Simon Rogers did a little stint of interviews among RPG publishers and compiled it all into an article, View from the Pelgrane's Nest: Is the RPG Industry Screwed?, which is pretty interesting and you should go read it. Go ahead; I'll wait here.

"The Industry" and its Woes

Now, I'm just going to skip over the guys who can't quite see past the way the business model worked twenty years ago, because, while they're quaint and all... well, they're like that uncle who kind of forgets that he retired but he wants to tell you how the business world works but he has trouble sending email. Three things interest me:

The d20 Glut - A lot of the interviewees mentioned this, and while I certainly saw the terrible fruits of the d20 phenomenon on the local game store shelves, I can't say that I was very impressed, or that it really registered on me. Oh look, another d20 product, cleverly titled 17 Rings of Power and containing... 128 pages dedicated to said seventeen rings, all of which are... pretty boring. I expected that this stuff either (a) sold slowly to people who either didn't think or didn't care about how they would use it in an actual game (the fetish-value of some of this material was relatively high) or (b) didn't sell and got returned to the distributor and hence to the publisher and the publisher went under, which they should have. You put out a dumbass product, you lose your money. That's justice. But apparently the retailers still have these copies? For some reason? Did they buy these books without part of the contract covering returns of unsaleable merchandise? Cause that's... oh yeah, more stupid business practices. You make dumbass decisions running your store, you lose money. More justice.

Which is all well and good except it means that the retail outlets, outlets that guys who didn't fall into the giant sucking hole called the d20 Supplement Mill rely on, are clogged with unsaleable merchandise. Which brings us to...

The Death of Gaming Retail - I have regularly patronized exactly three gaming stores my entire gaming life, which is now going on, like, 16 years or something. The first, I'm Comics, went under but as the name suggests, it wasn't really a gaming store so much as a comics store with some games. But there's nothing new or surprising about a hobby store going under; I remember way back when I was little there used to be hobby stores that sold model airplanes and model rockets. They're gone, too. The second, Metro Games, has sold its soul and become Metro Entertainment, focuses far more on memorabilia and fan-fetish merchandise, and stays in business, as far as I can tell, by getting genre celebrities to come sign things every two weeks. I imagine that this works for them since they're in Santa Barbara -- hey James Marsden, come spend a weekend in Santa Barbara, oh, and sign posters for a couple hours. The third store, Game Castle, has stayed true to the gaming mother lode, sells roleplaying games and high-strategy board games (Catan, Rio Grande Games, etc), and a year or two ago had to find a larger space because they were doing too well for their cramped starter storefront. It doesn't hurt that Game Castle is snugly situated between I don't even know how many colleges -- at least four or five -- and is two blocks from the freeway (essential in LA).

When I was 12, I went to I'm Comics about once a week; when I was 20, I went to Metro every few weeks; these days, I go to Game Castle once every few months. My last gaming purchase that wasn't online was Blue Rose, when it came out, and that's like... three years ago, now? I get my gaming on via the internet. Which brings us to...

MMOs Take Over the World! - My wife and I started in playing WoW shortly after it started, and for a good long time I tried very hard to roleplay on WoW. They had, after all, RP Servers, and you could form guilds, and do guild RP, and... god damn did it suck. It was stilted and cramped and simply didn't work. There was absolutely no reward system for anything resembling roleplay, and a giant reward system including experience, loot, pretty graphics, and tactical challenges for doing just about anything other than roleplay. In fact I got so frustrated with the difficulties in roleplaying on WoW that I gave up the game for six months or so. Somewhere in there I realized the simple fact: World of Warcraft is not for roleplaying. It's for pretty graphics and tactical challenges and amassing XP and loot. I've since returned to the game with that understanding and it's a whole lot more fun. It is more fun, in fact, than most tactics-based roleplaying games I've ever played, and certainly much more fun than all that d20 crap that won't sell off the shelves.

