Sunday, June 25, 2006

A recent Wired magazine includes an article on "crowdsourcing". This is an Internet phenomenon: the Internet provides access to many, many "amateur" practitioners of a skill, such that they now compete with professionals (and lower the prices available to professionals). The first example is stock photography: companies used to pay hundreds or thousands for small numbers of stock photos, but now there are sources of good digital photos available for stock use at $1 a photo. Why pay a hundred times as much when the "amateur" photos are excellent quality?

I believe that a form of "crowdsourcing" has happened to the role playing game industry. Quite apart from the glut of professional products, there are many, many products published by both standard publishers and PDF publishers that are written "by the crowd". Or to put it another way, there are so many fanboys and fangirls willing to write RPG material for nothing or next to nothing, material easy and cheap to find on the Internet, that traditional publishers cannot charge much for their publications, and cannot pay their authors much.

Given the amount paid to most writers (as low as two cents a word, and rarely as much as five cents a word), and the lack of royalty payments (RPG books are "works for hire", you're paid a lump sum and that's it), it's impossible for most writers to get a reasonable return on their time. This is particularly true if they test their material in actual gameplay, so usually they don't. This has contributed to the low quality of professional publications. At the same time there are people who love RPGs, who actual play their new stuff, then write it up and contribute it to the world at large. Some of this is likely to be better than much of the quickly-written junk published by the traditional publishers.

The result of all this: why buy RPG material, or why buy expensive RPG material when the PDFs are likely to be about as good and are much cheaper? And so the bottom has fallen out of the RPG market, with no prospect that it will ever return--because crowdsourcing is here to stay.

It is less likely that this will happen to boardgames, because much of the popularity of boardgames come from the tangible feel of the pieces. You can't put tangible pieces in a PDF, or self-publish them through lulu or xlibris. Though a day might come when there are companies that can mass produce small numbers of tangible pieces to be included in boardgames. Nonetheless there are places like that offer PDF wargames cheaply.

Moreover, without much playtesting hardly any game will be worth a hoot. You can write fairly decent RPG material without testing it, but you can't write a good boardgame without testing it.

Copyright 2006 Lewis Pulsipher


Yehuda Berlinger said...

If the electronic "board game" tables ever become popular, then the same thing will happen to board games.


Lewis Pulsipher said...

I'm not sure what you mean by electronic board game tables. Is this different from the online boardgame sites like In any case, if the attractions of boardgames to many are the social aspect and the tangibility of what you're doing (the board and the bits), I don't see how something electronic is going to make a difference to crowdsourcing.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Imagine if you will a table whose face is a lit LCD screen, or some equivalent.

It comes with a few hundred glass disks.

Games are loaded to the table via cartridge, or perhaps USB connection. The table can store first tens, than hundreds of games.

When you select a game from a menu, the display changes to the game map. The glass disks placed on the surface are lit from underneathe in order to display whatever they need to display. The screen is touch sensitive.

Dice rolling and card flips are accomplished with the touch of a button. Hidden reserves are displayed on a panel screen that folds open before each player; when not in use, it tucks back onto the table and serves as cover to protect the screen.

At first, only authorized games by the game designer are created, but eventually thousands of games are created by fans. The games can be similar to board games we already know, or adapted to new forms owing to the ability for the computer to both calculate quickly, produce random boards, and have boards with hidden features.

In this situation, which is not far off, expensively produced graphic boardgame programs will have to stand out a lot to compete with the cheaper or freely produced games, just like RPGs now do with PDFs.