Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exponential Game Growth (Part II)

The coming of the “Internet Age” further encouraged the already exponential growth in the gaming field and changed the way gamers enjoy their hobby. The internet increased the number of publishers of all calibers and backgrounds, the number of gamers and the ways they interact, and the number and varied quality of games available. It provides consumers many different ways to acquire games beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar hobby stores and mail-order catalogs.
The internet expanded the scope of games in numerous ways. It brought many key innovations to game production and distribution as well as the way gamers interact on all levels. They parallel the general changes the internet brought to everyday life in other areas that we often take for granted on a daily basis. This is in no way a comprehensive examination of these factors, but a general overview of the ways gaming has changed over the years.
Information Dissemination
The internet serves primarily to disseminate information, not simply from publishers to consumers, but among gamers themselves. Gone are the days of print catalogs and newsletters; today anyone with a website uses it as a promotional tool, from game companies and conventions to enthusiastic fans and gaming clubs. Publisher websites, blogs, news sites, and social networking sites help spread the word about the latest releases, events, debates, trends, and other relevant issues. Company websites function as their primary marketing tool, a central location for official publisher news and supplements, rules downloads, and fan discussions. Few businesses could survive and succeed today without some kind of web presence to support and promote its activities. (Many theorize, and I agree with them, that West End Games’ lack of an official web presence in the late 1990s contributed to its financial demise, especially when other game companies were starting to use the internet as a promotional tool to reach tech-savvy consumers.) In many cases fan-produced sites compiling news, fostering online discussion, and hosting files with scenarios, rules supplements, and other resources offer a gathering place where fans can engage their enthusiasm for a particular game or aspect of the gaming hobby, further reinforcing the corporate online presence.
(Most of the subsequent categories below fall under the broad description of “information dissemination,” but they have more specific and interactive qualities).
Example: Back in the 1980s, if I wanted to find out what products a particular company was releasing next, I’d have to wait for my monthly copy of Dragon Magazine to check out the ads or the occasional column on new releases (which disappeared as the publication increasingly focused editorial content on TSR games). Today I simply surf on over to the company website and check out its new releases, assuming I haven’t already registered with the site to automatically receive updates.
The internet also serves as a vast repository for resources people can download, print, and use away from their computer (though mobile phones and tablet devices can bring these resources to the gaming table). Most of these take the form of PDF publications, though some simply reside on web pages with limited print formatting, or download as MS-Word documents. This content includes game rules, variants, entire print-and-play board games and accessories, cardstock miniature soldiers, some as free downloads and some as paid. Whether officially released from the company producing the game or published by inspired fans, these materials further enhance the game experience, maintain interest in a particular game, and encourage continued play, even after a game passes into the realm of “dead games” with no official corporate support. Aside from making current print releases available as PDFs to purchase, many companies turn old print materials in their archive into PDFs to satisfy customers’ nostalgic urges.
Example: Back in the late 1980s, Steve Jackson Games released a free quick-start version of its Car Wars games; Mini Car Wars was a six-page, tri-fold piece measuring 8.5 x 11 inches, in full color, featuring the rules plus counters one could cut out and mount for roads, cars, wrecks, and obstacles. I don’t remember where I noticed the advertisement for it -- probably Dragon Magazine -- but I dutifully sent my dollar and self-addressed, stamped envelope and received it a few weeks later in what we would call today “snail mail.” Today we’d search the internet for a free Car Wars quick-start rules (found at the Steve Jackson Games e23 website), purchase, download and print them, and be done with it all in about five minutes; and this version, still $1, includes “scans of the vital components re-orientated to allow for easier printing.”
