Friday, June 09, 2006

Hell in a Handbasket...Where Roleplaying Games are Headed?

Over at the Pelgrane Publishing website is a thorough discussion of the state of the Role Playing industry. The discussion has commentary by many gaming professionals who have access to inside information that I don't, nor likely will ever, have access. It's an interesting read that presents several perspectives on the state of the hobby. It is also interesting in my eyes, that is to say the eyes of a particular consumer of games, because of the assumptions that many of the discussants have about the hobby and why sales in the RPG arena have dropped. One thing I am noticing is the real lack in not addressing what I see to be the key pratfall that the RPG hobby has entered. More on that in a minute. Let's have a look at whether these professionals think that "the RPG industry is screwed" or not.

  1. The first discussant in the conversation is Mongoose publishing, who is represented as following the "Classic" model of RPG publishing. A statement that is only partly true, especially when one looks at the history of the hobby. Most "classic" companies did not base their industry on a combination of another company's product and add licensed products (like Mongoose's Conan or Lone Wolf roleplaying games). Did some classic companies do those very things? Yes and most of those went the way of the dinosaur. Where is Judge's Guild? How about the Mayfair "roleplaying supplements?" FASA?

    To be fair, Mongoose is classic in the way it operates. It publishes books regularly and supports them with peripheral gaming "necessities." Which is to say that they sell games, miniatures, and for a time had a magazine. Mongoose's products tend, in my opinion, to run the gamut from average to excellent with only their pure splatbooks being poor. The Conan RPG is good, the Lone Wolf RPG better. The Lone Wolf RPG's adaptation of the d20 magic system is a remarkable system that even Chris Pramas of Green Ronin would be proud to attach his name.

    What does Mongoose think of the state of the industry?

    At Mongoose, we believe that a good RPG book still has the potential to blow through entire print runs and that sales of 10,000+ units are still achievable with the right product.

    According to the Pelgrane article the Starship Troopers RPG (based on the Heinlein Novel) has sold a solid number of copies, more than 6000. Mongoose is a company whose stock and trade is licensed products, which have the advantage of name recognition, but the disadvantage of higher production costs due to royalty fees. If Mongoose is a strong player, you can see how small the hobby market is.

  2. Aldo Ghiozzi sees dilution in the market place as a part of the problem in the current environment. Simple economics, a glutted market will produce more than it can sell. Interestingly, due to the size of the market some companies like Malhavoc Press are aiming for extraordinarily high prices and quality to add interest and profit, but since as Ghiozzi points out one of the ways the market has expanded is in the PDF market the potential for dilution is nigh infinite. How is the prospective gamer to find a quality game for their limited dollar? Right now you have to search through a lot of product to find good product and often the good product is much higher priced. Though a high price doesn't guarantee a good experience, or even production quality, all of the time.

  3. Chris Pramas solidly observes that the market needs to redefine the marketplace, but offers no solution. He sees the need for change, is working for change, but knows that it may be up to someone else to be the visionary to bring change. This is surprising to me. When Chris Pramas, one of the more savvy publishers, isn't the one with the quick answer to solve the problem, you know there is a problem. Chris does a great job defining the problem and contrasting it with other industries, but once again no solution.

    They eclipsed wargames and dominated the market for many years. Since then we've seen significant events in our own industry, the two most important being 'Magic: the Gathering' creating a whole new category of game, and Games Workshop hitting upon a business model that redefined miniatures games. In the same period we've also seen computer/console games become increasingly sophisticated and immersive, and the development of MMOs. In light of these events the old RPG business model has a tough time competing. Once players have a core rulebook, they don't need to buy anything else to enjoy the game. Contrast that with the collectible games, where not only can you sell people the same product over and over again, but also they have to keep up with each new expansion to stay competitive. Or MMOs, where players pay each month for the privilege of continuing to play.

    Chris had the perfect opportunity here to criticize the RPG industry for mimicking the behaviors of the MMO, miniature, and Collectible Card Game (CCGs) marketplaces. Chris mentions the d20 flood, following the above excerpt, but he fails to compare the d20 flood and marketing practices to the CCGs. Right after the release of D&D 3rd edition various companies flooded the market with material, but Wizards (pre and post-Hasbro) in the early days of the d20 boom released products in a manner that can only be compared to new sets for the card game. As a game master, I was compelled to buy over 20 new softback books filled with gaming material just to keep up with my players who wanted to "explore" the new powers/abilities that the softback products offered. Compare this to 1st edition AD&D where there were a total of 9 books by the end of the 80s (produced in a decade's time), sure many softbound adventures, with no boom of softback "splatbooks." Those came with Second edition and the 90s. This excludes "settings," those are a different creature, I am talking just core rulebooks. Not one month has gone by where the total of d20 products available (just that month) that are also worth owning (in other words are of good quality) where the products have been within any reasonable person's budget. I make good money and even I can't buy all the gaming material I think is worth it. Packs of cards don't cost $40 in hardback.

    All of which I think points to something Chris didn't mention here specifically, but hints at with his comments about the d20 flood. There is a lot of material and a lot of companies out there, but only so many consumers. Once again, how do we help the consumer?

  4. Chad Underkoffler discusses the issue as only a part-time designer can. He talks about how he believes that the market is too small for too many big publishers and that some publishers ought to realize that and be satisfied with "extra income" rather than expecting a full-time job. He nicely completes my observations on the Pramas piece by coming out and saying that the market is small and that designers should treat the market as if it were small.

