Why RPGs aren’t mainstream anymore.

masses-are-the-mediaBy Paco Garcia Jaen

For the last few days I have been reading the excellent Designers & Dragons from Mongoose Publishing. If you haven’t read my review on that book yet, please do read it. I mention there all the reasons you need to want to have this book on your shelves.

One thing that’s interesting me a lot about this book is how it mentions the ups and downs of the gaming industry before I got into gaming. Although I am old enough to have been alive as long as RPGs, they didn’t break it big in Spain until the late 80’s or early 90’s, which is when I became very much into it.

However I was very shielded from the realities of the RPG industry. I would buy books, play games, organise convention, have my own fanzine and not care much about the companies behind the books other than to find out when the next instalment was going to come out. It wasn’t until the demise of TSR that I started to wonder what was going on. I loved D&D, how come that company was in trouble? It was very popular, right?

Well, yes, but, as I have learned in the last few years, that is not enough to actually survive and do well.

So Designers & Dragons gives a very detailed account of many companies that have come and gone. And also a lot that have come and stayed. Oh, and some that have come and changed. Also about the people who’ve come and gone, stayed, changed, returned… you get the drift.

One of the things that really smacked me in the face was to see how the mistakes of the past are being committed by the companies of today. It truly feels that most companies are just ignoring the past for the sake of pride, experimentation or sheer stupidity. It also feels like a lot of companies are doing the right stuff just by accident, and sometimes by careful use of common sense. Something I would suggest everyone tries once in a while. It can render amazing results!

So what do companies have to do to succeed? I hear you ask. Well my friends, the list below is not exhaustive and is not in order of importance either. Some of you might thing that one subject deserves more attention than another and some of you might thing that some subjects are useless. That’s fine. Opinions are like nipples, we all got three.

I can promise you, however, that following and looking after the following points, will greatly increase the chances of success of any games company. Read on:

