4 Hours w/ RSD - Escapist Bonus Column
    • 4 Hours w/ RSD - Escapist Bonus Column

      As many of you know, the Escapist has recently run a 3-part series on the past, current and future of Dungeons & Dragons. The ENWorld coverage begins here.

      I contributed some insights to that column and wanted to take this opportunity to expand and clarify some of my thoughts on this topic.

      Who Is This Guy Anyway?

      I [Ryan Dancey] have been involved on the business side of hobby game publishing since 1993, when I operated one of the first on-line/mail order hobby game stores, RPG International. It was through my work at RPG International that I met the team at Alderac Entertainment Group with whom I co-created the Legend of the Five Rings intellectual property, eventually spinning it out into a stand-alone company called Five Rings Publishing Group which was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as a part of the process whereby Wizards also acquired TSR. I was at Wizards, working as a brand manager on trading card games and eventually leading the brand and business unit for Dungeons & Dragons until early in 2001 when I left to found a startup providing organized play services to 3rd party game companies, wound that down in 2003 and worked as a consultant until 2007 when I became the Chief Marketing Officer of CCP. Currently I’m the CEO of Goblinworks, a startup company developing a next-generation fantasy MMO.

      I give that background (again for those of you who read the first column in this series; sorry for the repetition) just to establish the fact that I’ve been watching this industry closely for a very long time and feel I’ve got some insights worth sharing.

      The Tabletop Roleplaying Game Hobby Is Contracting

      Let me begin with a few simple statistics.

      In 1995, when I was writing the business plan for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, I assumed, based on the conventional wisdom at the time, that there were approximately 5,000 full line hobby gaming stores in the North American market. After arriving at Wizards of the Coast in 1997, I was surprised to discover that Wizards had been able to identify (after extensive work) only about 2,500 stores. In addition, there were about 2,500-3,000 mass-market book stores that sold some hobby gaming products; mostly TRPGs, and mostly just D&D.

      Today, the best data I have been able to assemble leads me to believe that there are less than 1,000 full line hobby gaming stores left, and there may be as few as 500.

      Of those mass-market bookstores, B. Dalton is gone. Waldenbooks is gone. Borders is going. Barnes & Nobel is not healthy. Today, there are only about 1,000 mass-market bookstores left (717 are Barnes & Nobel stores). That is meaningful because historically 50% of the D&D business was sold via mass-market bookstores and the loss of those stores has directly impacted D&D (and other TRPGs) significantly.

      In 1994, when I attended my first GenCon, the list of exhibitors at the show included many companies that earned most (or all) of their income from selling tabletop RPGs, and who employed one or more full time TRPG designer/developers: Atlas Games, Chaosium, Dream Pod Nine, FASA, Game Designers Workshop, Heartbreaker, Hero Games, Iron Crown Enterprises, Mayfair, Palladium, R. Talsorian, Steve Jackson Games, TSR, West End Games, White Wolf, and I’m sure there’s others I’ve regretfully omitted.

      In addition to those companies there was another constellation of small publishers consisting of one or two people trying to make a start in the business, working part time as TRPG designer/publishers, and buzzing around all these companies were dozens (maybe as many as a hundred) freelancers who made all or a significant part of their incomes from TRPG design work.

      It’s notable that many in the industry saw the period from 1994-1999 as being fairly bad for TRPGs. The twin rise of collectible card games and the Games Workshop hobby appeared to be draining the TRPG segment of designers and of revenue. The most obvious sign of this problem was the failure of TSR’s business, leading to its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.

      I would argue that the segment actually brought on most of its woes by simply producing too much product. The proliferation of games, game worlds, and “house systems” so fragmented the market that despite indications that overall revenue remained fairly constant for TRPGs as a segment, the income earned per product and per company became so sub-divided that many (both products & companies) became unprofitable.

