Chatty’s Mailbag: Launching your own RPG

Earlier this week I got an email question that made me ponder the realities of publishing one’s own RPG in this already flooded niche market. Here’s our friend’s question:

Hey Phil, I’m finishing up development of my first RPG system, and plan to publish it on RPGnow.com in a couple month’s time. I have been trying to generate excitement and exposure for what I feel is a unique system, but even through twitter, facebook, emails, and the lot, I don’t feel that the game will be played by many (if few).

(Snipping part about finances because I know nothing about that)
So, my question is, are there any ways you can recommend gaining exposure for my game? I want people to play it, and take it seriously, but I’m just afraid that it’ll slip by as another tactical combat RPG that no one cares about.

I’m really touched that people value my opinion enough to ask me such huge questions.  I’m no industry muggle, just a blogger turned freelance writer who made some friends on the RPG circuit.  I appreciate the trust, but take my advice with the proverbial grain of salt.

So for that reader and all those thinking about releasing their own RPG one day, here’s what I gathered from hanging out with and playing the games of some successful Indies.

I think that for a new game to burst out on the Indy scene requires very similar ingredients to those that Malcolm Gladwell attributes to highly successful people in his Outliers book.

It starts by the game requiring it to fill a specific set of RPG Needs that are currently in demand while being original enough not to fade out when compared to other games that cater to the same needs.  People who play it with you and in demos at conventions need to see what it’s about fast and get what it does better than the other games of its category.

They need to experience it, they don’t need to be TOLD about it.

Secondly, it needs a TON of luck in getting in the hands of the right people at the right time.  Luke Crane, (then a relative 20-something unknown designer) overcame his shyness and got his game (Burning Wheel) in the hands of Ken Hite at just the right time and got it named best RPG of the year.  You need to seek such lucky breaks through hard work and networking like crazy.

Third, you as a designer need to start to build yourself a fan base to help push your game/brand.  You need to get your face out there and shill your game in the best possible way: Get people to play it by demoing it many many many times…Crane, Vincent Baker, Jared Sorenson,  all spend countless hours each years at Cons doing nothing but playing demos and hawking their games while answering questions.  You need to do that too.

You also need to start mastering the realities of Web 2.0 and make online tools available for your fan base to grow and build itself up around you and your game (both are somewhat indistiguishable early in a successful designer’s career).

That leads me to a related point, you need to spend countless hours interacting with that community to playtest the SHIT out of your game.  It needs to be broken beyond belief and rebuilt from the pieces so that the game can stand shoulder to shoulder with the very high quality stuff resting on the shelves of game and PDF stores.

We are in a new age of game design and the bar is set very high.  Thus, scout your competition and always strive to tyweak your game to deliver the best experience it was designed to address.

Finally, as a designer, you need to project the mother of all in your face, fearless attitudes.  You need that to constantly shamelessly and obsessively hawk your game, be its strongest advocate and staying above the petty insults and recriminations that online trolls and the Indie community itself will fling.

You need to walk to people and put copies of the game in thier hands and tell them, straight to their face… “this game is the Shits, I made it and it fucking rocks, I know because I spent a gazzillion hours playing it and I still have fun playing it”

(Your actual language and millage may vary).

That, I think are the ingredients to making your game a success.  It goes beyond slipping PDFs to bloggers (they won’t read it) or hoping to get noticed in the sludge pile that are the online RPG stores.

Creating and tweaking the game, as hard as it was, is, I think, only half the work, countless gamers have done it. Pushing the game in the hands of the gamers it was designed for is where the real work starts.

Your turn now

That was my take on it… anyone wants to chime in?  The mic is open!

Comments

  1. EnsignExpendable says:

    I think this was assumed by Chatty but it might be worth making explicit.

    You have spent a gazzillion hours playing your game haven’t you? You spend every spare hour playing it with friends, spouses, offspring? Even if you didn’t sell one pdf you would still play it and develop it more (just not as much as if you were being paid, we know you don’t have infinite resources)?

    If the answer is not then the rest of the ideas above probably aren’t going to work. Why would anyone else be passionate about your game if you’re not? I think that you would have to be completely soul less to be able to put as much in to the selling of your game as is required without really loving playing it.

    Of course I’m not a game designer. For all I know they are all soul less (for the games I play, it doesn’t seem like it though) 😉

  2. As a consumer, I need to hear someone who didn’t design the game, talk about your game. Taking it to Cons to get people to demo it is great. Then people will play it and talk about it, or post about it. However, allot of the people I want to hear about this from are probably going to be too busy at your con to play your game.

    My best suggestion is to give the game away. Not to just anyone, but to the sites that talk about games. It better be good and done when you do this mind you, because they’re going to talk about the bad stuff too.

    If a site I follow recommendeds a game, I’m much more likely to buy it.

