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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.

GenCon2009-LisaStevens-OVC0U8.jpg

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

Digital


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.

Pathfinder

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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Ryan S. Dancey

Comments

IronWolf

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Hmmm, yeah, I dunno. I don't see PF as a very effective entry product. In fact I see it as exactly the opposite, a very elaborate and obtuse system that is the culmination of 3 decades of ever more convolved rules systems. Even the BB is very complex system by RPG standards. It's a very time intensive and mastery rewarding system, not at all suited to be standard around which to build a revitalized TT RPG industry.
The Beginner Box really brings the rules down to a basic level and makes it very easy to learn. It walks you through everything you need and it quite clear cut. It is certainly seems easier to learn than the Basic Set I learned so many years ago. Granted, my perspective could have changed - but the Beginner Box is a very solid offering for entry into RPGs.

AbdulAlhazred said:
Even if you dislike the gameplay of 4e itself it's still a better GAME.
For you. We've been through this so many times on these boards, yes 4e is a better game for you, but that is not an unequivocal statement.
 

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IronWolf

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There is a market out there for kids and rpg's... Parents that roleplay *want* to teach their kids about the hobby and play with them, but complex games with 160 pages worth of rules isn't the way.
It seems to work fine for me. I've played pathfinder in some form with IronPup for quite some time. I just adapted the core rules on the fly and have been able to send him on many stories and such over the past year. The Beginner Box makes this even easier.
 

Erdrick Dragin

First Post
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.
It's actually much simpler than one would think.

WotC's mistake was doing 4E in the first place when they should've continued 3.5 for a few more years, if not make it the final edition entirely and just offer support in other areas that the game needed after saturating the game with enough material the majority wanted. Because all new editions do is split the base.

An unrealistic proposition, but here's a better one that should seriously be considered by WotC.

1) Clean up 1e, 2e, and 3.5e. As in streamline those rules the way the customers always wanted it and then leave it alone.

2) Reprint the core books to these cleaned edition rulebooks, then add a supplement for each. Gamers from all editions will empty the warehouses in a matter of days if they knew their edition was alive again and also given a little support with a small supplement here or there.

3) Continue giving support, maybe about 80%, to 4E. But give new material and support to the previous 3 editions, too, with the remaining 20% of the resources. Personally, an annual book adding new material for the 3 previous editions, and converting a few 4E material to the older editions, sounds like a good plan. Maybe better for there to be 3 small products for each edition instead of squeezing them all into one book. Using Dragon Magazine articles is another sure bet.

4) The most important of them all; STOP MAKING NEW EDITIONS! It just doesn't work with this kind of hobby, clearly! 3E and 4E should've been all the signs you needed to know that as fact!

Doing this will make everyone happy and will rake in cash like you wouldn't believe. Because now you have gained back the interest (and wallets) of almost everyone from the past 35 years! The split customer demographic will be whole once again.

WotC needs to stop trying to please gamers of all editions with just ONE edition. Keep it at 4 editions and just support all FOUR editions. Simple.

When Diablo 2 was released, were the servers for Diablo 1 shut down? No.

When FF14 was released by SquareEnix, was FF11's servers shut down? No.

Can people on Windows XP still go to the same websites as those with Windows 7? Yes.

And all of those have continued support and updates.

It'll be a pipe dream to see that happen, but that's how I'd run D&D at this point were I in control.
 

OpsKT

First Post
Can't argue with your numbers (except a lack of documentation, as neither you nor Lisa Stevens has ever shown the research, much like the Golden Tablets we have to take your word for it), but there are a couple of specific points...

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.
Except they changed that with the nWoD. While anyone who has actually used the new rules can attest they work worlds better, they also changed the flavor of the settings (going so far as to actually END THE WORLD® of the previous settings), which plagued them with their own version of the Pathfinder/4e Edition wars. Then, after they were acquired by CCP, they had a problem with a much lower production schedule (in favor of the MMO development, that still hasn't even hinted at a Beta) that made people think that White Wolf was having problems. You should know this, you were associated with White Wolf (via CCP) during much of this. They also fail to communicate with the retailers that well, as many believe they are dead and gone as opposed to on a Print on Demand format. Not that they'd care anyway, as they don't get those sales, but that kind of rumor does not help.

