Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Non-Fiction Books about Gaming

After posting a rambling missive on two 20 year-old tomes about gaming – wherein I mentioned maintaining and building a small collection of non-fiction books about gaming – I thought I should offer a brief yet annotated catalog of titles in that collection, along with a few items on my “wish list” I hope to acquire. The list is far from complete or truly “academic.” It ambles around various styles and subjects according to my interest. Most remain far from a seriously scholarly bent.

As always, I welcome civilized discussion of this subject, particularly suggestions of interesting titles I’ve overlooked. Here are some of the “academic” works on my shelf, starting with the two featured in the previous blog post:

Heroic Worlds, by Lawrence Schick (Prometheus Books, 1991). As I mentioned in a previous feature, this book offers an interesting view into the state of the roleplaying game industry in 1990. Schick’s observations about game genres and individual game products remain invaluable to understanding and collecting materials of that period. The contributions from industry luminaries remain extremely enlightening even today.

The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them, by James F. Dunnigan (Quill 1992). Drawing on the author’s involvement as founder of Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), publisher of Strategy & Tactics magazine, and work as a prolific writer and game designer, this volume covers a host of wargame-relevant topics for both traditional board-and-chit wargames as well as their electronic interpretations. Lots of little gems in here, from the progression from history to game for a sample wargame to a brief history of the wargaming hobby.

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown (Penguin Group, 2009). Based on a TED talk Brown gave, Play provides a host of scientific observations on the beneficial power of play to develop intelligence and social integration. Watching the TED video covers most of the salient points, but I’m a fellow who likes to have his references in analog format rather than digital. The book offers far more in-depth material in an extremely readable style.

Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages, by Scott Nicholson (Information Today, Inc., 2010). I’m a fan of Professor Nicholson’s work to broaden people’s perceptions of games from an academic point of view (and I’ve discussed his book on the Hobby Games Recce blog before). As the culmination of years of research, game labs, and an online course, Professor Nicholson’s book offers a framework for evaluating and discussing games in a social context to help determine what kinds of games are idea for different kinds of audiences and venues. It imparts a better sense of matching particular kinds of games to players and play spaces to create the best game experiences possible. Don’t let the title fool you; the book remains an essential reference for anyone seeking to introduce games to others, whether in the comfort of your own home, the Friendly Local Game Store, conventions, and local libraries, schools, and museums.

Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games, by Ian Livingstone (New American Library, 1983). Yes, the author is the Ian Livingstone involved with White Dwarf, Games Workshop, and the Fighting Fantasy solo gamebook franchise. This title remains one of the earliest efforts to cover various aspects of the roleplaying game hobby, from overviews of existing games on the market, various accessories, miniature figures and painting, and even the nascent subject of computer games. It includes a solitaire adventure in the style of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks for more than 50 pages (essentially one-quarter of the book) to introduce concepts of creating characters and “playing” scenarios. Like Heroic Worlds, Dicing with Dragons provides an interesting historiographical picture of the roleplaying game hobby in its early years.

Historical Game References: I have a weakness for collecting books about historical games, particularly those offering rules, variations, board diagrams, and historical context. These include R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, H.G. Wells’ Little Wars and Floor Games, David Partlett’s Oxford History of Board Games, Jeffrey A. DeLuca’s comprehensive Medieval Games, and João Pedro Neto and Jorge Nuno Silva’s Mathematical Games, Abstract Games. Bell, Partlett, and DeLuca cover much the same ground with some variation, but remain handy references nonetheless. Mathematical Games, Abstract Games offers rules, boards, and strategies for more cerebral fare – including one of my favorites, Lines of Action – but some might find it dry reading. Wells’ two slim volumes occupy a space between my “academic” game books and several volumes on military history. I also keep The Big Book of Board Games: 14 Classic Games To Color & Play on that shelf, mostly because the oversized coloring book (with nice cardstock pages) includes both rules and playable boards.

