Friday, October 22, 2010

Somebody Skipped Triage

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…)

Gareth-Michael Skarka, "Tabletopcalypse Now"

Hey, even the Mona Lisa's falling apart.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Reports of My Demise...

The very first quote was brought to my attention by @kennethhite, who tweeted the link to the article by @gmskarka, again linked and quoted at the start of this spew article. As in most articles of this sort, he makes the mark in a few places, he misses the mark in a few places. And like most people who write articles decrying the impending, imminent doom of something, I want to smack him.

I say this not out of anger... well, okay, I do. But I say this because of two words: "Apple Computer." All throughout the 90's, industry experts were decrying the limited market share and impending, imminent, fully justifiable in their world view doom of a company whose stock price has recently crested $300/share. It leaves me wondering now how some industry experts can either look themselves in the mirror in the morning or predict their own bowel movements. So please excuse me if I remain skeptical about any "OMG! [$INSERT_NAME] IS DYING!!!!1!!" article.

And then there's the state of the "player piano" industry, which I'll get into in a bit.

What Looks Properly Disturbing

Okay, initial vitriol aside, let's talk about what's right here. And I'll admit that this paragraph is troubling:

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.

I found that paragraph mildly disturbing, yes. I found the ICV2 report link even more disturbing because I had no idea Paizo's Pathfinder could tie WotC's juggernaut D&D. I mean, isn't Paizo supposed to be this roguish little upstart that's repackaged the previous edition of WotC's flagship system? Is 4e really that unpopular?

I also didn't think Fantasy Flight Games would be next with two entries, or is that three? Rogue Trader and Dark Heresy were released as two separate books, so individually their numbers would have to be lower and The Dresden Files would be even higher on the list. Except that there are two books in that set too.

Even if the statement about ICV2 charts being "based on interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufacturers" hints at methodology errors if they fail to consider all possible sources (including authors), the error couldn't be that great. As it stands, the RPG publishing industry is tiny.

It would also explain why Steve Jackson Games seems to be changing its focus from GURPS books to other tabletop fare like Munchkin, Zombie Dice, Cthulhu Dice, and Revolution. (And I say seems because it just feels like they've only printed one major new GURPS release since September 2, 2009. If anyone can correct me, please do so.)

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 can agree with this sentiment too, having seen some of it first-hand. Some people adapt more easily to different kinds of play than others, and can react strangely when confronted with other styles. Dig deep enough, and you'll find a rift between the stringent numeric crunch of traditional RPGs and the vague touchy feely fluffiness of the RPG-nouveau "story games." I've even evinced that prejudice myself at times, preferring the fundamentally cooperative nature of the traditional RPG to the direct competitiveness of other games.

Some people insist on playing only one or two games—their games—and all other games are interlopers. And just knowing this affects how you approach people with other games, meaning you tend not to. There's a FLGS at which I'd like to try running something I haven't played in a while like Champions or, well, almost everything except D&D. The people upstairs, they play D&D. It makes broaching the subject of other games difficult, no matter how inviting they may be.

So yeah, tiny industry, insular players. That could spell trouble.

Or not.

The ICV2 paragraph above could be troubling, yes. But there are other possible explanations for an industry doing poorly.

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.

Food for thought: The economy in general is in the crapper. We're in the middle of the strangest economic slump we've seen in ages. The rich have been getting richer, and the poor have been staying pretty much where they are. Sales figures for all but the biggest luxury items are down, and I have great difficulty thinking of any RPG as a "luxury" item. RPGs as discretionary spending, absolutely, which would further justify sales being down in the crapper along with the notion of the American middle class.

Taken without that context, the above paragraph could lead to strange conclusions:

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 gamers 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.

Uh, maybe. Computer games and tabletop RPGs are not in the same league. The computer game can only account for a very limited subset of the possible player actions. The choices in a game tend to be limited to compass directions, manipulating things in precise and preset terms, and deciding how to dress. Some provide character customization options commensurate to some RPGs, but those are the exceptions, and that character customization is secondary to the execution of the story itself which boils down to the same choices above. Sometimes they're even more stark, boiling down to "successfully shoot the next enemy before he shoots you" or "miss, get shot, and restore from the previous save."

