Monday, June 7, 2010

Cake Mix

Driving into work today, I heard an interesting interview with Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality. Arierly is a behavioral economist who looks at the marketplace. He made a couple of interesting points I think related well to how we think of value and investment in hobby gaming.

Back in the '50's, instant cake mixes originally consisted of a powdery mix that only required adding water. Housewives, used to baking from scratch, hated this. So these all-in-one cake mixes began requiring additional ingredients, like eggs, for example. Suddenly people liked cake mixes because they were engaging with the product. They were creating something themselves. They had an investment, even if it only meant adding a couple eggs.

I had similar thoughts while I was putting together a Warhammer vehicle a few months ago. It was the new Hellhound flame tank. It's built on the chimera chassis, a common element to all vehicles in the Imperial Guard, except the Leman Russ. This was my seventeenth chimera chassis vehicle, but something had changed. The tedious wheel assemblies were missing and the fiddly track bits were much easier to put together.  It occurred to me that the whole process was something of a scam, or at the very least, a mental exercise.

Heck, you can buy a completely assembled tank for less than half the price. It's called a toy. Yet, I pay a premium price for the experience of putting this thing together. Better yet, I began seeing the line that Games Workshop was walking. They couldn't put the whole thing together, yet it couldn't be so difficult and tedious to discourage people from the hobby. I was being asked to add some eggs to the powdery mix and water so that I would engage with the hobby.

Adding this extra ingredient to our games is why we value our hobby. We have invested in it. We have engaged with the product and more than likely modified it in some way that put our signature on it. We make "unique" characters or write our own adventures in our role playing games. We creatively model and paint our miniatures to be different from our peers and to satisfy our creativity. Our card decks are about beating random card distributions into submission with our creative will to create a competitive deck. This is hobby gaming at its best, and it's really just adding a couple eggs to the mix. Scratch building anything is not part of this equation. The value is in the addition to something already perceived as a quality framework.

Where games have failed, I would argue, is when no eggs are required, or when the framework is lacking. The best example are pre-painted or semi-painted miniature games. There are no eggs to add, just models to set up and play. You may like these games, but let me tell you they are dismissed by most hobby gamers out of hand. They're often not sure why. The rules are solid. The models are pretty. But there's something missing. What is it? Hmmm. No eggs to add.

Likewise, anything free form without a solid game framework is also not going to get much traction. Miniatures without a game system in mind, role-playing books that are more about ideas than the game (some indie stuff, for example), or game that don't allow the addition of creativity, which I'll discuss in a minute.

The personal investment we have in hobby games is why we love to regale anyone willing to listen about our character or our adventure. Ariely talks about how we value our children. How much money would you give to have never had your children, to erase all your memories of them? They just never were. It seems the real value we place on our children is the life investment we've made in them. How much money would you take for every one of your game books and supplies? How much would you take to have all your memories and experiences of those games erased?  It's like the Visa commercial. These memories are priceless.

Board gamers perplex me because of this and I don't really understand them, since they don't add eggs (I love eggs). They seemingly add no value to their games. However, to many analytical types, such as my wife, games are not about adding value, they're about an even playing field and well designed rules. Perhaps there's another personality type, a truly analytical one, that enjoys cake but doesn't want to think about the eggs. It's also why, I think, most board gamers are serial purchasers of games.

There are definitely those who only play one game, like Scrabble, Monopoly or Settlers of Catan. However, most hobby gamers play many different games, and the hobby store business model requires that we sell many games to these people, unlike say chess or backgammon. Once you've sold someone a chess set, you'll probably never seem them again. Hobby board gamers don't add eggs, but man do they love variety in their cake. It's also a kind of warning to other game manufacturers, if eggs aren't involved in the baking of your cake, expect to get treated like a board game; something that holds momentary interest, a new flavor of frosting, but only until the next new cake comes about.