We all know the image: Rorschach and his sandwich board, a copy of the New Frontiersman under his arm. Pretty soon the big crazy octopus brain will come and eat the game industry. I’m talking about Gareth-Macheal Skarka’s blog post Tabletopocalypse Now over at The Designer Monologues.
I swear I hear this at least every five or so years.
If you’ve kept up with my ramblings here, you will probably suspect that I am not entirely unsympathetic to the view-point presented by Mr. Skarka (I’ll call him Mr. because I don’t know him and sometimes I like to pretend that I’m polite). He makes some interesting and astute observations about the possibility of Hasbro regaining the digital rights to D&D and the future of the brand. If they get it back, is there a possibility that D&D will go the way of the World of Darkness? The potential of further profit is the wind to the sails of corporate America.
Don’t get me wrong; while I am a very left leaning fellow, I don’t think the pursuit of profit is bad. I know that games change, progress, and maybe one day D&D will be something played on the computer. But I also think that’s a shame. MMORPGs are the fast food franchises of the RPG world—quick, fattening, and cheap but lacking in nutrition and soul. Hey I eat McDonalds sometimes, but I’m not kidding myself to the quality.
The difference between my viewpoint and Mr. Skarka’s is that I don’t think tabletop RPGs are dying; I just don’t think they were that big to begin with. Sure there have been times when they seemed large. In the 80s and in 2000-2002 when many new players came in to sample the system after a large and successful launch, but for the most part I think that RPGs have been successful and steady for a number of years alongside a number of very powerful competitors. Computer games are nothing new, and D&D has had to contend with the competition of other similarly themed games that initially targeted the D&D audience—Vampire, Warhammer 40K, Magic: The Gathering, and MageKnight all spring to mind.
And D&D survived even as some of those games outgrew the audience they were initially trying to woo.
Even with a ton of games free and online, Magic is having a stellar year, Games Workshop is kicking ass, and my friends over at Paizo say they are happy campers when it comes to the success of Pathfinder. Now MageKnight is coming back?! Hell, I think if Hasbro decided to leave the table-top market, all of these brands (especially Pathfinder) would W00t, or Hazzah, or do whatever the geek kids are doing these days. They know that there is a strong and healthy market for tabletop.
In contrast to Mr. Skarka’s anecdotal there are more game stores in the Seattle area than there have been for years. We have a bunch of Games Workshop stores, two chains of game stores, and a healthy handful of scrappy independents. One, in particular, Gamma Ray Games caters to a young /punky/hipster crowd while still being accessible and friendly. And this is still an area where I see a store closing nearly every week due to the downturned economy.
How do they do it? Often they have a strong and fun vision and/or they listen to their customers. Now critics of Games Workshop say that company treats its customers like addicts, but in the age of Farmville, they look like the scrappy underdog…and they are. Games Workshop at least knows that their customers absolutely do want editions at least every five or so years. They also know that their customers often prefer a few small changes to dramatic overhaul except for in dire circumstance (like the end of 2e) but you should theoretically never get to that point.
Why five years of so? It’s almost generational. I think just about every kid in America has a chance to interact with a geek brand two or three when they are in junior high school or high school. Let’s say by the time they are 13 or 14. Five years later, they are going to college or entering the workforce for the first time. They get busy, childish things go away (though they may keep up with it by buying product or checking out message boards). Five or ten years later, life settles down. A new reset may be just the thing that gets them into it again. It’s fun after all, and you’re an adult now, you can do whatever you want.
My anecdotals tell me that in the tabletop sphere geek kids are playing Warhammer 40K and Magic. At the same point in time that they are hitting high school their moms and dads (or crazy aunts or uncles) are telling them 4e sucks, play Pathfinder. At the same time, folks who started with 2e seem to find 4e to their liking. But 2e never had a bloat. It didn’t launch an industry, revitalizes a brand, or live in the fat times of Pokémon that created a distributor-hungry d20 System License monster.
Bad game stores or those crushed under some freak event (which happens a lot to game-store start-ups, at least that’s how the store owners tell it) go away. New ones pop up. Game companies that embrace internet delivery, taking the necessary blind eye to piracy, and realize that participation in the hobby means letting them develop digital tools. Worse comes to worse, you can buy them instead of cobbling together your own digital tools from scrap.
In short, I don’t think that the tabletop industry is dying. I don’t even think that the market share has been shifted. I think we just aren’t looking at the whole picture.
The end is fie.