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.
Or, as I see the case with Pinnacle in particular, that allows them to really listen to the fans, and produce fun games that are fun to play, instead of an exercise in marketing. Savage Worlds is hands down the best game I have ever played. This is a subjective opinion, sure, but considering they keep selling out of print runs I'm clearly not the only one. It works with my group because of the fact that it plays fast, learns fast, is very flexible, and doesn't take me the time to prep games that v3.5 did, or 4e still does.

Who cares if it is a secondary income source? You say that like it's a bad thing. As gamers, if we're playing it, we're having fun, they are getting to write and sell the kind of games they like, and it at least breaks even so they can keep doing it, what's wrong with that?

This is about gaming in general, not if you're going to get rich at it. It's always been a market and hobby that you do because you enjoy it, not to make tons of cash. If you want to make better money, you can probably do so by applying those math skills to the finance or insurance industries.

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.
Except for the part of the population, who being gamers in their own networks (and in places like EN World) outside of the RPGA and Paizo boards and similar marketing tools that still pick out games based on their preferences, and are turned off of both 4e and Pathfinder due to the Edition Wars. It doesn't matter what 'the industry' wants to try to pick as the winner, for many gamers they will pick games based upon what they want to play and to hell with what the 'big boys' marketing divisions want to push on us.

For us, our flight to quality is those smaller publishers that you took so lightly in your article. My personal flight to quality is Savage Worlds. Since I first played the Explorer Edition (sold out of print runs twice, I might add, and the Deluxe is already gearing up for printing 3 according to their own people on their forums) I have spent more on their books than I have on 4e and Pathfinder combined (and I don't have to spend that much on Pathfinder because the same rules that let you publish other people's IP also allow me to get it for free). They also have a more community minded set of forums and one hell of a good sense of public relations as opposed to fueling vitriol and edition wars with putting out press releases that amount to, "Look, we're outselling the guys whose IP we republished!"

We're a small segment, sure, but not one to ignore in a niche market because we're the GM's that have income to buy and run this stuff. We're the guys who are deciding what games (and their related culture) we want to teach our kids, nephews, and others. Regardless of a company's size, when they operate in a niche market they ignore gamers like me at their own risk. Even if we're only 10%, can even Paizo afford to turn away 10%?

And then there are the ones that the edition wars have drove away from current publishers entirely. Their flight to quality was back to the print books of games they already had, played, and enjoyed. Two of the colleges near me have gaming clubs. In each one, I see various groups play when I visit, and sit in on games. The smaller college has about 3-4 tables a week, and they play BESM2, L5R, Shadowrun, and Star Wars Saga. Note only 2/4 of their games are in print and currently earning money for a pubisher. The larger college's gaming club usually ends up with about 8 tables a week. They rotate games a lot, and I haven't seen them play 4e or Pathfinder in over a year. In fact, the only currently published one they are running is Dragon Age. They don't give a crap what you and your 'big boys' and 'market research' say they should play. They play what they like. They play games written by other gamers, not by lawyers and people in marketing.

And that's the way that the hobby should be. You spend so many words on the shared experience, but forget in your analysis that it used to be that the publisher, and the writers, and the designers, were part of and in on that experience. But no more. Now it's all market research, and focus groups, and data mining, and the soul of the hobby is being left to die, as the companies that used to share writers and ideas and their customer base now take shots at each other and tear what used to be OUR Big Tent to shreds.

That's what is killing the hobby.
 
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IronWolf

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Or, as I see the case with Pinnacle in particular, that allows them to really listen to the fans, and produce fun games that are fun to play, instead of an exercise in marketing. Savage Worlds is hands down the best game I have ever played. This is a subjective opinion, sure, but considering they keep selling out of print runs I'm clearly not the only one. It works with my group because of the fact that it plays fast, learns fast, is very flexible, and doesn't take me the time to prep games that v3.5 did, or 4e still does.
Yep, I hear good things about Savage Worlds. Glad to hear they seem to be having continued success.

OpsKT said:
Who cares if it is a secondary income source? You say that like it's a bad thing. As gamers, if we're playing it, we're having fun, they are getting to write and sell the kind of games they like, and it at least breaks even so they can keep doing it, what's wrong with that?

