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Simple Justice

by Greg Costikyan

A couple of years ago, I went to a party thrown by Davis Publications, then the publishers of Analog and Asimov's, the science fiction magazines. At the party, Davis gave out awards to their picks for the year's best games.

At the same party, Davis gave awards to the authors of the best stories that had appeared in the Davis SF magazines over the previous year. Naturally, when they announced the awards, they announced the story's title and the name of its author.

When it came to the games, matters were very different. Davis announced the name of the game -- and the name of its publisher.

The most egregious offense was the award given to Shogun, the game published by Milton Bradley. Bradley had some public relations flack on hand to accept the award and say how happy the company was to receive it.

The offense was egregious because Milton Bradley keeps the names of the people who design its games a virtual trade secret. The designer's name does not appear on the box cover. It does not appear inside the box. It does not appear in the rules. It appears no where at all within the game, and if you call Milton Bradley and ask who designed the game, they will refuse to tell you.

Shogun is designed by Michael Gray, who also designed Fortress America. Despite his contributions to the field, he will always be unknown.

I spoke rather harshly about this absurdity to Matt Costello, the games reviewer for the Davis magazines; and I fear he has never forgiven me.

But it pissed me off -- and it should piss you off too.

When you buy a book, do you buy a Bantam book -- or a book by Tom Clancy? When you go to a movie, do you go to a Paramount film -- or a Steven Spielberg film? In general, in every artform in the world with the sole exception of gaming, product is associated with its creator -- and not with the company that produces it.

This is simple justice. For it is the creator's energy, imagination, and talent that bring the product to life. The company merely sells.

Why, then, are designers virtually unknown in the field? Why is the name "TSR" better known than the name "Steve Winter?" The name "Games Workshop" better known than the name "Rick Priestley?" The name "FASA" better known than the name "Jordy Weissman?"

Two reasons. First, a historical one: many game designers are closely associated with particular companies. Jordy Weissman, the designer of BattleTech, is also Vice President of FASA. You won't be seeing any Weissman games from Avalon Hill -- and if you buy a FASA game, the odds are at least decent that you'll be buying a Weissman game. So, in the past, the company logo has been a reasonable substitute for the designer's name.

But it isn't any longer. The larger companies, especially, employ many designers. So the fact that you like one game from Company X does not mean you'll probably like the next -- they may be designed by entirely different people. The case of FASA is particularly instructive, since the quality of their product ranges from the sublime to the apalling. If you don't know who the good FASA designers are, you're in for some rough times.

Moreover, many fine designers move from company to company, just as many fine authors are published by different houses. If you truly like Allen Varney's work, for instance, you won't find it all by looking at the West End Games section; you'd better look at Steve Jackson Games and TSR, too.

Why should you care? Consider. Suppose you're looking for a good game, and you happen to like Toon, which, you know, is published by Steve Jackson Games. So you pick up the other SJ Games RPG, GURPS. Now, GURPS is a fine game, and you may enjoy it greatly -- but it is nothing like Toon. You'd be far better off looking for other games by Greg Costikyan -- Paranoia, say, from West End Games.

Which is a better guide -- company or designer? One executes the graphics, prints the brochures, and pays the shipper. The other writes the rules, designs the system, and playtests exhaustively. Which of these factors do you think is more likely to determine whether you'll like the game?

So why don't you know who designed your favorite games?

Unless your favorite games are all from Milton Bradley, you can easily find out.

G'wan. The Web will wait. Go pull those boxes off your shelf.

I'm not done yet.

Why aren't designers better known? I told you it was your fault, and asked you to find out who designed your favorite games. But it isn't your fault, not wholly, anyway.

It's the publishers' fault.

The mainstream publishers, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, are the worst offenders, because they not only don't put the names of designers on the box, they don't put those names in the box. And they won't tell you who designed their games if you ask. I guess people don't design their games. They're all invented by robots. Or something.

The Avalon Hill Game Company is almost as bad. They do, grudgingly, offer game credit, in small type, at the back of the rules book. They go out of their way to hide the designer's name -- but you can find it if you hunt.

Games Workshop is only marginally better. They do put the designer's name on the box -- on the back, in tiny, tiny print. The corporate logo, naturally, is ten or twelve times as large.

TSR used to be pretty good about designer credit, but they're beginning to backslide. Some product mentions designer only inside; and TSR has recently announced a line of novels that will be written by a "house name." That is, lots of different people will write the series -- but a TSR-trademarked pseudonym will go on the books.

West End Games at least puts the designer's name on the cover -- unless it's a licensed product. Then, the name goes on the back, in tiny print. West End used to be rather generous with credit, but as the company has grown larger, the names of its designers have grown smaller.

FASA seems to be rather erratic, offering cover credit only infrequently.

