2014-05-24 : Games that Take Off, Games that Don't

(Transplanted from this G+ post.)

Games that "take off"

When I publish a game, I publish it, I make myself available to anyone who has questions or comments, and I try to put any support infrastructure in place that I think it might need. From that point forward, though, the game's on its own. I follow it along, I don't rush ahead of it preparing a way. Make sense? Almost all of the work I do for my games, I do in designing them pre-publication, not in marketing them post-publication.

After publication, my games' sales charts have two distinct shapes.

Some of my games, their first quarter is good, their second quarter is better, then a dip, then a years-long gradual growth and a decade-long gradual decline. This is how Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World sell. DitV is in its decade-long decline, and AW is in its years-long growth.

Some of my games, their first quarter is their best, their second quarter is half as good, and then they bottom out in a friendly, bubbly little stream from now until whenever. This is how In a Wicked Age, Poison'd, Murderous Ghosts, and the Sundered Land sell.

Chart of sales starting from publication

This chart is a full 5 quarters behind, but you can see the two shapes clearly. The most striking example is Apocalypse World vs Murderous Ghosts. From almost equal first quarters, Apocalypse World took off and Murderous Ghosts bottomed out.

If you're interested in this topic, do take a second to examine this chart and pick out which of the lines follow the "taking off" shape and which follow the "bottoming out" shape.

The lesson I take from this is that a game takes off when it sells itself, through pure word of mouth. Its audience at its initial release spreads it, and it reaches new people, and they spread it, and so on, right? But a game that can't sell itself doesn't take off, even when its initial release is just as strong.

I also look at it this way: some of my games reach my audience, and some of my games expand it.

1. On 2014-05-24, Vincent said:

For further reading, if you're interested in my numbers, the above chart is from this post: 2013-02-28 : lumpley games 10-year retrospective

And if you're interested in bringing the numbers more up to date, you can piece them out of this more recent post:
2014-01-05 : lumpley games in 2011-2013

Particularly, you'll see that Apocalypse World is, yes, still in its ascent, despite the dip at the end of the above chart, and that The Sundered Land, yes, does follow the bottoming out shape.


2. On 2014-05-24, David Berg said:

This may be outside the topic scope, but if not, could you define "support infrastructure I think it might need"?  Does this mean a hate mail page for Kill Puppies, a short description page for Poison'd, and a fuller site with forums and downloads for AW?  If so, how did you determine which game needed what?


3. On 2014-05-24, Vincent said:

Sure, those things, and whatever else. By publication, after final playtesting, it's always pretty obvious what a game will need.


4. On 2014-05-25, David Berg said:

Care to unpack for those of us for whom it's not obvious?  I dunno whether you're talking about "my playtesters wanted X resource, so I made it for them" or some other considerations.

Back on the main topic: you mentioned that you doubt Midsummer Wood will be one of the games with the "taking off" curve.  Why is that?  Is there something about the rules and dynamics of play that makes you think that, or are you looking out at a play landscape that's already flooded with one-shot scenarios, or is it something else?

I'd guess that Dogs' success is a great example of "make an interesting promise, then deliver in an interesting way", with "interesting promise" being equal parts timely (check out thematic play!) and timeless (sex/God/duty).  With AW, I dunno, I'm not clear on how much of the promise was "apocalyptica!" vs something else.


5. On 2014-05-25, Chris said:

It seems to be Vincent Baker + complexity = success. Vincent Baker here being a brand, not a person. I'd say that if the game is complex enough, there's more to talk about an expand on, so it gets talked about and expanded upon.

AW is a whole other thing with the hacking.

I would say the main thing is that Vincent makes games that are evocative and people like to imagine playing them. If the complexity is high enough, the imagining turns into doing. If it isn't, then the imagining is sufficent and playing isn't required.

The goal is to beat lonely fun.


6. On 2014-05-26, Matthijs said:

Thanks for posting this!

I'm happy because it seems to support my laziness, in that I don't really market my stuff a lot - I put it out there, yell about it for a while, and then leave it to do whatever it ends up doing. I find it impossible to predict how games are received.

Interesting about IAWA. People talked about it A LOT when it first came out, and there were all these oracles for it & rules discussions about it, but it didn't "take off" anyway.


7. On 2014-05-26, Vincent said:

Chris, David: There's a crucial moment, repeated endlessly, when a group of players has decided to play the game, and then they start to play it. This pivotal transition between not playing the game and playing the game, right? Infinitely variable in its particulars but always essential to gameplay. The requisite and fundamental first act of gameplay.

When you create a game, you have to woo the playgroup to that moment and then see them through it. Otherwise they don't play the game, and the game doesn't take off. So how does your game handle this crucial moment?

My working theory right now is that if the person reading the game isn't inspired to take responsibility for that moment, the game won't take off.

It's pretty clear to me that a number of things have to come together to make that moment happen. Complexity is surely a factor. Conventionality is too. Character creation. I also think it's no accident that of my games, the ones that have taken off address themselves to GMs, and the ones that haven't address themselves to players or playgroups.


