Today, I’m going to be addressing game designers and the topic of third-party support; this includes official support and support for fan-made creations. If you have even a modestly complex product and a modest fan base, there will be fans who want to make things to support the game. How a game designer or game company handles this speaks volumes about both their opinion of their customer base and their willingness to listen.
From a tabletop perspective, there will always be fans; those who want to make form-fillable PDFs and fan supplements to fill out things they think are cool, or people making simulators so they can play around with design ideas for your card game, or even just dice-rolling programs with your game’s theme. There may also be people who want to offer to work with you more overtly to create official material, providing tools that you haven’t and possibly can’t afford to make.
Plenty of companies have handled this badly over the decades; TSR was notorious for issuing cease-and-desist takedown letters and threatening lawsuits if anyone put up a website about D&D before they went under and were bought by Wizards of the Coast. It hasn’t been uncommon to want to be the sole source of material and products for a game, and the logic is understandable if ultimately flawed. People will make things. You can spend your energy fighting them every step of the way, and slowly whittle down your customer base as people get tired of being fought, or you can try something else.
Wizards of the Coast introduced the Open Gaming License with 3rd edition; Paizo kept it alive when WotC backpedaled during 4th edition, and it’s spread out ever since. OGL licenses are commonplace today, and they help keep games thriving because they give explicit permission and guidelines to fans and would-be official contributors on what they can and can’t do with a game’s material. Many game companies have gone so far as to license their material to software companies to make character creation software, or to make official virtual tabletop software. The result of this has been an explosion in the customer base, as people find their fan creations welcomed and lightly policed, and find that the tools they ask for already exist, officially licensed and supported.
You can see the same thing with video games; the dichotomy between a company that spends a sizable chunk of their time fighting their own fans and one that supports them is significant. Niantic Labs, most recently famous because of Pokemon Go, has been fighting fans of their previous ARG, Ingress, for years now. One fan created a set of software that augments the Ingress Intel map, a shoddy pretense at offering community tools, and the community grabbed it and ran with it. Niantic has been trying to kill IITC since the first month it was created, banning people from the game and blocking the software on the grounds of ‘server issues’ – even as they turn around a laud people who use the tools provided by IITC’s software to plan out large pieces of artwork, operations on a regional scale, and more. They’re making the same mistakes again with Pokemon Go, refusing to provide tools the community is plainly looking for. The result? People continue to make illicit tools poorly optimized for their game, their server performance suffers, and people get banned or get fed up and stop playing.
Contrast this with a MMOG like World of Warcraft or Rift, which overtly provide support for addon modules; there are large repositories of software addons for these games online, able to be sifted and dropped in to be loaded. By making the tools available and giving the fanbase license to work within limits to improve and refine their experience, games like these experience a robust level of support from their fans. Yes, it may cause some server stress, but the alternative is fighting the people who are directly responsible for the life or death of your game.
Taking it back to tabletop, Monte Cook is an individual who has an impressive list of credits, and is essentially a tabletop demigod. His approach has been to let fans make free fan stuff as long as it contains the fan license, and to make a deal with a small product fee for those who want to make small-run products for sale. With Invisible Sun, he and the rest of his company have taken this a step further, creating an interactive storytelling event – a full-fledged ARG – to pitch his game to people. This is how you ensure the kind of fans that he and his products have; engage the customer base and make them feel like you’re welcoming them into the community. Paizo does this, with the many, many things they do like Pathfinder Society, the Adventure Card Game, and so much more. Post human Studios does it, straight-up offering their books in PDF form, free of charge, to let fans explore the world they make, trusting that they’ll get paid by those who like what they make.
It’s a powerful tool, when you can invite the fans in and make them a part of what drives your creations forward; when you can give them the tools to share their excitement and take part in your products the way that works for them, rather than according to some narrow Vision that you’ve got in your mind. I promise you that Vision won’t match reality, but inviting the fans will make something just as beautiful and far stronger.
So do keep in mind, those of you looking to make your own games, that your future fans aren’t your enemy. They’re your customers and your most powerful tool. Don’t fight them, embrace them. It’ll pay off.
That’s it for today!