I frequently see discussions in which people argue about whether MMOs, and specifically World of Warcraft, are causing a decline in the number of roleplayers. This argument, I think, is too narrow in focus. To understand what’s going on now I think it’s necessary to take a step back and review a bit of history.
In the late 70s and early 80s roleplaying games were not only the dominant category in the industry, they were the games of choice of nerds everywhere. If you read fantasy and scifi novels, if you were in the computer club at school, if you were any sort of outcast with a bit of imagination, you probably played D&D; at some point. Roleplaying games overcame wargames to such a degree that many wargame companies tried to do RPGs to make some money off the new hotness.
Since the mid-80s tabletop RPGs have suffered a number of blows from other types of games:
* Computer games got better and better and each generation became more immersive.
* Games Workshop perfected its business model for miniatures and grew explosively.
* Collectible games became the new revenue generator of the game industry, doing to RPGs what they had done to wargames.
* Console and handheld games became more and more sophisticated.
* MMOs took the computer game market by storm.
Now the very sort of people who were most likely to have gotten into roleplaying in the early 80s have much shinier games to choose from. RPGs are getting some new fans but the lion’s share gets sucked into playing console games, computers games, and MMOs and never gives tabletop RPGs a look.
It’s about this point in the argument that people will start yelling about how computer games can never replace the true roleplaying experience. That’s probably true, but here’s the thing: the number of roleplayers who really do something more sophisticated than what you find in WoW or KOTOR is tiny. For all the vaunted imagination of the roleplayer, most of them are conservative in their tastes and really just want to buy the same thing over and over again.
To be clear though I am by no means sounding the death knell of tabletop RPGs. People who think that MMOs and their like are going to outright kill RPGs are deluded. As a hobby roleplaying as we know it is here to stay. The larger questions are how viable will RPGs be as a business in the future and what might be done to capture more of tomorrow’s young gamers?