To Read & Acquire

I’m always modifying my “wish list” of non-fiction gaming books to acquire and read. I even maintain a small pile – primarily an electronic pile – of material I possess but haven’t had time to read. Greg Costikyan’s I Have No Words and I Must Design is on my “to read” list, which demonstrates how I can have a PDF on my computer but haven’t read it because I’m not used to reading lengthy material on screen. That also reminds me that I have a host of PDF articles Professor Scott Nicholson has released over the years that really deserve my closer attention (hmmm, I must start printing out academic gaming PDFs...). I regret Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals remains only partially read, though now and then I pick it up and browse through it for inspirational tidbits.

Now and then I stumble upon other, far more serious reading lists on actual game design, all far more scholarly than my own collection. Game industry luminary James Wallis offers his “game narrative” reading list at his blog, including links to his friends George Buckenham’s “Reading List for Game Developers” and Jurie Horneman’s “Another Reading List for Game Developers.”

Aside from tomes I already own simply waiting for my time and attention, I have a few choice non-fiction gaming books on my wish list. Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World remains high on that list as perhaps the most comprehensive modern history of the roleplaying and wargaming hobbies. I also consider Bernie Dekoven’s The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness an essential look at games outside of the greater adventure gaming field. Many wish list items relate to my interest in wargames, including Henry Hyde’s The Wargaming Compendium and Donald Featherstone’s War Games and Donald Featherstone’s Solo Wargames by one of the late, venerable masters of the subject.

Browsing over my Amazon wish list and its automated, subject-related recommendations I realize many other non-fiction titles about gaming exist, particularly regarding roleplaying; but my “to read” pile (including fiction, non-fiction, and actual gaming books) grows like an Ice Age glacier, so I must exercise some degree of discretion.

Want to make some non-fiction gaming book recommendations? Offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

20 Year-Old Books on Gaming

I recently took a look at two books about games written more than 20 year ago. Heroic Worlds and The Complete Wargames Handbook now provide extremely dated views of the adventure gaming hobby, particularly roleplaying games and traditional board-and-chit wargames (with some digression into the then-nascent computer games). Reading them again not only reminds one of the state of the hobby at their particular time, but how far we’ve come, what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

I acquired each book at different times of my gaming career. I found Heroic Worlds at a local bookstore when it first came out. It proved a solid reference in keeping track of games and supplements I already owned and as a guide giving me a glimpse into games I might want to buy. I recently found The Complete Wargames Handbook at a small wargaming convention’s flea market; it provided an interesting if dated look at the wargaming industry from one of its key creative personalities. Both offer interesting lessons about the adventure gaming hobby over time.

Heroic Worlds

Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games first appeared in 1991 from Prometheus Books. In the pre-Internet Age it served as a comprehensive and informative catalog of existing roleplaying games at the time. Some who are jaded by today’s Internet Age – where anyone with a computer and an internet connection can upload their own history of roleplaying games, lists of published materials for various games, and interviews with industry luminaries – might find Heroic Worlds rather dated, tame reading, though much of the information remains invaluable today in this handy, analog reference tome.

The 448-page masterpiece serves as an impressive monument to meticulous cataloging of the vast and diverse field of roleplaying games and supplements available at the time. The book features a host of elements that help it stand out as a reference work, even as one limited in its particular time:

Historiography: One of the first chapters offers what may stand as the first, published history of roleplaying games. It includes references to both key personalities and products in the development and advancement of the roleplaying game industry. Various subsections cover roleplaying games in the news, different “waves” of development, and the growth of different genre-based games. Certainly more recent work has covered this territory – and more than 20 years of subsequent development – more thoroughly, but Schick’s arguably remains the first.

Publisher Reference: Heroic Worlds includes an appendix listing all known roleplaying games publishers up to that time, including postal addresses where available, and lists of games each company published. Granted, it’s all woefully out of date today, but provides an interesting picture of the 15 year-old industry. What does it say about the adventure gaming hobby when this early reference work already makes a point of noting “NLA” – “No Longer Active” – after a host of company listings?

