Outreach in a Deflating Market

Taken from a comment by Fred Hicks (Fricks?) posted on RPGnet, which I’m not going to link to, because RPGnet are wankers. That aside, I think he makes some good and bad points and Evil Hat are successful enough to be worth paying attention to, even considering their poor choice of forums to post on. It’s a forum post, so I’m not going to consider it ‘gospel’, just as a jumping off point for comment and consideration from my PoV.

So yeah, this’ll be a boring technical/gaming business post. Deal with it.

But why does the state of the RPG market at least seem poor? Lots of reasons.

I think the ‘seems’ part is important here. I don’t think the state of the market is poor, it’s just different. With so much shifting to electronic consumption and trading the true state of things is nearly invisible outside of the convention environment and that’s not so representative either when it comes to it. It’s an elite ‘alpha geek’ environment but it does put on show the sheer scale and breadth of material out there.

Retail stores are struggling. The shift to online shopping for specialty needs certainly plays into this. Without an easy ability to browse RPG product offerings, folks don’t necessarily get exposed to the options that are out there, so most RPG products get stuck at a small audience reach.

OK, I’ll say it. As far as our hobby is concerned, regular retail is on life support. Book shops are struggling as it is and their staff are terribly ill-informed about what to stock. Outside of D&D and – maybe – the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs you’re don’t see RPGs in book stores and they always understock the corebooks and overstock the supplements.

When it comes to hobby stores, they make more money from card games, board games, miniatures, supplies (like dice) than they do from RPGs which take up shelf space and don’t shift fast enough to be worth it. Only stores like Amazon can shift enough for it to be worth it, as well as a few legacy stores that managed to carve out a name for themselves and retain/gain a direct internet ordering business niche of their own. Leisuregames being the best example of that I can think of.

There’s more and better money in other things. We can do a few things to keep things going a while longer but I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the loss of RPG hobby stores and the loss of play spaces. Honestly, the second is probably the more important side.

Exposure to product is probably the bigger issue here. We have an advantage over the ebook market in that we’ve already gone through what they’re experiencing, a glut of crap, and the fall-back to a more sane position with some modicum of gatekeeping.

Speciality retail stores like game stores need to get very smart and very efficient about capturing their local-market dollars, and honestly RPGs aren’t particularly efficient ways of doing that. They require a lot of on-staff expertise to sell well, and given their price point and volume sold, developing that expertise is not necessarily a high return on investment. You can learn about the board game or card game offerings out there a lot faster, so those tend to get the attention. That’s why a lot of game stores have shrunk the floorspace and variety of their RPGs. They need RPGs that carry and communicate intrinsic value without putting a heavy burden on the staff to know each and every offering’s key selling features (which most RPG publishers don’t really know how to communicate; and those that do have a hard time getting those communications TO the retailers who’d care enough to read them).

Yep.

Steadily lowering barriers to publication (yay!) have supported an explosion of diversity in the hobby (double yay!). This is great! It also means that there are a LOT of options out there for a slowly shrinking audience, though. This is the fragmentation effect some folks have talked about in this thread. When you’ve got 6 great RP games and hundreds of thousands of geeks interested in them, that divides pretty attractively. When you’ve got hundreds of great RPGs, even if you still have hundreds of thousands of geeks out there interested in them (arguable), it divides a bit less attractively. This in particular can really contribute to the appearance of a poor market when instead it’s a very diverse market, way more varied than at any other point in the hobby. Those lowered barriers to publication also haven’t necessarily come with lowered barriers to distribution, so while you can get your game out really cheap and in small quantities today, the opportunities to take it beyond small quantities are a lot harder to come by.

Yep again.

We’re in a relatively golden age, made ‘better’ by the current absence of D&D. Last time that happened the gap in the market – and tapping into a resurgent goth subculture – helped White Wolf carve out a winning position. This time things are different. That space has not been occupied by a singular game explosion but – rather – a huge variety of independent games long on ideas and short on print runs.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. The problem is standing out, getting exposure, getting people playing and not having shelf or demo spaces is a problem. Having a vibrant, creative and experimental market isn’t.

The RPG market is ageing and isn’t doing much (at least not much that’s successful) to bring in new blood, in part because the old blood sneers at the validity of new blood vectors. It’s not a case of “we’ll teach the kids about the games the way we used to play them!” It’s a case of a lot of continuation to do things the way they used to be done instead of, I dunno, figuring out how to get folks who are big into fan fiction or reality TV or romance novels or [insert your topic of choice that folks don’t think of as “gamer” or “geeky”] into the hobby.

