|March 19th, 2009
THE NEW GAMERS?
I say anything else, let me say this: I've been paying attention to the
RPG industry for 20 years now. And for 20 years, people have been
predicting the death of the industry. The industry, you will note, is
still here. So this essay should not be mistaken as a heralding of the
But I did want to address a few of the memes
circling recently, and to do that I first need to step back and take a
slightly wider view.
INDUSTRY IS DYING?
the industry dying? The truth is, nobody knows. There are certainly
signs that the industry is contracting, but it's also been 10 years
since any meaningful marketing research in the hobby games industry has
made public. And the fundamental shifts in the ways that games are
distributed and purchased have turned the number we used to use to
measure the size of the market into an arguably apples-to-oranges
It's known that the number of independent
has shrunk. But, on the other hand, much of that decline can be almost
directly linked to (a) the poor inventory management and business
practices of gaming stores during the D20 boom-bust cycle (which was
not the first time that poor inventory control and business practices
had resulted in gaming stores sucking up the bust end of the boom-bust
cycle in a game); and (b) the advent of internet commerce. Are the
dollars going away or are they going online?
Maybe they're going
away. After all, publishers are almost universally reporting lowers
sales on a per title basis. But, on the other hand, we've also seen a
prodigious explosion in the number of companies publishing games over
the past several years. The RPG industry is also one of the
industries to really
hold of long-tail economics and make its vast back-catalog of material
available electronically. Is the easy availability of older games and
supplements reducing the demand on newer games and supplements?
a lot of anecdotal evidence going around to suggest that the market is
graying -- the average gamer is getting older and people aren't seeing
as many younger gamers. I used to be harboring some of those same
feelings until recently, when I realized I was making an obvious
mistake: When I was 10 years old and started gaming, I was naturally
exposed to a lot of fellow 10 year olds. Now I'm almost 30. Why would I
expect to be running into a lot of 10 year old gamers?
In fact, I
recently went back to my alma mater to direct a play for the students
there. I was surprised to discover that several members of my cast and
crew were active roleplayers (GURPS and Shadowrun).
The minute I was exposed to a younger crowd, younger gamers were there
to be found. (And when I was in the exact same theater program 10+
years ago, there were no active gamers.)
In addition, the average
graying of the market is almost inevitable, assuming that: (1) The
market is retaining long-term gamers (which it clearly is); and (2)
Most people start gaming when they're young. Even if you add the exact
same number of young gamers to the market every year, the demographics
will steadily skew older as your existing players age.
Are we, in
fact, suffering from a lack of replacement players? It's possible. But
there's absolutely no data to support the contention in either
let's accept, for the moment, that the industry is in a period of
contraction (perhaps a terminal one): Players are leaving and new
players aren't replacing them. Why is that happening? There seem to be
two popular memes:
(1) Video games are poaching tabletop's
(2) D&D was a fad in the '80s. It
will never be that popular again.
both cases, the underlying philosophy is a shrug of the shoulders: The
decline and fall of the roleplaying game was inevitable. There's
nothing that can be done about it.
There's certainly truth to be found in both
games, for example, are flat-out better for delivering certain types of
entertainment that used to be delivered by roleplaying games. If you're
interested in pure hack 'n slash play, for example, there's really no
question that Diablo
better at delivering it: The game does the math for you. It gives you
pretty graphics. It gives you a built-in soundtrack. You can play it
any time you want to. You can even play it with your friends.
Similarly, D&D was
a fad in the '80s. The game itself had gotten mainstream recogition and
was able to spawn a wide array of spin-off products andmedia tie-ins.
on the flip-side, roleplaying games are still capable of doing things
that even the best computers can't even begin to duplicate. And plenty
of things settle into patterns of long-term success after starting off
think the underlying decay of the roleplaying games industry can be
traced back to one core problem: The lack of a gateway product.
for better or for worse, is still the primary route by which new gamers
enter the hobby. And the sad truth is that the route just isn't as easy
as it used to be.
From 1974 until 1991, D&D was
available in an affordable, all-in-one box that was a legitimate game
in its own right: From '74 to '77 there was the original boxed set.
From '77 to '81 there was the Holmes Basic Set. From '81
to '83 there was the Moldvay Basic
Set. And from '83 to '91 there was the BECMI Basic Set.
With the publication of the Rules Cyclopedia in
1991, however, the Basic
Set or Basic
Game products became nothing but a preview for other
products. And they were previews that you had to actually pay for.
