Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why AARs and session reports are more valuable than reviews

[A recent post at Flash of Steel kicked off my thinking on this topic. Click here to read that post.]

When it was still in business, the granddaddy of wargame companies, Avalon Hill, published a magazine covering its games, The General. Every issue had a standard array of content, including previews of new games, strategy articles about existing ones, and "series replays," detailed after-action reports (AARs) that might cover old or new titles. You'll sometimes hear old guard wargamers use the term "house organ" to describe The General. I cringe at that phrase, because it sounds as though The General was just a PR outlet for Avalon Hill. In truth, The General was integral to Avalon Hill's business, not just an appendage.

In the last years of Avalon Hill, the company experimented briefly with articles in The General covering games from other publishers. The reader response was mixed, with a strong tilt towards rejecting this idea. Most readers wanted to read about Avalon Hill games in The General, even if they were interested in other companies' wargames.

At the root of this rejection was the relationship between Avalon Hill and its customers. Avalon Hill had a wide portfolio of high-quality games. Even if an individual wargamer didn't want to buy everything in the Avalon Hill catalog, these choices had more to do with personal preference than game quality. Napoleonics fans might have little interest in Squad Leader. Fans of tactical wargames like Squad Leader might have zero interest in grand strategic games like Third Reich. Die-hard monster gamers might be bored with a simple game like Diplomacy, and Diplomacy fans might shudder at the idea of playing a monster like Empires In Arms.

Avalon Hill made these decisions easy for its customers, and earned their loyalty, in two ways. First, they had a reliable track record of publishing, on average, high-quality games. Sure, there were duds like Amoeba Wars, but by and large, you got your money's worth with their games.

The second benefit of being an Avalon Hill customer, transparency, returns us to The General and the series replay articles. If The General published no other types of articles than series replays, this content alone would have increased sales and customer loyalty in the following ways:

  • See/try/buy. A series replay gave you insight into a game that no box cover, marketing blurb, or even a review could ever provide. You saw what it would be like to play the game before you made a purchase, critical information that unfortunately almost no game company provides today. In my day job, I've written a lot about the way in which software as a service (SaaS) has changed they way customers expect to evaluate, purchase, and adopt software, from free applications like Google Apps, to expensive systems like NetSuite's ERP financial applications. You should be able to get some idea of what it's like to use the product before buying it, a marketing tool that Avalon Hill used decades ago.
  • Greater odds of adoption. I'm using another term, adoption, that appears a lot in my research about the technology industry. It's actually a word that comes from research on innovation in general, not just iPads and financial software. Your willingness to buy something depends, to a great extent, on your expectations that you'll be able to use it. Technology buyers have learned to be wary before diving into a purchase, because they've seen expensive products sit on the shelf unused. In contrast, the person buying a new Avalon Hill wargame knew that, even if the rulebook proved to be dense, dry, and confusing (the infamous Greenwood syndrome), the series replay articles, among other types of supporting content in The General, increased the ease of learning, and therefore eventually playing (or adopting), the game.
  • Greater odds of realizing long-term value. Most people who buy a game want to be able to play it, if not expertly, at least moderately well. The series replay articles provided commentary on the game that not only taught the game mechanics, but basic strategies for first-time players. This information increased the long term value of the game in two ways: (1) shortening the time to begin playing the game at a deeper level, which not all wargamers are patient enough to discover on their own, and (2) illustrating how the game might have deeper levels worth learning.

I'm not sure why game companies today have not learned this lesson. There are exceptions, such as GMT, which recently started recording demos of their games. GMT is certainly an exception, however, in a market awash with orders of magnitude more games than Avalon Hill could ever have published.

A different kind of gaming hobby, computer gaming, has learned this lesson. The most obvious example of a game with useful AARs is Starcraft 2, supported by hundreds of recorded games. A complex game, Europa Universalis III, gets a major boost from the AARs in its fan forums. One of my favorite new blog discoveries, Blunt Force Gamer, has some very interesting AARs from computer wargames.

All of this content increases the odds of anyone playing Starcraft, or taking a chance on buying a little-known game like Time of Fury. This content is way, way more valuable than the "right out of the plastic" or "played it once, now I have an opinion" reviews on Boardgame Geek. If I were a game publisher, I'd be a lot happier if someone posted a good session report than any of these kinds of momentary boosterism that spike right after a game is published, then drop off quickly. (See the latest episode of the I've Been Diced! podcast for more on this topic.) AARs build a longer-term following for games -- and, as The General showed, game companies.

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