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).


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.

Munchkin: They Killed Me & Took My Stuff

cover_lgApparently Munchkin is going onto Xbox and maybe other computery game platforms too.

I have tried for a long time to be sanguine about what happened with Munchkin. Me and Steve Mortimer wrote The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming and from that came the d20 stuff and, eventually, the card game. Both the d20 material and the original card game contain a huge amount of material taken from or inspired by the book – but just not quite enough to trip the clause in the contract where they’d need to give us more money.

By and large my relationship with SJG is pretty good. They pay up on time and e23 does well for me – second only to RPGNOW – but at this point, with Munchkin seemingly keeping the company afloat and making them money hand-over-fist it seems… ungrateful not to have involved us again or even acknowledged us, let alone cut us in for any amount of the fortune ensuing from our humour.

Furthermore it has become clear to us recently, via another slap in the face, that our role in this gaming phenomenon is not only being ignored but actively being written out.

SJG gave us our first break in writing and essentially launched my career as a gaming professional. Perhaps it is churlish of me to feel this way but I do feel that our contribution is worth greater acknowledgement and that, perhaps, it might have been nice to do a tenth anniversary recap or to have brought us back to do a supplement.

It was even me that wanted John Kovalic to illustrate the original book, though he couldn’t do much then due to other commitments.

I’m torn on this. I feel ungrateful to be so bloody angry about this but every time we’re left out, another add on comes out or it conquers another medium its a stab in the gut and a sharp reminder of being cut out.

I don’t know what to do with how I feel about this any more. I use to just joke about it, but it’s no longer funny.

Smörgåsblog – Little Topics Chosen by You

Gandalf’s D&D Alignment

Gandalf is clearly Chaotic Neutral. He tries not to intervene, he is a force for the status quo but he’s willing to break ‘the rules’ in order to protect that status quo. There’s a tension between order and disorder in the character that, I feel, is best represented in that way.

Good Times Get in the way of Good Times

Good times at the gaming table can, indeed, get in the way of good times. What makes a good game doesn’t necessarily make for a good evening and I think you have to be fluid. You have to be willing to give up a session – or change it – if people are in the wrong mood. If people are giggly and chatty, that isn’t the time for deep horror or serious political manouevering. If everyone’s stoned out of their fucking gourd (a far too frequent occurance) you may have to dumb things down, take things slow or simplify the rules. Same goes for drinking. Fun and enjoyment come in a massive number of different forms and as with everything else in GMing, it’s my belief that what makes a truly great GM in this, as in almost every other arena, is improvisation and flexibility.

Player Empowerment

I’m a big advocate of player empowerment. I think giving players the opportunity to shine and to bring their own ideas into games is a powerful tool that greatly enhances engagement and gives every some buy-in. The most basic versions of this are ‘stunts’ such as you find in Feng Shui or Exalted. Players get buy in because if they do a cool sounding move or something exciting, they get a bonus. FATE has a greater degree of buy in and other games go even further with buy-in mechanics, letting players dictate aspects of the game world. A good GM has a bit of this anyway. I think it REALLY starts with ‘What do you guys want in this game?’ and the mechanical tendency of modern indie games to provide buy-in is just a way of structuring what good GMs were doing anyway. Equally I can see the case to be made that the players can fuck things up by doing this. That not everyone is as creative or finds it as easy and that it can end up disempowering players who aren’t as able to buy into the concept or string words together. That can seem paradoxical, but it really, really can be a problem. Gentle nudging by the GM can help there.

First Game I Ever Played and What I Played

I started with Fighting Fantasy books and we used to read them to each other, one being the adventurer, one being the player. So my first proper RPG was the orange-spined make your own Fighting Fantasy adventures book with the (I believe) weretiger on the front. Do you count GMing as playing? I do. I started as I meant to go on so my first character was… god!

How Similar/Different People Make Characters

This is a topic that could fill books. Some people play the same sort of thing in every game, they have a broad category of character that they like – the bruiser, the charming rogue or whatever. What every character shares is a ‘hook’ of some kind. That can be a stereotype, an exceptional skill, a schtick but that’s what everyone needs, shorthand for a character. Everyone uses these hooks, big or small, complex or simple.

Ethics in the RPG Industry

Ethics? Well that’s a tricky one. Games aren’t real, so they can make an interesting playground for playing with ethics. The black and white, the four colour and the grey. That’s in play though. Ethics in publishing itself? Well, I tend to think the responsibility for misuse and misunderstanding lays on the person in receipt, more than the producer, at least where something doesn’t have the direct potential for direct harm. For me then, ethics in the RPG industry becomes more about ethics generally in business. Paying people on time and what the work is worth (or what you can afford), treating people right, being open about issues, all that sort of thing. There are companies that pay late, or not at all, and things being tight is no excuse to be a dick or to hide that sort of thing. The other way around, it can be hard to get writing or art on time and when things are that way around it’s just as important to be honest and communicative.

Orifice Jones – 70s Detective

Will have to wait… I have some thoughts on sexy adventures for SWING or a short story.

Fan Entitlement

Fan entitlement has been a big issue lately across lots of media. People complaining about George Lucas’ continued buggering about with Star Wars, the ending of Mass Effect and the lack of clear communication over D&D5e. I think there’s some differences between the relationship between creator and consumer when it comes to passive media and interactive media and, paradoxically, I think that’s why Lucas gets such stick. Normally when you present a film, or a book, or a comic the audience is passive, not involved in the process. Step into RPGs and computer games and you’re asking the audience to become a PART of the process, of the game, of the story and that gives them buy in and makes them feel like they have a say. To be honest, they do. Your relationship in interactive media, with your audience, is predicated upon them feeling like a part of what you do. With Lucas his material was so game-changing, so important to so many people they bought-in to that degree without it being interactive media, and in part because of the aggressive marketing and toys, you could LIVE Star Wars if you wanted to. Especially when it comes to RPGs, where you don’t have any real sort of hand on the tiller to determine the story this is even more true. People are going to do what they want with your material and they deserve to feel involved.

