Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Value of Creating Scenarios for Your Game

This question is for game designers: Do you have scenarios or "adventures" for your game that are available to your customers (whether for free download or for purchase)? If such a thing is possible within the context of your game, I believe that you should.

In 2000, when Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, we saw a renaissance in modules. It seemed every RPG company under the sun was releasing adventures for the new game. It wasn't very long, however, before the modules started disappearing from the store shelves in favor of setting books, or products that featured new Feats, Prestige Classes, and the like.

Why did modules flower and then die on the vine and why am I insisting that scenarios are still a good idea? Well, a little simple math ought to help us understand the module phenomenon. Only a percentage of the people that buy your game are going to also shell out money to buy a supplement for your game. That holds true whether the name of your company is Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, or Burning Wheel. At BWHQ, our experience suggests that you should be able to sell a top-tier supplement (i.e., one that holds appeal to all types of players, whether GM or not) to about 25 percent of your installed base, give or take a few percentage points. If you've sold about 2,000 copies of your game to end users, you can pretty well count on being able to move about 500 copies of your supplement. Now our sample pool is rather small (we've only released one supplement that isn't also available for free download), so if anyone else has data that corroborates or deviates from our findings, please share.

Supplements have both pros and cons associated with them. On the negative side, you will sell far fewer copies of a supplement than you will of its core product. In general, you'll get less return for your time and effort, and your production costs are likely to be higher, especially if you are using traditional printing. On the positive side, if you are using traditional printing methods, you can gauge the size of an optimal print run fairly accurately. And that accuracy will increase as you collect more sales data.

The problem with scenarios is that they aren't even first-tier supplements. By their nature, scenarios tend to only appeal to Game Masters (assuming the game has one). In a game group of five players (one of which is the GM), a scenario product is only likely to appeal to 20 percent of the group (i.e., the GM). Still assuming you've sold 2,000 copies of your game, your addressable audience has dropped from 2,000 to 400 (or 20 percent of 2,000). If my numbers hold true, you can sell a scenario to 25 percent of those 400 users. In other words, you can count on moving about 100 copies of your scenario.

The numbers are grim. Unless your installed base is in the tens of thousands or higher, it's hard to see the financial sense in investing in such a product.

So why am I telling you that you should make them?

The answer is simple: Don't treat scenarios as products. Treat them as an investment in marketing.

Last year, Mike Holmes made a very interesting point. Basically, he said that in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, people learned how to play the game from the modules, especially stuff like Against the Giants, the B series, and Aerie of the Slave Lords. The core books taught them the rules, but not really how to apply them. While many later players were taught through apprenticeship, the early players didn't have mentors to turn to. Instead, they used the modules.

Scenarios don't just teach players how to apply the rules (most of our texts do a very good job of that these days), they teach players what your game is supposed to look like in play!

Our sales of Burning Wheel are good. We sold out of our first print run of Burning Wheel Revised in less than a year, and are already through a good portion of our second printing. But on our boards we saw a dramatic upsurge in questions and discussions clearly motivated by actual play after we posted a PDF of our scenario The Sword for download. The Sword accomplished two things: One, it showed our customers what to do with Burning Wheel; and two, it made it easy for people who purchased Burning Wheel to approach their groups about taking their cool new game for a spin without a long-term commitment. They could try it for a night and see what they thought.

Suddenly, the time and money invested in creating a scenario makes sense, even if you make it freely available! If you have created a good game and a good scenario, you will turn a percentage of the people that run it into evangelists for your game. They will run it for their friends, they will talk about it, and they will even run it at cons that you aren't attending.


Brennan Taylor said...

I don't have anything to add besides the fact that you are 100% right on this. I offer free scenarios for Bulldogs! for the same reason, and I think I will be posting some theme documents from a couple of convention games as starter Mortal Coil scenarios.

Andrew Kenrick said...

So would you say a free scenario is always a better idea than a paid-for scenario?

And what about the prospect that a free scenario can introduce new people to the game (after all, people love a free thing!) - do you think that could work too?

But I do agree with you - certainly when I'm trying to get to grips with a new game, I usually use the intro scenario or a free download as a way of getting into it and running it for the first time.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Andrew: So would you say a free scenario is always a better idea than a paid-for scenario?

That's something that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis and depends upon your company's position. WotC and a small handful of the other big companies have big enough audiences that a big, splashy scenario product may make sense, especially if it's viewed as marketing first and a product second. The primary goal has to be geared toward driving sales of the core product.

But note that WotC has plenty of scenarios that are available for free download, in addition to scenarios that are also products.

For us small guys, I think free scenarios are going to give us the best bang for our buck. If you're familiar with Burning Wheel, you know that we provide lots and lots of free supplementary materials, including scenarios and fully worked supplements complete with art.

