By The Warden
PREVIOUSLY: After weeks of humming and hawing over what I wanted to attempt, building up a core ruleset, establishing a concept, and writing about it extensively for nearly every week over the past couple of months, I have over 3,000 words ready to share as Project Phoenix’s initial draft. But not yet. Last week, the topic was filling in those unexpected gaps and it all comes down to getting as many people to look at your potential product without so many to avoid potential customers. That’s where we stand now.
When I first started out taking this Project from “what the hell” to “oh, yeah, this has to get done,” I had one idea in mind. Nothing complex, just a nice and simple idea to convert a homebrew setting and adventure into a unique release founded on a faster, easier system than my previous works. Maybe this is just the curse of creativity, but since then it’s swelled into something I hadn’t expected while simultaneously blossoming into a new look at some very old ideas. My trick today is to tease you, fair reader, about what I plan to announce next week without getting into too much detail as to completely spoil the big surprise.
Playtesting and marketing have become one-and-the-same in today’s digital distribution market. Not only do you need to reach the perfect sized proportion of your expected audience for playtesting, but that playtesting has to get the rest of the crowd excited for the finished, price-tagged product. That’s where I stand right now with the Phoenix Project. I need to make the playtest draft of this project a splash that will send waves towards the beach.
It’s an interesting impasse, when you consider it, because the line between early-stage playtesting and mass marketing becomes more and more blurred every year. When you consider the approach undertaken by Wizards of the Coast for D&D‘s next edition – completely open playtesting for two years as a means of not only getting the word out there but using it to rebuild the strength of the brand and get people psyched for the next edition by completely pulling back the curtain and revealing everything from Day One – it’s crazy. The impact of this approach for playtesting has reshaped the D&D marketing strategy so much that they want to keep that momentum going and will provide free material for everyone everywhere for years to come. That’s a massive outcome and demonstrates the power of positive marketing. It shows two things. One, confidence in their product. Two, faith in their fans to try it out and stick with it into becoming a successful money-making operation, even when there’s no serious need to drop down cash to play. Even with all the naysaying and a level of competition rarely seen in decades past. Let’s be honest, how WotC handled the playtesting of D&D‘s 5th edition was going to make or break the entire brand.
Now you turn to the opposite end of the spectrum and you’ve got little game designers, like myself, trying to get their product out on the shelves (virtual or real). We look at results like D&D‘s playtesting, Evil Hat Productions, and whatever latest Kickstarter RPG phenom is soaking up Twitter feeds on this particular day and want in on the action. But not so fast. That’s skipping ahead. Every new idea has to mature its way to that stage because even the new Kickstarter craze was in development for around two years, Evil Hat started up Fate more than ten years ago, and D&D is on its 40th year. This isn’t about applying the brake on getting too eager; it’s about slowly building up speed on the highway.
I have an idea that meets all the criteria set out during that very first post back in March – rules lite (only 3,161 words to explain it all so far), emphasis on story, versatile outcomes, easy to learn, and fast to play. These last two criteria are merely theoretical as no one has yet to properly roll dice for a game or two, but that’s still to come. Right now, I’m confident enough that a foundation lies in place to put those principles to the test. What I need are eyeballs to get this party started.
The first step, as established on the last Hood post, was playreading and it’s already underway. Prior to any public requests for playreaders, I sent out an email to seven select friends to do exactly that. Read and analyze. The goal is to get some initial feedback on whether or not I’m on the right track simply by gauging their interpretation of what’s written. The other is to make sure I didn’t screw up something so bad that it would lead to a public flogging if it remained in a week’s time when all of you fair readers will have your chance. So far, the response has been very positive and helpful and I’m very excited about the prospects thus far.
LOOKING OVER THE HILL
If you follow game designers – professional or aspiring – you’ll see plenty of requests for playreaders and playtesters for new and exciting games currently underway. It’s the double-edged sword of the industry because as soon as the box of free preview gaming was opened, everyone wanted to leap out at the same time and it’s caused a bit of a traffic jam for the average consumer’s attention. Considering any logical conclusion that only a single digit fraction of the target audience for any sort of open feedback campaign will actually take the time to download it – let alone try out your work at the table – is very slim. Therefore, you have to give people a reason to take time out of their busy free time and give your work some lovin’. You have to market your pre-marketing campaign.
Luckily, there’s been another growing trend in roleplaying games over the past few years – attraction for the systems behind the games. OGLs, Creative Commons, and simply good publicity have given rise to the mechanics behind your favourite games, all of which simultaneously encourage players to purchase other games built from the same systems as some of the biggest sellers on the market and try to create their own. It’s another shorthand for promoting your aspiring game. Name drop the system behind your game and people can instantly know what you’re talking about. Even fresh systems never before seen in a product make a point of standing out as the system has become an integral part of the game’s appreciation and understanding in such a crowded market.
An unknown system has larger hurdles to overcome because it doesn’t work as a shortcut… not yet. That’s where I stand right now and if we keep looking through the tiny window a designer like me uses to get eyeballs looking at his work, there needs to be as much reason as possible to get as much attraction to this little unknown project as possible. Seeing as I like to create entirely new systems from scratch (or the appearance of scratch, seeing as creativity is always fuelled by previous incarnations), this will always be a challenge. I need to create a reason for people to try out the game and learn to recognize and respect the system, which means I need to provide a system that can handle… well, everything. For this reason, I’ve had to adjust my original plans and develop TWO releases under the Phoenix Project banner.
One will be a free and open concept game designed to allow players and GMs to run a wide variety of scenarios, settings, and styles. A core guide and supporting supplements/adventures to demonstrate depth of options and possibilities that also encourages readers to become players. This will be Phase 1. Something that will (hopefully) encourage as much stress testing as possible while working to establish the mechanics as a viable option in the guise of a finished product. Something that will allow me to delve deeper into the mechanical and story potentials without bogging me down as I move into the later phases. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about putting together something half-baked. Just that Phase 1 will only be the beginning of a larger plan.
The second will be my original purpose behind this project and I’m keeping my lips tightly sealed around this one. Until next week. That will be Phase 2 of the project launch; the reason why I started all this in the first place.
By casting such a wide net with Phase 1, my plan is to get as many eyes as possible to playread, respond, connect and finally try it out. It’s a combination playread, playtest, and stress test to determine the mechanics’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as clean up the text to ensure it’s capable of reaching as wide an audience as possible. The first step of Phase 1 will come in the next two weeks, just in time for my 100th post for this column. It seemed incredibly appropriate to cast out my net from here, seeing as these past couple of months have allowed me to plant the seed that was burrowing a hole in my brain.
Until then, there’s work to be done. Notes have already come in from my good friends and the draft needs to be updated before it can be revealed and announced. Next time, there will be a complete first draft of the rules developed for the Phoenix Project and the unveiling of my new obsessions.