RPGs in 2007

Here are some more thoughts on the game industry in 2007. Today’s topic: RPGs.

Roleplaying in 2007 is a category of extremes. On the one hand, it’s possible to see the current RPG market as a golden age for the fans. There new games coming out all the time and it’s never been easier to find even the most obscure titles with the advent of PDF sales and POD technology. You can order one of the fifty printed copies of a game that uses the torture of field mice as its resolution mechanic and central metaphor and you can do it in your underwear at 3 am. By anyone’s estimation, there are far more RPG games and support products coming out than one group could ever use. RPG fans are spoiled for choice as never before.

On the other hand, RPG publishing as a business is in a perilous state. The gap between the big publishers and the small publishers is widening, just as the gap between the rich and the poor is widening in America. There used to be a middle ground for successful RPG companies, a place between the one man shop and TSR where a company could have full time staffers, put out regular releases in print, and make a decent wage. That space is becoming more and more difficult to occupy. The reasons for this are legion, from failing hobby stores to just-in-time ordering to the shrinking number of roleplayers to the heated competition for every entertainment dollar. So you have a small number of larger companies like WotC, GW, and White Wolf and an ever-expanding roster of PDF/POD companies, with the shrinking middle ground occupied by the likes of Green Ronin, SJG, Goodman, Atlas, and MWP. With the market for third party d20 material continuing its death spiral, there is no longer a quick and easy way for new companies to establish themselves. With RPGs making up the smallest percentage of retailers’ sales, making the jump from part time hobby to full time business is getting harder and harder.

Historically speaking, roleplaying has never strayed too far from its roots. The origin of tabletop gaming is hobbyist and everyone who works in the industry started out as just another gamer. It is a nerdy version of the American Dream, where anyone with the gumption can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get into the RPG industry. The danger of current trends is that the RPG industry could complete its polarization into two camps: small hobbyist companies that sell PDFs and POD books largely direct and big professional companies that do traditional game publishing through the three-tier system and the book trade. This would not be a welcome development, as the RPG industry needs a “middle class”.

Mid-level RPG companies have performed some important functions in the game industry. First, they have provided readily available games for players to graduate to after D&D; or the WoD games. While there are certainly many fans who find those games and never leave them, there have always been those who become dissatisfied and look for something else. It has been the mid-tier companies that catch those gamers and ensure they don’t just leave roleplaying altogether. Second, they provide a training ground for designers, editors, illustrators, and entrepreneurs. You can learn a lot working for such a company and parley that into a job in a bigger company, the computer game industry, comics, etc. Third, they are the place most likely to bring about the “next big thing” in roleplaying. The large companies are too risk averse to take big chances and the small companies lack the means and often the expertise to pull it off. The mid-level companies are hungry, but they do have resources and know-how that can turn an idea into a real success.

I know there are people who are very excited about the growth of the small press thanks to advances to technology that allow games to be delivered directly to the consumer in ways that just didn’t exist 20 years ago. Certainly new ideas and implementations are always welcome, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. While it is true that a game that sold 100 copies last year and 200 copies this year has doubled its sales, in my mind this is not a cause for celebration for the RPG industry at large. Nor is the continued stagnation of D&D; and WotC’s failure to bring in the stream of new players that RPGs need if they are to ever again become a category that shows real growth.

More thoughts later.

Not New

I brought in some CDs to work this week so I could rip some new music into my I-Tunes. It’s amazing how even a robust collection of music can get tired after a couple of months. One of the albums I brought was 13-Point Program to Destroy America by Nation of Ulysses. I tend to think of NoU as one of the newer DC punk bands I suppose they are when compared to bands like the Faith, Minor Threat, and Iron Cross. On ripping the CD though, I could help but notice the date of the songs: 1991. Yeah, 16 years ago and not in fact new by any definition.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was seeing Nation of Ulysses play the Pyramid Club in NYC with Bikini Kill. This must have in 1990 or so. It was a really fun show, the first time I had heard either band. NoU’s mock revolutionary rhetoric was amusing and Bikini Kill’s punk rock feminism was refreshing. This was right at the beginning of the whole riot girl movement. Now both bands are long broken up and my brain is about 10 years out of date. Time to hit the reset button I guess.

