The other day while
procrastinating taking a well earned break to catch up on my twitter feeds, I happened upon a comment from the good people at RPG Orbit. It caught my fancy, and I rattled off my own witty jibe. Here’s the brief conversation:
Can D&D Next make RPGs mainstream? bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/2012/06/should…
— Craig & Associates (@RPGOrbit) June 5, 2012
So now, smug git that I am, I’m stuck writing just such a post.
Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the grandpappy of roleplaying games. An entire species springs from this one root stock, albeit interbred with some close genetic relatives. Like a coelocanth D&D has outlived many of its descendents. Something about this particular game is extremely tenacious; though we should bear in mind that the RPG medium is very young, dating back to just 1974. RPGs are two years younger than Pong.
It’s unusual that you can trace the history of a medium to a single example: much less one which is still in production (in one form or another) today. Also interesting is how clustered the hobby has remained around that starting point. The roleplaying game, as a play experience and as an artform, is a group exercise in story-telling with ludic (game) elements such as intra-narrative goals and randomised outcomes; so why are the market leaders all games about heroic fantasy adventure? Even products with popular licenses don’t match the ubiquity of D&D; or ape it in style and substance. I suspect that there may be good reasons for that, beyond simple market forces and which have to do with the distinct aesthetic nature of Roleplaying as an artform, but my thoughts on those (formulated under the guidance of the Philosopher) can be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say, not only is D&D the forerunner of RPGs, it is also the benchmark.
Dungeons and Dragons, next
That is not to say that the church of D&D is a happy place. It has seen its share of schisms too, in the shift between each edition of the rules. If the goal of the D&D rules set (and the products that bring those rules sets to us) is to enable us to participate in shared narratives of heroic fantasy adventure, different editions represent different paths to that goal, different attempts to bring to light a certain desired play experience. Each transition: from Original Dungeons and Dragons to Advanced, then to second edition, third edition and on to fourth (and fourth and a bit) has created debate within the congregation. Some edition changes drew in converts – 3rd edition D&D created a gold standard for roleplaying that brought many into the hobby; while others have sent disciples into fits of rage, decrying the publisher Wizards of the Coast as apostates, and their sect the one true gospel. The goal with each upgrade is to make the game better – whether that means more fun to play, easier to get started with, or better at expressing the ineffable essence of D&D – and to refresh the flow of money into the publisher Wizards of the Coast’s coffers. Yet it often has the negative effect of offending long term players who were quite happy with their edition thank you very much.
When Wizards of the Coast abandoned the beloved 3.5 edition rules set, Paizo publishing adapted the rules into Pathfinder: and stole half the D&D market from under Wizards nose.
The shift to 4th edition was a particularly troubled change, bringing in alterations to the game that have been discussed at length elsewhere and which were not universally well received. Many felt that they betrayed the “spirit” of the game and duly jumped ship to competitor Paizo, who were making a product extremely similar to the popular 3.5 edition. Wizards aim had been to lure in the juicy MMORPG market, and remove some of the complexity barriers that prevented new players joining in, but instead they splintered their share of the market and married themselves to a product that has lurched on along with middling profitability. After a rocky few years, they find themselves in the difficult position of releasing a new edition that must: regain market share lost to Paizo; keep the peace with players who invested in 4th edition and are about to see their expensive book collections and webzine subscriptions made obsolete; and somehow draw in new players, perhaps from a related market, perhaps from somewhere else entirely.
At this point in the article, I could say that the salient question about D&D Next is not whether it can send RPGs mainstream, but whether it can provide a coherent product that does not divide Wizards’ weakened market share still further. But! There’s no points for that. So here is why I believe that D&D Next is extremely unlikely to push roleplaying games into the mainstream.
One product does not a mainstream make.
The Wii is the undisputed poster child for video-gaming as a family entertainment, and is associated with the arrival of videogames as a key part of the domestic living room. But it exists as part of a rich ecosystem of games for all tastes, with offerings from Zynga, Popcap, Blizzard and Rovio. The Wii would not have made the substantial market gains it did without Sony’s extensive efforts in the 90s to make the Playstation into something cool and desirable; and that would not have worked without an iconic blue hedgehog and an obese plumber; Sonic showed up in 1991, and Mario made his debut in 1981. The Windows operating system has been bundled with videogames for over a decade.
The point is that there is something for everyone; and I mean everyone, from the harassed lawyer sneaking in five minutes of Mafia Cities during her lunchbreak, to the Japanese salaryman training his brain on the tube train to work; to the two year old vaguely waving her limbs in the direction of a fluffy Kinect distraction; and drunken office rivals taking turns to outdance one another.