  3. Anyone interested in designing and launching an RPG, or any sort of gaming product in fact, would be well advised to look into Gamer Lifestyle at http://gamer-lifestyle.com/

    The help and experience that Yax and Johnn provide are invaluable, and having signed up over a year ago, I am now on my way with several projects of my own, including DVOID Systems and our D-Jumpers series, which has been on sale for three months now.

    Add in a vibrant community that will help you not matter what your gaming project will be, and this is a good way to start out, particularly if you are considering self-publishing and joining the growing ranks of indie press out there.

    All of the points mentioned above are covered extensively, and there is even live coaching and hands-on help if you require it, all for a single lifetime membership. However, you do not need to be a member to enjoy the benefits of Gamer Lifestyle, as their designing and publishing forums are free, so you can hook up with others who are in the same place you are, even if you don’t feel like you need coaching.

    I cannot say any more of just how good this service is, and I salute Yax and Johnn for their efforts. This is an ideal way to cultivate new talent for the industry, without having them forced to compete through avenues like Paizo’s RPG Superstar or Article Writing which simply may not suit their style. There’s lots of different ways to make a living from the Gamer Lifestyle, and if gaming is your life, this is definately something every would-be future designer and publisher should look into.

    The only thing it is missing is more backing from existing professionals and companies, that would allow it to go from the simple idea it is now, to the basis of a fully-fledged academic course on games design and publishing which it really deserves to be. But that is hopefully coming, as even the Gamer Lifestyle is having to change and adapt with the changes in the industry, as new ideas and new business models are discovered and explored.

  4. @Ensign: It goes without saying. Good hint.

    @Brian: The thing is, just dropping free copies has shown not to work by itself. I myself have tons of free review copies of stuff I just don’t have the time to look. I need people to point to me and tell me “Look at this, it’s AWESOME”. You are entirely right though that hearing buzz about the game from people outside the designer’s circle is primordial… creating that buzz is where the hard work reside.

    So I’d suggest giving copies of a game as a prize to one participant AFTER a con demo or something.

    @Da’Vane: Wow, I’m sure Yax will be rejoiced when he reads your comment (he often lurks and comments here). I was at ground Zero when he told me about the Gamer Lifestyle project and I’m REALLY happy to see it work and bring in happy participants.

  5. @Chatty Oh no, I’m not suggesting giving your game/book/etc away at cons to anyone who comes to your demo. People getting the chance to play your game at the con may be enough to get them to talk about it, and I don’t imagine giving them the game afterwords would really increase these chances.

    What I’m suggesting is that the best way to increase visibility (to a person like me) is to get your game into the hands of someone who already has an audience. These people may not be accessible in person, so thats what promo copies are for. Sending your game to the Chatty DM is not a guarnatee that he’ll blog about it, but if there’s no solid buzz yet it may be the only way to get him to see it.

  6. Chris Urinko says:

    Thanks for the article. It is a very accurate portrayal of the difficulties I am going through with my own game, Battlejack. It just confirms that my gambling RPG needs to make an appearance at NeonCon at least this year.

  7. @Battlejack: Thanks. And yes, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun, it would stack the odds in your game’s favour. Plus the Neon con peeps are cool! I wish I could afford to go!

  8. @Brian is correct. As someone who is currently doing this very thing, most gamers will not listen to you talk about your own game unless you already a “big name” in the industry. I talk about Untold ALL THE TIME and most folks will tell me flat out that they think I’m full of it; most sane folks would have shut up by now. However, if someone within a gamer’s peer group starts talking about how awesome a new indy game is, then everything changes.

    As such, I would adhere to Brian’s words and put your game into the hands of folks who will play it, review it, demo it, or talk about it, otherwise, Chatty (as usual) is SPOT ON. It’s a hard thing to market your own game if your an indy, and you’d better be prepared for all sorts of undeserved venom. However, there’s nothing better than seeing folks playing YOUR game as you leave the con… 😉

    Brannon “Ashy” Hollingsworth
    Untold Co-Creator
    http://www.untoldthegame.com

  9. As someone right in the middle of launching there first RPG, I can say Chatty’s advice is spot on.

    You have got to play test and demo the game the to hell until it works. Only once you’ve got the core concept nailed can you think about writing the actual book.

    I’ve had people hand me their 200+ page Lulu printed book complete with artwork who tell me they plan to start play testing it next week. Their products are destined to disappear because play testing is not about polishing an existing product, it is core to creating something exciting and new.

    Play testing is also part of the marketing and networking process. I’ve found collecting player feed back and email address at the end of each demo a really effective way of generating interest. See http://6d6fireball.com/rpg/6d6-rpg-collecting-player-feadback/ for more about my approach.

    Chatty didn’t mention it, but I recommend blogging as well.

    Being able to write about how the product is going, how the successes and failures, is part of building a fan base. People need to see how much work you’ve put into the product and see it grow. It also gives great networking opportunities via the RPG Bloggers network.

