I’m a gaming junkie, especially where it comes to role-playing games. I’ve been gaming for decades, I have played or run at least 177 RPGs as of this writing, not counting different editions, playtests, or homebrews, and my shelves are overflowing with more I have yet to play. All this to say, I want to love your game. But it’s amazing how many published games still turn me right off because of mistakes that could be avoided with moderate effort, and sometimes even quite easily.
Not that that writing games is that easy, I know! There will be competing objectives, budget and schedule considerations, and so forth. But there are also some elements that can be incorporated in the planning, and hurdles that are make-or-break. In our cottage industry of devoted hobbyists, some mistakes are being made over and over. Even free games can be ruined so thoroughly by some of these mistakes that they lose the chance for a good review, which can’t be why you’re putting them out there!
One big challenge for game publishers is that there are several ways to approach the reader or, if you want, several opportunities to lose a gamer, so let’s look at them separately.
I’ll post the other sections over the the next few days.
1. First Impressions
The initial impression is often formed very rapidly — when picking up a book from the shelf at a friendly local gaming store, glimpsing a Website ad, borrowing a friend’s tome at the game table, and so forth. If pick up a book, I look at the front and back covers, then the the credits page, the character sheet, and I flip through the pages. If it’s online I browse through the preview if there is one, I read the description, look at any images associated with the book, and check out reviews. Here are ways you can lose me right then and there; as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
No pitch up-front
If I can’t figure out what the game is about, that bodes ill. There are different ways of conveying this info briefly; for example, some will have a pitch formulated much like the proposal for a new television series. Others will answer the three (four!) questions made popular by Jared Sorensen and John Wick: What is this game about? How does the game do that? What behaviours does the game reward? How does it make that fun?
At the very least, I should get a sense of what the characters are supposed to do, what kind of adventures they’ll have. Or, if your game is setting-less, you should give me a sense of what it does that will make it fun in some typical gaming romps.
White dudes everywhere
If the illustrations shows shows little but white men, if the play examples or intro fiction are all about guys, I know I’m not the target audience. You’re talking to somebody else and I will leave your book on the shelf. If I flip to the credits page and I see nothing but men on the creative team, it may not be a show-stopper but it will be a red flag and I will look at everything with suspicion.
If you want to grow your game’s market, please show lots of characters with a variety of features, skin tones, body types, genders, and yes, physical disabilities. Those of us who aren’t white dudes will get an inkling that this game may in fact not shut us out.
It was so hard to pick examples; there are so very many available for white-dudes only, I had forgotten how many among even the games I enjoy actually offer piss-poor representation. Conversely, for the “good” example of diversity I had a number of choices, but all from a handful of publishers, and I’m trying to also be representative of a wider range range of publishers.
Poor and/or sleazy art
I wish this went without saying, but it most certainly needs to be said: if the illustrations show women as if they were all porn stars(1), you’re failing at art direction. If the illustrations evokes the question “Do I want to tap that?” rather than “Do I want to be that character?”, your illustrations do nothing good for the game.
And if you think you can’t afford good quality art, you need to rethink your budget and project. Having crap art is worse than no art; here are a few things you can do:
- Check what is available in royalty-free and public domain art.
- Use a competent layout artist. Good spot black & white art with a solid layout can do wonders.
- A lot of fantastic game artists offer affordable stock and custom illustrations; talk to them.
- Learn how to provide good art specs.
- And pay your artists!
Visual appeal doesn’t just mean how many illustrations you have or whether your book is in colour versus black and white. While we regularly see threads on game forums where grognards swear up and down that they’d rather have edge-to-edge print than pay a little more, they are not the people you need to reach. Layout is even more important than art because it controls how legible your text is. Sometimes a layout can be attractive but make reading difficult because of the colour, font size and type, margin size, and so forth. A word here on column layout: it is hell to read on smaller tablets and I can’t recommend enough against it.
Poor physical quality
Printing, binding, paper grade all contribute to the impression formed. If you are using print-on-demand in particular, order some proofs and careful evaluate the result. If some text gets too close to edges, grey shades are muddled, or the spine falls apart apart when you crack the books open, consider modifying your layout or changing your print options.
This is a tricky issue and I won’t pick fights about it. However, if you want me to check out your game, the best entry point is a low-price ebook. Most of the books I buy in print are ones I checked out in ebook format first, and this pattern has been true for several years now. It doesn’t have to be the full game; a good-quality, representative quick-start adventure is sufficient.
Another solution is to offer a discount on the print book for those who have purchased the ebook first. A number of publishers off clicks-and-mortar-type discounts, but typically they offer a free or inexpensive ebook if you have purchased the print version, which is the opposite of my buying patterns.
Any game that asks me for $25 upfront for a PDF is going to remain off my buying list, regardless of any arguments about the intrinsic worth of print versus electronic publishing. If that means I’m not the target market, so be it.(2)
Free should not mean mediocre
Having talked about ebook prices and probably angered many people, I will now double down by talking about the quality of some free games. That sounds arrogant, I know, but hear me out: even if you plan from day one to offer your game as a free download and never mean to make a penny from it, it still represents you. And it still needs to provide usability to the reader, or why would you even publish it? There are a lot of free open-source software options, a lot of fellow fans who may be happy to help you, etc., so identify the help you need and explore solutions.
No, I don’t expect everyone to gives us free gems like John Harper’s, but I do want to illustrate the range achievable.
(1) This is not a value judgment on actual persons who work in the sex industry, but on the inappropriateness of using these trappings for unrelated game content and particularly to portray all female characters. Return
(2) On the other side, I will not play a pirated game. Yes, on occasion a GM friend has supplied me with a PDF so I could play but if I liked the game enough to keep playing after checking it out, I then bought it fair and square. Return