The next issue of Suspense and Decision will be Issue # 14 Anticipated Publication Date: September 2016



Friday, April 11, 2014

PBM Case Files: The Missing Middle Class of Play By Mail

12:25 PM

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The fate of the economic middle class is not the subject of this article. Rather, what I'm here to talk about, today, is the other middle class - the middle class of play by mail.

In the past, Mica Goldstone of KJC Games, has spoken of what he terms the "local pub" mentality of PBM gamers. By this, he refers to the tendency of players to find a single (or a few games), and stick with it/them, to the
exclusion of all others.

Fast forward to the present day, and what we are witness to is this "mentality," as he calls it, manifesting itself across the PBM landscape at large. In effect, it is the players, themselves, that have segregated themselves into either this camp or that camp. I posit to you, however, that this segmenting of the overall PBM player base is a symptom of positive health, rather than a disease to be treated.

That certain games enjoy a following or a loyalty, an adherence of a core following of players thereto, helps to ensure longevity, of both the games in question, specifically, and of play by mail gaming, in general.

A more relevant concern, from my perspective, is what I term the missing middle class of PBM. Play by mail gaming's middle class may be missing, but it can hardly be attributed to the fact that some games remain healthy.

What plagues PBM gaming isn't the Internet. The Internet, after all, has proven to be very conducive to gaming. It facilitates gaming, all sorts of gaming, in fact. As the PlayByMail.Net website and other websites demonstrate, the Internet also facilitates play by mail gaming. It just does so in its own way, and not necessarily in ways that many might otherwise have imagined or preferred.

Rick McDowell, the designer of the PBM game, Alamaze (which is currently enjoying a resurgence in electronic form), recently posed the following question(s) to me via e-mail. 

"Seriously, on the news front for the magazine, what are the promising new (less than 10 years old?) games?  For the old stalwarts, what has changed in the last five years? Is Duelmasters (Duel 2) any different now than it was 20 years ago? MEPBM? HW?"

Innovation, in the form of new PBM game designs, or notable changes to existing PBM games, seems to not be the priority amongst PBM companies that it once was. Electronic tinkering seems to have become substituted for true game design, somewhere along the way. In the process, PBM lost the bulk of its innovative drive - and its middle class of players along with it.

The PlayByMail.Net forum user base of registered site users is starting to finally take the form of a PBM middle class that is in the process of rebuilding itself. From my perspective, it is, anyway.

Some of our site users are former local pub mentality gamers. Others of our site users will likely transition to that camp, going forward. But, the thing to keep in mind is that it is not a bad thing that PBM games of considerable design antiquity are still capable of appealing to modern day gamers. The appeal of such games is inherent in their respective designs, and this appeal is not dependent upon games being a certain age or of a specific generation. What they possess is an appeal that is enduring. It is the most natural thing in the world, then, for games that possess such enduring appeal to enjoy longevity of play and loyalty of player base.

Commercial PBM companies naturally seek a positive return on investment. If PBM is dead, then why invest money in things such as design of new PBM games, or even on advertising of one's existing stable of PBM games? They are not in business to lose money, but to make money, after all. Hence, why we refer to them as commercial PBM companies.

If PBM companies want more players who are not local pub mentality players, then they need to be prepared to work for them. In no instance are they inherently due player patronage, much less player loyalty, to their respective stable of play by mail games.

For play by mail gaming to recapture the innovative edge that the industry once enjoyed, it will require more than just commercial PBM companies. Individual game designers are as integral to a healthy PBM industry as a commercial PBM sector. Entrepreneurs of game design, those solo individuals who dared to be the PBM upstarts of yesteryear, play a vital role in helping to grow the middle class of play by mail.

Neither PlayByMail.Net nor its publication of note, Suspense & Decision magazine (a PBM magazine for the 21st Century), are commercial undertakings. Yet, they are developing into a tool that I believe to be useful to PBM, both as a hobby and as an industry. Collectively, if not individually, they are morphing into a driving force for the industry - not the only driving force in the PBM industry, mind you, but nevertheless, one of several, in my considered opinion. Feel free to disagree, of course.

On any given day of the week that I visit the Alamaze forum, there have been between two dozen and four dozen registered forum users that have logged on there. This has consistently been the case, over a period of not just weeks, but of several months.

Rick McDowell has been experimenting with things such as pricing structure, turn scheduling, and game variants. From what I can tell, he seems to be enjoying a certain degree of success in the process - noticeable success.

For a long while, Rick McDowell pretty much exited the PBM Gaming scene. Life went on, and he went on to pursue other things. At some point along the way, however, he returned to game design. This resulted in Fall of Rome, Centurion, and an elusive quest to bring Kingdoms of Arcania to fruition. Irony being what it is, though, it has been his return to his Alamaze roots that seems to be bearing the most and best fruit for him, on the game design front.

An awful lot of PBM game designers of fame of olde are no longer involved in the development of the hobby or the industry that grew up around it. A few are, and is it just me, or does it seem like more than just a few names associated with play by mail game design have begun returning to PBM roots that stretch way back into play by mail antiquity?

I can't but help to remark that, to me, at least, some of these recently returning PBM personalities are bringing with them more energy and more genuine interest than numerous PBM personalities who stuck with it all along seem to be capable of mustering. You don't have to agree, of course, but that's just how I feel about it, having spent the last several years observing the PBM industry from our quaint little PBM abode of PlayByMail.Net.

Some PBM moderators still seem to fret about other PBM companies or other games "stealing" their players away. Nevermind the fact that the players aren't their property in the first place. What's needed is, I believe, more engagement - engagement with both the hobby and its player base at large, rather than less.

Trying to cloister players away into one's own little gaming cluster is not what grows local pub mentality players. The individual game, itself, is but only one part of a larger equation, after all. The larger equation is the experience, itself, not just of playing the game, but of playing it with other players.

The more that players mingle with other players, the healthier the PBM industry becomes. The full PBM experience is not something that any particular PBM or other turn-based game can own or monopolize. Camaraderie across the expanse of the play by mail hobby grows exponentially, as players try their hand and their luck at a multitude of different games. Because camaraderie is such an inherently addictive commodity, it is no surprise that the local pub mentality that Mica Goldstone spoke of has become so prevalent industry-wide.

Play by mail gaming, you see, is a realm of entertainment where intangible things, like camaraderie, dominate the playscape. The individual games, themselves, are secondary to the playscape, itself. The experience of the games, themselves, combined with the camaraderie that grows therefrom, imbues PBM gaming with a quality and a character all its own.

It's less a case of PBM's middle class being missing, as it is a case of the PBM industry, itself, that has gone missing. Camaraderie benefits from a competitive spirit. It craves new challenges - challenges to face together, and to overcome together - regardless of who wins or who loses the particular individual PBM games that such camaraderies manifests itself through. Because it craves new challenges, which are new opportunities to manifest itself through, the PBM industry will always benefit from having more innovation in its game design offerings, compared to if it has less of the same.

When PBM game design becomes stale and unevolving, opportunities for camaraderie within the PBM hobby become diminished - and along with it, the size of the overall player base, as well.

That concludes this session of PBM ramblings. Have a PBM day!

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