Publishers have taken to heart the lesson that buzz sells. If this had no effect beyond achieving greater sales, I would say “kudos” to the publishers. Instead, I am writing this article.
The problem is that many—dare I say most?—publishers take a rather simplistic view to the generation of buzz. The thinking to be something like “The bigger the event, the bigger the buzz.” This leads, inevitably, to the idea that the product should debut at the largest possible event, probably GenCon or Essen.
The effects that this has on the gaming industry are myriad, and many of them deserve some thoughtful consideration. For now there is only one I want to pay attention to, though. Many games get rushed to completion in order to be ready “on time” for release at a large event, rather than staying in development until it is as ready as its publisher can make it.
Underdeveloped is something of a buzzword in the world of boardgame criticism. It is a stage of the development process, but it also a mixture of an objective and subjective quality. It is more common for games from small publishers to be underdeveloped, although large companies are not immune, and not all small press games are released partially cooked. Games at this stage of development are playable, but have inconspicuous but serious balance issues (Saint Petersburg, Twilight Imperium) or inelegancies that are annoying to the point of distraction (despite their incredible popularity, I and many others put Reef Encounter and Caylus in this category). The first modern boardgame I encountered that felt underdeveloped to me was Power Grid. 2F-Spiele, Power Grid’s publisher, is highly regarded, but it is essentially a one man shop.
After GenCon 2006, a similar discussion has begun in the indie RPG community [EDIT: this post at Thomas Robertson's blog Musings and Mental Meanserings is also part of the discussion, and played a large part in getting me to write this post], while traditional RPGs have always suffered from the same problem. Cynics have always accused companies of deliberately releasing flawed RPGs in order to have an excuse for a Second (and Third, etc.) Edition cash grab. I suspect that playtesting an old school, complex RPG like Shadowrun or D&D 3.x enough to ensure absolute balance would bankrupt a company, though.
The problem is that many companies have enough trouble getting a game through this phase to being properly and fully developed even without time pressure. When a company adopts an “Essen (or GenCon) or bust!” attitude, the balance of priorities shifts decisively toward getting the game out the door if it is even superficially playable. In this atmosphere, any game that experiences hiccups during development is liable to be skating the edge of underdevelopment. In the heat of deadline, mistakes that might be spotted under calmer conditions can slip through, and scheduling that last round of playtesting that could make all of the difference is quite impossible. As a result, developers have to rely on their judgment and experience to determine that a game has no serious problems.
The upshot of this is that some games, seemingly an increasing number, that are slated for release at a major gaming event have real problems. As a consumer, I find this to be a serious problem. I have to ask, is the dropoff in buzz potential from Essen or GenCon versus a second-tier event like KublaCon or BGG.con that great? How about when you consider that anything new at one of the majors will be just one product out of hundreds fighting for piece of the finite pool of available buzz? At another, slightly smaller, event, the competition will be much less, while the number of attendees is still enough to build significant word–of–mouth. Perhaps, if a company feels a game isn’t quite there yet, they can hold it over for one of these other events, giving the game enough time to reach its potential.
Or maybe I’m missing something important. Maybe I’m living in a dreamworld.