some tweaks and tinkering, and b) it took one more proof than I anticipated to get the printed versions just right and iron out last-minute issues.  But I'm glad that we decided to miss having it at the convention rather than having an inferior product. That said, I can say for certain that we lost a couple of sales because of it.

Now, I personally know people who would love to develop their games further but who have the hardest time finding playtesters. The "lonely gamer" type you mention might apply. Already, on Story Games, people are trying to come up with a playtest/critique exchange network, and that's a good first step. I've also gauged the interest in the yahoo indie PDX group about doing more playtesting, and plan to alternate between playing published games and playtesting something for someone who can't get a group together on their own.

Someone said that local activity might be better than internet activity for playtesting, but you need not only to find people you can run the game for, you also need to find a group separate from you and your established friends who can test the game on their own using only the draft you have.  For example, when we playtested Sign In Stranger (at Go Play PDX II), Jake had played it before, and that colored our interpretation of the rules a little. It's best to have a completely separate, uninfluenced group, but how do you find that?

Maybe the ashcan front is a good idea in that regard. Though again, that's much easier for the established people to do. I'd buy a Paul Czege ashcan copy sight unseen. Would I buy one from someone who hasn't published a game before that I have and enjoy? It'd be a much harder sell.

Also, yes, we people who benefited from the Forge in our early days are still not giving back enough. I'm trying to get back to that, now that my own project is not consuming all of my time anymore.
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Valamir
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« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2007, 01:51:49 PM »

This actually was a big topic at Forge Midwest.

I think you hit on the same fundamental source of the problem we did:  Social Reinforcement.

There's alot of ego stroking that goes on in the blogosphere surrounding new game designs.  I think there's less of that at the Forge because social posting is so strongly discouraged here.  But in sites where social posting is the norm you get a lot of "you're teh awesome", and "I cant wait to get this game" kind of stuff piling up.

Over lunch on Sunday we actually compared the indie game design culture to indie cookbook culture.  Both are books designed to be used as "how to" manuals, and both get alot of buzz generation from the internet.  On one of the cook book forums its become common practice for people to respond to almost anything with "hearts, hearts, heart, cupcakes, cupcakes, cupcakes".  We looked at each other and said..."yeah, there's lots of 'hearts and cupcakes' that go on on indie RPG forums".

So I think its more than just the cred of designers hanging out with other designers.  I think its also the near continuous verbal bombardment that "your game is awesome" that makes it very difficult for a designer to realize that...no...their game is, in fact, very much NOT awesome...yet.


When you combine the pressure to release at GenCon with people declaring you and your game as awesome, its no wonder that folks will conclude that the game is ready for prime time.  This will lead to taking various short cuts...like cutting down on outside playtests...or ignoring critical feedback from your outside playtesters.  I mean if you have 4 guys telling you your game is broken and needs some serious fixing, and you have a dozen people on line telling you your game is "teh awesome"...and addressing the playtest critique means you miss GenCon this year...who are you going to listen to? 

Of course the right answer is you listen to the friggin' playtesters not the rah rah chorus.  What a surprise then when the decision to release anyway is made that months later all of the forum posts and errata surround the exact same issues that those playtesters brought up that got ignored.

Changing the culture I think a couple of key changes.

1) we need a culture of open and honest criticism.  Even people who are giving critical feedback tend to try to soften it so as not to appear rude.  This is not doing the designer any favors.  If you're a designer you WANT your outside playtesters to be rude...in the sense that its not their job to spare your feelings.  Its their job to help you fix your game.  Sugar coating it doesn't do anyone any good.  Direct, honest, unsoftened criticism.  We need to give it to each other and we need to be prepared to accept it from each other.  This will be a splash of cold water in the face of people who've grown accustomed to basking in the warm glo of fan praise.  But its critical.  Fan praise comes AFTER you release a kick ass game...not before.

This criticism should be open and in public.  Not only does discussion (even critical) about a game serve to generate buzz, but part of building the culture is letting other people see what true feedback means.  "yeah, we played, and it was fun" is not feedback.


