Commercialization of the Old School: Part 4
Recap of Major Plus in Favor of For-Profit
I think I may, in the last post, have identified what I think is the main argument in favor of for-profit publishing in the old school, which is the role that trickle of cash plays as a psychological, as opposed to a financial, reward. Our community – and I suspect that this is true in most internet hobby communities, not just ours – doesn’t give back very much written feedback. Moreover, much of the negative feedback is ridiculously overstated (so is much of the positive feedback, too, it must be admitted). Overall, both the positive and the negative feedback tends to be vague, either “thank you” or “this sucked.” But if someone antes up a few bucks to buy the resource, and more and more people jump on the bandwagon, you know that you’re doing something right, and that people are reading your work.
Analyzing Some More Negatives
So now let’s focus on what I think are the true negatives of that commercialization, and see what kind of changes the whole development has made in the community. The negative I’ve covered so far – losing the quality filter provided by volunteer production teams – really didn’t seem to provide much of a problem although it was a small net negative.
First, are commercial posts clogging the message boards to a degree that people are turned off by the huckstering? Definitely the traffic in announcements of new products, or jumping into threads to mention “how my new product is perfect for the original poster” have increased since, say, 2004. In 2004 there were plenty of “this product is perfect” posts, but they were almost all about old products that have been in print since the 1980s or perhaps the 90s. In a few cases, they were about third edition products that could be converted, and there was a strong burst of commercial posts about C&C, but in general this kind of thing was nowhere near as prominent in the internet landscape as it is now.
Response of Message-Boards to “Press-Release” Clogging: Works
In terms of actual product announcements, the message boards (and here I’ll just cover the three biggest; DF, K&KA, and ODD74) have generally dealt with this issue in one way or another. The methods are generally in the shape of forum rules that some people appear to break with impunity or benefit from disproportionately, but that’s because the moderation accords with the internal philosophies of the message boards, not with generalized policies. As quick examples of apparent unfairness that actually aren’t unfair: (1) Dragonsfoot has a dedicated forum for Castles & Crusades, while OSRIC, which is probably a much more played system (and perfectly on point with the site) is relegated to a forum with all other retro-clones. This might seem unfair to OSRIC players until you realize that C&C was much developed on DF, and that OSRIC, while it is larger, can technically be discussed in terms of first edition on an existing and active first edition forum. C&C, as a more specific set of rules, can’t really take advantage of the first edition forum. (2) Knights & Knaves, as a second example, doesn’t allow discussion of Castles & Crusades at all, and certain clones tend to garner instant snarky comments. But that’s because K&KA developed OSRIC precisely as a “more correct” version of C&C, and also got hit heavily with a C&C edition war early in its history. The “certain clones” that get short shrift at K&KA are those not based on AD&D or OD&D, and Knights & Knaves has always been very militant about the fact that its FRPG subject matter is these two games (and their clones). Plus, even at K&KA, OSRIC discussion has its own isolated forum. (3) At ODD74, in line with that site’s laid-back style and not-militant moderation, you can get away with posting about non-OD&D material – temporarily. You better not make the mistake more than once, but most likely your original post will stay around for a while before getting moved, just as a matter of friendliness and courtesy. As the smallest of the three boards, ODD74 tends not to apply hard-and-fast rules as quickly or as harshly as the larger boards where the forum rules are broken more often. But someone who appears to be a deliberate rule-avoider, faced with a board with such a strong community, won’t get any sympathy based on trying to argue the letter of the board’s rules.
While a new publisher might fall afoul of the internal cultures of the message boards, the rules work as a way of protecting the boards from posts that are purely product announcements. All three of the boards mentioned have specific forums (or threads) for product announcements. So in this regard, I think that the perception of the boards being choked with product announcements are actually harking back to the period of time before the boards adapted to a stronger commercialization in the hobby.
Message-Board Response to Thread-Clogging: Difficult
Less easy to moderate are the situations in which a publisher jumps into an existing, substantive, discussion thread to pimp a product. Someone who doesn’t want to buy new material can easily avoid the announcement threads, but can’t really avoid situations where the mention of commercial products appears in a substantive thread. There’s another minor issue when it’s not the publisher, but a fan, of the product who jumps in, but I don’t see this as much different from someone advocating the original Tegel Manor as the best solution, when you still have to go and buy Tegel Manor on ebay. Whether or not people are sensitive to that, the real issue isn’t regular posters who have an honest opinion that some product ought to be mentioned on the thread, it’s when the publisher himself or herself is the one who jumps in. That smacks of self-promotion. To be fair, most of the time I think those publisher-comments are completely legitimate – we are, after all, gamers too. But that’s not necessarily clear to the other readers; they simply don’t know if the publisher has got as objective an eye as a third party who mentions a product.
