Why (some) communities kill games

Games that are dependent upon a thriving community to ensure their survival often run into their biggest liability:  the community itself.

I’ve played a few competitive games in my day and I’ve witnessed the complete and utter self destruction of almost all of them.  Some are too big to fail (Magic), but most are around just as long as people are buying stuff.

So what makes people buy?  Well, the game in of itself makes a difference, of course.  Some people just like cool models, or art on cards, or both.  They would buy no matter what happens to a game.  Other sub demographics include casual and competitive players.  I have no data to back this and I’m not sure how much of each of these sub groups make up the total consumer base for any game, let alone games in general.

The naming of these sub groups matter because competitive players often drive the direction of rules changes in the tournament scene because they have the greatest stake in it.  Time and time again I’ve witnessed this giving them an over-extended sense of self importance in terms of their purchasing base.  The competitive player may or may not purchase a lot.  Some just purchase what they need to win.  Some collect en masse.

The problem with a gaming community becomes when the competitive players begin or continue to push casual players out. How the community handles casual players makes a difference here and it is ultimately why, in my opinion, casual players are the sleeping giants of purchasing power.  They may not purchase as much, but they far outnumber the competitive players.

I played Star Wars Miniatures from 2005-2009.  In that time, at least in our local area, we did a pretty good job of being true friends to casual players, especially the kids.  Everyone got prizes at every tournament and we freely traded figures with other players who were and were not playing competitively.  What killed Star Wars Miniatures?  Mostly time.  It had a long run.  But also a little bit of a caustic online community, in my opinion, who drove people away from the game in droves.

I worry about the future of X-wing.  I don’t see it lasting much longer, and I see competitive players as killing the game for casuals.  They don’t think they are.  They think they are unbelievably generous.  And in some cases they are.  I don’t think I’ve ever played an unenjoyable game.

But here’s where my concern lies.  They are unequivocally stingy with game components.  Competitive players have mountains of swag for the game that they absolutely cannot use.  I’m talking about duplicates of alternate art cards, acrylic tokens that they could never use in a game or scenario, dozens of sets of acrylic range rulers.  They don’t share anything with casual players.  I think part of the neuroses is that most of that is won or obtained in tournaments and so it’s a bit of a status symbol for them within their club.   I have a friend who “lent” me one of a thousand acrylic tokens to use in a game.  I legitimately forgot to give it back to him at the end of a tournament.  He reminded me of this later and I ended up mailing a single acrylic token to him through the mail.  And he has hundreds, that he will never use.  Is that not messed up?

Another anecdote.  When you play a tournament for X-wing, you will have some mix of competitive and casual players.  Most players don’t stick around for X-wing tournaments when they place low because they know they won’t receive anything.  Prize support in X-wing tournaments perpetuates this inequality.  You’ll have SETS of acrylic tokens as prizes.  It is unimaginable to me why organizers wouldn’t split those sets up so more players can get access to them.  What happens instead is that you’ll have the usual suspects placing high.  They’ll walk up to the prize support knowing full well that they don’t need acrylic tokens, and they’ll mutter:  “I don’t need this, but I guess I’ll take it.”  And then no one farther down the line gets anything.  And the top ranked player is “disappointed” that there wasn’t anything that they don’t already have.  That’s broken.  That is messed up.  And the Good ol’ Boys of this little club don’t even bat an eyelash.

 You look at the game case of a competitive player and a casual player and the disparity between what a competitive player can “earn” and what a casual player has just no access to is difficult to understand.  The casual player sees this disparity, and it doesn’t make them want to stick around.  They’re interested in playing, not winning.  And if winning is what is required to participate in the community, they’re not having any of it.  And then they stop buying.  This is what competitive X-wing players don’t seem to understand, and it is amazing to me how unempathetic, clueless and callous they can be.

This has grated on me for a year because ultimately it is that contradiction that I view is ultimately going to kill the popularity of the game.  Most games don’t do this.  Everyone usually wins something in a Magic tournament where the organizers know what they’re doing.  We certainly found ways to get everyone a “thanks for playing” in SW Miniatures.  But in this game, there is a capitalistic drive for players to possess huge quantities of swag at the expense of other players just so they can sell it or possess it en masse.  It is greed personified.

“I’m living paycheck to paycheck and I need that return on my investment!”

Bull.  So is every other casual who plays the game.  Stop playing the victim and share.  Sharing is what good gaming groups do.  I personally don’t want the swag.  I just want everyone to have access.  It’s called including people in your community.

This isn’t how I play games and I just don’t see myself continuing to participate in this community because of it.  When you actually look at the reality of X-wing, the “We’re so generous!” mantra of the competitive community is a smoke screen for self-aggrandizement.  And I don’t game with people who treat others poorly.

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