Thursday, September 3, 2009

DIY and the Decline of Community Standards

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

The self-publishing revolution has had tremendous impacts on the wargaming “industry”, if one wants to refer to the hobby with that term. In 1997, the editor of The General noted the growing rise of Desk Top Publishers (DTP) and had the following to say:
So what if DTP games are skimming sales from a fixed layer of existing consumer demand? Is this so bad? ...This is where the issue of the traditional game company comes back to us front and center. The boardgame company doesn't simply print and ship a paper product. Production isn't really limited by a lack of designs. For the most part, the boardgame company is selling the “finish.” By that I don't mean chrome or unnecessary details, polish and packaging. I mean that the traditional boardgame company sells you a finished product which it believes cannot be affordably improved. It is selling the development work and the artistic and functional rendering of the design. God knows I could create an ASL scenario in less than an hour. Would it be publishable within the standards of the ASL gaming community? Absolutely not. The ASL players have come to expect their scenarios to meet certain criteria that revolve around historical accuracy, playability and competitive play balance (let's applaud MMP for all that they do to keep up the quality of ASL products).
For fans of the ASL game system, the third party publishers (as MMP was at the time the above was written) who were pushing out those ASL scenarios were seen as saviors, rescuing their favourite game system from oblivion. The point Tucker was making, however, was that large companies like Avalon Hill had the resources to do it all – playtest, design, research, yes, but also put the physical refinements into the finished product that desktop publishers could not. (Avalon Hill was also leagues ahead of other mainstream publishers in having its own printing services on-call, being a subsidiary of Monarch Avalon.) At the time he was writing (1997), dot-matrix and tractor-feed printers were still in common use, and storage of data was done on floppy discs. There was no widespread internet access to acquire images or research data.

The situation today is a trade-off; researchers can quickly glean information on obscure battles to create tactical scenarios for their favourite game, and even recreate reasonable facsimiles of the terrain using modern mapping tools like GoogleEarth. What has been surrendered, however, is a tangible decline in physical quality and a lowering of professional standards in such things as periodicals and graphic design elements of physical components of games. Classic graphic designers such as Rodger MacGowan and Redmond Simonsen, whose work was ubiquitous throughout the industry (at a time when that appellation truly applied), set high standards for others to maintain, and the inability of others to measure up was always made obvious by direct comparisons to the current state of the art.

The falling off of the current state of the art has been such a gradual process, perhaps the change has been imperceptible, or perhaps even it is something gamers are willing to accept in the understanding that a niche hobby is fighting a battle for existence against a growing number of other pastimes and distractions. Simply put, there are other battles to fight. It was not hard for a bookcase-style box stuffed with photo-realistic, hard-mounted geomorphic maps to compete for the hobby dollars of teenage boys in the 1970s, since their dads or uncles or granddads may very well have been Second World War veterans, the war was still immediate thanks to countless prime time TV depictions and comic book heroes still fighting the war, and the number of ways to refight the battles were few, with video games just a gleam in the eye of the guy about to invent “Pong.” Spending more money on quality wasn’t a hardship.

Today, however, editors and publishers have either forgotten how to put together products with elegance and sense of design, or lack the will to do so. A look at some contemporary products will illustrate what is meant.

Fire & Movement
This is a sample page from the latest issue of F&M magazine; this old industry standard began in 1976 under the stewardship of graphic design artist Rodger MacGowan, who has long since headed for greener pastures with GMT and his own magazine c3i. What may pass unnoticed to most stands out like a sore thumb to those in the know; note the tiny margins on the page (the printing goes almost the very edges of the paper), and the poor quality of the photos. Rare industry standards like The General came out on a fairly rigorous schedule and actually adhered to them; lesser lights like Grenadier tried to come out as regularly as possible but could at least be counted on to produce ‘x’ number of issues in the span of a year. Current magazines like Operations or F&M are unapologetic about being printed haphazardly, and the editors – who are not full time employees – cite real world concerns beyond their control as an excuse for missed deadlines – or no deadlines at all.


Operations Special Edition #2

After lauding the first SE in a previous article, I happily sent in my money to MMP for the second annual installment. What shortcomings I’ve found are no doubt forgivable by true fans; I personally don’t find them truly heinous, but they go to illustrate the kinds of deteriorating standards I am talking about across the hobby. Low-resolution graphics have been used in several images, with large pixelation in the translation to print – a very large problem in today’s desktop-to-doorstop publishing world.

My own publishing works have suffered as well in this regard so I can’t in good conscience scream too loudly about it. But other aspects of layout and design make the magazine seem like amateur-hour, certainly in comparison to older works, that we just know for a fact were done by more expensive and time consuming processes rather than cut-and-paste from easily transposed digital files.

