Thursday, March 22, 2018

We Were Warned: The Tells in the Opening Sequences of our Entertainment

YouTube makes it easy to follow the change in the anime world over the decades. Anisong is sufficiently popular that several users make playlists or clip videos showing plenty of them along a theme. This one? Gundam openings, starting a PS2 remake of one of the original series' openigns and ending with Iron-Blooded Orphans.

You can see in these openings theme sequences all of the tells that JD Cowen and others have talked about previously about how the business went wrong since the late 1990s. You can also see in similar playlists how the 70s Super Robot scene went stale as the years progressed, allowing the original series to break out despite its first run being less than successful.

It's not just the animation techniques and quality. You can see in the music and lyrics the same tells of a healthy or ailing culture at the time of production. What you see here in the opening does give you a sense of what the show proper is like; for those skilled in composition of artwork, you can glean vital information just by watching the openings.

The first impression you get from the opening is often the correct one, with the times you go wrong often the result of deliberate concealment or subversion of audience expectations. Go take a stroll around Anime YouTube, focusing on openings and endings, and you'll find the patterns that let you see at a glance what we've been talking about the last couple of days.

And yes, this is not confined to the mecha shows.

So when you're going about making your contributions to #AGundamForUs, don't be shy about making a playlist of show themes, sequences, etc. that have the vibe you want. For example, I'm clearly taking this as inspiration:

And this:

In addition, of course, to this:

And plenty of non-anime influences. The ingredient list is not a short one.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Time To Build Our Own Mecha, Boys

Brian Niemeier wrote a post at his blog today commenting on a Gigguk video documenting the decline of mecha anime as a genre.

He's not wrong. Neither is Gigguk.

Left unsaid is this: fixing the issues is on us. We have to step up to fix the problem, and that means "culturally appropriating" the HELL out of this genre. Just as we've now got #StarWarsNotStarWars going on, it's time for #GundamNotGundam (or whatever your show of choice is) and that means it's on the indie world to write the stories (with proper pacing and other elements noted as too-often lacking) that blown up good and hard into the next revival wave (something not seen for over a decade).

While it's not all wrack and ruin, it's clearly not as good as things once were and the institution lacks the ability to renew itself at this time due to entirely external influences holding down any good will from more than a few established franchises. The same tells of an ailing culture are in play here, most importantly being the persistence of retrenchant dominant franchises and other established IP while original works are more miss than hit.

Despite their misteps, both the Gundam and Macross franchises remains #1 and #2 in the category overall. Gundam wrapped up Iron-Blooded Orphans not that long ago (and its English dub run concludes in a month in North America TV), has had nothing but praise for both Thunderbolt and Origin (One-Year War retreads), and another Build Fighters is due soon. Macross Delta did well enough, and now we're looking at some annivesary works being talked about, but the #2 franchise has hit a lull and that's worrisome. We just had a new Mazinger Z feature film released globally, and the other famous giant robot franchises regular presences in the Super Robot Wars series of games.

Meanwhile, folks watching Darling in the FranXX (sic) complain about the plot, characters, etc. on the regular in the weekly Reddit threads.

The new shows feel a lot like the anime versions of a Fantasy Heartbreaker tabletop RPG. They have a gimmick, but otherwise build around a feel from one of the dominant franchises, so you're looking at "Like Gundam, but (x)." and that sometimes isn't enough. (The Super Robot era of the 70s had this problem something bad, which is why the original Mobile Suit Gundam was such a welcome change.)

But we don't need to wait for Japan to unfuck itself. We can do this ourselves now, starting with the writing and publishing of the novels a lot of anime (of all genres) use as source material. From there it's not that far to move into independent manga production, or into making our own audio productions. Only the actual anime production itself remains a Bridge Too Far for most of us at this time, and that will resolve itself as the tools become cheaper to acquire and the skills easier to learn and master. (We already have a few examples of short anime productions that hit, such as Voices of a Distant Star from over 15 years ago. It can be done.)

And I'm already on it. You folks are welcome to join the party.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Tabletop RPG Publishing: Unless a Black Swan Hits, Don't Do It For Money

The medium of tabletop RPGs is one of the strongest examples of The Network Effect outside the Internet and Telephones. The reason is obvious: a tabletop RPG is worthless without other people to play it with. This means that as soon as one specific games acquires a majority position within a marketplace it becomes very hard to disrupt, such that you have to wait for the dominant game to sabotage itself to have any chance at usurping its position.

This is why Dungeons & Dragons has remained the #1 tabletop RPG since 1974. Even its brief faltering in the late 1990s, and its stumbling in 2008, didn't really lead to its fall- and, in fact, the only real competition it has ever faced has been by its own prior editions (including Paizo's off-brand knock-off, Pathfinder).

Different genres have their own dominant games. Horror is the realm of Call of Cthulhu, and Science Fiction in general is the realm of Traveller. Shadowrun dominates cyberpunk, and mecha games start with Mechwarrior (the RPG for BattleTech) due to the dominance of the source wargame to this day. Then there's RIFTS, which is a beast to itself that dominates Kitchen Sink games. It is easier to find groups for these games than for damn near any competitor.

