Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The incestuous industry

Probably one of the most common laws of any creation/design project is the belief that whatever you are currently working on, no matter how awful or banal it truly actually is, is that it is going to be one of the greatest things ever. Or, at the very least, very good. It is, after all, your little baby that you are spending hours on that you could otherwise be doing limitless other things during that time, potentially more successful. But when you've got the design bug, it doesn't matter really; after all, one of the reasons you are designing something is that you think you've got a better way (or an idea with a better result) than what is currently out there.

And, given a forum to talk about this madly exciting new thing that you are shaping, of course, you will have an inclination to hype it up.

But do you have the right to hype it in the guise of a quasi-reporter?

The boardgame geek hobby, as much as many fans would like to believe, is a pretty small niche. For the most part, it is comprised of many tiny publishers, most of whom are working day jobs, eeking out sales that are probably lucky to sell 3,000 units. Sure, there are those who may be considered to be wildly successful, such as Z-Man and Days of Wonder; but even by those successes are really tempered by comparison to the niche hobby itself, and not by the mainstream. There's a reason why Hasbro bought out Cranium, and not Days of Wonder.

Anyway, given the nature of this small niche, there's bound to be some amount of "insider incest" going on. Hiring and marketing from within the realm of the known hobby space, as it were. Which winds up creating some interesting partnerships. Sure, from the publisher's point of view, you know that the people you are involved with have their heart and soul placed in the exact market that you want. But from the casual fan's viewpoint, things now need to be taken with a grain of salt. Incestuous Industry Insiders aren't a necessarily a bad thing, but again, their viewpoints are a bit skewed. You just have to be careful of those who report on the news that they, themselves, are creating.

And so, with that, enter Dominion. At his blog, Seth Jaffee had an observation about this upcoming game. And while he's approaching it from a what-does-this-title-do issue, there's another issue that caught my interest.

Valerie Putman and Dale Yu are both regular bloggers at, which is for all practical purposes, is the one-stop shop for designer game news and information for the fans of the genre. Sort of a kotaku for boardgame geeks. Unlike, which is more of a forum or database for fans, BGN is really the daily news update on the industry (again, from a "hey look, you fans, we've got news for you!" angle.)

Now, both of these people have been hyping the game for quite some time now, initially as a mysterious Game X. At least going back to the last Gathering of Friends top secret meeting (itself, a fairly incestuous event, I imagine). But, from all details that I can remember, it's always been as a reporter-ish kind of way, as if from a distance.

But now, it appears there's more of a personal stake involved.

So, now in the case of Dominion, here you've got two of the more well-known bloggers of the industry trying to spread the news of the "next great game," which just happens to be their baby, so to speak. Of course, we don't know how much of a personal stake they truly have, but at some point, it begins to look fishy. Early on, it seemed like they were both simply stating the facts of "Oh, I played this wonderful new prototype at The Gathering" or whatever. But now, they are reporting on a game where they acknowledge that they are more than just "active supporters." And as is human nature, something that you are creating becomes your baby, and you lose true objectivity.

I personally like this comment from Valerie's latest post about Origins, a fairly big game fair that was recently held in Ohio:

I also didn’t miss out on the hottest new game at Origins , since Dale and I were the ones teaching Dominion.

The hottest new game is still currently a prototype? Maybe within the small confines of a select group of knowledgeable insiders, sure. But I doubt for the ENTIRE FAIR. Of course, prior to this, she lists all these other games that were new to her, but didn't play, so to be fair, it seems she really didn't spend much time around the fair except for the small sampling of players who played her game.

Additionally, as developers they both also don't mind pumping up the game's ratings either. Plus a ton of insider-ish playtester ratings. I wonder what their ratings will be when the game is actually debugged! Crank that rating up to 11! Would any designer rate their own game a 3?

And with many things geek-related, once someone is told that something is cool, many a geek will follow along, just because, well, because someone said it was (and, let's face it, there's not really THAT much information of cool things on the horizon coming out on a daily basis in boardgame world).

Of course, the game may actually be this fantastic, or simply very good, or whatever. But it definitely shines a different light on their reporting of the game, as their mere association with the game is now muddied.

On a side note, I used to work for a company that got a reviewer fired for one of the industry magazines for giving a bad review of one of their games. Well, "fired" wasn't quite the word that they used. But that's another story for another day.

And as a final extra, there is something humorous about Ted Alspach running a series of Board2Pieces comics about the hype behind Dominion. Especially since he himself, is a designer of sorts (thereby making himself another incestuous industry insider) and while he does make mention of his countless Age of Steam variant maps, at least he never advertises them as the Next Great Thing. Even though he does shill his own game ratings.

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Blogger Yehuda said...

Excellent reporting. Thanks,

10:48 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

I've played a Dominion prototype, and it's a good game. Best thing evar? Not convinced. But, it's the sort of game that is likely to grow on you and with more plays I might like it more. Certainly the hype about this does seem to be coming from those closely involved in the playtesting/development, but up until recently, they are the only ones who have seen it.

As for the shilling, I can't abide by it, I'll not rate games I've either designed or published as a result, no matter how much I like them.



2:03 AM  
Blogger Jeremiah said...

Why shill your game when it has nearly 100 ratings (AoSteam variant)? It doesn't add (much) to an already good rating, but it makes you look like a tool.

I was very excited for Zombie in my Pocket to get to 30 ratings, but I never shilled, and I don't shill for my other games. Maybe other players don't mind, but I think it looks pretty silly.

8:50 AM  

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