So, this is a bit of a continuation of some thoughts from my last post on continuing content. Quick recap: we know that we can make things of a certain sweet size that we can release to keep a game thriving and active. A modular design, particularly with enough areas of traction, makes it easier to make these sorts of things. Now, onward.

I had sort of shelved the notion, thinking that, for my purposes, it was wrapped up. Then, I read this post by the inimitable Simon Wardley, and it got me thinking again. Go read it.

OK, you’re done? Good.

So, one of Wardley’s recurring themes is that of the curve a product takes on the path from innovation to commodity. And that, ultimately, is what he’s talking about in the post I linked above. He’s saying that Apple, under Jobs’ leadership, thinks that it can live forever in the “innovation” part of the curve and never move to the “commodity” part.

Innovation to Commodity

From Simon Wardley's 2010 OSCON talk.

I think that this applies to RPGs as much as any other product of human economic activity.

The auteur model of indie RPGs risked living in the “innovation” area, and trying constantly to hold on to consumers through new and weirder things. Not strictly bad, especially when the field you’re working in really is new, and has room for weird things that work. But not sustainable indefinitely. Any product, to grow, needs to innovate off a stable platform. So you need to move from innovation to product to commodity, so you can make new innovations on top of that, in a refreshed and more-better way.

And this is exactly what I think this continuing content model does, with the added kicker of opening up a participatory ecosystem. It makes the game elements more like a commodity, allows many people to participate in the growth of the game, and generally stabilizes the game up at the top of that curve.

But what I realized is that this is not at all new. The biggest and baddest example I can think of of this sort of lifecycle is the OGL. D&D was made, at that point, entirely into a commodity, and became a platform opened for others to work on. And, really, you start to see this with indie-game hacks of any sort, but it’s particularly visible in things like small hacks of Apocalypse World, or the various Hackbirds. The games have become commodities, and thus stable platforms for further innovation—and ecosystem innovation in particular.

As a final note, I think that this curve applies to the process of creating a game in all situations, though many games top out as products. You begin with an innovation, a new idea particular to your head. You grow it into a custom-built game, making playtest packets when and as needed. Finally, you finish it, write it, edit it, brand it, lay it out, whatever, print it. And it’s a thing in the world. But when it becomes a common currency for other people to use? Yeah, you’ve made a commodity.

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  • James Mendez Hodes

    ow ow why does he use comic sans

    • It’s not Comic Sans. It’s Chalkboard. It’s the default in the Keynote template he’s using.

  • A Viescas

    Interesting, though I have to wonder how necessary it is to move beyond “product” to be considered “successful enough–” and what it’ll really take to do so besides just releasing supplements and hosting forums.

    • Oh, it’s not necessary. You can make products, and that’s good. But I think and hope this will help people see a place they can get to beyond a product. And perhaps, help people make products that are amenable to commoditization.

  • Strasa

    I was going to write a long dissert on why I thought the original linked article had problems, but I realize that while in the scope of business I disagree, in the scope of game design I think it’s far more applicable (and your allusion to it is excellent).One point of note.  Innovation is sustainable given enough money and prestige.  You must innovate (find a new field, or new specific subset of a field) for example for a masters/doctorate and there is no shortage of students every year.  Similarly if the people at Apple are out of ideas, a prestigious company with good recruiters like that can bring in fresh blood and fresh ideas.  In the game industry, innovation can mean new and crazier things for a game, but more often than not, in the indie model it just means a new game.  There are plenty of design groups that don’t publish something and support indefinitely with ‘version’ revisions, but publish, support briefly, and start work on a new game that they cycle out, innovating on theme (indie game) as opposed to a specific system/setting.

    The only problem with a Platform in this context is the plausibility of a universal system.  Most ‘platforms’ that follow this iterative process are things that create a generic system (d20, FATE, AW) and the hacks are built on top of that.  Some games are not very good universally, but are excellent in the specific.  It calls into question whether long term growth, stability and commodity are important to having a good product, and if it is necessary for design in general.

    • I think that you’re misinterpreting Wardley’s point a bit. He’s not saying that you’ll run out of innovation; he’s saying that you’ll run out of innovation if you never let it commoditize, and then build off that. His argument was that Jobs’ leadership was based on requiring constant innovation, not understanding or allowing that these cycles happen. The key is that commoditization creates a platform for further innovation. Without that platform, he argues, you go into a nosedive.

      Now, to talk about applying this to games, I think that the unit you’re looking at is a product, not an idea. I know, I lead people in that direction with the post, but here’s what I think is a better model: it’s not the whole package of bits and ideas and widgets that you need to commoditize, but rather the bits and ideas and widgets. So, a better example of a commoditized idea in RPG design is, say, Keys. You see them as a platform for further innovation, occurring in basic and modified forms in lots of different games.

      Does that make sense? It’s one of those things that’s a big n-dimensional structure in my head, which I may not know how to communicate.