This is why making a tabletop RPG, if you are not one of these games, is rarely smart to do as a stand-alone product. You do them solely as adjuncts for a larger property, as self-sustaining support for the source property, in order to satisfy a secondary audience that is friendly to the source but otherwise can't engage it as they like.

Why do I say this?

Because there are levels of tabletop RPG publication that one should consider before jumping into it. The guy behind Basic Fantasy is at the hobbyist level; he makes just enough to ensure that this effort pays for itself. That's fine, and most people who do tabletop RPGs would be best off aiming for that modest level of success. This is also where those who produce playable content for an RPG adaptation of a larger media franchise ought to aim- including the big boys using big media properties.

Trying to make a profit? Now you're in for it, unless you're the one with the dominant network of users. There is only one sensible way to do this: find an empty niche, and fill it so that YOU are the dominant brand for that niche. That's how those not-fantasy RPGs got their positions. Not even Warhammer can produce an enduring tabletop RPG, and they're THE fantasy wargame brand.

Far too few get this, which is why so many try and fail to make it in this business. I've seen so many come and go that I know better than to try to roll that boulder uphill.

So, when I get around to publishing my own, I'll take the self-sustaining side-project approach. I'll do it so people who read my stuff can engage in their own adventures in my sandbox, and thereby get more out of the setting material I create for the stories and any revenue I get will be a pleasant supplement and not a necessary mission statement.

Monday, March 19, 2018

World Class Bullshitters: The Truth About The Last Jedi's Box Office

Time for some Hollywood math, courtesy of the World Class Bullshitters.

It's not good news for Mouse Wars or Culty Kathy. The revenue targets display marksmanship quality that makes Stormtroopers look competent. In a sane and competent corporation, Culty Kathy would be hanging from the neck until dead for her gross incompetence- and then the husk burned on a funeral pyre- a fate guaranteed when the Han Solo movie fails to meet expectations and bombs good and hard.

Disney isn't run by an inoompetent twat. Bob Iger will cut her loose soon, if only to save his own ass, and hopefully clear out the Story Group with her and thus end the infestation of Social Justice Bullshit. The decline and fall of Star Wars is the biggest example running of a phenomenon that will soon be known far and wide by these words:

Get Woke, Go Broke

It's time to blow up the Mouse Star. Bring this Narrative Warfare front to an end. Sink Solo.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tabletop RPGs Are Not For All Things: Why Mecha Tabletop RPGs Suck

Palladium lost the Robotech license. There's been some talk about someone else picking it up. There's been talk about just getting a license for Macross. After some consideration, I think it'd be best to not pursue either property for use in publishing a tabletop RPG.


Because, as with BattleTech, the appeal is the giant robots going at it. Not being an idol singer. Not being a bridge bunny. Not being a useless twat that doesn't get to have any shot against the enemy. It's all about being a mech pilot--a literal mech pilot--and that means you want a wargame. (This is why BattleTech is best as a wargame, and the RPG is a joke.)

This is why there is far more action--and success--with videogame adaptations of various sorts than tabletop games. It's also why even the most well-known tabletop RPG examples remain obscure at best compared to Dungeons & Dragions; the combination of a narrow space for viable gameplay vs competing media alternatives shows that tabletop RPGs are a bad medium to make that happen.

All of the things you can do in a comic or anime series to make a mecha fight sequence engaging don't work in tabletop RPGs; the players don't want the bullshit storygaming fake drama, don't care, and will kick it in the kidneys until it pukes up blood and dies if forced to deal with it. Why? It's not fun. Giant robots blowing each other up with extreme violence is fun. Videogames do that better. Boardgames do that better. Miniature wargames do that better. Tabletop RPGs, despite being a wargame derivative, are shit at it by comparison, so it is not hard to figure out why they don't succeed.

You have to blend giant robots into other genres to get any traction, and even then they tend to drag things down because players want to get on with the giant robot smashing. It's that dominant of an influence, which is why you don't see many genre-blends that include them, and counter-balancing it requires equally-dominant elements. (Yes, I just explained why RIFTS can and does work, whereas Splicers does not.)

So let them go. Let all other properties where there is a similar phenomenon going on go. Tabletop RPGs, as a medium, are not for all things. Let the bad fits go and you'll be better off for it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What a Tabletop RPG Needs To Be Now: Part 7

It's time to bring this home. What does a tabletop RPG need to be now?

