Indie Games are Missing the Target

In my opinion coherent roleplaying games are changing the global rpg culture.

This is something anyone can see by looking at the latest editions of the most famous mainstream rpg brands. Games like Dungeons & Dragons 4 and 5, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3, Star Wars Edge of the Empire and many others are oh so slowly evolving their design; it’s maybe too little too late, or just an opportunistic marketing move, but it’s something. Meanwhile games like Fate Core, the various Powered by the Apocalypse (Dungeon World more than others), 13thAge and Numenera are appealing to more and more “traditional” gamers and are even setting their own (indie-sized) trends.

That said, I have been feeling perplexed. These changes are definitely positive but... why haven’t coherent games already conquered the world? :P
Why isn’t this change faster and more widespread?
Let me explain...

In 14 years of System Does Matter a lot of games have been developed that can be played without a GM, or with just 2 participants or even solo. Games that can be played to satisfaction in a one-shot or even just one hour. Games that don’t need prep work or even character sheets. Games that offer leaner and meaner technical text, with clearer instructions explaining simpler procedures, up to the extremes reached by RPG Poems. And more and more games are also turning into better products, adding professional editing, layout, illustrations and crowdfunded hardcover editions on top of a coherent design.

Basically every limit that stood between people and their desire to sit down and play has been tackled and somehow overcome. Still, to my personal perception, coherent games are a niche within the roleplaying-niche within the tabletop-niche of games. Why?
Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional rpgs (like D&D3.xFinder or Vampire or Shadowrun, let’s call them IGT for simplicity’s sake) are still the most widespread and played kind of rpg despite their evident lack of all the incredible features listed above. Why?

pic unceremoniously stolen from this tumblr :)
Ignoring for a moment the obvious and well known reasons (well established branding that goes back decades, etc) I think that one important but mostly unnoticed element of the equation might be that coherent games fail in identifying the appropriate “target audience” and design for it.

I’m starting to think that one of the big reasons for the success and longevity of IGT games lays in the fact that they empower a very specific kind of people. People passionate (stubborn?) enough to put a lot of effort, time and energy to get what they want from a game that in and of itself works against them. People dedicated enough to their hobby to buy, read and understand a book of 300 pages “just to play a game”. People willing to explain such a game to others, to actually find others to play, pitching the game enthusiastically in order to convince friends to sit down and play, that day, at that hour, once a week.
I’m obviously talking about GMs.
Everyone else at the table comes and goes, but these enthusiasts stay and keep spreading and supporting the hobby. In other types of media they would be called Hardcore roleplayers. In my personal experience not all hardcore roleplayers are GMs, but all GM are hardcore roleplayers (at least until they burn out due to the heavy toll such way of roleplaying demands, but that’s a different story).

Now let’s look at coherent games design both in past and recent years... to whom are they appealing? who do they empower? to whom are they targeted at?
(ignoring for a moment that most were created with no target at all, just born out of love and passion for an idea)

Originally they offered solace to IGT disgruntled players and burnout GMs, or teenagers-turned-adults that had no more time and energy to spend on IGT games but still longed to play. A niche of ex-IGT roleplayers.

Then the focus seemed to shift towards Casual roleplayers; by that I mean all the people that might happily sit at the table to play, and might even get a really good time from it, and might also be damn good and creative players... but would hardly put up enough effort to organize the game, to read the rules and explain them to other people, to be the first one suggesting “this evening let’s have a roleplaying game instead of doing other things!”.
Most Casual roleplayers are, at any rate, people that already roleplay, even if not assiduously.

Hell, the focus is even shifting towards NonRoleplayers in hopes of breaking through a wider and unbiased audience, people that have never played an rpg at all and would hardly consider playing at anything that lasted for “a bunch of hours” requiring constant focus and creative effort.

Unfortunately I’m starting to realize that for their very nature coherent games (so far) have been everything but Casual games while, paradoxically, IGT games actually are much more casual. Why?

- Most coherent games need all participants to learn the rules of the game.
- IGT ones don’t, only one has to make the effort.

- Most coherent games are very different from one another, asking to learn new procedures every time you try a new one.
- IGT ones don’t, while rules (you don’t need to know) change wildly, the overall structure and procedures stay basically the same always (what you’re expected to do as a Player is functionally the same from Cyberpunk2020 to KULT to Dark Heresy).