This seems to be an area in which, for the people who don’t want to hear about recent products, there’s not an offsetting factor. It’s hard for the message boards to stop this kind of behavior, it’s often a completely honest assessment by the publisher (as a genuine hobbyist who wrote a hobbyist resource), and in moderation that sort of post is right on topic with virtually all of the message boards as long as the internal “real” rules are followed by the publisher. These products are written for the games covered by that message board. The real problem isn’t so much any one post like this, it is the sheer number of them that result from having so many small publishers. A quantitative change becomes a qualitative one. For those who like new products, it’s very cool; for those who don’t, it’s frustrating and insoluble except for one expedient – snarking. Snarking isn’t the best solution to the problem, since it targets one guy for one post, when the real problem isn’t any single post but the totality of them. Nevertheless, as a form of protest, it’s all that is left to the frustrated “I’m not interested in hearing what sounds like an advertisement in a substantive thread” reader. This is part of the reason why the internet can generate overly negative feedback, and if the publisher was truly posting as a gamer rather than as a publisher the snarking was probably unjustified, but the snarker is using pretty much the best tool available to make a point. It would be better to just say, “I really hate when people do this,” but nobody’s perfect on the internet.
Snarking as Protest: often the only tool for the job, but not a good tool
There’s not a solution to this that I can see, and I don’t see a direct corresponding benefit; it can only be gauged in terms of separate benefits provided by publishers, such as an increased number of resources in general. It’s worth mentioning, though, that snarky posts weren’t invented solely for the purpose of dealing with over-talkative publishers; one could even argue that snarking about publishers simply replaces edition wars as the snark-topic-of-the-day. So the problem isn’t that publishers cause snarky posts, it’s that threadjack-advertisements – for many people – reduce the quality of the threads. Sometimes that’s just perception, since the publisher might be absolutely right that the product is exactly on point with the thread, but the reader can’t know that up front.
Getting to the underlying issue: we’re two communities in one
It’s worth noting, also, at this point, that we have quietly identified two sub-communities of the old school internet community. One group is focused on the original products or free products. These guys identify their hobby as “out of print games and what we produce as a cooperative community.” Another group identifies their hobby as “an old school style of gaming” rather than as delineated by the original material. The second group is relatively quiet right now, because they are getting what they want: new products, supported games, publisher message boards, new things to talk about, etc. This group doesn’t need to protest anything, so they’re quiet. A few years ago, they were far more vocal, actively supporting new efforts by for-profit publishers. We saw this group lash back against restrictive definitions of “old school” in the community, and then we saw a subsequent counterattack against them when they tried to describe their pro-publisher and pro-supported-game viewpoint as “old school renaissance.” We’ve had plenty of pissiness between these two groups, mainly centered on vicious disputes about terminology, which is a classically weird effect of the internet as a medium of communication.
This is visible in retrospect, but at the time I definitely just thought we were trying to find the best term to describe trends – I completely failed to see the subtext of the discussion where the battle over a word was really a battle about whether the concept had validity in our community. Oh well, it’s not the first time that I completely missed the important part of things that were going on around me, and it won’t be the last. *sigh* It’s one reason I like mystery stories where the hero’s good at that sort of thing.
Second Possible Downside to Commercialization: Crowding out Free Resources?
The other perceived downside to increasing commercialization in our community is the question of whether certain resources, that would otherwise have been free, are now being offered only for money. I’m on social security disability, and my wife works for the state’s court system, so we are relatively poor. In this economy, lots of other people are in the same boat. It can be very, very frustrating to see all these products out there that I can’t afford. Once upon a time, when all of the activity on Dragonsfoot was about resources that Dragonsfoot gave away for free. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a measurable gaming budget – the community was looking out for me, and I felt that I was doing my part in return (OSRIC, donating art, etc). That’s a strong feeling of being part of a cooperative effort. And that effort doesn’t feel as cooperative any more.
I strongly believe it’s a matter of perception, but have no data
However, I have to be honest with myself about whether that’s a real change in what’s out there, or whether it’s just a change in perceptions. I think it’s both, and thus while it represents a change, it’s only positive or negative depending upon where you already stand, what you used to get from the community, and what you want to get from the community in the future. I believe, without any statistics whatsoever, that the quantity of free resources being produced is still roughly the same as it was “in the old days of the old school internet.” It’s simply that they (a) are less visible because of all the discussion of the for-profit resources, and (b) have probably picked up an unjustified perception that they can’t be as good as the for-profit resources … or why would they be free?
Anecdotal support for my belief
On this point, I would like to refer back to my earlier mention of people like Stuart Marshall, Chris Gonnerman, Bill Silvey, Gnarlybones, and all the others who produce free resources because that’s how they prefer to do it, not because they couldn’t get paid. If Chris decided to start charging for the various BFRPG supplements and adventures he produces, he would have an instant set of purchasers. He doesn’t want that. So it isn’t that the free resources have declined in number or quality, it’s that the for-money resources have gobbled up attention and bandwidth, and created a false perception that the free material is perhaps second-rate.
In addition, I know that for every person who is upset by this trend (and thus talking about it), there is someone else who loves to see the living games and “company-like” websites (but is largely silent, because for him, there’s nothing to complain about). If there’s a shift in the way things work, one group will quiet down and the other group will become vocal. It might not make sense, but it’s the way the net works. Again, I think this is a general point about internet communities in general, not just ours.
Is there an Offset?