Why is this so? I wish I could provide you with exact quotes, like a good journalist should, but the sentiments I'm about to report were said to me over a period of years by different people. So I'm reporting my impression of what I heard, not the exact words.

From Avalon Hill: "We want people to associate the good games they buy with Avalon Hill, not with a designer."

From TSR: "We don't want stars at TSR." Gygax, of course, left TSR, and they feel burned. Too, Hickman and Weiss, authors of the Dragonlance series, left TSR for Bantam Books. Clearly, TSR feels that unless a designer or author is willing to permanently enslave himself to the corporation, he deserves no recognition for the work he does.

From West End Games' former Sales Manager: "I deserve as much recognition for these games as the designer. After all, if I didn't sell them, nobody would get any recognition."

In short, there is an unspoken conspiracy among the publishers in this field. They want you to stay in ignorance. They want you to buy the next piece of crap they publish, instead of searching out the next game by the designer you respect. They know that if designers are better recognized, designers will be able to demand more money -- and they don't want to spend the loot.

Want another one, one I've heard from a number of different companies? "We get lots of submissions. Why should we care about designer X? There's always another guy willing to write the next module."

Yes, there is. There's always another incompetent hack who really really wants to be a game designer and has none of the qualifications who can write a semi-literate piece of trash. There are always wannabes -- and some publishers genuinely feel that their marketing genius sells games, not whether or not the game is any good. That a well-packaged piece of garbage will sell as well as a well-packaged piece of genius. These companies usually learn different -- but only after you've bought their well-packaged excrement.

But it's wrong to put the blame wholly on the publishers. Let me quote some quotes from designers:

"They can't tell the difference between good rules and bad ones. In fact, bad rules are sometimes better, because it takes longer for them to figure out the game is a turkey."

"They're only paying me $XXX, so the hell with it. I'll slap something together quick."

"It took me two weeks to do, so what the hell if I only get $XXX."

"Well, I'm not earning royalties on this one, so why should I care?"

"You're not paying me enough to make it worth my while to polish this thing. That's what your in-house staff is for."

"Look, you bought the game. Do what you want with it. Don't bug me for revisions, at least after the check clears."

To be blunt, why should a designer care whether what he does is any good? He won't get a bad reputation, because the gamers will never realize that he writes trash. And the publishers are more impressed with publication credits than with the quality of the products they represent.

In this field, you get neither money nor egoboo. It's no wonder it's filled with hacks.

I'm looking at the newspaper right now. Here's a book ad: 'Steven King's latest,' it screams. Here's a movie ad: 'Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeifer & Danny DeVito' (guess you can figure what movie that's for). Scanning the TV listings, there's a name, a name, a name; funny. People are selling bound wads of paper, photons projected on a distant screen, and modulated radio waves, but what do they use to sell these things?



Why? Why not just promote a movie as a movie? Why do the studios use the names of actors and directors, instead of merely the title, the theme, the studio's logo? It would be a lot cheaper, right? Instead of spending millions to get well-known actors and well-known directors for films, they could use unknowns. They could make movies a hell of a lot cheaper.

Because those names are sales hooks. People know those actors. More sophisticated movie-goers even know the directors, the producers, and possibly even the screenwriters. By mentioning names in their ads, Hollywood gets people into the theaters.

Oh, there are plenty of other sales hooks for producers to exploit; there are licenses, there are interesting themes, there are novel graphic looks. But the single most powerful sales hook, the one that sells movies, books, art, and music, the one that draws them in by the droves is the name.

Why is that? It's very simple; we're human. We like to associate human beings with our forms of entertainment. We'd much rather think something is the product of individual human genius than a nameless technical accomplishment. The use of names humanizes things.

For the producers, a name is a sales hook; for us, it is a shorthand for the qualities of a product. We know that Steven King is associated with a particular kind of book, and his name on a new one tells us a great deal about what the book is like. We know what Danny DeVito is like, and his name on a movie tells us a great deal about the movie's character. We not only like knowing the folks who make our entertainment, we use their established names and personalities as a guide when deciding what to buy.

Movies, TV, books, art, comics, music, comedy, the stage; these industries know something that gaming has never discovered.

Names sell.

When you establish an artist in the minds of your audience, you've got the greatest hook any marketer could desire. In a few syllables, you have a way of positioning the product for a particular audience; you have a way of drawing in consumers; you have instant sales. No number of ads, no amount of money spent on a cover, no line of copy has anywhere near the impact as a name, a face, a personality -- a human, to humanize the work.

I've complained, at length, that game publishers do designers an injustice by failing to give cover credit, that they are engaged in an unspoken conspiracy to hoodwink gamers, so people will associate games with publishers and not the creators.

But maybe game companies are not so Machiavellian, so clever, so smart as they think.

Maybe they're just missing a bet.

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© Copyright 1996 by Greg Costikyan. .