Thursday, May 10, 2007

Critical View

Through Yehuda's blog, I found this link to be interesting: a blog post from Digitally Disillusioned about how geekdom destroys the things they love. Well, to a point anyway.

So, just to fill up some space here with some critical reponse, here's my take on a few aspects of the post.

Comparison of sales between EuroGames/Designer Games and Monopoly:
This is a false comparison. You might as well be comparing the sales of Eurogames to little carved Tiki statues from Hawaii. Here's why.

I've worked on a Monopoly-licensed product in the past. One of the more distressing things to come out of the meetings was the finding that most (by a wide margin) of the Monopolys sold (and their licensed brethen, ala Star Wars Cantina Monopoly) are NEVER opened and played. They are simply bought as gifts for people targeting a hobby. "Chuck likes old cars, let's get him 70's Muscle Car Monopoly".

In other words, they are bought not as games to be played, but as mere trinkets, like non-posable (and thereby non-action) "collectible action figures." So while they are "games" in the sense that, yes, they have tokens and rules and boards and things to play with, in reality they aren't really purchased for their gaming qualities. Which is why Hasbro keeps churning out licensed versions of the game along with Clue and their other well known titles. It's a commodity, not a game.

Euro-games, on the other hand are typically bought to be played. However, even if you remove all of the gift sales from Monopoly and counted up the games that were pruchased to be played, they are still much higher.

There are obvious reasons for this: well-known brand, shelf space at popular stores, and cheap price. And all these wind up getting factored into the Great Circle of Sales Life. If you can sell many, many of games that don't get played due to the branding, you can get your price point down, which also gets you the shelf space, which gets you more eyes, which gets you more sales, which gets your price point down, etc, etc. Simpsons Carcassonne anyone?

That's not to say it's a bad thing. I've always thought the Starfarers of Catan would be a perfect fit for Star Trek with it's emphasis on exploration and (mostly) helping out various other ships in need. Acquire themed around the Las Vegas strip would be pretty great, too.

And in hindsight, building the town of Springfield with little colored Meeples that looked like the Simpsons would be fun. And more importantly, more interesting to someone who would have trouble pronouncing "Carcassonne."

The Geeks destroy the industry that they love:
In regards to the podcast issue, I've sort of watched this kind of thing happen to another product, pinball. It's a case of where the manufacturers probably started putting a little too much credence in what the 'rabid, but vocal' fanbase wanted. Really, the only outside feedback from a player's point fo view are these people with a passionate grasp on their selected hobby, and the last thing you want is to have the vocal passionate ones sounding off on how a particular game sucks. In addition, from a company standpoint, when you are hiring for new people, you usually wind up hiring the passionate ones, because, frankly, they'll be the ones that care the most.

(For those with prying eyes who want to check out pingeekdom, since pinball really has no equivalent website, the pingeeks are still in the dinosaur age of communities at the newsgroup known as It's a pretty active newsgroup in terms of daily posts, considering that's there's only one manufacturer or pinball left.)

Of course, the dark side to this, and it happens everywhere, is that you wind up losing focus on the "silent base." This is the vast majority of the world who may play your product once or twice, or more, and may or may not develop a following, but they aren't going to shout what they think about things to the moon. More product is moved through the silent base; it's just that they aren't passionate enough to let their feelings be known. It's not going to become an ongoing dedicated hobby or obsession for them, but it will keep them busy when there's nothing else to do.

And the nature of the internet makes it worse.

First, it's REALLY easy to have your voice heard. Just send off that email or post it to a message board! Anonymously, even!

Secondly, the internet allows "Villages of Village Idiots" to become a reality.

I can't remember where I first read about this concept, but it's pretty true. At some point, before the wonderful connected world of the internet, any person who was alone in their thinkings amongst their peers could be considered the Village Idiot. Imagine the scene of one guy in the medieval village, spewing out various conspiracy theories, hanging around the fountain in the village square, spounting out ideas that only he considered to be important. Sure, he was harmless with his opinions. And he was lonely. Bravely trying to get someone, ANYONE, to agree with him.

But now, online, all of the lonely Village Idiots can search each other out with similar opinions. And create their own virtual villages that can zero in on their own little passions. A Village of Idiots! A place where anyone with a crazy notion can find someone to help prove that their own notion is correct!

(Of course, I really don't try to mean that anyone who geeks out about a particular subject is an idiot. Well, some are. But I use the term more as someone who has a niche interest that falls outside of the norm.)

This is one reason, and a very big one, that I feel we'll never get away from the hyper-partisan politics we now experience. You still think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and were minutes away from launching them from space satellites on the dark side of the moon? Well, without the internet, you have a hard time finding those people. Now you can find a whole community of like minded people who agree with you, and therefore, it MUST be correct. And if you thought the whole World Trade Center Catastrophe was some zany Canadian/Jewish plot -- well, that's not so tough to find either. You want to spread a nasty rumor around about someone else that you know the rest of your Idiot Village doesn't like, well it's pretty easy because noone in your village is going to refute it.

It's fine to think for yourself. But it's dangerous when it's not tempered with the force of opposite opinions.

Anyway, I don't think that the nature of the board game business has too much too worry about this yet. There are too many micro-niches within the niche. And there are plenty of publishers focusing on those niches, including niches that belong to the silent base which the geeks will routinely ignore. Or at least give off a passing kudo to before they focus on another shiny object from some report garnered at Essen.

Examples that I can come up with would be maybe Gamewright, who is always putting out new games aimed at little kids. Or Out of the Box (the Apples to Apples guys).

And one shouldn't be surprised about there not being a lot of cross-over success stories. How many boardgame throughout modern history have really been big, successful stories anyway? The fact that Settlers, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne have made any traction at all within the short time frame of the last ten years is probably pretty good.

In fact, virtually all of the new mainstream boardgame success stories have come from small publishers. Well, except for Heroscape, which I think will have a nice ride.

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