      A second major factor at work was the consolidation of the distribution tier. When I was selling Legend of the Five Rings in 1996, we had an initial list of North American distributors of about 50. By the end of the decade, that list had shrunk to about a dozen. In fact, virtually every distributor in the market was either sold or closed between 1990 and 1999 – the people who had created the distribution network for TRPGs cashed out to the people who rebuilt it for the CCG business.

      This consolidation had an unexpected effect on the TRPG publishers. Every distributor prior to the late 1990s had engaged in a practice whereby they ordered product from TRPG publishers in bulk, and held the inventory in their warehouses to fulfill retailer orders as needed. The standard industry terms were for the distributors to pay the publishers 30 days after receipt of the products. This created cashflow that sustained the publishers – they did not have to wait for every book they printed to sell, they could get the money immediately and transfer the risk of slow sales to the distribution tier. And in addition, every distributor tended to order about 10% more than they could realistically sell, as a hedge against as surprise hit. When the distribution tier consolidated, the publishers suddenly lost tremendous volume in terms of sales and cash. That 10%, multiplied by 50 distributors, was a lot of books. And the distributors that were left were run with much tighter financial policies, leading many to cease pre-paying for inventory and instead asking to hold it “on consignment” – that is, they wanted to pay for the product as they sold it, transferring the risk back to the publishers.

      When I took control of the brand & business unit for TRPGs at Wizards of the Coast at the end of 1997, I asked Lisa Stevens to do a market research project to figure out what had really happened in the history of the industry and how we had (collectively) gotten ourselves into the deep hole we found ourselves in.

      There were two basic answers revealed by her research.

      The first was that the products the industry was producing had become too costly. The boxed set, in particular, was a huge problem. The cost of a boxed set vs. a hardcover book was often a multiple, rather than a percentage. The cost of a hardcover vs. a softcover book was also substantial. In fact, we found several high profile D&D products that were costing the company more to make than the suggested retail price of those products! This issue was endemic throughout the industry, since many publishers assumed they had to “keep up” with TSR in order to be competitive. But TSR wasn’t acting rationally, and had set its suggested retail prices based on its opinion of what the market would pay, not based on what they needed to charge in order to make a profit on the things they were publishing.

      In this field, we often use a shorthand pricing system called the “Rule of 5”. Under this rule, you determine the suggested price of a product by multiplying the cost of the product by 5. Factoring in the 3-tier distribution system the industry uses, the result is that the final suggested retail price produces the following divisions:

      • 20%: Cost of Goods (the cost of the production of the product, plus the wages paid to people who worked on it and any licenses or royalties)
      • 20%: Gross Profit (that is, profit before subtracting all operational costs like salaries, marketing, rent, etc.) to the Publisher
      • 20%: Distributor Margin (the gross profit the Distributor earns)
      • 40%: Retailer Margin (the gross profit the Retailer earns)

      This means that every $1 of cost increases the suggested retail price by $5. Some of the things TSR was doing were adding $10 to the cost of its products – which should have added $50 to the suggested retail prices – easily pushing many of those products into the $100 range. Instead, TSR was just losing money every time it sold one of these products. And the people who made those products never knew, because TSR’s dysfunctional management system hid that information from them. It was not until they got to Wizards of the Coast and had a chance to see the “real numbers” that they realized what had been happening.

      The second issue that Lisa’s data revealed led us to our conceptual breakthrough about the business of TRPGs that shaped every decision we made when bringing the 3rd Edition of D&D to the market.

      We realized that TRPGs fall into a special class of products & services that generate network effects. In our case, the effect that had the most impact was the concept of the network externality. For TRPGs, the “true value” of the product is not in the book/box that you buy. It is in the network of social connections that you share which enable you to play the game. Without that social network, the game’s value is massively reduced (it becomes literature, and there’s a small market for people who like to just read and never play TRPG content).

      We began to view the market not as a series of product pyramids (a core book at the top, and an ever-broadening base of support materials produced over time), but instead as a series of human webs that overlapped and interconnected. Where those webs were strong, the products flourished. Where they were weak, the products failed. The limiting factor to the growth and strength of the TRPG market was not retail stores or shelf space, it was human brains within which these games could interconnect.