This is about gaming in general, not if you're going to get rich at it. It's always been a market and hobby that you do because you enjoy it, not to make tons of cash.
Well, the article definitely dives into the business side. Not sure one should draw the conclusion based on a business focused article that the industry still isn't about the fun. If a company can't make money they can't put out a product, no matter how fun the game is. I appreciated the business insight.

As for the secondary income, I took that to mean that these companies that used to be bigger in the industry are working on a much tighter line now. Being a second income they likely don't make enough money to support themselves on it alone. That usually means you are one "bad" product or two from the company folding. I didn't take it as anything about getting rich, it was about having a company that supports even getting product out the door and into the fans hands.

OpsKT said:
Except for the part of the population, who being gamers in their own networks (and in places like EN World) outside of the RPGA and Paizo boards and similar marketing tools that still pick out games based on their preferences, and are turned off of both 4e and Pathfinder due to the Edition Wars. It doesn't matter what 'the industry' wants to try to pick as the winner, for many gamers they will pick games based upon what they want to play and to hell with what the 'big boys' marketing divisions want to push on us.
I don't think anyone is forcing anyone to play a game they don't want to play. Choose your game and be happy with it! Switch games when you need a change. It is great that their is a choice for us gamers out there. Not sure why the hate on "marketing".

OpsKT said:
Since I first played the Explorer Edition (sold out of print runs twice, I might add, and the Deluxe is already gearing up for printing 3 according to their own people on their forums) I have spent more on their books than I have on 4e and Pathfinder combined (and I don't have to spend that much on Pathfinder because the same rules that let you publish other people's IP also allow me to get it for free).
Sort of the point of the OGL, to allow the fans to keep an edition alive and able to be re-used by 3rd parties. In the meantime Pathfinder has added a huge amount to the game since its initial release and continued to release their own material to the public for free.

OpsKT said:
They also have a more community minded set of forums and one hell of a good sense of public relations as opposed to fueling vitriol and edition wars with putting out press releases that amount to, "Look, we're outselling the guys whose IP we republished!"
The Paizo community is pretty darn cool. Are there bad apples on their forums? Yep. Are there bad apples here? Yep. Are there bad apples on the Savage World forums? Probably.

And a company isn't supposed to announce positive things for their company? They release many press releases that aren't touting various sales reports and numbers. You seem to be picking on a very select few.

OpsKT said:
We're a small segment, sure, but not one to ignore in a niche market because we're the GM's that have income to buy and run this stuff. We're the guys who are deciding what games (and their related culture) we want to teach our kids, nephews, and others. Regardless of a company's size, when they operate in a niche market they ignore gamers like me at their own risk. Even if we're only 10%, can even Paizo afford to turn away 10%?
Frankly, you seem to have a pretty big distaste for WotC and Paizo. You seem to have a game you enjoy, not sure why they would come after you or after your sales dollars.

OpsKT said:
And then there are the ones that the edition wars have drove away from current publishers entirely. Their flight to quality was back to the print books of games they already had, played, and enjoyed. Two of the colleges near me have gaming clubs. In each one, I see various groups play when I visit, and sit in on games. The smaller college has about 3-4 tables a week, and they play BESM2, L5R, Shadowrun, and Star Wars Saga. Note only 1/4 of their games are in print and currently earning money for a pubisher. The larger college's gaming club usually ends up with about 8 tables a week. They rotate games a lot, and I haven't seen them play 4e or Pathfinder in over a year. In fact, the only currently published one they are running is Dragon Age. They don't give a crap what you and your 'big boys' and 'market research' say they should play. They play what they like. They play games written by other gamers, not by lawyers and people in marketing.
Sounds like a fun college club in regards to their variety of games. Nothing wrong with that, 4e and Pathfinder certainly aren't the only games in town. People should definitely play what they like.

As for games written by other gamers, really? Yeah, Mike Mearls, Monte Cook, Erik Mona, Jason Buhlman don't play games.... Again, you seem to have a severe distaste for anything WotC or Paizo - totally cool, but lets not go saying these games aren't designed by gamers.

