Saturday, April 20, 2013

Buyers versus players

It’s going to take a while to get to the point of buyers versus players: please bear with me.

In earlier posts I’ve wondered what the effect of free to play (F2P) video games would have on tabletop gaming.  We already know that it’s a disruptive force in video gaming.  F2P games have helped put pressure on AAA console games and have helped ruin the market for mid-level console games.  They also put video game developers in a dilemma, because F2P requires the game to hold back some of the things that make it enjoyable in order to persuade the players to spend real money. It creates a divide between the players who don’t spend money, and consequently must spend time to equal the advantages of those who spend money, or who simply cannot attain the same advantages.  This is why some people call free to play “free to die”, “free to lose”, or “pay to win”. 

As for the effect on tabletop games, on the one hand we could hope that if players are buying fewer video games they’ll have more money to buy tabletop games.  On the other hand, the perception that games are free might make people less likely to spend $40 or $60 and more on a tabletop game.

We certainly see that the market for individual tabletop games is decreasing rapidly, although it may be that the total number of tabletop games sold is steady or even increasing.

At the NC State Tabletop Game Club only one of the people who likes to play my strategic games actually buys tabletop games.  But that can also be said for the people who like to play some of the other tabletop games that are common at the club.  Most of the board and card games played at the club are either brought by a few individuals or are owned by the club.  This is good for getting playtesters because I’m one of the individuals who brings games, it’s just that I bring prototypes rather than published games.  There’s another gent who brings prototypes and usually finds players, though his games are very different from the ones I’ve been bringing this year.  In fact we have only two persons who buy commercial games out of about 20 regular board and card game players.

In effect, the gaming club or informal group offers much of the convenience of free to play games without the accompanying annoyances.  I cannot remember how often, 30+ years ago, more than one member of a game club owned the same game.  I suspect it was much more common, as there were far fewer games to choose from.

In another contrast, the majority of the club members (we average 35 a meeting) are actually Magic players.  And Magic players clearly have to spend a lot of money on their hobby as CCGs and TCGs are engines to persuade people to part with their money to buy the cards, complete with a new set of cards each year.  (Full disclosure: I do not like these card games because they are fundamentally as unfair as free to play games; though I’m aware that there are competition methods that avoid the problem that the person with more money to spend can make a better deck, other things being equal.)

What strikes me today, however, is that in the tabletop market we’re dealing with two groups of people, one a subset of the other.  The larger group is players of tabletop games.  The much smaller group is buyers of tabletop games.  For commercial success your game has to appeal to the buyers as well as to the gamers.  For success in having lots of people play your game you don’t need to appeal to the buyers strongly but if people don’t buy your game then you’re going to have to give it away.  And that’s not very practical because “giving away” usually means “print and play”/desktop publishing, and that kind of game lacks the visual and especially tactile appeal of a published boardgame or card game.

So, for example, wargaming persists partly because many of the wargame players are also buyers.  (Part of this may be that wargames are often purchased to be played solitaire.)  Wargames are too complicated for many gamers and too “violent” for many others to play, yet there’s still a small core of several thousand people who are willing to buy wargames.

But the wargames must feel and smell like wargames.  GMT, who mainly publish wargames, can sell games that aren’t wargamy, but sometimes they cannot get them past their P500 system.  They want 500 people to pre-order a game before they’ll risk publication, and because of an unfortunate experience the last time they broke that rule, they aren’t going to deviate again.  So a game that’s “semi-historical” - a model rather than an abstract game but one that doesn’t appear to be a “simulation” - might not be viable for their method.  In other words, the players (and buyers) may be out there, but GMT’s initial buyers - and what GMT thinks they can persuade them to buy - determine what is and is not published.

What Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites provide is a connection to buyers, not so much to players.  KS supporters put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

In the long run certain types of commercial tabletop gaming may not survive because even though there are many people willing to play there are not many willing to buy.

This is all exacerbated by the very large number of tabletop games that are published, which tends to make it hard for any individual game to sell really well.  In game clubs I think what happens is that a “hot” game is bought by the club, or by the most active individual buyer, and then other games the club members are interested in are bought by other members who may buy only one or two games a year.

Keep in mind the 21st century Internet zeitgeist that “everything is free,” combine that with free to play video games, and you’re likely to find fewer and fewer people willing to buy tabletop games.

It would be interesting to conduct a survey to try to pin down some of the attitudes of people.  The problem is that people often don’t do what they say they do, especially if they’re predicting future behavior, and a bigger problem is that many of the people who are just players cannot be reached by survey or are unlikely to reply even if they know the survey exists.  I doubt that more than one or two of the NC State members looks at Boardgamegeek more than a few times a year, and none of us (including me) is a regular denizen.

I haven’t considered game collectors who may occasionally be buyers but not players.  I figure most of the people who collect games also play games.  But I’m reminded of when my brother collected vast quantities of comic books and hardcover compilations of comic books.  I suspect he did not read anywhere near all of them.


LouisDesyjr said...

Can you say what the details were of the one time that GMT broke the P500 rules?

Lewis Pulsipher said...

I've not been told it's private information, but I don't want to say more, other than it didn't go through the P500 and the result was (very surprisingly) very bad. Sorry.

Jur said...

Hi Lewis,

I'd argue that something similar to the F2P trend is already happening in boardgames through expansions and living card games. It may not be free, but the intention from the start is to retain custom through new content.

I like the distinction that's being made in the digital gaming world between the 'whales'

Kickstarter/Indiegogo is an ideal way to target each of these groups by offering different packages.

But my guess is that the costs of distribution is the greatest limitation to F2P in boardgames. While online games all go through the Android and iOS 'stores' there is very easy access, which makes it much easier to regain the investment in the design of the game.

For boardgames that is much harder. So I don't see F2P catching on totally, although I can see it happening with a card game. Why not hand out a small starter deck for free if you think that it will catch on?

What do you think?

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Game clubs are a form of free-to-play, of course, for those who are players but not buyers.

Crowdfunding and P500-style marketing substitutes for digital F2P distributrion insofar as the publisher doesn't need to put up (much) money for publication. KS seems to be as much about "flash and trash" as it is about good games - because you can't tell whether the game is good when you support it (in most cases).

There's some thought that "whales" are often children who run up money on a parent's account. But there's also the notion that they're solitary, lonely, rather sad individuals, by and large, rather the opposite of what you get in tabletop gaming.

Game expansions do resemble the way F2P works, except that you had to buy the original tabletop game to begin with.

What we rarely see in tabletop games is a development of the original "random" model, which was "If I get X dollars in contributions I'll write this story and give it away to *everyone*." That may be because most people aren't interested in a game that they have to put together (which an electronically distributed Print n play game is).