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Are Tabletop RPGs Doomed?

posted Saturday, July 18th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNews, Reviews & Culture

Last month’s state of the RPG industry address by publisher Joseph Goodman invoked a lot of discussion.

At Kobold Quarterly, there’s a new interview with Joseph Goodman. Regarding his post in June:

“In order to establish that my opinion on 4E sales was qualified, I listed my credentials. Some readers interpreted that as a sign of arrogance. If I were to rewrite the post I would have been a little less forceful about the credentials, and more clear that I was listing them simply to establish the basis for my opinion.”

Particularly interesting is his perspective on 4E:

“Yes, it’s a fun game, but I personally prefer earlier editions of D&D. I’m not really the target market for 4E. I also recognize that my personal preferences are not the way to run a business. Goodman Games will always publish old-school products because that’s the most fun for me, but it’s 4E that pays the bills. Take the market for 1E and add a couple zeroes to get to the people who still play 3E, then add several more zeroes and you’re up to the 4E market.”

Publisher James Mishler makes an interesting post titled The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling. James is pessimistic about 4E sales figures, and of RPG industry sales figures in general:

Back in the day, Judges Guild sold upward of 10,000 units on even a bad product, and 50,000+ units on a good one; today, unless you are Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and maybe Green Ronin, Goodman Games, Mongoose Publishing, or Steve Jackson Games, you are lucky to sell 1,000 units on a good product… very lucky. At the beginning of the d20 OGL run, sales of 10,000 units were not impossible; by the end, 1,000 units were the norm.

Paizo’s Erik Mona chimes in with a comment:

Part of the problem, here, is that you’re assuming that anyone can make any kind of money at all selling 1000 units of just about anything. I’m not sure that’s ever been true at any time in the history of the tabletop gaming industry, and it’s certainly not true now.

You’ve got to find a way to develop and audience for your product that is larger than 1000 potential sales. Every product Paizo produces, for example, must endure a rigorous cost/profit analysis before it gets the green light. Everything we do has realistic break-evens in the sub-2000 units category, and only extremely rarely does a product in our lineup not sell significantly more copies than that.

Interesting reads all round. Those links again: Goodman’s post in June, my report of that article, Kobold Quarterly’s new review, and James Mishler’s doomsaying (scroll down for Erik Mona’s reply).

Comments

  1. Hurfl

    July 18th, 2009

    Short answer: No.

    Long answer: No, they are not.

  2. The Wayfarer

    July 19th, 2009

    Mishler has some interesting points. The economics of the RPG business were informative but I agree with Erik Mona that the rest is doom and gloom.

    Regarding Paizo’s model for PDF sales I think Mishler is totally wrong. PDF MSRP’s are now lower for one reason and one reason only: Electronic copy (PDF), though useful in many ways, lacks value because its virtual. I hate PDF for gameplay. If its not free I only buy PDF’s for fluff or nostalgia. Otherwise I’d prefer to have a hardcopy in hand.

    Mishler approaches another key point but doesn’t get there: The RPG market is badly fractured because there are too many RPG companies/publishers and not enough consumers to support the multitude of product lines. Especially in the ecomomic times we’re in now. WoTC actually had an interesting article about TSR’s business model a month or two ago. Between 1st and 2nd editions TSR had created a glut of campaign worlds that, while they developed loyal followings, the consumer base for each campaign was to small to create a profit for any of the work.

    And since Mishler brought it up with his “Greater Depression”….we’ll have one unless our President, House and Senate don’t wake up and realize they can’t keep spending our money and the money my kids haven’t even earned yet. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place, people biting off more then they could pay for. You can keep your change President Obama. I’d rather keep my freedom…and my money.

  3. Tetsubo

    July 19th, 2009

    I think it’s important to factor in the economy. When the D20 era started (2000) we had a solid economy and a national surplus. At the end of the D20 era (intro of 4E) we have a shambles of an economy and a huge national debt. I know that one of the first things that cut out of my personal budget was gaming stuff.

    You know that huge debt racked up by the *last* administration…

  4. Noumenon

    July 20th, 2009

    You’re the first place I saw this link, and it’s really good. Thanks!