Getting Paid to Smack Talk

So Pirates of the Burning Sea is going through beta testing now. Some of the players are getting frisky, so there’s a plan to have a big battle royale where the “mighty devs” of Flying Lab take on upstart playtesters in a fleet engagement. Although we are entirely likely to get our asses kicked, this should be fun. A thread started in the beta test forum and naturally smack talk ensued. Yesterday, the head of my department told us all to pile into the thread and start taunting the playtesters. I posted:

“You can tell that war is brewing when gums start flapping. Let’s see who measures up once the battle starts. When shot flies through the air thicker than rain, who will brave it? When your decks are slick with the blood of your comrades, who will fight on? When the acrid smoke of the gun deck chokes you, who will keep loading the cannons? When your ship has more holes in it than a prostitute’s smile, who will go down with the ship? When you’re wearing your best friend’s face on your shirt, who will sound the charge? Is it you, big talkers, or will you be running away instead of running out the guns?”

This was slightly undercut by my co-worker posting a challenge in the form of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song lyrics (which he assures me is some kind of internet meme; whatever) but nonetheless the desire result was achieved. I am amused that I am getting paid to smack talk our customers. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for hobby game companie…

The Local Heavyweight

When I talk to other game industry people, they often ask me what is going on at WotC. There was certainly a time when I could tell them, having worked there for four years and knowing many of the people still inside the beast. These days though I don’t have much to report. Many of the people I knew have moved on and those I remain friendly with like their jobs enough not to go spilling secrets. So please don’t read too much into what follows. I sat down to write a little something about where the game industry was at in 2007. With all the other stuff I have going on, I realized that it was going to take me a long time to finish and it was going to be a lot longer than I expected. So I figured I’d do it in chunks instead and where better to start than the local heavyweight? These are my personal opinions, not those of Green Ronin, and I based on little more than observation and a fair understanding of the marketplace.

I might as well start with the question vexing the denizens of all D&D; fan boards at the moment: the dreaded new edition. I expect to see an announcement from WotC this year about 4th edition D&D;, probably at GenCon. The types of products that they are doing show all the signs that a new edition is in the works: compendiums (first spells, soon magic items, and then rules), disposable adventures, experiments (Book of Nine Swords), and nostalgia products. This is all the sort of stuff that happened in the waning years of second edition. Plus 2008 will be five years since the release of 3.5, which makes it a natural time to hit the reset button. I have talked to some folks who think this might be announced as early as next month at the “D&D; Experience” (the re-branded Winter Fantasy) but I really doubt that’s the case. There’s too much announced product in the queue and any 4E announcement is sure to kill sales on subsequent 3.5 books.

This year I also think D&D; minis may begin their decline. I think the majority of the purchasers have been roleplayers to date. DDM as a game barely seems to be a blip. Now that the minis have been available for a few years, I suspect most roleplaying purchasers have robust collections that give them most of the figs they need. The number of folks who will buy a full case on release will drop and instead they will buy the specific models they need from a new set on the secondary market. Of course, if set runs get smaller the secondary market will also suffer.

What WotC really needs to do to keep sales up is take the minis from being optional RPG accessories to mandatory ones. I don’t know what their plans are, but I would not be surprised if 4th edition takes a form that ties minis even tighter to the RPG experience. This will certainly make many fans howl if it happens. However, I’m betting that that collectible minis are making WotC a lot more money than D&D; books at the moment, which means the tail may now be wagging the dog. Considering the attitude of many RPG R&D; people when WotC first got into miniatures, this is supremely ironic.

While all this is going on, Magic will keep plugging along like it always does, giving WotC the solid baseline it requires to move ahead. It’s amazing that the workhorse keeps pulling the cart, but it has endured while games all around have died horrible deaths.

A Seattle Moment

Saturday morning early Nicole and I stumbled off the bus on 3rd Ave on our way to the ALA show. Nicole turned left towards Pine while I turned right towards Pike. As my way was the direct route to the convention center, I turned around and said, “Where are you going?” Nicole replied, “There’s a Starbucks this way and I need coffee.” I pointed the way I was going and replied, “I need coffee too and there’s a Starbuck’s right across the street.” I later realized that had we gone straight off the bus we would have gone into this food court by the Borders that had a third Starbucks. And of course about four blocks away is the very first Starbucks location, which is by Pike Place Market. That’s downtown Seattle for you.

