Stuck in the Middle

Expecting Stealers Wheel? Sorry for the fakeout, but Malcolm and TMBG are much better expressions of where I’m going with this post.

Over the last couple of months, I have come to realize that a number of us who are small publishers and/or freelance game writers are stuck in a gap between two thriving sections of the RPG industry.

On the one hand (and fairly obvious) are the top-tier and second-tier publishing companies – the companies who have made it, who have positive balance sheets and ridiculously well-funded Kickstarter projects, who might even have (gasp!) more than one paid employee and a stable of freelancers.

On the other hand are the small-press indie folks, who tend to do solo projects that don’t require hiring lots of artists, writers, and layout designers. They find success because of the strong buzz created by what has become a thriving indie scene, but it’s a much smaller scale of success than that of the industry giants.

And then there’s those of us in the middle – trying to invest the time and money to build products with the kind of production values that you expect from higher-end companies, but still relying more on word of mouth for our marketing. Individuals and groups from this middle area that manage to find some success typically do so only by moving out of it – either by finding a successful product and moving into the upper tier or by releasing products that cater more to the indie crowd.

Marketing in the middle is very hard, particularly because we are kept out of the easy paths on either side. Let me explain.

Cult of System

In the upper tiers of game publishing, marketing is streamlined by what I call a cult of system. This refers to those dedicated fans of a particular game system who will buy or at least talk about just about everything that comes out for it. There are a lot of small publishers trying to make it out of the middle via Pathfinder just because they know there are entire sections of the internet dedicated to talking about everything that’s released for that system. The simple fact that there is conversation happening is hugely important. If you’ve ever seen the graph of Fantasy Flight’s revenues before and after picking up the Star Wars license, you understand the power of system.

Those of us in the middle have a hard time accessing this, even if we are writing for systems that are otherwise popular. Because the more popular the system, the more publishers there are trying to use it to get out of the middle. Getting noticed in that noise is challenging. Getting people to try your stuff when the big publishers keep putting out new books for that system is even more so.

Cult of Personality

On the indie side of things, there are a lot of people trying out game design for the first time, many of whom end up exploring creative solutions and innovative approaches that are transforming roleplaying. Getting noticed in this environment frequently involves connections to the social network of established indie designers. Because there is no cult of system in the indie side, many potential readers rely on these established voices to determine what products might be worth their time and attention.

Unfortunately, these are simply individuals, and they have limited bandwidth themselves for reading and recommending. Often they notice what other people notice, so once one prominent person notices it everyone tends to start talking about it. This means that forming a personal connection with at least one of those established designers can be extremely valuable. And of course, anyone who has people clamoring for their attention automatically becomes perceived as an authority, so the system feeds itself. (Note – this is not the fault of any of those designers, nor do I believe it to be intentional. It’s simply a limitation of the social system.)

Those of us in the middle may be able to access this buzz in the same way, but it can be more difficult if we are writing for some of those more established systems (or if we are writing systemless content). While we are technically small-press, we are not perceived as indie, so we don’t get the praise for pushing boundaries like indie games do. Indie designers may even believe that because we are writing for a more mainstream system we must therefore be able to access the cult of system and so may not feel that we need their attention.

Cult of Adequacy

So what do we want? As much as we might dream of someday being a top-tier publishing company, most of us just want our games and books to be seen by people who might actually like them. We don’t need to be the new hotness, we just want to be known by some people who enjoy what we do. We also don’t need to be the go-to authorities on game design, pushing the envelope and creating wild new gaming experiences. We just want to make fun games that may present an experience that isn’t being served elsewhere but doesn’t necessarily break the mold.

Is there room for us? I would like to think so. The RPG industry keeps growing, and both the top-tier and indie publishing segments are thriving. I would like to think there is room for middle-scale publishing that fits somewhere between.

But we need help. The marketing engines and social networks are not optimized for what we have to offer. We need people to talk about our products, review them, and suggest them when appropriate in conversation.

Okay, you made it through all that. You deserve a full song…

Yeah, it’s still not the one you were expecting. Sorry.

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