  5. Stormgaard

    July 20th, 2009

    Good website…

    Silly, silly article!

    http://t-a-b-a.blogspot.com/2009/07/d-news-072009.html

  6. Raemann

    July 21st, 2009

    I went to GenCon last year. Even though I got a promotion and a 28% increase in salary we did not go this year. It was the stench of a failing economy in the air, a number of things that we need to do around the house, whatever. Economy notwithstanding the situation surrounding pen and paper games contains more facets than what many credit it.
    To me the primary reason for the conditions are as follows.
    1) Paradigm Shifts
    2) Market Saturation
    3) Compelling Content
    4) Economic Pitfalls
    5) Mass Marketing Vehicles

    First the paradigm has shifted. Like it or not this is an MMORPG world that we live in where Monty Haul would be akin to a depression. The computer industry has taken away the elements of RP and substituted them with “drops”. All that happens in most games is there is a slightly compelling story which revolves around the getting of items that allows one to kill the last “boss”. Forget inspiration, perseverence or any form of player insight and skill. In the world of potential D&Ders the computer industry is creating a base of people that despise role playing for their gear because that simply takes too long and frankly their attention span has diminished with every computer game that they have completed
    Next we have market saturation. I cannot speak to this one to the point I can with the other topics, suffice it to say that I too have played and written scenarios for a long time and one of the chief things that I hear is that there are so many scenarios to so many games out there that when all you have to spend on gaming is 40 or 50 bucks then really cant get into the more prolific games. This is a problem for more than the obvious reasons. Many eople that played D&D and later AD&D when I got into it were people that made less than 100 bucks a week – Kids in school. Best they could do was a DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide), Players Handbook and a Monster Manual. Once all of that was purchased (often over the course of a couple weeks or between friends) the players were tapped out for cash. The first challenge my game faced was not IF we would be playing on saturday night but rather WHAT we would play. Now freedom of choice is not what I wish to tear down, but if we look at the model for the people that purchased the game in the first place we see that they did not have much money. Now the players are faced with buying literature for yet another game and if you have 4 or 5 people playing soon you will see yet another person requesting to play yet another game requireing everyone to buy yet another book or books.
    Now we move to compelling content. This one is one of the places that I (BIG BOAST – believe it or don’t – yer choice) shone in my games. I write stories about a world and I incorporate the players into those threads. That said they have the right and are encouraged to go anywhere that they like within the world. I have actually played games where if you wandered out of the area that they wanted you to be in then you and your party became lost and wandered about till you passed out and then woke up back in your room at the inn. Modules are great but when they dictate the direction of the party regardless of their desire then you as a DM are nolonger refereeing the game rather you are play testing a product. In the real world, in which we exist, God does not force you to drive around in the town you were born in. If you like you can fill your tank and drive to the airport, board a plane and fly wherever you like. Or you could stay in your car and drive wherever you might. In the game melieu my parties love my game because at whatever level they are they can go anywhere that they like and TRY anything they wish. Now if they try to kill a Dragon at level 5 then they may soon be dead, but like the greatest DM I let my peoople choose their own destiny. Try to find that in any game system without spending a fortune on sourcebooks. OK – admittedly that was a blast on my own horn, but I want everyone that sees this to realize that people are looking for the exciting and not for a simple module. If you take time to build a challenging and interesting melieu then they will play in it. More often than not in order to get to the point that I mention it takes far too many books at far more than the people playing the game have to spend.
    The point of Economic pitfalls has been made, to some degree, in the aforementioned point in that people do not make enough money to play if they have to buy 6 or 8 books at $35 a piece. And what the *%^&@# is this online monthly charge for supporting a product that you should have included more content on in the first place? I won’t waste anyone’s time by naming the offender of that one. Finally the economy itself is such that times being what they are people are not spending as much on entertainment and when they do it will certainly be scrutinized before they do.
    Lastly mass marketing vehicles. This is where I feel that all of the game systems out there are missing the boat. YES – have a web site that you charge monthly for or a one time fee of some such for the books and a pittence to connect to the site for support (less than 5 bucks) then when pwople come to the site they can use it to as a knowledge base AND they can feel like they have made an equitable exchange in that we give them two or three times more content than the book that they bought. Online monthly magazines. Comments like those one finds upon this very blog. Forums where they can get questions answered by grizzled old gamers like me. New mods and changes to the game. In the end they come back weekly if not daily to see what new thing has been posted to the site hoping to include it in their own melieu. Or mayhap get that question answered that has plagued the party for weeks – How many gold coins will fit into a portable hole?.