Award Listings: Another appendix lists “Award-Winning Games,” including Origins, H.G. Wells, and Charles Roberts Awards through 1990, notable roleplaying games mentioned in Games magazine’s annual list of the top 100 currently available titles, and Schick’s own list of top 10 games in Heroic Worlds (and an interesting top five list of “Appalling RPG Products”). Although more comprehensive and current listings live somewhere on the internet today, they reside at disparate websites; no doubt the list of appalling products has grown exponentially over the years.

Sample Artwork: Although extremely sparse, black-and-white artwork from cataloged projects peppers the tome, providing a small glimpse into various game lines’ graphic styles. Each illustration includes the artist’s name, title of the product in which it appeared, publisher and publication date, and copyright and permission citations.

Genre Summaries: The “Game Index” portion of Heroic Worlds – the bulk of the book – covers roleplaying games across numerous categories...and for each category Schick offers a brief, sometimes more substantive summary of the genre’s qualities and significant game titles contributing to the popular success of the field. Schick also includes his top five recommendations in each category. (Solo game aficionados might take interest that Schick deemed “Solo Gamebooks” a valid category.)

Insider Insight: Readers find short essays by industry luminaries scattered across the catalog listings. Most discuss the design behind particular game systems or general approaches to roleplaying game writing. The list of contributors looks impressive: Dave Arneson, Greg Gorden, Gary Gygax, Steve Jackson, Tom Moldvay, Sandy Petersen, Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Greg Stafford, and a host of others who aren’t “household” names but whose contributions to the adventure gaming hobby remain essential. These first-hand accounts remain essential to those seeking primary sources on the earliest days of roleplaying games, especially from luminaries who have since passed away.

Catalog Information: By far Heroic Worlds’ most impressive accomplishment remains its catalog listing of what seems like every roleplaying game product ever published through 1990. Entries include valuable publication reference information like authors, cover artists, interior artists, format, page count, publisher name, and publication date. Schick includes brief summaries of each product, expanding on the subject and contents, and occasionally including his own opinions...all contributing to small, insightful tidbits on nearly every item cataloged.

Author Lawrence Schick remains one of the key personalities of the roleplaying game industry’s early days – giving him an excellent perspective to assemble the catalog and contact fellow luminaries for the insights he included in Heroic Worlds – though he’s not as well-known as many others with more recognizable names. He served as head of design and development at TSR in the early 1980s (what I frequently call “The Golden Age of Roleplaying”) and was responsible for hiring such luminaries as Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook. His greatest claim to fame comes from designing the infamous Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module S2 White Plume Mountain. Like many of his fellow game designers of the period he later moved into the electronic gaming industry, including game-related work with America Online (AOL).

What can readers learn from Heroic Worlds today?

* Compiling a comprehensive catalog of every available product – complete with accurate author and product information – even back before the boom in roleplaying games during the 1990s was a Herculean task, and might prove daunting even with today’s technology.

* The internet helps find game information. In its time Heroic Worlds served as a great resource for gamers and collectors, documenting the products published to date with enough information to give customers an idea whether a game supplement was worth pursuing. Today publisher websites, game forums, and reviews help gamers make these decisions.

* A sense of wonder still comes from reading about early roleplaying game developments from the people who pioneered them.

* Even back then, in the early days of roleplaying games, companies and games came and went.

* Heroic Worlds offers an interesting perspective about the exponential growth of games (a subject I’ve discussed before); if all the game products published in the first 15 years of the roleplaying game industry could fill a 448-page book, how many pages could the games published in the hobby’s first 40 years fill?