    The bottom line is that the success of your product has nothing to do with the physical book. It all comes down to the amount of time spent play testing, marketing, networking and hawking it.

    As the the saying goes, “The hard you work, the luckier you get”.

  10. @Chatty: Yax and Johnn both know how keen I am in my support for the Gamer Lifestyle project – I work with them both quite often, and only just missed out on becoming a part of the project myself when they were hiring a relationist. Thanks to them, I’ve done more in the past year with DVOID Systems than I’ve done in the previous NINE on my own. They really filled in a missing link for me – the technical business expertise to put my skills to work in a professional environment of self-employment.

    Essentially, what you’ve put in your excellent article, they’ve put into a five module course with helpful examples, walthroughs, links, and resources, hands on helps, and so on. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say you were stealing their material! Just goes to show that great minds DO think alike. 😀

  11. Ashy’s (and by extension Brian’s original) point is certainly a most valid addition to my list of “gut feeling” advice. As one of the web-famous RPG advocates, I have come to realize the influence that goes with what I say and do about games. Yet I have not had the presumption to flat out ask if any of my musings about Indie games impacted their sales number.

    I have witnessed people buying games because I had them in my hands at Gen Con… THAT was a weird feeling.

    So yeah, get champions for your products… both as you grow your fan base and from “recognized” industry peeps. That’s all part of the “luck” for your games.

    But here’s my personal spin on that… the most powerful way a blogger/ “respected industry person” can help you is to become a fan of your game. A review is good… but it remains neutral and can get lost if fails to catch the eye of the reader or if the reviewer stays factual.

    An enthusiastic play report… that’s another ball game. The trick/luck is to find that spark that will change the blogger’s view from the neutral “I’ll review that” to a potential fan’s “Oh man, I GOT to play that”.

    And yes man, Untold is one of those two “must look at”‘ along with John Arcadian’s Silvervine. 🙂

  12. @Da’Vane: Thanks for the kind words.

    We offer have a 75 pages free e-book you can download at http://gamer-lifestyle.com – it does a good job of outlining the big picture strategy we recommend for aspiring self-publishers. It also provides inspirational bits as well as warnings about potential pitfalls.

    @Ashy: It speaks volumes about how difficult it is to get noticed because your game is genuinely different than other RPGs. You have a completely new angle and yet people don’t necessarily pay attention. I think the first 100 fans are the toughest to get, then it’s pretty slow going until fan #1,000. After that, it gets much easier to get more people on board.

    @Phil: Critical Hits is my favorite lurking stop – you guys rock!

  13. This entire post can be summed up by the steps to publishing as pushed by JA Konrath. Simply put:

    Make the best product you can possibly make.
    Make sure you’re passionate and trying to sell it.
    Luck.

    Unfortunately, you only control two of those steps. Hard work, and making the best damn game you can make are king high of the indie RPG world, and luck favors the prepared, so be prepared.

    And if you want my personal insights, I’m applying the formulas used in the fiction publishing world to my RPG design, which is worthless for craft, but the business isn’t that different.

    http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/
    http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/
    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

    These three resources have been a wealth of information for me. They’re all great people, with very different experiences in the publishing world. Hope this helps.

  14. Just to state the obvious…. I bought Mouseguard, Dread and Apocalypse World because I heard about them here. I got Esoterrorists despite it being negatively described on the Alexandrian. So yes there is some influence. The crucial thing any potential customer is asking himself is “will I enjoy playing/running this?” Reading or seeing how a game actually went is crucial. Drilling down into point four above I would recommend podcastsand youtube as ways of giving people a window into what kind of experience the game supplies: Penny Arcade did WotC a lot of good in their podcasted Keep on the Shadowfell, it made D&D into a cool adult experience. The playtests on this blog give a strong flavour of the game too.

    Also do some thinking about who will play your game: how old are they, how geeky, how familiar with RPG tropes and mechanics? How will they get to grips with your product?

    Launching any creative endeavour is a courageous act and requires (as Chatty says) persistence and unwavering commitment: most of us do not dare to do it.

  15. @Chatty and @Yax – thanks so much for your kind words; I cannot express to you how much they mean. It’s really, really hard almost always having to eat hate and then crap sunshine – words like yours are tasty nuggets of rainbows. 😉

    Brannon “Ashy” Hollingsworth
    Untold Co-Creator
    http://www.untoldthegame.com

  16. EnsignExpendable says:

    @battlejack. I can’t find much information on your game from google. Do you have a link to an introduction to it or a sneak peak pdf? The few hints you gave here and on your twitter account sound interesting.

  17. Chris Urinko says:

    EnsignExpendable,

    Thanks, there do not seem to be very many gambling oriented PvP RPG games out there as far as I know of. Hopefully there is a niche for it. Thanks for the comment and look for more details from me on twitter @Battljeack about Battlejack.

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