2) we need to reward the later stages of design as thoroughly as we reward the early stages.  We've all seen the various game design endeavors.  From the venerable Game Chef, to the Ronnies, to a variety of variations on Story Games; these contests almost invariably reward the "big initial concept".  Who can come up with the best hook in a short period of time presented in reasonably passable fashion.  These game contests are FABULOUS at getting games from "idea in my brain" to "Alpha Test Ready".  Unfortuneatly, that's where the culture ends.  The games languish in Alpha status, or with some half hearted internal playtesting get modified into a playable Beta.  Playable Beta's are Good Things...EXCEPT when they are polished up real nice and sold as a finished product.  One of the crucial advantages we have as indie designers is we have no external forces forcing us to publish.  We have the luxury of NOT publishing until the game is as perfect as we can humanly make it.


Ashcan Front is EXACTLY the sort of thing that the indie design culture should be eagerly embracing.  When I discovered this weekend that exactly NOBODY had committed to it other than Matt and Paul, I was shocked and horrified.  It really says something about the cultural that we've allowed to develop around game design...and not something good.  From what I hear there are several game designers who declined Ashcan Front because they're planning to be at the Forge booth GenCon 2007.

I'M going to be at the Forge booth GenCon 2007.

Its looking increasingly likely that once again Robots & Rapiers will NOT be there.  There's just too much left to finalize...possible but not probable.  And I'm TOTALLY ok with that. 

I've had Robots in design for over 4 years.  Its gone through 3 seperate rounds of killer "this isn't working yet" playtesting.  I COULD have released it a long time ago as an 80% finished design and gotten the cool buzz of bringing out new product.  I didn't.  Because it wasn't freaking ready.

Last year there were several Beta Level games being sold at the booth and I didn't say anything.  I bought into the "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" paradigm...which means I actually helped contribute to the problem.

This year, if you're bringing a game to the Forge booth...it had better be your "A-game".  It had better be as perfect as you are humanly capable of making it. Cuz if it isn't you're going to hear about it, hurt feelings or not.  Screw hurt feelings...every indie game designer's reputation is at stake every time someone publishes a game that isn't ready for prime time. 

If you're considering being at the Forge booth this year...and you aren't RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND certain you're going to have your "A-game" ready by then, then you had better get your ass signed up at the Ashcan Front.  Cuz, if you're betting on getting the final bugs worked out between now and then...you aren't ready.

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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #3 on: April 24, 2007, 02:33:40 PM »

Before delving into this in detail, Ben: which games are you thinking of, here? There might be a problem with half-baked games being published, but the only one during the last year that particularly springs to mind is Cutthroat, and that's something of a special case where I can easily see that it has little to do with the community, and lots with the extremely ambitious publishing plan Troy is trying out. Another potential one is Shock:, now that I think of it, but I consider that more of a spot of sloppy editing than bad design; nothing that couldn't have been fixed by a good read-through, anyway. (There might well be others, I know well that I can't anymore be familiar with every indie game coming out of the Forge-related circles, especially as many of these folks don't even advertise here anymore.)

That aside, I agree with your analysis of the factors that might motivate one in seeking higher social status. I know that I used to have a huge self-esteem deficiency towards other people here when they published games and I spent my time in community building and translation work. You yourself have, among others, told me to not worry about it, though, so I'm not. I'm also sceptical about full-bore social engineering doing anything to these tribal value evaluations (which seems to be what you're proposing here); people are as people do, and any pressure to publish is definitely only in the heads of individuals, it's not like Ron has told anybody to publish or get off the can.

As for concrete solutions, I'd say that the problem of bad games is self-correcting in the market-place, nobody should have a particular motivation for publishing bad games. If there were a reason to catch the rotten apples during the design phase, I guess that reason would be to protect the designer from making an ass of himself - and there you're asking quite a bit, you're asking a stranger to provide a safety net for a designer and risk his ire. That is certainly possible - I know that I myself will tell anybody frankly whether I think their game is publishable - but it's not a simple and value-neutral proposition you would demand from the community. I wouldn't be forced into reading and evaluating any and all games for this purpose, for instance.