The Complete Wargames Handbook

I’ve dabbled in wargames – both the board-and-chit as well as the miniatures varieties – for years, but never to the same degree as roleplaying games. But when I found a copy of James Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them (revised edition) at a recent convention flea market, I grabbed it to add to a small but growing collection of non-fiction books about gaming (my “academic” gaming bookshelf). Published in1992, it’s a contemporary volume to Heroic Worlds for a different aspect of the adventure gaming hobby...arguably one that’s been around for a little longer than roleplaying games.

The Complete Wargames Handbook offers a broad overview of the board-and-chit wargaming hobby, with a number of specific insights from the author’s involvement as founder of Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), publisher of Strategy & Tactics magazine, and a prolific writer and game designer. Chapters cover such diverse subjects as “What Is A Wargame?” “How to Play,” why people play wargames, designing wargames, their history (up to the date of publication), a look at player demographics, computer wargames, and “Wargames at War.” Most chapters offer information useful to both players and designers. Dunnigan’s style remains conversational and easily digestible, as if he’s having a casual conversation with readers about wargames. He also demonstrates many concepts he discusses through a small wargame included within the book itself: The Drive on Metz: September 1944. Dunnigan devotes about a third of the book to computer wargames, though the lessons applied there derive from and inform development of analog board-and-chit wargames.

Dunnigan offers several insider revelations garnered from his years in wargame publishing and consumer surveys conducted through Strategy & Tactics magazine:

Rules Master: While discussing designing a wargame, Dunnigan reveals how at SPI they maintained a “rules master” file on computer with the core text of rules one could easily customize and modify for the current game. He attributes the practice to Avalon Hill’s Tom Shaw whom he once asked how to start writing the rules to a game. “It’s simple. You simply take the last game we published and use it as a model.” Many wargames using basic core concepts in the style of the one he provides in the book could easily fit into that mold, with existing rules updated and amended for the combatants, terrain, and period; but this technique would hardly suffice at all for today’s complex card, board, and roleplaying game rules.

Guidance: Dunnigan’s “Designing Wargames” chapter contains his 10 steps or guidelines to designing a wargame, each demonstrated using The Drive on Metz as an example. His advice includes “Keep It Simple” and “Plagiarize,” as he states, “a dramatic way of saying ‘Use available techniques’” (as demonstrated in his use of the “rules master”).

Solitaire Play: After having conducted numerous surveys from Strategy & Tactics readers, Dunnigan claims solitaire play is the preferred play style for wargamers:

“Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers. The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.... For those players who do like to play with opponents, solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success.”

Solo gamers across the adventure gaming hobby sometimes feel odd about playing multi-player games on their own. Dunnigan provides logical justification for solitaire gaming, both as a prelude to play against live opponents and as a purely solitary activity in the enjoyment of games (and study of history).

Historiography: Dunnigan offers an insider’s perspective on both the history of wargames and the challenges that plagued what at times has seemed like an ailing hobby. He also includes a list of “current” wargame publishers and magazines at the time, many of which no longer exist.

James Dunnigan is one of the luminaries of the wargaming industry. Besides his work with SPI and Strategy & Tactics he’s been inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design Hall of Fame, written numerous books on military subjects, and designed an impressive host of games. BoardGameGeek.com called him “One of the most important figures in the history of wargaming.”

Readers can still learn a great deal from The Complete Wargames Handbook today. Dunnigan’s guidance in designing games – whether or not one uses the “rules master” technique – remains helpful, particularly toward those with “unpublished games” (as he says, “I deliberately refrain from calling them ‘amateur’ because I am consistently impressed by the quality of unpublished games compared to many of those that are published”). The Drive on Metz itself proves an easy introduction to board-and-chit wargaming. Unfortunately this aspect of the adventure gaming hobby has continued its decline, with a few notable surges, in the face of other far more successful and visible aspects like collectible card games, roleplaying games, and even historical miniatures wargames.