An ALA Day

We’re in the midst of the American Library Association show this weekend. Nik and I left the house before 8 am this morning and got home some 15 hours later. I am beat and need to fall unconscious soon because I’ll be do doing it again tomorrow. This is the first time we’ve done an ALA show and it’s interesting. Many of the folks have no idea what to make of us, but it turns out that many librarians are gamers. Even if their institutions aren’t doing anything with games, they were excited to see us and hear about our upcoming books. We have also met a lot of youth and teen librarians who are doing things with games and those are the people we wanted to reach. We’ve been promoting an upcoming book that I’ll talk about soon, which is different than other stuff we’ve done and very cool indeed.

I only had a little time to look around the show floor. There are a lot of companies in attendance, from the biggest publishers to the smallest presses. I did make it by the DC booth and got an advanced reader copy of my friend Cecil’s graphic novel The Plain Janes. It’s the first of DC’s new Minx line for teenage girls. The woman at the DC booth started pitching me on it and Minx and I said, “I came by looking for this actually; Cecil is a friend of mine from college.” She said, “Really, this is Cecil’s agent,” and introduced to the guy she had been talking to. Funny. I read the first half The Plain Janes on the bus home and it is tre cool. Seems like the perfect title to kick off the Minx line, so go Cecil.

After a full day on the floor, Nik and I wanted to relax. We finally caught the Borat movie, which was painful to watch in places but funny. Then we tried a new restaurant called Qube. The service wasn’t great but the food was. Nicole will be posting pictures on her blog for those into food porn. After that we tried to go to the Can Can for a show and failed. Then we went to Cap Hill for a punk show and failed at that too. Probably for the best I suppose. Now I must sleep.

So Messed Up

So a radio station in California had a competition to win a Nintendo Wii. It was called “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” and contestants had to drink as much water as they could without taking a leak. Although warned by callers about the dangers of water intoxication, the station employees laughed it off. They stopped laughing when a 28 year old mother of three died as a result of participating in the contest. The radio station has since fired 10 employees involved in the incident. The whole situation is really fucked up. Those kids have to grow up knowing their mom died trying to get them a stupid game console. Welcome to the 21st century.


It’s a G-G-G-Ghost!

A few weeks ago during the big windstorm and power outage, we had a strange experience in the house. Nicole had been out that first day to look for batteries and whatnot. She had been looking particularly for C batteries for our boom box, so we could at least listen to the radio and CDs during the blackout. She was too late though and there were no C batteries to be found. Later Nik, Kate, and I were playing a board game by candlelight. Suddenly the boom box powered on, there was a burst of static, and then we all clearly heard the name “Dave” come from the speakers. There was another burst of static and it shut off. So in the middle of a blackout, a boom box with no batteries even in it turned on and spoke to us. It was really odd.

This has, of course, led to a lot of talk as to who this Dave is. Naturally, we have decided that Dave is a ghost haunting our house. Now when something inexplicable happens, we have someone to blame. When Kate can’t find her Nintendo DS or there are missing socks, cries of “It’s Dave” echo around the house. It must be said that building up our own ghostly folklore is pretty amusing. Dave is not responsible for any murders just yet, but there’s still time.

Fun With Pirates

Over at Flying Lab we debuted a new Pirates of the Burning Sea website this week and it looks pretty slick. Today I wrote my first “devlog” for the site and it has gone up already. In it I introduce myself to the PotBS community and tell them something of my roots in the “other game industry”. To see the new site and check out my devlog and other pirate goodness, go to http://www.burningsea.com. And now the obligatory yar. Yaaarrrrrr!

Time to Pay

There’s lots of chatter about Bush’s speech last night but it’s so focused on “the surge” that something very interesting was passed over. I heard most of the speech in the car on the way to dinner and there’s one line that floored me:

“To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country’s economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.”

So here we have a Republican president advocating redistribution of wealth to the masses. If this were the 50s, Tailgunner Joe would be calling Bush a commie right now and yet this seems to have passed by without comment.

Since the Bush administration apparently now thinks that wealth redistribution is acceptable, I have but one question for the oil companies: where’s my check? After all, we’ve all heard about companies like Exxon reported record profits last year and in the last six years they and other huge corporations have received unprecedented tax breaks and subsidies from the geniuses who thought never ending tax breaks while prosecuting two wars was a good idea. So listen up, fat cats, it’s time to pay America.