A lot of interviews showed up recently. For this one, I was contacted by Nune, who is studying entrepeneurship in Rotterdam. (rhymes with “rune,” one syllable)
His questions included what does it mean to be a role-playing publisher, what do you have to contend with, what should you consider, and especially, the term he used, market segmentation. That last is the part that we didn’t get to, but set the context to ask sensible questions about it.
The context is definitely not what anyone expects or wants to hear. I am the wrong guy to advise how to succeed in RPG commerce as it stands today. I didn’t think of this until editing, but this conversation serves as my Zinn-esque “A People’s History” countering or counterpointing Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons. On that latter work’s own terms, it can’t be faulted as a factual documentation to celebrate RPG commerce from the early 70s to the present. On my terms, or in examining how my own life intersects through its every page, it is an edifice of banality, often destructive, in which the activity I’m celebrating has survived only because it’s irrepressible.
As we began talking, I feared that I’d be, at the very least, wasting Nune’s time. If you’ve been directed toward a notable entrepeneur for his accumulated wit and wisdom, the last thing you want to find is a guy living out in the scrub toasting a lizard on a stick, with one eye bulging wide and the other squinted almost shut, telling you, “It’s all shit, sonny, do something useful instead.” Which is a pretty good description of me, I think. However, to my relief, this turned out to be something he wanted even if he hadn’t expected it.
To whomever’s reading this, if you make it through this two-hour thing, then I’m interested in your take on market segmentation (target audience? demand?). Does it even work as a term or concern, given that the very concept of “play, design, produce text, sell” is rather illusory for what we do? I mean, commerce in the small or cottage sense is understandable, but not an industry in the sense of a widespread facilitative network, dotted throughout with employment supported by the collective and individual profits from sales.
To continue, if the term or some related concept is relevant, who or what is the audience, market, source of demand, etc? Is it even shape-able, influence-able, manipulable? To do what? To buy what? Is it about the doing or the buying? And if you’re someone making (here’s another term) product, then toward what end? Why bother?
I know the answers from a lot of people, many of them from their own mouths two decades ago. Most of those answers are outright vile. What possible answers would not be?
10 responses to “A People’s History, or at least a person’s”
A Tale of Two Market Segments
I have recently had an insight, thanks to various posts around here, that I have only really experienced as a feeling as far back as my early 20s, maybe even late teens. It is this: an experience can be interactive and still be fundamentally transitive in nature. A charitable read is that we are living in a golden age of such media as exemplified by things like escape rooms, narratively packed subscription puzzle boxes, the vast majority of video games, and even embraced at the corporate level embodied by the degree of interactivity Disney has been building into a lot of their new Star Wars experiences.
The idea of the paid DM who shows up to take you and your friends on an adventure is an extension of this cultural phenomenon. D&D 5e in particular is so friendly in terms of risk management that you don’t even need to fudge die rolls to do this effectively. It is dirt simple to construct an adventure that even the most basic usage of character class features will be sufficient to get the players through it and make everyone feel like cool fantasy heroes who have won the day.
Therefore, I think we can divide the people who play into two groups. Here, I’m defining “play” very broadly. If the person sits down with a group and engages in any kind of activity that one might call “role-playing” then for this purpose they are playing. I am, for now, leaving out the third group briefly mentioned in the video which are those people who mostly collect and read fancy books. Those people are basically connoisseurs of a kind of fiction packaged in pseudo-wiki form.
Okay back to the two groups:
The sad reality is that the first group vastly out numbers the second group. Worse, the designs and techniques that service the first group will actively drive out the second group such that they never learn that designs and techniques that speak to their interests do exist. Even more disastrously, designs that work for the second group can frighten and even enrage members of the first group. The requirement for actual engagement combined with real fictional uncertainty results in members of the first group feeling emotionally “ripped off” when inevitably the game fails to deliver on some promise or guarantee that likely only existed in their own head based on a set of words that happen to be used in the game's description.
Lately my brain has been circling Spione as a great litmus test for this because, let’s face it, the design is so far from the norm that it can not be mistaken for the first kind of design even on casual contact. I’ve run Spione at conventions where I’ve had people show up who were clearly steeped in the appropriate history and literature to a vast degree deeper than me and yet react with utter confusion at the game. It was clear they had signed up to be immersed in a le Carre novel and were probably expecting lots of cool fake document handouts and a juicy mole hunt mystery to solve and instead are faced with…. well… Spione.
An extreme form of this happened the last time I took the game to a convention. When the game ended a player showed me extensive notes he had been taking and it dawned on me that the player had been using a set of silent intuitive continuity techniques to organize and “make sense” of everything in the game. The result was functionally a set of GM notes you would bring to a prepped spy adventure. I could not help but feel there was also a bit of resentment that he had had to do what I had clearly failed to do as the game runner.