- Most coherent games require active and constant creative involvement (and social responsibility) from all participants.
- IGT ones don’t, you can just be a more or less interactive audience for the GM’s story/show, and unless you truly behave like an ass any problematic thing you do is expected to be death with and smoothed out by the GM.

- Most coherent designs offer an unsafe kind of fun (emotionally charged human themes, self expression, hard choices).
- IGT ones don’t, they are functionally all about power fantasies or very safe and escapist themes (action adventuring in a fantasy/horror/syfy sauce) which are so much more appealing to a Casual audience that just wants to play a bit with no strings attached

It’s no news that IGT games have plenty of drawbacks, we all know them well; but their very structure seems to be ideal to achieve two results:
  1. it is appealing to hardcore roleplayers; they are the kind of people that seem to not mind the work that is required of them, and in turn get a very high level of personal empowerment both at the table and in their gaming social circle
  2. thanks to the work of a few hardcore gamers, a lot of casual/non roleplayers can play with almost zero effort; such “large” numbers make it easier to eventually find new potentially hardcore roleplayers

It’s not a perfect mechanism, not even an efficient one to be frank, but something somewhere is definitely working.
Conversely most coherent games seem to expect Casual/Non roleplayers to do what Hardcore ones do (as in: go to your friends and convince them to sit down to play and then run/facilitate the game for them) and to do it without any special gold star empowerment, as such games tend to establish an egalitarian (healthier?) environment where one might be a facilitator or GM but then gets no special kudos for it (and instead might get frustrated when he sees, dealing with Casual/Non players, how no one else rises up to be a facilitator/GM in her place, feeling stuck in a traditional-ish GM-like role all over again).

. . .

In light of all this I feel much less perplexed by how slow the “world domination plan” is progressing.
And I’m not sure what to do about it.

On one hand I believe coherent games will naturally become the norm, for simple darwinian reasons that even the biggest publishers are already starting to see. It will take time, but I’m confident. No reason to hurry this process. There are also some indie publishing considerations here about sustainable design/publishing, but let’s not go there in this article.

Also the very idea of designing a game not to express something, but to assemble a product that would be more catchy to “the masses” rubs me the wrong way. It is a childishly naive reaction, but I have to face it nonetheless, and it too tells me to not worry about rushing evolution.

But on the other hand the holy grail of finding a way to turn Casual players into Hardcore ones is powerfully alluring, the ultimate challenge, to find a way for rpgs to go viral above and beyond the confines of the usual pool of enthusiast players, even putting a dent into the NonPlayer segment of the population.

So I can’t help but ask myself, HOW? I don’t know, maybe the “audience targeting” I mentioned before could be a good place to start.
I think that most coherent games are still, in many ways, designed by adults for adults to be played with other adults, let’s say people ranging from 25-something onward.

One possible venue might be to design games aimed at today’s teenagers, something offering a power/escapist fantasy good for the 2010 decade; don’t ask me exactly how, I’m not there yet myself. This might relate to the growing population of “Facebook RPGs”, basically Play-by-Chat or Forum (which are absolutely IGT, with MODs in place of GMs) with heavy pop references such as The OC, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl ... characters are beautiful rich and vapid teenagers messing around with each other while dealing with first world issues. Gameplay wise they basically work on a Mother-May-I structure where most of the time is passed posing as the pop-icon role of your choice. I can’t personally see myself enjoying such a thing, but maybe a vanguard designer might find a way to create a fun and interesting game out of that.

Another valuable target could be pre-teens and small children. I remember starting with D&D Red Box when I was 12, and playing hard with the Heroquest boardgame even before that (let’s say 10) and devouring Lone Wolf gamebooks even before that (since, I think, 6-8 years of age).
Maybe designing for that target might not be too bad an idea. Maybe one could target the parents and teachers looking for an alternative to TV and videogames. Let’s grow a culture of healthy roleplayers used to coherent games, instead of trying to hammer down the current IGT dominated one!

Something is being done here and there, don’t get me wrong, but most world domination discussions I read and hear are still completely ignoring the “targeting” factor.

Maybe, for those interested in the holy grail, it’s time for rpg designers to do a bit like other producers of entertainment do: think seriously about their potential target audience. We might lack the money to access big scale production, advertising and distribution; but we do have control over our designs. This is something we all can do.