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.