There has been talk on the online roleplaying community (i.e. G+) lately about how we signal that games are to be taken seriously. As creators we want our games to be played and to have this happen we need to get them in the hands and brains of their potential audience. How do we tell that audience that our game is worth their time?
I think that all of the factors in signaling the worthiness of a game can be broken down into two components: reputation and effort.
Reputation is the easy one to discuss. If you’ve already made games that have been taken seriously it is more likely that your next game will also be taken seriously. Getting to that point is hard, but its effect is obvious. Some of the benefits of reputation can be gained by associating your game with those who already have reputation, either by getting a pull quote from them, having them post an actual play of the game, or recruiting them to write a chapter, playset, character class, etc. Still, this marker of seriousness is hard to obtain and exploring how to will likely result in some circular reasoning rather quickly (e.g. write good games so people will know your games are good).
Effort is the component that you can actually do something about. It is also the more nebulous component, and in fact, I feel the need to clarify it to visible effort. If I’ve worked on a game for three years I have clearly taken it seriously, but if none of that effort comes across to potential consumers it cannot affect their decision.
Here is my rule of thumb regarding effort (or apparent lack thereof):
Anything that makes it look like you’ve just dumped your game into the world without a thought or plan is hindering it from being taken seriously.
There are five* markers for effort put into a game. If I were to rank these in order of importance it would look like this:
*I’m lying, there are 6. Shhhhh.
The marker for effort that is the easiest to see (and the one I bang my head against most often) is length. Long games show more effort – and it’s important to note I mean effort and not quality. Long games are as likely to be lousy as short games, but they show the author was dedicated and put time into the project and signal that maybe you should, too.
However, I think the signal has led to games with lots of unnecessary filler and vestigial limbs. I have seen many games that should be 20 pages balloon out to 200 pages with setting and background and reference and optional rules that I do not need or want.
This kind of length also, ironically enough, makes a game less likely to get to the table as it requires more of a pre-game investment.
This is one of the reasons I love short games – but short games are also the games most likely to not have had effort put into them! As such, they need as many of the other indicators going for them as possible.
Art and layout are vital to a short game. Both show you care enough to invest extra time or money into the project and also make the game more accessible to its audience. A contra-example of this is Graham W’s game Marinara. This is an incredibly brilliant game that uses food as a bridge to family and feelings. It is, without a doubt, the best of the admittedly few LARPS I have played. But it’s presented as a Google Doc and as such does not have the look of a polished and finalized piece – which is what it clearly is in play. Art and layout would help indicate to the audience that this is a game that should be taken seriously even though these elements would not impact the experience of playing the game one bit.
Art can be such a powerful tool of persuasion that I have backed games on Kickstarter almost entirely based on their art. But this can be a double edged sword if the game arrives and does not prove as praiseworthy as its art.
Another important indicator for a short game is visibility. You need to get your game out there. Run it everywhere you can. Get your friends to run it for you. Ask people to interview you about it. Send beta copies out to wherever you read your RPG reviews. Not all of these are possible for all people and all games, but that’s okay as you don’t have to be doing all of them. But you do need to make sure you do the ones that you can as often as you can. It might be a pain and it might take time, but it indicates that you value your game and that others should as well.
Having the game released via Kickstarter is related to, but separate from cost. Putting a (good) Kickstarter together is work, and doing that work shows you’re passionate about your game. Again, this may indicate quality or it may not. I have backed enough duds of Kickstarters to know the correlation is not one-to-one. But I do think it’s a stronger indicator of seriousness than just putting the product up for sale on DrivethruRPG.
Cost is perhaps the wonkiest of all the indicators. It shows that you’re confident enough in your product to ask people to pay money for it, but that confidence could be based on effort and resulting quality or any number of unrelated factors. In other words, it could be misplaced confidence or some manner of hubris. Thus cost is probably the least effective indicator listed here. (And setting an appropriate cost is a whole separate matter).
There is also one other potential indicator that I left off my list above (and lied to you about) as a wildcard: additional components. This could mean your game is presented on cards, comes as a scout book, is on a scroll, has a companion app, has custom dice/tokens/makers/etc. All of these show additional effort, care, and enthusiasm has gone into the project. They don’t mean that it’s a good game, but they probably mean that you think it’s a good game. I left this indicator off the list as I think its effect varies widely depending on the application and how it melds with the game itself. I could release any game as a set of cards, but certainly not all games would benefit – and some would likely suffer – from this treatment.
As an end note, I feel I should clarify that I am not advocating anyone doing these things. This piece is written from a descriptive rather than prescriptive viewpoint. Adding these components won’t (necessarily) make your game a better game, but in my experience doing so will make your game one that people are more likely – rightly or wrongly – to take seriously.