Barriers and perceptions of the Forge

So, here my friend Kevin Weiser interviewed my friend Ron Edwards. They talked about the Forge, and the notorious “Forge cult” thing came up. That then had a small echo effect on Twitter, including this post by Josh of the Brilliant Gameologists (whose last name I don’t know — sorry Josh).

On Twitter, I remarked to Vincent Baker (also a friend!) that the cult label is a distraction, but there is something going on with the label. He basically agreed. Now, keep in mind, Vincent and Ron operate the Forge! And, that I have long been a Forge proponent and all that. But, in last couple years, I haven’t participated there much at all.

So, the “Forge is a cult” thing. What’s going on here?

Well, one thing that’s not going on is idenity politics and posturing. That has gone on (and probably will continue), but that’s not the issue here and now.

The “cult” thing is really about barriers. There are different kinds here.

First, there’s the barrier of entry — someone who observes the Forge, appreciates it’s mission, but can’t penetrate the language or the social rules or whatever thing. Despite wanting to participate, they bounce off the surface instead.

Next, there’s the barrier of ideas. This probably comes in two forms, and these two overlap some. There are people who see the philosophies of the Forge as single-minded or wrong or just not very useful to them. And, there are folks who see the business model (i.e. creator owned publishing) as not right for their purposes. So, at best they see the Forge (and to some degree the Forge sees them) at best as tangential, and at worst as contrary. Perhaps even to the point of challenging their very profession and livelihood. I’ve seen people describe themselves and their games as attractive in part because they are not associated with the Forge. In essence, leveraging their identity and marketing as contrarian in effort to appeal to others who confront the barrier of ideas.

And, there’s the barrier of play. This is more true of players rather than of publishers or would-be publishers. There is a sense out there, I think, that if you interact with the Forge, “they” will critique your group’s play as wrong or awful or something. That you’ll be shamed. That you have to go through some kind of odd purification before you’re accepted. This is profoundly not the case. It’s an unfortunate misconception that contributes to the “cult” thing. But, still, it’s out there in people’s thoughts.

Finally, I think there’s an emerging barrier — the barrier of obscurity. I think we can confidently point to a declining trend in the Forge’s reach and relevance. It’s presence at GenCon is smaller. It’s influence online is lesser. Now, the Forge is still purring along as it always has. It’s still doing the same thing in its forums. But, there’s growing perception that it’s become quieter and less important. And, people and designers wander elsewhere as a result.

All of these barriers add up. People think, “Hey, there’s this thing over there called the Forge. And, you know what, it has some weird qualities to me. It sort of seems like a cult.”

And, then we’re all ships passing in the ether.

Now, so what? Right?

The Forge has a perception problem, whether or not the barriers have factual merit. Ron knows this, and he doesn’t wish to remedy it for various reasons. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do with the Forge as a thing in the hobby, as is his right, of course.

I still support the Forge with that. But, my activity there remains scant. I’ve just recently started to move in other directions that are, in their small way for just me and my games, confronting the perceptions described above.

5 Replies to “Barriers and perceptions of the Forge”

  1. While I’ve never thought of the Forge as a cult, I perfectly understand the barriers you describe cause those are the ones I kept bouncing against as I first visited then tried to get into what was being discussed there. At the time I was coming from the d20 boom side of things, and looking to learn more about creating and publishing game material; I knew the product would be different, but lessons are lessons and I had heard good things about this place. I couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t really get into it, and my inability to understand what was going on led me to be intimidated falsely, thus I never posted. Some time later Ron did an interview on a podcast where he put out the phrase “brain damaged,” which was a whole nother issue altogether, but that got meshed with the Forge in my head and I declared it Here There Be Dragons territory.

    It would be a couple of years before I went back and was able to understand how things operated there (ie. not like a regular forum, but rather under a very specific set of rules) and was able to start making sense of it all. I still don’t post (except on some of the specific publisher forums), and even now that I am working on a game that is in tune with the philosophies that emerged from the Forge I don’t know I would, to be perfectly honest, mainly because I still sense a bit of that barrier. And that might (and probably) is mostly me and how I haven’t found a way to socket into that site, but obviously there is something present because you are addressing it and you and I have never spoken about this.