      The more segmented those brains became, the weaker the overall social network was. Every new game system, and every new variant to those systems, subdivided that network further, making it weaker. Between 1993 and 1999, the social network of the TRPG players had become seriously frayed. Even if you just looked at the network of Dungeons & Dragons players you could see this effect: People self-segmented into groups playing Basic D&D, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and within 2nd Edition into various Campaign Settings that had become their own game variants. The effect on the market was that it became increasingly hard to make and sell something that had enough players in common that it would earn back its costs of development and production.

      We looked around the industry and saw the same problem at virtually every company that had become successful: White Wolf had 5 World of Darkness games which were all slightly different, surrounded by a more diffuse constellation of games somewhat related to the Storyteller system but designed to be mutually incompatible. FASA had 4 games, none of which shared anything in common. Palladium & Steve Jackson Games both had “house systems” that they tried to use across their entire product lines, but they had ended up with the “Campaign Setting” issue that was bedeviling TSR; the variant rules at the edges of their games were creating independent game networks despite the shared DNA of the core. And we knew that inside every one of those companies they were seeing the same financial information we were seeing: Each new release was selling fewer and fewer copies, and in response, the companies were increasing the pace of releases trying to sustain planned revenues by volume of titles, not by volume of units. And it was killing everyone.

      Our analysis lead us to the conclusion that in order to escape this trap, D&D at least had to try and unify its player community around one set of universally acceptable rules. And we had to cut back drastically on the number of different books we were publishing to focus spending on individual titles to drive up profitability. It was literally better to sell 7 copies of one book vs. 5 copies of two different books due to the economies of scale involved.

      We hooked that train up to the engine of the Open Gaming License to help spur consolidation of game systems towards a common core, and to enable publishers who wanted to just make a great world or a cool sourcebook to do so without having to first make their own homebrew RPG (and thus fragment the market), and watched the resulting highly entertaining explosion in creativity and revenues in the market starting in 2000.

      If you take that list of companies that were active at GenCon in 1994, you have to add all sorts of new names by the time you get to the GenCons of 2001/2: Alderac Entertainment Group, Decipher, Eden Studios, Fantasy Flight Games, Goodman Games, Green Ronin, Guardians of Order, Holistic Design, Kenzer & Co, Malhavoc Press, Mongoose, Necromancer, Pagan Publishing, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and a host of others that I’m certainly omitting unintentionally. Of course many of these companies were active prior to the OGL/D20 era and many never published D20 products but they all benefited from the resurgence of D&D.

      Add to that a number of “indie” RPG companies that were supporting one or two full time designer/publishers like Ron Edwards, Luke Crane, and Vince Baker. The indy RPG segment was getting good advice and learning how to be financially viable via the exchanges on the Forge and other sites dedicated to small press publishing – work that continues to today and has helped create a large number of independently published small TRPGs exploring niches that larger mass-market TRPGs would never have attempted.

      Feeding all that activity was an even larger cadre of freelancers than had been in place in the 1990s – the D20 System enabled folks who would never otherwise have tried their hand at commercial design to get paid for their ideas, who joined the pre-existing ranks of freelance creative people working with the major publishers.

      Let’s set the high-water mark of the TRPG industry as GenCon 2003, where Wizards released the 3.5 edition of D&D. Shortly thereafter the dominoes started to fall: Incompatibilities between 3.0 and 3.5 meant that a lot of inventory on store shelves became “obsolete” in the minds of customers, resulting in a huge drop in sales and an effort by the retailers to clear that inventory at deep discounts. With the drop in sales came a drop in orders for new products – retailers got skittish about investing more money into a market that was causing them massive headaches.

      It’s possible that things could have found a natural bottom at this juncture, and that the market could have rebuilt itself on the 3.5 platform.

      Unfortunately, it was never going to get that chance.

