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Mike’s self-important year-end editorial: Do Market Research Or Die

January 12th, 2005: Mike Sugarbaker says...
Mike’s self-important year-end editorial: Do Market Research Or Die

Okay. We all know about the highest-profile product-launch disaster of the year. Let’s talk briefly about another launch, that of the Call of Cthulhu CCG. It went well, right? Sure it did. Well, except for that month or so when it wasn’t so easy for retailers to get starter decks. Before that month, the game had a level of enthusiasm behind it (at our local store, at least) that hadn’t been seen behind a new CCG in years. After that month, though? Virtually no starter deck sales to new players.

Could this have been avoided? Yes, if Fantasy Flight had known how many starters they should really have printed. But could anyone have known that? Yes, if retailers had preordered the product in quantities that reflected how excited their customers would actually be. But can retailers know that with any precision? Sometimes they can. Other times, they have to rely on the pre-release promotion efforts of game publishers.

How good are those efforts? Let’s just say that FFG’s promo work for CoC CCG was about good enough to make most retailers say, “ehh… I guess I’ll order a box.” In short, not good enough.

Publishers need more. They need to come to the battlefield armed with real knowledge about the people who will buy the game, how much they spend on games, what else they play, how old they are. They need to show retailers that they have a plan for the game’s success… which means they must in fact have that plan. Finally, they need a product that will have those buyers and will make that plan possible.

How do publishers get these things? By doing market research.

The way to have a successful product is to plan for one. Planning for one can be as simple as asking gamers one question: “Do you think a _____ game about _____ would be cool?” where blank #1 is “roleplaying,” “miniatures,” “trading card,” or whatever, and blank #2 briefly describes your subject matter. That is, it could be as simple as that question if the market were that simple. But it isn’t, hence the need for breaking the question down into smaller parts and asking it of more (and more diverse) gamers. Hence the need to bring in professionals to structure and deliver your surveys.

That sounds pretty forbidding, doesn’t it? Maybe you think your company can’t possibly afford that, or maybe you think that it smells like focus-grouping and you don’t want to “compromise your art.” Well, I have good news. We have another market, called the PDF market, which is growing by leaps and bounds. You can get away with more there, and if your game doesn’t take off immediately, nobody can pull it off the shelves, discount it 50%, or decline to distribute it. It presents some challenges in getting the word out, but it also holds unprecedented opportunity for knowing your customer base and interacting with them directly. In a few years it will be an ideal “farm league,” especially for RPG publishers. Build your strengths and your cash reserves there, and you can probably get some research done before long. (Or do the old trick of making the competition do research for you, and start with a not-necessarily-innovative but well-done product that emulates what came before. Notice how the most successful and oddly well-regarded RPG products on shelves now are things like dungeon crawls and books full of monsters?)

The problem here is that most gamers who make the move into publishing really want to hold that book in their hands. They are spending money at the printer to buy themselves credibility in their own heads. This is one facet of what’s called the Because-It’s-Cool school of marketing. And when you put your life’s savings into doing a 300-page hardback non-d20 RPG about NASCAR drivers with super powers, it does indeed feel cool to have it in your hands, to feel like the industry is finally making the stuff that you (one person) wish it would (because you spent your life savings to make it happen). But, as a business person would tell you, “because it’s cool” is not a reason to be in business. “Because it will sell” is a reason to be in business. Even if you are independently wealthy, making a product by treating it like art, and only then considering it as a product, will doom your business and help weaken the businesses that it touches. Market research will help publishers know in advance what kind of product can get them a business, if a business is what they want. (It’s OK to want to do art instead, and online is a great place to do it.)

Lots of publishers – even large ones like WizKids – make the mistake of trying to sell retailers on their game by explaining the mechanics or the tiny details of setting. These are quintessential Because-It’s-Cool marketing tactics, and they fail because retailers and distributor reps are understandably much more focused on Because-It-Will-Sell, and the reasons your product is cool do not directly address that. Also, they are themselves gamers, and subject to all the foibles thereof – they are different from you in what they like, and as obstinate about those differences as you are about your product’s coolnesses. Market research will help publishers get retailers and distros something they can use.