8. On 2014-05-26, Vincent said:

Ah, right. When I read the opening page or two of a game, I'm thinking about who I want to play it with, and when, and whether they will want to play it with me, and whether it'll turn out to be worth the effort of getting that assortment of people together, and what I'll say, and what they'll say, so on. This is all about this pivotal moment.

If the answer to all of those questions isn't immediately obvious and positive, then the game's lost me. The riskier it seems, the less likely I am to take on myself the effort and responsibility.

Midsummer Wood is self-limiting. You read that game, and you immediately know whether you have the particular three friends you need in order to play it. And if you don't have those particular three friends, it doesn't matter how much you like the game or want to play it, you don't get to.

Make sense?


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9. On 2014-05-26, Tim Ralphs said:

Very interesting! Do you imagine this shaping your design decisions in the future?


10. On 2014-05-26, Vincent said:

Tim: Not really! I mean, everything always shapes my design decisions, but what I really see it shaping is my publication decisions.  It's been shaping them for a while, in fact, since Rock of Tahamaat or before.


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11. On 2014-05-27, David Berg said:

Nice!  I like that way of putting it—"the crucial moment".  I'm always staggering through that with my local group—I look at a game, get excited, want to play it, but then it becomes clear to me that either my friends won't be interested, or that getting them interested would take too much work on my part. 

Sometimes it's because I can't quickly get a handle on all the rules and take that burden off the players.  Other times it's because the player responsibilities are outside my friends' comfort zone.  Then there are the games whose appeal is more procedural than fictional—"check this neat dice mechanic" is a perfect way to pitch a game to me, but my friends care more about "What's the genre, what's the setting, and who do I get to play?"

The games that succeed have to pass the following checkpoints in roughly this order:
1) Pitch—what's this game's unique identifier?
2) Genre?
3) Setting?
4) What character do I play?
5) What does my character do?
6) What mechanics do I use?
7) How many sessions, and how much commitment to attend, are required?
8) Is there another game I want to play more?

So, as facilitator, I need to have reasonable confidence about getting through this list before I'll pitch a game.  Similarity to what's worked before definitely breeds confidence.  That's frustrating for a neophile like myself, but it's what I have to work with.

I'm not sure how typical my group's preferences are, but one takeaway might be that, if there's a game which answers those 8 questions quickly and clearly in language that I can borrow when pitching it, then that game has a massive leg up on other games that lack those qualities.  Beyond that, I dunno—"make settings, characters, situations and mechanics that people want to play with", I guess.


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12. On 2014-05-29, alan said:

Interesting to contemplate why complexity helps sell.

Here (Scotland) most games are long campaigns, so a game won't generally get a look in unless I can be confident that it will run 6-12 sessions with plenty of scope for development and change during that.

There are exceptions during events like conventions, but those are 'trying a game out' not really playing it.

Games require depth to last for a reasonable number of sessions, that depth can come from players but that is unreliable (not everyone is on best form every day), so it is useful for the game to provide a substantial quantity of content.

As such, mini games like sundered land don't provide enough material to inspire confidence that they have the depth to last. The oracles in IAWA (particularly with all the fan ones) made up for the very simple, spartan rules content - the explicitly PVP nature also reduced the content burden on the GM.

To me, the thing that would make really minimal rules sets appealing for running a campaign would be strong content generation tools - things for helping to create a situation/session, to make things persist across sessions and such.


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13. On 2014-05-31, Josh W said:

That idea "the goal is to beat lonely fun" is an interesting one:

Do we want to encourage people to play with other people? Do we want people to use our rules in full rather than in part?

I mean, I could see myself making a game where the goal is to get people to start doing lonely fun, in such a way that their lonely fun can later be linked together in g+ games when they reach a critical mass; a game specifically designed for that thing where people go away and design a character and bring it fully formed to the table, but perhaps focused not just on characters, but on parts of the world, and leaving just the right gaps and flags so that you know how to put them together.


14. On 2014-06-02, PaulCzege said:

Josh, it's not that you have to just beat lonely fun. You have to beat Netflix, and reality TV, and going to the pool, or for a bike ride, or doing the laundry, or anything else a person might be doing. If you can't beat everything else, so your game is the most important thing for the play group in that moment, then it doesn't get played.


15. On 2014-06-03, Vincent said:

With Paul.

Also with Josh and Chris, above, "lonely fun" may not be an enemy at all. When I want the reader to come to own and take responsibility for the game, lonely fun might be an important part of the process.


16. On 2014-06-04, Chris said:

Yeah lonely fun is a benefit, but it's a bell curve. There's a sweet spot.


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17. On 2014-06-12, Matt Wilson said:

I like the human race a little more knowing that "you play a stupid young kid with a bible and a gun and you're let loose in the American west to solve problems" got so many people to that crucial point.

Or do I?


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