    I found it hard to believe that Chad had only sold 525 copies of his Truth and Justice rpg. If only because I think it is a good game (I am one of the 525). But I guess it is more than the quality of the game that made me think he has sold more. I was thinking about the "buzz" the product has. Every "cool" gamer can at least talk about the game. If that doesn't speak volumes for the amount of piracy in the PFD market, I don't know what does.

  5. Gareth-Michael Skarka talks about the decline of the number of retailers, or as I like to call them the Friendly Local Gaming Store. Mine recently went out of business and the owner complained about two things, a local weekly flea market who reduce the cost on Magic cards to near cost, and Paizo press for becoming a legitimate online retailer with no "store." I don't know if Paizo has a store or not, but I do know that they are a trusted name and have managed a few exclusives (like the British D&D Boardgame I am pre-ordering). The decline in the FLGS is related to why I think the RPG industry is in the state it is, the decline of the FLGS is a symptom.

  6. Of course so are people like Ben Lehman. Ben Lehmen views the traditional market model as a model that lessens the integrity of the product and drives costs up to the consumer. In Lehman's view the 3 (or as he calls it the 6) tier marketplace.

    In the six-tier system, there is economic and creative compromises at every level. The end results is that both the game player and the designer get screwed -- the designer has to make artistic compromises and gets paid no money and the game player gets a watered down product and has to pay a lot of money, because each level in between needs to take their cut. [sic]

    Lehman's attitude is that of the avant garde creator, games to him are art that require artistic integrity. Things that might make the game have broader appeal and profitability are "compromises." Even if you take out the anti-marketplace sentiments and view these merely from the aesthetic level, these are the sentiment of an immature child. Sorry, but it's the truth. Have you ever had that guy in your creative writing class who has just heard a criticism during the group discussion of his "work" who says, "but that's what would happen, that's my vision, and to change it would be to lessen the power of my point?" I have. They are irritating. I don't think that good editors cause "artistic compromises," sometimes they cause artistic improvements. Roleplaying, as a hobby, is by its nature collaborative so additional collaborators oughtn't be though of as watering down the process. I can assure you that I have run many pre-written adventures (I work, hence why I have a good income) but I have never run the pre-written adventures "as is." In fact, I tweak and manipulate at will. As a Game Master I assault the integrity of the roleplaying object, most GMs do, normally I view it as adapting it to the tastes of my group. I guess I was wrong, I was compromising Lehman's integrity.

    I know, I know, some of you out there are going "ouch! That's harsh." Damn straight it is. Pretension like Lehman's assumes that the hobby is fine as a niche event. "The role-playing industry, if we evaluate its success based on how well it facilitates awesome play, is healthier than it has ever been, period." Awesome play, not widespread is what is important to Lehman. That is the artist's mindset and to be fair it is a worthy and good mindset. I know I have been hard on him, he seems to be a great guy. But I prefer Robert Howard's mentality. Give the gamers what they want and have more people gaming, if the game is lacking we will make it awesome. If it is awesome to begin with it will rise to the expanded marketplace.

    Lehman just reminded me of all my friends who liked Nirvana, well until everyone else started liking them. They are too cool for that. And being to cool and becoming niche isn't good. Art had Andy Warhol for a reason, it was to help breakdown the pretentious and show that Art surrounded us. Punk happened because Rock became bloated and self important. Too bad so many punks today are like those bloated self-important rockers.

  7. West End Games gives a purely Economics 101 discussion, diversify. Good, but not inspirational. I gotta give Lehman credit. I may disagree with him, but he got my juices going.

  8. Titan Games talks about the difficulty of being a destination store when other retailers, who carry the flavor of the month only and are diversified, offer big discounts. His tale is the tale of my local FLGS. I hope he doesn't change too much though, because I believe that only the destination store can save the hobby. Well, that or Conventions.

  9. Jeff Tidball's answer is good, direct, and true. It accounts for the decline in the industry. What it doesn't account for is the industry's failure to expand to new consumers, even while losing others.

My thoughts, well if you haven't guessed I think that gaming needs good old Evangalism. Own a copy of Axis and Allies? Have you ever had a "gaming night" with your adult friends? Why not? Oh they only play Monopoly and Risk. Start with Risk, then Axis and Allies, then when everyone says..."but we're sick of arguing all the time" have them play Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings cooperative game. Then a movie night with "Bang!" Eventually you say, "you know I have this great game called Savage Worlds (or insert favorite RPG) I'd like you guys to try this game night. People will moan, sure, but one or two might say yes. Those who don't can participate in next month's Arkham Horror or Game of Thrones night. Don't have gaming space? Stop buying online and go to Titan Games (or your local FLGS) dammit! Have a local bookstore? Do a "Fantasy/SciFi" night. Bring Star Wars Minis and D&D Minis. Run demos. Go out there and meet new people and get them to game. Only some will become RPGers, but all will have more fun because of it.

Why do so many people play MMORPGs? Because people who play them talk about them excitedly. D&D, and Pen and Paper RPGs, are the brunt of jokes. We play them in dark basements where the crumbs of junk food have come to life. No one wants to go into a real dungeon, bring RPGs back into the light. We were getting better press when Tipper Gore said D&D was devil worship and killing kids. Better Press? Wha?! Actually we were getting press at all. Roleplaying should be that thing that the funny guy I know, who has a wife and kids, does instead of drinking beer and playing Playstation. He's that nice guy who puts together the "block barbeques" and has all those age appropriate games (like Kinder Bunnies and Kitty Chaos and ...) for the kids to play. He's the published author, the actor, the director, the politician, the priest. She's the lovely lady who has the best Halloween decorations. She's the woman with the MA who helped my daughter be the best Juliet.

Get out there and game people!

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