For a medium to be “mainstream”, it needs to have offers for everyone. D&D can’t provide that on its onesie; there is no way to slice “heroic fantasy adventure” and make it come out any way except niche, niche, niche. (Though sometimes it is a very large niche).
There are some extremely interesting and varied RPGs out there, which could cater to a huge spectrum of interests. But even within the RPG scene these have little exposure; t the mainstream they are one step below invisible.
How do you buy an RPG? From a specialist hobby or comic book store, from a mainstream bookseller, or online. The first aren’t found in every town, are going out of business, and don’t market themselves to the mainstream anyway; the second are ALSO going out of business and carry few if any RPG books; the third has an incredible selection of RPGs available, but is much like Plato’s theory of learning, in that you can only find what you already knew you were looking for.
The RPG market has little penetration into mainstream sales channels; many of the most interesting RPGs are only available at specialist conventions. Unlike videogames, boardgames, movies, music and books, you cannot find RPG products in food stores. Importantly, videogames, boardgames, movies, music and books all gain eye and brain time whenever you go for a walk in a town centre: RPGs do not. Videogames make constant appeals to us from the advertising bars in our social media profiles: RPGs do not. How do you know that you might want to play an RPG when you don’t know that they exist?
Wizards of the Coast have put in considered efforts before now to try and grow market share and draw in consumers from neighbouring markets. But Wizards of the Coast are not going to bring the industry with them. As far as many people are concerned, RPGs begin and end with D&D, and Wizards of the Coast care not one jot if you continue in that delusion. Wizards have no charitable agenda to put other people’s products into bookstores or our minds. Which brings us back to the rocks of our previous point: D&D does not represent an offer that can draw in everyone. And while RPGs are not widely seen, they will not be widely thought of.
A Wizards of the Coast advert aimed at the lucrative Massively Multiplayer Online RPG market.
Here is a sad fact: RPGs are the least profitable medium in the hobby game world. D&D is the sales juggernaut of the niche and it’s still tiny, with profits sufficiently low that Wizards of the Coast (or perhaps their shadowy overlords, Hasbro) have been steadily slewing D&D staff for years. D&D is a small part of Hasbro’s enormous toy and game business. Close beside it in the market are Pathfinder (which is essentially Dungeons and Dragons with some interesting kinks in the licensing), World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu; that last one is itself a spin off from the 1920s pulp horror of HP Lovecraft. Yes, yes, grognards out there, there are other major titles I could go on listing; GURPs, perhaps, or Traveller, or Hero/RuneQuest. But how many of those are seriously big titles? Multi-million dollar titles? Few. Perhaps, none.
In the boardgame market there are oodles of multi-million dollar money spinners; Monopoly; Cluedo; Trivial Pursuit; Guess Who?; Scrabble; Cranium; Mouse Trap; Dominion; Carcassone; Settlers of Catan. The videogame world produces more multi-million dollar properties than that every Christmas.
It might be an exciting time to make and play RPGs, and some franchises are thriving; but their product exists in a dangerous equilibrium. Experimentation may be the only way to grow the market; at the same time publishers are selling niche items to a small base of fickle consumers, and each and every failure could sink them. Wizards of the Coast has the bank balance of Hasbro with which to experiment – but Hasbro has a low tolerance for failure.
RPG publishers do not have the money to spend on things like advertising, or product placement, outside of safe markets where their core demographic already congregate; they don’t have the cash to pull a Nintendo and radically reinvent how we perceive and access games. And even with their low profitability, RPGs products are not cheap. A standard rulebook costs you as much as two months of Sky TV; which option represents better entertainment value depends entirely on how you enjoy spending your time. And time is one factor that cripples RPGs as an accessible artform.
Time to play
Let’s assume that rational choice theory is anything other than risible, and that each person picks how they spend their leisure time based on the amount of enjoyment they expect an activity to yield, and how efficiently (in terms of time and money) it produces that enjoyment. Important in this calculation will be how pleasurable the activity is, how easy it is to fit it into one’s schedule, how expensive each hour of entertainment is, and what else you could be doing with the same resources. How enjoyable RPG playing is will differ from person to person, so we’ll hang that one out as a judgment call. As for cash, RPGs can beextremely cost effective, as with only one (or, for some reason quite often three) book(s) and some funny-shaped dice, you can potentially generate limitless adventure: though with the rise of “free” computer games, there is competition in that Bonkers Cheap market. But oh, time, time, time, look what you do to me.