OpsKT said:
And that's the way that the hobby should be. You spend so many words on the shared experience, but forget in your analysis that it used to be that the publisher, and the writers, and the designers, were part of and in on that experience. But no more. Now it's all market research, and focus groups, and data mining, and the soul of the hobby is being left to die, as the companies that used to share writers and ideas and their customer base now take shots at each other and tear what used to be OUR Big Tent to shreds.
This was a business focused article, intentionally. And while fans may debate editions regularly and get heated by it I don't think I have seen any of the industry players at WotC or Paizo taking shots at each other. Talk about their successes, yep! But make slams at each other, no, I don't think that is occurring with the regularity you are trying to imply.
 

Aberzanzorax

First Post
Also since the Ravenloft and Dragonlance settings are owned by third parties what's stopping them from publishing Pathfinder books?
Sigh...


...if only people educated themselves BEFORE they formed their opinion.



That's not an attack on you, MR. Oatmeal....but an attack on the phenomenon of "I disagree...therefore it must be so!"


Research, learn, and THEN object. There are a few great posters on these forums who I regularly disagree with....but none of whom I consider uninformed. I consider it a quality debate to give attention to the perspectives of <!-- BEGIN TEMPLATE: dbtech_usertag_mention -->@Hussar <!-- END TEMPLATE: dbtech_usertag_mention -->and [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]....but at least (even though I don't share their favorite edition) I know they understand what we're all talking about.
 
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ShinHakkaider

Adventurer
Wow a lot of venom in that post right above mine. I especially love how he basically calls Dancy and Lisa Stevens both liars for failing to produce research that's probably over 10 years old. If the research DID still exist it probably would be in the hands of their competitors WOTC. But let's not have common sense and civil discourse get in the way of a good edition(?) system war.

I'm glad that Savage Worlds is doing well. Not my cuppa tea but more power to it's players and Pinnacle. They've sold out of several print runs GREAT. You know who else is on thier FIFTH print run? A game that was pretty much crapped on by a fair amount of people on these boards? PATHFINDER. You want to know what other game has probably gone through several print runs? D&D 4E.

The very insinuation that people who are playin those two games don't have the wherewithal to have decided for themselves that they wanted to play those games comes across as a level of condescension and arrogance that I havent seen since the ENWorld Edition wars of '08 - '09.

Nobody told me to play Pathfinder. I'd been supporting Paizo since Dungeon & Dragon. When WOTC went 4E, I didn't care for it I continued to play 3.5. When Pathfinder came out that was exactly my speed. So I support their products because it's a game that I want to play. Just like Savage Worlds is the game for you apparently, that's Pathfinder for me. The mere fact that you're in here taking a steaming crap ( a politely worded steaming crap) over Pathfinder and 4E while touting the virtue and purity of Savage Worlds kind proves that you're missing you're own fricking point.

PEOPLE PLAY WHAT THEY WANT TO. NOT WHAT YOU OR ANYONE ELSE THINKS OR SAYS THEY SHOULD BE PLAYING. Whether its a small publisher game or a big publisher game. I play Pathfinder because it's a game I'm passionate about. I love HERO SYSTEM. I LIKE M&M. I played red box, 1st ED and 2nd ED. I don't play them anymore nor do I want to. I not begrudge the people who still play those games or look down on them. They're having fun.

The RPG industry is a buisness and buisnesses are in the buisness of making money. If they can make money doing what they love doing (which I'm pretty sure is the case for designers at Pinnacle, Paizo and WOTC), then great. So I'm not even sure what you're trying to say when you're blasting the RPG industry for taking actions to ensure that they can make money TO CONTINUE PAYING THE PEOPLE WHO ARE CREATING AND DESIGNING THESE GAMES.
 

OpsKT

First Post
This was a business focused article, intentionally. And while fans may debate editions regularly and get heated by it I don't think I have seen any of the industry players at WotC or Paizo taking shots at each other. Talk about their successes, yep! But make slams at each other, no, I don't think that is occurring with the regularity you are trying to imply.
Perhaps you have forgotten things like White Wolf's poor taste attempt to market Exalted 2nd edition with the 'Graduate your Game' promotion, done during Mr. Dancey's time at White Wolf/CCP no less? While clearly the most 'cheap shot' out there, it is far from the only one ever done, and is something that happens more and more frequently.

