So three big larps announced at KP managed to sell out in no time. Last Will was over and done with in 8 minutes. I didn’t even realize tickets had gone one sale before it missed them. It’s a bit crazy. I’m going to put on my amateur economist hat* and take a look at what might be going on in the community:
There’s some sort of market forces going on, with players willing to put in time, effort and money to play games and organizers making games and wanting players and money for them. Ideally this should mean that the cost and signup for larps should even out by itself, but we seem to lack the critical mass for an invisible hand to make that happen. Instead we’re stuck with a lot of basic problems of distribution.
How we got here
It’s hard to tell what developments and factors made things escalate to this level of intensity, but my take is that the nordic larp scene has become globalized, which increasing polarity and inequality following right behind and causing funky effects.
It means that the games that aim for an international audience has a bigger customer base than ever. There’s also a huge bandwidth for communication and hype. There’s a lot of people willing to throw large amounts of money at games, including travelling to foreign countries (180 euro attendance fee and tickets to Poland for the Harry Potter game). Meanwhile the individual national scenes haven’t grown at all, players have merely migrated to an international level of interest and expectations, causing local scenes to wither.
Your basic model
It used to be that games would be announced, people would sign up, then at a later date they’d pay the fee and finally go to the game. All through this, the organizers would agonize over whether or not they’d have enough players to fulfull the vision and practicalities of the game. Meanwhile the players had a lot of freedom to not go, since the games rarely filled up and the organizers wanted as many players as possible. It was obviously a players’ market, with no selection of participants, any warm bodies to fill up the available slots would make organizers happy!
Now it seems to me that we’ve gone from a buyers market to a sellers market. In a regular free market, this would mean that prices went up to match what buyers are willing to pay, but since we’re nordic and play by different non-profit rules, that way isn’t happening and organizers aren’t reaping huge profits off their products. It does mean that organizers have a whole new range of problems and opportunities to consider.
Money up front!
The first opportunity is that it’s possible to demand money up front for your game, meaning that funding will be immediate and players commit to the game from signup. These are pretty significant advantages for the organizers, as both of them mean more stability for the project. For the player this means that you need to have a rather large amount of money readily available to invest in the game as well as full trust that it will pan out, which can be problematic. I’ll dig into that below.
It also means that the player selection will occur solely based on readiness to pay and first-come first-serve.
Another model is in between the two, where players mark their interest in participating and then the organizers invite players to commit to participation by paying. This model has the advantage of selection being an active choice by the organizers. It obviously only works like this if you have a great er number of potential players, than slots available in the game.
There’s also the version which is entirely invitational, but I’m not going to cover that here, as it operates on a different set of rules to what I’m exploring here.
Interests of the market actors
For the most part, the interests of both players and organizers are aligned: Both want the best possible game to actually happen and to be part of it. But there are some subtle differences of interest that make the whole thing unstable. A couple of examples:
Players want to avoid committing to a game until the very last possible moment, especially if the game might be cancelled, since they don’t want to risk their investment of time and money. Meanwhile, organizers want as many players to commit as soon as possible in order to assure that the game is going to be run.
Players and organizers both want the best possible setup of participants, but players are usually much more sensitive about potentially disruptive co-players, since they have much less control over who they get to play with. Organizers can handle a certain amount of risk here, as long as they have enough stable players.
Both sides want the game to be cool and get lots of positive responses afterwards, but for the players this means picking the game that seems to become the game of the year, while the organizers are committed to making this one game awesome.
The danger of dropouts
What seems to be the biggest fear of organizers right now, is the chance that players will choose to drop out of the game at a late stage. This is again a stability issue, it leaves a lot of work in the hands of the organizers to find a suitable replacement and the insecurity can spread to other players (the offgame social setup in the run-up to games is a quagmire). Currently the strategy is to make it costly for players to drop out, by not giving refunds and similar. But that isn’t fool proof and it can be very problematic, some good solutions here would increase stability of game a lot.
Inclusivity & Bias
Time to put the nordic into this discussion. Most of us agree that it would be bad if games were all about who could afford to go, we prefer som kind of “fair” distribution of who can participate. There are some qualities in players that we think it’s okay to select for and others that are not okay. The way people are excluded can be passive and active by the organizers. Active selection is picking and choosing who can participate and setting up limits like gender quotas or requiring people to sign up in pairs.
Some selection methods are a bit more insidious as they set up barriers of entry that seem fair, but actually work to discourage or keep out certain participants. Some are the socio-economics of pricing, others can be setting content that require certain things from the players.
Some things that organizers try to select for is to get committed players who are going to put work in to make the game awesome for themselves and others, players who won’t drop out, players who play well with others, etc. These things are usually seen as okay to select for, as long as you don’t stray into nepotism.
The flipside: Not enough interest
At the same time as these first-world problems are besetting the international stage of larpwrighting, there are a lot of examples of local scene games having to be cancelled due to lack of signups. This can be seen as players’ tastes evolving to prefer the international flavours, rather than what is available at home, while the games being made in the local stages aren’t evolving along with player tastes.
This is going to cause problems on the long term, since we can reasonably expect a dearth of organizers in the future as people become disillusioned before reaching the international organizing community.
I personally think that we have a responsibility to help make more better games in the local stages and encourage organizers, initiatives like the Larpwriter Summer School are hopefully going to be making differences in this regard.
The Power of Marketing and Hype
What is the factor that takes a game from the risky national scale to the explosive conditions of international infamy? What makes a game the target of the coolhunters of norp? What brings the KP buzz?
Far from trying to make a sure-fire list of things that bring the hype, here’s my take on factors that successful games have.
*Length: The games must be long enough to justify travelling internationally, so a couple of days. Longer and you start to lose players to too much investment of time.
*Size: The games must be big enough to accommodate a critical mass of players while still small enough to feel intimate and exclusive. No more than a couple of dozen players.
* Subject matter: The games should have a clear and interesting subject matter, be it a theme that you explore in play or a much loved setting.
* Controversy : The game has to go out of the usual comfort zone of games in format or subject matter in a way that pushes the limits of the participants. But not too much.
* Effort: The game should be challenging to the players, if it’s too easy or too hard to play it will discourage players. Most likely the effort should be clearly defined in the description.
* Face: The game should be organized and endorsed by popular people in the community. Preferably several at once.
* Strength: The game must appear to be a success before signup, if there’s doubt about the game actually working, it can easily be a dealbreaker.
If you manage to hit the tags above and you package it for sale at Knudepunkt, you should be pretty well set. Otherwise prepare for a struggle getting players.
To me the larp scene is very much a market consolidating after emerging onto an international level. There’s a need to adapt to the new conditions, which unfortunately creates rather larger barriers to entry when it comes to new organizers and the scale of games will wear out the veterans. Not that that’s anything new. We’ve been saying that for twenty years now and we’re still here…
*The one that came with my Freakonomics book.