Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Player Buy-In

Yeah, I've been sick some more.  And then I had a severe brain drain where I lacked any good ideas or energy to write articles.  I'll get the D&D articles I promised up when I get a chance to sit down and write them as well.  But today I want to talk about player buy-in.

Player buy-in refers to the degree to which the players are excited and into a game.  Obviously the degree to which a player buys into a game varies from player to player.  Player buy-in is measured a few ways; how much money is spent, how much time is invested in the game, and how readily they share their enthusiasm with other gamers.  For the first measurement, we can agree that hobbies are expensive if you enjoy them; you enjoy the hobby enough to justify spending more money to improve your enjoyment of the hobby.  Time spent on the game happens because you enjoy it and are attempting to understand or master it alongside playing said game (for miniatures that includes all the work on the little toy soldiers).  The third element is really a viral marketing element since many enthusiastic gamers want to play these games with other people, so the enthusiasm is essentially gamers selling other gamers on the game.

Which leads to buy-in cost; how hard it is to get people to play a game. 

With miniatures, the buy-in cost is pretty high since there's a lot of money and time that has to be sunk into the game.  You have to buy the rulebook(s).  Then you have to plan and buy your first army of toy soldiers.  You have to buy glue and a pair of cutters, at minimum, to assemble the things.  If you actually want to make the models look like something other than unfinished, that means you have to buy paints and other hobby supplies to paint them.  Which means you have to plan out a color scheme.  And to protect your monetary and temporal investment, you will buy containers and such to protect the models from damage.  That's a lot of time and money, which is why many miniature companies do their best to make the cost of starting a game low in the form of two-player starter sets and faction starter boxes.  Miniature games tend to change over time as well, because the companies release new miniatures for the game (and the accompanying rules).

Board games are an odd duck when it comes to player buy-in.  The reality is that you only need a core set, which for a really nice board game will run $50-$100 depending on the production values.  Granted, the board game companies need to continue to make money and thus produce expansions to their games, but the expansions are not essential for playing the game.  The buy-in here is primarily in selling other people on playing the game, since board games are largely self-contained.  Generally speaking, board games need other people to play and so if the game is too complex or hard to understand (meaning: it's too hard to sell other people on playing...), it will sit on a shelf and get resented as a giant waste of money.

Trading card games are popular because a properly designed and supported TCG actually sells itself as long as the company producing it continues to support it (or there's enough fan support to keep it alive after its death, like the Star Wars TCG by Decipher).  The cost of buying product is low enough that new players can get involved for relatively cheap, the play environment is constantly evolving with new sets of cards being release, and if there is a well done organized play environment the player already knows there's people who want to play the game.  But the catch here is that a TCG player will spend money over a much longer period of time than a board gamer or a miniature gamer, since the play environment changes every three months or so.

(As an aside, when my brothers and I first started running our own game shop, Wizards of the Coast sent a box of introductory starter decks to give out to people interested in playing Magic: The Gathering.  I was disturbed by the things and didn't know why.  Then I realized they were about the size and shape of cigarette packs.  I had heard TCGs called 'cardboard crack' before, but the resemblance to the packaging of a legal addiction bothered me until the day I got out of the business. TCGs run on the addiction model in a variety of ways.)

RPGs have multiple levels of player buy-in issues.  Like board games, you can get away with buying just the main rulebooks and be done with it.  Like board games, the rules can be a barrier to entry too, since you have to sell other people on playing the RPG.  But there's a third problem with RPGs that simply doesn't occur in the other three types of game.  The RPG's setting itself can be a problem if the players don't want to buy-in by reading and understanding the setting.  I love the thematic and world of the Dark Sun campaign setting, but it is sufficiently alien to how most gamers think about the world that I have to have players willing to read the setting material to play a game in the setting.  The transhumanist RPG Eclipse Phase has a similar problem, but neatly provides a solution in the form of fish-out-of-water PC backgrounds.

I'm not sure how to wrap this article up.  But since a lot of tabletop gaming relies on players selling to players, I'll just give this advice to people.  The first rule of marketing is to know your audience.  If you know your audience, you know what buttons to push to get them interested.  By extension, you also know which members of the audience not to waste your time trying to sell the product do.  I really like Demon: The Descent, for example, but I would never ever try to sell my real life gaming group on playing it because we can't stay serious for more than five minutes and that would be absolutely lethal to the kind of tone Demon: The Descent demands.