Alas, both Heroic Worlds and The Complete Wargames Handbook remain out of print and the realm of second-hand book dealers. James Dunnigan has made the text of his book available for free reading online. I am glad to own paper copies of both volumes, for they help fill out a slowly growing shelf holding books about games to better inform my meager game design efforts.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Organized Play Drives Sales, or Gaming: The Gamification

A few months ago I had a conversation at the Friendly Local Game Store that illustrated how games with organized play programs outstrip other, quite worthy and entertaining games in popularity and hence sales through the very nature of organized play and marketing.

The Little Guy – who’d enjoyed the quick-start version of Fantasy Flight Games’ amazingly popular Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game – wanted to try one the other games he spotted in Daddy’s office...Ares Games’ Wings of Glory (previously known as Wings of War when FFG distributed it in America and from which the company blatantly drew inspiration for its X-Wing game). At the time the Little Guy wasn’t very good lining up shots in a starfighter’s limited field of fire, so he always flew the YT-1300 with a 360-degree fire arc, lots of hull and shields, and a good chance at surviving and fending off Daddy’s TIE fighter assaults. Since Wings of Glory has no World War I equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, I asked the FLGS to special order a two-seater observer aircraft, one with both a forward and a very wide aft fire arc. The airplane arrived at the store a few weeks later and I swung by to pick it up. The FLGS doesn’t normally stock Wings of Glory, though it supports the X-Wing Miniatures Game and other fare driven by tournaments and organized play. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when the friendly clerk asked me about the game; of course, I compared it to the familiar X-wing game, with movement templates and fire arcs and such. Then he asked me the key question:

"So, how do you build a squad for this game?"

He seemed rather unimpressed when I said you really don’t, you just field a few planes usually balanced by the amount of damage each side’s aircraft can take. Both the World War I and II versions of Wings of Glory attract history and aviation aficionados interested in the different aircraft, nations, and theaters of each conflict. Unlike the X-wing game you can’t just slap a few pilot, weapon, and aircraft upgrades on a World War I biplane to create a 100-point squadron. While that might account for the lack of popularity, in-store play, and sales Wings of Glory suffers from when compared with a powerhouse game like X-wing, it demonstrates how a game based on a hot media license combined with a marketing strategy founded on organized play can outpace other well-designed games.

Genesis of Organized Play

This is, of course, nothing new – game companies have been capitalizing on similar strategies since the beginning of the adventure gaming hobby – so I shouldn’t really be surprised at this epiphany. It began only a few years after the “birth” of roleplaying games with the formation in 1980 of the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA) by TSR to promote the Dungeons & Dragons game line through a form of tournament convention play. Over the years the program evolved to include “living” settings based on TSR’s popular game worlds. These efforts kept players interested in the D&D game line and the new rules, setting, and scenario product the company produced. For years the RPGA kept Dungeons & Dragons a viable, living game, especially during the time after TSR released second edition when many felt the line, and arguably the hobby, was stagnating.

The RPGA’s tactics in encouraging players and driving sales were tame compared to the powerhouse organized play and marketing strategies pioneered by TSR’s successor, Wizards of the Coast, which bought TSR in 1997 with financial strength garnered from its wildly successful Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. Magic as a standalone card game among a handful of players had great popularity, particularly in the way one could combine certain cards and effects to defeat opponents. It’s collectible nature and “blind” packaging – in which customers bought boosters with randomized, unknown contents – not only drove sales as players sought particular cards but encouraged players trading cards to complete collections or build particular decks; so much so that a burgeoning after-market blossomed in some game stores and online companies buying and selling used cards. All these factors fed off Wizards of the Coast’s organized play strategy encouraging regular gaming tournaments in stores and at conventions, often with officially sanctioned prizes and a point rating for players...a strategy so well-proven Wizards still actively supports it more than 20 year after Magic originally released.