  1. Online: Your customers go to your site, where you link to the System Reference Document you maintain. That document is where all the rules and mechanics that you use in the content that they buy is found, and because you maintain one master document you never need to make new editions. Your game is evergreen in every way that matters, and people LOVE stability in products that they use- and you don't need the cost or overhead of a print publishing operation or a physical retail hustle to make this happen, so don't.
  2. Simple: Your design needs to something a prospect needs to come into cold (no preparation) and stupid (no prior knowledge or experience), and go from sitting down to playing in five minutes or less. That prospect needs to be engaged within 10 minutes, and well on their way to familiarity within an hour. "Character sheet" means a page out of a notepad or spiral-bound notebook that you use in school, not a custom-made form that rivals IRS tax returns for complexity. Embracing liminality makes this happen.
  3. Regular Content Production: This is what makes you the money. Publish playable content early and often, putting it out there where customers actually shop online: Amazon. Give away the rules; sell the content- and sell it cheap so it's an evergreen impulse buy (That means $5 or less, usually $3 or less.) This is a core way you adapt the Galaxy's Edge model to serve your purposes. The ideal is something new every month.
  4. Strong Support for Game Masters: This is going to be something you spend a lot of time doing on the site, on your Twitch and YouTube channels, and so on. You do this, and you will increase your business by making prospects confident in their ability to run the game- not just play it. In time, you can get into the business of curating the best fan-made stuff; the more that people play your game, the more you can find ways to sell them content that they will want to buy.

If this can be summarized as "Original or Basic D&D's product size and complexity, but regular support in the form of convenience products and free skill development." then you're on the right track. Cultivate a play culture that supports open table gameplay, no time commitment (which is what boardgames and videogames use to compete favorably over tabletop RPGs right now), and otherwise actively recreate the original gameplay paradigm wherein tabletop RPGs facilitated their explosive growth. Replicate the conditions for success, and you will re-experience that success.

This is what it has to be now: digital, persistent, convenient, cheap, and simple. Get in and playing in the time it takes to boot up a PS4 and sdownload a game to the drive, or get dumped for alternatives that do just that.

Friday, March 16, 2018

What a Tabletop RPG Needs To Be Now: Part 6

The best practices in tabletop RPG design focus on making the most of liminality. (See the AD&D post on the sidebar.) This is why a game's rules and mechanics are best when they are few and easily applied to a wide variety of specific circumstances, making it really a rubric for the Game Master to issue rulings in a consistent manner. You want just enough substance to establish a context one can build upon, but stop well before your gameplay experience is more about working mechanics (Mech Piloting) than engaging the situation in terms of natural everyday language.

Take a look at the Basic D&D sets of Moldvay/Cook and Frank Mentzer (BECMI or Rules Cyclopedia) for the lighter end of practical, and AD&D's 1st edition for the heavier end- and then write your technical manual explaining how to use it in clean, simple language. You will see that this is what Wizards of the Coast aimed for with D&D's 5th edition. For all its faults, Palladium Books nailed the liminality aspect; it's part of the reason it's endured so long despite bad leadership and other chronic errors (such as how those books are organized).

What does this come down to in practice?

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid: Your prospect should go from "What's this?" to playing their first game, with a character they created from scratch, in five minutes. Every last element in that process should be as simple and brick-to-face obvious as it gets, and the fundamental gameplay experience needs to be just as simple. You're selling virtual experiences, not storytelling bullshit (You will lose to competing media every single time if you try that.), so remember the wargaming roots of tabletop RPGs and focus on engagement with the situation at hand--upon "What Do You Do?"--and taking any urge to do otherwise out behind the woodshed to beat into a pulp and then drown to death in a vat of horse piss.
  2. Doing, Not Being: The game is about doing shit, not sitting around bullshitting about things that aren't doing shit while pretending to be someone else or engaging in writing room exercises while pretending to be playing a proper RPG. That's one of the elements playing into the continued domination of D&D; you're playing the game to seek adventure and recover treasure, becoming stronger if you succeed. In the course of pursuing objectives, you're going to do a lot of varied things; negotiate here, fight there, explore this place, develop that one, etc.- a swiftly-changing set of activities that otherwise require separate minigames to handle as competing media doesn't do liminality well (if at all), but tabletop RPGs do when made just right.
  3. Help the Game Master: The man running the game is the critical component. You need to give him all the help that you can so he can competently handle the liminality of the medium, and a lot of that can't be done with mechanics or rules; he needs confidence to make that happen, and confidence comes from acquiring familiarity with a thing. Take the time to talk directly to prospective GMs, and show them how it's done- another reason for you to engage via blog posts, podcasts, and videos/livestreams. Don't just give him a hammer; show him how to use it properly.
  4. Know Your Limits: In tabletop RPGs, the real limits aren't the rules or mechanics. It's the subject matter that limits the game; know the borders of your subject matter, and respect those limits. Don't sell someone Not Star Wars and then turn around to do Not Resident Evil- something a lot of people who really ought to know better somehow fail to comprehend, always to their detriment. On a related note, know your limits as a designer and publisher; if you can't do something properly, get help. You can work on improving your skillset after the immediate need has passed. (Related: Pay whom you hire well and treat them right. You not only get what you pay for, you are more likely to get more people wanting you to hire them down the road.)

Do this and you'll have something people will want to play, and content they will pay you for so they can play it without making a second hobby out of it. This means we're about to bring it all home. Tomorrow.