A few days back I posted an old blog entry asking "why do commercial RPGs fail"? And a lot of people found it quite interesting, but a few of them have been cajoling me into sharing my thoughts as to the opposite end of the spectrum; that is, why do commercial RPGs succeed? What's the special formula for success?
So here's what I'd say on the subject:
1. Promotion: you might have written the greatest RPG in the history of the Universe; but if no one knows it exists, you're screwed. If we're talking about large-scale commercial endeavors, then the focus here is on things like advertising, but also Public Relations; a large gaming company will inevitably have detractors, so it will also need defenders and promoters.
If we're talking about a small-print RPG, unless you're the RPGPundit or something, detractors are probably not an issue you have to deal with; your main issue is going to be having people know you even exist. So besides focusing on writing a good game, you need to focus on creating good "buzz". You need to start talking about the game and getting people to talk about it long before it even sees print. This means posts on forums, on blogs, on G+, kickstarter campaigns (which are as much about getting attention as securing funds, a point some people don't quite gather sometimes), and generally creating an environment where there are people wanting to own the game before they even can.
This is, in fact, #1 by a HUGE margin. It's more important than your rules, your art, or anything else. There are less worthy games that have sold far better than truly great games purely on the basis of having been able to drum up more effective promotion. So if 'commercial success' is your standard, this is the single biggest issue. It's one reason to hire a Consultant like, oh say, me! Someone who won't just tell you what you're doing wrong in the rules, but who can also just by associating himself with the game create a buzz for it.
And, on that note, I'll point out that there's really no such thing as 'bad buzz'. That's why people send me books to review that they KNOW, without a shadow of a doubt, I will despise. Because me utterly trashing their product will make them more famous and sell them more books.
2. Presentation: Not every successful RPG needs to be a full-colour hardcover, though that doesn't hurt. The thing is, just about every really successful game does something to create some kind of image for itself. With an old-school RPG, this might mean having a look that is intentionally retro, for example. Nor do you need to go insane with the art budget (that might even be detrimental, if it pushes the cost of your book beyond a certain tier), but it's important that it have some kind of appealing aesthetic, even if you're working mainly with public domain illustrations or the like. Having some cool maps can't hurt either.
But really, there's one obvious element to presentation that I think matters more than any other: the cover. It's what people will see first, be it in the local gaming store, or on RPGnow/amazon/whatever. Having the right cover might make the difference between people passing right by/scrolling right through, or stopping to look. If you're going to to out of your way with one part, the cover is it.
3. The Right Balance of 'New' and 'Approachable': while just what's in your game matters less for commercial success than promotion, it can make a big difference for long-term viability. You want to have a game that has a reason for existing; if your game has nothing at all that's new in it, there will be little reason for anyone to get it. That's why the 53rd exact-Clone of OD&D is not going to really sell well even with the OSR anymore; but if you do something like Dungeon Crawl Classics, it will. You also can't be "too weird to live", at the same time. Something radically different (or just very radical) will end up costing you customers; it may get a tiny core of fanatics, if you're really lucky, but that will only matter if you can find ways to keep milking that core.
A safer bet is to produce something that is definitely approachable, that people will immediately know what to do with it, but that provides something different from what is already around. Arrows of Indra, for example, has been a success by combining old-school D&D familiarity with the more 'exotic' element of Indian Mythology.
4. A "Killer App", Without Re-Inventing the Wheel: it is a mistake to recreate the whole notion of RPG rules just for it's own sake. Likewise, cheap gimmicks ("task resolution is done by using a dreidel instead of dice!") may generate a little buzz but is just as likely to turn people off. What you want is to generally have a system that is quite familiar to people, even if it's not an OSR or D20 system game; even if you are making a new set of rules, have the familiar 'formula' of how to make those rules work: attributes, skills, abilities, etc.
But it can certainly work for you if, within either your rules or your setting, you have some kind of clever new application, a mechanic that sets your game apart from other OSR games, or other point-buy-games-vaguely-similar-to-WoD, or whatever.
Look at D&D 5e, for example. One of the things that is being praised about it is how much more approachable it is to D&D players than 4e was; it "feels" more like D&D. It uses "the best of all the older editions", etc. But the areas where there has been innovation are getting huge buzz too, especially the "Advantage/Disadvantage" rules. These are the "killer App" that differentiates 5e from other editions and makes it stand out in its own right. Now, had they tried to reinvent the wheel at every turn, you wouldn't be seeing the same kind of praise, and the truly awesome innovative bits would have been lost in a quagmire of needless and mediocre innovative bits.
It's tricky to know just how far to go with this, or just where the line is between "innovative mechanic" and "cheap gimmick"; that sort of thing is, unfortunately, largely a question of game design craft, not something that can be easily delineated into some kind of formula. Another reason to get yourself a good game Consultant! Did I mention I'm available at reasonable rates?
5. And Finally, Not Fucking Up: There's a reason I wrote a blog entry about why RPGs commercially fail, before ever getting around to why they succeed. A large part of success amounts to Promotion + Not Fucking Up. In fact, while I put this in last spot, it should really be number two, right after Promotion. It matters more than the other points. If your game is full of shitty writing, huge sections of irrelevant game fiction or weird jargon, a crappy system (for any of the reasons systems can be crappy; but mainly extreme-complexity... note that I'm not saying you can't do a rules-heavy game, but there's a huge difference between a rules-heavy game written in a way that is easy to quickly get into, and one that requires that you read through 400 pages of text and figure out complicated formulae before you could even make a character), or extremely limited appeal (due to extreme pseudo-artistic pretentiousness, or an over-specific theme or subject that hardly anyone would want to actually play), then hardly anything will save it.
(Originally Posted July 26, 2014)