"The Industry" Loses... and Gains

One of the best quotes in the article comes from Jeff Tidball, who says: "You can divide roleplayers into two general camps based on style of play, with smash-and-grab-and-level-uppers on one side, and everyone else (storytellers, world-builders, wanna-be novelists, etc.) on the other. The first, much larger, group is now -- with current network and console technology -- much better served by computer RPGs than tabletop RPGs. The computers are just plain better and faster at the game experience they want." I think he's spot-on. For tactical challenge, second-to-second action and suspense, and even the wonder of exploring exotic locales, computer games have RPGs beat. I'm not particularly disturbed by this; it's a lot like saying "For creaming butter and making mashed potatoes, electric blenders have RPGs beat." MMOs and computers do that stuff better than we can; let them. We do other stuff better.

However, there is the simple fact that the RPG "Industry" has long subsisted on the audience that enjoys that sort of thing, and for a long time RPGs have been one of the few ways to produce that sort of content. With that audience leaving, it signals some pretty big changes for the "Industry." Jeff goes on to say "As those customers (the smash-and-grabbers) stop buying tabletop RPGs, it stops being economically viable to produce them professionally for the second group." and here I disagree. I think Jeff's got a little case of "industry blinders" and can't see the opportunities that this shift opens up for RPGs.

Computer gaming can have tactical challenge and thrilling, pretty action. That's what it does, and it does it well, and I'm going to be playing WoW this weekend. What RPGs need to do is focus on what they do better, and the things that are unique to tabletop gaming. From my perspective, the thing in question is people. RPGs can involve emotions, beliefs, ideals, creative endeavor, friendship, rivalry, and even romance in ways that computer gaming can't (yet) replicate, because those things come from people and come from people interacting with each other. Now, I've spent lots of my life defending the internet's ability to connect people -- I'm not in any way saying that somehow with a computer involved it's no longer socializing with real people, because it is. But the specific medium of online computer games is a pretty poor medium for -- yep, emotions, beliefs, ideals, creative endeavor, friendship, rivalry, and even romance. That's what RPGs do better.

Trivia Challenge!

Which is the larger market:
(a) geeks who read Tolkein when they were 13 and who enjoy fiddling with math
(b) anybody who can throw a dinner party

The Roleplaying Game has spent its entire history hampered by geek status. The association has been so strong, in fact, that D&D has become one of the prime identifiers of geekdom. The irony, of course, is that RPGs aren't a substitute for social activity; they are a social activity -- just, historically, with a rather high barrier to entry in terms of tactical finesse, mathematical ability, and genre familiarity (what's a drow?). However, if RPGs cede the tactical challenge territory to MMOs (which can handle the math internally) and focus instead on real people and crises that derive from real people, the resulting product can shed that barrier to entry and gain a far broader appeal to a hugely expanded market. When I ran a game store, the biggest seller (after jigsaw puzzles) was How to Host a Mystery which is, when you get down to it, a boxed one-shot LARP for eight players. Nobody thinks HHM games are geeky; in fact they're kind of quirky and cool. Anybody who can throw a dinner party can run it. Now: which, do you suppose, is the larger market: (a) geeks who read Tolkein when they were 13 and who enjoy fiddling with math and (b) anybody who can throw a dinner party?

Games recently out and on the horizon -- Primetime Adventures, Breaking the Ice, and 1000 Stories come immediately to mind -- serve as stellar examples of games that can be marketted, not just to gamers, but to just about anybody. My mother, who has regular little get-togethers with her friends all the time, could take PTA to one such evening. Everybody's familiar with television; everybody's dreamed at least once of being in a television show or writing for one. For an extra added bonus, PTA uses a deck of cards, which is a much more common household item than polyhedral or even six-sided dice. Bunco night can be PTA night. If losing one part of the audience to MMOs expands the potential market for RPGs to include my mom and her friends and people like them, statements like "it's not economically viable to produce RPGs without the smash-and-grabbers" become pretty ludicrous. In fact, the reverse is probably more true: roleplaying games become economically viable without the smash-and-grabbers.