So... I guess my solution amounts to "be sure to tell a guy if he's publishing a bad game and doesn't know it". That doesn't help if you never find out about the game before it's published, but then the problem is definitely in the other end, and it's nothing we can do anything about.

--

I agree with Ralph about the social reinforcement thing, by the way; I follow the diaspora only just enough to keep aware of where the discussions are happening each year, but participating is something I'd just find arduous with all the socializing going on. Much nicer here, where it's all business, even if that means less buzz.

Actually, reading Ralph's cross-post through... I agree with him about most of the other stuff as well. Although I am a bit sceptical about the urgent necessity of protecting the "Forge brand" and the good name of indie gaming from crappy games. Those are happening all the time anyway all over the internet-land, as a short stroll through any pdf store can attest. If you want to disassociate from the crappy games, it might be easier to do that in the sales step; for example, I only sell & translate quality indie games in Finland (or if I've made the mistake and bought a game I don't feel up to my own standards of play, I tell that to the customer in my store review or in person), so there's a certain view among the clientele that I should be trusted as a brand of quality. So as far as our retail business is concerned, Sturgeon's Law can apply all it wants, it still doesn't force me to retail a game I don't feel sufficiently finished.

In other words: the only guy who can completely eliminate the problem Ben brought up is Ron: he could, if he wanted, start a vetting process wherein he'd only accept games of "sufficient quality" at the Forge booth. There are pros and cons in that kind of decision, but it seems to me that that's the only efficient method for saving yourself from having to associate with bad games, apart from starting your own booth/brand/retail.

... eh, I don't know, I feel like you're discussing something I don't completely grasp here. Is this just about reminding each individual designer about the importance of playtesting as a part of the design process? Because if it is, rock on. I agree 100%, and should really be both writing up my latest Bliss Stage session and the notes from reading through Robots & Rapiers instead of trying to figure out this mystery of crappy games Wink

--

Apparently I can't get this post to end. One more thing: horrible to hear that about the Ashcan Front. If I were on, you know, the same continent, I'd so be there just for the principle of the thing. As I already told Matt and Paul, I totally approve, and am independently setting up something very similar for Ropecon here in Finland.
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James_Nostack
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« Reply #4 on: April 24, 2007, 04:10:34 PM »

I don't design; I don't go to cons.  So it always baffles me at the sheer number of Forge-y games that come out each year.  As noted up-thread, there are a million opportunities to develop games, and few opportunities to really road-test them and get the kinks out.  Sometimes I get the impression that the author(s) don't want to road-test them: every moment spent play-testing, refining, or improving the game is a moment that could be better spent coming up with a funky mechanic/premise combo. 

I've heard that poetry is the only art form where the creators outnumber the audience, but sometimes I wonder if that isn't true for Forge games too.

A while back, I considered starting a "D&D Adventure Design Contest," where everyone designed little scenarios in a Game-Chef-like way.  Upon thinking about it further, though, I realized that the exercise really shows, "Damn, D&D doesn't make scenario generation very easy."  But maybe a similar "scenario generation" contest for other games would help people see conceptual holes in their games?  It's a little easier than playtesting, because it doesn't require lots of people.  It would also generate a couple example scenarios to slap into the back of the eventual book/use in real playtesting.
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--Stack
Moreno R.
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« Reply #5 on: April 24, 2007, 05:00:03 PM »

More critical actual play postings would be useful. Now there is a sort of "if it didn't worked for you don't talk about it" attitude that make me suspicious of every game that don't gets a lot of actual play threads ("if nobody talk about xxxx, it has to be because it sucks!") that hurt many more games than the ones who would be hurt by pointing to their problems...

(and really, if someone talk about a game saying that has two big problems, and the author come out with a solution for both and post it on his site, I would buy that game more readily than another game that people don't talk about)
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Ciao,
Moreno.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2007, 05:18:54 PM »

You beat me to it, Ben. I'll be writing more about this later. I hope to see others weighing in here as well as in actual play. We need to return critique, thought, and clarity to the entire culture.

