Monday, 3 June 2013

Differentiation - How Does Your Title Stand Out from the Crowd?

Our rpg marketplaces like DriveThruRPG average 18 new releases each day. Each release then joins the thousands of titles already on the marketplace. It's not quite the Apple App store's pace of 1,000 new apps a day, but like Apple's app store it leads to a market crowded with options where discoverability - getting noticed - is a primary concern for all publishers, especially new publishers.

Many publishers focus on the marketing tactics of getting noticed (e.g. posting on social media) once their product is already conceptualized or already published. Discoverability begins further back in the process though with designing a product capable of getting noticed. As rpg designer John Wick says:

John's Game Design Secret #1: Think of the person who would love the game the most and make the game for them.

In this post I'll offer a few specifics on creating products that can get noticed via product differentiation.

Two Books

Business is more exciting than any game.
-Lord Beaverbrook (1879 – 1964)

Alas for Lord Beaverbrook that he passed away before the advent of tabletop roleplaying games and the modern explosion of board and card games, else he might have found a game he enjoyed even more than business. Despite our having better fare than checkers and monopoly these days, anyone in the business of publishing games knows that the business itself can still be a fun game.

I like to stack my team in games, so I have preferred to stand on the shoulders of giants and read avidly what other business leaders and thinkers have to say about the game of business. Two of the most valuable books  I have read were Competitive Strategy by Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter and Positioning by Ries and Trout. I'm going to pick a few ideas from each book and mash them together below, but there's other gold in those books that I won't have space touch on here.

In Competitive Strategy, Porter posits that there are three primary types of strategy for a business: focus, cost and differentiation. DriveThruRPG is an example of focus. By narrowly focusing on roleplaying games, it maintains itself as a value proposition to customers that a general, all-purpose site like Amazon does not fill as well. Costco is a cost strategy business. A few publishers on OneBookShelf marketplaces are also arguably cost-based. Perhaps a publisher's strategy is to offer the lowest price option for paper miniatures for example.

Most entertainment businesses though are based on differentiation and having ownership of (or license to) a unique intellectual property that is protected by copyright law from being imitated and is different from other products on the market. Two common problems with differentiation-based businesses are that they are not truly offering anything different or that the difference they are offering is not one that many customers value. As creators it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our creation is unique when actually it's just another d20 high-fantasy game with warriors and wizards. Or if I come to market with a fantasy game that uses a rules system based on a d1000 instead of a d20, will many customers value that difference (much less have a d1000 laying around to use)?

Let's layer on some of the thinking that Jack Trout and Al Ries did on positioning. Positioning boils down to what do customers think about when they think of your product. Trout and Ries submit that for your product to stick in a customer's head, it generally needs to be the first or the best at something. If you cannot be the first or best at something, then a good strategy is to position your product as the first or best of a new subset of the larger category.

The classic example is beer. Hmm.. wait, I'm drafting this on a Friday afternoon and I just said "beer", a moment please [pop...gurgle] Ah, better. Now I can proceed.

Budweiser is the "King of Beers". It used to be the #1 beer brand in the US (Bud Light has overtaken it - what that says for American beer connoisseurship I leave for others to comment). If you are Heineken looking to import into the US market for the first time, you cannot position your beer as the first or best beer in the US market, but you can claim to be the "#1 import beer". Suddenly the beer market is subdivided into domestic beer and imports. A consumer who wants an import thinks of Heineken. Or you position your new beer as the #1 light beer, or the oxymoronic #1 microbrew beer. By creating a new subcategory in the minds of the audience you establish why your offering is different from the others and the best at being different in that way.

Do you have to be #1? Not always. #2 is ok. Being Pepsi to Coke or being Burger King to McDonalds can still be a good business. At Gen Con in 1994, I asked then CEO of FASA Sam Lewis how he expected FASA's new fantasy rpg Earthdawn to compete with D&D. Why would anyone play Earthdawn instead of D&D? Sam replied that he didn't so much care about being different. He knew that being the #2 fantasy rpg on the market, something that FASA could conceivably expect to muscle Earthdawn into becoming, would be a fine business.

The problem these days is that in a long tail based market, trying to be a #2 and still get noticed is harder. There may only be room for Home Depot and Lowes in most towns, but on ebook shelves there's room for 1,000 competitors. Better to focus on what makes you different.

As a publisher, you should critically analyze your core titles to determine:
How is my title different from others already available?
Is that difference something that customers might get excited about?
How can I present that difference to customers as something they can hook their mind around (e.g. position it as a new subcategory)?

SteamCraft Case Study

Let's get concrete with a case study of sorts. I was speaking with Jamie Hardy of Perilous Journeys, the publisher of the roleplaying game SteamCraft, about some things related to the last blog post, and knowing this topic would be next, I ambushed Jamie into becoming a case study for differentiation. Jamie's SteamCraft title released and sold tolerably well, but now the sales rate seemed to be languishing a bit as SteamCraft became another steampunk roleplaying game amid many steampunk rpg options on the market.

Looking at SteamCraft's product description on DriveThruRPG from the perspective of an rpg fan, nothing on the page leapt out at me as a big differentiator between SteamCraft and other steampunk games. So I asked the hard question of Jamie:

Whether you are on a forum somewhere or talking to a potential customer in person at a convention table, what is your elevator pitch about why SteamCraft is unique not just among other rpgs, but among steampunk rpgs?

