Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Customer Service: Two Personal Anecdotes Which Have Shaped My Spending Habits

I know I've talked several times in the past about game companies and customer service.

Let me give you two quick anecdotes that should give you an idea of how customer service has affected my spending habits.

To do this, you need to rewind time fifteen years or so.  At the time, I was spending an average of about $100 per month on game books.  And this is when hardcovers were around $30.  The bulk of my purchases were for White Wolf's World of Darkness setting (the old one, not the new one).

But I was also buying every single Star Trek RPG book I could get my hands on from Last Unicorn Games.

I was (and continue to be) an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, as well.  And, like many others, I have favorite settings from fiction.  One of my favorites is a classic no matter how you cut it.  Dune.  I have worn out enough copies of the various Frank Herbert books that they were among the first books I bought for my Kindle a few years back.  But that's beside the point.

The point is I love Dune.  The Frank Herbert vision of it, at any rate.

In 1999 or so, Last Unicorn announced that they had secured the RPG rights to the setting.  I ... I about exploded.  I wasn't terribly active online, yet, at that point, but I started monitoring the forums on and watching Last Unicorn's website religiously for any information they were willing to dole out.

They eventually announced that a Limited Edition of the core book would be available at GenCon 2000.  Nine hundred copies had been ordered from the printer!  I was ecstatic! The book was due soon!

Then Wizards of the Coast bought Last Unicorn Games, and the future of the line was thrown into doubt.  It was clear that WotC was going to turn all of Last Unicorn's properties into d20 games, because d20 was their big moneymaker.

A few weeks before GenCon, I e-mailed Wizards of the Coast's online store support to inquire about the Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium book that was reportedly going to be at GenCon.  Was there any way for non-attendees to get one?  I received an autoresponse followed a few hours later by a personal note from one of their reps saying, essentially, "We don't know."

A short time after GenCon (where, miraculously, the book hadn't sold out), I received an e-mail from taht same rep.  It said, essentially, that they did, indeed, have a few leftover copies that would be up for sale on their website, and she gave me a date and time.

I took a vacation day from work, and managed to get my hands on a copy of the book.  At cover price.

Because of that one incident from fifteen years ago, I have not spoken ill of Wizards' customer service, and I have supported them with my money.  Because their customer service was good, I have continued to buy their product (which is one reason why their limited GenCon book is frustrating to me this year).

Contrast that with White Wolf from about the same time:

I had the five core books that had originally been planned.  I had most of the splatbooks and a significant number of the various setting books.  I was running a crossover game - and had been for several years.  I had the politics of Tacoma/Seattle/Puyallup/Olympia mapped out for all of the major factions, I knew the history and I knew what the villains were up to.

Enter Demon: The Fallen.  I was (and still am) not comfortable with allowing demonic PCs in my games, for a number of reasons. And at the time, when a new core book came out, releases for the other games tended to lean towards that core book in some way to create a new gap for that book to fill. Then, a book or two later, they'd refocus on their core pre-existing conflicts and it'd be as if the new core had been there all along.  When Wraith: The Oblivion came out, for example, we got Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand, which had vampires who lived in the Wraith realms (whose names escape me).  With Changeling, we got Vampires who could interact with the Fae, and so on.

So I sent White Wolf a polite e-mail.  I explained that I'd been a loyal customer since 1994, and I'd bought most of their books to date.  I thanked them for their time, and then let them know that I was not comfortable bringing Demon into my game, and so I would be taking some time off from their game to let things settle down and normalize again.

The response I got was ... it was really rude.  It implied that I wasn't the sort of customer they wanted anyhow and clearly I wasn't prepared for "true" darkness in my games and don't let the door hit me in the ass on the way out.

So I never knowingly bought another White Wolf book again.  And I told all of my friends. I stopped running the game, which means that there were already half a dozen folks not buying.

I eventually got some of their d20 stuff, because I didn't know at the time it was White Wolf.  I also got Pendragon and the Great Pendragon Campaign - again, not knowing they were White Wolf products at the time (they're not anymore, BTW).

Now, I'm only one consumer.  And, even at $200 a month, I wasn't a major consumer. But I doubt I was the only gamer who was uncomfortable with Demon.  And I further doubt I was the only consumer to contact them.

Did I make a significant impact in White Wolf's finances?  Probably not alone.  Long-term?  Maybe.  There's no way of knowing.

So to recap the paragraphs preceding this: A good customer service experience has kept me coming back to a company which produces mediocre games with occasional flashes of greatness, and a bad customer service experience has kept me away from a company that produces mediocre games with occasional flashes of greatness.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

That Last-Minute Push

As I type this, Origins is about a week out, and GenCon is about two months away.  That means that games need to be in the printer's hands now.

Predictably, this means that I've had a dozen or so projects dumped on me in the last two weeks. 

I actually really like being busy.  It reminds me that the Gaming Economy isn't as bad as the rest of the economy has been for the last few years. It reminds me that GenCon is coming, and that's nearly always the highlight of my year.

I saw the GenCon Dealer's Room Map the other day.  Asmodee is in the dead center.  And it's another huge booth, presumably with demos in one section and sales in the other.  Steph and I have our hotel reservations in order, and we're waiting for Asmodee to get our flight information to us.

It's going to be an interesting year - we'll have a ton of new games, some of which I've never seen and will need to learn in order to teach them effectively.  We'll probably have another large crew - hopefully most (if not all) of last year's crew will be back.

And this year, there will be additional people out looking for me - folks that I didn't know last year but who I've met via Google Plus or other social networking sites.