Best, Ron
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Ben Lehman
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Blissed


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« Reply #7 on: April 25, 2007, 04:40:34 AM »

Could we please take the "it's all the fault of those molly-coddlers at Story Games!" talk to another thread?  I'd be happy to talk about it with you there, but I don't want that argument and line of discussion in this thread at all, because complaining about what other people do is an excellent way to feel good about yourself while not getting anything done.

I'd like to use this one to talk about pressure to publish, particularly for first time games, and what, if anything, we can do about that.

There's a lot of defensiveness here.  I'm looking at you, Ralph, who just embodied my statement about how already-published designers have the luxury of taking a long time to complete their work.  First time designers don't get to enjoy high social privilege while they slowly toil on their masterpiece.  I would go so far as to say it would be impossible for you to do what you've done with Robots and Rapiers if you hadn't already finished Universalis -- people in this community would have long since given up on you as a hopeless diddler.

I'd also like to point out that this is a huge problem with this community historically (what games released in 2002 were playable without talking to the author?), and it's been getting better, not worse.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't focus on it, it just means that we should take historical context into account.
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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #8 on: April 25, 2007, 05:10:59 AM »

Heya,

There's a lot of defensiveness here.  I'm looking at you, Ralph, who just embodied my statement about how already-published designers have the luxury of taking a long time to complete their work.  First time designers don't get to enjoy high social privilege while they slowly toil on their masterpiece.

So I guess, one thing we could do as a community is to encourage first time designers to through an Ashcan-type process.  Not necessarily through Paul (although while he's available for the Ashcan Front why not use him?), but publishing in a way that somehow separates a first time product from a seasoned, veteran, polsihed product.  Somthing like a phase 1 of independant RPG publishing that precedes the phase 2 where games sell big through something like IPR or Key 20.  Then, with that encouragement to first make an Ashcan-type-game, must come social praise and participation in that process by established designers.  Instead of what is the likely default reaction to an Ashcan, "Ew, and ashcan!  You're charging me to playtest?!?!?" we would need to change it to, "Ew, your game didn't go through the Ashcan process?  Why the hell not?!?!?  I'm not sure I want to buy that then..."

Is this something you might suggest as an improvement to the Forge/Indie RPG community, Ben?

Peace,

-Troy
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Remi Treuer
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« Reply #9 on: April 25, 2007, 05:23:01 AM »

I think the question of how to get more useful playtest is the biggest one when it comes to moving along on a design. It's an enormous obstacle that's difficult to overcome.

Clinton, Jason, and I have a strict, formal, 'No Playtest' rule for our games. This came up because we playtested a few games and they were really not fun for us. We have limited time to play together, and we didn't want to spend it struggling with an incomplete design. I also don't think we gave much useful feedback on the games we did playtest.

How do you get over this? How do you encourage people to sacrifice their fun for your sake without already having a reputation? I ask because I'm about to embark on my first design, and as someone who has only playtested local games in the last year, I don't feel like I especially _deserve_ to have my game playtested.

At the same time, it has been my experience that playtesting well is very, very hard. I'm not very good at finding conflicts in taste (which can be deadly to any game, no matter how finished) and problems with rules. I suppose the answer here is to playtest more.

Finally, I worry about the critique process. I think critique is more effective if there's some basis of trust between the participants. I am not saying mollycoddle people, I'm saying make sure you're at a point in your communication where your concerns will be heard clearly. If I get a blast of strongly-worded fire from someone I barely know, I will probably decide to ignore that person. This may be a personal failing on my part, but if the critique process is so scary it chases people off, it doesn't serve anyone.

How do you get playtests? How do you playtest? How do you communicate the critiques from playtest so they are heard?
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Ben Lehman
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Blissed


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« Reply #10 on: April 25, 2007, 07:41:48 AM »

I'd like to tell a personal story, which maybe will illustrate this.

