Nowhere But PBM

By Rick McDowell

Issue #1

     Where else can you compete against a dozen or more mature, intelligent adults in a sophisticated, thinking man’s game set in a genre of mutual interest? In a format that lets you play whenever you wish within a cycle of several days, and affords that same convenience to all allies and enemies in the campaign? Where else do games build to a crescendo over several months of thoughtful planning and execution, where lifelong friendships may be made, some of whom may also frequently play the role of arch nemesis? Where reflexes matter for naught, strategy is everything, both in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your position and style of play, as well as those of your fellow competitors?

     Nowhere other than here: PBM/PBEM. While there are thousands of computer, online, and well-presented board games, no other style offers all the advantages of PBEM. So why is the hobby waning instead of waxing?

     Ironically, for some of the same reasons it stands alone as a most appealing combination of attractive game play elements, it is neigh unapproachable to the huddled masses hooked on instant gratification, splashy graphics, download-and-start-clicking, and a torrent of low brow free online games.

     PBEM games and their purveyors are high-end boutique in comparison -for very discriminating buyers who generally know what they want and what they’re getting into:

  • Complexity, which they appreciate rather than cringe from and which by their nature means lots of rules to absorb and enjoy before doing anything in the game;
  • Anticipation replaces instant gratification. This is a hallmark of PBEM but a foreign idea to most gamers, especially younger ones;
  • The boutique (low volume, high cost and high customer loyalty) requirement of producing PBEM is met by the uninitiated as priced too highly. Probably all PBEM moderators have heard something like, “I can play World of Warcraft unlimited for $13 a month. Why would I pay your price?”

     All gamers that haven’t should try World of Warcraft (WoW) or something similar to see what it’s about. After all, it has tens of millions of mostly teenaged players. If after a few hours of play or a few leveling ups, you don’t find WoW tedious and numbingly repetitive, haven’t seen there is little substance behind the flashy graphic veneer, don’t mind a game dominated by 16 year olds who aren’t thinking five minutes ahead, and/or your monthly entertainment budget is about that of a movie and a box of popcorn, you should stay with WoW and its ilk.

     If you want something more stimulating for your brain than for your eyes, come back to PBEM and bring your friends. Players in good PBEM’s think about their game even more of their time away from the game than while actually playing it. They are evaluating the situation, considering alternatives, calculating the implications of every move, inventing the next steps in various diplomatic overtures and the potential consequences of each. It is absorbing, thought provoking, challenging, fraught with peril for miscalculation and great intrinsic reward for plans well-conceived and executed. Of course, there is also that underrated aspect of going against (and with) very bright fellow competitors of living tissue instead of AI. And each campaign is very different than the one before, bringing fresh challenges.

     PBEM will always be boutique; it will never attract a million followers. But it can survive and encourage its bright designers to create new worlds that entertain us for years to come. Here are some obstacles to overcome:

  • Marketing is not very effective because a single company has a very limited budget and is trying to compete online with the marketing dollars of gaming companies with millions to spend.
  • The perception that PBEM is too expensive.
  • The learning curve to come to love the game is normally substantial.
  • The demographic is aging and not necessarily the most technically savvy.
  • The lack of glitz and instant gratification.
  • We need exciting new concepts for games and worlds.

     To those obstacles, I suggest the following be considered:

  • PBEM companies should consider forming a consortium for marketing and awareness and sharing player lists to build a unified community of gamers.
  • PBEM isexpensive, although many boxed games are expensive as well. So are high quality products in any field. The value proposition must be emphasized, meaning the hours of enjoyment per dollar and the uniqueness of the experience for each player, rather than having the same experience a million others might have identically in most online and computer games.
  • This is a delineator for sure. A casual gamer (plays free games) is unlikely to become an avid PBEM gamer, because it is too complicated. We need to find those gamers who enjoy the challenge and mental stimulation, and they are less likely to be actively looking for challenging games than are kids looking for the newest release
  • This is much a marketing problem: we are trying to reach the people who would really enjoy the hobby but just don’t know about it or think immediately that they would enjoy it, and they aren’t looking for it.
  • Producers can make largely text results more attractive, but this is another hard line between eye candy gratification and mental stimulation and anticipation. It seems avid readers of both fiction and non-fiction are the best target demographic, rather than existing gamers
  • A breakthrough design in a totally new genre or an existing genre presented completely differently with lots of hooks could be big for the whole field by bringing new attention

     Word of mouthremains probably the most important marketing tool and way to convey what our hobby has to offer those who would seek mental stimulation in their entertainment. Players, tell your intellectual friends about your favorite PBEM game and join your favorite game with them to help them learn the ropes and become a happy member of our wonderful PBEM community.

Rick McDowellDesigner and Producer for Alamaze, Fall of Rome, and Kingdoms of Arcania

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