Time and again I have encountered moments when running games like Sorcerer where the first time a die roll runs counter to someone's expected genre trope or character beat, I suddenly have to go into customer service mode as the player clearly has a complaint for the manager. They heard this game was about character and story and they feel lied to because those words come with a set of silent guarantees and promises. I can point out that the die roll simply results in a different story than the one expected but not necessarily a bad story, and even further explain that there’s plenty of ways for their character to move forward, but nope, to be robbed of the expected trope or beat is simply no different than dying randomly to 1d6 goblins in a dungeon. It’s the same underlying emotion of being cheated out of the experience they signed up for and either the GM or the game’s design has failed them.
The point of this is that we know the first group can easily be treated as a target audience. Make sure your game promises a core experience and has enough engineered components to deliver that experience reliably. It’s an amusement park ride with a very high degree of interactivity or a kind of narrative coloring book. Much “game design” discourse at the academic level lives in this space much to Ron’s frustration, I’m sure.
The thing is, I believe you can treat the second group as a target audience or market but it’s fraught with a couple of land mines. The first is finding these people. Ron has a couple of good points about how to be receptive to discovering such people, but we don’t have any good methods for outreach, driving traffic or tempting the curious masses into the parlor.
The second involves anti-marketing to the first group because assuming your game has any attractive aesthetic qualities they will show up and judge your game based on their perceived promises and guarantees. When they discover your game doesn’t actually have any such promises or guarantees they will be very vocal about it. At best they will simply call it poor design that doesn’t deliver the “promised” experience, and at worst they will call the game socially dangerous and harmful for lack of guard rails against bad faith engagement.
I, personally, am highly interested in finding solutions to these two problems so that the second target audience can be reached more easily then just waiting for chance encounters. I waffle a lot on what to do about the first group. On a charitable day I just see them as engaging the hobby for different reasons and really not that different from an escape room enthusiast. On an angrier, judgier day I see them as trauma victims of consumer culture being creatively infantilized by hucksters spoon feeding them processed gruel. That’s when I start talking about writing gamer self-help books.
People, hobby, medium
(first of two different comments)
Here's my concept of what you're describing, with an important difference. I've been talking about this and sketching it for years in conversations and interviews, but I don't think I've presented it here in words and pictures before.
Let's consider everyone in the world:
I hope this doesn't require much explanation. I'll say these to be sure:
Anyway, here's where my presentation differs from yours. As I see it, you're focusing on the blue:
Here's where the common talk of "growing the hobby" is situated too – moving the overall blue region's boundary to the right. In your case, it's like a mini-version, how can we "grow" the dark blue outward into the light blue.
I think that is, to put it kindly, pissing into a stiff wind. Finding people who are in the dark-blue region is very nice. Making people in the light-blue into dark-blue is only going to accomplish the reverse, for which, I refer you to Exhibit A: Story Games slash Indie-as-brand slash Narrative blah blah blah.
My focus is different:
Therefore, yes, I am willing to interact inside the hobby insofar as "orange" may be discovered there. As I've told you in the past, I only realized after publishing Sorcerer that plenty of people lined the inside edge of the in-hobby orange region, in various states of exhaustion and yearning, impossibly tangled up in hobby/industry jargon, often without knowing why they were stressed.
As I said toward the end of my conversation with Nune, it amazes and delights me that despite it all, the interested (intrigued, inspired) presence is still there and is evidently constantly supplied, generationally and demographically. That's why I don't merely walk away from the hobby, whose other virtues are fleeting and minimal.
I also consider the orange region continuous, therefore, depicted here in a single shade, and that the out-of-hobby side of it is much, much bigger, more responsive, and less fucked-up than most people involved in the hobby can imagine.
Let me know what you think about this.
(second of two different comments)
This is probably too small and over-precious to bother with, but as such, it is one of my peeves and it is, at least, relevant to any discussion of Spione.
The phrase "like a John LeCarré novel" entered popular expression long ago, to indicate an exciting thriller full of intrigue, mainly about troubled but determined British (later American) defenders against insidious and cunning Russian plots.
The problem is that not one single story by David Cornwell is actually like this. He wrote anti-thrillers directed specifically to criticize the self-deluded, power-serving, dysfunctional British and American agencies whose activities caused random political chaos and extensive human harm. Given his long career, they vary in terms of actual foreign threat or characterization of different agencies, but the basic point is extremely consistent.
