I had sworn to myself that today would not be another Dragon Age post. Seriously. I needed a break, and I even had a whole thing on Relationship maps written up. But I'm apparently a big liar and I've bumped that off to Friday, and I'm back on Dragon Age. The good news is that this is a much smaller point and one that, I think, is less contentious.
It's about the box.
Folks might have noticed that every time I mention the box I get very worked up. There's a bit of a story to that. See, back when WOTC announced they would be releasing a boxed starter set for 4e I got really excited. It sounded great: a box set with rules, battlemap, tokens and dice all done up with the great production values WOTC had brought to 4e so far, all at a reasonable price point. This was a great idea. A boxed set that was an all-in-one product that you could just give someone and they could start playing was a great gift. And if they were interested in what was in the box, then heck, maybe they'd buy some more 4e stuff.
The problem is that the reality was terrible. The problem wasn't the rules (which were fine) or the components (which were actually fantastic) - it was the box. More specifically, it was the lack of a box. See, they had gone the cheap route of just wrapping it in a cardboard sleeve and wrapping it in a slipcase. Once you opened it, it stopped being a discrete thing and became a pile of parts.
This may sound like a trivial concern, and on paper it probably is, but in terms of actual experience this is huge. The box keeps the game together, and serves the dual purposes of providing practical organization (since it also holds your dice, pencils, character sheets, loose papers and so on) and providing a conceptual anchor of what the game is. Yes, once you've played a few games it's not too hard to start thinking about games as abstractions, but when you're getting your had around our weird little hobby, it helps a lot for it to be something concrete and specific - something you can point to.
So this is why the 4e set was such a let down for me, and why I am so obsessed about DARPG having an actual box.
Interestingly, there are also a few more boxed sets hitting the market, notably the new Warhammer RPG 3rd edition and the new Doctor Who RPG. Maybe it's something in the water, but maybe there's a bit more to it than that. Even over and above the creation of a self-contained product (because that's another big advantage of the box set: it has, or should have, everything you need to play) this is one of the few ways a company can distinguish its product any more.
Even a few years ago, there was a gap between the big and small publishers that could be seen in the quality of their books. If you wanted really gorgeous production values, you needed to go big. Today, that line is thin enough that if you depend on it, then Luke Crane or John Harper are going to come up and kick you in the junk. The little guy knows how to make really gorgeous books now, so that's not much of a differentiator.
The little guy doesn't really know how to do boxed sets yet. This won't last for too long, but the window currently exists, and I'll be curious to see how many people shoot for it.