I’ve been thinking a lot about the proliferation of starter sets, introductory boxes, and similar gateway products and I’m left scratching my head about whom they are for and who actually buys them. I see the intent. Publishers design the product to create new customers, a laudable and necessary objective, but do they really work? How many people come into the hobby by way of an introductory product?
Image comes from Heath_Bar
For an introductory product to be successful, a potential customer has to be aware of the product in the first place. The customer has to notice the product on the shelf, have heard about it from someone or somewhere, and, most important, have an interest in the pen & paper style roleplaying game instead of some other activity. That’s a fairly specific group of people and one I’m not sure exists in significant numbers.
For starts, the big-box bookstores are vanishing. Yes, you can still find a Barnes & Noble here and there, along with a few smaller regional chains, but few of these stores put introductory roleplaying materials in the paths of potential buyers. The place for these products is not tucked behind the graphic novels or buried in the science fiction & fantasy section. The product needs to sit where potential buyers are likely to go: by the teen fiction, children’s books, on a display in the center aisle, visible en route to the science fiction & fantasy sections. Rare is the employee who knows anything about roleplaying games and rarer still is the employee who plays and actively works to grow the hobby.
So the burden falls to the hobby stores, but here the problem is even worse. For starts, few hobby stores, in my experience, make their money selling RPGs. Game products gather on the shelves for the occasional buyer who does not get all of his or her materials from Amazon.com. Most profits come from CCGs, comics, collectibles and so on. A hobby store is far less likely to get people off the street to wander the aisles and more likely to get people who already shop there for their own specialty item. Even the clerks with the best intentions and sales experience know to focus their expertise on the items that will sell and so most focus their “research” on the items their existing customers want. Learning and mastering RPGs takes time and interest, and, more often than not, clerks who know RPGs push the games they themselves play. If a clerk loves the One Ring, he or she’s not going to push Rifts. So no matter how good your introductory product is, no matter how sexy it looks, the products simply won’t sell if it gets lost amidst the countless other game products sitting on the shelves.
Product placement and effective selling techniques are all well and good, and I’m sure some folks manage to push these products out the door. Hell, if publishers didn’t sell these products, they wouldn’t make them right? But I doubt they sell to 9-year old Johnny with $35 burning a hole in his pocket. I’m far more likely to believe these products sell to existing customers who A) express an interest in a different game system, B) want to complete their collection, or C) want to get someone else into the hobby and believe the introductory product will do what just sitting down with the potential player and playing the game can’t.
I’m not sure the intro product serves customer A at all. While the intro product often provides a stripped down, simplified version, it misleads the customer into believing he or she has a complete product and that the product is somehow representative of the game system on the whole. If the intro product has to simplify the actual game for easy digestion, would it not just be simpler to bypass the simplification process and create a game that is just easy to learn and play? It seems strange to me to create a game with limited appeal due to excessive complexity and then go back and strip out the excessive complexity in the hopes one will lure the customer to buy into the excessive complexity later. Sure, complexity may come in the form of expanded options that could create decision paralysis for the reader, but if this an actual concern, perhaps embracing the “less is more” approach could bypass the need for the intro product in the first place.
There’s not much to say about customer B. This customer, the best kind of customer, buys whatever the publisher produces.
And last, there’s customer C, the evangelist. He or she has the best intentions, doing the grunt work of spreading the word about the game and helping create new players and fans. The introductory product, in my opinion, may be an impediment to growing the hobby. Simply giving an intro product to a kid removes the obligation to teach that kid how to play. Some folks do open up the box and guide the new player through the process, but the intro product is designed to eliminate this exchange of information since it needs to carry all the weight itself.
I think back to when I started playing RPGs and I remember very well the first books and boxes I picked up. The red box was one of my first products and I remember it felt like a game I could play for a while—three whole levels in fact. I fooled around with it a bit, but I didn’t “learn” the game until I actually sat down and played. After that initial experience, I acquired a wide range of roleplaying products, and even played some. Twilight 2000, all the Palladium stuff, Autoduel, MERP, Rolemaster, Mechwarrior, Traveller, Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Star Trek, Star Wars, and even the obscure Hidden Kingdom. I didn’t need introductory products to learn and play these games. I got the book, read the rules, and tried to play. If I couldn’t understand the rules, the fault lay not with the product but with me. I had to study more, try harder, and experiment with the game until I got it. The difference was that I rose to the challenge of mastering the game rather than depending on some hand-holding material to help me along. Looking back, I played through the Basic, Expert, and Companion sets before I “graduated” to the Advanced books and once I did, I never played plain old D&D again. And now, I kind of wish I had skipped over the boxed sets and went straight into the Gygaxian madness that was 1st edition.
I understand what intro sets are supposed to do. I know why we designers and publishers feel we have to produce them, but I really feel the best way to expand the hobby is through the evangelists. We should not expect some potential gamer will opt to buy the intro product on his or her own initiative, not when there are so many other ways to spend entertainment dollars. For me, the ideal product is one that teaches established gamers how to “sell” the game to new players. Rather than a simplified rules engine, my ideal intro product would present practical advice about introducing RPGs to the uninitiated, to explain what they are, offer helpful tips for creating pregenerated characters, advice for helping players create their first characters, and a basic adventure designed to show off different parts of the system. And you know what? This intro product wouldn’t even need to be system-specific. You could just construct a couple of broad adventures—dungeon delve, mystery, and so on, with guidelines for the experienced reader to adapt those adventures to whatever system he or she is teaching. This one product could be a handy tool for any gamer, regardless of game system to spread the word about the game he or she loves.
So tell me. How did you get into gaming? What was your gateway “drug?” Did someone teach you to play or did you buy an intro product, learn to play, and teach others? What intro products have you purchased? Do you still use them? Did they help you learn to play?