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The Perplexing Paradigm of Play-By-Mail
If we flip the coin of PBM's fate, it will enable us to see the other side of what I affectionately refer to as the Perplexing Paradigm of Play-By-Mail.

Play-By-Mail is a genre of gaming that consumes itself with costs. It is a cost-heavy existence. No matter which way that you turn, there are costs here, costs there, costs, costs everywhere.On the player side, there are postage costs, set-up costs, turn fee costs, and sometimes even special order costs. If you are one of those player types that just has to pick up the telephone and speak directly to allies, enemies, and co-conspirators in your games of Play-By-Mail, then there are also long distance costs.

On the game moderator side, there are paper costs, envelope costs, ink or toner costs, hardware costs, electricity costs, employee costs, and location costs (for dedicated places of business). If you want people to learn about your game's existence, then you can also toss in advertising costs - if you want to reach the niche audience of postal gamers who gravitate towards magazines that bother to cover Play-By-Mail gaming. If you want to advertise your Play-By-Mail game products to a potential audience, there will also be artist costs for artwork or clipart - assuming that you want to go with more than pure text advertisements. Also, don't forget research costs and programming costs, in order to create new Play-by-Mail games, lest the Play-By-Mail industry stagnates, offering only the same old, same old to a player base that yearns for more and new games to satiate their unquenchable thirst for gaming.

PBM's coin of fate has more than two sides, though. There are also costs associated with publishing magazines that cover Play-By-Mail gaming, magazines of such notable Play-By-Mail fame as Paper Mayhem and Flagship, just to name a couple. Magazines such as these have a host of costs that they share with PBM companies that produce the games that you love to play, but they also have printer costs to add to the equation.

Advertising rates in such magazines can and do pose a barrier and an obstacle to PBM companies - particularly to anyone potentially thinking about starting up a new PBM company from scratch. To re-grow the Play-by-Mail industry from its current humble state of disrepair, I am firmly of the mindset that an advertising model that is favorable to new Play-By-Mail start-up companies is simply a "must have."

You can, of course, go online to advertise, reaching a potentially much larger audience in the process. But, likewise, gamers can simply go online to find more games than they can shake a stick at - including a humongous number of games that are free to play. In effect, the gamer can effectively bypass all of the costs associated with the entire Play-By-Mail industry, simply by turning their back on an industry plagued by costs.

Why subscribe to magazines that want to branch out and cover more than just a shrinking Play-By-Mail gaming field, when the end result of that decision is that there will be more of other forms of gaming and less of PBM gaming that makes its way into the pages of each issue? Flip that coin of PBM's fate again, and you can understand why Flagship magazine took just, exactly that course. To survive as a magazine, Flagship needs something to fill the pages of its publication. With Play-By-Mail companies dying like flies, and Play-By-Mail games evaporating into the wisps of history, thereby yielding the situation where there are less advertising dollars from Play-By-Mail companies to purchase space in Flagship's pages, Flagship branches out.

But, isn't that exactly what the PBM companies, themselves, did - only well before Flagship followed suit? Play-by-Mail companies embraced technology to cut costs, to grow their player bases, and in the vernacular of the common man - to just plain survive.

Carol Mulholland, the editor of Flagship magazine, eventually acquiesced and made the transition to electronic format as one method of publication for her magazine. But, how can one blame her, particularly when Flagship sailed the rough seas of Play-By-Mail's reality for so long - longer than most, before succumbing to the temptation to seek online solutions to Flagship's and Play-By-Mail's enduring problems - problems that gravitate around a cost-based form of existence.

Flip that coin of PBM's Fate, yet again, and you'll find subscribers wondering why they should bear subscription costs for a magazine that can't seem to get published on time, with delays a recurring and unfortunate feature of the Flagship cycle. Why would Play-By-Mail companies want to take out paid ads in a magazine that can't seem to meet its own publication deadlines. Neither the subscribers nor the advertisers set the publication deadlines for Flagship magazine.

Of course, in all fairness, Flagship magazine is dependent upon others for articles, so that its pages can have material that will both interest its current readership, and will be of interest to potential new readers. When they don't deliver, Flagship can't deliver. Even if they do deliver, Carol is still dependent upon others to assist her with laying out the articles into actual pages. If they are unreliable, then the magazine cannot and will not meet its publication deadlines, even if all article writers get their material in to Carol on time.

