I haven't been around here much lately, but what blogging I do will now be located here - ejboyddesigns.wordpress.com/
See you there!
So after a vacation, a bout of the creeping crud, and a few harrowing work weeks, I’m back. I’ve finished The E-Myth Revisited and would recommend it to other publishers out there for an exploration of the business growth and development.
At a certain point in the book, the focus shifts from diagnosing the problems of small businesses to the author’s solution—creating a franchise model out of your business. I was disheartened; an indie game designer and publisher can’t exactly step back and let his business run itself like a McDonalds. But then it hit me—each game we write can itself be a franchise.
The author notes six traits of a successful franchise that I see as equally applicable to successful games. First, a game has to provide consistent value to everyone who encounters it beyond what they expect. What that value is will vary from game to game, but a game must provide something that others do not and deliver on that promise consistently to find success.
Second, a game must be able to be operated by people with the lowest possible level of skill (i.e., the lowest skill level necessary to fulfill the functions of the game). So a game needs to be designed so anyone (or any roleplayer) can use its system and have a great time every time they open the book. If a game requires master roleplayers to shine, then it’s the people, not the game, that’s delivering the fun. And inevitably a game will produce inconsistent results if it is relying on exceptional people instead of an exceptional system.
Third, a game has to stand out as impeccably organized. Order (e.g., a table of contents, index, rules summaries, play aids, whatever) inspires confidence in your customer that you know what you’re doing and to trust in your system.
Fourth, all parts of the game have to be documented in the game text. Just like McDonalds has manuals detailing every aspect of restaurant operation, your text needs to detail every aspect of play. This provides clarity and structure so your customer isn’t flailing about but knows exactly what to do at each point.
Fifth, your game has to provide a predictable experience to your customer. Your system has to work in a unified and consistent manner so that gameplay delivers the fun that your customer expects from prior experience. A game system that generates wildly varying play experiences can leave customers confused and ultimately uninterested in further play.
Finally, your game should utilize uniform terminology, graphics, and organization. Discover what works best and stick to it so that your game forms a cohesive whole that leaves a particular impression on your customers.
While not everything is perfect fit for indie RPGs, the franchise model does hit pretty close to the mark. Many of the more successful games indeed seem to embody most of these principles. So, BS or useful insights—you make the call.
As I toil away on my second game, House of Cards, and work on revising the text for my first, The Committee, I’ve also been thinking about my game design as a business. To be frank, I’ve sucked at being a businessman in these first two years of Eric J. Boyd Designs. Yes, I’ve sold 290 copies of The Committee, but that’s mostly in spite of, not because of, my business efforts.
I’m reading a business book, The E-Myth Revisited, whose basic premise is that there are three aspects to a business and your own relation to your business—the Entrepreneur (the visionary and dreaming aspect), the Manager (the organizer), and the Technician (the doer and tinkerer). The author opines that a major cause of the high probability of a small business failing is that someone who likes doing Technician work strikes out on their own in a small business where all they do is loads of Technician work, neglecting the other necessary aspects of a business. The end result is that they fail.
This explanation for why restaurants, bakeries, etc. fail in huge numbers makes good sense. And I find it just as applicable to indie publishing. Game design is a lot of fun, but it is the Technician work. Loads of folks tinker with homebrews and all manner of projects and there’s nothing wrong with that. But becoming a game publisher is a business, so as publisher I can’t sit around just doing design and neglecting the Entrepreneur and Manager aspects. Luke Crane and Fred Hicks, to name two prominent examples, clearly have embraced all three roles, and their great success should come as no surprise.
Now the indie movement lets you define “success” however you like, and I applaud that. But whatever metric you choose, it seems to make sense to embrace all three aspects of what being a business means and using them to pursue it. Needless to say, I’ve resolved to do better at cultivating my business, not just designing my games.
Next up, another insight from E-Myth, or why your game is a like a business franchise. Stay tuned.
So I had a blast at GPNW – great people, great games, and a great city to experience both in. I got to crash with the generous and awesome Tony Dowler, whose Principia I am even more eagerly looking forward to after playing it during the con.
My playtest of House of Cards was both a highlight and a lowlight for me. A highlight because Dawn, Jason, Jeremy, and Jim are great players with bountiful patience and keen insight. A lowlight because the game blew up much worse than I was expecting. So here’s the post-mortem:
-I made partially-completed pre-gens to cut down on the prep time since my time slot was only three hours. The rest of recruiting the crew and devising the obstacles for the heist went very smoothly. Things were high energy and the ties between the characters looked to be primed for some hot play.
-After a promising start, though, the game totally began to crater. My v2.0 conflict resolution engine was simply too heavy and time-consuming to get the job done. Players seemed to get lost in the choices to be made, and the handling time was way too high for the quick and less formal social space I want this game to inhabit. So as much as my first conflict resolution system had no tactical depth, this one has swung too far the other way – epic fail.
-We accelerated the progression of play to have the getaway. This part of the game seemed to work much better – high energy again, cards flying around the table, and the Drives being revealed as part of bloody betrayals and double crosses. This exactly the kind of ending I want to see!
So basically the beginning and the end of the playtest were rocky, but showed promise, while the middle was a vast chasm of suck. The consensus is that there’s no need to have differing rules for the getaway; instead, take the getaway rules and make them work for the rest of the game. Also, to speed things up, make this a three act structure – planning, the heist, and the getaway. Previously, I had five acts, then four, so it doesn’t surprise me that this number keeps dropping. Since I want to enrich the content of each act by having an economy of different scene types (major conflict, minor conflict, address a rumor, and downtime), this three act business seems right on.
Other things I’m mulling on in the wake of the playtest:
-A couple conflict scenes devolved into uninteresting negotiations with NPCs over minor aspects of the heist plan. I need to loosen up my structure to permit quick one-card conflicts to get through such things quickly – leaving the major conflicts for the dramatic stuff (where it belongs).
-The time pressure and perhaps my own inadequate explanation resulted in rumors getting short shrift. Rumors and the underlying revelations about the characters need to be a focal point of play. My procedures need to change to make that happen.
-We also ended up without any downtime scenes. Again, these are supposed have a vital function – showing informal interactions between the characters and/or key NPCs. These scenes are key places to hint at your character’s Drive, as well as having the mechanical effect of refreshing resources. Without these, the fiction ended up feeling hollow. Hopefully, fixing conflict resolution will give these scenes space to be used to their full potential.
-Advantages generated from the early scenes to be used later aren’t really working. Maybe the focus should be on “attacking” the complications presented by the heist instead.
-As I mentioned, I removed failure as an option before the getaway. So coming up short let the GM go after your resources and such instead. I’m thinking of formalizing that with a list of “conditions” that characters get stuck with instead of failing. The fact that I played a rocking game of Jonathan Walton’s Geiger Counter during GPNW is not coincidental.
Since GPNW, I’ve been awash in work and family stuff that has kept me from the heavy lifting of revisions. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will have me back on the horse for House of Cards v.3.0.
pbeakley has been helping me poke at the game again as well. He’s put some very interesting thoughts on the table (e.g., resolution as actually building and collapsing houses of cards), which I'm filing away for the moment. I think I’m going to see if holding to my basic skeleton can get me where I want to be, but if 3.0 is still blowing up it may be time to kill some more sacred cows.
Thanks again to all of my GPNW playtesters and to the organizers - I plan to be back at GPNW next year.