Tuesday, February 3, 2015

State of the RPG-verse

The never-ending death of the RPG Industry Continues
Appendix N had an interesting discussion on exactly what, precisely, WotC's goal seems to be with D&D 5E. Personally I'd be happy with 1 rulebook or module release a month. 1 new rule book, 1 new monster manual and 10 modules a year would be all I could ask for, but I wouldn't ask for more than that, simply because it seems like the market can't support it (whether Paizo is an anomaly or some other factor is at play...which I think is the case.... remains to be seen).

That, of course, is not what's going on at all. We're going to be lucky, one might posit, if we have the Elemental Evil book in April, another adventure path in August and possibly --maybe!-- something by December. The new WotC publishing strategy seems to be one of austerity, and frankly I think they've gone way too far in the opposite direction from the era of "a new rulebook a month."

It seems like this isn't a strategy necessarily exclusive to WotC, either. Other publishers of note appear to have more or less given up, moving to a sort of "safety maintenance" model of publishing whereby their product continues to exist in some format which keeps a stream of modest sales rolling in from the regulars, but which is in no way, shape or form designed to grow the crowd. Others seem to have taken a different path, though. Let's analyze a few....

Steve Jackson Games--they are making their money on Munchkin, just like WotC makes its money on Magic. GURPS exists as a footnote to this, producing occasional PDFs and maybe once every few years a print release if they see reason to do so....but print is very much "dead" or at least off the table to SJG as Kromm has indicated on their forums over there. As it stands, SJG's print sales, which have traditionally been quite open, suggest a market for GURPS dominated by a tight community that ultimately is not growing.

My theory: they can't be bothered. The effort to make GURPS popular again is too much for Kromm and co. to want to deal with, or be able to afford, and Munchkin is too easy. GURPS is recognizably niche, and the feeling over there is that no amount of effort will make it a popular system in an era when reading past the first paragraph in a blog post is something less than 1% of the clicks bother to do (heh).

Hero Games--Hero Games moved to a primarily online direct to consumer sort of system a few years back, and has also worked to leverage Kickstarters to get some more accessible versions of the Hero System out in the market. That said, it's a shadow of its former self, but at least they keep their core line of books out there in PoD format. If you judge the health of a game by how easy it is to get print copies, Hero System is looking like the survivor over GURPS these days.....although if you want to consider fresh PDF content GURPS might win by a hair.

Evil Hat--I think Evil Hat's motto is "better to give for free and beg for some recognition in coin than to be robbed blind and see nothing anyway." They put many books on PWYW which is great, and then they sell their print tomes at what feels to me like charitable donation...as if the Evil Hats are concerned enough that I don't have a copy of FATE or Spirit of the Century that they drop the price 50% just to make sure we can all get one. I think they're on to something....maybe.....is the younger gamer generation one which basically despises being told to pay for product, but will happily shovel coin at someone when begged from? No idea. I'm buying all Evil Hat's books in print though, that's for sure.

Onyx Path Publishing--Who?!?! you might ask if you are not into rpgnow or White Wolf. Heck, even if you are in to White Wolf if you don't keep up online you might be surprised to know that the erstwhile publisher of the Storyteller System, which more or less did not survive its buy-out by CCP, the Icelandic publisher of Eve Online, in it's failed attempt to leverage the World of Darkness into an MMORPG. For a time it looked very bleak. All of a sudden, an enthusiastic group of former WW auteurs and designers surfaced to produce Onyx Path, and suddenly the game is alive again....so long as you know they exist on rpgnow in PDF and PoD format. Forget trying to get them in your FLGS. They're not quite the sadsack story that some of the prior examples are....Onyx is cooking up a lot of stuff, and the World of Darkness universes are both very much alive and getting some very high quality product as a result, with a format sure to please the young hipster with his tablet and the old grognard with his crusty tomes.

I love that example because it really doesn't fit my own anecdote: my buddy Wes locally is as hipster as it can get and he despises electronic media; meanwhile I love tablet readers and relish the day someone can produce a PDF viewer that functions properly.

Paizo: so here's my theory, backed by various stuff I've read but can't be bothered to source right now: the Paizo adventure books and such....pretty much all the "magazine format" adventures....are sold and marketed like one-off recyclables that happen to be undated, unlike magazines, giving them longer shelf lives. They probably sell a lot less than they produce (judging by the veritable tide of product littering local Hastings stores this certainly seems true) but the retailer cost must be fairly low. I am guessing Paizo doesn't have an unfavorable return policy on this stuff, or they'd be getting lots of returned product all the time, but I could be wrong. However, I think Paizo realizes that the prices of success is the perception of affluence. Lots of product means high visibility, and high visibility in the RPG market means people see your game think, "Hey, look at all this stuff. It's well supported and all over the place...it must be popular. Gimme!" I'm not talking about the usual D20 gamer who has a chip on his shoulder over some D&D edition going to Pathfinder...I'm talking people who just now went to go buy an RPG for the first time. They can try to make heads and tails over the mincemeat that is D&D's five coterminous editions for sale right now, or they can get Pathfinder, which has tons of module support for people who don't know how to write that stuff.