Why do Writers Give Shit Away? Is it Good or Bad?

Why do writers (and gamers) give shit away for free? Because we’re creatives. A creative is driven to create, we want an audience and that is more important to many, to make something and get it seen, than to make money. The unfortunate side to this is that a lot of stuff gets given away for free without any sort of quality control and can end up devaluing the whole enterprise. I wouldn’t tell people not to do it, but I think people should place at least some sort of minimum value for their work for the benefit of the creative community as a whole. Giving shit away for free is also a try at getting noticed, traditional modes of getting ‘found’ are vanishing and getting attention for your talent is a long, hard slog. This was the one thing gatekeepers like publishers actually did that was useful before and IMO creators need to come together more in mutually supporting communities to overcome this, become our own gatekeepers just as we have become our own marketers and points of sale.

RPGs of the Future – What Concepts/Topics/Rules?

I think we’ll continue to see the spread of lighter rules games but I’m a big advocate of the right rules for the right job. I believe rules matter and that doesn’t always mean rules light. That said, I think rules do need to be quick and intuitive to allow RPGs to be easily picked up and learned. Concepts… well, I think fantasy needs to make a decisive leap forward into the renaissance/industrial era, Iron Kingdoms – new edition – might do that. Just as written fantasy seems to have made this leap I think tabletop fantasy does. There are plenty of Steampunk themed games but no true STEAMPUNK games. We need a definitive Steampunk game that is purely Steampunk in the way that the breakout novel The Difference Engine was. I also think we need to return to SF, but in a more uplifting and optimistic way. We’re lacking a postmodern superheroic game, despite there having been an Authority RPG it didn’t really capture the feel of Ellis, Millar or Morrison, something more gutsy is needed.

60 Minute Primetime Slot on TV about Games – What do you do?

If I had the budget, time, money, opportunity to do a 60 minute programme about games this is what I would do, and this has been my idea for years. You split it in two, you have a game being played and a representation of that game. You intercut between the players playing and a full on, FX and all, representation of what they’re doing. Something LIKE this was done on Radio 4 in the UK all-too-many-years-ago and I would have loved to have seen it done on TV. I think this would be the best way of both explaining what it is that we do and making people understand what we see/feel/think when we play.

How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk

This was meant to be a question with no answer. That was rather the point of it. Carroll liked that sort of thing.

Getting Confused

Say that you ‘roleplay’ and people are as likely to think you play computer games or play at ‘naughty teacher and student’. I guess the computer one is understandable these days and the other one has the potential to get you laid so… no problem? The one I do worry about is the whole corporate roleplay thing. I think that may be behind the decline of gaming as corporate roleplay exercises are excrutiating and stupid and probably put people off the word for life. If corporate roleplay involved dressing in chainmail and attacking the accounts department it wouldn’t be so bad.

SOWYGO 3: The Professional Geek

The ultimate dream for many a weirdo, freak, nerd or geek is to turn their amateur hobby into a professional concern. To make their particular obsession their job and to make a living at it. This is awesome, I do it, but it’s not without its drawbacks and difficulties as well.

1. Everything is work.

They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. As it turns out that’s absolute bullshit. What actually happens is that EVERYTHING becomes work. What you end up doing for money may be something you love and enjoy but when your income depends on it, it gets stressful and when you do take time off you’re doing the same thing that you do for work.

On the other hand: Everything is also something fun. While it can taint your enjoyment, it makes ‘going to work’ every day a damn sight easier.

2. You’re never ‘off’.

When what you love is what you do you can really never switch off. Your all-consuming hobby becomes your whole life. Everything you see, everything you do seems to relate to your hobby.

On the other hand: It’s a great excuse to get yourself a secondary hobby so you CAN get a break. Secondary nerdery is also awesome. For me that’s probably comics, films and computer games but you can get your own, damn you.

3. Conventions become work, damn it

So, you get to go to that big convention that you love so much. Trouble is, you’re working. You can’t leave your stall or stand and go wandering off or some mouth-breathing neckbeard is going to have it away on their toes with your stuff. The bastards. If you meet people it’s generally for business and all the other businessy nerds are all busy too. You might make some money, but the con experience from the other side of the table often sucks.

On the other hand: Fans are rad, their enthusiasm is infectious and they can usually be persuaded to go and get you a bottle of scotch and a chocolate bar so you don’t have to leave.

4. Geeks are Unprofessional

Being a ‘professional’ geek is something of an oxymoron. Unless you’re working for a big company it’s all pretty small scale and personal as a business. This means getting bigger is tricky, a lot depends on personal relationships and you know how clannish geeks are. People come to blows over Kirk Vs Picard for the love of Thor. That means deadlines can slip, getting money can be tricky and people can be dicks.

On the other hand: That’s actually something that’s nice about geek-related businesses. It’s still small and personal and people’s passion and interest really comes across.

5. People think you owe them

If you’re a professional geek and you make cool geeky stuff, people start thinking they can get up in your face and tell you how to do what you do as though they know better. If they really did, they’d probably do it themselves. At least they’re still buying your stuff and care about it, but still, it can be a grind.

On the other hand: At least they’re giving you ideas, even if it might be done in a bad way.