Part of this is driven by the fans, who want to feel like their game is 'winning' and is part of human nature, not some evil plot. But it is the folks in Marketing who choose to exploit this weakness of human nature. And they are doing it.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
Aren't both L5R and Shadowrun in print? Whether they are 'making any money' for their publishers is the whole point of this blog entry/thread. If there was much money in TRPGs, the other two would be in print as well ;-)

Imho any business needs to objectively look at if the money that is invested is the best investment they can make. What is wrong with the hobby is that it's customers don't spend enough money on the hobby, but demand top quality. That's of course the consumer's right, but it's the business that actually provides the products. Magic Eight Ball says 'sales poor compared to investment'.

And supporting multiple editions is just insane, not doable and totally unprofitable for a property such as D&D. Selling new books to customers is what keeps game companies in business, ideally they would want to sell you each book multiple times. Core books sell best, every expansion sells a little less well, and eventually you've sold all the core books your likely to sell, expansion sales tapper off. Then it is time for a new edition. But new editions are tricky, White Wolf screwed up with their nWoD, WotC screwed up with D&D 4E (or they wouldn't have lost so many customers to Paizo), FFG screwed up with WFRP 3E (imho), even Shadowrun isn't what it used to be (4E). Companies don't need a better game, they need a sellable game that makes a decent profit. Listening to customers on the Internet might work for small publishers who's focus group is on the Internet, but it generally doesn't work for companies who's customers have never been to ENworld and don't read/post on the WotC boards.

Companies like dp9 and PP are going to be releasing their own RPGs again (Heavy Gear RPG and Iron Kingdoms RPG), both their core businesses aren't RPGs. Both are back to their own systems after going D20. Hell PP got started as a D20 company before they launched their successful Warmachine. The only reason why there is a 40k RPG series and a WFRP game is because there is a miniatures game. The reason that there still is a D&D brand is imho not because of the TRPG, it's because of the CRPGs and the novels. If I day D&D there will be more folks thinking fondly of Eye of the Beholder, Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights then folks thinking of the TRPG. The same goes for the novels...

Just look at what it costs to develop an RPG (line), write, edit, illustrate, print, transport, etc. How many copies would you need to sell to earn back that investment and compensate the hours you've spend working on it. If your used to an IT professional freelancers hourly wage, you need to sell a LOT of copies, and most IT professional freelancers don't have a significant money investment like RPG lines have. If you don't do that, your not working for a business, your working as a hobby. Working as a hobby is fine, but not exactly a stable business and certainly not doable for properties like D&D, 40k, Mechwarrior, etc.
 

Incenjucar

First Post
The thing with the marketing and focus groups isn't so much that they're involved... it's that they're bad. Both, done well, can be amazing tools, like anything else, but the better marketing and research resources clearly aren't being spent on D&D, similar to how Magic gets the best artists (not that D&D's artists are bad).

There are ways to do these things that would benefit the hobby, but it takes a lot more resources than D&D has ever had the clout for, even at the height of its success.
 

OpsKT

First Post
PEOPLE PLAY WHAT THEY WANT TO. NOT WHAT YOU OR ANYONE ELSE THINKS OR SAYS THEY SHOULD BE PLAYING. Whether its a small publisher game or a big publisher game. I play Pathfinder because it's a game I'm passionate about. I love HERO SYSTEM. I LIKE M&M. I played red box, 1st ED and 2nd ED. I don't play them anymore nor do I want to. I not begrudge the people who still play those games or look down on them. They're having fun.
*shakes head* No, you're missing the point. Mr. Dancey went on about how the industry tries to pick winners based on the flight to quality, but he forgets that in a niche market (as opposed to mass merchandise) that contraction by the industry players can alienate as much as 10% of the market. And with niche numbers, 10% is a big deal.

And I don't see how using my (clearly worded as personal opinion) take on my home games and the results I see in my local markets are 'laced with venom' but okay, whatever makes you feel better about your game choices, I guess. If you bothered to check my profile, you'd see I'm interested in playing both 4e and Pathfinder, I just have no desire (or time for the game prep) to run them.

