Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It’s not clear whether it’s an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a “system”. In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we’re talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that’s another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that’s a 1 – (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round — a few seconds — of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit — things like a warrior slicing his own head off — happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy’s rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 – probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) — and that’s the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you’re in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can’t be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they’re just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of “critical hits” (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of “degree of success” nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.

Software: The Disservice Model

Note: the author’s copy of Adobe Illustrator 10.0.3 hung twice while being launchd during the writing of this piece, which may explain a few things.

A friend of mine has a theory that if Microsoft ever produced a version of Word that actually worked, it would go out of business. (A lot of Macintosh users think that as of version 5.1 they did, and have never upgraded since, hence the theory.)

New versions of Word are usually notable for additional “functionality” that most users don’t want and can’t figure out how to turn off which slow it down to the speed of the previous version on much faster hardware. Recent versions do “helpful” things like prevent you from making points (a), (b), and (c) … because (c) must be a copyright symbol, or superscripting the “th” in “4th” whether you want it to or not. By far the majority of Word users do not want these features and cannot switch them off.

Meanwhile, Adobe has incorporated some kind of dynamic update service for its various flagship programs (such as Photoshop and Illustrator) which is presumably intended to make sure that if Adobe finds and fixes a bug, it can be seamlessly fixed before you necessarily notice it. Of course, the dynamic update service is the single worst bug in their software, and they don’t seem to be interested in fixing it.

Beyond this, there is a general trend towards switching from software licenses (which work kind of like ownership) to software subscriptions (which don’t). It all started going “pear-shaped” when Microsoft (for example) decided to refer to versions of its software by model year (like cars and evening gowns) rather than significant revision.

The software “service” model wanted to make software products less like appliances (such as your telephone) and more like services (such as your telephone service). Most people I know are happy with most or all of their appliances and loath and despise most or all of their services. E.g. wireless phone services and cable TV services are the two most despised classes of business in the USA (according to consumerreports.com).

It may not seem so bad to only have to pay for Word when you want to use it (which is probably what Microsoft realised when it stepped back from the brink). After all, most people get a version of Office with their computer and then don’t use most of it (how many businesses pay to put a copy of Access on every PC?), and forget they own it when they give the computer away or drop it into landfill. But imagine getting a monthly “Office Service” bill and having all your documents deleted (or just inaccessible) should you fail to pay it; this is the kind of “service” such companies would like to provide.

It’s funny how language evolves. Imagine what the word “service” will mean in a few decades.

What is copyright, exactly?

For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project — www.gutenberg.net.) Anyway there’s something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).

Now, let’s suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare… am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).

It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.

Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don’t remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.

If it were a book, Disney’s copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author’s estate’s permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.

But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only “rented”. (b) Disney has “remastered” the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there’s no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.

But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it’s possible to “rip” DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD’s total content duration. From there it’s a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).

It really doesn’t matter. Let’s suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there’s pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.

In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) — and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they’ll be wrong and human intervention will be required — so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.

Addictive Games

As anyone who is close to me knows, I play a game called “EverQuest”. EverQuest (or “EQ”) is an addictive role-playing game — sufficiently addictive that there is at least one “EverQuest Widows” group run by people whose partners, loved ones, and so forth have lost interest in them and switched to playing a rather silly, tedious game.

OK, so I call it a “silly, tedious game” and yet I play it? Well most games are silly, that’s the point. If you’ve ever seen a perfectly happy couple or group of friends arguing over a hand of Bridge you’ll know what I mean. But tedium in a voluntary past-time seems to me to be strange.

It seems to me that the creators of EverQuest have stumbled onto a “magic balance” of entertainment, challenge, tedium, and repetition that sucks people in. I’m not sure that if the game were, say, more entertaining, less challenging, less tedious, and less repetitious it would be more successful or less. I’d like to think it would be more successful but I’m not sure.

One of the critical factors of EverQuest’s success is the camaraderie of players. One of the reasons for this camaraderie is the brutally annoying, repetitious, opaque nature of the game. For example, all of the “cities” in the game are laid out insanely, have no sign-posts, and are split into “zones” which are tedious to cross (and one can stumble into accidentally). Consequently, most players’ first experience of the game is becoming helplessly lost in their home city with nothing but an almost sadistically worthless map and nothing to do. To deal with this one needs help. One tends to become friends with people one helps or is helped by. This is your entry into the EverQuest “online community”.

Next, everything in the game takes time. A lot of time. So, for example, you might want some rags to wear and a slightly better weapon. This will take you hours if not days. For example, to make one piece of leather armor (of which you may want ten pieces) you need a skin from an animal. Not every animal has a skin, apparently, so you’ll need to kill a LOT of animals. It’s dangerous killing the animals. This will take you a LOT of time and the assistance of your friends. So by the time you’re done you’ve probably played for tens of hours with a small circle of friends, set up consistent times to get online and hook up, and are starting to feel obligations to show up, return favours, and so forth. You’re hooked.

In order to create a game a typical player will play for 20-40h, most game designers put in a LOT of content. For the 20-40h you play their game there will probably be at least 10h of original, seen-for-the-first-time, content. To create this content, a group of writers and artists will have slaved away for six to eighteen months.

Now, to give your small circle of friends their 20-40h of entertainment, collecting pelts, making armor, recovering their corpses, and so forth, the content developers of EverQuest have had to do what appears to me to be very little work. On the down-side you’ve probably only seen 5 minutes (if time is a sensible measure) of original content.

Is it good that EQ is able to “entertain” so much for so little effort. Where is the “entertainment” coming from? Is it entertainment when it starts to seem boring, repetitive, and stupid?

It seems to me that most of EQ’s entertainment comes from the players, but that their contributions aren’t being leveraged at all, while the contributions of the designers of the game (5 minutes worth of original content entertains people for 20-40h) is leveraged hugely.

I think that the game that displaces EQ from the top of the online heap will be the first game that figures out how to better leverage the creativity of players without spiraling out of control.

I look forward to playing it.