this thread over at rpg.net, and it's got me thinking. The thread is a discussion of how RPG's can attract a bigger audience. It's an old discussion that pops up from time to time, and I definitely don't have the answer to how we can get games back into the high schools or whatever else completely non-nerdy market there might be out there.
Instead I've been thinking about two smaller concepts: how does a new RPG become popular and the "it" game within communities of role-players like rpg.net (known as the "rpg.net darling syndrome") that allow the game to catch a fanbase, and how can we expand gaming to attract nerds who aren't already playing tabletop RPG's. It all seems to be about word of mouth either way.
More after the jump!
On the smaller scale of a gaming catching on in the first place, a game has to be innovative and usually have either cool mechanics or cool new ideas. From my experience and observations, it's usually the games that offer cool new ideas (characters, concepts, new twists on old genre standards) that is more likely to catch on than the game with cool new game mechanics. I believe this is mostly due to role-players often having a system that works for them and just wanting to add something to their existing game or want to start a new game in a new world, while using a system they know like the back of their hand.
So you've got some street cred within the tabletop hobbyists. You've sold a good number of books and people mention your game all the time in forum threads asking for a new game to try out. What do you do next? Clearly you can start churning out supplements to keep your existing fans hooked and create a nice collection of products to try to attract new fans, and tons of companies do this. If you can get people hooked on your setting and the story of the game, supplements can really be a great avenue to keep turning a profit on your game.
Penny Arcade has been working with Wizards of the Coast for promotion for D&D 4th Ed for quite some time. It all started because they mentioned it on the front page and all of a sudden millions of their readers - almost all who play video games as their main gaming hobby - where shown that D&D can be cool. Not only can it be cool, but they learned that it was also a great time to just give it a chance and hop into the hobby. I don't have hard numbers on how much that improved the quality of life for 4th Ed, but I have to assume that it's been helpful given how much work they've since got from Wizards to continue to promote the game.
So take Penny Arcade's example and push it further out. Follow any nerd celebrities on Twitter? You know, like Wil Wheaton or Felicia Day? They talk about their video gaming experiences all the time. They have millions of Twitter followers. Imagine what could happen if they started talking up a game or setting to their followers who might not have heard about it otherwise?
I agree with the points on the rpg.net thread saying that mass marketing is not going to work for RPG's. It won't just fail - it'll likely cause an entire game line to fail with the crappy returns the investment in ads would produce. There are so many tools out there for advertising directly to those who may be interested in buying your product if they only knew it existed. We're no Wil Wheaton, but gaming blogs are a great way to start off an advertising campaign. I've been thinking a lot lately about how I would pursue some initial word of mouth for anything we might product, and I would definitely start with my fellow RPG bloggers out there. We like to write, and most of us are always looking for new games to talk about to generate new content for our blogs. People want something they can read on the go, and - you may know this if you're reading this on your smart phone right now - we look really good three to four inch screens.
None of this is going to matter if you don't have a good product. I think one of the main reasons we've seen so many good indie games pop up in the last ten years is because everyone's so inspired by the new ideas popping up. You see something amazing and can't help but think about what you could do to compare to it. You can't manufacture cool or audience appeal, but the more ingenuity and inspiring books we get in the hobby, the more likely RPG's will stay relevant even when having to compete with 3-d video games or whatever else gets dreamed up in the years to come.