The OSR or Old School Renaissance (or perhaps better phrased Revival?) has really changed how many gamers play RPGs over the past decade or so. Coupled with the ease of publishing online, numerous new publishers and new authors have taken ideas of the earliest forms of role-playing games and re-invented them with fresh new designs.
The Tabletop RPG industry is in flux. Tectonic plates are moving. We've seen the announcement of D&D Next; we've been playtesting for months. Paizo is going strong with Pathfinder, while Wizards has scaled back 4e publishing to DDI content. Meanwhile, other games are springing up, fueled by the potential of kickstarter-driven funding and the volatility in the marketplace.
At the same time, we're hearing rumblings from unnamed big players that game products are not selling the way they used to.
There's a business/technology angle to the changes that we're seeing, and the games/companies that are well positioned to succeed may well be the ones that have the better online business model, rather than the better product.
At the moment, we're already seeing the development of the RPG as a service rather than a product. This is a much broader business trend, and we have started to see this movement in Tabletop RPGs.
Products vs Services
A wide variety of companies (outside gaming) are exploring the idea of providing a service rather than a product. In the TRPG realm, the flagship for this movement is DDI, WOTC's suite of online tools and content for Dungeons and Dragons. But you could argue that the way Paizo offers a subscription to many of it's product lines is another example of the same sort of service approach to gaming.
Outside the game creators, there are a wide variety of game services, by and large digital, that have a subscription/service model. Even your subscription to EN World (and you do have one, don't you?) is an example of an online service to which you subscribe. It grants you access to the EN World Adventure Path content along with tools to use for interaction here on the forums.
In a business where salaries are paid to full-time employees, it's attractive to have the dependable, recurring income that a subscription service provides. The challenge is trying to squeeze a given company's output into a subscription model.
Most of the other subscription services out there for TRPGs are not the games -- they're tools. The best examples are the variety of paid virtual table top services, but there are others. With so much game content available for free (through SRDs, etc) the services that help DMs and players may well be the future of doing business in the TRPG industry, but for any given market there's also a lot of competition.
Wizards appears to be in the catbird seat. Because of their broad resource base they're able to control both the game content and the online tools. DDI is not just Dragon and Dungeon -- it's also the compendium, the character builder, the monster builder. In most cases it's the latter -- the tools -- that are worth the price of subscription for players and DMs alike. Even in a month when the magazine content isn't amazing, many users keep their subscription for the sake of maintaining their characters, etc. We can expect that their new edition, once launched, will have much the same sort of suite of online tools to support it -- web-based compendium and character builder at the very least.
These tools also help WOTC control the flow of 3rd party publication -- if you want to use a 3rd party product, you can't use the character builder (without workarounds). That's enough pressure -- even without the more stringent license -- to keep many players from using 3rd party content for their characters.
The Next Step: Free to Play Tabletop RPGs?
The Computer Game markets are also exploding with change and MMOs specifically seem to be shifting pretty dramatically towards free-to-play. It's only natural that someone would take a long look at how to build an RPG around a free-to-play model. But what would that look like?
Keep in mind that for many players tabletop RPGs are already free-to-play. In our current culture, many players will not even own the rulebooks for the games they play, relying on the DM's copies. Others will own a book or two, but little else. For 3.5/Pathfinder players, the SRD means that it's possible to get the core rules for free.
But the free-to-play video game implementation is all about making it cheap/free and easy to start playing, then charge for additional features/content. It will be interesting to see an online character builder that was free to use, but you could only save characters by creating a paid account. Or, as WOTC did early on with the character builder, you can only make characters up to a certain level with a free account -- if you want to advance above 3rd level, you'll need to have a paid subscription. Or perhaps there would be a fee each time you level up a character in the "official" campaign.
Or there might be one-time add-on fees as there are in games like Guild Wars 2 -- fees to store and manage characters in an organized play campaign, granting them official access to the rewards they've earned, special items or powers, and to special events.
There's a variety of ideas -- some better than others -- and I'm not going to pretend that my ideas are the best or only options. But I will say that I believe that sometime in the future -- maybe not in 2013 but probably within the coming years -- big name tabletop RPGs will not be sold in book form -- not as a physical book, nor as a PDF. All game content could be delivered through a web interface, in a dynamic way, the way DDI delivers content now (but in a more comprehensive way, one that included more than just the crunch content that exists in the 4e compendium).
Big Guys Want To Stay Big
That transition -- away from books for RPGs and towards web services/applications that deliver RPG content -- are a natural avenue for the larger companies.
Today, a single individual with a good idea can write and publish a game. With services like Createspace, it's even possible to see them in print, available for sale on Amazon, etc. Publishing a game in book form no longer requires the resources of a big company.
What does a big company do to take advantage of their size and resources? If larger companies want to get back to a place where they are creating products that could only be produced by a company of their size, one of the clearest opportunities for that will be to get away from books and move into these online services.
Think about it; in 2012, I could have teamed up with my little brother (who can kinda draw) and produced an RPG in book form, sold it in a variety of venues, and taken a tiny bite out of WOTC's market share. With a horde kickstarter-funded bands of brothers out there, all taking small bites out of WOTC's big pie, it's only going to get more fractured and worse if they can't find a way to be different, better.
Providing a good online toolkit -- while it's getting somewhat cheaper and easier -- is still the province of the large companies with greater resources. This is especially true for the way these products are delivered best -- as web based services, rather than software downloads.
I think the market is ripe for a breakout product, the iPhone of tabletop gaming content and tools. We haven't seen it yet, and with the proliferation of niche tools like VTT solutions out there, all doing roughly the same thing in slightly different ways, a suite of products that unified and simplified the gaming experience for players and game masters could make a huge splash.
Is This Exciting or Terrifying?
I'm sure plenty of readers are spooked by the whole concept. Who would want an RPG that was delivered as anything other than a book?
If you're playing 4e and use DDI, you're already halfway there.
Remember, however you might answer that question, in many ways game publishers need to focus on creating new gamers. Over decades of gaming they've taught us to buy their beautiful, expensive game books, but will the customers of the future learn the same lessons?
So, what do YOU think? Will RPGs always be delivered to us in print products? Would you play an RPG that was delivered as a subscription or freemium service?
(image credit: future-retro by Radar Communication)
(Image credit: May 4_o2 by Ashed Dreams)