    I now recognize the value of what is stored at the Forge. I’ll find it interesting to see how Vincent replies to this whole issue whenever he gets around to it, or even if this is something that even needs addressing at all. If Ron is perfectly fine with the Forge having this mystic aura that acts as a semipermeable membrane for people coming into the Forge, then is there really a problem there?

  2. Hi Daniel. You raise the important question — is this really a problem? And, unsurprisingly, the answer is “it depends.”

    For many, there is no problem. Even if those people agree that there is a perception issue, it’s too low priority for them to do anything about it. I suspect that Paul Czege sees it roughly this way, for example.

    If you are interested, as I am, in broadening the reach of your published game sales, then perception among other gamers that your game is a “Forge” game (and all the connotations that carries) could be a problem.

    I think it simply depends on what your priorities and philosophies about creating and playing indie games is all about. Those priorities and philosophies are not uniform, of course. And, they shift even within an individual, as mine have over the years.

  3. I’m not sure what qualifies as a “Forge game” these days, given the more widespread moniker of “story game.” I think that this more prolific adoption happened as a result of the perceived marketing implications of using the Forge name/association (tangentially, I also noticed a bit of the same thing happening at Gen Con when the Forge booth merged with IPR for a couple of years – suddenly it was the IPR or the IPR/Forge booth, but rarely *just* the Forge booth; this all changed last year, of course).

    Personally what I gained from the Forge, even if it was by 2nd or 3rd generation distillation, was the idea of making games that address different aspects of play. I’m not too keen on the vocab, mainly because I’m not very sure to this day on the meanings, but I cannot deny where the ideas that led me to know, learn, play and now be influenced/inspired by games that put a focus on the narrative came from.

    Of course, over the last couple of years I have also grown and discarded that chip on my shoulder about the us trads vs them indie hippies, so that alone helped me tons.

  4. I’m not convinced that there aren’t identity politics involved in the Forge as cult meme. Gamers like to divide people and games into “camps.” As counter-productive as this practice is, many gamers then like to use these camps to set up an opposition against which to rally. Those who like to say they are for or against the perceived “Forge culture,” are just another example of this ongoing gamer identity crisis.

    In this context, the specific misconceptions about the Forge are almost less important than the whole problem of using a website as a shortcut for your gamer street cred. Our games are always in danger of being associated with some negative meme, Forge or otherwise. But if the ultimate goal is to expand market share, we have to move beyond the audience who knows (or much less cares) about gamer politics. Attempting to take on these misconceptions directly is counterproductive and a waste of time (from a marketing point of view).

    On the other hand, there is no need to latch onto the Forge as a marketing plus. Indie games are much more generally accepted. They can surely stand on their own. What I mean is, if someone wants to off-handedly and negatively label a certain game as a “Forge game,” we as designers can’t do much about it. It’s more important to put our efforts into clearly explaining what our game does and why it does it well. The Forge doesn’t need defending. So let’s not try to change people’s minds as a marketing move. Instead, let’s focus on showing people why our specific games are good games — period.

    And this is where I have a difficult time understanding your concern. Why should the Forge’s perception problems affect our efforts to market games unless identity politics are involved? If the Forge has a barrier to entry, that’s a Forge problem, not a game designer’s marketing problem. The only danger arises when a specific game is somehow negatively associated with the Forge.

  5. The only danger arises when a specific game is somehow negatively associated with the Forge.

    Which ultimately is what I felt Matt was driving at after laying the historical foundation (not to put words in Matt’s mouth, that’s just what I got out of it).

    Are there games out there still being classified as “Forge games” (in addition to/exclusively from story/indie games)? If so, then this still remains an issue of interest in how it can affect perception of the game (whether that affects gamer population penetration or marketing/sales efforts). If that classification is already dying (and in my experience, it isn’t a term I have seen applied to a game in a while now), then this is mostly academic.

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