Thursday, August 02, 2012

Enthusiasm and Professionalism in Tabletop RPG Publishing

About this time last year I wrote a post about publishers rushing games in order to have them for sale at Gen Con, only to have to release a new edition within months because the rush job missed so many errors. The business of RPG publishing sometimes seems to forget the fact that there's more to this than just having something to sell at Gen Con.

The polar opposite of this attitude is the "hobbyist," those who publish because they love games more than they understand how a business really works. A good example of this would be the current (as of the date of this post) Kickstarter being run by Frog God Games for a new edition of their Swords & Wizardry Complete, in hardcover format. They previously released a hardcover edition that was marred by printing errors and poor follow up and customer service. I guess some lessons are difficult to learn.

I do not think there is any nobility in publishing something from the stance of being a hobbyist, so if your responses to this opinion post are based from that mindset don't bother.

Enthusiasm is great when you're a gamer, but once you put on that hat, form a company and start acting like a business it takes a lot more than just enthusiasm for me to support you as a publisher or a designer. Don't get me wrong I enjoy Swords & Wizardry, I own the softcover of Compete (picked up last year at Gen Con), and I run a G+ Hangout game using the rules. This was why I wanted to support them in their Kickstarter to put out a new hardcover of the rules. They seemed to learn from their earlier quality mistake, but they still seem to have some problems with interacting with customers.

This started with a sloppily written Kickstarter page with poorly articulated pledge levels. For some reason they felt that it would be OK to incorporate a pledge level for a book other than what is being Kickstarted (a $40 pledge level gets you an updated copy of their old Monster Book instead of the Complete hardcover that is being Kickstarted). Combined with a poorly written pledge level description, and over all poorly written Kickstarter page in general, this lead me to believe that they were offering both books as an incentive to get those who already own the Complete rules (such as myself) to support the Kickstarter. I sent a question to them about it, and they seemed baffled that I would have come to that conclusion. A thread on Google+ quickly demonstrated that this wasn't a reading fail on my part, but other were confused in the same way. Something must have given, because Frog God felt that they had to offer a FAQ on that particular pledge level.

The follow up from Frog God really left me uninterested in supporting their Kickstarter, or future ones for that matter. It doesn't really matter because they have already reached their basic goal and have gone on to a couple of their stretch goals. For other gamers, enthusiasm is enough to get them to put down their money. That's a perfectly valid choice, and I am not knocking anyone who has pledged, or who continue to pledge. I however, have little interest in purchasing gaming material from people who are not willing (or able) to put their best foot forward when doing their marketing. And, if nothing else, a Kickstarter is very good for marketing a product (particularly one like this that Frog God plans to get into distribution). My feeling is that if they are going to be sloppy in this way, how do I know that their game materials won't be sloppily communicated in some other manner?

Ultimately, there are more than enough games out there on the market (of all levels of enthusiasm and professionalism), and there are certainly plenty of retroclones out there as well. I do like the simplicity of Swords & Wizardry, but with Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess having solid core games with plenty of support...I don't have any particular need to have a brand loyalty to Swords & Wizardry. I'm not interested in retroclones out of a nostalgia for gaming like I did when I was a kid, I am interested in them because I want a simpler take on fantasy gaming than games such as Pathfinder or D&D 4e. I prefer simplicity if I can get it in my gaming, and neither of those games are what I would call simple. I no longer play games like GURPS for the very same need for simplicity.

Basically I am saying that it takes more than enthusiasm for me. If that is all that you need, then I am happy that there is so much support for your gaming. I just want more. And, if Kickstarter is going to have any sort of longevity among game publishers large or small, it is going to take more than enthusiasm on the part of the publishers as well.