    Bottom line In the ’70s we did not play this game because there was nothing on television or there were no movies or anything better to do. We did it because it was compelling and interesting and the stories drove us forward as we sought to correct the woes of a world at the periphery of our inquisitive minds. This issue can be resolved and we can find an even greater base than we had then, but it will not be accomplished with the model that currently persists in todays RPG market.

  7. Saracenus

    July 21st, 2009

    Wow, this meme gets around. It blew up on ENWorld where there were separate threads for each of Mishler’s laughably whinny rants. They got combined into a single super thread.

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/259335-another-rpg-industry-doomsday-article-merged-all-3-mishler-rant-threads.html

    Frankly, his blame everyone but himself (it’s the economy, paizo pricing, those young whippersnappers, etc) ranting was plain stupid and reflects poorly on his business skills.

    Here is the blog post of someone that sees the youngins as the future of the hobby:

    The Inevitable Future of Tabletop Gaming
    http://www.squaremans.com/?p=105

    D&D: The Lost Art of Adventure Writing & The Death of the Hobby
    http://www.squaremans.com/?p=93

    ~~Saracenus
    AKA Bryan Blumklotz

  8. Andrew Franke

    July 27th, 2009

    I read the inevitable future post. I have read ones just like it since the PC and Apple came out.
    Tapletop Roleplaying and the adventure game industry are not dying. Attendance figures at conventions have gone up not down or they at worst have leveled off.World wide sales of games is on a huge upswing in relation to the economy.

    What people do not seem to grasp is that a computer game is not a substitute for a tabletop game. They are by nature very very different. Let’s take board war gaming as an example. Computers put a HUGE dent into board war games. They didn’t kill them, however they did change the way people marketed and developed them. SPI put out hundreds of games that all looked alike. They all had a similar hex map and counters. Hex map games still exist but the best games are the ones that find new ways to engage people.

    Most people reading this are too young to remember the invention of the video tape. Back then Hollywood was having convulsions over Video. They were convinced it would kill the movies. No one would go to the theater anymore.
    Erm, Gee that didn’t happen at all. IF anything Video tapes made movies grow and gave smaller budget movies a larger audience.
    FPS, MMO’s,etc. compete for our free hobby time against the Table top RPG. That is a fact. They do not however replace the social interaction and storytelling elements that are the core to my Saturday night RPG game which is comprised of players from 16-60. Each person in my group plays MMO’s and computer games. But once a week we choose to get together and use our imagination.

    Humans will always try to find ways to express their imagination. Traditional Role Playing Games will continue to be a part of that expression.

    The END IS NEAR has been repeated by every generation of Miniature, Board, and Role playing gamers. It never happens.Why? Because those same people are working desperately to attract younger players as they are crying they are the last generation. They aren’t, and to ensure that we must continue to inform and market the Saturday night adventure game to younger audiences. They will find the same reasons we do to continue the tradition.

  9. Capt_Poco

    July 29th, 2009

    The problem is, of course, that the RPG “industry” has no right to exist in the first place. D&D is supposed to be a game that you make your own, not one that you depend on other people to develop cool ideas for. Plus, most people are willing to share their cool ideas, like settings or house rules, for free. The fact that there is an industry at all is due to three factors:

    a) WoTC made sure that they rigorously playtested and balanced everything, creating a product that is impossible for a regular DM to imitate or duplicate. If you want your encounters balanced and your rules streamlined, WoTC is the only game in town.

    b) People are really lazy, and would prefer to read someone else’s ideas about roleplaying rather than actually be a little creative. This is a big niche, but not that big: D&D players presumably get into the hobby to be creative after all. This factor is responsible for all those 1,000 copies that are sold.

    c) Some people just like reading fantasy stories in an adventure game format. They care little for rules and only buy sourcebooks because they are fun to read, plain and simple. This is the niche that Steve Jackson Games exploits.

  10. D&D Monday morning speedlinking – Dungeon Mastering – D&D blog, DM tips, Dungeons and Dragons Tools

    March 26th, 2010

    [...] Jonathan Drain has a summarized a few webosphere conversations into an article titled Are Tabletop RPGs doomed? [...]

  11. Challenger RPG

    September 23rd, 2012

    Hurfl: Lol, well said. :)

    I think they’re running in to some problems with an aging demographic and engaging the new generation. However, I don’t think they’re really ‘doomed’. If they are, I’ll probably still be gaming for a while yet, anyway.

    –David

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