Relative Worth

In short – it’s all too easy in this day and age to throw something together, publish it, and have others purchase it. With desktop publishing tools, print-on-demand services, online payment services, and direct-to-download marketing, you could theoretically decide to create a book at the breakfast table and have it in the hands of a paying audience that afternoon. But as Stuart Tucker might have asked – would it be any good?

Sometimes the community has no choice but to subsidize poorer physical quality; after decades of having hard-mounted mapboards as standard, ASL changed to thinner cardstock maps for its modules, for example. Many fans have applauded the decision as it permits easier storage of the maps in sheet protectors, and makes them more air-transportable for distance travel to far-off tournaments. Sometimes change is good. MMP, who took over ASL from Avalon Hill, no longer has access to on demand printing services and contracts out. They collate large print runs in-house, often with the help of local volunteers from the community, and have been known to worry publicly about warehouse space – a far cry from the glory years of AH who boasted at least two vibrant locations in Baltimore for playtesting (Read Street) and production (Harford Road). The quality of the maps has further been altered by the usage of computer-generated artwork rather than hand-painted art – there is no consensus on which is “better” but there is no denying that something unique has been lost.

Other times, the community does itself in. Using unique marketing on ebay and name recognition, Wild Bill Wilder racked up over $7000.00 in sales with his ASL variant modules in 2009. The physical quality varied from fair to poor. The counters were pre-cut (not die-cut) but sported good artwork and were probably the most attractive element of the modules. The scenario cards, oddly, did not feature the unique counter art (nor did they include vital information such as sniper activation number). The cover sheet of the module I purchased for review, Glory & Grief 2, had an obvious typo. The rules were poorly formatted, and the table of contents listed one method of pagination that was completely different from the actual pages, rendering it useless as a finding tool. There was no index. There were also no “Chapter H” notes explaining the vital statistics of the vehicle counters.

The artwork on the counters isn't so bad, but if you want to know the TO KILL numbers for an 82L RCL, your guess is as good as anyone's; this vital information wasn't included in the game's rules. Even "owndership" (sic) of the ASL Rulebook doesn't help out with that.

Where the community did itself no favours was in buying into the marketing plan – the items were offered up one at a time via online auction, while eager collectors routinely bid on the modules to prices well in excess of the cost of comparable products from other publishers; prices of over 300 dollars were not uncommon for modules that contained on average less than two dozen loosely-written pages of rules, fewer than ten scenarios (at least one based on a Hollywood movie rather than real life events), a couple hundred counters, and a pair of overlays.

Shouting to be Heard

There are, or course, small magazines that are matching and exceeding the established periodicals in terms of quality. The ASL community again yields examples; Le Franc Tireur comes most immediately to mind, having risen from an average fanzine to a first class magazine with world-class graphic design as well as cutting edge game variants. They released their first box-set ASL variant in 2009 and have promised more.
But without the hook of game pieces and mapboards, is there a “need” for periodicals? With the advent of the BBS and now blogs, internet forums and social networking, aren’t there enough ways to communicate online that paper communications are irrelevant? I would argue that here, too, community standards are easy to let slip. More is not always more. A site like can be an enormous tool for finding lists of raw data and in communicating with others, but the noise-to-signal ratio of a poorly moderated chat room or mailing list or message board can make such a venture seem not worth the effort in the end. For a game company or publisher especially, more time can actually be spent in fighting malicious messages by dissatisfied consumers than in working constructively on product. A magazine slows down the rate of conversation and puts the control back in the hands of the publisher. Sober second thought is allowed to dominate the proceedings, even if exchanges take place between opposing sides in a debate. Witness the discussion between Hal Hock and John Hill/Don Greenwood over the direction of tactical games in the pages of The General in 1977 after Squad Leader made its debut, and Hock defended his technocrat’s vision of Tobruk against the more fanciful but popular SL.

The administrators of’s forum – in particular, their Combat Mission games – have apparently tired so much of the “noise” that they have admitted to moderating in favour of “pro” postings only. It’s not that different than the editor of house organs of old picking and choosing with deliberation which letters they would print in their mail columns. Other forums, such as Matrix’s Panzer Command forum, have run the gamut from being over-run by disruptive posters with nothing constructive to add but mayhem, to becoming dead as doornails as ardor for the game cooled post-release and enthusiasts found little to talk about.

My Final Word

The Do-It-Yourself community has brought down standards in all areas; that third parties who publish scenarios for favourite tactical games may have their own lower standards is obvious, but if they are rushing the mainstream publishers into getting “more product” onto market to compete, standards across the board are dropped. Community discussion, once directed if not controlled by the publishers, is now firmly in the hands of the consumer, who can create Do It Yourself sounding boards for opinions – fair or not.

My Question to You

Can there really be no need at all for quality printed magazines on board, miniature or computer games any more? If the answer is yes, what does that say about us? If the answer is no, are we doing enough to create them?