A typical RPG session runs from three to six hours. Already we’ve gone past movies, overshot opera, and are in the territory of TV mini series or dinner parties for time consumption. An RPG plot will take a ballpark figure of eight sessions to resolve. And at each session there will be at minimum three, more likely six people playing. So to run your game to completion you need to organise (or attend) something like eight consecutive dinner parties with the same group of people. That’s assuming you aren’t the poor sod running the game! In that case you need to prepare eight dinner parties worth of plot hooks and twists, as well as wrestling with the game mechanics to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Here’s a fact about the mainstream: the mainstream has children, or works two jobs to cover the rent. The mainstream gives up on plenty of things it likes to do because it does not have time; things like golf, match-stick modelling, going to the theatre or having sex. Many of its pleasures are passive ones, like television, Farmville and pop music. Everything else is a treasured indulgence. Roleplaying is an extremely active artform: the commitment it asks for is similar to choral singing or amateur dramatics. Arguably that makes it a more valuable and rewarding leisure activity; but the mainstream does not have the time to do many valuable and rewarding things. There is no way you could change D&D that would stop it being a huge, huge time commitment, so the challenge to popularise RPGs is to prove that they are worth the effort.
Barriers to Entry
For RPGs to go mainstream, there need to be products for every palate, easily available and in the public eye, at a price that is appealing enough for people to take a punt; and then they need to immediately sell themselves as so good that people will rearrange their schedules, call up their friends and put in all the time and effort to get a game off the ground.
Traditionally, RPGs have followed an epidemiological growth pattern, spreading from a carrier (an old player) to hosts (unsuspecting n00bs.) This is effective: playing an RPG with someone who knows what they are doing and in the presence of a nice gaming group is about the best introduction to the hobby that is available. But as a means of growing the hobby it is slow, and it in almost forty years it has shown no signs of going epidemic. The continuation of RPGs has relied for years on Brandvangelists, because its products don’t sell themselves.
Wizards of the Coast can make some easy concrete gains here, because the core product offer of Dungeons and Dragons is so obscenely horrible. A budding player who wants to learn to play D&D (from first principles, here – no joining a pre-existing group allowed) must choose between: 1) a set of three, 256 page hardback rulebooks, for the “full” experience: or 2) a nostalgic children’s starter set with extremely limited content that then gives way to an indeterminate grab-bag of boxed products. The children’s starter is the better of the two, but smacks of a strange mindset that sees “introductory” and “complete” as mutually incompatible.
At least the game’s lead design team seams to have recognised this and has made rectifying it a key objective. And history is on Dungeons and Dragons side here. The earliest D&D products didn’t just draw people into the playerbase, they called it into being, like an ancient God crafting men out of clay. Every person who picked up Original D&D (or the more famous “Red Box”) figured out how to make the game work in isolation, a world before helpful Wikis or factionalised forums, and from those awestruck progenitors grew the entire hobby.
A long, long road
Can Wizards send Dungeons and Dragons mainstream? With the brand identity, I’m surprised that they haven’t already. They have made forays into the worlds of comics, cartoons, videogames, and regrettably, movies. D&D novels, generally from the pen of one RA Salvatore, often assault the best-seller lists. Yet the actual RPG part of D&D, the very wellspring of the property, is often wildly misconstrued – or simply not known at all.
It’s not impossible that RPGs could become a national pastime – whichever nation you happen to be in. They are a social, creative activity, alternately thrilling and mentally stimulating. That’s not the worst mix for a hobby. But to look at the market as it stands today and suggest that with just one new product, even a product from the most highly capitalised studio in the field, the medium could soar into mainstream acceptance, seems like a fantasy. Wizards of the Coast were in a stronger position just prior to the release of 4th edition, sitting on a huge market share, with huge investment in digital technology and a targeted strategy to draw in the MMORPG market – and they failed.
Dungeons and Dragons has done mind blowing things, and Wizards of the Coast have done even more incredible ones. They are doing some very smart things with this flagship property at the moment. But RPGs in the mainstream?
Frankly, the mainstream can go spin. As long as companies occupy a profitable niche we will continue to see new RPG products, and with digital distribution removing barriers to entry and strong web communities providing support for budding game designers the opportunities for innovation within the hobby are greater than ever. I would love to see my non-gaming friends and neighbours join me in geekdom; it would make explaining how I spend my time that much easier. But let’s be frank. The mainstream isn’t coming to us.
We’ve got a long way to go.