Had a conversation with a friend the other day, sparked by my recent comments about the negativity of tabletop gamers, the shrinking market, etc. A few thoughts crystalized out of that conversation, and I thought that I’d take the time to put them down for others to comment upon.
There’s a lot of denial among gamers that their hobby is shrinking — a combination of anecdotal evidence (“There are plenty of gamers around here.”) and One-True-Way purity (“My hobby will NEVER die!”). Mixed into this is the always-charming assertion that the industry may be shrinking, but that “the hobby doesn’t need the industry.” (Never mind asking such geniuses to ponder where new players will come from without product on store shelves drawing their attention — or when was the last time they met a player-piano enthusiast, another form of entertainment that no longer has an industry producing material for it…)
It’s not a matter of debate though. Anyone who has paid attention over the past two decades has seen the undeniable shrinking. There are far fewer dedicated speciality stores any more (current estimates place total numbers in the US at somewhere in the low-to-mid 2000s, according to ICV2, Diamond/Alliance distributors, and others). Fewer stores means fewer orders, as well as fewer social centers for the tabletop gaming community. Sales numbers are massively down from the 90s, much less the numbers seen during the ‘d20 explosion’ of the early 2000s.
Take a look at this: ICV2’s report of the top 5 selling RPGs for Q3 2010. You’ll note that number 5 is the Dresden Files. An excellent game, and Fred Hicks & Co. over at Evil Hat deserve every bit of that success. The interesting thing about Fred, though, is that he’s a big fan of transparency. So much so, in fact, that He posts his actual sales numbers. Fred gives the total distribution sales for each of the two Dresden Files rulebooks as follows: DFRPG:Our World: 1285 copies. DFRPG:Your Story: 1776 copies.
Think about that for a minute. Sales of two rulebooks, totalling a little over 3,000 copies for the quarter…. is enough to make the Top 5 sales for the entire industry. 3000 copies used to be a solid initial order, not an entire quarter’s sales.
So yeah — the hobby is shrinking. We’re losing gamers to other formats, especially as console and online games offer more and more of what most gamers want out of their play experiences. More and more of these games offer character customization, compelling story, sandbox universes, and even user-created content. All of this with a more friendly learning curve, and fewer scheduling hassles and locational requirements. It’s not really a surprise that tabletop is bleeding out.
The problem, though, is that what we’re left with in the tabletop community are the hardest of the hardcore — which can be both a positive and a negative. They’re dedicated (obsessive), loyal (rigidly orthodox), and constant (inflexible). This is their preferred method of gaming — but for most, that’s led to an almost self-segregation from the rest of gaming: console, online, PC, board, cards, etc. A lot of these folks don’t even seen these other platforms as part of the same hobby. When they say “gamer”, they mean “tabletop gamer” — the rest of the wider gaming world is part of some other hobby.
I posited to my friend that I don’t think the overall level of negativity and vitriol found in the community online has changed much since the dawn of the internet. What has changed is the size of the community — the negativity is at the same level, but the community is far smaller. Part of that is probably because we’ve dwindled to the True Believers — the ones most strident in their identification with the hobby, and therefore possessed of the most passion in arguing about it. Who knows? The result is the problem: a shrinking base, often unpleasant in their dealings with eachother — hardly a recipe for maintaining a community, much less attracting new blood.
And it’s only going to get worse.
I honestly believe that we’ve hit a tipping point, and it simply stuns me that others don’t see the smoke on the horizon (or maybe that they’re purposefully ignoring it). One of our major publishers (White Wolf) has already announced that they’re switching over to support of tabletop as largely a legacy operation, with Print-On-Demand product aimed at a dedicated fan base, while they’re getting ready to roll out an MMORPG based on their best-known IP, Vampire: The Masquerade. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall there — the relative income potential of POD sales vs. that of an online game, and what that will mean for corporate priorities.
Ask yourself this, though: What happens when WOTC withdraws from the hobby market? When the 800 lb. gorilla that floats the game sales of those 2000-odd retail accounts goes away? What do you think happens to what’s left of the tabletop industry and, as a result, the hobby?
Obviously, WOTC hasn’t made any such intention known. But consider this: We’re already seeing a major re-branding and re-packaging of D&D, with the Essentials launch. This roll-out seems to be concentrated fairly heavily in traditional retail: Wal-Mart, Target, the chain bookstores. Yes, it’s available through hobby distribution as well, but do you honestly think that’s the focus?
Now consider this second point: Hasbro, Inc. v. Infogrames Entertainment S.A. a/k/a Atari, S.A., case number CA09-610ML. In short, Atari has a license for online use of the D&D brand, set to expire in 2017. Whether it lasts that long is dependent upon the outcome of this lawsuit — Hasbro is looking to terminate Atari’s license. Once that happens, either through the courts, or just through the natural expiration of the term, the online rights to D&D will be back in-house.
Now, imagine you’re Hasbro. You have total control of the rights to one of the most recognizable fantasy brands in the world. Will you a) leverage that brand online, where games like World of Warcraft and even fucking Farmville are making hundreds of millions per year, or b) stick with the traditional model, aimed at a shrinking market where 3000 copies per quarter means you’re a top-seller?
There’s a reason why I’ve been spending the past year putting my ducks in a row to move Adamant into other entertainment markets, and it’s not just because of my varied interests. It’s simply because I cannot see any combination of events that does not lead to the utter systemic collapse of the tabletop games industry within the next 5 to 10 years at most.
I know that’s not a cheerful outlook, but I think it’s a realistic one. As always, comments are welcome.