It’s been a while. I’ve been working, laughing, drinking, gaming, and soaking up the fickle Seattle sun whenever I can. Our summer has been as bleak as a Russian novel, so sun and fun trumps commentary.
Despite vitamin D deficiency, I intended to write a rip-roaring call to adventure to tell the RPG fanatic that everything is good and awesome here in the summer of 2011. There are exciting games on the horizon. I felt that I should do this after the tremendous kick in the nuts delivered by Rob Schwalb earlier this week. That guy is an asshole, right? Telling the truth like that. I wanted to balance out Rob dystopian worldview with a whimsy, sometimes obscene, and irreverent romp into RPG goodness. But I can’t do that. We live in strange times, die chuckers. Unless you live under a rock, or just don’t give a fuck anymore, you know that Bill Slavicsek has left Wizards.
It’s just not him. It’s other folks as well. Folks I worked with. Folks I like. Folks who have to go in the world to find a job, and their most practiced skill is knowing Dungeons & Dragons really well. Not too many people outside our little geekish club really give a shit about that. In fact, to most it’s seen as a possible security risk.
I’m not kidding.
Just to recap, if it wasn’t bad enough that getting into the RPG industry was as hard as Rob describes, you also have the joy of knowing that one day, no matter what, you too will be laid off, and set adrift on the wild winds with some of the most arcane job skills around. Think about it. Who do you know in the gaming industry who has served their time and retired with a gold watch? In fact, the stories are nearly always sad falls into a strange purgatory until the eulogy. I tell my students this. I’ll tell you this. If you work in games, expect to get laid off. What do you do after? Whatever you can. I think I’ll just start robbing banks.
So other than the fact that RPG R&D in the largest RPG company is smaller than it has ever been, what does this mean for our strange little hobby? I have no firm information. I’ve described before the strange dance I play with my friends at Wizards (and yes, there are still a few who still have jobs). We can’t talk; it’s all a strange and sad game of cloak and daggers. We can share a drink, nod, talk about home lives, and play boardgames. Flirt around issues, laugh, and do it again until the night turns awkward, and then you shamble your way on home. It’s a bit like that strange encounter in the kitchen after a one-night stand. Despite my lack of information and that I’m no clairvoyant, I do love me some conjecture. So here is what I think is going to happen. It’s a bit crazy, and likely wrong, but bear with me.
Here’s a fun fact: there will be a new edition of the game. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. Those of you who count .5’s and Essentials as editions (and I’m not saying you are wrong), or you hate the fact that game companies are “making” you buy product, you are probably tapping your feet right and asking how often are we going to get a new edition of the game? The answer? As often as you will buy one.
Here is the simple economics of RPGs. Your early books, especially core books, sell more than your later books. There are rare exceptions, but the fact is more people buy your core game than regularly play your game. Only invested players buy secondary titles, because they are…well…invested. But that’s only a percentage of that first book money. This is also the reason you get a ton of supplements. It’s a good scattershot approach for earning more capital between editions.
Who drops off from that initial purchase? Some books molder in footlockers or moving boxes for years or make their way to used book stores. Many core book buyers are well-meaning enthusiasts who have too much time on their hands. Then there are the folks that thought you fucked this up, or got that wrong—sometimes they’ll come and spit rambling vitriol on the boards and are seen never again. Sometimes they bring up valid points but it’s too late. More often than not, though, it’s gamers like you and me, who already have a favorite system. We may buy a new game, play it once, and then go back to well-worn and well-loved favorites. Don’t believe me? How many first releases of game systems do you have? How many do you play? Just run the numbers.
It’s the cruel trap. This is true about games that are failures, flash-in-the-pans, and even workhorses like D&D and Pathfinder. Even if your game has longevity, your core books continue to be your top sellers purely by momentum and their own intrinsic necessity. Every new release pales in comparison, and the problem compounds. And when the core book well goes dry or can’t support the overhead, you line folks up against the wall, and start digging for a new well. Not one or the other—you do both.
Why do game companies get away with it? We’re junkies for the beginning. We remember painfully, viscerally, joyfully, our first everything—our first love, our first fuck, our first comic, our first game. Geek, by definition, is the prolonging of that initial joy beyond its normal duration. But even the invested fan-boys will consent to a fling with a new edition, hoping that she’ll do dirty things the old one was squeamish or awkward about.
But get ready for the crazy. I think the last thing Wizards wants to do is create a 5th edition of the game. Or at least call it that. It’s too soon. My guess is they’re having branding conversations akin to the creation of Windows 95 or Vista. Don’t give it a number. That sounds too impersonal, something that has blown past you, something you weren’t involved in on the ground floor. Let’s give it something old and new, and just a little blue. Something that makes you feel special. Something that makes you feel smart. Something advanced.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It clings to nerd wannabes like cheap cologne, and smells like Nostalgia (TM) to the old guard. I know, I’ve said this before, but I think I’m going to stick with it. I think that the lesson of 4e is that the folks who like to play D&D like that shit complicated and techy. Maybe only game designers believe in the El Dorado of elegant systems. Everyone else wants something with a matrix so complicated that just the knowledge of it makes them feel powerful, not to mention they’ll always be able to find one or two “mistakes” to cling to and feel clever.
WotC is purging people. They are letting their back catalogue drain out of the channel. New product is few and far between and written primarily by freelancers. The staff is making a point of asking a lot of question from the fanbase and posting on Twitter and Facebook that they are playing older editions of the game. They’ll make an announcement at Gen Con. If they are feeling particularly ballsy, they’ll do it at PAX.
And that’s when the fun begins.