Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Summer on the Long Tail

  • Marketing is the use of lies, tricks, and misrepresentations to get people to spend money.

  • The people at Big Game Company X don't care about what I care about, they just want my money.

  • I need a smooth, extroverted, streetwise friend to do my marketing for me.

  • What I do isn't marketing.

  • "Crowdsourcing", "Web 2.0", and "The Long Tail" are meaningless terms marketers made up to make what they're doing sound cool.

These statements have something in common. They're all false.

So yesterday, John, E, Philaros, Judaicdiablo and I were having coffee and the topic of marketing came up. I'm not an expert at marketing, but last year when I had to start my own company, I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn more about it. As a result, I think I have some ideas that the indie game community might profit from.

Marketing is the use of lies, tricks, and misrepresentations to get people to spend money

If this is what you think marketing is, you're not going to get anywhere. Either your attempts at marketing will fail, or you'll turn your back on marketing altogether. Both are mistakes.

Marketing is usually defined as creating (or finding) a demand for a product. High profile tricks and false promises get a lot of media attention, but they are neither the core nor the most successful ways to market a product. The first step in marketing is NOT coming up with a gimmick. It's creating a great product.

The people at Big Game Company X don't care about what I care about, they just want my money

Actually, this may be true. But it's not true of the companies that have become successful and are staying successful. The great companies listen to their customers assiduously and bend over backwards to communicate with them and make their products better. Wizards of the Coast listens to Magic players and makes sure there's a new article on the topics those fans care about published every single day. Games Workshop employees read the message boards and they also play the games, sometimes on work hours.

The reason they do this is that they know that step 2 to great marketing is great customer service. This includes listening to the customers and knowing what the customers care about.

I need a smooth, extroverted, streetwise friend to do my marketing for me

No you don't. More on why below.

What I do isn't marketing

Now we're getting to the good stuff. Marketing is not rooted in some library of smiles and dirty tricks. It's rooted in what you, indie game designer, do every day.

What do you do? If you're a gamer then you 1) play games and 2) talk about them. This is the best kind of marketing there is. Use the Internet to talk to your fans about what you're doing. Reading a blog post by the guy who made the game is ten times more credible than a glossy ad in Dragon magazine. Posting a comment and having the designer answer you personally is pure gold.

And don't underestimate the value of actual play. Post actual play examples on the Web. Take the game to cons and play it with people. This is marketing (and good marketing at that).

When you're ready for the advanced class, use and Technorati to find other people that are talking about your game or genre and engage them directly.

"Crowdsourcing", "Web 2.0", and "The Long Tail" are meaningless terms marketers made up to make what they're doing sound cool

I left these for last because these catchphrases are a measure of where it's at in the marketing world right now, and even though many indie publishers don't' know (or don't care) what they mean, they already know the lessons they refer to.

Crowdsourcing means getting your fans to create your best content for you. It could mean a collaborative effort where you find a layout guy through The Forge, or it could mean getting 500 people to submit Druegar names for your new underworld sourcebook.

Web 2.0 is a term for the new generation of Web applications, particularly those ones where you can make your preferences known and share them with the community. This is important to us, because the indie games community is strongly driven by word of mouth. I'm not sure we're leveraging Web 2.0 that strongly yet, but I have an intuition that this is the route to success for a lot of small publishers in the near future.

The Long Tail - marketers think this is the most revolutionary idea ever, but indie game publishers already know it by heart. The typical model for selling books, games, and movies is the blockbuster model. You make a product that appeals to the largest possible market and sell the hell out of it. All the products that don't become mega-hits are failures and disappear. You can picture this as a fat bell curve where a successful product lies at the highest point of mass appeal.

The long tail is the opposite approach. Instead of one big hit and many failures, the long tail is many modest hits. Another way of saying it is that instead of 1 product for a million customers, you have a hundred thousand products that appeal to 10 customers each. This is very much how the indie market works right now. No indie game sells like D&D (and I don't think any are going to). On the other hand, a huge number of indie games are modest successes for their authors, who can thus stay in business and keep making great games.

The key to making the long tail work is to keep costs low, so that it's easy to make the money back, and to use electronic distribution and marketing channels so that the 10-5000 people who are predestined to love your game can find and buy it easily.