In 2004, I volunteered to be a booth monkey at the Forge.  Okay, technically I was Driftwood's demo coordinator, but I was a booth monkey.  As a coincidence, I also had a half-baked, rushed out game published that year as well, called Over the Bar.  It was published in the No Press Anthology, it hadn't been playtested, and it was generally just a joke made in response to a game design challenge on the Forge.  (Hey, people who are looking down their noses at the Game Designer Challenges thread at Story Games -- we used to do that on the Forge all the time.  In fact, I'm not sure why we don't anymore.  Good topic for Endeavour.)

While I was there, I made friends with a bunch of people: Mike Holmes, Scott Knipe, Vincent Baker.  I mention these particular people because they are key to my experience, not because they're the only friends I made.  You see, I had this game I had written for Game Chef that year called Polaris, which I was kinda bummed didn't win, and had been idly poking with the development stick while I worked on my real project, a game called Tactics.

Mike took me aside at one point during the Con and asked if I was developing Polaris at all.  "Yeah, kinda," I said.  "Good," he told me, "because it's an incredible game."  (This was before the game had any of that trendy "key phrases" crap, too.)  Hearing this from the guy who marked my game down for not using "assault" clearly enough was a huge thing.  Even huger was talking with Scott (who I downright *worshipped* for Charnel Gods) about depression, metaphor, and the end of the world as a literary device, and having him take me and my game seriously and directly.

Also, I made friends with this guy, Vincent Baker, who I totally loved because he wrote this bitching game Hungry, Desperate, and Alone.  There's a funny story about that, but it probably doesn't belong here.

So, later, I'm bumming around in a post-college haze, and I realize "hey, wait, Vincent lives in Western Mass.  I'm in Providence.  I can totally take the commuter rail out to somewhere near him."  Because I'm friends with him, I can write him and ask if I can come out and visit for a couple of days.  "Yeah, sure," he says, "let's play Polaris."  "We can't play Polaris!" I said.  "It sucks!"

And that's how Meg, Vincent, and Emily became a key support community for me: Helping me out through playtesting, game design discussion, and such.  Without them, Polaris would never have been published.  It'd still be a half-baked game that I kicked around once in a while.

There's a direct line here: Without the social bonding that came from working at GenCon, I would not have had to resources to bring Polaris to completion.

--

How can we make this more accessible?

I can think of a few things:
1) Recruit booth monkeys again.  I have no idea if this is feasible or not, but it would help this problem enormously.
2) Open up our social scene at GenCon more than a little bit.
3) Continue to expand and participate in events like the Double Exposure cons, the Nerdlies, the Go Play Directionals, JiffyCon, and Forge Midwest, while working hard to make these cons opportunities for neophyte game designers to make professional and social connections with experienced designers who can help them through playtesting and publication.
4) Consider the privileges that being a "designer" gives online (and, let's face it, that often means "person who sells at GenCon"), and open those up to more people.

I'm sure there's more and other things to be done.  My goal is to point out the problem, not to dictate how it should be addressed.

yrs--
--Ben
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Balbinus
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« Reply #11 on: April 25, 2007, 08:18:27 AM »

...but I consider that more of a spot of sloppy editing than bad design; nothing that couldn't have been fixed by a good read-through, anyway.

As a consumer, I don't to be honest recognise this as a meaningful distinction.

I don't care whether the game I just bought can't be played as intended because of faulty mechanics, missing play examples, bad layout, egregious typos or because the designer unwisely chose to smear contact poison on every copy, the outcome is the same.

I buy a game, I read that game intending to play it with my group, having read it I am unsure of how to play it or alternatively I think I can play it but discover during play that it doesn't work as I thought.  The reason why that happens is in a sense is irrelevant, I bought a game, it doesn't play as intended, sloppy editing is bad design.