The market that has the biggest Because-It’s-Cool problem is roleplaying. This is both because the barrier to entry in the print RPG space is so much lower than in other printed-game markets, and because the RPG market has been shrinking since its inception – mainly losing ground to computer-based games that arguably serve its core strengths better. This causes the remaining print-RPG loyalists to tend to be that much more hardcore and “print r00lz” about things, and their emotional commitment to seeing print RPGs succeed cause them to unload a lot of cash on increasingly idiosyncratic products. They would be better served either by giving their work away online, thereby multiplying its coolness by the efforts of other enthusiasts, or by making it more expensive and scarce (don’t laugh – Greg Stafford did okay on this model for a while by selling subscriptions to Glorantha setting material).

Fortunately, the RPG market is also where the Because-It’s-Cool solution – PDFs and other online media – has taken the strongest hold and has the brightest future. However, some print RPG publishers have simply decided that the money is in board and card games, and are applying their B.I.C. “wisdom” to designs in a new product category, instead of reforming. I figure that traditional gaming has enough strong product in it to withstand any Atari-2600-esque glut of crap similar to that which is choking print RPGs, so I don’t worry that these publishers will hurt the industry… much. But I still hate to see a game come out onto shelves that is only going to lose somebody a lot of money.

(While we have traditional games in mind, it’s worth mentioning that nobody really knows why the few breakout German games are so popular among the “straights.” It’s easy to make hand-wavy guesses about why Settlers of Catan, and to a lesser degree Puerto Rico and Carcassonne, have made inroads amongst relative non-gamers, but does anyone have hard details? Mayfair and Rio Grande might, but 1) there’s reason to doubt it, and 2) that doesn’t help the rest of us.)

The one company that is really doing this right, from what I know, is Wizards of the Coast. That’s because they have to do it right, because their bosses at Hasbro are so flabbergasted that any division they own is making anything in such a pathetically small number as 50,000 that they insist that WotC sell every last one of those 50,000, all the time. Not a single official D&D book comes out of WotC’s doors today that they don’t know will sell solidly. Because WotC has the resources to do this well, a small number of other publishers can maybe afford to do it less thoroughly and still be part of a little ecosystem of support-product companies. These are White Wolf, Green Ronin and the other survivors of the D20 crash. Obviously, research is not the only factor there, but today, it is a large part of what keeps D&D the force that it is. Large RPG publishers that can’t find a spare D20/D&D teat to suck on are living on borrowed time – unless they actually come out and ask what else gamers want.

Lack of market research, or of market research done right, is the reason that WizKids, once the industry’s juggernaut in waiting, put out a lot of failures over the last two years and was brought to its knees. Lack of market research is the reason that all the young people who flooded into the market over the last five years are now flooding right back out – nobody knows what they want. Lack of market research is the reason that we still have no “next big thing” (well, okay, we also have to blame that one on the general lack of resources that’s also partly responsible for the lack of research). Market research is not a cure-all – there is more than one way to bollix up a game – but I believe it will be a precondition for serious, major successes in the industry moving forward.

This might sound like a lot of doom and gloom, but I believe that challenges like this are opportunities. There’s already a strong chance that the level of innovation, excitement, and variety in the PDF RPG market will soon dwarf anything we’ve seen in its print counterpart for twenty years. And the chance gets better every time someone talented (that’s you, bucky!) gets into them. As for the money, well, real musicians have day jobs, you know? And online distribution may eventually lead to service-based business models that out-earn the meager sums you get selling dead trees. I’ve mumbled a bit about that topic already, and plan to do so more in the future.

If you still don’t like the sound of checking with the market before making your game, well, I’m sorry that you’ll be the next casualty (or slow bleeder, or dead weight). As an industry, we’re at a crisis point, and those kinds of points are where we either do a little growing up, or we do a little more shrinking. There are only so many times we can choose the latter before we disappear. So, growing up looks like this: we accept that we are an industry, and that industries are made of businesspeople who make business decisions. We accept that such decisions are not always antithetical to art; games, as an inherently popular and populist art form, have a much-better-than-average chance of finding the sort of ideal balance between art and commerce that film had in the thirties or that comics nearly found in the eighties. We accept that the future looks different than the past, and whether it looks brighter or darker is up to us, and our ability to see it.

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