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.
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."