The only exception is Smiley's People, which was written after the BBC versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honorable Schoolboy, which depicts George Smiley more heroically based on the adaptations' thematic lean away from the novels. [here I am referencing Cornwell's own statements, not interpreting]
Spione is absolutely designed in line with his and similar authors' works, as well as non-spy fiction (well, kind of) and dissenting spy non-fiction. Saying "like a John LeCarré novel" is a marker for me that the person hasn't read any. I know you probably used the phrase casually or in reference to what the other people in your account said, but this is like a rock in my shoe and I had to remove it.
I have not seen these
I have not seen these diagrams but you’ve verbally described them to me before and these visually line up with what I was imagining from our discussions. They are also precisely what I was referring to when I said, “Ron has a couple of good points about how to be receptive to discovering such people…”
You are also correct in identifying that I have a particular personal interest in the light-blue/dark-blue boundary. However, I agree with you that attempting to kidnap people from the light-blue area and drag them into the dark-blue area is not good. The result, also as you point out, is a tendency to loot whatever is going on there for techniques, vocabulary and ideas before escaping back to the light-blue area.
The better analogy I have in my head is carefully targeted rescue operations mainly focusing on two types of people:
Over the last five years or so, I keep thinking that if I had my life to do over again I should have studied a combination of sociology and psychology with an emphasis on consumer identity culture recovery. Maybe that’s on a magnitude of cult-deprogramming I don’t know.
Okay, putting my weird social obsession aside, what does this have to do with marketing? Let me say that I’m using marketing very broadly. Pretend for a moment that I was starting a book club specifically to focus on my ultra niche interest in pre-Frankenstein Gothics (roughly 1760-1820) with nary a commercial interest in sight. I would still call the attempt to widely distribute knowledge of the book club’s existence and purpose in an effort to reach as many people who might be interested as possible “marketing” or “advertising”. In absence of a commercial agenda maybe there’s a better word? Afterall, I’m not talking about convincing anyone to join, merely spreading knowledge of its existence and maybe a bit of starter information on what makes that literature unique to entice the curious.
So, now, I’m strictly talking about the orange. How do we actively reach them? How do we drill connective pathways between them and games, websites, communities and people that they would be excited to learn about and engage. Additionally, how do we insulate those pathways from the toxicity of the consumer culture lying in wait for the unwary. How do we “activate” more of the potential people in the orange?
Would this have a commercial benefit? Yes, probably, but as a secondary effect. For you, more active orange people would mean more potential people to find and participate at this site, buy a few of your games, contribute to the Patreon and sign up for your classes. Those are just examples.
I am also willing to accept that marketing as understood in the halls of institutions that teach it have no good techniques for this kind of inform and invite approach. But is there no other way? Am I just being naive and romantic again? Maybe.
So, now, I’m strictly talking
That would be my history in role-playing as play, thought, and publishing since the late 1990s, stated quite succinctly. Focusing on my own history to inform these general questions, I can point to some qualifiers.
Can this be more proactive, more advertise-y, more informative, more widely available? I think so. I've tried various versions for a long time. I'm trying this one, probably my last desperate effort in the resurgence of economic badness in the past decade, right now.
But the hobby/fandom commerce as such is really quite intrusive and trying. For one thing, I'm doomed to operate at the left side of the diagram to a great extent, no matter what – the most obviously available people are hobby-involved or hobby-adjacent, and the light-blue miasma is always surounding us. I tried to find a compromise with it in the past five years (the Lamentations project, Cosmic Zap, and Champions Now) and have concluded that it's worse than ever, even more corrosive. Fortunately the infrastructure and interactions in Sweden have a positive side.
To complicate my pictures a little, we could imagine a row of asterisks lining the inside border of the dark blue box where it contacts the light blue, for the "exhausted and stressed" gamers who would or could be involved – yourself two decades ago, very accurately, and certainly more of the gaming culture than I'd ever imagined.
Unfortunately, the outer border of that same presence is also rife with chickenhawks seeking hawtness, and who are expert at capitalizing on those people's seeking and stress. They are, not surprisingly, today the darlings of Twitter and Kickstarter . Some of them are nice people who simply buy into Bernays-driven commerce as success and self-actualization and "know not what they do," and others are quite predatory assholes.
It is among these two that the "frightened" sector you describe may be found, arguing violently with the "exhausted and stressed" and all too willing to buy inclusion through purchasing things from the chickenhawks. I can't interact with these people. I spent too many years at the Forge being nice to them only to inadvertently supply their exploiters with hawt vocabulary and a kool-kids insider marketing pitch.
