Friday, May 23, 2014

To the Person Who Keyed My Game

I began this week writing a comment on someone else's post that I wouldn't be talking about 5th edition, and now I'm going to write my third post in a triad about it.  Well, not about the specifics, but about the culture surrounding it.  There seems a lot that's worth saying.

Wednesday I explained what I thought about the model, and yesterday about my certainty that the game will endure no matter what the company does.  Today, I'd like to talk about the community's inevitable response.

I did get a comment that was excessively positive about the WOTC, and about Mike Mearls, head of research and development there, but it sounded so much like spam that I deleted it.  I suspect someone from WOTC has found this blog.  That would be good.  I want them to know I'm unhappy.

There's no question in my mind that blogs, boards and mock media websites sank 4e.  The online community was on its back from the first day of release and the hate has never let up, as far as I know.  I have heard it said that 4e was surviving on young people who had not played any other version, but the game club that I saw - where it was the only version allowed - was full of people in their 30s and 40s.  That game club has since switched to 5th, having received a copy of the game through the Sentry Box in Calgary, where they play.  They 'love' it . . . but they 'loved' 4th, too.

Except for small enclaves like this, however, mostly I just find hate.  And we've been talking about that hate for seven years now.  That's good.  I want a lot MORE of it.

The internet is a two-edged sword for corporations.  On the one hand, everyone's talking about our game!  On the other, oh for fuck's sake, what did we do now?  They want to control the message, but they won't.  They know that.  They're in control right now, because the release hasn't happened. And they'll hold onto that control for as long as possible, because until we see the content, we still rely upon what they say about it.  Unfortunately, that isn't going to last.

Once upon a time, I worked for a company that provided an in-home service . . . and this company was very big on marketing.  BIG on marketing.  They had over a million customers, so they had to be. Being tech-based, however, the customers had a lot of issues with what the service they provided, so the company had to spend a lot of their marketing effort towards making the customers like the product.

What was interesting about the marketing department, that I was attached to, was that they didn't care about the technical status of the product, or its comparison with other, similar products.  They only cared that their customers liked the product.  In this way, they were a lot like the British Air Command in WW2, that believed the war could be won by bombing alone, or like most artillery divisions, who feel that boots aren't really necessary to win a battle.  This is to say, the marketing department's theology - for it could be described as nothing else - was that if the customer could be made to love the brand that much, they'd continue to pay for the service even if the service wasn't provided.

As cognitively dissonant as this is, I can attest to being in meetings where this logic was brought to bear over and over and over.

My feeling is that all marketing departments fundamentally operate according to these principles. Apple is doing very well operating to these principles, though I think they're on their last legs.  One day, we're all going to watch Apple implode and everyone is going to say, "what happened?"

You can only ride the popularity train for so long.  Sooner or later, people will realize your product is shit.  I understand now, not having a decent computer, template or phone to offer, Apple has decided to turn itself into a 'luxury' product.  That is, it will sell itself more and more as a computer system to people who don't have time to do anything complicated with a computer.  Interesting strategy.

Right now, there are many voices who are still ready to support the WOTC, no matter what.  There are many voices who have been marketed into submission.  But that's not going to be enough. Dissent is like keying the side of a car.  The whole car can be worth $140K, but all anyone can see is that scratch.  And we know, right now, that many, many people have their keys out and ready.

Over the next ten months, a lot of people are going to express exhaustion at the dialogue.  They're going to encourage an end to the dialogue.  They're going to bemoan how much has been said and the need to say it and the endless repetition of the same points.  But I say, bring it on.  Shout.  Don't resist the urge to talk about Next.  When you see someone talk about it, say, "Good for you, bring that motherfucking company to it's knees."

The marketing department of the WOTC is dreading the launch.  They're dreading the moment when they lose control of the message.  They know all this shit about playtesting as been exactly that: a lot of media-manipulated shit.  They know that all the 'play-testers' are the sort of people who love to play-test, who have lost their perspective and who now find everything new to be a good thing. People willing to give up a part of their lives to do anything are the sort desperate for the new.  It is their fetish.

Unfortunately, however, the world is actually quite reactionary, and on the whole does not like new things.  And unfortunately, the Next marketing plan has had to admit that 4e was a mistake.  And now they have to sell this new dog to a lot of people who were formerly sold their old dog.  Who are now being told the dog they love is ugly.

