Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Bubble

The other day I was re-reading this old (2009) blog post from James Mishler entitled The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling. It was a good post (and still is) about the general economics of publishing in the RPG industry (spoiler alert: don't expect to make much money), but the more interesting part, in my opinion, is the second half of the post and some of his predictions for the future of the industry (spoiler alert: not great). Here's what James was saying (in part) almost ten years ago:
Of course, there is another way to improve publisher and thus editor/author income… increase the number of gamers, and thus the gross number of sales; this lowers the per unit cost and increases the gross margin. But I do not mention this, because this is the Holy Grail of gaming. More companies have fallen tilting at this windmill than any other. The mythical “introductory boxed set” that will ignite consumer imagination and sales has broken more game companies than I can recall.  
The problem is, everyone (well, all the oldsters) remembers the great success of the Moldvay Basic Set for Dungeons & Dragons, and seek to recreate that feel and success; the latest in this long line is of course HackMaster Basic from Kenzer & Company, who have gone so far as to hire the original cover artist, Erol Otus, to create a cover in homage to that legendary king of starter sets. Some of this is out of a desire to evoke the feel of the original for the OSR crowd, but I’m sure there is an element of hope with HMB that it can somehow catch fire, just like its hoary predecessor. 
The problem is that when Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons released back in 1981, the market was very, very different. There was no Internet, and there were no computer games; heck, D&D is the granddaddy of World of Warcraft, after all. There was then in the United States a larger group of moderately well-educated semi-curious young men with more leisure time and more discretionary income and an interest in reading and in fantasy than at any other time in world history, who had nothing better to do than to sit around and play a table-top role-playing game with their friends. I would argue that the vast majority of today’s youth are not remotely as well read (hours spend on the Internet notwithstanding), utterly incurious, have less leisure time, less discretionary income, no interest in reading other than what’s up with Britney Spears and Megan Fox, no interest in fantasy save for watching LotR on DVD and checking out hot dark-elf-chick ass on WoW, and little or no interest with actually physically hanging out with friends (after all, that’s what Facebook is for, right?) And that’s not counting the amazing push D&D got with the whole “D&D is Evil” campaign, which proved the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The advertising and marketing required today to crack into this current market is simply cost prohibitive for the return gained, as Wizards of the Coast has discovered much to its chagrin.  
And I should note, a repeat of the Third Edition miracle is impossible. Third Edition did not succeed based on new acquisitions in the youth market; the bulk of their market was in gamers returning to the fold. Third Edition hit just as all those gamers who started playing back in the early ‘80s were once again looking around for something to do; they had started their families, were well into their careers, and wanted something to do with friends once a week that would not get them in trouble with their wives. Gaming was a perfect solution… and when they went around seeking new products for AD&D (some not having played since 1E or even OD&D), they discovered that there was a whole new edition! And so D&D struck gold a second time, as the same generation that had such extensive leisure time and discretionary income in their youth now had more of the same in their 30-something stage… and often vastly greater discretionary income than in their youth, even if they may have had slightly less leisure time. And so they fueled the Third Edition miracle and the d20 OGL boom and eventual bust. There is no “third time’s the charm” for D&D; it has run its course. Even with Wizards pulling out all the stops with transforming the D&D experience into a table-top replica of the World of Warcraft experience did not draw in remotely as many new consumers as had been hoped; and D&D is the primary mode of acquisition of new role-playing game consumers, likely by an order of magnitude over all other role-playing games combined.
Pretty sharp, as might be expected from a person with 15 or so years of perspective from inside the industry. Mishler doesn't mention the multiple game companies that ended up folding after hitching their wagons to the D20 boom (converting their systems and going "all in"), but I think he had a solid take on the industry's potential, or lack thereof. So how is it that the Dungeons & Dragons brand is now doing better than ever before? What did James miss in his 2009 analysis?


It's not enough to just blame a proliferation of gaming on the popularity of fantasy fiction (like Game of Thrones or whatever the latest Tolkien-based blockbuster is). Interest in fantasy can be met in ways besides tabletop gaming (licensed video game tie-ins, novels, and comics, for example). The only thing that has changed in the last decade or so is the willingness of name brand celebrities to talk about their own play and enjoyment of the game. Folks like Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Sherman Alexie, and Jon Favreau have all lauded the game, and have credited the game with helping to build their imaginations (thus leading to their success in their current professions). Web shows that display celebrities playing and enjoying the game have encouraged curious-but-reluctant folks to give the game a try, even as fictional portrayals of the game (from Community to Stranger Things) may have piqued initial interest.