When I realized how bad this has become, I dialed down my business reliance on purchases almost to zero. I only want to be paid by people who consider themselves to be receiving value: if they really are interested in my games, if they really do think Adept Play is worth keeping around, if they really do find benefit in the consulting discussions, if they really think the classes are worth their time. You know that the first consulting session is not paid, right? The person only pays if they want to continue after that.
That is, however limited it may be, and however "un-growth" it may be (and hence heretical as a business model), the only way I can see to keep it orange. If those positive assessments and payments regarding authentically-received value can at least be enough to maintain a small income, well, as a daily job, that's hard enough. Someone else can worry about the great big world of role-playing and gamers' issues some other time.
I have been thinking about
I have been thinking about the video, the post and discussion. This is something very personal to me.
I ran games in Portland years back at open game nights. We had a loose network of people who played a variety of games. Around the time Story Games/OSR/Indie solidified into brands things changed for the worse (this is around the time of Fiasco being played on Wil Wheaton's YouTube channel, if I recall correctly).
A self-identified "Story Gamer" with a background in “Non-Profits” pushed their way and established a hierarchical power structure to "grow the scene". How? By limiting what was acceptable to play. What was the result? The local open play culture died within a couple years.
This burned me and others, I became exhausted and grumpy. I checked out and played only home games. I kept trying to check in on the hobby but saw the fan cultures being made worse, more divisive through social media-style marketing. It became harder to find different kinds of games too.
The culture online is now centered around fan licenses (a complicated topic), folks branding games with some market label (OSR, Story Games, etc), a deluge of supplementary consumable and disposable products that mainly exist as advertising for a publisher, a creators' brand, or just a way to promote one's identity. These take up so much space, and generate a lot of noise which drowns out games outside these categories. What's someone to do if they don't fit in? Is there something to be done to right the ship?
I have no idea, outside waiting for the inevitable bubble burst and seeing who gives enough of a damn to keep on playing when social and financial incentives dry up.
Keeping my view “orange” has
Keeping my view "orange" has gone a long way for me not to be too concerned about what you're describing, and eventually, not to care particularly. It's not all that easy – one must interface with the hobby and industry at least a little in order to do anything business-y with role-playing, and to find people who are interested in what we do, they are often found peering curiously into the hobby, because where else would they look. And like it or not, my history effectively makes me an insider, and in terms of information and acquaintances, much more of an insider than anyone who's shrieked (for decades now, in some cases) that I don't belong there.
The good news is that everywhere I look for "orange," literally in terms of geography, there are plenty of hobby-associated people who remain alert for constructive dialogue and play even if they feel very isolated. Some of them continue to play and try to get what they can out of it, and some of them are burned-out and a step or two out of the activity entirely, but the desire is still real. When I look at the body of work here at Adept Play, I'm happy to see a lot of people who say, "I had just about given up entirely, or given up playing with any real enjoyment, but now here I am and this is what I do."
The orange is real. What I'm hoping for now is that you (and you, and you, and you, reading this) find your own ways toward enjoying play with people who aren't hobby-associated, finding the orange and having a good time with it exactly as such. Sam is definitely showing us the way and I think we have a substantial number of people here who've come to play without going through a hobby-role-playing circle arc first – in other words, not burned and recovered. I'd like to concentrate on the social interactions and achievements of this kind, and I hope you'll join me in that.
The orange zone, I think, was something I’ve been looking for. Recently, before some lifestuff came up, I reached out to old friends, who also dropped out of gaming and an acquaintance, new to RPGs, but already frustrated with DnD and eager to try out more.My hope is that I can have some engaging and energizing games with these folks. I already have two games in the pocket ready to go when I get settled into my new place. One is a Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, and the other is a Stormbringer one. I am hoping to be able to share those experiences after we play. I think I should probably spend more energy with those folks and here rather than bashing my head against “the hobby” every few years.
On Designers & Dragons
I agree with you on Designers & Dragons. I read through it last year and two things really struck me:
As you note, its concerns have nothing to do with the activity of role-playing: there is no thought, reflection, or curiosity about how any of the choices made by publishers may have had an effect on anyone who was playing these games. It would be one thing if the author seemed to be merely ignorant of or in denial about many of the toxic effects that publishing decisions have led to over the years, but he also has nothing to say about any potential positive effects on role-playing that various publishing decisions may have contributed to. From the perspective of the book, the hobby does not consist of people who play role-playing games, but rather people who collect books.
But it was more shocking to me that even taken on its own terms, as a business/publishing-focused history, the author seems completely oblivious to the pattern that keeps repeating in his narrative: which is to say that Designers & Dragons is a chronicle of failed business after failed business with no acknowledgement that that is the case. There’s no curiosity about why publishers of even supposedly popular, beloved, widely-played games cannot make money; no attempt to look at bigger picture issues (of the type discussed in The Nuked Applecart) that may be playing a role. One would think that after writing about the 20th time a role-playing game publisher went bankrupt because they were trying to expand into too many different publishing lines, you would start to wonder if perhaps it was time to examine assumptions about good and bad publishing practices.