As a designer someone might think "hey, the editing is part of the presentation, but the game is sound".  As a consumer, that's not a distinction I recognise.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #12 on: April 25, 2007, 08:48:55 AM »

size=6pt] The motto of The Ashcan Front is "fighting for the hobby". And what we mean by that is the hobby in which we're all designers. Anyone who stuck with the roleplaying hobby through the 80s and 90s is a designer, and had to be, because playing games required making constant judgement calls about the rules. Those are design decisions. Industries have consumers and producers. The Ashcan Front knows we're all equal
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
guildofblades
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« Reply #13 on: April 25, 2007, 11:03:04 AM »

>>1) Have you published a game?
2) Have you met in person with a bunch of other high status people and gotten to know them?
3) Is your game, if you have one, financially or play-wise successful?

I think it's pretty obvious that all three of these things push people to having a game to sell at GenCon<<

Hi Ben,

Yes, published dozens of games. Yes, met lots of well known folks within the industry. Yes, every game we've published has enjoyed some degree of varying fiscal success (each one has turn at least some kind of profit), but I never ever rush anything out for Gen Con or any other con. We, for the most part, don't even attend cons anymore. In the past they simply didn't provide a good enough return on investment as a marketing option.

I do agree, when you publish that very first game all game designers feel this huge sense of accomplishment. Every last game designer within the industry, regardless if they are a part time indie designer or the president of a top tier manufacturer, has had that sense of accomplishment upon successfully concluding and publishing their first game. That feeling never goes away completely, though with each additional game you do, it certainly diminishes. These days while I am still proud of the game designs I make, I feel a sigh of relief when a game is done with design and into production. That mostly because the work load on my plate, seems a bit lighter for a bit...at least until the next new design gets lumped onto it.

Anyway, this problem you are describing is a universal one within the games industry, though it happens for different reasons at different companies at different scales of operation.

1) Indie companies generally make no representations of running full time operations. Their owners have day jobs and while many indie companies do strive (and sometimes achieve) to make profits, that in itself is not necessarily the primary motivating factor. So in forums populated largely with indie game designers, you generally don't get huge credit and rep for publishing fiscally successful games. You get rewarded, socially, for being an active and vocal participant in the community and by having published a product that has new and unique features that many within the community recognize as innovative. With the social recognition being a major motivational driver for many indie game designers, it is only natural they would rush a project to completion so it is available at Gen Con (or insert other major social event here) because those events happen only once per year and an opportunity to showcase their new design accomplishments is an missed opportunity to score social cred; one that will need to wait a whole another year before it comes again.

2) My experience has been among the full time staffed companies and small press companies attempting to fit within the "mainstream" of the games industry, it is a social networking for the sake of social networking, in the large part, with only a secondary concern with regards to design aspects. Though publishing a particularly flashy looking product, obtaining a media license, or getting to hobnob with select industry socialites brings a bit of extra cred. So too do things like Origin Award nominations, which are essentially ONLY useful for industry cred and not consumer marketing. Within this segment of the industry social structure, doing something particular innovative or original does not bring social accolades. Rather, it tends to bring out harsh feelings from others because it is introducing an unknown into the extremely fragile social hierarchy this core group accepts and desires to fit into. An unknown might lead to the next Magic the Gathering and the fiscal success of such a thing can lead to fundamental shifts of who is kissing who's rear end and the mere prospect of such an uncharted potential shift will earn social enemies. Yes, folks scratch, claw and bite their way into those social niches and some marginally successful ongoing sales presence in a game line can help maintain them there, so don't dare bring a product to market that can threaten that. Really. Ever watched those movies about social jockeying among mothers in a PTA group? The game industry can be far worse. lol. Anyway, with that rant done, for a successful small to mid sized company that comes to a Gen Con with a major presence it requires some major cash expenses in marketing, travel, and exhibit costs, so games MUST get completed in time to be sold there or it can lead to both a fiscal and social crisis for the owners. So half completed, non play tested products among some of the larger operations get rolled out each year too. Its not just an indie thing.

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Publishing Group
http://www.guildofblades.com
http://www.1483online.com
http://www.thermopylae-online.com
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Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Publishing Group
http://www.guildofblades.com
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #14 on: April 25, 2007, 02:04:38 PM »

I'm going to put this thread on a specific track now.

