As I said on Monday, I do have the sickening feeling, that there may be too much supply and not enough demand for RPGs. But I don’t think that is the entire problem. I think most people and corporations actually believe that the RPG game industry is larger than it is, and that only serves to inflate the problem of perceived demand.
If you are reading this blog, it’s safe to say you fall within a very small but active demographic. You are passionate about RPGs. You are probably a gamemaster, or if not a GM, you’re an organizer for your group. You are not only interested in play RPGs, you are also interested in the business of RPGs. You may even harbor a desire to become an RPG designer (developer, editor, illustrator, cartographer, brand dude), or you are one already.
Now when I say small, I mean small in overall size. The funny thing is I think that group is large within the set of RPG enthusiast. Let me explain what I mean.
It’s actually challenging to figure out how many RPG players are out there. There are many claims, at least when it comes to D&D. According to a 2004 BBC News Online article released during the 30th anniversary marketing push and celebration of the game—and still is still touted as gospel in just about any Wiki entry you read on the subject—20 million people have played D&D since the game’s inception. It goes on to say that in that year Wizards of the Coast claimed that 3 million people played each month.
I remember being in a meeting at WotC that year when that number was bandied around. My response was a guffaw. I had good reason to believe the number was a fraction of that. I saw actual sales numbers and organized play number—real metrics of the ground war. Another article for the associated press by Peter Svensson claimed that 6 million people played D&D in 2007. I think that number is just outright bullshit, and even Scott Rouse (the brand manager at the time) admitted that those numbers come from a survey and might be inflated.
What do I think is closer to the truth? My best (dare I say educated) guess is that I think 250,000 people are active in 4e D&D each month in the United States. That number may be as high as 350,000 people. I also think that anywhere between 15 to 25% may be active users of the product. It’s important that I say expert users. That means that they play, read, or spend a good part of their down time daydreaming about 4e D&D. More importantly, I think expert users means least one of the following things regularly: buy almost everything that is released for the product, organize or participate in organized play events, or are extremely active on forums and discussion groups, attend Gen Con Indy. And for my more controversial statement, I think those numbers have not changed significantly between 2004 and 2010. Heck, I’m not sure they have changed that significantly since D&D hit it big in the 80s (see the Acaeum research on sales and print run estimates).
“What about Pathfinder and its effect on those numbers?” some of you might ask. I think they have had an effect, but it has been pretty minimal. I do think that the Pathfinder RPG gave a home to 3e players who didn’t want to move on to a new edition that seem strange and disconnected in their point of view (2e didn’t really have a home, but then D&D was in a major state of decline when 3e was released, that wasn’t true for the release of 4e). I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You should play the game you want to play. I think that Pathfinder did affect the numbers but so did the influx of new or disenfranchised people who like the new system. I think it was a wash or a small decrease that enabled Paizo to thrive, which is great. The RPG industry is all the better for having more successful companies. That was true in 2000. It’s true today. I think the success of the Pathfinder rules are not only a symptom of a segment of the audience that was not ready to change rules, the also the fact that hardcore D&D fans who play 4e are more likely to buy Pathfinder products than vice versa, and that Paizo has harnessed a lot of soft power in the RPG industry, just like White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast did before them. (See the Kobold Quarterly interview where Sean Reynolds where he outlines his thoughts on the matter.)
But everywhere you look game fans and even game companies try desperately to make their games appear larger than they actually are. Now I don’t mean that RPG companies shouldn’t try to grow their business. I’m all for growing the RPG business, what I mean is that they should be realistic about the actual size of their business.
RPGs never were and will probably never be a mass-culture phenomenon, even when they are the object of mass-culture hysteria or the butt of mass-culture jokes. It’s played by a small tribe that is nerdier than the nerdsons. Often that tribe is at each other’s throats. But game fans and game companies keep trying to act like RPGs are big business. They are not. They don’t have to do some of the stupid upon-high garbage that makes big business seem so cold and disconnected. At the same time RPG fans don’t have to take every business decision as a personal assault on their likes and dislikes. It’s a fucking game not an affront. But then when you have such a high percentage of active users, that’s when the internet echo chamber becomes even louder.
Because our hobby is relatively small and filled with loud-mouth know-it-alls (I’m one, I admit it) we often amplify our drama with hyperbole and asshattery. What we don’t realize we are doing is driving away fans who just want to enjoy a hobby. And that is the biggest problem the RPG industry faces right now.
But I’ll get to that on Friday.