In the same way that voters want to feel that the government listens to their concerns, gamers want publishers to pay attention to their feedback. Companies that don’t, or at least give the impression that they don’t, can earn a negative reputation that can dog them for years. You’ll still see D&D; fans, for example, criticize the TSR of the 2nd edition era for not listening to what they really wanted. Since game companies are in the business of selling product, this fan reaction is fair enough. Of course publishers want to make products that fans want to buy. That’s how they stay in business.
The trick, of course, is actually figuring out what they want. Gamers are a disparate lot and in any given conversation you’ll see a dozen contrary opinions expressed. Learning to tune out the noise so you can hear what’s really going on is a skill you can develop after some time in the game business. The internet has made this easier in some ways but more difficult in others. On the upside, message boards and e-mail make it simple for fans to give companies direct feedback, sometimes within hours of a product being released. The downsides are all the typical internet problems. People that can hide behind a screen name will say things to you online they’d never say to your face, small groups of vocal critics can pretend they represent a majority when really they are just isolated cranks with big mouths, misinformation that gets out there early can continue to be repeated long after it’s been disproved (TSR trademark the term Nazi is a classic here), etc.
So how do you know what to listen to and what to ignore? For starters give special attention to fans you meet at conventions. I find it’s always better to talk to people face to face rather than via the internet. It’s just hard to beat a real conversation and people will tell you things in person they might not bother to write about. Second, look for trends in e-mail and snail mail sent to your company. I find this feedback tends to be more honest than what you see on message boards. Oftentimes people on message boards just want to draw attention to themselves or grind their personal axes. People who take the time to write privately—be it positive or negative—tend to be more interested in communicating than grandstanding. Third, pay attention to how people are actually using your products. This may not be immediately obvious, but it’s important. RPGs are designed to be played so if you can see what is making it into people’s home games you can better plan to make future products even more useful. Lastly, watch what fans do because it’s sometimes different than what they say. For example, over the years umpteen gamers have said they are sick of settings like the Forgotten Realms and they want to see something different. And yet, even at the height of d20, settings that really were different rarely sold well. The very same people who clamored for something new would dismiss such settings as too niche or weird.
I bring all this up because this is the sort of analysis we were doing in the months after Blue Rose’s release. We had heard from people almost immediately who were interested in seeing a separate True20 rulebook. The question we had to answer was whether or not there was enough real demand for this to put it on our schedule and devote resources to making it happen. There were people who seemed to expect that we’d drop everything we were doing, abandon Blue Rose, and immediately implement this plan. Well, it’s really easy to spend other people’s money but it’s a whole different experience when your decisions affect the livelihoods of a half-dozen people. I had always tried to plan Green Ronin’s schedule and direction carefully and this was doubly true in light of the Osseum situation I discussed in the previous installment.
So the Green Ronin staff spent several months discussing the matter internally as we watched and listened as Blue Rose continued to sell and provoke discussion (and some amount of controversy). In that time we discovered that people were running a variety of different campaigns using the rules, particularly Star Wars games. We got a lot of private e-mail praising Blue Rose and many also expressed a desire to see a True20 core rulebook. We also got a bunch of inquiries from smaller publishers who really liked the rules and wanted to know if they could do compatible material. These were all positive signs. Of course, nothing can be done fast enough to please angry gamers with a sense of entitlement, particularly those with a hate-on for the Blue Rose setting that was beyond irrational (seriously, it was like they feared that the Blue Rose book would slip beneath their Princess Leia sheets to emasculate them in the dark of night). So we also had to listen to increasingly shrill and abusive demands from a small group of “fans” who seemed to believe that insulting us, belittling various staff members, and attacking Blue Rose fans was the best way to get what they wanted. While there was a certain comedy to these antics, their efficacy was nil. We simply don’t make important business decisions based on the screeching of a few internet trolls.
Now our own discussions started with the Black Thorn project and we spent some time kicking that idea around. We soon decided that doing another fantasy setting would be too limited in scope though. By May (that’s three months after Blue Rose’s release, for those keeping track) we had decided that there was indeed enough actual demand to do a proper True20 core rulebook. We spent that month coming up with a new plan and deciding on how we would execute on it. The important point here is that we listened to the people that mattered, the critical mass of real fans. Just as important was the analysis that this would be a good business move for the company, since at that point in time there was no room for missteps. Divining what gamers really want is more art than science, but as summer approached we felt confident that doing a True20 core rulebook was the right decision and we were making it for the right reasons.
In the next installment I’ll talk about the plan we developed for the release of True20 Adventure Roleplaying and some of the considerations that went into it.
End, Part 3.