Well, keys ready, people.  Do not disappoint the marketing department.  Make them understand that all their fears are justified.  Slam them, day and night, and cheerfully.  Because after this turkey hits the market, with both positive and negative aspects, its going to prove to be like every other turkey this company has fostered . . . with both positive and negative aspects.  The WOTC has stupidly, pedantically and cryptically decided as a company that their goal is to try to please everyone.

By all means, they should suffer for that.

16 comments:

JDJarvis said...

"The marketing department's theology - for it could be described as nothing else - was that if the customer could be made to love the brand that much, they'd continue to pay for the service even if the service wasn't provided."

That's sums up pretty much every marketing department I've ever been exposed to. It's pretty much the situation in most large corporations I've been exposed to. It's why the U.S. auto industry is a shadow of it's former self. It's why broadcast television is less and less relevant every day.
You can only market shit for so long before people start throwing the shit back.

Mark Van Vlack said...

One thing I am sure of is this, regardless of the quality of the product (I have no idea I have not seen any of the beta material.) As a community we are in for a year or two of constant pro and con wrangling. I'm just hoping the people who are actuality being creative in the hobby can maintain a decent signal to noise ratio.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, Mark. It was your site I commented on. Thanks for commenting; I couldn't remember where it was and couldn't find it.

Have faith. MY signal to noise ratio will be insanely positive.

jdmoyer.com said...

Hi Alexis -- it was my comment you deleted. Not a WOTC employee (sorry) ... just a reader of your blog. I especially enjoy your map/world creation posts.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, jd, I'll be nice.

There is a rule on this blog that if you're going to disagree with my point, you have to present an argument. "We called Mike Mearls over a rule about the game and he got back to us in an hour" isn't an argument.

See, I have read Mearls. One of the things about him is that I can find something stupid he has written in the last two weeks EVERY TIME I try. That is impressive. Here is something impressively stupid he wrote ten days ago:

"When you attune an item, you run the risk of falling under its thrall. Though not all items requiring attunement carry a drawback, one never knows the item's purpose or the intentions of its creator."

In a game where I believe the players deserve MORE agency, the WOTC head of research is looking for more ways to take agency from the players, including the invention of words to codify the DM's agency. Swords that could take over were part of the original DMG, but anyone who had played that scenario ONCE could see what a crapfest it was for the player, 40 years ago . . . but here is the HEAD of research, promoting the idea, giving it a name tag and speaking in glowing, HAPPY terms about how WONDERFUL it will be for your campaign.

What a tit.


jdmoyer.com said...

I wasn't actually disagreeing with anything you wrote ... just suggesting that you check out the 5e rules for yourself. As a rules junkie and frequent house-ruler to every edition I've played, I found a lot to like in the new mechanics, and very little that I felt compelled to modify.

I'm also impressed at WOTC's openness with their development process. Certainly they could be accused of trying to "please everybody," but to me that beats the alternative of just dumping a new edition that vastly changes the game without getting feedback from players and DMs (as happened with 4e).

Then again you might hate the new rules. I recently did an "old-school" game day at one of local stores (Endgame in Oakland) and we played through part of Barrier Peaks with the AD&D rules. I was reminded of how much the rules can affect the feel of the game. D&D has become a different beast. In my opinion, improved, but I would still rather play than not play, regardless of the edition.

Alexis Smolensk said...

jd,

If you read the post you commented on, the third sentence begins, "I do have two players who have given me some idea of what's being offered there . . ."

This was a reference to my checking out the 5e rules myself. Since I had said so - admittedly obliquely - right in the post, when you told me to check out the rules in your deleted comment, I presumed that you hadn't bothered to read my post. That's another thing that made your comment look like spam.

Do I seem like the sort of person who doesn't do research? Does it seem likely that in two years of writing this blog, and being somewhat aware of the Internet, that I'm likely to miss the endless discussions on play-testing and so on? Or that I haven't read Mearls blathering on about it? Does that seem likely?

Because if it does, I don't know how to convince my readers that I'm well-read.

5e is a claw-back to many of the things the way they should have stayed an age ago, that the WOTC had to realize after their clientele blasted the 4e debacle unceasingly. It's nice that they've realized they made a mistake, but unfortunately they've decided not to ditch the mistake, return to the beginning and start again, they've decided to hybrid the mistake and try to keep it alive, something like stitching the dead corpse of Heath Ledger to Jack Nicholson to create a 'new and improved' Joker.

It's dumb, half-assed, completely PREDICTABLE corporate thinking, and I want no part of it.