For a number of our supplements (though not yet any scenarios), we give free access to the PDFs, but also print small batches ourselves as pamphlets, and sell them at cons. Even though the materials are available for free download, we've found that our fans appreciate both the cachet and the utility of having hardcopy versions.

In any case, even if you do decide to go with a scenario that requires purchase, I would recommend having at least several that are available for free download. As you note, free scenarios can help introduce new people to the game, while also helping groups get a handle on a game that they've already purchased.

The latter is just as important as the former. A gamebook that is played will continue generating new sales. A gamebook that sits on a shelf does nothing for you.

monkeyking said...

This is real food for thought, Thor. I mean, it seems to me like a scenario for, say, Shock: would totally take the fun out of it...

... but then I'd think that about any other game, too. And it's clearly not true. The Sword is a blast. It's really optimized to showcase BW's goodies.

I mean, it kinda feels like cheating to use a pregen scenario. But as a tutorial/promo tool? This starts to make sense to me.

The balance of my leeriness comes from my observation that people ignore free products. But what's interesting about this is that the target market here is people who already know what they want and have already given you money. These are people who want help seeing what you see in the game.


Thor Olavsrud said...

You got it, Joshua.

When we sell our games, it's really a two-step process.
1. Get the customer to buy the product
2. Get the customer to play the product

That second step is pretty crucial. Assuming a good game, active play is likely to sell the people that sit down to try it, and the people who sit down to try it are likely to sell a few more to people to which they describe their experiences.

Ideally, every game you sell will sell three more games in this manner.

But to even approach that ideal, we've got to provide the tools that make trying it easy, with relatively low commitment.

Of course there are some games in which a pregenerated scenario doesn't really make sense. I can't really imagine one for Death's Door, for instance (though I'll readily admit that I could be wrong).

Anyway, satisfied customers are the best salesmen we could wish for. We always need to make sure that we are putting effort into supporting our fans and giving them tools to play the game, just as we need to bring our A game to bringing in new customers.

Luke said...

Note well the lesson that Blizzard has taught us. They are one of the most successful game software companies of our generation. Way, way back with Warcraft 2, they opened up their servers so that you could play for free. You bought the game, then logged on and learned how to play with peeps around the globe. In essence, they gave away bazillions of free scenarios. And, in turn, they developed a rabidly loyal fanbase. Now, with World of Warcraft, it ain't free to log on anymore. Clever bastards, but that's another story.

So the free scenario thing is a proven model in more than just small press rpg publishing.

Malcolm Sheppard said...

If modules include free scenarios and demos I don't think they've declined at all. I think it's rather that companies know the value of what you're saying. Every new White Wolf game includes an extensive demo adventure and Mage is coming out with a big honkin' chronicle book next month. People obviously value them, since the Mage and Exalted 2nd demos both have ENnies noms.

I have to say that The Burning Wheel's site resources are what has won me over from looking at the game as a design reference to thinking about actually running it.

I do think that the age of saddlestiched scenarios for sale has largely passed, though there are a few companies/people that make them their bread and butter. But don't think anyone ignores the benefits of having scenarios. All the same, outside of D&D there is only a vedry small market for prefab adventures, because gamers who get through the wall of pure D&D tend to be inclined to write up their own.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi Malcolm! Thanks for your perspective and your kind words about Burning Wheel. I'm looking forward to the review on Shooting Dice!

I have no doubt that the big players know exactly what they're doing when it comes to scenarios. I've been looking at the adventures offered online by WotC and Malhavoc and have been very impressed.

It's an area where I think the small press publishers can definitely learn something and I think we're starting to do better.

Keith Sen(k)owski offers an impressive array of material for Conspiracy of Shadows on his Encyclopedia of Shadows wiki, Vincent Baker has been collecting towns at his site for Dogs in the Vineyard, and Brennan Taylor has some scenarios available for Bulldogs!, among others. But there's always room for improvement!

I think that understanding the real role of these adventures, especially for small press publishers, is an important first step.

Jye Nicolson said...

I absolutely agree.

I see a lot of value in free adventures - both in people actually playing the things and learning thereby, and the wealth of examples you can offer to further illuminate the core material.

I did my best with the Weapons of the Gods freebie intro to build the thing out of material that would be useful outside of the context of the adventure, so that it'd be a useful resource to everyone who read the document, not just those who ran the scenario.

Anonymous said...

Hm. I think you are on the mark. Question: Where do CoC scenarios fit in? I think they might be an exception to the general rule, but I am not sure.

-Lisa Padol

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi Lisa,

I don't have any special insight into how CoC scenarios fit into Chaosium's model. I suspect, however, that as with most supplements out there, their real value is in driving sales of the core book.

Anonymous said...

Hm. Well, CoC scenarios certainly show how to play the game. I'd sort of assumed that Chaosium had sold most folks who want one a copy of the core rule book, but this is likely naive of me.

-Lisa Padol