If, like me, you don’t have much cash in your gaming budget, I think there’s no question that it will appear – bitterly so – that the increase in activity and the changes in the tenor of message boards have passed us by. I think (see above) that it’s a false perception caused by the fact that the rising tide of activity has largely been in the for-profit arena while the free products haven’t increased much in their rate of release. But just because it can be parsed out as a false perception doesn’t change it much as a perception.
Publisher Free-Stuff is there, but not very visible
As a publisher, I’ve given money to the old-school conventions (and I will soon be posting about NTRPGCon as it rolls nearer), I’ve given contributions to blogs, and from time to time I have sent free products to gamers who happened to mention that they were strapped for cash. None of this has been visible enough, though, to change general perceptions about publishers. It is my very strong suspicion that every single for-profit publisher in the old school community does the same sort of thing. This blog is only a couple of days old, and I’ve already seen Rob Conley send a free product to someone. Giving back is a definite feature of the for-profit landscape, but it’s erratic and generally too invisible to seem much like a trend. I haven’t ever given away a module, though, for example. That’s because a longer module might as well get published, and I always need shorter modules for Knockspell Magazine. It would be a lot more visible to the community at large if I published a free module, but mostly what I’ve given back has been at the tail end of the process – it’s money or free copies of a for-profit publication, not something that’s placed out front. OSRIC and The Quick Primer, and the art for BFRPG and other free things I’ve done with my own hands haven’t been modules, and I think people gauge “free” by modules. So, mea culpa on that one. Any publisher who wants to get a good reputation quickly should probably jump on this idea.
Is there a VISIBLE offsetting benefit to the change in tenor?
As mentioned above, if you are in the “living game” camp, there’s a benefit. It’s the 1980s all over again, with more new stuff than you can afford. If you’re less affluent, or in the “out of print” camp, then there’s a downside. It’s either the year 2000 all over again (lots of stuff you don’t want) or it’s the 1980s all over again, with lots of shiny new stuff you can’t afford. So, no. I don’t think so. I think the tenor of the community has changed. I can envision yet another possible (but unlikely) backlash in which – just as with the edition wars that split K&KA from Dragonsfoot – we might see one or more boards splinter off with the primary objective of escaping for-profit communication and focusing on producing free resources. I doubt that there’s critical mass for such a board to thrive just yet, but if we continue to see both (a) increasing membership in our hobby at the rate it appears to have been increasing since 2004, and (b) increasing for-profit activity fueled by that growing population and (c) the for-profit communication continues to grow faster than the rate of free-hobbyist communication … then I think we will see enough critical mass grow for the non-profit-only message board to appear. (Actually there will be several, and only one will survive, but that’s an observation for some other post some day about how message boards appear and disappear).
Is there anything to improve or optimize the situation?
First off, I have to say that my conclusion about commercialization in the old school community still comes down in favor of for-profit publishing, and it does so in two different ways.
First, being brutally honest, even if I thought that the overall effect of for-profit publishing were a net negative, I’d still keep publishing for profit. I enjoy the beer money even thought it’s way less than $1 per hour, and I know for certain – from experience – that without the quiet “attaboy” provided by that steady trickle of purchases, I’d get tired of doing the work in return for the relatively few comments the internet churns back up as the writer’s reward.
If I were somehow banned from publishing for profit? Yes, I’d still publish things because publishing is like an independent hobby. It’s addictive. I like making modules, I like writing resources, I like putting them together into books that look like real books. But I would produce far, far, far less. I’d also quit more often “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any more, by gum!” and feel (without cause) bitter that somehow I’m not being appreciated for all this work I do for free. Yeah, I can be a baby from time to time, no question. But that’s how it is.
The second way in which I come down generally in favor of for-profit publishing is that it increases the number of resources out there without (I think) actually crowding out the free resources. There are downsides that publishers shouldn’t be blind to: because of the changing tenor of the boards, a sector of our community (out of print purists) has seen the community change for the worse, even though another sector (fans of officially supported games) has seen it change for the better. This might (although I don’t think it will, in the long run) lead to another schism in the community. If the time is ripe, that’s a good thing, but if it’s done by someone who just wants to be a leader for the sake of having followers, and there isn’t really a strong drive for it, it will lead to a period when all the boards lose momentum, with the corresponding boredom and silliness and “pants +1” posting which accompanies such periods of time. So, that might be good or it might be bad.
So I don’t think it’s a matter of “fixing,” I think it’s a matter of optimizing the situation we’ve got. There’s going to be another intarweb war coming when Joe Goodman publishes his “old school” game – guaranteed. Some people will like it and claim that it belongs in our community as a legitimate topic, others will think it’s a cynical attempt to grab us as a “market,” and there will be a war. That war will spread to attacks on commercialization generally, and people who’ve been publishing first edition material at low prices with the best of intentions will find themselves tarred with the same brush. There might be a post-Goodman ripple effect in which the expanding scope of the battle causes one or more of our larger message boards to break off a splinter site as K&KA did long ago over 3e/C&C. There will probably be some loudly-announced boycotts against all for-profit publishers, even the ones that have been involved in our community for a long time.
So how do we re-align things to create as much of a win-win situation as possible? That’s the topic of my next post. We’ll see what I think up – I’m as curious as anyone to see.