Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Audience for the Small Press RPG Publisher

This started out as a Facebook post, but when someone asked me to link to it, I decided it belonged somewhere more permanent, and needed to be expanded as well.

 A little background: there are still people out there, like me, publishing pen-and-paper RolePlaying Games (RPGs), similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but about superheroes or comic books in general. These indie/small press publishers, like me, make use of public domain heroes in two ways: a cheap source of art (instead of paying for new art) and a cheap source of characters (instead of paying to license more famous characters, or just inventing our own that no one will have heard of). I do both, some might do one but not the other.

Ideally, there would be a healthy, growing audience for this material, eager to see any new material enter the market, even if the new material is only different in nuance from material that has come before.

 At issue is that this sub-niche of the RPG market, and the audience that it serves, is in reality very small. Even taking "Golden Age" and "public domain" out of the equation, the number of people still buying any type of superhero-themed RPGs is small. When new games come into that market, it can fracture the fan base for each of the existing games even smaller. The chance of a new game growing the market -- perhaps because it is innovative, or looks really slick and polished -- is slim. There is just too much competition from other sources of entertainment.

There are other dangers inherent in the new guy coming along and producing a new superhero RPG that is only different from previous attempts in nuance -- that is, trying to reinvent the wheel. There may be nothing wrong with earlier versions of the wheel, but because of limited ability to advertise, older versions may be quickly forgotten once the new version of the wheel is released. There is also the danger of over-saturating the market -- fans getting tired of seeing new games that seem just like the old games and being misled into thinking the market has nothing new for them and moving on.

What a new RPG should be doing, then, is trying to coordinate with and complement the existing games rather than directly compete with them.

A perfect example is my Hideouts & Hoodlums and Steve Miller's Nuelow Games. When I discovered Steve's work, I saw that, whereas I was mostly publishing a RPG that included Golden Age public domain work, he was mostly publishing Golden Age public domain work that included some RPG. The two complemented each other perfectly, so much so that we've even tried some cooperative ventures, like Nuelow products with H&H stats in them.

Another way to complement preexisting RPGs would be to stake a claim in some area not directly competing with any one of them. Like, a RPG that took public domain superheroes, but re-imagined them in an urban fantasy setting. Or one that imagined all 1950s public domain heroes as actually being Commie spies.

Another way to stand out by using game mechanics substantially different from what else is out there. Game mechanics can affect not just game play, but what players choose the game for. When it comes to abstract combat, almost nothing beats the old 1984 Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game. When it comes to adding more calculations and number-crunching to your combat, your go-to game should be Champions. If you want really abstract campaign play and aren't interested so much in battles, then Superheroes 2044 might be your thing. If you want a strong, campaign-focused game where heroes level up and get more powerful over time, then Hideouts & Hoodlums might be your game. What about your game mechanics will make your game stand out? What will distinguish it and make players choose it over so many other options?

Now, my rant has been RPG-focused because that's my area of concern, but those making comic books might feel the same way. Every time someone new tries to revive the Black Terror, for example, those already using the character are at risk from the issues I've described above. There are only so many people in the world left who both a) know who the Black Terror is and b) care, and those people likely have a limited budget for multiple iterations of the same character. 

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