As for the issue you have with my take on Steven's and Dancey's numbers, that is not calling them liars. I don't expect them to share confidential data like that. So, I have to take them at face value because I can NOT see the original research. That's a pretty basic academic idea, that you have to take data you can't verify with a grain of salt.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm searching for an RPG where my daughter can play a princess, or my son a mechanic that can fix any car. Or they can be both bay dragons who are looking for a magical fruit. Whatever can be the basis of a good story. And it don't have to involve combat or slaying of monsters.
You might want to take a look at HeroQuest Revised (the Robin Laws RPG published by Issaries, I think - no relation to the boardgame of the same name).
 

Leif

Adventurer
What would surely be a more instructive statistic to observe is the sales figures reported by publishers, both electronic [.pdf] and paper/ink both through retail outlets and mail-order, as opposed to just sales made in stores. Then, not only could an overall snap-shot of industry-wide sales be obtained, but these figures could either substantiate or belie the supposed move away from printed media to electronic format.
 

The Beginner Box really brings the rules down to a basic level and makes it very easy to learn. It walks you through everything you need and it quite clear cut. It is certainly seems easier to learn than the Basic Set I learned so many years ago. Granted, my perspective could have changed - but the Beginner Box is a very solid offering for entry into RPGs.
Clearly a matter of opinion. I mean frankly I think people often underrate the ability of new players to handle mechanically more elaborate games. Still, I found it rather more complex than many full systems, yet still it was necessary to leave of some rather basic parts of the system to get there. 3.5 is a COMPLICATED system.

For you. We've been through this so many times on these boards, yes 4e is a better game for you, but that is not an unequivocal statement.
I'm sure I didn't make myself clear. I wasn't 'edition warring' here. In terms of what people are going to find preferable to play 'better' and 'worse' are ALMOST meaningless (I think we can agree that there are a few infamous 'horrible games' but since nobody plays them they're really not relevant). I'm saying as a mechanical platform to build games of varying complexity or style on the 4e engine is simply a more refined platform and in a vacuum you'd rather build on its basic mechanics than those of d20. Of course d20 has a LOT of existing material to work with and a workable license, so in a sense it doesn't matter. Unless of course you're WotC competing with whomever, in which case it IS an advantage. Of course I suppose someone could probably effectively clone it under OGL, it really isn't much more different from straight d20 than many d20 games are.
 

Hussar

Legend
[MENTION=725]Cergorach[/MENTION]

I believe you are misunderstanding me. I never said anything about a VTT being the core product. That would be a bad idea. OTOH, how expensive is it to take a text based chat program, wed it to some sort of graphical interface to allow shared images, and then add on the various bells and whistles for running a D&D character?

Good grief, we're talking about an mIRC client with a map window and some extras. Massive upfront investment? Really? There's people out there developing this stuff in their basement in their free time. I mean, look at something like EpicTable RPG Virtual Tabletop . You're telling me that a couple of decent programmers couldn't have something specific done up for a version of D&D in a matter of weeks?

I really don't think people have much idea what a VTT really is when they start comparing it to MMO's. There's no animation to speak of. There's no inherent gameplay. A VTT is just a glorified chat client.

Can I program it myself? Nope. Not my field. I admit that. But, having used VTT software for about a decade now, I have some idea what's needed for a VTT.
 

IronWolf

blank
Clearly a matter of opinion. I mean frankly I think people often underrate the ability of new players to handle mechanically more elaborate games. Still, I found it rather more complex than many full systems, yet still it was necessary to leave of some rather basic parts of the system to get there. 3.5 is a COMPLICATED system.
I agree with people tending to underrate the ability of new players. Also agree on the matter of opinion, people's thoughts will vary on how complex a system is.

AbdulAlhazred said:
I'm sure I didn't make myself clear. I wasn't 'edition warring' here.
Sorry - I likely misread the tone, a hazard of forum posts! :D
 

Hussar

Legend
The one thing I'll say about the OGL model is that it's one you can't go back from.

/snip

I'll say this:
It wasn't the OGL that hurt 4e...it was the LACK of a good OGL and 3pp support for 4e that did.


Had we seen a different, more inclusive launch for 4e, we'd have 4e Dragonlance, Paizo adventure paths for 4e, more robust support from Mongoose and Goodman, and likely the same number of people playing 3e or its derivatives that we see playing old school revolution games.