  • Quality: Without quality, and I mean GOOD quality, you will never get further than your own doorstep. Even your friends and family, who supported you all this time and told you that your product was great, will look at you in dispair and tell you that it sucks. You don’t want that. Quality comes in the shape of good writing, good story, good background, good layout, good artwork, good marketing… I think you get me by now.Identify what you are good at and don’t be afraid to admit what you’re not good at. Perhaps you are a very good storyteller but an appalling artist. Maybe you have a knack for characters but your imagination is not suited to create whole worlds. Maybe you’re great at concept, but not good at realising those concepts. Find someone who will be good at what you are not and ask for help. It is not an admission of failure to ask for help, but it is an admission of idiocy to fail because your pride stopped you from getting that help you knew you needed.
  • Innovation: This is a tricky one, but again one that you will never get anywhere without. Now what do we consider to be innovative? Innovation means adding something new to something old and make it feel new and different without loosing what makes it really cool. There would be no point, whatsoever, in writing Lord of the Rings again. It’s been masterfully written already, no one would even dare doing so. However there are reasons to write stories in Middle Earth, and that is to show us, to tell us new things about Middle Earth. To help us explore what we didn’t know about it and keep our curiosity and sense of adventure alive.Many companies have innovated very successfully on very old concepts. Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy, the Cthulhu Mythos and Pathfinder are the perfect examples. They all have seen different re-incarnations of the same game, or at least the same subject but:
    • Dungeons & Dragons has changed the feel of the rules and the worlds with every incarnation. They have also added new stuff al the time to keep us interested and spark our imaginations. Loath it or love it, D&D has managed to rattle our cages since the very beginning, and that’s because they’ve done a lot of the things in this list very well from the start. And some horribly wrong.
    • Warhammer Fantasy has also changed the format, the mechanics and the rules for a very familiar setting. Where they have managed to innovate more than anyone, is in creating something so visually appealing and fun to play with, that it’s impossible to dislike. They have innovated in making things easier for us to imagine and giving us a system that provides with freedom to interpret our actions and the actions around us. Same old thing, new way to present it.
    • Cthulhu Mythos: Call of Chulhu has been going on for 30 years. What would be the point of starting another Cthulhu Mythos based game? Well, that question probably went through the mind of Simon Rogers when Pelgrane Press considered publishing Trail of Cthulhu. What that game offers is a remake of the rules in a totally different way, but also a new and more dramatic feel to the game. Thus people who are interested in non-percentile based rules have a different game that can be played differently, even if it covers the same subjects.
    • Pathfinder has managed to innovate in a different way. They have just sorted out problems and given players of D&D who didn’t want to make the move into a new edition, a new world where they can do the same they used to do, but improved in its mechanics. Is Golarion better than Toril or Athas? No. It’s just different, but it doesn’t offer anything to make it “better”, it’s just a matter of taste. The innovation in that game came out of improving on the existing products. However, Paizo did something else that we’ll take a look at in a short while, involve the community. That guaranteed their success from the start.
  • Cross-generation thinking: The game industry has been going on for a long time now. There are young kids who are coming into the hobby and older people in their 50’s who still enjoy a good game or two a week. This matters. This matters because the people who’ve been playing RPGs for a long time have certain gaming needs, while the ones who are just breaking in, need something else. This is something many times overlooked by plenty of companies and it either drive people away, or stop new people from coming into the hobby. Thus there is a sense in some sections of the industry that feel like the hobby is ageing with the players and feeling just as tired. Although it works for the companies that behave in such way, it also hinders their potential of growth and expansion, and it does no favour to the hobby as a whole.
  • Support for your products: This applies only if the product you sell is not a support product itself. Ok.. let me elaborate. There are two main type of products; core products (rules, settings and the like) and support products (adventures, expansions and other “fluff”). The difference between the two is that you need the core products to actually play. The rest you can give or take, but they’ mainly just make your life a bit easier. However, the problem is that some companies produce way too much of this support type of books and they saturate the market. Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf are probably the most notorious of them all. They both inundated our shelves with supplement after supplement after supplement after supplement until we couldn’t take anymore or  couldn’t care anymore.Obtaining a balance is pretty key, as far as I am concerned. With 4th Edition, WotC started very well. Good supplements and a good, steady stream of adventures. Then the steady stream of adventures dried out and you have to be a DDI member to get anything. Bad idea. Paizo, on the other hand, produced a steady stream of incredible adventures, at very affordable prizes and very easy to follow. Hey, guess who’s getting my money!Players, such as myself, who don’t have time or talent to create our own adventures need them. If you provide a very rich and detailed world, with more options anyone could have ever imagined, but don’t give us what we need to bring that game to life, we won’t bring the game to the table. For some an online subscription is OK. For some is not. Giving the option of both is always a good alternative and one that plenty of companies out there have proven is feasible. Think about that.
  • Community: Make no mistake, if there is no community of people around your game, you are nothing and you’ll go nowhere. You can create a product with an existing community already established, such as if you write for Pathfinder, D&D, Vampire, Cthulhu games, etc. However if you are coming out with a new product, you must make an effort to provide a space where people can share experience and, most importantly, connect with you, the writer/editor/publisher/artist/etc.You can use existing forums, social network sites or any other method, but if you don’t get that side of things going and people don’t start to get excited about your product, you will never be as big as you could or should. This is a lot more difficult that it seems. RPG players are difficult to convince to like something. We have so much offer out there at the moment that we need to be judicious in how we invest our time and what games we follow and play.
  • Marketing: I have left this one for the last one as I think it’s the least important. Yes, I know some of you are now with your hands in your heads wondering when I totally lost my brain. Well, I haven’t.Marketing opportunities, as in the shape of advertising have diminished dramatically. There are barely any publication left. Kobold Quarterly is an absolutely fantastic resource, but it has very limited reach and, since it’s  not present in high street magazine sellers, it can’t call out to new customers by power of cover attraction. TV or Radio advertising is out of the question. Companies like D&D do have an incredible marketing tool in the shape of videogames. They stay for years after release and start to create hype years before release. In all that time, people have the name in their heads. Neat!What can you do to promote and advertise your product? That is a very difficult question to answer. Getting to know people who reach out in the field where you operate helps. Blogs, podcasts, forums and community websites and medium (Twitter, Google+) help a lot. Joining forces with people who will develop parallel products, such as novels, also help a lot. The ultimate point, though, is that you have to get the word out there and get people talking about your product. Hey! That sounds a lot like creating a community!

So, succeeding in this world is VERY difficult, and getting the above wrong will indeed make things even more difficult. Which takes me to the title of this article.

In my opinion, some of the reasons why RPGs are not “mainstream” anymore is because companies fail in more than one of those subjects. Most of the times, companies are created by people who love the hobby but don’t have business sense. History has proven that when people with business sense but no care for gaming come into the picture, things go horribly wrong (don’t they TSR?). D&D is victim of a corporate way of looking at something that is not corporate, something that is cosier and needs a more personal approach. Sad is to see how WotC tries time and time again and get stifled by Hasbro.

Although I don’t like the fact that WotC pays no attention to the users (please note, I say WotC, not the amazing writers who put work out there every day) and, if you live outside the USA, you get pretty much totally ignored, I do appreciate what a difficult position they are in and I am convinced that, if they had more freedom, they would have learned from past mistakes and do a lot better.

So, for as long as big companies keep behaving like big companies and not caring about their product or the people who buy them; for as long as they keep coming out with the same thing again and again; for as long as they fail to engage the public; for as long as they don’t support their product in the right way; RPGs will never ever ever ever be mainstream again and will never enjoy another “golden age” like the ones we once had.

Pity, is it not?

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