With greater dissemination of resources comes a new means of publication, especially for independent game designers offering their works free or paid, through downloaded PDFs. No longer must aspiring, fan, amateur, or even professional game designers rely on publishing houses with limited budgets, mercurial editors, ulterior ambitions, and other quirky personalities standing in the way of an individual producing his dream gaming project. The ability to create and distribute PDF game publications -- from roleplaying games, supplements, and scenarios to print-and-play board, card, and war games, even miniatures games with printable armies and terrain -- has lowered the financial threshold for producing a game. Granted, this removes some degree of professional vetting, editing, production value, and distribution, but also eliminates the necessary financial limitations of producing printed product. Thus consumers must wade through a great torrent of material, much of it mediocre and otherwise sub-par, to find the true gems; but PDF publishing enabled the talented creators of those gems to share their work with a wider audience in a field where, traditionally, their creative vision might not have found a more demanding corporate sponsorship.
Would such innovative games like Risus: The Anything RPG, MiniSix, and Old School Hack ever reached physical book publication and bookstore distribution through the upper tiers of game industry publishing houses? Would resources for personal play and in-school use like Junior General be so accessible to a broad audience?
Although I personally wouldn’t advocate gamers solely taking advantage of the myriad of free game resources on the web, one could conceivably spend the rest of one’s life playing free games of numerous kinds all downloaded from the internet. Note that I’m not advocating only playing free games; the Friendly Local Gaming Store still serves as the focal point not simply for perusal and purchase for games and game-related supplies but as a community hub for gaming activities.
Example: In high school I immersed myself in Dungeons & Dragons; as an offshoot, I created my own gaming newsletter (in flattering emulation of the venerable Dragon Magazine) with a typewriter and some original line art. As it was, I photocopied my magazine and sold it for a quarter to friends, fellow high school kids who shared my gaming geekery. Today I’d produce it with desktop publishing tools, PDF it, and upload it to my website, then promote it through various online networking venues for distribution through the internet to readers across the globe.
The internet brings together the greater gaming community at various levels. Where once we had to rely on meeting and interacting with gamers at the Friendly Local Gaming Store, rare library gaming programs, and extended circles of friends (usually through school), now we simply have to look online for a variety of interactions: finding new gamers in our area, discussing news in the industry, finding and connecting with area conventions, getting advice on rules and gamemastering, floating or sharing ideas for new mechanics or scenarios.
Publisher websites often host forums where fans can discuss all aspects of their favorite games with input from the designers. Fan websites like RPG.net and BoardGameGeek not only offer messageboards for open questions and discussion, but host additional content from bloggers, reviewers, and other contributors. Some sites encourage creativity with game design contests featuring forums for posting progress reports, discussing individual game mechanics, and ultimately releasing new games to the community.
Example: In high school my gaming buddies consisted of a few geeky friends I’d made, and our extended circle gamed throughout our time in college. We mostly met as friends of friends who all enjoyed roleplaying games or the settings we played. Many years later I find myself in a relatively new community where I don’t know many people, and certainly haven’t met many in the normal course of things who care much for any games, let alone roleplaying games and high-end board games. So I frequently surf the website for the Friendly Local Gaming Store (alas, a 45-minute-drive away) to check the calendar and message boards. A little interaction there brought to light several people right in town who enjoy gaming, and led to a few meetings with another gaming couple who have a son close to our own son’s age.
High Production Values
Three factors -- additional gamer activity, the general growth in the gamer-consumer population, and the surge in innovative games -- have enabled several companies to release games with high price tags and correspondingly high production values. Many companies expanded and some emerged entirely dedicated to high-quality games described by a number of terms (Euro-games, family strategy games, “battle games”) that I’ll simply call high-end board games. It’s also encouraged the proliferation of new game forms, including battle games like Wings of War and Memoir ’44 with impressive visual components and “cooperative” games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island, where the players try beating the game itself, winning or losing together.
With price points a minimum of $20 and often as high as $60 (and some near $100, like the late NG International’s Battles of Napoleon), they’re extraordinary über-board games when compared to the usual fare one usually sees for traditional family board games; and an increase in the game consumer base and its buying power has enabled the market for these high-end games. With more involved gameplay and strategies, they offer a richer gaming experience and frequently higher replay value. Some, like battle games, come with multiple scenarios to play; gamers can often download additional ones by the game publisher or avid fans. Would these high-end board games been possible in the 1980s with limited production values and a gaming consumer base used to paying $6 for roleplaying game modules and $15 for the Dungeon Master’s Guide?