The only obstacle is reaching that market, who are either completely ignorant of RPGs or burdened with Jack Chick-inspired misunderstandings. It's a two-pronged problem of promotion and distribution. Luckily, the answer to the distribution half is already here, killing the retail game stores -- the internet. With RPGs available to anyone anywhere with an internet connection, we're already in billions of homes worldwide. And that's not just the indie games -- I can get a copy of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Player Guide or Mage: the Whatever They Renamed It just as easily as I can get Dogs in the Vineyard or Dust Devils. There is very literally nothing that a brick-and-mortar retail store can offer RPGs that a well-designed website can't replicate (theoretically, a b&m offers face-to-face sales... but when was the last time that happened in your FLGS? -- and nobody ever sold bunco to somebody else in a store).

Which leaves us with promotion, and that's a sticky problem. Promotion is tough, and most of its success stories happen by happy accident. Promoters have to be in the right place at the right time to benefit, but they also have to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity when it arrives. And that is the greater part of promotion -- having material ready for when an opportunity arises. Primarily, we need sample games that anybody can get at and run with minimal fuss, with URLs printed on them for where they can find more. Then we need to put them in the spotlight, and be in the spotlight, ourselves. Now, I have a new-found love of the gaming conventions, but that is not the spotlight. That is, in fact, the opposite of the spotlight, a safe place and time away from everyday life where gamers can not worry about scrutiny. We don't need to abandon the con, but we do need to outgrow it and start placing RPGs in other contexts. RPGs need to invade dinner parties, coffee shops, schools (take it home to your parents!), parks, community centers, and -- I can barely believe I'm suggesting this -- church groups.

It's a huge undertaking, and not one that I expect anybody will be flinging themselves at wholeheartedly, but it also doesn't need anybody to fling themselves at it. We're already moving in this direction, anyway, and the distributed work of a few hundred people is, I suspect, going to push RPGs in some of these directions with or without conscious intent. And you never know, if such a thing happens and RPGs start getting played by millions of people all over the place, I might have to take the scare quotes off of "The Industry."

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Hi! Very interesting to read

Hi! Very interesting to read your commentary. Glad you found my thoughts for the Pelgrane article interesting.

I absolutely agree with your analysis about the opportunities for games that are like roleplaying games among the (perhaps much) larger audience of "people who host dinner parties." I was mainly trying to talk about the feasibility of continuing to produce RPG books that look more or less like the ones we have now. So, "industry blinders?" Yeah, maybe. On the other hand, I've got as many idea as the next designer for what kinds of RPG-like games the dinner party set might like, but honestly, the economic risks scare the shit out of me. I gots to eat, and there's no proof that there's a market out there at all to support professional designers working full time.

I live in LA, too. (Eagle Rock.) Where's Game Castle?

*blink* You live in Eagle

*blink* You live in Eagle Rock? I play in Eagle Rock every week. Small world! Game Castle is in Fullerton.

Otherwise, it looks like we're in something approaching agreement -- roleplaying games as they are presently constructed in the mainstream are profoundly challenged. However, that doesn't sound like such a bad thing to me. It just means we get tasty new games as products are adapted for the new realities of the market.

Joshua, I think you are

Joshua,

I think you are definitely on the right track here. I've been thinking about this angle for some time. Right now, I see two main barriers to crossover:

1. Role-playing games are too complicated. Not everybody wants to read a fat manual just to play a quick game with their friends. Take a look at how long the rules are in most boardgames. Pamphlet-sized, at most. To cross over, you need to design an RPG that is very succinct and that guides people through play step-by-step in an accessible manner. I don't think any product is out there at the moment that fits the bill. PTA and even Breaking the Ice are too long and difficult to read.

2. Promotion. It costs a lot of money to get a game into the kind of mainstream retail store where non-hobbyists are likely to find it. It also takes some business savvy that most game designers really don't have at the moment. Right now, I personally don't have the first idea what would be required to get a game into Target.

