Sunday, January 06, 2013

More on Amateur Hour

When I say that RPGs are "amateur hour" I mean a couple of different things. On the one hand that term has a pretty negative connotation-- of unprofessional-ism, etc.-- and I very much do mean that. Not just that there's a lot of badly made, badly edited products out there (although I do mean that) but also that I see, compared to other game design communities, a lack of seriousness in a lot of the RPG design discussion that goes on in various quarters.

What's the challenge of game design? Making games that are fun. What do Magic designers talk about? What different people find fun, and why, how to make cards that appeal to those people. What do RPG designers talk about? Why my fun is better than your fun. Not all of them, mind you-- but that this conversation happens at all is a supreme waste of time.

There's another side to the "amateur" coin, though, and it's that there's a lot of RPG products and content produced by people who are doing it just because they love the game, not because they have any professional aspirations. You can do that in RPGs because the physical barriers to entry are so low, and it's a good thing-- my own RPG bookshelf certainly attests to that.

Magic has consistently higher quality than 95% of the published RPGs out there-- including and really especially the professional stuff. They have a bigger budget for everything, and they're rewarded much more for "getting it right"-- for tight design and art everywhere and good visual design and good copy-editing. People have more fun, they can measure it, they get paid.

But the most interesting stuff that Magic makes isn't near half as interesting as the most interesting stuff that's come out in RPGs-- even in just the last year. Magic doesn't do weird. They don't do specific. They do well-produced, slickly-rendered, everybody-kinda-knows fantasy with a slight Magic: the Gathering twist. This has gotten even worse in the last few years, as they've gotten more successful. One of the lessons they've said they learned from Kamigawa block, their Japanese themed world, was that they should have been less specific and less culturally accurate and stuck more to what their players "know" about Asian fantasy.

Which is fine. I enjoy what Magic does, and they do it well. But I enjoy weird and specific and particular, and it makes me sad that Magic doesn't-- can't do-- more of that. One of the advantages of RPGs relative amateur-osity, is that they can do a lot more of that.

If they can quit arguing about who's way is better long enough to just do it.


  1. “Why my fun is better than your fun.”

    I think that these conversations are really about trying to figure out what—if anything—are universally fun factors and which bits aren’t universal. Not that the people involved fully realize that.

    I also think that a lot of us are constantly struggling to understand what we find fun. We think we know, but we engage in these conversations because, underneath it all, we really aren’t sure.

    Or maybe I’m just an optimist trying to rationalize it. ^_^

    Not that any of that invalidates your points.

    1. Can somebody give me a specific example of this “Why my fun is better than your fun” monologuery within RPG blogdom that is not related to an Edition Wars skirmish or a subjective conclusion based on comparison between differing mechanics?

      MTG is (and I say this without insult) designed to suit the tastes of the lowest common denominator. Same goes for nearly all other WotC products, naturally. They want to scrape in the most cash possible into the Hasbronic Corporate Machine. Most small press stuff produced by OSR peeps tends to be the opposite. Idiosyncratic, appealing to a small group of like-minded weirdos. There's very little democracy of flavor and style, and I think that's what makes these works desirable and sometimes compelling. I don't want the watered down RPG version of Japanese mythology; I want the well-researched one that has been processed by the imagination glands of some cellar-dweller recluse.

  2. "What do Magic designers talk about? What different people find fun, and why, how to make cards that appeal to those people. What do RPG designers talk about? Why my fun is better than your fun."

    Well, that's because collectible card games and RPGs are very different things. A collectible card game is ALL about the game as a commodity. While RPGs are also commercial products, there is also a DIY/small press element, from which games are created for the love of playing the game, and the people involved in that overlap very heavily with the people making RPG material for pay. So while the makers of a CCG are trying to make something that sells (and you seen to equate sales with a measurement of fun, and making something that sells with professionalism*), something that they think that you would want to BUY, the writers of the vast majority of RPGs on the market are trying to make something that they and their gaming groups would want to PLAY.

    *Hollowing out the definition of 'professional' to 'does something for pay', misses out on the much more useful understanding of professions as vocations and as communities.

  3. By the way, I know you know most of this, but I think that comparing RPGs to M:tG is a bit like comparing RPGs to a fantasy themes breakfast cereal - they might share a few aesthetic qualities, but both the producers and consumers of these products are looking for entirely different things.

  4. What? Why are you comparing RPGs to MTG? DrBargle recognized this is a weird comparison, but he didn't really specify why. It's weird because RPGs should be compared to board games/card games, not MTG. DnD could be compared to MTG. DnD should not be compared to board games.

    When you actually make the correct analogy, your whole "MTG designers do it better!" thing kinda falls through. There's *plenty* of "my fun > your fun" arguments in board games; there's a great big divide between heavily-themed, highly confrontational, luck-laden Ameritrash and dry, strategic Eurogames. There's plenty of garbage board games out there, just like there's plenty of garbage to RPGs, although the barrier to entry for board games is quite a bit higher since there's physical goods involved.

    And board games *definitely* do "weird" and "specific" even if MTG doesn't.

    Videogames, books, and television all definitely have legions of people having "my fun > your fun" type of arguments.

  5. Yeah, it's a pretty broad comparison, but that's part of the point. CCGs and RPGs share some key qualities-- they're both games, they both have a lot of modular pieces, they both have a strong social component, they both have a lot of math and numbers, they both use randomness, they have an imaginary component that contributes to their success (obviously quite different between the two, of course) they both have signal examples produced by a team of game designers in Seattle.

    But then obviously they also have a lot of differences. Part of the point of analogies is to compare things that are *different* to talk about why they're different, despite their similarities, and what's different about that.

    I mean, heck, if I wanted to I could draw some interesting comparisons between RPGs and breakfast cereal. ;D Actually did just that in the shower this morning while I was thinking about this.

    With that in mind, Vulcan-- I'm not sure I understand why MtG is such an inappropriate comparison with RPGs. Would you mind clarifying? Also, why is MtG not a card game? When you say "card game," what do you mean?

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  7. What are some RPGs you like in terms of "weirdness"?

  8. Welcome to the the New World Order.

    No don't worry, this isn't an odd conspiracy rant. It's just my firm conviction that amateur hour is the future of most of our current forms of entertainment. That it's now cheap to produce amateur efforts, which will never bring their makers enough to quit their day jobs, let alone to hire a professional artist or even an assistant.

    While the expenses of large budget glossiness, demand that those finished products appeal to the broadest of audiences or be considered failures. Large already means bland to many people.

    Consider the difference between the science fiction movie Primer, which is weird and brilliant, but will only ever appeal to a select audience, and the average comic book movie which has to sell in both Bangalore and Kansas, to make back the investment. The big budget model is doomed to fall at some point, as digital replication continues to erode the returns needed to meet that budget. Other than Kickstarter or corporate sponsorship, the future looks dim for slick and professional.

    Which leaves our future as amateur hour.
    Which means more weird, if lower quality.

    I think Hunter S. Thompson said it best.

    When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

    Our amateur hour is getting better. Thirty years ago, we used to cut and paste our zines, using the office copier when nobody was looking. Today we can at least produce a fancier version.

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