(Note that I'm not condemning the existence
of supplements. I'm talking about the Basic Set becoming
a preview for some other product. What's the distinction? Well, when I
had finished playing through my BECMI Basic Set, I went
out and bought the Expert
Set. But I didn't stop using my Basic Set in order
to use my Expert Set.
Set wasn't a preview of the Expert Set; rather
the Expert Set
expanded the game presented in the Basic
But if you bought the Basic
Set in the mid-'90s, then your next step was to buy the Rules Cyclopedia --
at which point you stuck your Basic
Set on the shelf and never touched it again.)
This lack of a gateway product has had
several major effects:
(1) There hasn't been any legitimate version
of the game packaged to look like a game to the average consumer.
Similarly, there hasn't been a legitimate version of the game packaged
to be sold through mainsteam toy stroes and game shops right next to
the other boxed games.
(3) Once the Rules
went out of print, the entry cost for playing the game tripled.
(4) The investment time in terms of reading the
rulebooks also drastically increased. The BECMI Basic Set
I started playing with had roughly 100 page in it, and a significant
chunk of that was actually a solo play adventure. By contrast,
Edition's core rulebooks are 800+ pages.
solo play adventure, by the way, meant that you were playing
within 5 minutes of opening the box. You didn't even have to get a
group of your friends together in order to get a taste of what the game
had to offer.)
So the game has become less available, less
accessible, and more expensive. Is it really that shocking that sales
We lost our entry level product nearly 20
years ago. And people stopped entering the hobby.
AD&D came out, TSR stiffed Dave Arneson. They claimed that he
wasn't owed royalties because AD&D wasn't the same game as
Arneson sued and, by all accounts, TSR was forced to keep the basic
D&D game in print as a result of that lawsuit. If it wasn't for
that lawsuit, TSR would have most likely discontinued the publication
of the D&D game and focused entirely on AD&D.
I think TSR
lucked out. I think the success the game enjoyed in the '80s was as a
direct result of keeping the game available in an all-in-one box that
wasn't just a preview for a more expensive product.
In fact, I think I lucked out. I think
there's a fairly good chance that, if it wasn't for the BECMI Basic Set, I would
never have started gaming.
Let me lapse into a tangent here for a
moment and tell you my own story of getting into gaming:
general concept of a roleplaying game had sort of percolated into my
brain (I remember the novelization of E.T. being a significant moment,
along with the ads TSR used to put in Marvel comics). And I liked that
concept a lot. It sounded fascinating.
So I was perfectly primed
the first time I ever saw a roleplaying game for sale: It was the
BATMAN ROLEPLAYING GAME, a spin-off of Mayfair's DC Heroes game. I
bought it. I read it. I bounced off of it. I couldn't make heads or
tails of it.
So, in lieu of that, I ended up making my
own BATMAN game. My brother played Batman and every single action was
resolved using an opposed roll of 1d6: I, as GM, rolled an unmodified
1d6. My brother, as Batman, rolled an unmodified 1d6. If his roll was
higher, he succeeded. If my roll was higher, he failed.
And we rolled for literally every declared
action, leading to the one moment of hilarity I can remember from that
game: Batman crashing the batmobile on his way back to the batcave.
My father saw my interest and pulled out a
copy of Middle Earth
Role-Playing. I tried reading that. I bounced off of it. I
couldn't make heads or tails of it: What was I supposed to do with
it? And the density of the rules blew my mind. I managed to create a
character for the game, but I never actually did anything with it.
I also bounced off his copy of Bunnies & Burrows.
It was the BECMI Basic Set
that got me playing. It's a near-perfect example of an introductory
product should be: A complete game (including all the funky dice you
need). A crystal clear example of play. A solo-play adventure so that
you can immediately get a taste for how awesome the game can be. And a
complete module for the first time you DM.
A product like that
hasn't existed before or since. About the only change I would make is
to expand the number of levels supported (1-3 is a fairly shallow
gameplay experience). I'm not a fan of 4th Edition, but I still wish
that WotC would release a product like this supporting the entire
Heroic Tier of play using a stripped down set of core rules.
also wouldn't hurt if WotC developed a mini-version of the game that
could be included in computer games, DVDs, and other licensed products.
They could also develop a line of D&D Adventure Novels that
incorporate a stripped down D&D system. They are virtually the
company that could realistically do this. The only other company that
could even try would be White Wolf, who could theoretically produce an
E.V.E. roleplaying game and include mini-versions of the game in
copies of E.V.E. Online.)