As afar as "how much the rules can affect the feel of the game," that remains a lot of nonsense. Bad rules disrupt game flow. Good rules do not. That's the 'feel' of the game that's affected by rules. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who fail to realize that the 'feel' of the game is the responsibility of the DM and the Players.

ANY game can be made good, if the participants are prepared to cut the deadwood, work on the game's presentation, produce a positive setting and embrace the enjoyment of their fellows.

Alexis Smolensk said...

jd,

If you read the post you commented on, the third sentence begins, "I do have two players who have given me some idea of what's being offered there . . ."

This was a reference to my checking out the 5e rules myself. Since I had said so - admittedly obliquely - right in the post, when you told me to check out the rules in your deleted comment, I presumed that you hadn't bothered to read my post. That's another thing that made your comment look like spam.

Do I seem like the sort of person who doesn't do research? Does it seem likely that in two years of writing this blog, and being somewhat aware of the Internet, that I'm likely to miss the endless discussions on play-testing and so on? Or that I haven't read Mearls blathering on about it? Does that seem likely?

Because if it does, I don't know how to convince my readers that I'm well-read.

5e is a claw-back to many of the things the way they should have stayed an age ago, that the WOTC had to realize after their clientele blasted the 4e debacle unceasingly. It's nice that they've realized they made a mistake, but unfortunately they've decided not to ditch the mistake, return to the beginning and start again, they've decided to hybrid the mistake and try to keep it alive, something like stitching the dead corpse of Heath Ledger to Jack Nicholson to create a 'new and improved' Joker.

It's dumb, half-assed, completely PREDICTABLE corporate thinking, and I want no part of it.

As afar as "how much the rules can affect the feel of the game," that remains a lot of nonsense. Bad rules disrupt game flow. Good rules do not. That's the 'feel' of the game that's affected by rules. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who fail to realize that the 'feel' of the game is the responsibility of the DM and the Players.

ANY game can be made good, if the participants are prepared to cut the deadwood, work on the game's presentation, produce a positive setting and embrace the enjoyment of their fellows.

Alexis Smolensk said...

(continued)

An argument that begins with "the rules made a better game" offers me proof positive that the speaker either has never played a good game, or that they are hopelessly deluded about what a good game is, what it requires, how to obtain it and so on. It tells me the speaker is one of those who has pompously decided that theirs is a good game because it IS, and that must be due to the rules, since they can think of no other justification for it.

The book I'm writing has an agenda - to explain why campaigns work. People have no idea why, even when they do. So they cling to the "its the rules" argument. But that's a straw.

Games work for entirely different reasons.

Matt said...

I'm feeling a sick sort of deja vu reading jdmoyer's responses. I remember saying things very similar about the release of 4th edition.

To quote the me of the past:

"I like the effort that Wizards has put into rebalancing and streamlining the game. It's going to be a lot harder to create broken character builds and stuff. That means the game is going to be easier to play! Besides, it's not like guys in black vans are going to come steal all of your old books. If you don't like it, that's fine. You should just try it!"

It's this weird optimism born entirely out of the assurance made that "Really guys, we're not going to fuck this up like we did last time! Look at how we fixed everything up!" It's hard to ignore it when you've come to rely on the corporate game. The game you're playing has become bloated and stagnant, and then you're presented with something fresh. You want to believe things will be better because you don't want to believe that the corporate game is actually designed to bloat and stagnate.

Therein lies the thing that I don't like about Pathfinder. It took the foundation of a corpulent, wheezing, dying game and stuck it full of feeding tubes and oxygen to keep it clinging to life.

What I do like about Pathfinder though is that it took D&D's major third party publishers (including Pathfinder publisher Paizo themselves, who had previously been publishing both the Dungeon and Dragon magazine) and turned them into WOTC's own worst enemies.

If I can offer one more bit of praise for the OGL that we discussed in the comments of the last post, it would be for giving other publishers the tools to really dig at WOTC. Pathfinder literally would not exist in its current form (as a direct clone of 3.5 D&D) without the OGL. No Pathfinder means that WOTC gets to produce D&D with literally no competition.

Barrow said...

As afar as 'how much the rules can affect the feel of the game,' that remains a lot of nonsense. Bad rules disrupt game flow. Good rules do not. That's the 'feel' of the game that's affected by rules.

So, Alexis, your point is that no matter what rule system WOTC puts forward in 5e, they have still failed to further D&D. This is so because ANY game can be made good, if the participants are prepared to cut the deadwood, work on the game's presentation, produce a positive setting and embrace the enjoyment of their fellows.