It doesn't hurt that Hasbro seems to have gone into "marketing overdrive" to get the word out about just how cool Dungeons & Dragons is, capitalizing on the moment's buzz to generate more buzz...as well they should (they are a business, right?). Still, I was surprised by just how much D&D was on display at the local Barnes & Noble when I stopped by last Saturday. No, it wasn't quite as prominent as the Harry Potter stuff, but it still featured on aisle caps, included children's books (and A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3's plus several new "Endless Quest" titles), rather than just being filed away with the (comic) graphic novels. Box sets, starter sets, giant coffee-table-art books, novels...hell, even an erotic short story collection "inspired by Dungeons & Dragons." Clearly, the Corporate Overlords are doing their best to strike while the iron's hot.

Something for the 4-year old's stocking.
This is in stark contrast to the way the game was displayed back in 2015. Remember this grumpy post? Same edition of D&D, same time of year, same store. Books weren't even displaying their front cover on the shelves.

Something's changed since then. Did Hasbro hire a new marketing department? Is it the advent of Critical Role (which first debuted on Geek & Sundry in 2015)?  I think that's more likely than the attempted proliferation of WotC's "Adventurer's League" (of the half dozen local shops, I contacted...several of which were listed in WotC's "game finder"...only ONE runs AL. And I live in Seattle!). But whatever it is that's growing the game to the point that "8.6 million Americans played" D&D in 2017, I'm inclined to worry it's less a stable, growing industry and more of a false front...a bubble, ready to pop.

But that's probably just more Negative Nelly-isms from JB, right? Just me pissing in everyone's cornflakes. Sure, fine...I can see how my years of disappointment in and (somewhat justified) skepticism of certain game companies may have colored my perception of their otherwise profoundly encouraging numbers. I mean, am I not the guy who has long complained that the industry leaders haven't been doing enough to grow the hobby? And here they are: growing it huger than ever before, yeah? That's awesome...if it's accurate.

Here's the worrying thought that keeps creeping into my head: back when the RPG hobby was in its first "boom days" (circa 1981) people talked a lot about "D&D," but any and all tabletop RPGs were labeled as "D&D" by folks. The boom was in role-playing in general, not Dungeons & Dragons specifically. Just checking Ye Old Wikipedia's list of RPGs by release date, I see there were 15 new RPGs published in 1980, 13 in 1981, 20 in 1982, and 21 in 1983. The list is somewhat incomplete as new editions aren't included...for instance, the Moldvay/Cook B/X (1981) is not listed, nor Frank Mentzer's BECMI (1983).

What about the "second boom" that coincided with 3rd edition D&D? Well, we have 17 in the year 2000 (3E's release), another 17 in 2001, and 32 (!!) in 2002...many of these games being OGL-approved D20 derivations (like Spycraft and Mutants & Masterminds).

[there were also quite a few indie RPGs published in that period, the heyday of The Forge]

Contrast these booms with the drop-off that occurred around the same time as TSR nose-dived (and before White Wolf struck gold with Vampire): 1988 saw only nine new RPGs. 1989 has eleven listed (one of them a German RPG I've never heard of). 1990 had 13, of which four are definitely non-American, and one was the Lorraine Williams "special order," Buck Rogers XXVC. These were dry years for RPG publishing, unless you're talking supplements for games established in the early/mid-80s that were still getting plenty of play.

[yes, I see that Cyberpunk 2013, Shadowrun, and Rifts...all games that became huge lines...came out during these years. They were exceptions with regard to both their success and popularity]

So what about now? Is the new "boom" in D&D sales (and millions of people playing) indicative of a growing RPG industry? Well...I see 2015 had ten new RPGs. 2016 had another ten. 2017 had eight including Zweihander (a retroclone of the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG). 2018 lists only four, though I'm sure that will be updated (didn't Mutant Crawl Classics come out this year? I know I picked up my copy just a couple months back...). It would appear that Hasbro's claim of heightened interest in D&D is simply that: an interest in Dungeons & Dragons alone. But then again, maybe I simply missed the glowing press releases from Paizo announcing their record sales of Pathfinder last year (I know there was a lot of excitement and anticipation for the new Starfinder RPG).

Anyway...I know a rising tide lifts all boats (or whatever that phrase is), and maybe that's what this is and that's what it will do. Maybe this isn't the boom of the early 1980s, but the blossoming of a new phenomenon (like the mid-70s) and the start of a true "second wave" of the role-playing hobby. Maybe this newfound interest (respectability?) in Dungeons & Dragons will usher in a new era of role-playing and an entirely new community of enthusiasts. Heck, you can find Ted Talks (now) on the virtues of tabletop gaming...maybe this IS the real deal, and not simply a lot of splash and noise being used to drum up sales for the Christmas season. I suppose I could choose to optimistic for a change.

Yeah, right.
; )


  1. Of course, earlier years may have more complete datasets, and I'd be pretty certain Wiki isn't including the innumerable small Kickstsrter/Patreon/DTRPG RPGs. That doesn't invalidate your point - it's inside trackers buying that stuff - bit it's a legitimate juance.