      At the end of 2004, Blizzard released World of Warcraft. The MMO market which had been considered an interesting curiosity by the tabletop RPG market suddenly exploded. Whereas the previously most successful game (EverQuest) had attracted about 400,000 concurrent paying accounts at the height of its success, World of Warcraft exceeded a million players within 12 months. By the end of 2007, it had more than 5 million players in the US and Europe. An entire new market grew up around World of Warcraft as other companies rushed into the space, quickly creating offerings outside of the basic fantasy of Warcraft, including superheroes, science fiction, cyberpunk, and military history: the very foundations of the TRPG market.

      Worse (for the TRPG business) the MMOs also went after young children and engaged them in ways that TRPGs weren’t. Club Penguin, in particular, was so good at getting young kids into its game that Disney bought it for $700 million, and it was reported to have more than 30 million kids playing it.

      Almost overnight the TRPG industry suffered two quick body-blows. A large number of people within its network externality left their TRPG groups to focus on MMOs. And instead of receiving the benefits of an acquisition engine generating new players every year, young kids got diverted into MMOs at an age earlier than any suitable TRPG offering, likely establishing a play pattern they’ll keep through to adulthood.

      The effects on the TRPG market are now quite visible. At GenCon 2011, the number of companies that were paying full time salaries for TRPG game designer/developers was reduced to a short list: Alderac Entertainment, Kenzer & Co., Fantasy Flight Games, Margaret Weiss Productions, Mongoose, Palladium, Paizo, Steve Jackson Games, White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, and one or two smaller “indy” publishers. Missing from that list are many of the successful companies that were thriving in 1994 and 2001/2 – lost to the industry as well are the freelancer jobs that those companies used to sustain.

      Some of those companies continue to publish as secondary sources of income for their owners: Green Ronin and Pinnacle Entertainment Group are great examples of this phenomenon. But that seems to me to be a very precarious place to operate - the margin for error (or accident) is razor thin.

      And the contraction is continuing. Wizards of the Coast has laid off a number of designers, as has White Wolf. Hero Games announced that it is ceasing to operate with a full-time staff. Problems at Catalyst indicate that it may be a while before they’re able to sustain the TRPG businesses they inherited from FASA.

      So we see the causes: Rise of MMOs, collapse of retailing, and consolidation of distribution. And we see the effects – loss of jobs, shuttering of companies, and virtually no new startup publishers in the space with a mass audience.

      Where Does This End?

      My opinion is that the hobby gaming industry is going to transform into a very small niche business. It will cater primarily to an aging group of players who have made TRPGs their lifetime hobbies. As those players age, they’ll need less and less support in the form of commercially produced products. They will instead seek out community support tools to help them remain in touch with their hobby even as the social network they’re directly connected to becomes ever more frayed.

      In the Escapist articles I am quoted as saying that this process will be like the evolution of the model train hobby. What I could have been more clear about was that my belief in this transformation is driven not by escalating costs (as in the case with model trains) but instead by the lack of an effective acquisition engine to drive new players into the TRPG hobby, and by the continued subtraction from the TRPG social network caused by MMOs.

      As neither of these problems is structural to the TRPG industry, and are both driven by external factors, there’s very little that can be done to counter them directly.

      Future Paths


      The first thing that a lot of folks ask for when engaged about the future of the hobby is a virtual table top. It seems kind of obvious – if MMOs are breaking the social network of TRPGs then the way to fight back is to take the TRPG to the MMO’s territory and enable distributed on-line play.

      The problem is that VTTs exist, and they’re not successful. If you give people the choice between a VTT and an MMO, they pick the MMO. The VTT doesn’t solve the real problem that is that the MMO experience is simply better for a significant portion of the former TRPG social network. My opinion is that a successful and widely used VTT will remain an elusive mirage despite how much effort is poured into developing them.

