Be Not Afraid: Bold Directions for Developers

Sometimes in life, you’ve got to take chances. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, wipe the sweat from your brow, and take a tumble with the dice and see if you get lucky. Sometimes, the dice fall your way; sometimes, you lose your chips.

No. I’m not talking about gambling in the traditional sense, but in the “fortune favors the bold” sense.  You have to stick your neck out there and see if someone is waiting to wrap you up in a velvety coil of scarfy warmth or has been sharpening the guillotine and is patiently waiting your arrival.

I’ve been sharing a lot of insight on things which can definitely be considered safe bets, so I thought we’d look to the horizon and shake things up. Let’s talk about the long odds which you can manipulate just a bit to set yourself up for success in your project–be it an adventure or with an eye towards publication.

The Proposition: Create something uniquely yours. To remain still is to die. When one is in “the Industry”–and we’re speaking game industry here, folks–you need to find your niche. The safe bet is the traditional standard of fantasy. You are also relatively safe if you broaden your scope to include superheroes, horror, and, to a lesser degree, sci-fiction, pulp, or even the western. (That’s not to say one cannot find success in any of these things–companies have done so. Their success, however, means it can be more difficult for you to penetrate assumptions and perceptions within a particular genre.)

The Setting: The world and all you make of it. Whatever the world may be, needs to have your voice and carry your song with a distinctive style. You may mash-up the genres to create your own niche. You may take a different angle, a different slant, to something approached traditionally. Imagine, if you will, a fantasy setting where you play the commoners. It’s unique, but doesn’t offer a lot of pizazz. Now imagine, if you play the bad guys–the Empire instead of the Rebellion. Or if you’re playing gods. Or if you’re really jacked up heroes. Or, to take some examples out there–the Weird West has magic–or you’re oriental adventurers but there is magic and technology running amok.

Advantages: People like novel. If you take a unique enough slant, you have market protection. Your niche is your niche and other folks are pretenders to the throne. You make the rules for your world, and don’t have to follow anyone else’s canon or ideas of how things operate.

Pitfalls: People like the tried and true, and may not willingly leap into your game. Traditional is traditional for a reason, after all.  Unique–or weird–can be harder to sell (whether its to your game group or the public at large.) Its long odds is to create something weird–your weird niche may be weird for a reason–perhaps it has been tried before or there may not be a big enough base to support your proposition. Will people hang around long enough for it to grow? Will you? It can take a goodly amount of time to craft something truly original and, at the end of the day, is it really original? If it is truly original, it can be hard to market properly. It’s harder to find other writers to share your same vision. You have to create a canon of how your setting operates and you have to keep your canon–if you break your rules you’re cheating, unless you explain the exception (which, in turn, must then become part of the canon- hither-to-unrevealed until now).

The System: Another tack to take is to develop an entirely new system for your setting. The setting, in and of itself, need not be particularly unique.

Advantages: By creating your own system, you have ultimate control of your destiny. You can build it on the baseline of open game systems if you wish to surrender some of your own creativity to the hive mind or you can cut something entirely from whole cloth. People are more willing than ever to give new systems a go. We’re in a unique period of game development in that regard. If you build a solid enough platform, you get to call the shots and decide if you want to allow other folks to jump on your bandwagon. Other folks building to your baseline gives you the benefit of more choice for the player base, as well as, driving more sales and recognition of your own materials.

Pitfalls: Do we really need another system? There are many types of games out there, and every new one fractures the market to some degree. What makes me want to play your system more than Brand X? You start with a base of ZERO when you’re building your system identity. This is far more difficult to do, if this is your first foray into the Industry, but not impossible. It’s the biggest risk to take. You have to be willing to invest a great period of capital (time and/or money) to nurture and grow the base or at least be patient and doggedly relentless.

The Execution: Now that we see what we’re facing, you can minimize your risk in several ways. If you’re approaching this from a strictly pragmatic position, you analyze the market and see where there is space for a setting–either something wholly your own or something untouched for countless years. Nothing is sacred here. Just because there is one good horror game doesn’t mean there cannot be another. Yours. You just need to take it to a different system or provide another angle to approaching horror within said system. Think of Blood Loss: The Last Brigade for a moment. It’s the example we’ve been toying with for some time. It’s superheros, but it separates itself from most by the weird angle–the heroes are fighting during WWII. You could then counter by saying Godlike already has that covered. Certainly, but Godlike runs on ORE which is a solid system, but not for everyone, so we wouldn’t touch it on that front. Additionally, we have a different enough angle. The heroes have different parameters they operate within–a fraction of the powers available in Godlike, and their powers come at a cost. When used, it hurts them (either physically or psychically). So even if we were to create a setting in the same system, the rules operate differently, and the focus, despite the grime and glamor, is on the characters and their struggle to maintain their humanity while dealing with true Ùbermensch and an irradiated Hitler. See? Weirdness in spades.

Hedging Your Bets: It’s possible to bet on both red and black. You can range farther afield by going with a known commodity (be it setting or system) and branching out into other systems with your property or by creating numerous dials to attract a broader base/expand its functionality. In Realms of Cthulhu, we had a solid property to work with, but from our experience we knew people wanted to tell their stories in many different ways. We provide that, and people responded. With Iron Dynasty, we worked with a unique vision–samurai steampunk–and put it forth in a system still growing in popularity to this day–Savage Worlds. We will be releasing it in Fantasy Craft as well sometime next year. This allows us to offer one of my favorite properties in two systems with very different demographics–and who knows what other tricks we have up our sleeves? Let me be clear. We do not approach this from a mercenary perspective but, rather, making it available to more of our fans. I’ve long used the multiple console analog when describing why we do what we do. I am happy when video game companies go multi-platform with their products. It ensures a bigger base for the game which leads to greater chances for additional support and development, and gives me peace of mind that the company is going to keep churning out pixels yet another day.

That it’s for today, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed our spin around some of the considerations to keep in mind in game development, and encourage you to share our article with friends and colleagues, and join us on FB or Twitter. Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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