Saturday, 28 December 2013

Navigating the Barriers

Whilst perusing the blogosphere lately I’ve either struck on a pattern forming or at very least I’ve found some blog posts that resonate with where my head is at with the hobby.  It’s probably the latter really and the nature of my Google-fu.

Over on Plaid Hat Games there was a post about Barriers Of Entry to the board gaming hobby.  This is something I’ve touched on here in the past but mostly from the community angle as opposed to the product angle.  But then again I’m not a publisher of games!

Whilst reading this I was nodding away enthusiastically and then realised that I may actually be a barrier of entry.  But before I dig into that topic it’s worth exploring the elements that Colby talks about in his blog post linked to above.

A lot of what is covered is focussed on the board game market which is to be expected as Plaid Hat are a board games publisher but at the same time it can be related to the other formats within the tabletop hobby.

Rules

“What do you mean I need to read this 100+ page book before we can start playing?” Nothing worse than being given a manual on how to have fun.  This is particularly problematic when it comes to RPGs and Wargames but some CCGs (I’m looking at you Magic The Gathering) have similar challenges when you look at the “comprehensive” rules.

The size of the tome isn’t the only problem though and as Colby says the ability to read, digest and ultimately understand a ruleset whether that’s on 1 page or 100 pages is what’s important.  I used to have a rule when it came to RPGs that if the character sheet looked complicated then the rules must be too.  Whilst that’s probably been unfair at times over the years it is however a reflection of rules being a barrier.  Taking a board game like Bang! however the rules are relatively simple; unfortunately the rulebook reads like it’s been translated from Italian by Google Translate…

Layout of the rules is also particularly key.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read through a “Getting Started” or indeed “Character Creation” section of rules only to learn elsewhere in the rulebook that I’ve missed something or worse still got it wrong.  Proof reading isn’t just about grammar and spelling it has to be about flow of information to the reader too.

The solutions presented by Colby are fine and whilst I don’t want this to be a response post I do feel that watching videos of actual play and indeed having a game demo’d to you are not good ways of learning how to play the game.  These are more about showing what playing the game is like rather than explaining how to play the game.  Plus the number of times that Wil and other people get the rules wrong doesn’t help matters.
So what’s my solution?  Participate in actual game play.

This is not the same as having a demo as really a demo is only there to give you a taste for a game.  This is participating or perhaps even just being a spectator of a game that you’re interested in.  This gives you the fun factor of playing the game, playing with other gamers and also helps to determine if the game is of interest to you mechanically or thematically.

So how do you participate in or spectate on a game?  I bring you back to common themes of this blog – community and the flgs.  Both of these present opportunities to take part in games for the first time and also hark back to the other category that I’m going to mention but I’ll come back to that, honest I will!

Stage Fright

This barrier I agree with wholeheartedly and believe that it can be compounded by the community in which you’re playing in or indeed attempting to join.  I’d agree with Colby’s solution to a point but for me Stage Fright is as much about how you tackle engaging the new player into the group.  My post on New Players is relatable here.

Cost

Again I'm going to agree with Colby on this which will likely come as no surprise with my posts on value tackling this from a consumer perspective.  I do however think that pointing out the cost of production can at times be a double edged sword.  Smaller print runs suggests “unpopular” which in turn can work against getting people to take part in playing.  Yes it helps to explain the difference in pricing but it doesn't explain the value of the product being bought.
Education on the re-playability and in many respects the high production quality of the games across the hobby is where the solution lies, not through explaining the economics of the hobby.

