I’m not entirely sure if this is an original trend in roleplaying games or not, but it’s certainly a recent one. Major publishers are selling beta versions of upcoming games as a pre-sale (such as Monte Cook Games’ upcoming Numenera and Margaret Weis Productions’ Firefly RPG) or special event releases (such as Wizards of the Coast’s Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle available only at this year’s Gen Con festivities). Selling copies of a game before it’s officially ready has suddenly become an excellent tactic for not only getting word out on your game (the success of Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire, ranking as the third best-selling game of this past quarter after a beta rules version was made available at last year’s Gen Con) but getting some advanced capital for a larger production.
Allow me to correct that statement. Selling copies of a game before it’s officially ready has evolved from independent game designers and publishers to some of the major players in the market. There have been many indie RPGs launched with a free beta (or playtest) version, priced to sell or not priced at all. When Paizo Publishing released free PDF versions of their upcoming Pathfinder system (based off the d20 System), the roleplaying community went hog wild and we all know the rest of the story from there… right? Seated at the top of the heap for a couple of years now, what’s worked for Paizo has caught fire with the rest of the RPG publishing industry.
For the struggling or uncertain consumer, free beta games are a goldmine of opportunity and evaluation. While common perceptions may view this practice as a submission to massive piracy – just look at WotC’s reaction to piracy compared to Paizo’s free beta distribution in the previous decade – there are still many honest consumers who prefer to spend our money wisely. Or we have to for sheer financial survival. Whatever the reasons, free beta games were our way to borrow the book from the library and decide if we wanted to buy it for ourselves. On the surface, you have to wonder how frequently your average consumer would want to read a book again every single time they borrow one from the library.
It’s a valid point, but RPGs are not your common book. What you read is not going to be what you experience as a good RPG teaches you what’s possible when you start playing the game. When the right game speaks to you – and there are few of us with only a single vice – arrangements and accommodations will be made to fit it into your schedule. Free beta games are a way for us to select our choices wisely. And it’s been working out splendidly for publishers as the market for free quick-start and beta versions of full releases have become commonplace enough to warrant an award category for the ENnies.
Placing price tags on beta games and piling limited releases on the table has become a tool for RPG publishers, who struggle by vast margins in a struggling print industry and smaller numbers, margins, and other factors compared to other entertainment-based sectors. It was truly only a matter of time. Our culture’s love of games shares space with our need to collect; this is a natural extension of the pair and simply unfortunate for those of us who should probably save our money for the real deal. For the purpose of this column, there’s something a bit sad and unfortunate, but there’s also something incredibly poignant.
Many of these priced beta games lack the depth of artwork and attention to visual detail common in so many major RPGs sold today. What you’re really buying is the game itself, even if it is an experimental version likely to change within the next year. You’re buying the mechanics, not the fluff. You want to see how the game works, analyze what you’ve read, and put it to the test. Maybe even find a fault or two and help contribute to the final outcome. Possibly with credit, but also as part of a small collective sharing the same passion for game design as yourself. A passion so dedicated, you give up some of your money to be part of it and help spread the word on a game’s awesome task mechanics or hiss at its horribly unbalanced difficulty numbers. As a mechanics junkie, I have to admit that is very cool.
Now transfer that pure love and respect for these games and accelerate that by ten. That’s what happens when the same passion and appreciation goes into the many free beta games circulating the online marketplace everyday. A sea of hopeful creators and shapers eager to have their work find an audience, to have their material spotted and appreciated in that tiny window frame of modern attention spans long enough to receive a supporting email or an encouraging word.
Beta rules are an expression of trust made public by designers and publishers alike; doing it for free is falling backwards and hoping someone will be there to catch you. It’s also a nod of recognition for those of us who don’t have the cash to spend on every cool thing out there, a glance and a wink that says “I’ve been there, my friend.” These games establish a connection between the game designer and the reader as the designer explains their concern and intention through designer notes and sidebars typically included in these products.
Here’s what I would love to see down the road. Maybe even immediately. Much in the vein of “Read An RPG In Public Week,” we should set aside a week within our community to mark “Learn A New RPG Week.” Grab a beta game – free or priced – and read it from cover to cover (or as far as you can handle if it’s not to your liking). When you’re finished, write a review, post a link, and let your friends know this game exists… or warn them if it’s not to your liking. Because beta games are a glimpse to our future and we are suckers for glimpses into the future.