To paraphrase Jamie's reply, he came back with:

  • Unique percentile rule system
  • Includes fantasy elements (dwarves and elves)
  • Uses a non-Earth setting to free players from Earth history
  • Puts the punk back into steampunk being truly dystopian/punk and not steampulp
Put those to the test. Which of those are true differences, which are differences customers may value and which are differences that customers may value that you can position a product around?

Unique rule systems are rarely a differentiation that customers value. Customers may even view it as a hindrance to purchase - having to learn a new system to play. Unless you are Amber diceless roleplaying or Fiasco GM-less play, relying on your rule system as a differentiator that customers will value is a dicey proposition.

Fantasy elements in a steampunk rpg is not a new differentiation. The steampunk rpg Victoriana preceded SteamCraft to market and included those elements already. It is important in positioning strategy however that you don't have to be factually the first the market with a product differentiation, you only have to be perceived as first to market by most customers. IndieGoGo was first, but far more people now know about KickStarter and mentally position KickStarter as "the crowd-funding site". SteamCraft would not necessarily have to be the first steampunk rpg to include fantasy elements, so long as it could have most customers think it was the first (to be clear, I'm not suggesting that Perilous Journeys embark upon deceitful advertising, this is accomplished simply by being first and best to build awareness around a point of differentiation).

Similar to a unique rule system, a unique setting can often be over-rated as a product differentiator. Creators can be super enthused about their original, homebrew setting and want to publish it. Customers are rarely so enthused to purchase it. In this case with SteamCraft though, Jamie's insight is that departing from Earth's history frees a Game Master from having to be an expert on Victorian era history before feeling comfortable enough to run a steampunk game. That's a difference that customers might value.

Finally, drawing a distinction between steampunk and steampulp creates an opportunity to subdivide the steampunk rpg market in a reverse method. Much like creating a "Lite" beer subdivides the beer market into light beers and regular beers, a tagline like "Putting the punk back into steampunk" seeks to divide the steampunk rpg category between steampunk and steampulp with the implication being that SteamCraft holds the high ground of being true steampunk while the other wanna-be games are really steampulp trying to masquerade as the real thing.

Execution to the Plan

Identifying your elements of customer-valued differentiation is just the beginning. You then have to craft your product strategy and marketing message around that. For example, Jamie and I re-drafted the product description page for SteamCraft on DriveThruRPG with these differentiators in mind. The new description brings these elements more clearly to the fore to help SteamCraft stand out from other steampunk games.

Ideally this identification process starts early in the product's life cycle and informs all of the decisions around that product: the graphic design, the illustration/art direction, marketing messaging, product title and of course the writing itself. The product has to authentically embrace the points of differentiation.

In my days with White Wolf, when the creative staff was first designing the Exalted rpg we knew that any fantasy game that White Wolf published needed a clear differentiation to D&D. One of the differentiators that the team chose was to go with an anime-like look and feel  to the game. That was decided early in the project's life before outlines went out to writers for a rough draft. At that time Rich Thomas, then VP of Production and Art Direction, presciently said something like "If we do anime, it means we have to bring in different artists. A few exceptions aside, the artists we work with for World of Darkness games won't be as ideal for this style." Rich and the White Wolf art directors got new artists for the book and succeeded in giving Exalted that anime fantasy look.

Similarly, in developing and editing Exalted, when manuscript drafts came in with combat powers named things like Sucker Punch and Parry, developer Geoff Grabowski and editor John Chambers reshaped that text into Ox-Stunning Blow and Heavenly Guardian Defense.

Now you might be thinking, "Hold on Steve, that's just good design. If you make an anime game of course it needs anime art and anime flavor to its names." I agree; there's no particular magic here. The only difference here is that Exalted set out to be the #1 anime fantasy rpg. It did not set out to be the #2 fantasy rpg, nor the #1 anime rpg, nor to appeal to D&D players specifically. From inception its market position was explicitly clear and that position informed those design decisions. It gave a business "why" to the design "what".

If we return to SteamCraft for a moment, I would respectfully suggest that the game's cover image and design:

could stand to be darker and more punk. While most products would kill to have a cover this nice, the cover does not fit the title's position in the market. As beautiful as it is, a cover showing an aerial naval battle on parchment texture with a "Get your Goggle On" tagline conveys "high adventure" and does not match a game that seeks the market position of being more steampunk than steampulp.

Concept = Easy, Application = Hard

Discoverability starts at product creation. Like most bits of business wisdom , it boils down to common sense: If your product isn't different then it can't stand out from the crowd. The rigorous thinking comes in applying the wisdom. It comes with the discipline to resist deluding yourself that your title is different when it's not. It comes through being sure your title is different in a way that customers will value. And then the rigorous execution comes in applying those differentiation points through every stage of the product's creation and marketing.

Try to apply this thinking to your own titles. Don't shy from the truth even if it hurts. How are your titles different? Do customers value the difference? Is the difference clearly communicated to potential customers?

Or take some titles that are emerging in the market right now and analyze them. What makes Monte Cook's Numenera stand out as different? Which of those differences do customer's value?

I look forward to your thoughts.


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