Exposure

Yep, agreed on all fronts.  I think the community (including the publisher and the FLGS in that) is what helps here.  Promotion of the hobby as a whole is something we all should have a vested interest in.  Online shows like Tabletop and ShutUp&SitDown help but other exposure through mainstream media like Community and Big Bang Theory (which I have problems with but that’s a post for another day) TV shows help to showcase the hobby to a much wider audience.  Indie movies such as Zero Charisma (which I've still to see) also give an insight into the hobby. Indeed one of the best hobby themed movies is Tap: Max's Game which is a Czech movie about playing Magic.
The word nerd or geek is traditionally banded about when it comes to tabletop games and the mainstream exposure that the hobby gets is usually through the stereotypical nerd/geek representative.
My challenge back to the community at large is “So what?”.  I’ve been a geek since I was 12 (which is 28 years ago) and I was probably a geek before then too based on the TV shows I was into back then and that I was into computer games from the point of getting my ZX Spectrum not to mention my interest in comic books.  The tagging of nerd/geek doesn’t actually mean anything unless it’s being used derisory to demean what you’re doing.  <snark> Sure, go ahead make fun of me playing with funny shaped dice, at least I’m sitting round a table with friends and having fun… </snark>

Attention Span

I hadn’t really looked at this barrier in this way and maybe that’s a gap I need to review but in short Colby is spot on that finding the right length of game for the target player is as important as finding the right theme, complexity level and other facets of game selection.  Attention span though is as much about keeping the player interested as it is about how long a game can take to play through.  Indeed finding that game which tackles the “keep them interested” aspect is probably the only sure fire way of getting them interested in other games.
Playing a game of Tsuro because it only takes 15 minutes should only be done on the basis of “we only have 15 minutes to play something” and not because of the attention span of the player.  Sure if they like puzzles with elements of strategy and luck then Tsuro is a good option both because of the game itself and because it only takes 15 minutes you can play it more than once!

So this not-a-response response post brings me to the one thing that I think is overlooked in Colby’s post. In saying that I’m not surprised it’s missing as it’s probably one of those emotive topics that a publisher should stay away from to avoid rocking the boat with potential customers.

Gamers

I’ve touched on this before but didn’t really dig into it.  Gamers are as much a barrier to entry to the hobby as anything else.  This isn’t about problem gamers who are “no fun” to play with, although they do constitute a barrier of sorts.  This is more about addressing the knowledge and experience gap between the new gamer and the long standing gamer.  Indeed that can be extended further to cover the casual gamer and the “serious” gamer.

Gamers are as much an asset to the hobby as anything else, indeed a strong community is the very foundation of what makes this hobby great and is probably the largest single reason why I’m still a gamer.  So why do Gamers represent a barrier of entry to the hobby?  Simple.  It’s all about language and a certain amount of snobbery/elitism.
Think about it, the way you talk when gaming with your friends is laden with gamer phrases and in many respects will be very “in crowd” based.  Especially when talking about the finer details of rules and play styles and army builds and so on the new gamer will likely be a) bamboozled by the terminology and b) disconnected from the conversation.
I know I experience that sensation when people start to talk about army builds and deck combos as I’m not well versed in either the terminology or indeed the knowledge required to participate.

So what’s the solution? Well that really depends on the situation.

If it’s a club based community it’s largely the responsibility of the “leadership” to be on hand to help new gamers take part.
In a FLGS based community the responsibility really lies with the FLGS staff or a representative of that staff (e.g. an organised play leader) to ease the new gamer into the hobby.
If it’s a home based group then well it’s fairly obvious that whoever is doing the introducing of the new gamer really has that responsibility to ensure that all the other gamers are trying to include the new gamer.

There is however another aspect to this.  The new gamer has to be prepared for the experience of gaming, they have a responsibility to not be put off by the language (gaming language that is!) used at the table. That’s easier said than done especially if the new gamer is nervous about this endeavour.

Plus let's not forget the geek-mantra of “Don’t Be A Dick!” championed by Wil Wheaton which applies to both new gamer and existing gamer alike.  I'd like to expand on that by quoting the Wyld Stallyns and suggesting that we all "Be Excellent To Each Other" when playing games.

A lot of this has been touched on in other posts I've made but it was only when reading Colby's post that some of the barriers experienced in the hobby were crystalised for me.  Plus, it goes to show what my posts look like when I'm not posting every day.  I likely wouldn't have gone to this level of detail otherwise!!