Friday, June 11, 2010

New Thing: Left Coast

Five years ago I wrote a role-playing game called Left Coast, in which you play science fiction authors living in a dreamy, drug-addled version of 1960s and 1970s California. The game is about trying to help these authors balance their family obligations with writing a novel, and hopefully doing that before they go insane.

Not only was Left Coast a lot of fun to work on, it also won an award and still has people who like it today. As far as I'm concerned, that's success ... but it's a form of success that brings up two questions for me:

First, is something worth writing if its audience will probably be intensely passionate but small?

Because the thing is: there's an audience for Left Coast. Like I said, there are people who still bring it up in conversation five years later. There are people who've volunteered to playtest it. Let me restate: five years after I wrote it, people are volunteering to play my game, and encouraging me to finish it. That is amazing.

And shouldn't I capitalise on that?

I feel churlish making the following calculation (like I'm scanning a free iPad for spyware), but I find myself balancing that audience enthusiasm against the numbers of people likely to like, play, and buy the finished game and against the effort involved in finishing it.

In fact, this is the first project I've mentioned here where I think Seth Godin's 'viral idea' post really applies. Let's say I execute Left Coast perfectly - I create a game that's fun to play and lives up to its potential, and I publish it in either (a) an attractive format, or (b) for free. Let's say the game reaches a bunch of people through the enthusiasm and evangelism of the people who already like it, and through whatever marketing efforts I make to reach more people who are into the sorts of things that Left Coast is about.

How many people will that second generation of people tell? Will the number of people who know about the game expand exponentially or will it flatten off? I'm fascinated by and uncertain about this. I know Malc's told Joe, who's into it. Jesse talked about it at Story Games a little bit (with no prompting from me).

My gut says that a game about sci-fi authors trying to write novels while they deal with weird shit that's either the result of them going insane or might be an alien invasion from an alternate dimension is an idea that (by its very nature) will have a small but intensely enthusiastic group of supporters: it's not people who play games, ... it's people who play role-playing games, and who are interested in the lives of drug-addled science fiction authors.

But ...

... that logic apply to every single RPG ever written on every single subject ...

... my gut instinct could be completely wrong.

So, really, let's rephrase my first question and ask: Does this game sound interesting to you?

Second question is: Am I into it?

Let's say that I shouldn't be concerned with how wide-spread the appeal of Left Coast is. As a creator, surely the only thing that matters is whether I'm excited by it?

That question, that phrasing, is the whole point of the New Thing. Am I excited by it?

Well, I like Left Coast. Even though I'm wondering if it's the best use of my time, I do want to make it better because it's a game I want to play.

So let's figure out what 'make it better' entails.

I think Left Coast's got the potential to be a pretty weird and awesome game. At the moment, it has a good process for setting up a bunch of eccentric characters who are involved in difficult relationships with the authors and for creating some conspiracies for the authors to become involved with. But while the set-up's fine, the process of playing the game, of generating conflicts and stories, is not so much sorted out.

Talking with Joe Murphy (who's keen to playtest Left Coast) about this, he gave me an insight into what needs to happen next:
I don't know if it'd help, but don't worry about producing a finished game. Literally, don't concern yourself with that. Just produce something that works enough that we can poke at it at the table and see where the system doesn't work.

This is similar to the Pixar philosophy of sharing your unfinished work as soon as possible. Rather than be terrified that something doesn't work, playtest as soon as possible. Joe continues by saying:
Try to create something that allows you to at least paper over the cracks in the system with fun roleplaying. Left Coast [has] such a strong premise that I've no doubt charitable groups would give it a shot and paper over the cracks.
So, for Left Coast to take a step forward in the next three to six months, I'd need to create a version of the rules that other people could playtest. That'd involve:
  • revising the game based on the notes I took and the feedback I received from the previous playtest
  • running a one-off playtest specifically to test and break the new scene framing mechanisms (and to brainstorm new ones)
  • starting a discussion about scene framing (perhaps on The Forge, or Google Wave)
  • running a second playtest (either a one-off or a 'fresh start' using setting and characters from playtest one
  • producing a draft of an unfinished game that "works enough" so that Joe, Malc, et al, can poke at it at the table and see where the system doesn't work.
Beyond that, success for Left Coast would involve publishing it in a format that evokes its subject matter, and it being a game that's not only fun but it also clearly explains how to play it. I'd also find out how to tell the audience for this game that it exists. ... And 'Wild Success' would be for Left Coast to be popular, to reach a dedicated audience, and for it to have decent word of mouth

I'm interested in your thoughts. What does this sound like to you: Interesting? Worthwhile? What's your assessment of the effort vs. the reward?