Apparently, what many of the second generation of the Forge community has missed, was that nearly the entire first generation utilized the ashcan process.

Sorcerer was sold as an electronic file from late 1996 through early 2001. InSpectres was a free download, then a PDF, for years. The process varied in terms of publicity/access and in terms of commerce, but it was a staple feature. You can go through all the independent games which made the big splash between 2001 and 2004, and you can see this done, over and over. We all used the ashcan process.

You see, it's not just about editing and presentation, and it's certainly not just about "playtesting." This is where you're missing the point, Eero, and Remi as well. It's more than just playtesting and getting feedback. It's letting the game be itself for a while, but also subject to criticism and use. It's letting go of it for a while, and recognizing that one may or may not develop it further later. It's letting the game as a project recede from your current attention. You play it, others play it, and information accumulates. You do not plan to get it published further for a while. Then you return later and really bring your own attention and all the information that's accumulated back upon it as a project, in full knowledge that you might decide not to. You look at it and decide now what to do with it.

There is a really terrible, destructive assumption that many people seem to have brought to the independent publishing process - that you settle upon publishing a game, and once you do, well, you get that game published no matter what. This is distinct from the admirable creative and even commercial determination to publish one's work - why? Because it throws out the crucial variable of judgment.

At some time, one must look at one's game, no matter how much work and sweat and whatever has gone into it, and say, "is this good enough?" And even more important, even if it is very good, "do I actually want to take this into a more aggressive marketing model?" which is to say, a book format.

If you don't accept that the answers to these questions may well be "no," then you're throwing the key role of judgment - your judgment - out the window. Sometimes, that turns out to be OK because your answer would have been "yes" anyway - that's the situation for Kevin Allen and Primitve, in my unconstructed opinion. In the case of Perfect or Carry, it means the book ended up having small gaps or flaws that made it a wee bit harder to use, but the book can indeed be used and the game itself is solid. In the case of Shock, it means the book is completely inadequate to the task of explaining the existing game. In the case of Mortal Coil, it means that the book is sufficient to explain the game, but the game does not function well.

Yeah, I'm naming names. I'm going to be doing that a lot soon, specifically in reference to actual play. Why? Because when you publish Shock or Mortal Coil, you pick the customer's pocket. You just do. It's bad business. Never mind how it affects me or Adept Press publishing; you owe me nothing. But as I hope to show with my actual play account of Shock, it's a disaster for glyphpress.

Shock as a game is the only science fiction RPG ever published. It's innovative, fun, and powerful. Shock as a book is an ashcan, despite its physical design. It should have been presented as an ashcan, under whatever business model, and treated by you, Joshua, as an ashcan, as I describe above. With that key and undetermined-length time period of plain old setting it aside for play and letting it recede from attention as a project. You didn't. And it just so happens that unlike (say) Perfect, the primary flaw of this particular draft/ashcan is that it fails 100% actually to explain how to set up play. By not doing so, we bought an unusable book and you picked our pockets. That is the only reason why Shock is not being played by dozens and dozens of groups worldwide, and garnering the accolades and financial success that the (invisible) game deserves.

It is stupidity. It is arrogance. It is shooting for the quick buck. It is piggybacking on the work of others. It is intellectual laziness. It mistakes effor tfor achievement and social accolades for confirmation. It is the beta level of the independent RPG phenomenon, and it's time to identify the exact reason and to call out the main examples.

I'll be writing a lot more on all of this. I strongly suggest that you, the reader, save whatever fulminations and defensive cries and basic internet bullshit for your blogs and other websites. Here, I will not be fucking around, and I expect critical self-reflection from all participants.

What it comes down to is creative, intellectual, and social honesty. I've been watching the level drop steadily for about three years.

Remi, I have a suggestion for you - review the play-history of the Durham Three and your podcasting. How honest is it? When you say, "it was awesome!", was it? When you say, "we had fun!", did you? Before weighing in as a playtester, you need to reflect on what you guys were doing at the table, and how you presented it publicly.

Best, Ron
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