None of this would matter (to me anyway), except that the viewpoint of Designers & Dragons continues to be the viewpoint (often unexamined) behind much of online discourse purporting to be about the activity. It makes it almost impossible to have meaningful discussions about role-playing games, unless you have the time, energy, and patience to start every discussion from ground zero.
I have some thoughts about
I have some thoughts about this strange blindness.
First, I know that most individuals more closely involved with role-playing publishing are better informed, i.e., it's not that they merely don't know. My most direct experience with that knowledge occurred during a panel at GenCon: a rather big one, with a vast crowd, kind of a "meet the industry thing" to which I had been invited as the independent games guy. At one point an audience member spoke about industry leadership and success, "like with D&D," as a gold standard. I responded that TSR had been an albatross and disaster for everyone who'd owned it, leaving a trail of disadvantageous sales and ruined finances (this was during the transition period for WotC/Hasbro, thus Peter Adkison's savvy divestmestment was not yet complete). The room erupted with hisses and horrified noises. I happened to be seated at the far left end of the panel table. I asked the panel members, starting at the other end, to respond to what I said. Every single one of them said "Ron's right" at the very least, with some adding more information or evidence. I doubt that anyone in the entire crowd actually learned anything from this, retaining only an impression of a bad man who said bzz-bzz-spronk, but I was certainly not saying anything that anyone "up there" didn't know.
But related to that, I also found that industry mailing lists and discussions always elided such talk, which confused me a lot. It was very important in GAMA or the long-running WZL mailing list to keep up appearances even among themselves, to speak of sparkly entrepeneurship, often with such woo-adjacent terms as "boosting" and "hot," often treating "distro" and "retail" as proper names, i.e., as vast individuals who made some kind of rational individual decisions. It seeemed completely insane to me to overlook overriding business context in private industry groups that were supposed to be discussing business concerns, especially since my individual conversations showed me that people actually knew better. Any attempt of mine to examine built-in failure was quickly drowned in quibbling or appeals not be divisive.
Second, and here I draw on my strange history with comics, it's practically synonymous with "being professional" to keep practical, understandable critique of the real history and real money walled away from any discussions whatsoever. It's hardcore omerta.
This is, I think, rather straightforward: it's central to the grift. It's easy to take people's money when they think they're participating in a "market," i.e., not only are they getting a thing they want, they're also voting in some cultural way for something they approve of. Fandom loves this concept. Buying a comic "strengthens" the company, gives it something it needs, makes the whole thing a real transaction and a real contribution to the entire cultural effort. According to this view, when you buy a comic book, you support comics – your love of comics has become real, it is now heard in some chamber of how things are and what matters. Music, movies, fiction publishing, it's the same.
The last thing anyone who took that person's money wants is for them to have any working, historical, structural knowledge of distribution, money laundering, abusive labor practices, the absolute infrastructural disdain for the thing being produced, or the benefit of keeping the whole thing shady so that your skanky shady self can stay known, loved, and important to the marks. Even actual skullduggery and criminality are acceptable as long as they're a bit in the past, and often repurposed if they can be spun as colorful tales of personalities and soap opera.
The actual creators and "faces" that the fans know are in quite a bind. Popular fiction writers, comics professionals, and actors struggle to keep a good attitude about it, finding any value in what they do and what the fans like if possible, avoiding all talk of the bigger picture … if they're nice people. They try to stay within professional micro-communities and to form micro-hierarchies that can result in getting good work done, as long as they last. If they're not nice people, they throw in with the grift and become quite vile indeed, a truly sleazy plastic action figure of yourself, or rather of the image you have built or been built into.
I have hundreds of examples from a variety of media (and academia) in my own direct personal history, and the human cost is all too clear. Here's one that I witnessed more from the outside, which seemed frighteningly obvious since it's someone I didn't know. At one point during the 00s, I was dragged against my will to a convention event with Joss Whedon onstage, basically "meet Joss who loves you all, he's one of us," and I never saw a man less happy about being there. He was obviously sick of Buffy and even more so of Buffyverse, disinclined or perhaps legally constrained from talking about Firefly (especially "when's it coming back?! can you get Sarah Michelle Gellar to be in it??"), and by the end of the event had given up trying to talk about his current work, which no one there responded to when he did, and was reduced to sullen grunts. When we left, my friends were euphoric – it was "great," he was "great," being together with all these fellow fans was "great."