Does this sound like settling for second best?, a hugely successful long tail Web 2.0 company makes MORE THAN HALF of its sales on books that are too far out of the mainstream to be carried even in a mega Barnes & Noble. Now imagine, if you will, a world where indie gaming is half the gaming market. Not only would there be a huge variety of great games to choose from at low prices, but YOU could be one of those successful indie publishers writing and marketing games that you (and your fans) love.

Further Reading

Trevor Beckwith's Selling the Invisible may be the best book on marketing ever (as if I would know). It's not relevant to indie publishing in any special way, but includes many generally useful principles.

Hugh MacLeod's blog Gaping Void, in which he shares marketing wisdom such as "quality isn't job one, being really f*&king amazing is job one". Also read his pdf How to be Creative. It applies 100% to indie game publishers. You might also consider The Hughtrain, his manifesto on Internet marketing.

Seth Godin's Blog is good, as are his books.

Buzzmarketing may be good for those who aren't afraid to get a little crazier with their marketing efforts. Buzzmarketing does indulge a bit in a love of the gimmick, but the fundamental concept of the book, building up word of mouth buzz, is solid.

Chris Anderson, who coined the phrase "The Long Tail" has a blog. His book may be a good resource, thought I haven't read it yet.


Friday, July 21, 2006


Now for a bit of shameless self-promotion...

My game Agon will be released at GenCon this year. It will be available for purchase online after that. Agon is a competitive RPG (similar to Rune or Capes) about ancient Greek heroes and their battles with fantastic monsters, beasts, and men. Unlike most RPGs, you keep score, and it has an actual winner at the end.

You can download some sample pages from the website. If you're at GenCon, come by the Forge booth and sit in on a quick battle demo.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

How to make a Narrative Electronic Game

Is it possible to make a good electronic narrative rpg?

On the face of it, moving from face-to-face to electronic gaming we lose a lot of what's really great about role playing. Computers are very good at mechanistic resolution, but poor at interpreting narration. That's why they can do a good job of processing D&D style combat, but are lousy at open-ended narration. A computer is nearly useless at mediating a conflict where the stakes are variable and open to negotiation. Which means a direct electronic adaptation of Dogs in the Vineyard, TSOY, or most other good narrative games is impossible.

Which is why thinking about ways to take an existing narrative game and "make it electronic" is the wrong approach.

Part of the problem is that no matter how powerful your computer is, it cannot participate in a social contract. If you think I'm wrong, I'd love to debate the matter with you. Social contract plays a huge role in shaping narration. Trying to simulate a social contract is nigh certain to fail. However, there are ways in which the computer can facilitate a social contract.

I am not talking about taking an existing social contract (such as exists around your gaming table) and shoehorning it into a Web site. I'm talking about using the computer to create a space where a particular kind of social contract can prosper. The relationship here between the computer and the social contract is entirely analogous to that between mechanics and actual play experience. A set of electronic mechanisms will create a corresponding play experience.

An important part of the social contract is assenting to other players' narrations. In most game, the first test my narration must pass is that everybody at the table gives it the nod. This social interaction is one that computers are actually quite good at mediating. Hot or Not, Flickr, Slashdot, and Amazon all use this interaction to some degree.

Here's an example: in the game "GodStorming" (which I just made up), all the players are gods collaborating on creating a world. Each day, each god may suggest one creation to place into the world. All the other gods have a number of days in which they may approve, deny, rate, or possibly veto the narration. If the narration passes, it becomes part of the world. There you go, one very simple narrative electronic game. Blognomic uses a somewhat more sophisticated version of this interaction.

Another interaction that the computer can facilitate is kibbitzing or collaborating on a narration. Lexicon uses exactly this method. Players narrate by adding entries to the Wiki. In Lexicon, other players may take exception to this narration within their own entires. You could just as easily have a game where entries can be edited or deleted according to some socially negotiated criteria. You can create any number of similar games relatively easily using freely available tools like Wikis, forums, and blogs.

For completeness, I'll also mention play by email, where we have a real person or people mediating the tasks requiring narration. Here, the computer is little more than a toolbox to help people play an analogue face-to-face game in an electronic, as opposed to physical context. A million PBEM RPGs use this method. Some PBEM strategy games, such as my favorite, Lords of the Earth do this by allowing players to enter discretionary orders that the game moderator then interprets as they please. PBEM is actually a rather weak and labor intensive way to achieve narrative play, as I've discovered through gruelling personal experience.

I think that there's room for a whole new generation of community powered narrative games. In fact, I think they have the potential to leave many "traditional" electronic RPGs in the dust.