Example: In the Dawn of Roleplaying Milton Bradley released a host of “Gamemaster Series” games, huge boxed affairs with beautiful, oversized boards and hordes of plastic pieces for epic play (titles included Conquest of the Empire, Fortress America, Broadsides and Boarding Parties, Shogun -- recently released as Ikusa -- and the now-popular Axis & Allies). Their success remains debatable, but they didn’t reach the popularity of today’s games (at least until reworked to today’s standards). Now such games might fall into the category of “battle games,” though current versions employ terrain tiles, cards, and scenario books to extend the replay value. Other, non-battle-oriented games with similarly high-quality components have drawn in an audience from both the ranks of hard-core gamers and more casual consumers looking for a play experienced more advanced than traditional board games.
Online Play
The Internet Age also heralds a transition for some traditionally analog games to electronic formats, particularly board games. These aren’t computer, console, or other games designed exclusively for electronic play, but high-end board games initially produced with physical components ported to digital formats for play on computers, smart phones, and tablet devices. Some offer apps for personal devices, while others provide an online community where play occurs among people across the globe. Days of Wonder comes to mind as one of the pioneers of online play, with web versions of popular games like Memoir’44, Ticket to Ride, and Smallworld; no doubt other companies have expanded their menu of online games. Whether these constitute “computer games,” online “softboard” versions of board games, or some completely different construct is open to debate among the more academic-minded gamers (see Professor Scott Nicholson’s column on the subject). Other technologies have flourished on the internet, including computer mapping programs, character creation apps, solo board and story game interfaces, and even dice-rolling applications.
Example: The Dawn of Roleplaying was also the dawn of personal computing. Heck, I remember a neighborhood kid, who also incidentally introduced me to D&D, had a home computer with a cassette tape drive! Easy, affordable internet access was 10 years away, at least, and playing games on computers was limited to Atari console systems and very simple PC games with ASCII graphics. Today personal electronics are ubiquitous and used for everything at any time, especially playing games. Playing contemporary board games against other human opponents in an online community, however, remains a fairly recent development. I’ve toyed with trying Memoir ’44 online given my interest in World War II, but I just don’t have time.
Information Overload
While gamers can bask in a renaissance of our hobby through the internet, they can also become overwhelmed with the deluge of content: news and material from company websites, a proliferation of blogs on a host of gaming-related subjects, discussions on message boards, new product reviews, online communities devoted to specific games or genres. They all update periodically, some monthly, some irregularly, and many weekly or even daily. One could spend all day surfing the web, checking out regular haunts and seeking out new content. Many websites might claim to function as a central clearinghouse for content of a particular subject; but they’re not as focused or professionally vetted as old print periodicals, which used the editorial process both to select quality articles written by competent authors and sift through the vast “slush pile” of material to determine what out of that huge pile would capture reader interest.
Example: I used to look forward to receiving Dragon Magazine in the mail (or finding other gaming magazines at the Friendly Local Gaming Store), and I’d read it thoroughly for the articles, columns, letters, and news/ads about game company releases. Today I regularly check dozens of company websites, blogs, and online community forums to keep abreast of the changing gaming landscape. I download lots of free content that looks interesting, but rarely have any quality time (or the attention span) to sit down and absorb it all.
Further Issues
I’ve not expanded on many controversial issues raised by the internet’s role in the exponential growth of gaming: the lack of editorial and content quality control in the a low entry threshold to online PDF publishing; the plague of internet piracy on paid PDFs; the distribution of consumer dollars skewing toward online and PDF sales and away from sales at brick-and-mortar Friendly Local Gaming Stores; the trend to glue oneself to an electronic device to play with others on the internet instead of gathering at someone’s house for an afternoon of snack food and face-to-face gaming. Maybe they’re fodder for future missives here at Hobby Games Recce. Hopefully they encourage some discussion, further understanding, and subsequent positive changes in how we as gamers use the internet to promote and expand our hobby.