Good strategy, and its nice to see WotC believes in Paizo so much they are helping them along.

I'm not going to mention Green Ronin, because they have their act together and only the hassle of working with lots of licensed IP holds them back from a more robust release schedule.

There is also Mongoose Publishing, which as best I can tell tried to move toward a more PDF-focused, austerity driven model beginning in late 2013, with a focus on minis, and here we are in 2015 and they are very happy to get back to having print products available and while they design minis it looks like they prefer to let someone else take the hit of manufacturing and marketing. But a significant chunk of what Mongoose publishes boils down to three niche titles with a heavy fanbase that likes print product: the BRP-based Legend, Traveller, and Paranoia. Duh!

I'll briefly mention Pelgrane Press, which is also doing well, cutting edge, and producing products people want NOW. Pelgrane is definitely like Evil Hat: it's aware of the current market, and its aimed squarely at the needs of current consumers.

There's Pinnacle/Take 2. They are purely awesome, and like Green Ronin not much more need be said....they seem to have this all down just fine. Likewise for Cubicle 7, known more for getting products out and in retail that would never otherwise make it. Throw enough tomatoes and some will be bound to stick.

Who else is there? Well, there is one venerable publisher that seems to be doing something WotC might be trying for....

Chaosium: Chaosium runs to its own beat, and is doing its own game. It's niche, but it has a corner on the "BRP/Cthulhu" crowd pretty much, with lots of other niche publishers muscling in....but guess what, good news! The people inclined to buy Chaosium products tend to buy all the products from all the publishers in this corner. I don't think it's hurt Chaosium, and their modest pace over the years has become something of a steady stream of periodic releases that the fans love. It helps that they provide a modest but steady stream of print support for a universal system as well in a time when the other big two competitors (Hero and GURPS) are on maintenance mode, and the closest real competition now isn't really playing in the same field (Savage Worlds and FATE Core). Chaosium's only real competition is Pelgrane press.....and to be honest, there's not a lot of real overlap; people either love the Gumshoe engine or they don't, so much like FATE its not really the same thing.

Chaosium has, in essence, found a golden middle ground between fan satisfaction, the anticipation of new product, and ability to churn said product out. Maybe WotC is looking at doing something like Chaosium? Is it possible we could all be enjoying D&D 5E in five years, having only seen 10 or so new major products in that time?


  1. I like your article. Well thought off... However, I think some suit at Hasbro will clamor for a new edition in 3yrs to "drum up sales..." Nothing to do with the industry or need of the community.For that reason alone, I seriously doubt we'll be playing 5e in 5 years' time...

    1. I'm inclined to agree....if D&D doesn't demonstrate enough profitability, expect a "5.5" revival around 2018-2019.....

    2. I suppose everyone has their own views on this topic and its nice to see a nicely written article about it. Its been my thought that Hasbro has been tightening the leash rather then loosening. They see a competitor (Pathfinder) noted as the better version of D&D 3.5 and see 4e buried in this instance. I also thought they cut the D&D writing team in half as well and if 5e doesn't do well I expect they would assess the idea of closing the doors on D&D for any major books and releases any way.

  2. Fascinating and insightful article--and not the usual opinions I'm used to seeing on the "health of the industry".

  3. I think Cubicle 7 are fairly similar to Chaosium in that they can expect a product for The One Ring to sell to all TOR fans, and there's not a huge number of products for any one line. Where they differ of course is in the large number of different lines they're supporting - TOR, Doctor Who, etc - compared to the smaller number Chaosium currently run. As an older gamer, I remember Runequest and CoC and other Chaosium games, and I'm pretty pleased that the assault on my wallet is reduced and I get to anticipate product that will actually appear, if not always as soon as expected. With C7, I find something similar.

    And then there's FFG. If the amount of shelf space their products take up at my FLGS is anything to judge by, they quite possibly produce more page-count than Paizo. Spread over several lines, and with licenced products that don't allow an OGL, so probably not quite as obvious as Paizo, but still carrying on with print product.

    1. I complete forgot about FFG, but I do agree.....they seem huge. On Cubicle 7, I thought they were just a middle-man publisher for any design studio that contracts with them...is this not correct?

    2. I'm not exactly sure how they do it, but I think it's more that they ask freelancers to write particular books/lines for them rather than publishing things people have already written. Then there's people at C7 who work on those lines to assess them and ask for revisions, before they get to work on layout and publication.

  4. This post is really good! I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week Series for February 1-7, 2015.


    1. Thank you kindly sir! And I appreciate the additional listing on EnWorld...I'll have to explore this topic further in the future, or kick the 'ol brain into coming up with something new and insightful.