On a tangential note, the RPG industry doesn't do returns. This can be laid on the distributors as much as the retailers. Publishers certainly aren't going to agitate for it, since they get to keep the money once their games hit the distro system. I don't know why this is, historically, since most mainstream publishing does returns.

Josh, Right on. I think

Josh,

Right on. I think part of the key is going to be to make games that appeal to this larger market. More games like Breaking the Ice and Crime and Punishment and 1001 Nights. I also think we need to at least explore some radically different business models.

Anyway, I agree with you: this is an extremely exciting time to be involved in "the industry".

Thomas

[...] Quite the interesting

[...] Quite the interesting article from the Pelgrane’s Nest, wherein he asks a bunch of “industry” people about how the business is looking these days. I would quote something, but then I would just quote the whole article, so you should really just go read it. Joshua BishipRoby responds with screwing with the industry. Read, read! [...]

Though, what if you want to

Though, what if you want to make games for gamers?

I mean, I'm fine. I'll make my games, do the internet-and-convention promotion, and not sweat it. But, does the barrier to being a "traditional" roleplayer mean that you have to be hooked into the web? Cuz that would suck. There must be a viable model for getting gaming books into the hands of gamers without having to make that direct connection. In my head, it seems like the "distributor" step is the one that needs to go. The burden of connection, if you will, can be shouldered by the publisher-retailer step, not the publisher/retailer-customer step.

I mean, while we're looking at the ways in which the "industry" can/should evolve, and all.

Brennan, I think Target is

Brennan, I think Target is the least of our worries, and I don't expect or even want to be there any time soon. Target (and most retail these days) is a giant bin of stuff that you can dip into and buy stuff out of; it doesn't put much if any effort into salesmanship and offers little to no support. That doesn't fit our needs at all. I think we'd be far better off fostering communities, both worldwide online varieties and local face-to-face groupings. Cell structure can do wonders.

As to the question of complexity, it does present an interesting problem. If we ditch the bigass book, what are we selling? Pamplets don't go for $15-20, and boxes of knick-knacks that have to be assembled are immensely expensive to produce and warehouse. I actually think Borgstrom might have one good idea in Nobilis -- the bigass coffeetable book, although I'd have included more art. If it's something that you want to have kicking around in addition to playing the game out of it, that's viable.

I'm totally right there with you, Thomas.

Oh yeh... "Like what IPR

Oh yeh... "Like what IPR does" should be in that post somewhere.

Joshua, I can definitely

Joshua,

I can definitely see what you are saying. Of course, high-end, beautiful art like a coffee-table book isn't cheap, either. I definitely don't see any way to get a crossover hit without some significant expense; cards or some other gamey fun to get people to mess with the game, or else a glossy, beautiful book that begs to be read.

Actually, Joshua Newman's Under the Bed is the sort of thing I am talking about. I'd have to have a non-gamer read the rules to see how accessible they are, though. Vincent Baker also made a three-player game in brochure form called Cupid or something. The rules are all on two sides of a single sheet of paper.

The only problem with

The only problem with card-based games is... well, they're card-based. And thus expensive to produce. But -- as various CCGs demonstrated -- well-designed cards can really sell a game.

Shortshort-form games are also very intriguing!

Board games are really smart

Board games are really smart about their rules handling, though...look at El Grande or Monopoly or Therapy or Catan or something.

The rules in the pamphlet look very small.

But they're actually just a manual that tells you how to use/assemble the mosaic of spot rules distributed across the various bits & pieces of the game, written on cards or encoded in icons and things. If you were to make a cost and rent value table out of Monopoly's real estate cards, you'd end up with a game that looked a lot more like D&D than The Pool.

Good point, Shreyas, and

Good point, Shreyas, and that's a good example of what I was trying to say above. The rules can be deep, but you can't expect people to digest the whole thing all at once.

Josh, I'm sure you know

Josh,

I'm sure you know this already, but I wanted to highlight it anyway. The game store still does (or at least can do) one super-important thing: community. Though I rarely see them developed this way, the best surviving game stores I know of are places where people go to hang out and game. (I actually had a business plan written up, and intent to get a business loan in order to open up a game store dedicated to building a community, but then decided college was a good plan.)

