Friday, July 17, 2009

Supply, Demand, and the Teetering RPG Industry

James Mishler has, in the past week, written three articles on the RPG market. The rebuttals have been many, and a few have been crass and brutal. Buried in the veritable avalanche of obscenities from the RPG Pundit (NSFW) is a kinda-sorta a valid point. The real issue is supply and demand, and when the demand falls low enough, the supply dries up because the price customers are willing to pay won't cover the costs of production. Or, in other words, it's too easy to make significantly more money working in academia or computer games, and too hard to earn a liveable wage with RPG books and PDFs, to make pen-and-paper RPGs a viable industry. I think Mr. Mishler was making the same point, just from a different angle.

(As an aside, the price you pay for a product is never, EVER based on the cost of production. Pricing is based solely on two factors: what the customers will pay and downward pressure from competition. Costs of production might limit how much of a product is on the market, or even drive a product out of the market entirely, but they are not factored. Of course, that's assuming the price is being set by people who are knowledgeable about business, and not in it mostly for the fun of the thing.)

I will take exception with Mr. Mishler's comments about the youth of today. I know a number of people in the teaching profession who do not wear body armour to school or live in fear of their students. The reason there are metal detectors in school has more to do with the parents of today than the students, who also insist their kids never get on a bike without donning more protective gear than we wore to play pick-up games of football when I was a kid. It's certainly not because shootings in school are a new thing. That canard about not being able to find their own country on a map is at least as old as I am. Even if everything he says is true, it doesn't matter. Why? Because there is a huge number of kids out there reading, writing, and yes, even roleplaying right now. A sizeable groundswell of interest in fantastical fiction and play that crosses gender lines has risen up in the Harry Potter generation, the likes of which have probably never been seen before.

But you'll notice I mention nothing about games. Regular readers know what I'm talking about: fanfic and free-form roleplay. It's easy to laugh and dismiss this sort of thing (just as RPGs were laughed at and dismissed in my youth, when they weren't being blamed for suicide and devil worship), but here are a bunch of kids so desperate for roleplay that they have built websites and software and communities to facilitate their play. They've done it all on their own.

Why on their own? Why didn't they take advantage of the 30+ years of RPGs that were available? Probably because they were never invited to. Since 2000, the "gateway" product has consisted of three 200+ page books costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 bucks. Even that might have been reasonable if the kids had been shown what benefits they would have received for their time and treasure. Was there even an attempt to overcome the fact that D&D was the game Dad played when he was in junior high? I never saw it. I never saw any outreach to these kids, any attempts to study their interests, or any attempts to adjust the game in ways that would appeal to them, as we've seen towards the MMOG audience which shares much less in common with the tabletop RPG crowd. We're constantly told that the biggest issues with making RP gaming happen are logistical. But these kids overcome those every day. They don't freeform by themselves, but use chatrooms and bulletin boards and other services to play with their friends. This is where Mr. Colville of SquareMans is behind the curve in attempting to predict the future of pen-and-paper RPGs. The future is now, and these kids have already, on their own, created the roleplaying experience he's talking about. While they don't yet incorporate things like augmented reality, they take full advantage of cellphone texting and similar technologies that are available today. That, ladies and gents, is all set to be the roleplaying of tomorrow, and it's got no interest in your rulebooks, dice, or character sheets, thank you very much.

So are things hopeless? Maybe not. Green Ronin has been leading the rearguard action, first with their attempt with Blue Rose (which was disastrously hamstrung when their distributor took the money and ran) and now with a boxed set for their Dragon Age RPG, which will likely be showing up in computer stores, literally targeting those computer gamers we've heard so much about. But I'm more intrigued by Witch Girl Adventures, which aspires to a demographic the industry should have been courting since the '70s. The game's probably a bit too heavy with game elements, since its target audience is almost certainly already involved in free-form play, but it's the most serious attempt that's come across my desk ever.

UPDATE: Go back to the RPG Pundit post, scroll past the argument-laced obscenities to the comments, and look for the pic of the cheerful, greyhaired guy. That's Ryan Dancy, and he's got two great comments worth reading. Like Noisms, he thinks I'm underestimating just how much disposable income kids have today, but he's got a lot more to say than just that. Here's a little something from the first that caught my eye:

RPG designers should not be paid by the word, obviously. They are not writing novels. The value in a game design is not volume, it is utility. The basic model used in the industry of hiring a freelance writer to create "x" volume of words for "y" price per word is of course absurd and has no relationship to the underlying value, which is one reason that it is a broken system and one reason that people in the industry sense that there is a fundamental "unfairness" about their compensation.

Photo credits: foundphotoslj, aka Kath, and Bombardier.


Chris Kutalik said...

I guess the seminal question to me still is: to what extent do we, the gamers/consumers, actually need a professionally-based gaming industry?

Pulp Herb said...

Witchgirls is a great game...I played it at Owlcon a couple of year ago and had a blast.

JB said...

Multi-volume, 200+ page rule books are NOT going to grow the hobby...I am right there with you.