Few games combined expandable game mechanics, collectability, and well-supported organized play quite as successfully as Magic: The Gathering. Many companies tried and either marginally succeeded or outright failed...including Wizards of the Coast. When the company acquired Avalon Hill’s popular Axis & Allies brand it applied a similar design and blind-package marketing strategy to its Axis & Allies Miniatures Game. Players bought and collected units to point-build forces from a host of nations involved in World War II; it even had a slight emphasis on combining the powers of certain units to greater effect. But a complete lack of an organized play program adversely impacted the game lines (based on land, sea, and air actions). Admittedly the game appealed to a far smaller audience – WWII aficionados – than the fantasy fans and competitive players of Magic. But without tournaments and prizes providing gathering places and incentives for playing, the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game fell by the wayside.

The former Wizards of the Coast staffers who formed Paizo Publishing and pioneered the competitive D&D alternative, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, brought along the organized play mindset to their new efforts. The Pathfinder Society releases scenarios and manages organized play events in a common campaign setting, much like the RPGA did in its day.

Organized play wasn’t just for roleplaying games and card games. Miniature wargames like Games Workshops Warhammer fare and Battlefront’s behemoth Flames of War World War II miniatures game used tournaments and regular in-store play and painting events to provide venues for players and incentive to buy and paint new armies to try on the battlefield.

Organized play isn’t going away; if anything it’s becoming a key element in successfully promoting and sustaining game releases. Fantasy Flight Games certainly had the organized play aspect in mind when its designers created the X-Wing Miniatures Game, including the elements of exclusive pilots and upgrades available only in certain expansion packs, the point system in building balanced opposing squads, and rules that codified play spaces and obstacle placement.

Perhaps the latest organized play development comes from Wizards of the Coast’s recent announcement of the D&D Adventurers League, a program designed to enable players to advance characters and gain rewards through shared campaign-world play at home, in stores, and at conventions. All of these efforts remain part of a strategy to bolster interest and sales in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons (the fifth edition, sometimes called D&D Next) releasing gradually throughout the summer and fall of 2014.

The Organized Play Gameplan

Once upon a time people used to play games for fun. They didn’t always play them regularly or obsessively, but when they needed a diversion their favorite games were there. Even before I engaged in the adventure gaming hobby I recall occasions on which we played games: our family broke out Monopoly when we sometimes lost power in summer storms, just to pass the time; we played Chinese checkers and other basic fare with visiting relatives. After discovering roleplaying games the neighborhood kids and I played them regularly as enthusiasts. They were part of a hobby we pursued more intently than casual entertainment, given the rewards of character advancement, exciting imaginary combat, and the chance to explore fantastic settings. Playing games brought its own rewards. But we were fickle consumers, buying games that looked interesting and playing them until their appeal gradually faded.

Organized play is part of a marketing strategy primary meant to sustain interest in and sales of game product by rewarding players. In a sense organized play is a game itself, something I’ll sarcastically call Gaming: The Gamification.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines gamification as “the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation” (what does it say about gamifcation when the term, acknowledged as first used in 2010, has an official entry in the dictionary?). Organized play uses gamification to keep players engaged in their games, both playing them and especially buying them. Ironic that companies producing actual games use game concepts in their sales and marketing.

Gaming: The Gamification relies on rewarding players in various ways to encourage participation as gamers and consumers:

Play Environment: Organized play programs encourage places and events for people to find other players. Friendly Local Game Stores run weekly tournaments, even weekly game gatherings so people can prepare for tournaments. They provide support for conventions hosting events. They provide a framework for players to determine where they fit in the general hierarchy of players through point standings, ratings, and rewards.

Rewards: People love getting rewards, a key element in gamification. Certainly players can find the actual gaming experience satisfying by itself, but goodies provide effective incentives to continue playing. Tournaments, of course, offer prizes for the winners, or ratings so players know where they stand in relation to their peers. Some tournaments offer small prizes for all participants, like exclusive cards, tokens, or other souvenirs. Roleplaying game organized play often relies on “official” magic items, equipment, and other elements to use in-game or transfer to other characters in addition to some recognition of a character’s experience point standing and level. Rewards make participants feel good about the activity and encourage them to continue it in the hope of gaining more rewards.