      That is not to say that there’s no role for digital in the future of the TRPG. Transforming the delivery mechanism of TRPGs into digital products is, I think, the likely evolutionary path. And I’m not talking about just PDFs of printed books – I’m talking about the idea of making a digital product that takes advantage of all that implies to deliver an improved tabletop experience using iPad-type technology.

      Conversion to Family Games

      I define a Hobby Game as one where (at least one person) spends more time preparing to play the game than actually playing it. For TRPGs that is usually the GM, but often it is players as well. This “out of game time” may be the biggest obstacle to overcome to keeping the TRPG platform competitive.

      I think that commercially successful TRPGs of the future will be constructed more like a family game – something that can be unpacked, learned quickly, and played with little prep work. These games will give people a lot of the same joy of “roleplaying” and narrative control that they get from today’s Hobby Game TRPGs but with a fraction of the time investment. Wizards is already experimenting with this format, as is Fantasy Flight Games. It seems like a good bet that there is a substantially profitable business down this line of evolution.


      I will end this essay by talking a bit about Pathfinder and it’s role in the market.

      One of the goals of the OGL and the D20 project was to ensure that no single company would ever have the ability to kill Dungeons & Dragons. TSR almost did so; near the end of its existence it had pledged the copyrights and trademarks of the D&D franchise as security against loans it could not afford to repay. Had TSR gone into bankruptcy it is likely that for at least some time, and possibly an extremely lengthy period, nobody would have had the right to publish using that IP while the bankers fought over the carcass of TSR.

      The OGL/D20 project also ensured that a version of D&D would exist as of the 3rd Edition version no matter what future incarnation of D&D might be developed. Future versions of D&D would be benchmarked against that milestone, and if the market decided they did not want to switch to the new version, unlike in previous iterations where all commercial support for the previous version would be terminated, the market would be able to keep supporting the version that they preferred. This raises a high bar to future versions of D&D – you have to be so much better than the 3e game that people will voluntarily switch platforms.

      Pathfinder has (obviously) become the game that represents that 3rd Edition milestone in the minds of the majority of the players, and is benefiting from the fact that it seems the number of voluntary switches to 4e was less than Wizards had hoped.

      Any time a market contracts, a phenomenon is observed which is called a “flight to quality”. This means that the people who remain in a contracting market tend to concentrate their business around the most successful parts of the market, hoping that they’ll be able to ride out the collapse and make it to a future expansionary period. This is what is happening right now with Pathfinder. The social network that was coalesced by the D20 System has been inherited by Pathfinder. Even as the rest of the market is getting smaller, Pathfinder is getting bigger because its attracting all the people who remain interested in the TRPG format.

      Paizo, for its part, is still trying to re-start the acquisition engine. The Beginner Box it released this year is the best intro product that the TRPG market has seen in well over a decade (maybe 2 decades). I’m certain that there are kids who got it for Christmas and are right now getting their first taste of the TRPG experience. Hopefully those kids will decide to spend at least a part of their gaming time around the tabletop rather than the MMO virtual worlds. Only time will tell.

      My instinct is that Pathfinder will be the lifeboat that the long-term hobbyists will use to keep the social network from fraying past the point of no return. There’s enough people playing it and interacting both locally and virtually that I think it has the momentum it needs to sustain itself even if a total worst case scenario would unfold (Barnes & Noble also fails, and the full line hobby game store ceases to exist). Paizo is doing the right things in making its community and its market one unified whole, which is a great insurance policy against forces beyond its control.

      Where Goes D&D?

      I’d like to expound on this topic in more detail. Unfortunately, I’m privy to confidential information that makes that impossible at this time. I see the same things you all see – Monte Cook going back to Wizards of the Coast and a general recognition in the market that 4th Edition was not commercially successful. I think that in 2012 I’ll have a lot more to say about D&D, but that will have to wait for a future column. For now I’ll just end by saying that I hope with all my heart that the folks at Wizards of the Coast figure out how to get that franchise righted and back on track, because it would be good for the hobby in general for D&D to become a strong brand again.

      --RSD / Atlanta, December 2011

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