16 Mar

Why the Mediocre is Easier to Sell than the Revolutionizing

Deltoidal Hexecontahedron made from Magic the Gathering cardsYou’ve done it! You’ve managed to combine Magic the Gathering Amazon with Miracle-whip and 50 Shades of Grey. Now all you need is to sell it and you’ll be set for life.

Trouble is, nobody is buying.

See, here’s the problem with innovation, true, revolutionizing innovation: nobody wants it. Oh, we might say that we want it. We might say that we want that to find that gem, that diamond in the rough, that will change the way we think, breathe, act and live. What we really mean is that we want a new Google where we can get in on the ground floor in the stock market race.

Security is king

Think about it. People want security. It’s a basic need, right there on Maslov’s hierarchy. We crave security the way we crave food and sex. Oh, sure, some people might enjoy rock climbing or extreme motorbiking or BASE-jumping. But even they crave security. They might jump off a tower but they wouldn’t want someone to shoot at them while they sleep.

So what’s all this got to do with your great new idea? Only this: if it will be too different from what’s out there no one will buy it.

Similarity breeds security. We look at one thing and see that it’s similar to something we already know. Then we feel that since we know this similar thing we’re likely to know what this new, not-so-similar thing is about. We might not know exactly, but we feel that we’ve got an inkling of an idea. That’s what intuition is all about, we see a new thing, our pattern recognition software goes into overdrive, compares it to an old thing we’re familiar with and, voila, we know how the new thing works.

That’s why we get so frustrated (ok, I get p***ed off) when things look familiar but don’t act in ways we expect them to.

The lure of Gateway Games

Duco, a great gateway gameThis is the entire idea of gateway games. We’ve got games that look so small and easy that anyone can play them. Mostly it means that they’re mostly made out of components that people recognize, such as standard Poker cards, Monopoly roll-and-move mechanics and Charades. Gateway games offer security.

But you haven’t made a gateway game. You’ve made Magic-on-a-toast. How do you sell it?

With difficulty. You can either try to find early adopters (this is the usual way to operate in the tech community, where early adopters are rather more common than amongst the general public). Using your early adopters you try to spread the gospel, show the mass market what your game is about. Sometimes this succeeds. Sometimes this fails miserably (just look at all the tech start-ups gone belly up out there). No guarantees.

You can also find a way to make the revolutionizing more familiar. Tie it to something people know. “It’s like Monopoly, only with miniatures.” “It’s like bread only you roast it in an oven.” Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But as tabletop game designers we’ve got a huge advantage over other industries: we’re surrounded by a large group of dedicated hobbyists who love the new. We’ve got early adopters that come out of our ears in the whole Cult-of-the-New mentality. People who will travel vast distances (Essen or GenCon anyone?) in order to play the latest games. It doesn’t mean that we’ll have it any easier to make money on our designs. It doesn’t mean that we’ll manage to convince publishers that our Miracle-Card is the new black. But it does mean that we shouldn’t be put off from thinking brave new thoughts just because the market is hard. The market is always hard.

It’s the thinking that makes it easier.

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