These benefits to players serve to drive sales for companies running organized play programs. When gamers have available communities in which to play and receive rewards for their participation, they continue to invest time and usually money engaging in that particular game. The competitive aspect also drives sales. In a regular play environment participants can demonstrate different victory strategies using various game components, thus driving the need for players to acquire more cards. miniatures, or supplements to increase their chances of success in future games. Some of the more popular games employ a sales strategy of new product that builds on previous releases that expands the power and variety of play options, encouraging players to competitively or socially “keep up” with a game. (I won’t even touch on the issue of “power creep” and ever-expanding rules necessary to fuel such game lines...perhaps some other time). Organized play drives sales by requiring (or at least sorely tempting) players to own copies of the game, fostering a social play environment in which participants talk about the game, build enthusiasm, and encourage purchases, hosting events in stores and at conventions where product remains readily available to buy, and rewarding participation with certificates and other “official” advancement incentives.

Gaming: The Gamification requires several essential elements rarely present in every company or game:

Adaptability to Competitive Expansion: A good organized play program focuses on an accessible game platform with mechanics that easily accommodate supplemental materials...new ships, pilot abilities, and upgrades in the X-wing game; new spell cards for Magic: The Gathering; new classes, powers, magic items, and other elements of fantasy roleplaying games. Most of these games optimize their mechanics for this kind of expansion, sometimes called “power creep,” as new elements increase players’ abilities to dominate their opponents. This, of course, drives sales of new material to enable players to compete with each other at a reasonably equal level.

High Replay Value: A good game enables participants to have a satisfying experience no matter how many times they play it. While many board games have high replay value on their own, they don’t allow for the kind of competitive expansion as miniature games, card games, or roleplaying games. Competition comes from the combination of game elements – ships, spell cards, character powers and adventure situations – as well as a flexible game engine.

Marketing Infrastructure: “Organization” is an implicit part of organized play. This requires corporate structure from the very beginning...building adaptability to competitive expansion into the core game rules, marketing the game to maximize visibility to consumers, working with Friendly Local Game Stores to stock product and host events, and organizing systems to track player standings, offer prize support, and promote events on websites so players can find them. Powerhouse companies already have or can better afford the infrastructure – website designers, administrators, store liaisons, sales reps – to run such a large promotional public relations operation. Smaller publishers cannot.

For a practical demonstration of how many of the elements of Gaming: The Gamification work, check out my previous examination of how Fantasy Flight Games uses a tournament strategy to drive sales and interest in its X-Wing Miniatures Game. I’ve actually enjoyed playing the game at the Friendly Local Game store, which hosts players one night a week and has run several tournaments (I even came in third place in one). I’ve enjoyed meeting new players there. I’ve certainly purchased new ships for my collection, though have resisted buying every bit of “new hotness” that comes out just to increase my ability to win games. It’s a rewarding experience on its own, but I also realize the entire system is primarily focused on selling games. I also love playing Wings of Glory; but, in part because it lacks huge popularity and has no organized play program, I can’t find regular players or events in my area (though I often find them at regional wargaming conventions).

I’m sure some readers will take offense at the tone of this feature. I hope to point out to those who aren’t always aware of this that the powerhouse game publishers who can afford to run organized play programs do it primarily for their own financial gain, with secondary benefits to players, Friendly Local Game Stores, and the adventure gaming hobby as a whole. In this sense I view it as a necessary evil. It’s a shame that certain games’ popularity – driven by organized play or other factors – eclipses other, just-as-worthy games that could appeal to players. Some readers would claim that’s the way our “survival of the fittest” economy works. Organized play, the financial stability of our hobby, and the lack of success some games experience are all elements in the discussion.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Discuss your favorite organized play program or eclipsed game? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.