So game stores aren't obsolete, they can still do something that the internet can't. It's just that, for the most part, they aren't.

Thomas

Thomas -- perhaps? And I

Thomas -- perhaps? And I think Game Castle does this, actually. It's just, as you say, the vast majority of them aren't.

And yes, Shreyas is spot-on. I'm looking at ways to make things like the character sheet a functional part of the game with instructions and tips rather than just a place to store information.

I’m looking at ways to make

I’m looking at ways to make things like the character sheet a functional part of the game with instructions and tips rather than just a place to store information.

Well don't leave us hanging! (Personally I'm looking at ways to make the character sheet more like a toy than a worksheet; hopefully I can learn something from your efforts.)

I wanted to respond to another question you asked, what are we selling if we ditch the bigass book? This is neat because we can go so many ways with it, provided we actually pay attention to what we're selling. (I was gonna go on about that and then I realised that the late hour was making me wordy. Good evening.)

Aw, the one-two combo of

Aw, the one-two combo of calling attention to me holding out on you, and then turning everything around and holding out on me! Ouch! ;)

Sadly, I don't have much in the way of character sheet design that I can put into words right now, and I suspect I'll need to do one specific implementation before I can really talk about it well. However, character sheet as toy is a close analogy -- I've been watching the Ninegun Choir work avidly!

Josh, You were asking

Josh,

You were asking about what we would sell if we weren't selling a big book... Well, I've got an idea, and it's all your dang fault. I think, rather than dumping some ridiculously long outline here in your comments section I'll just put a post on my blog and link it here. You're going to love this one since it's your fault twice. It's "How I would sell Agora".

Thomas

We're going to have a teaser

We're going to have a teaser overload soon.

[...] Joshua BishopRoby has

[...] Joshua BishopRoby has this game that he’s working on called Agora. Go read the little blurb, it’s a dang cool game concept. I’ll be here when you get back. I suppose that it’s only fair that I’m using Josh’s game as an example here since it was a blog post of his that this little article is in response to. Okay, this next part could give you some context, but it’s not necessary: Josh has this playtest document. I’m going to say some things about the game to prove my points, but I’m not going to justify them with text. You can do that yourself. [...]

*Points up a

*Points up a comment*

Doing what I can to re-establish a stable teaser balance!

Thomas

Hey Joshua, Great essay!

Hey Joshua,

Great essay! I completely agree with what you're saying. I used to try and make the same point in the past. The game I have was initially designed specifically to target the not-gamer crowd. I'm so glad that you've had so many better ideas than I. (I can steal them now, eh?)

As to the question of complexity, it does present an interesting problem. If we ditch the bigass book, what are we selling? Pamplets don’t go for $15-20

Actually we came up with a whole tiered set up based on some working models (and presaging another). I had this idea to give away pamphlet versions of Scattershot; one for core mechanics, one for Gming, one for spell casting, one for cybernetics and et cetera. We'd give these out at any event we showed up for.

On the publishing side, we wanted to license content differently than RPGs have in the past; instead of coming out with a game based on...say, Goosebumps books, we'd come out with a Goosebumps (-like) book with micro-mechanics in the back. We also planned on genre-narrow 'splat books' for gaming stores (shows how dated I am). GURPS eventually went this way including 'lite' rules in each book.

Ultimately all 'versions' of our game would drive sales back to a series of twelve more comprehensive books (which apparently TSR went for with the D20 thing). We wanted to place product on shelves right next to our licensees using the same format (when possible - yes, that'd mean an RPG on a DVD too). By streamlining and simplifying the mechanics and the processes to get them out of the world of computer science majors, we felt we'd have a stable enough package that we could patch onto licensed material or fad genres, that we could produce as fast as the fads passed.

I detailed this stuff (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=979.msg9179#msg9179) on the Forge quite often (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=420.msg3869#msg3869), but it wasn't the right place for it.

