The Crunchy Bits #1: Introduction to the Grimy Nastiness
by Emily K. Dresner-Thornber
You decide to write a roleplaying game.
After all, you say, you're quite the expert on the subject. You've been reading games for forty-three years. You know the name of every game ever written. There is a huge collection of games in your basement. In the night, they breed. In fact, they're crawling all over your living room. They're staging a takeover of your bedroom. They are using the minis to flank the bathroom, and take you while you sleep.
It is time to do your part, you say. However, you're not going to go the route of the freelance writer. Instead, you have chosen to be a one or two man company. You incorporate. You build a web site. Your palms sweat. Your breath quickens. You already have a booth at GenCon. Now, you must get down to the ugly business of writing a game.
Where do you begin?
Why are you writing this thing? There are plenty of reasons to write a roleplaying game. However, there are also good reasons not to. These include:
- Writing your novel.
- Getting out of your day job.
- Believing that being a game designer will get you chicks.
If these are the reasons behind the corporation and the website, you are better off doing something else equally foolish. Gaming is a crowded niche hobby. Hobbyists game in their spare time, and buy games with the change found between couch cushions. The consumers are few. The margins are small. Parting money and customer is like parting the Red Sea with a leaky bucket. Unless you are named "Hasbro," and you have a contract to distribute to Toys R Us, you may only sell your games to the family who humors your bizarre pursuits and friends who enjoy encouraging pointless lunacy. Sure, you might get lucky and sell 2,000 copies, but heck, the Amish sell that many copies of "What It Is Like To Be Amish." They don't even have Adobe Acrobat.
Worse, gaming is a horrendously crowded market. There are hundreds of people writing games. They, too, have great ideas. Some are "big names" with access to money, printers, and distribution. Others are small "Independent" presses consisting of one guy in a basement. They all hope their game is going to be a "hit." However, roleplaying games suffer the same fate as computer games - the lottery effect. No one knows what is hot, what fails, and what is a mediocre moment in the continuous gaming consciousness. The Hand of God descends from the Heavens and randomly chooses the one or two great games out of an entire year of releases. And, with the competition of the big names versus the small, the lack of interest on the part of the distributors, and the straining to get notice, how does one get a winning ticket?
Writing games is very much like Don Quixote's tilting at windmills. Tons of effort, and when the day is done, the windmills are still there, only slightly worse for wear. Tomorrow is another day, and tomorrow will hold a new windmill.
And those that do write games are masochists. They like their windmills. They're all a bit crazy. They write their hearts out, primping and prodding their creations, only to stand on the pedestal and get tossed off to the ground. They take a beating and soldier on for the possibility that someone at their Friendly Local Game Store will recognize them. There's little money, little recognition, and plenty of lumps. Everyone has an opinion, and worse, they have the game designer's e-mail address.
So why write a game? You're not going to become famous. You're not going to make a fortune. You're still going to have to trudge to work every day. Yet, there are some very good reasons. These include:
- You enjoy sharing your creations with other people.
- You are interested in making a small, steady profit.
- You enjoy being "a game designer."
- Your other hobby is collecting hate mail.
- You enjoy believing being a game designer will get you chicks.
So why do it? Because writing something someone will play is cool, and that, in itself, is generally enough. Here. Take it. For free. Give to the Paypal account on the way out. Please don't let the poor game designer starve. Did you enjoy the demo?
That's the good news and the bad news. If you're this far, you're grooving on it. You've survived the worst. And, the bad news really isn't so bad, is it? It's not like anyone ever ended up dead, or in a Chick track, from writing a game.
It's time to shove off, and tilt at your own private windmill.
Once committed to your game, you're now committed to time, resources, bags and bags of Doritos, strange music blaring through the headphones, and the occasional blasts of insight while standing in the shower. You're ready to walk the lonely road, just you and the word processor, in the dark, slowly going mad. Yet, you're very, very excited. You tell everyone around you that you're very excited. You have the greatest game concept known to man, and you're positive everyone else will see it that way, too.
It would be a shame if all that excitement were for naught.
There are no surefire ways of hitting the "one big game" except for throwing money. However, there are tricks to approaching the game design process that shifts the tides of luck. With precision, forethought, and being very conscientious, one can play with the big boys. Indie games do occasionally make it, but only those whose designers build them well. One can have his cake and eat it, too. One can even pick up chicks.
The aim of this series of articles is to get the cream of the crop of the new, Independent games from the heads of the designers to a completed manuscript to, hopefully, actual publication, and earn enough money to finance the next book. It's possible. It can be done. The trick is to beat the odds, and produce a game that will sell, turn a profit, and be something people want to buy. Gaming is a business, games are products, and the first step to success is to walk beyond "something neat" to "something that sells."
For the Indie game designer, the best mindset is to take a step beyond dreaming of a "hit" and focus on longevity. With careful financial planning and forethought, a fledgling company can lose of the moniker of "vanity publisher," make enough selling a game to finance it's hardbound publication, and walk away with some smug satisfaction of a job well done.
This very short run series of articles touches on the most important points to the crunchy madness of building a roleplaying game, those bits that take it from a good idea to a product. This will address roleplaying games only, so no card games, board games, or MMORPGs. There will be little to no advice on actual content - that is up to the game designer to decide. Not all of the advice will apply to every game. Some of it may not apply at all. It is all on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
The articles will use the game Robotz as a demonstration tool. The game is not "designed in public." Rather, it is an example that happens to be on hand whose copyright is not in question. The series will follow Robotz through the beginning birth stages, from a big pile of concepts to the beginnings of a full-fledged book.
And, for once, I will be answering email on this topic. Even the hate mail.
One thing to note: if you want to go write your novel, go write your novel. You should be walking a very different path instead of writing games. If that is the goal, look at http://www.sfwa.org for the requirements to join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It is the best advice you will ever hear. Gaming is filled with frustrated novelists: don't be another one. Go and be a novelist.
Next up... we get a little muck on our boots and approach the concept of the basic outline.