The tabletop GM can listen to player feedback and customize the game to fit, making the experience more flexible, if not more immersive and visually interesting. The tabletop GM can deal with more types of character, manage more types of situation, and create more types of game experience on the fly. Until they get an XBox 360 to pass the Turing Test (and some of its users wouldn't pass it now), you're not going to get that kind of experience from a computer game.

That's not to say the console game can't provide an excellent story. That's already been happening for decades, and with the graphics capabilities of both the computers and the consoles taking massive leaps from generation to generation, those stores are much more visually interesting. Does this make the story better? Not necessarily, but eye candy certainly makes it easier to take in.

Then there's the issue of MMORPGs, which admittedly fill one major lack in the console games: social contact. Being in an MMORPG lets you play alongside, with, or against other players. Unfortunately, the actions available to the players tend to be just the same as in the console games: go places, fight things, and trudge along pre-scripted plots that have been traversed a thousand times before and will likely be traversed a thousand times later until people get bored with that and the developers have to code an expansion.

They're improving, yes, but they damn well better not have peaked. As it stands, the assorted computer games may take on the tone and demeanor of incredibly well-illustrated novels, but the interaction part isn't there yet.

What To Do When You're Dead At Lake Geneva

Like I said, some conclusions were right, some conclusions were wrong. And I have to question the impending, imminent demise of an industry which is technically still moving. If there's been a terrible accident, you call for an ambulance first, not a coroner, unless you're an inveterate pessimist.

Cause for concern? Absolutely, for reasons cited above which I agree with. What steps need to be taken? Well, evangelism for one. If you want to distribute a game, but the crappy economy has taken a toll on traditional dedicated marketing channels, what do you do?

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?

This is not WotC abandoning hobby retail. If anything, this is WotC trying to prime the hobby retail pumps from the general retail chains. It's acknowledging a problem, and reaching a tentacle, however slimy, out to where the people are.

Here's another industry that's in dire straits. Remember pinball? Large boxy machine, glass top, numerous bits of spinny and flashy plastic underneath, steel or chrome ball, flippers, ravenously hungry quarter slot? Remember those things?

In the 1990s, the industry had a renaissance. They were regaining popularity. What happened? One of the largest manufacturers, Williams, decided there was more money to be made producing redemption games and slot machines than pinball machines. The industry was hamstrung not because of a massive decline in sales. It was hamstrung by a moderate decline in sales, and one of the major manufacturers deciding that there was better money to be made elsewhere.

Player Piano (in the Vonnegutian Sense)

So, let's talk about those player piaons.

Do you know what happens if you go to Google and type "player piano" into the search box? Interestingly, you get results. People are still selling them. People are still making parts for them. People are still selling rolls for them. The fact is, there are two big reasons for the decline of the player piano industry in its day.

First, they were perverse, persnickety machines with a multitude of moving parts. If the roll wasn't aligned correctly, it wouldn't play correctly. Rolls could break or tear. The piano part was still a piano, and could get out of tune. Many things could go wrong, so rather than put up with them, people went with alternatives like that fancy-shmancy "victrola." Sure you couldn't play it like a piano, but it could play more songs.

Second, the player piano industry was the target of the music publishing industry, who saw the piano roll as competition to their own sheet music business.

But in the same way, the "victrola" gave way to more sophisticated turntables, CD players, and MP3 players, the player piano too changed. I give you the modern player piano. That's a product page at Yamaha. The player piano doesn't use a paper roll any more. Note that there's a link near the top to a video. Watch that video—it'll hurt your head how much things have changed. I thought it might have used a floppy, but that is so 1990s. The move to compact disc shouldn't have surprised me. The streaming of the "piano roll" from Yamaha's server caught me off guard.

Don't even want to mess with the piano part? Then get a roll-less, pianoless player piano. Yes, it's another Yamaha product page to a category of instrument called a "tone module." It's essentially a keyboardless synthesizer. But from the pure taxonomic standpoint, it is a player piano, without the paper roll, and without the piano.

Technology changes things. No hobby store? We're already buying games through services like DriveThruRPG and Indie Press Revolution and finding games through any number of online player directories. We're also posting our campaign notes online, using virtual battle mats, and using live chat through VOIP services like Skype.

Yes, all those online measures mean the hobby grows more insular, and it's more minimal-level life support than a new life. But it suggests that the hobby won't die, and as long as it's not dead, it can grow back bigger and better than before. Provided people don't trample it while stampeding after where they think the money is.

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