Here I disagree. I used to think this way but recent experiences are changing my mind.

What I am noticing is that RPG gaming seems to be skipping a generation. It seems like people born in the 70s and 80s form the bulk of the traditional base, there’s a gap, and then there’s that older generation’s kids. Rather than rejecting their parent’s hobby a lot of them seem to be intrigued by it, interested in it and end up getting into it. There’s a strong presence of tweens and teens at the cons and events I’ve been to over the last few years and I find that very encouraging.

What that tells me is that exposure to enthusiastic gamers and the games themselves is the key (and possibly not being allowed to join in while too small, making it forbidden fruit). That’s probably the best outreach possible and that’s why the loss of play space, rather than stores is the bigger of the two concerns in my opinion.

Tribalism in an aging hobby hurts the hobby. The tent needs to be defined as a much bigger thing and there need to be many more ambassadors for the hobby who buy into the big-tent vision. A friend of mine likes to say that there are a ton of RPG fans out there who don’t know they’re fans yet. And he’s right. And we’re not talking to them. And we’re not making the hobby and its occupants un-scary to them. Nor are we always making it seem like the hobby is a potential home for folks who aren’t white dudes. All of this is a multi-facet problem that needs to get a lot of attention in the coming decade.

Enthusiasm, which is what fuels tribalism, is fine. It just needs to be about the RPG hobby (and we could have a massive argument about what an RPG even is) as a whole, rather than a particular game. At least when dealing with ‘outsiders’.

I think it’s naive to think there’s a huge number of people out there just waiting to become gamers. Mass media exposure for gaming has rarely been as high as it is at this point. Geek culture is acceptable in a way it wasn’t when we were growing up. Something that’s hard to grasp for a lot of old-timers. What we do have, though, is increased competition and more time/money pressure. People have a shitload of other entertainment options, many of which are more accessible, can be picked up and played, don’t need you to get friends together and so forth.

RPG gaming still has a lot to offer and strengths that other interactive entertainment lacks, but we need to acknowledge that it’s not for everyone and that there are barriers to getting into it.

Hobbyists are not scary and never really have been, sure there’s horror stories but there’s horror stories in everything. We dwell on them because we’re sensitive and scarred and because we want people to like the hobby.

The ‘white dudes’ comment is eye-rollingly irritating to see, as though it’s somehow inherently threatening or terrible to be such or that it should put anyone off. There are plenty of understandable reasons why the hobby is dominated by white dudes, just the same as – say – model trains are. They’re not anybody’s fault really, nor is it something to be ashamed of, you’re also going to have a very hard time appealing to the other demographic groups and racially diverse images in books and abrogating genre/historical conventions isn’t going to do it. The problems exist at a far more fundamental level than our hobby and aren’t going to be undone by well-meaning but naive and misguided social-justice types pissing off the existing audience by trying to shame them and tell them everything they like is bad.

There is a huge risk in diverting funds and attention from your core market to pursue others that you end up losing your core market. Attempts have been made in the past to reach out, even in a modest fashion to card gamers, board gamers and MMORPG gamers to no good effect. What it did succeed in doing was fracturing the existing fanbase, most obviously in the case of 4e D&D, leading to a rapid move to a new edition and no appreciable new gamers to the hobby.

There’s precious little money and man hours as it is to go around and one foolish venture could sink a company with the resources to try and lesser companies and individuals don’t have the resources even to try.

Should we try and expand our audience? Surely. At the cost of our ‘soul’ and appeal? No.

What’s the solution? I don’t really know but judging from what I see, the best way to get new gamers is to get them to take part in a game – at least once. The best way to do that is to have spaces in which games can take place and ways to introduce people to them. That takes us back to the breeding grounds of games in the past – schools, colleges and universities.

That, at least, is a start.

2 responses to “Outreach in a Deflating Market

  1. Making the hobby more inviting to new people sounds like a good idea, this emphasis on killing things and taking their stuff is not the only way to approach it,.
    The impression I get from the cover art most publishers use, is that they want to intimidate and scare away people who are not interested in continuous combat. Actually live, adventure, and explore in the land of [Insert nifty name]? Why that’s unseemly!

    There’s no right way to get to Tipperary.

    • combat – or the suggestion of it – is visually dynamic and exciting. Other covers don’t necessarily grab the eye in the same way. Look at other media – video games, movies, TV, think of the trailers, posters and show reels. It’s not just TT gaming.

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