Monday, February 01, 2010

The Future of Retail RPGs

My friend over at Black Diamond Games has been musing lately about the future of RPGs from a retail point of view. Sadly for him and other retailers, I'm beginning to think that there isn't much of a future for RPGs in the retail market.

I've been saying for years that tabletop RPGs are destined to follow the same path as tabletop hex and counter wargames. Wargames got started in the fifties, grew in the sixties, and were really becoming a big deal in the seventies. In the late seventies and early eighties you could find Avalon Hill games in major bookstore chains and other retail locations, but in the early seventies something happened that was destined to cut short the popularity of wargames: tabletop RPGs.

Most know that tabletop RPGs grew out of wargaming (in fact, while D&D is the first published RPG its roots can be traced not only to Chainmail, but the unpublished wargaming/RPG hybrid Braunstein). Many people, in fact the majority of people, who had once been consumers of wargames, found RPGs to be more to their liking. The development of the personal computer further hurt the wargaming industry as those for whom RPGs weren't to their liking found that computer games often were. Computers could both streamline the handling of complex rules as well as provide an AI opponent, both big attractions for people dealing with games which were both hard to learn and difficult to find opponents for.

From a retail perspective, wargames were dying. First SPI disappeared, then Avalon Hill was eventually acquired by Hasbro, and today traditional hex and counter wargames are effectively dead in the retail market.

At the same time, there are more and better hex and counter wargames available today than ever before. New companies with different business models arose from the ashes of SPI and Avalon Hill. GMT Games, Multiman Publishing and Avalanche Press are the big boys, with a host of smaller companies also in the field.

They thrive in a market that sells directly to consumers, mostly over the internet. They still sell the occasional game in the retail market, but it's not their focus, and they seem to treat it more as a marketing expense than an opportunity for direct profit.

I think that RPGs are destined for a similar, but not identical, future. I think that we will see the industry go down two different paths. The first is being pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons and their DDI program. Whether or not it was deliberate, having so much information available online for a subscription is cannibalizing the sales of print products at the retail level. If this is not also cannibalizing the bottom line of Wizards of the Coast, then this trend will likely continue and may come to replace the "supplemental" model of RPGs that most "mainstream" RPGs now follow. This model involves the release of core rules followed by regular release of new content in the form of supplemental books until such time as it's felt that sales would best be served by a new set of core rules.

The second path is one of small press publishing, and more importantly, print on demand. The "indy" model where a game often consists of a single book, and where if additional books are produced their production is usually based more on what the game needs than on increasing sales. Few are likely to make their living designing games this way, but then few make their living designing wargames anymore either.

Small press games have always been around, but the availability of print on demand changes things. The difference between small press and mainstream used to mean the difference between a hardbound book and a bunch of photocopies stapled together (or bound with a plastic ring binding if it was "fancy"). Now the only difference between a print on demand book and one from a major publisher is the use of color, and maybe artwork.

I just received a copy of Diaspora, a game only available for purchase on Lulu, and its production quality beats anything that I've seen from mainstream RPG publisher Mongoose (admittedly the whipping boy in the RPG industry for poor production quality). Only the lack of interior color separates it from other major releases, and the creativity and editing quality is arguably far better than most.

Alternate paths, like that being followed by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with its custom dice, are unlikely to start a general trend. They seem too gimicky, and are too obviously an attempt to solve problems with the business model through game design. If they were operating in a vacuum then they would likely succeed, but they're operating in an environment where others are simply abandoning the business model in favor of ones that work better.

Personally, I would like these alternate paths represented by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to succeed, because I think it's important that RPGs maintain a retail presence, both for the health of RPGs and the health of the retail game industry, but I suspect that they will instead become increasingly a niche within a niche.


BlackDiamond said...

For many retail stores, role-playing has already gone the route of the war game. They sell some D&D, White Wolf and perhaps a couple others, just as I sell select games from GMT, Multiman and DVG. Being in the Bay Area, we luckily have a wide base of support for a large variety role playing games.

Playing the new WFRP, I can say the business model doesn't quite fit play. Many players want to own their gaming resources, and the only way to do this, because of the cards, is to own the entire $100 box set. I understand FFG's motivation for this model, but the product doesn't match how people intend to use it.

It's with D&D, however, that I'm most concerned, and you've explained that well. We may end with tiers of gamers, with experienced players subscribing to DCI and new ones buying core "books." I don't know if that model works for WOTC and I don't even know for sure that this problem is as big as I perceive it. In the game trade, we know almost nothing about each other, including how many of us retailers are out there.

I want to point out that a well diversified brick and mortar game stores will survive a decline in RPGs just fine. They're ascendancy and primacy in game stores is far, far behind us now. A well diversified store owner is likely to have a good cry over this and promptly expand his board games and miniatures into the vacant space. I mention this because a lot of people see "gaming" to be THEIR gaming and their niche to be THE niche.

There are hopeful signs, despite WFRP and D&D. The intro box set is making a come back, an attempt to get new blood into the hobby with minimal rules and cost. The Dragon Age RPG is designed to do this. A new D&D box set, akin to the old school ones (not a box of recycled junk), is scheduled for late 2010. We've got box sets coming out for Gamma World this Summer and a Ravenloft D&D board game (not quite an RPG but designed by RPG designers). I want my Top Secret and of course, Boot Hill. The Dresden Files RPG, Starblazers and other FATE based games are niche products, but also support the concept of minimalist rules and low cost gaming. Which makes me wonder, how much of the decline in RPGs is about decline in their perceived value?

Brad said...

Hey thanks for the kind words regarding Diaspora's editing and production. I've talked in a similar vein to your post here over at my own blog and pretty much agree with you. I think that the RPG (and in some measure the wargaming sim) market has always been both by and for hobbyists at the core, and the new tools available to amateurize publication stand to totally change the landscape. In fact I think the landscape has already changed -- very tight niches are now supportable while Big Games are less so. I note that the big players are all moving to modes that are less amateurized -- rather than making books they are exploring online presence, regular content delivery, and boxes full of toys. All smart moves, and signposts on the road for other publishers.

Fulminata said...

Diaspora deserves the praise. I'm working on a reader's review that should hopefully get posted in the next few days. A playtest review will have to wait at least a few weeks until we can get a game into our schedule.

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