Who Will Buy?

Simon Burley’s article on USP touched on a subject I’m also concerned about. Who am I selling my game to?

My game started as a setting-free toolkit, but I’m told that toolkits are hard to market. Since I’m a consumer of games I can do some handy market research on my bookshelf (or hard drive). I reckon I’ve identified five marketing levers:

  1. Genre
  2. Setting
  3. Tools
  4. Procedures
  5. Experimental

1. Genre first

Genre tempts the player with promises of faithfully emulating their favourite milieu, while giving enough flexibility to make the world their own. Examples:

  • Wild Talents
  • Traveller
  • All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Genre emulating games are meant to get the GM (and play group) as far as the basic premise, but allow the group to build their own world. Wild Talents is clearly written with this in mind, with its axes of design for superheroic history. System often supports genre tropes, too (and if it’s a generic system, it may have been tweaked).

2. Setting / World-first

Unlike Genre, a Setting-first game has a world that is locked down with its own metaplot. A big part of negotiating that lockdown is deciding which bits of canon you’ll use and which you will ignore in favour of your own stuff. Examples include:

  • A|State
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Over the Edge
  • Exalted
  • Book, Film and TV tie-ins such as Buffy, Smallville, Dresden Files, the Laundry, etc.

Unlike Genre games which promise a solid foundation, Settings promise a complete world to play in. That’s not really my bag, but a lot of games are marketed that way. The crossover is strong and most games exist on a line between genre emulation and setting.

I guess Genre and Setting are responsible for nearly all fiction purchases; either you’re interested in the book or film for its setting/character/situations, or you’re interested because it’s like something else you’re interested in.

That presents a slight problem for the next one:

3. Tools First

Some designers, myself included, can’t get past the system. System is interesting but it’s really a means to an end. Most games marketed on system are generic systems, like GURPS.

However, GURPS isn’t just a generic system; it has the support of hundreds of supplements that you can pick and choose from and blend to make your perfect genre. So it’s really an omni-genre game; it’s sold on many genres at once. Same goes for FATE and Savage Worlds; they’re stand-alone engines but they have the backing of many supplements.

Also, a lot of Tools First games are generic by design. They’ve been built for mass appeal in a variety of situations. I’m sure that some consumers will pick one game over another similar one because it’s based on Savage Worlds and within their comfort zone.

4. Procedures First

There’s a temptation to lump these in with Tools First; but really Procedures are the antithesis of generic Tools. Indie or niche market games do well with specific procedures, e.g.

  • Lacuna
  • Hollowpoint
  • Apocalypse World
  • Don’t Rest Your Head

However arguably the Riddle of Steel falls into this category too. It claims a procedural benefit over other games, i.e. emulating medieval combat.

Procedures rarely stand alone — they’re usually the bread-and-butter of specific genre emulators (e.g. character creation is an innovation of Golden Heroes/Squadron UK).

I don’t know how easy it is to sell procedures on their own. I guess Burning Wheel is an example, being chock-full of modular sub-games. I was sold on Hollowpoint for its play procedure; but even so, it’s marketed as a heist-genre game (but it’s so much more!). On the flip side I like the *World games, but the genre of Apocalypse World put me off.

5. Experiments


p>Lacuna claims to be an experimental game. Other games have very specific “creative agendas”; sometimes clear, often veiled and only implied by system. Now is not the time to analyse such claims. Instead, let’s think about the consumer who buys such games. There is a niche in our hobby for people to learn about and enjoy new games as a creative exercise. I wonder if it’s the same itch that drives people to buy jigsaw puzzles.

The aim of this post is to discuss why people make purchasing decisions and then consider what my game needs to make it marketable. Before I wrote this, I thought of it as a Tools game, but on reflection it’s really a Procedural game. That also makes it a Genre emulator of sorts — but what genre?

I guess the answer is “city fiction”. Transmetropolitan. Sin City. Thief: the Dark Project. John Brunner. China Mieville. Armistead Maupin. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it feels like progress.

Cross Posted to the UKRP Design Collective.

3 thoughts on “Who Will Buy?

    • Yes, I was writing that near midnight… so slightly incoherent.

      Tools — provide the GM with the means to emulate complete or partial systems. They’re transferable across different games. GURPS and others are like this because they say to the GM and play group “learn this for one game, and you’ve learned it for all of them.” So part of the USP is the consistency across all games. Palladium games did this, and of course there’s d20, BRP, Savage Worlds, etc.

      Procedures on the other hand are actual processes you go through in the game. CoC’s SAN is a procedure, *World’s “make a move” is a procedure, Don’t Rest Your Head’s despair token economy is a procedure. They’re not transferable in themselves, but they’re cool and they form a cornerstone of the game.

      And of course there’s crossover — e.g. if you buy into the whole *World hacking thing then for you both the procedures and the toolkit is interesting and useful.

      Hope that makes sense.

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