    1. @ Owen:

      I agree. There's plenty more RPGs being offered in electronic form than ever before. But...as you wrote...those are generally being searched for (and purchased by) folks "in the know," rather than the general public. The public tends towards the visible shelf presence...at least until they've been indoctrinated into the hobby.

      [yes, I realize that there is such a thing as "Amazon;" just checked their list of role-playing games and found only two (possibly three) new "core" RPGs that were released in 2018. I think 7th Sea rust released a new edition, right?]

  2. I'm a bit too lazy at the moment to count the number of "new" RPGs you list; a cursory glance at the Wikipedia article shows easily a couple hundred titles.

    Thing is . . . once you have one RPG that you like, why would you ever purchase a new one?

    I can understand if you have several systems you use for different game genres. D&D doesn't necessarily work for a space-western like Firefly. But any more than a half-dozen or so seems excessive.

    I think that's the real problem with the RPG industry. They're a great concept and it's possible to do so much with them ~ at the table. As a viable business prospect? Small business, at best, unless someone figures out how to make it into something . . . more conducive with how people actually play.

    1. @ Ozy:

      I don't know...probably anything in excess of three or four is "excessive" as far as long-term play is concerned. However, there are lots of RPGs that are good for "one-off" or short-term play, depending on your particular flavor of interest. Sometimes you're in the mood for Fiasco or My Life With Master or Dust Devils, and everyone wants a break from the on-going campaign (whatever RPG you happen to be using).

      But even so...yeah, small business at best.

    2. I think I purchased 5-7 new RPGs at Gen Con alone in 2018. No ebooks, all physical books. Some of us do purchase multiple games and do play them over the years. One thing to remember about any Wiki, it requires users to keep it updated and it is very likely that later entries are not 100% updated. I have been a Wikipedia editor for 11 plus years and I have not updated anything in a long while.

      The rising tide does lift all boats, but not all boats the same. D&D 5 is doing great, Pathfinder/Starfinder is still hanging in there. Call of Cthulhu had a new edition (7th) and is selling great (just not D&D numbers) and so is the new Vampire.
      That is the biggest thing going on now is the volume of choice we have. There will never be another Moldvay Basic because there are just so many games out now and there are always the old games that people rediscover. Moldvay, Holmes and Mentzer Basics were all a product of their times. That is getting people (often read as "kids") to learn how to play. As someone who has been developing college curriculums for 20+ years I can tell you kids and young adults don't go to books to learn how to do something, they want a video or podcast (but mostly a video) and that's where they go first. If I were writing a course on how to learn D&D I'd first look at my video budget. BTW this is not a value judgement on learning, it is a different modality. I used to work with severe Learning Disability students back in the 80s that used similar modalities because they could not process information via text and they did fine this way. I know people that swear by audiobooks too and others that hate them. (I have spent much of my academic and professional career on these exact issues.)

      You are 100% right though on Celebrity. When you have people like Joe Manganiello, Deborah Ann Woll and Steven Colbert lovingly talking about their D&D games; you can't buy advertising like that. Critical Role brings in a bunch of new gamers. So much so, that people talk about the "Mercer Effect". People who want to learn how to game because they saw it/heard it on Critical Role. The cast was at Gen Con this past year and were treated like rock stars. They don't know (or care) about names like Gygax, Arneson, Moldvay or hell even Mearls (I have seen 3 of those 4 walk through cons utterly unmolested. (Ask me sometime about the conversation I had with Dave Arneson at his last Gen Con.) And you know what? That is fine. Once upon a time I didn't know those names and I still played the games fine.

      I also say who cares how they got to the game, give them the best game experience you can.

      Let's see how long this effect lasts. So far it has been going pretty damn strong. In general, things are looking good and more stable than the d20 boom and bust.

    3. @ Tim:

      Appreciate the input. Those 5-7 new RPGs you purchased...were they NEW RPGs, or simply new editions of existing games (like CoC, 7th Sea, etc.)?

      I too, old dude that I am, make use of videos for learning how to do new things (rather than look for a book)...it's just part of the convenience of having the internet readily available. But that's stuff like changing my water filter or fixing my fence. Games? I don't know, man...I prefer to read instruction manuals (when they're available), whether we're talking Kids Riding Bikes or Axis & Allies & Zombies. Hell, I can't even stand tutorials on video games...but, like I said, I'm old.

  3. I picked up The Witcher, Modern AGE, Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos (for Pathfinder), Call of Cthulhu 7th ed, Witch Slapped, Star Trek, Kids Riding Bikes, and Pathfinder 2e (but that almost does count since it is a playtest). I also almost grabbed the new Warhammer FRPG and Vampire.
    Ok so many of these are new editions of older games. There were over 500 exhibitors at GenCon 2018 and many had new games.

    So by one measure, amount of games new and old, we have an embarrassment of riches.