|Neil Spicer RPG Superstar 2009, Contributor|
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I used to pay very close attention to the exit polls when I was competing, because, aside from just getting a sense of how I was probably faring (and all the anxieties and self-doubt which come with it), it often gave me insight into why people were voting the way they were. That's because they'd share more than just their Top-whatever. They'd sometimes feel obligated to explain why, and that would then give me the ability to alter my approach or form different strategies for the next round on how to appeal to them and win their votes for a future round. In many ways, I would liken it to an actual published freelancer paying attention to the reviews and commentary for any given product thread here on Paizo's messageboards. Not just the feedback shared in a review (or an RPG Superstar submission thread), but also the Top sales list once a product is released. It gives you a sense of what the customer (or, in this case, the voting public) wants to see, and what they find appealing. That alone is a worthy thing to educate yourself on, both as an RPG Superstar competitor, and as an eventual freelance designer.
I do, however, get the concern about influencing the votes of others. That happens even in common elections when you see the early returns coming in for a particular candidate in a landslide victory and you become demotivated to go out and cast your vote anyway. However, for the purposes of RPGSS, I'm not sure it's had that big of an effect (if any at all). The frontrunners for any given round are usually pretty clear. It's only the individuals hovering right around the cut-off line where it might have any effect. And, in reality, all of those competitors' submissions are usually getting right around the same amount of love regardless of what folks say in their exit polls. In fact, the most common situations where the exit polls have been wrong in the past stemmed from those trailing behind the ones at the back of the pack. Someone a bit lower down (from an exit poll perspective) has managed to edge out someone right at the cut-line on at least a few occasions over multiple rounds in multiple years.
So, if anything, the exit polls haven't really influenced the voting to lock in everyone who appears above the cut-off line. It might convince more people to support the clear front runners (who were going to advance anyway), but it generally doesn't influence things at the cut-line itself. And, in fact, that's exactly where the exit polling is usually wrong. So, that's a good thing. I think it shows the competition is still fierce for those last few remaining spots and the exit polls really don't influence it very much.
In the meantime, I think the added benefits of the exit polls in educating the competitors to sharpen their awareness of "what the gaming public enjoys" versus "what the designers themeselves enjoy and want to write" is a significant lesson the polling helps teach. Because that's not always in sync and a designer needs to find that out pretty quickly if they want to keep surviving from round-to-round and have successful product releases when they're being published.
There are a lot of little nuances to the RPG Superstar contest that I'm not sure everyone naturally realizes or picks up on whether viewing things from the outside, or even when they're in the process of competing. A lot of those nuances mirror the kinds of things you'll face and need to consider in navigating a side-career (or even a full-time career) in the RPG industry as a freelancer. You need to study multiple things like: what the gaming public wants, what your publisher wants, popular topics and subject matter which you might not be as well-versed in but you may be asked to write, what other successful authors are writing and how they're writing it, etc. At least some analysis of those things is worth pursuing if you want to be successful. And you need to keep pushing yourself to not only "write what you know," but also expand your horizons to explore other things that might be "out of your comfort zone," but are clearly of interest to the voters/gaming public and successful topics or approaches demonstrated in other products by other authors.
So, maybe to connect the dots a little, here's one way of thinking about it. The judges of the RPG Superstar contest are the equivalent of your publisher and/or your developer in the real world of freelancing. You need to learn from them and win them over with your work, because they're the gatekeepers who greenlight you, whether for being in the Top 32, or winning their recommendations from round to round, or when you're putting together an outline for a proposal on an actual freelance assignment, or even when you've turned in your manuscript and they're determining how much of your turnover needs tweaking or has to be cut for the final product. Hearing and heeding the feedback and direction the judges give you runs parallel to the same types of instruction and coaching your developer may take the time to give you. But, likewise, sometimes bucking the advice of the judges to chart your own course can totally pay off. It's a risk. But so are those interactions with your developer or publisher when you're passionate about a particular creative direction you want to go and you need to win them over so they'll greenlight you in writing it or publishing it.
Likewise, the other competitors in the RPG Superstar contest are your colleagues in the real world of freelancing. They're walking the same path as you. They're navigating it using their own creativity and sense of the marketplace under the guidance of their publisher just like you are. Sometimes, they do really well with a particular subject or pull off something really inspiring and innovative. Sometimes, they don't and they fall flat on their face. You need to learn from their lessons just as much as your own. And you need to adapt your future work accordingly. It's not so much about "keeping up with the Joneses" as it's about improving yourself and supporting one another as you do. You can do both those things during the competition even while trying to outlast or outperform your fellow Superstars. And the same is true in the real world when you're trying to improve yourself while supporting your fellow freelancers. Collectively, you're doing a service to the hobby itself...not just writing vanity projects and picking up a paycheck here and there. Recongize that. Commit to it. And support one another and your publishers in doing so.
In the meantime, the voters of the RPG Superstar contest are the same consumers who would be buying your products in the real world. The feedback they offer here via their comments and exit polling can give you tremendous insight into what they enjoy and want. But there are also a vast array of opinions and tastes out there. You need to keep an eye on where the best markets are for certain ideas. If you go too far off the deep end (or the reservation) on some things, you'll lose the majority of the marketplace...or the votes when it comes to RPG Superstar. To know the best, most effective waters to swim in, and how to take a particular "safe" bit of territory and turn it into something Superstar, is a skill you need to hone, both during the contest and in your eventual work. You do that by listening and paying attention to what people are saying. Not just about your work, but about everyone else's, as well. And that's something the exit polls (and other competitors' feedback threads) can help you with in the contest.
But that's just my two cents,