Flagship can remedy such problems, of course, simply by paying people to write articles and to assist her with running the magazine. If she goes this route, though, then she will add to the accumulating mountain of costs that collectively burden the entire Play-By-Mail industry. What's the editor of a magazine that bothers to cover Play-By-Mail gaming, at all, to do?

The problem is not that the industry buries itself with costs of every shape, size, and form. Some of the costs simply inhere in the nature of the beast. The Play-By-Mail industry, either individually or collectively, has no control over postage costs, for example. When those costs rise, the end consumer will pay more for what they get. There is no way around this cost, if you want the postal gaming medium to remain postal-oriented.

Innovation created the Play-By-Mail industry of gaming, and innovation brought this very same industry to its knees. It is innovation which can re-create Play-By-Mail as a viable and thriving medium of gaming. In this day and age of electronic gaming of all sorts, gamers regularly part ways with their dollars and pounds, in order to receive entertainment in the form of gaming for their dollars. More money is spent by consumers, today, on gaming, than was ever true during the golden heyday of the Play-By-Mail industry. So, in a nutshell, people are still willing to spend money on playing games. They're just choosing to spend it elsewhere, rather than on Play-By-Mail games. It's not because Play-By-Mail games are any the less fun and entertaining to play than they ever were, though. So, common sense dictates that the blame properly lies elsewhere.

Personally, I think that the Play-By-Mail industry's ongoing infatuation with pricing itself out of existence, via a cost structure that is antiquated and archaic and ill-conceived for a modern era of gamers, must end.

To rebuild the Play-By-Mail industry, it is going to require investment - an investment of time, energy, money, and effort. If Play-By-Mail companies will not innovate - will not continually innovate - then they deserve to die. Period.

If rebuilding the Play-By-Mail industry is simply not a priority for PBM's Old Guard, those Play-By-Mail companies that have survived into the modern era, then they have already doomed themselves to institutional irrelevancy. Time, itself, will eventually bury such dinosaurs. It's not that PBM companies want to die, mind you. Rather, many of them, perhaps most of the remaining members of PBM's Old Guard, have other priorities these days. Some are complacent, while others simply see better ways of investing their time and effort in order to make money.

Ironically, though, virtually any PBM taking head of note during Play-By-Mail's halcyon days of old that was worth their salt publicly would acknowledge that your chances of getting rich by running a Play-By-Mail gaming company were somewhere between slim and none.Rather than the moneybaggers, where, then, are the innovators that the Fate of Play-By-Mail's future lies with? Complacency has never been a proper guide for any industry, and PBM companies whose game moderators have grown complacent with the status quo of Play-By-Mail are in no shape to help, whatever their resources otherwise might be.

If no one, and I literally mean no one, is willing or able to re-invest in the Play-By-Mail genre of gaming, then the writing is on the wall, for sure. There's plenty of fingers to point, in assessing blame for PBM's sorry state of current affairs, but realistically speaking, assessing the blame does not, in and of itself, fix the problem. That's not to say that blame should never be assessed, for most assuredly, it should be. But, there has to be more than just blame, in order to reverse Play-By-Mail gaming's decline.

The mailbox should be good for more than just a drop-off point for one's bills and junk mail. The television, the Internet, and even the radio were and are mediums useful and relevant to entertaining people. The mailbox can be relevant again, too.If PBM gamers expect there to be Play-By-Mail games to play, then they must be willing to subscribe to them. If PBM companies expect there to be magazines to cover their wares, then they must be prepared to advertise in them. If magazines expect both Play-By-Mail companies to advertise and PBM gamers to subscribe, then they must be prepared to deliver their magazine on time, every time, and that what they are paying for not be relegated to an afterthought's amount of coverage.

PBM gamers pay games - not rule books nor start-up packets nor maps. The costs of plaing by mail must be mitigated, where possible and feasible, and where conducive to making and keeping the Play-By-Mail industry feasible.To salvage the Play-By-Mail industry will require investment - and sacrifice. PBM gamers are going to have to sacrifice, as are PBM companies, as are PBM magazines. We are all in this predicament, together.

If the Play-By-Mail genre of gaming eventually dies out completely, then other mediums of gaming are not going to mourn PBM's demise.Thus, let the clarion call go out, to one and to all, to gather their strength and their resolve and their wallets and their wits, in order to chart a new course for a venerable and revered and memorable medium of gaming - Play By Mail.

For, it is sui generis, and a medium of gaming well worth preserving.

NOTE: Originally posted in 2010 on the old PlayByMail.Net forums.

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