Friday, May 20, 2011

Trying to halt the creep

So far we’ve discussed the sources of power creep and why it is a risk. Now we’ll take a look at what can be done about it. This will be a two part article with the first looking at solutions in the broader sense and the second looking at rule-based solutions. Welcome to part one.

I had the privilege of listening to a lecture some time ago by a group of consultants and MDs who were using new techniques to develop exciting medical technologies. Their process always began with identifying a problem and then brainstorming solutions. The trick, though, was that they brainstormed in the abstract and absolutely no idea was ever discouraged or rejected out of hand. The example given was a medical device to help with apnea. Early on in the brainstorming someone pointed out that if you just cut out the tongue there wouldn’t even be an issue. Everyone laughed. Then someone asked “why?” Six months later, they had a prototype for a device that treated apnea in a whole new way and had fewer risks and uncomfortable externalities than any other solution on the market. I’m not an MD so I won’t embarrass myself, but evidently they found a way to replicate the state of not-having-a-tongue.

The point of my little anecdote is twofold:
  1. Sometimes you need to think outside the box. The best solution probably hasn’t been considered yet and it isn’t for wont of effort.
  2. Stopping a problem before it starts is better than solving a problem later on.

Understanding the who, what, where, when, why of a problem is necessary before you can ponder outside the box solutions. If you just accept that power creep is the fault of greedy suits, you aren’t going to get very far. So let’s progress through some ideas from the first two articles and see what emerges.

Profitability is an important aim of the RPG industry.
Okay, does it have to be? Could the RPG community pool funds to buy, for instance, D&D and create a nonprofit foundation that managed the rule set? Raise money by selling shares and then let those shares correlate into votes for appointing game designers who you believed would take D&D in the right direction. I’m not sure, but it is interesting. You’d have to examine if the lower margins (because you don’t need profit) would sufficiently offset the reduced volume (because less churn) and a host of other factors, but who knows.

Competition has driven costs up and prices down such that more volume is required.
Would people accept lower production values (i.e. less art, soft cover, etc) if it meant less power creep? I imagine ‘no.’ Would they accept higher prices if it meant less creep? I imagine ‘no.’

This is actually really interesting, though, because it re-begs the question of “how big a problem is power creep?” If people aren’t willing to pay an extra $5 or have a soft cover book, creep either isn’t that big a deal or people are short sighted. Either of those facts are useful in developing a strategy going forward.

New rule content is the main way to generate profit.
Creep stems from new content, but does new content have to be rules? Would a book of character art sell well? A lot of non-rules content is targeted only at DMs (definitionally a smaller market) which make it less attractive. Are there ways to target players? Would a line of d20s that explode after a random number of rolls and a rule that you auto succeed at whatever check you were making during the explosion be fun? It would make walking up a flight of stairs interesting, but it would also provide a new ongoing source of revenue that didn’t introduce (much) creep.

Something that is emerging from this is that periodic sales are required. You really can’t sustain long term profitability by selling one-off products unless your customer base is constantly growing. A much better solution is to continuously make sales to your entire customer base. Obviously this was the goal behind Wizards’ subscription model. The problem there, in my opinion, is that folks don’t like buying intangibles unless they have to. People buy WoW subscriptions because you can’t play WoW without an account. You can play D&D without an account.

Or maybe content is too narrowly defined. Maybe content should just be defined as anything that brings people back to the game excited to play. For me that was hanging out with my friends and I’d be wary if someone tried to monetize them. But that isn’t to say that there isn’t real value in the social aspect of the game and that you couldn’t foster and generate income from the effort. The catch is that the value has to be real; you can’t trick people into buying something by branding it and then expect them not to be upset. Moreover, it seems that if a lot of folks even smell a cash grab they are willing to boycott an entire product line or abandon an entire game. They wants them some value.

New rules must be better than old rules in order to sell.
Technically I argued that making new rules better than old was the easiest (not only) way to make new content sell, but still. Could we find a way to introduce content that doesn’t have to compete with old content? It would seem that new classes or races would be perfect for this type of non-creeping content, yet they are often the biggest pushers of creep. Why?

Instead of publishing “fixes” in the form of new feats and powers, could we just go back to the source and edit the originals? If the content is embedded in a permanent medium (like a book) this is hard, but a purely digital source (online or PDFs) are free or cheap to update. Again, this seems to be where Wizards is headed but they are still publishing mostly “fixes” and comparatively few updates. Why?

Power creep cannot enter a closed system.
Maybe the solution is to not expand the system. Or maybe just publish a skeleton of a system and guidelines on how to create your own content. I’m not seeing the long term growth strategy and I don’t think most people have the time to actually generate all their own content, but it certainly is out of the box.

Alright, so all of that got a little rambly but that is the point of trying to generate different approaches to a known issue. I’m sure I missed a lot and I hope my rambling spurred new ideas in you, so drop ‘em below if you are so inclined.

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