Linnaeus

Do Mega-Conventions Hurt Game Quality?

In boardgames, game design, role-playing games on August 29th, 2006 at 10:45 pm

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.

(Ironically, it was a comment by Chris Farrell on Brian Bankler’s blog about the more or less mainstream RPG Iron Heroes that first spurred me to think seriously about this issue.)

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.

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  1. You’re definitly not living in a dreamworld. I don’t know much about board games and that community, but I will point definitively towards Brennan Taylor’s RPG Mortal Coil. He released it at Origins, a month and half before Gen Con, and then played the hell out of it at DexCon, a month prior. Both of these got the word out about the game and generated reviews and AP posts that made the game a hot commidity at Gen Con – he recently posted that he sold 60 copies, putting it in the top 10 Forge booth sellers, with people coming to the booth just to pick it up.
    I know that I personally will be aiming for pre-Gen Con releases with my future products.

  2. 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.
    At least with Shadowrun, the releases are many years apart. D&D 3E and D&D 3.5E were what — about two years apart? You have to admit that it seemed a bit fishy … that maybe WotC was using its customers to do a big final playtest on 3rd edition D&D.

    I’m pretty sure there was a blog entry a couple of years back (by Monte Cook? I don’t remember for sure) that stated that the release of 3.5E had been planned prior to the release of 3E.

    But I’m just cynical. ;)

  3. I would have to imagine that GenCon and Essen are just too important for a lot of these companies. For the smaller outfits, they’re the only way to get their games in front of hobbyists and make a name for themselves. For the larger companies, they’re the only opportunity to get their games in front of the general public, which is very important to them; industry folks have repeatedly said that the hobbyists that you find at BGG only represent a small fraction of the sales of a game, and they need a certain amount of steady cash flow to afford nice bits and letterhead.

    In both of these cases, I think the question is not so much “do I release at Essen or some other convention?” as it is “do I release it at Essen or sit on it for a year?” Given that, you can understand why some games come to the party with their fly open.

    Another thing to consider is that not every game company cares about making games that are up to the high standards of hobbyists. Suppose you had it in your mind that you’d like to produce wine–you’re not an expert but you think it might be fun–and, after giving it your best shot, you offered the result to an aficionado, who said “well, this would get a pretty mediocre rating among connoisseurs, but it’s not horrible, and you have a snazzy label, and that type of wine is very popular right now, so there is a chance that you might be able to sell a few bottles to the general public.” Would you put it on the shelf?

    Anyway, it’s all just another reason to appreciate (i.e., patronize) the companies that do consistently put out high-quality gamer’s games.

  4. Chris,

    I don’t think 3.5 was planned before the release of 3.0, but I don’t think it took them long after release to decide it was necessary. Even Monte admits that they screwed a few things up noticably with 3.0, kind of in line with what I was saying about it being impossible to adequately playtest.

    Joe,

    Maybe I’m missing something, but aren’t you just restating the same argument that I’m questioning?

    It seems to me that a launch at DragonCon or KublaCon could garner a lot more attention, just because there is scads less competition for new release buzz, while still having a large enough number of attendees to generate a real word of mouth lift.

  5. We’re both acknowledging that games are published prematurely because of the desire to have the release coincide with Essen or Gencon. You’re asking “wouldn’t it be just as well to release the game at some other time of the year?” I’m speculating that for most publishers the answer is “no, it wouldn’t.”

  6. After thinking about this a bit, I’ll meet you part way, Joe.

    For independant European (as in based in Europe) boardgame publishers, it really is “Essen or bust.” There are no minor European boardgaming conventions analogous to, say, KublaCon. Even SpellenSpektakel is basically a Dutch rerun of Essen, except with a lot fewer small publishers. Thus, even for games targetted squarely at hobby gamers rather than the general public, there is no “plan B.”

    For a large European publisher, I would argue that holding off until Nürnberg is a practical option. alea never has a new release at Essen, just a prototype of a coming release, and they don’t seem to suffer from poor sales any more than any other publisher. Most of the majors have enough coming out that one delayed game wouldn’t be the end of their Essen buzz, either.

    As for RPGs, I am still convinced that allowing a game (or other product) that needs more development to wait until one of the “mid-majors” is completely viable. Damn few RPG publishers (for better or worse) see mainstream America as more than a tiny sliver of their target market, with the major exception of products using a major media license like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. If you have such a license, then, yes, getting to GenCon with your product is probably important.

    I would put North American hobby boardgame publishers like Fantasy Flight or Z-Man in the same boat as RPG publishers. They live mostly in the geek echo chamber, and even though BGGers may only represent a fraction of their sales, gamers of some flavour almost certainly do not. Buzz from Dragon*Con will get where it needs to go — gamers and game stores.

  7. Although the circumstances are decidedly different, for next year the video game industry pretty much decided to eliminate E3. Apart from the ludicrous expenses involved, one of the reasons mentioned was that developers had to plan their development cycles around E3, and if at all possible bust their asses to get playable demos ready in time. Of course, the more direct analogy would be to the holiday season; way too many video games get rushed and are released in a flawed form so they can come out in time for Black Friday. This is the sort of thing Greg Costikyan rants about in his blog. :P

    For the games I’m working on myself, I sure as hell plan to give them all the time they need. If I’m going to invest the kind of time and money it would take to go to GenCon and have a booth there, perfecting whatever I plan on hawking there will be an obsession. Of course, the fact that I’ve never gone to GenCon Indy probably plays a role in why I don’t think of it as being worth rushing a game for. I have no less than three decent-sized gaming cons in driving distance too.

  8. I have no international cons in driving distance. If I make it to a convention myself, I want the game to be ready.

    Then again, if I don’t make it to cons, I don’t care about them.

    Last, I’m currently working on a game, I hope to release it February-March 2007, this gives time for buzz to build till GenCon, for last few errors to be found(I’m being practical here) which would go well with only selling PDFs in the beginning.
    It also gives me a lot of “mistake-time”, so sure, the game is designed to hit the streets on March, but if it doesn’t, I have 5 months to fix things for GenCon.

    And if things still need fixing, you can bet your teeth that things will get fixed.

    I agree with Ewen I guess. Not caring is a great solution.

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