Why do Commercial RPGs Fail?
There's a pretty short list, really. Avoid those and you will avoid most of the pitfalls that can keep your game from being a success:
1. Lack of Promotion: Before getting into anything about the writing or content of the RPG itself, this is the single biggest reason why an RPG would fail. It doesn't matter if you've written a masterpiece; if no one knows your RPG exists, then it will fail. Make sure everyone does, and even a mediocre RPG stands a chance of doing well.
Ironically, this is one of the areas where many would-be writers fail to pay proper attention; they discount the whole concept as though "if you build it, they will come" was the only guideline they needed.
2. Unclear writing: the game might be full of potential greatness, but if no one can actually make sense of what you're saying, you're fucked. Get an editor.
3. Too much front-end commitment: if you have to memorize 10000 words of jargon, or remember that some stupid word with no vowels in it is what they use instead of "shield" in the game setting, or in some other way have to learn massive amounts of stuff UP FRONT, from the beginning, that relates only to your game, odds are most people won't bother.
4.The System Sucks: Of course, system is one of those things that falls on a spectrum: you say "GURPS" and one gamer might get wood at the thought of all that delicious point-buy and pseudo-realism, while another might cringe. But there's that, and then there's systems that just suck. If you have to do quadratic equations to play your game, or if you are missing a certain table vital to determining outcomes of most battles, or if there's a low-level spell in your game that basically makes the entire party invulnerable forever, then you've got a system that just plain sucks ass. Some people resolve this through playtesting; I think it's important besides that to have a "mechanics editor", someone apart from the regular editor (the guy who makes sure you don't have the aforementioned crap writing), that specializes in understanding how games work. Your regular editor need not be that (shit, it could be someone who's never played a game in their life), but your "mechanics editor" should be a guy who can look at something you just wrote and explain "that means that in your game nobody could ever have a high enough skill to successfully drive at speeds above 30km/hr", or whatnot.
5. Pretentiousness & "Too Weird to Live": Both of these are categories of things that, one must admit, have had successful games. Of course, they've had far more utter failures. Generally speaking, the pretentious games that succeeded were ones that were not derivative of existing pretentious games. The whole point of a game full of pretentiousness is to make its reader feel like they're special just for "getting it"; if you are doing something that is an obvious cheap copy of an existing Pretentious work, you'll never get there. Consider how Vampire spawned an entire brood of copycat "dark", "gothy", edgy, "storytelling", "deep" games (i.e. 50 metric fucktons of bullshit), none of which anyone remembers today.
As for just-plain-weird games, their problem is that they're weird. That makes it hard for people to get the point of them, and odds are they'll fail. Bizarre settings that have no obvious sense of cultural connection to anything we know tend to be pretty hard to roleplay in. Your best shot in these cases is to try to make your writing as clear as possible, do massive amounts of promotion in the hopes of finding someone who digs your endless cultural essays on "the tgunslanttrhru rituals of the Ksaltohyanu", and pray that someone creates a small band of obsessive fanatics who'll buy everything you write, guaranteeing a tiny but loyal customer-base.
(Originally Posted June 20, 2011)