The challenge facing megagames
Sam Bennett, along with Jon Torrens are team behind Mirror State, a series of modern-day apocalyptic megagames. Between them they’ve close to 40 years’ experience making video games but share a passion for games played live. Their first game was (surprise, surprise) Watch the Skies, played in Cambridge, UK in September 2014.
The challenge facing megagames
That sounds highfalutin and more than a little ominous doesn't it? Given my proclivities toward large sweeping statements it should hardly come as a shock that I'm banging the drum a little.
Let's unpick the question.
The broadening of megagames in the last few years came about due to the Watch The Skies video diary from popular boardgames review blog "Shut Up & Sit Down" (SU&SD). This is not news. If you haven't seen the video, congratulations, you're in the minority... that said, if you've ever played a megagame you are also in the minority.
Off the back of that video I was immediately struck by how similar it was to a few things I've done in the past, except it was unified under a single genre banner. As such I purchased the rules package and within 2 weeks arranged with Jon, another video games industry veteran, to run our own version in Cambridge, UK.
Fast forward 4 years.
Cambridge has now seen 20+ megagames hosted, 6 under the Mirror State banner, the team comprising Jon and myself. Alongside our original Watch The Skies game we set up the Cambridge Megagame group, which is now a mighty 186 members strong. The Mirror State Facebook group is also playing host to exactly 186 followers...hang on.
Let's review a few more groups.
The Megagame subreddit has 780 members
Megagame Makers, the big dog, has 1,950 members
The Megagame Society, based out of New York, 1,614 members
Pennine Megagames, the Northwest's group, 430 members
Sydney Megagamers, Australia's premier group, 398 members
Megagame Coalition, a working team of US groups, 210 members
Cleveland Megagame Council, 125 members
Diversionary Games, megagames on the south coast, 110 members
Dreams of Empire, another Cambridge group, 101 members
MegaCon UK, the new UK megagame convention, has 90 members
Megagames Gloucester, 56 members
The Last Turn Madness megagames podcast has 50 followers and a high-water mark of 800 listens
I think you can see where I'm going, and those are just the groups I follow. Which provokes another thought: if I, as a megagame designer am following all these pages, how many other designers are following those pages? Leading me to the central point of this text, where are the players? Or another way, are there any players?
A year after the SU&SD video and new games were sprouting from every nook and cranny. I say new games, let's face it over half of them were Watch the Skies, again. And why not? XCom had a high level of awareness already and it was the game "everybody" had heard of.
But here we are 4 years later, and what we have is effectively a few megagame "clubs". Outside of the handful of players who'll travel to play a game - and you see those same faces in many of the photos coming out of UK games - most players are those close to the design team. Scraping together 30 or more players for a new megagame with no established local club, whether megagame, boardgame, LARP, Games Workshop, etc is extraordinarily difficult.
It seems that somewhere in the years since megagames got a spin in the limelight, very few people have thought about growing the player numbers beyond the notion that if you build it, they will come. Well, many of us have built it and few have come. Growth, in terms of player numbers in the UK can be measured in double digits per year, if that.
Following every Mirror State game run to date Jon and I have surveyed the players to try and get a feel for how they tick and what they want. For a hobbyist player the sweet spot seems to be around 6 weeks in between games. Travel isn't an issue for these players - our biggest game to date had 70 players and was based in the Imperial War Museum, Duxford - the trickiest venue to get to. Price also isn't a factor - we've discounted tickets down to £5 to try and fill the last few seats in a game, and it hasn't made any difference.
If you, as a designer, have a 50 player game aspiration that would mean half a dozen games per year - assuming you can find 50 people who want to play even that frequently, and that's currently a big ask.
Is snazzy not good enough?
Our group based in Cambridge, one of the student capitals of the country, an hour away from either the capital city or 2nd largest city in the country have so far struggled to reach this seemingly modest target. To put it a different way, our focus has been entirely misguided. We've attempted to raise the quality bar in design, accessibility, venue, technology and material quality... but we've spent very little time on attracting new hobbyists. Schoolboy error.
At the start of 2019 we announced our new game, Underground, with a snazzy trailer and a goodly amount of fanfare. We decided to take the game on tour and hit the biggest population centres in the country on multiple dates. Ticket sales were non-existent. We hadn't done enough promotion, hadn't given enough lead time, and didn't put enough effort into the conversion of the kinds of gamers who'd be receptive to this kind of game. When we reached our go/no-go date for the first game we cancelled all the events. We'd got it wrong. A good game well-presented was not going to be enough. We needed a proposition that would reach further, much further, if there was any hope of building a sustainable and growing audience. We didn't want 50 players, we wanted 500, 5000...more!
Underground was intended to be a stepping-off point in the evolution of Mirror State. Our next stage had far more grandiose aspirations. When we opted to pull the games, rather than merely changing the dates, we instead opted to jump straight to the next stage, placing all the focus on player acquisition. But enough about us...
Where are the players?
Dungeons and Dragons is having a renaissance lately. The likes of Critical Role and the continued growth of gaming conventions have spread the acceptance of the grandfather of tabletop roleplaying further than at any point in history.
Games Workshop is reaching new audiences thanks to a softening of their approach to licensing, introducing more video-gamers to tabletop wargaming, with first generation Warhammer players returning to the fold all the time.
LARP continues to grow, albeit modestly, while simultaneously delivering better experiences. There’s the spin-off of LARP into cosplay with groups like Wasteland Weekend, the Mad Max party/festival, getting bigger every year.
Black Mirror introduced passive audiences to interactive play with Bandersnatch - a choose your own adventure take on television, while interactive theatre, escape rooms and streaming video blur the lines between participant and viewer ever more.
Entertainment consumers have never been better served or been more spoilt for choice when it comes to live and interactive experiences.
This should be the period where megagames establish a firm foothold in this bold new experience-driven future, but we’ll collectively going to need a focus on player acquisition and conversion if it's going to reach beyond a few niche, specialist clubs around the world.
Does it matter what a megagame is?
The megagame big brains seem to be satisfied to endlessly debate what a megagame is. In my opinion it just doesn't matter. Got a large group of players in a live experience with a mix of strategy and roleplaying, collaboration and competition? Where diplomacy and double-dealing are ingrained in the design? It's a megagame. Instead of wasting brain-cycles trying to define this further, pouring scorn on games that don't fit your personal definition, surely it would be more productive to try and figure out how to attract more people to play these games.
Players do not care whether your game is a megagame, a boardgame, a wargame or a LARP. They only care about whether it's fun or not. As such, the navel-gazing that is ongoing about what a megagame is will have zero impact on growing the hobby. New games are commonplace, new players are a scarce resource. New players who convert into being regular players are rare in the extreme.
Designing your game is the easy bit.
Getting people to play a megagame is the challenge.