And there would be no Pathfinder.
The one thing that OGL supporters have never been able to answer though is how you can have a 4e OGL and a DDI subscription base exist side by side. Like it or not, the DDI is a major source of income for WOTC. Anything that bites into that income is a bad thing. If you did a 4e OGL, where the basic rules are wrapped up in an SRD, a la 3e/3.5, then it would be days after the release of that SRD that we'd have a 4e Hypertext SRD.

Suddenly you have lots of potential subscribers of the DDI simply choosing the free version - particularly in the early days when there weren't that many supplements to differentiate the DDI from a free Hypertext SRD.

I really can't see how you can have an SRD and a DDI existing side by side.
 

Ettin

Explorer
So, Dancey predicts doom for D&D and success for the company who employs him.

Is it 2008 already?
 

Sorry - I likely misread the tone, a hazard of forum posts! :D
No need to apologize at all. We've all been through THOSE ridiculous debates far too many times. lol.

I can't help feeling though that 4e really has gotten shafted as a game. WotC blundered in many ways with it. I think it would be interesting to see something equivalent to the BB done with it. Their Red Box really isn't equivalent. Seems like with a simplified combat system and removing a few subsystems you could have something as simple as Basic without a ton of work. Actually sort of seems to me like for them it would be the obvious way to segue into whatever it is Mearls seems to want to do.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
[MENTION=725]Cergorach[/MENTION]

I believe you are misunderstanding me. I never said anything about a VTT being the core product. That would be a bad idea. OTOH, how expensive is it to take a text based chat program, wed it to some sort of graphical interface to allow shared images, and then add on the various bells and whistles for running a D&D character?

Good grief, we're talking about an mIRC client with a map window and some extras. Massive upfront investment? Really? There's people out there developing this stuff in their basement in their free time. I mean, look at something like EpicTable RPG Virtual Tabletop . You're telling me that a couple of decent programmers couldn't have something specific done up for a version of D&D in a matter of weeks?

I really don't think people have much idea what a VTT really is when they start comparing it to MMO's. There's no animation to speak of. There's no inherent gameplay. A VTT is just a glorified chat client.

Can I program it myself? Nope. Not my field. I admit that. But, having used VTT software for about a decade now, I have some idea what's needed for a VTT.
Oh your talking about the 'classic' VTTs and a specific VTT like this:
RPG Virtual Tabletop

It's still in beta and I don't know what the development status is for this thing, but it's certainly a extensive product and isn't done in a 'few weeks' by a 'couple developers'. $71.40 a year for DDI subscription (includes more tools and content)

There's already Fantasy Grounds II out, should work for 4E. Although quite pricey at $150 for the a DM client and unlimited players, but if you use it a lot, more then worth the money.

There are of course free options, MapTool seems popular and TTopRPG seems promising.

But I wouldn't call those commercial successes, more like labors of love (except the official 4E version that is still in beta after more then a year). Look at the hourly wage of a freelance programmer, you need a project leader, you need testers and test managers (and I don't mean gamers trying the software in beta), database specialist, graphical designer, servers, folks that act as sysadmins for those servers, etc.

It's a shame that most of the workable solutions are either dedicated Windows/MacOS clients or require JAVA (like the official 4E app) ack! I would love to see a html5 version that works in most if not all html5 capable browsers.

As for the basement comment, when I give advice or troubleshoot on some computer or gaming forum, I don't charge a thing. When I give advice or troubleshoot for a paying business I charge $62.50 (excl. VAT) an hour and I'm no programmer (I can program, but not at a speed that would make it a viable profession). I do both in my attic, the same place I'm typing this comment, behind two 30" monitors, connected to a powerful workstation, at my business/hobby desk.

There's a big difference between a business and a hobby, sometimes folks have a dream and want to build their dream for themselves. Often such small operations burnout after a while, RolePlayingMaster is a good example of this. A program with great potential, but was eventually abandoned by the developer (2001-2006), a shame because I spent a lot of time working with/on it (and the developer) hunting bugs.

It is of course ridiculous that after 3.5 years after the 4E release the 4E VTT is still in beta, something like that should have been available at launch.
 

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