But, in the meantime, I have half a dozen games left to tweak so that we can play them in a few months.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Rules Length

A friend recently gave me a print copy of Labyrinth Lord.  I remember looking at the book and thinking to myself, That's it?  That's all there is?  That's a remarkably thin book, considering how highly he's praising it.  There can't be enough rules for it to be completely functional, can there?

Then I went home and I took a look at my 1e PHB reprint, and it's about the same thickness. Maybe a bit thinner, even, once the cover is removed from the equation.

That can't be right.  Dungeons & Dragons is a thick morass of rules, isn't it?  It's got so many rules, you need multiple books to hold them all, even when pared down, focused, and "purified."  Right?

Apparently not.

A few years ago, I purchased Blue Planet V2.  I say "a few years," but I bought it when it was brand new. And then I bought all of the supplements as they came out.  I remember being completely gobsmacked at how few rules were in the game.  Discounting character generation, there are less than twenty pages of rules across the entire game line - First Colony had zero rules in it.  Frontier Justice was (and continues to be) the best cyberpunk-genre Law Enforcement sourcebook I have ever read and it only has rules for new equipment.  All of these books are, BTW, available now from DriveThruRPG if the Amazon prices go crazy (like they often do).

So I started looking through my games.  I've found it interesting how many role-playing games have fewer rules than we realize. Once you get past Character Generation, that is.  Because two-thirds or more of _many_ books are all about character generation (GURPS, I'm looking at you, here).

It inspired me to go and take a look at my board games, too.  It's amazing to me how many really complex/deep games can be explained in a surprisingly small number of pages..

Then I was reading the Kemet forums on BoardGameGeek, and a comment from Matagot caught my eye.  One of their guidelines for games is that the rules have to be eight pages or fewer. How many classic board games meet those guidelines?

I'll bet Diplomacy could fit into eight pages, depending on the layout.  You could almost certainly fit Chess into eight pages.  Monopoly used to be printed inside the lid of the box.  Carcassonne used to be six pages.

At the other end of the spectrum is Empires in Arms, which is ... well more than eight pages.  And is still one of my favorites.

A thick rulebook sets you up for a specific kind of fun.  One that is going to involve a lot of rules lookups and/or charts, tables, and graphs.  A thin rulebook tells me that I can just pick it up and play.

I ... I may have more to say about this another time, but right now, I have a pile of editing and revision in front of me that needs doing.  It's the last-minute-needs-to-be-printed-by-GenCon rush that happens every year.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Penny Arcade Report

Hey - Penny Arcade - can we talk for a minute?  Quietly?

We love you guys.  We really do.  Even if we're not fans of your comics, you have done a ton for tabletop gamers. Your occasional raves about this game or that game have boosted sales as much (or more) than Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. Your ongoing D&D games have been well-documented and have certainly not hurt sales for that line, either.

PAX, for all of its video game focus, still has an amazing amount of tabletop gaming going on. There is more (and better) open play than GenCon and almost as much organized play going on.  Your convention games staff is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and - quite frankly - the best in the business.

Your Penny Arcade Report has become one of my go-to sites for well-rounded coverage of the video games industry. You have consistently had well-rounded coverage looking at all sides of an issue, and you usually pick good guest bloggers, too. We know you want to cover All Things Geek, not just video games.  We know you want more and better coverage of tabletop games. And we'd love to see it there.

Just please be more careful.  This kind of thing makes you look like you don't know what you're doing. Whoever vetted "Infinity" as a guest blogger didn't apparently do more than a cursory amount of homework. Maybe he wrote a good tip on your tipline, and you saw the bits on tabletop gaming news or other sites - all of which look professional. But you didn't (apparently) look for any reviews of The Future Belongs To Us. You definitely didn't get your hands on a copy of the game, first, or you'd have seen the amazing art (as featured in this review or this commentary).  All you apparently saw was "self-published indie RPG writer" and ran with it.

There are hundreds and hundreds of tabletop games out there, with hundreds more hitting the shelves every year. But Sturgeon's Law still applies.  If you are interested in getting more involved with tabletop gaming, maybe you should reach out to the community rather than waiting for the community to reach out to you.  There are literally thousands of gaming blogs of all sizes and abilities out there.  Find a post or two on one you like and ask permission to re-post on PAR. Ask an industry professional for comment - if you want someone Indie, Ron Edwards and Luke Crane are both active online and can string together a coherent sentence.  And both of them can put you in contact with dozens of others.  With all of the PR work you did for D&D, you should have contacts at Wizards of the Coast. Other publishers often have contact e-mail addresses right on their homepage. And all of these folks would love to get coverage in your blog.

Want to talk about board games?  Start with Wizards of the Coast.  Talk to Fantasy Flight Games or Steve Jackson Games - all of these companies have been at PAX, so - again - you should have a way to get ahold of them.

Even if all you get is PR from them, that's something.  You can apply analysis to the PR, you can give it a spin.  It doesn't matter: it'll still be better content than the thinly-disguised infomercial you posted last week.

Another good idea for the tabletop end of things is appointing a full-time (or part-time) tabletop editor.  Ben Kuchera does a great job with the video game end of things, but either he's not knowledgeable or he's too busy to do a good job with the tabletop thing.  Having someone knowledgeable there to vet your tabletop articles would go a long ways towards building your credibility and making you that one-stop-source you want to be.

That's all I really have to say, guys.  You're doing a good job in general, you just screwed up this time.  We all do - it's part of growing.

Thanks for listening (or not).