Simon C said...


I'm one of the Left Coast fans. It's a great concept. I think it'd be fun to play, and I think it'd capture people's imaginations.

What I think about when I think about publishing a roleplaying game is that even really modest success, like, selling a couple hundred copies, is wildly more successful than most self-published endeavors. Ask Helen how many poetry books she sells. Roleplaying is a great market for indie publishers.

But really, I don't super care. The way I feel is that, for myself, I'm always going to be a hobbyist. I write games because it's fun for me. That's gotta be the only criteria I use, or else why bother?

So is Left Coast gonna be fun? I think it could be, but I think it'll also be a lot of work. I think the concept is great, but it's the first act, if you know what I mean. It's situation, but I think what the game needs now is direction. The question that I think you'll need to answer is "what do the characters do?"

Vincent said recently that designing roleplaying games is easy, and publishing them is hard. I kind of agree now that I'm doing publishy stuff for OMT. It's not so much hard as it is wildly less fun than designing. I've made the decision that I think the effort will be worthwhile.

Billy said...

Tagline: "You are Philip K Dick!"

Sounds fun to me. (I am no barometer of mainstream success.)

Effort vs reward is a tricky thing. Over time there is almost no logic to what succeeds. More awesome stuff than can ever possibly "succeed" (commercially, anyway) is being created all the time. Do what *you* like.

Xanomon said...

I like the idea of Left Coast, and would be interested in playing it.

But I am definitely one the people who play role-playing games, and who are interested in the lives of drug-addled science fiction authors.

So I don't know if that helps with your worries about broader appeal.

A said...

I think the question is what do you want to do?
What are your priorities? Cash? the widest possible audience? Creative satisfaction? And what would be the opportunity cost of prioritizing this project?

FWIW though basically a non gamer I might be somewhat interested to try the game because I'm a science fiction geek and some of my earliest memories & formative experiences involved going to sci fi Conventions - but generally it does seem pretty niche.

Karen said...

I would definitely play this game (would like to volunteer to playtest :-) )... and i think you might find it has a reasonably large niche...

(too tired for lucid contribution, except to ask... if you do this do you think you'd learn enough from the process to make it worthwhile anyway?(whether it succeeds or fails in attracting a wider audience/making money/being an awesome creative endeavour or however you are measuring it... I reckon any experience you learn from is worthwhile in some sense)

Steve Hickey said...

Simon: man, you make a lot of really good points in a really small comment (particularly your points about the scale of success). Also, it sounds like you’ve got a firm grasp on why you want to publish games – it makes me a little envious, actually, because I can feel that issue is unsettled for me at the moment.

(Now I think about it, perhaps I’m in an equivalent situation with game design as I have been with script-writing. Just like I spent seven years writing The Limit, I’ve spent years working on Bad Family – which is supposed to be a simple, kick-it-out-the-door game. I am caught in a triangle bounded by ‘Perfectionism’, ‘Fear of Commitment’, and ‘Torn between possibilities’. … Which, of course, is what this series on the New Thing is all about.)

I’ll re-emphasise it: Left Coast is a game I want to play. Which means I’m happy to keep designing it … and have been working on it over the last couple of days, actually. But your question about what the characters do is a big one, and has been circling in my head since you asked it.

Steve Hickey said...

Billy, glad to hear you like the idea. And, like Simon, you provide a good reality check on the situation.

Your thoughts map into a conversation I was having with J yesterday where she asked why I write. Without starting another blog post on that, I was interested when she pointed out that all of my reasons had nothing to do with monetary reward or audience.

My motivations are almost entirely intrinsic.

Steve Hickey said...

Also: awesome tagline. I may very well use it :)

Steve Hickey said...

Xanomon, that's a great comment. I really don't think this will be a mainstream, breakout hit - but you reinforce that there is a target audience for this game that'd be willing to check it out, and that increases my confidence.

In my comment to Billy (above) I mentioned that most of my motivations for writing are intrinsic. But the idea that there's an audience who wants to play this game feels good to me. Even more than a writing script that no-one reads, the idea of writing a game that no-one plays breaks my heart a little.

Steve Hickey said...

A and Karen, this is just a placeholder comment. I've spent most of the day in recovery mode, but I want to answer your questions soon.