You, and others, are declaring that WOTC has no interest in putting out products that "improve" player experience that extend beyond mechanical rule changes. This is because if players knew that they, the players, were the key to great role playing games and not revenue generating player handbooks from WOTC, then no one would buy WOTC books.

I would object to that assertion, because I don't give the corporate manager that much credit. I think that, like the earlier commentor, the corporate managers do not understand the crux of your response to him. They are ignorant to the idea that the rules have little bearing over the enjoyment of the game, and that burden is borne by the players. If they could enhance the experience of their customers, I feel they would to expand their customer base. Their are plenty of products to sell in the vein of enhancing gaming experience (outside of rule changes). It is useless debating whether WOTC managers are ignorant or not, because we die a little with the time wasted and because the results are the same.




Alexis Smolensk said...

Consider, Matt, I've been through this FIVE times . . . if we count the emergence of splat books in the mid-eighties, 5 to 6 years before 2nd edition. They were talking then about "new, new, NEW!"

I don't see the solution being another corporation, or business competition. This has to stop being about business. I would rather see a strong, gaming club / single table environment that is less academic and more corporate in structure. Though that's probably wishful thinking.

At the very least, perhaps the corporate end of the game could stop publishing rules, and start manufacturing tools. Right now, skype, facebook, blogger and youtube have done more for the game than anyone. Perhaps we could have some tools that are a little less general use?

Alexis Smolensk said...

"If they could enhance the experience of their customers, I feel they would to expand their customer base. Their are plenty of products to sell in the vein of enhancing gaming experience (outside of rule changes)."

Barrow,

The quote on your comment was directed at participants of the game, not the WOTC, but you raise an interesting point. This would explain why I take such umbrage about Mike Mearls. Because you're right. The corporate heads of the company don't have any idea. Why should they? That's why they hire experts. But Mearls is no expert. He's some doof that fell into his job, who's repeating age old hype that he's obviously copied from.

This makes both the company and Mearls responsible. The company because they allow themselves to be duped into thinking this guy deserves to be in R&D. And Mearls because he's obviously coasting on his paycheque.

I've had people tell me Mearls is a really nice guy. It turns out, from the same discussions I had about the Gamerati weeks ago, that everyone pissing all over my game is a really nice person. Apparently, competence is supposed to be measured by how nice we are.

We in the real world, however, know that success is measured by how nice you APPEAR. Mearls clearly has WOTC corporate fooled.

Me, personally, I measure success by how valuable someone is. Mearls has no value for me. His niceness has no value for me. I'm going to keep explaining why, because that's how change happens. A little discomfort followed by a little more discomfort and then a little more, and in time the whole charade falls down.

I don't think this is time wasted.

I look back at people who have written as I write about things they didn't like, and in every case it always looks hopeless - until change happens. I can't think of anything more valuable to do with my life than to perpetrate a change.

Barrow said...

"I look back at people who have written as I write about things they didn't like, and in every case it always looks hopeless - until change happens. I can't think of anything more valuable to do with my life than to perpetrate a change."

I will not argue with that. Your pen can be very inspirational. Godspeed.

Matt said...

Speaking of perpetrating change, I just got How To Play A Character in the mail.

It is, admittedly, a little bit smaller in form than I expected. I am not at all disappointed with the contents though. I haven't made it all the way through the book yet, but I probably will over the next few days.

As always of Alexis it is very well written. The essays in the book are some of the most relevant parts of this blog in published, physical form.

I will be sticking this book under the nose of my players for sure. I will urge them to buy the book, of course.

I'd be happy to write a review for the book once I've finished reading it if Lulu allows user reviews. I unfortunately do not have a blog of my own to advertise it though.

Dave Cesarano said...

This post reminds me of a scene from Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 and the film with the same name. Actually, I'll reference the film directly:

I can't help but think of the scene where Cathcart and Korn are telling Yossarian, "All you have to do is be our pal. Say nice things about us. Tell the folks at home what a good job we're doing."

Working in marketing when you are logical and rational has got to be like standing in Yossarian's shoes. Especially when you're talking about WotC. Indeed, the only people who could survive in such a surreal environment are the very deluded True Believers that make such an environment exist in the first place!

Re: Mearls, you're right on. I remember reading some of the stuff WotC put out about 4th edition. I think Mearls was running his mouth back then, too. Back then, http://thealexandrian.net/ had some scathing and insightful comments about what Justin Alexander called "dissociative mechanics" and other problems that were becoming ostentatiously apparent to anyone with half a brain.