I'd kind of written off Green Ronin as OGL shills; I guess I'll have to take a closer look. Thanks!

Donny_the_DM said...

After chasing all those links down, I have to say a few things crystallized internally for me.

Pundit is a schmuck. If you can't make a point without talking all that shit, your "point" is likely very small indeed.

Mishler is also a schmuck. He is wrong on so many levels, it just invalidates everything right he did have to say.

I won't make any flowery or shit filled predictions regarding the future of the RPG "industry", because I simply do. not. know. As was demonstrated by Erik Mona's multi-posts, nobody really knew shit about what was coming down the line any further than their next income tax check.

It doesn't (however) take a genius to see that every one of both of their points is completely moot when you take into consideration that I could remove the industry completely from my gaming world by simply downloading all of the .PDF's for free, and investing the time and money to print my own damn books at 10% of the cover price in materials.

The "Industry" is becoming irrelevant to their clientele. They are dinosaurs playing in a tar pit, once it cools a little more...

Dyson Logos said...

as a marketing professional, I call bunk on this: "the price you pay for a product is never, EVER based on the cost of production"

Production and distribution costs are indeed part of the pricing decision. If you are going for market penetration pricing, you have to decide if you are willing to go so low as to undercut profits in exchange for market penetration. In most cases, the answer is no, so this has a serious effect on the minimum price point.

Dyson Logos said...

@JB - around here a certain set of 200+ page multi-volume RPG books did indeed seriously grow the market in 2001. The sales of RPGs tripled and the number of buyers went way up during the 3e release.

Christopher B said...

"...around here a certain set of 200+ page multi-volume RPG books did indeed seriously grow the market in 2001. The sales of RPGs tripled and the number of buyers went way up during the 3e release."

Sure, sales increased, but did the market actually grow? Do we know that a significant portion of those sales were to buyers new to the market? Or were most of them already part of it? I don't think this argument's got very strong legs without showing us the numbers...

Donny_the_DM said...

Good call.

Methinks there would be a LOT less hyperbole across the Gamernets in general if sales information was publicly available.

I mean REALLY, if your product is a success, PROVE IT! Don't just spin PR Bullshit to convince everyone that they're missing out.

AndreasDavour said...

Good post. Really good post.

Robert Saint John said...

This is a really great addition to the conversation. I especially appreciated this part:

But you'll notice I mention nothing about games. Regular readers know what I'm talking about: fanfic and free-form roleplay. ... That, ladies and gents, is all set to be the roleplaying of tomorrow, and it's got no interest in your rulebooks, dice, or character sheets, thank you very much.

This is a trend I've very much noticed in those interested in roleplaying in the Star Trek universe. I suspect there are at least 20x as many people roleplaying Trek in free-form "sims" than at the tabletop. Their websites and infrastructure are becoming as sophisticated as any published system.

From what I've seen, they're doing just as good a job (if not better) roleplaying Trek in this fashion, without books, without dice. And what's even scarier: most have them may have heard of D&D, but they have no idea that its Trek-equivalent existed.

Natalie said...

You've made pretty much all the points I was going to make in regards to Mishler, et al. Particularly the "kids these days" idiocy. Jeez. It's like he's going out of his way to get me to ignore whatever actual points he's making.

JB said...

Oh, Dyson. I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree.

There may be kids that got introduced to the game through D20, but the majority of them were not coming to it on their own...they were being introduced to it through old timers that purchased the game and "showed them the way" misguided or not.

At least that was MY observation.

Word Verification: CHING

As in "Ka-Ching!" There goes the cash register again.

Pulp Herb said...

This post has been running through my head with only one thought that I keep returning to:

Where were all the RPG boosters with goodie bags of quickstart rules and dice to hand out to the kids waiting in line at midnight to see the new Harry Potter movie.

And will we not be there again in two years for the next one?

Jason said...

Sorry that I'm kinda digging this up a bit, but I just stumbled upon the whole debate myself.

I'm a freeform roleplayer myself, and honestly? While I don't think the RPG industry is doomed, I do think that the concept of rules and dice will become much more niche. But there's a lot of wiggle room for a well-advertised community, with a setting. Look at, say, Exalted. Now, I know a lot of the people in this little blog-community thing I stumbled into likely aren't huge fans of the game, but even if you don't like the setting, you have to admit, it's a thought out, detailed place.

Now imagine you did a webcomic in the setting, bought ads on major webcomic and manga sites and on Livejournal and such, and linked the webcomic to a roleplaying forum with a built-in appearance-creating application along the lines of Heromachine. Sell adspace on the site, sell books with the setting detail(and just the setting detail) told in an entertaining way, and you'd sell them like hotcakes. The market is there, and it's willing to buy, but the stuff that's out there right now just isn't what they want. Or rather, isn't what we want.

So, yeah. If anyone has this still on their brain at all, I'm up for talking about it from my...Not unique perspective, but a perspective I don't think has been heard in this whole mess yet.