I may yet resurrect the project, but the current online and POD publishing world will require a whole new approach.

Thanks for the essay, I find it invaluable.

Fang Langford

One of the best quotes in the

One of the best quotes in the article comes from Jeff Tidball, who says: “You can divide roleplayers into two general camps based on style of play, with smash-and-grab-and-level-uppers on one side, and everyone else (storytellers, world-builders, wanna-be novelists, etc.) on the other. The first, much larger, group is now — with current network and console technology — much better served by computer RPGs than tabletop RPGs. The computers are just plain better and faster at the game experience they want.” I think he’s spot-on. For tactical challenge, second-to-second action and suspense, and even the wonder of exploring exotic locales, computer games have RPGs beat. I’m not particularly disturbed by this; it’s a lot like saying “For creaming butter and making mashed potatoes, electric blenders have RPGs beat.” MMOs and computers do that stuff better than we can; let them. We do other stuff better.

Hmm, if this part was really true, the board game would be in danger of obsolescence also. A computer can (and does) facilitate board game play quite nicely. Except for one thing the computer CAN'T DO. The computer doesn't create real life, face to face social interraction. Oh, another thing the computer can't do. It can't give you 3-d miniatures that you can hold in your hand (notice how much D20 has become a miniatures game...).

Now perhaps the next generation will be sucked into computer games that they never meet face to face. And I shudder to think what that would say for society. But you know what, I trust that people will continue to seek out face to face interraction, and some of that face to face interraction will be to play games.

Frank

The computer doesn’t create

The computer doesn’t create real life, face to face social interraction.

Exactly, Frank. Capes is a highly tactical game, but I don't think we'll see that online anytime soon, because a good portion of Capes play involves interacting (provoking) your fellow players, and that's very difficult over an internet connection (at least difficult to do productively). It's the people that the game's about. It's what distinguishes Diplomacy from Axis & Allies -- A&A online is exactly the same; Diplomacy online loses most of its appeal.

Well, actually... Capes was

Well, actually... Capes was partially playtested online, through IRC. I was one of the playtesters, and it worked out quite well; Tony posted logs of some of the IRC playtest sessions in Actual Play.

And people play Diplomacy by email, by message board, etc. Indeed, the first Diplomacy game I ever saw actually played was done in my college dorm, with people submitting their "moves" to a GM by writing them down and putting them in an envelope. It was very interesting, since there were mysteries about who was playing whom. (In some ways, that added to the fun, since it sparked a subgame of "let's try to figure out who's playing what".)

The main limit I've seen on social interaction via computer is the speed -- when everyone's having to type out their comments, it's hard to get the bang-bang-bang interplay that you can get in real life. That, though, is mostly a keyboarding limit; I've played in an online D&D game where we were all talking via a conference call (one of the players worked for the phone company) while at the same time using a program designed for playing games online (so we had a virtual map & minis), and we were able to get that sort of interplay (plus voice acting!) by doing that. It still wasn't quite the quality of a face-to-face game, but as teleconferencing grows, we'll be able to get closer and closer to that.

Travis, I know both can be

Travis, I know both can be played online, but I'm thinking that they both lose something in the transition (and potentially gain something different). Believe me, I'm a veteran of a lot of online roleplaying, and while it certainly enables you to do some things better (depth of expression, for instance), even I've got to admit that it's sadly lacking in other things (visceral nonverbal reactions of fellow players).

Teleconferencing may equalize some of those things, true. I'm still waiting for my immersive VR world, though.

Can this blog contain the

Can this blog contain the only reference to I'm Comics on the web? Here's a little shout-out to Irv, Maury, Phil, Darren, Virgil, John, Kevin, Sergio, Nick, and the rest (apologies to the names I'm forgetting at the moment).

[...] that it’s only fair

[...] that it’s only fair that I’m using Josh’s game as an example here since it was a blog post of his that this little article is in response to. Okay, this next part could give you some context, but [...]

Post new comment