Mike Mearls gave a talk on RPG design at the GAMA trade show on Tuesday afternoon. Much of it was based on the playtest for 5e, so keep that in mind as I delve into the meat of his discussion.
He started by discussing the perception that RPGs are in decline. This was something of a shock to me and with the retailers I mentioned this to. While RPGs are not the tent pole products FF miniatures games or M:tG are, they don’t seem to be in decline to us. Nor to Mearls.
Granted, the man certainly doesn’t want to come to a show like GAMA and say something like his industry is fading fast. And he wasn’t willing to risk his job by releasing WotC sales numbers.
That said, he reported that internal numbers show peaks and valleys, but overall slow but steady growth. Organized play has grown with each edition of D&D since 3rd. He also said that the numbers they had showed a skew towards younger gamers. The assumption that the kids are playing MMOGs and old farts are playing pen-and-paper games is the opposite of reality. The average age of D&D players appears to be around 30 years of age; the average age of MMOGers is 35.
After that, he got into some details from the 5e play test. One thing he thinks the industry as a whole has gotten wrong is the desire for complexity. When 3e was released, lots of people just assumed their audience had played it and that was the benchmark for complexity. The result has been much denser games with rules for everything.
But players don’t appear to want that. He described watching people play 4e from behind a one-way mirror and just grinding his teeth at how everyone got the rules wrong. Yet, while the designers were squirming in frustration at everything going awry, the people playing were almost always having a great time. In short, the rules mattered much less than the group.
Even more, as they play-tested 5e, while the designers squirmed at the lack of rules to cover edge-cases, the players seemed thrilled with a simpler game. They found that players actively disliked complexity during combat. (Mearls assumes this is due in some part to the bad side of spotlight time; if everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to take your turn, you really, really don’t want to screw up. The pressure to “get it right” makes more options less fun. Not entirely sure that’s what’s going on there, but I can see where Mearls is coming from.)
While complexity outside of combat is appreciated, Mearls firmly believes that adding to that complexity is a Red Queen’s race the publisher can only lose. Keeping something new constantly on store shelves may be great in the short run, but it leads to quicker burn-out. A smaller core-rules footprint, in short, is better for the longevity of the game.