Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2003

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"The role-playing industry has gotten itself into a mess again."


To the fifty-eighth issue of The Guild Companion, and our fifth anniversary. Issue 1 really was published in December 1998!

The State of the Industry

As ever, the role-playing industry has gotten itself into a mess again.

On ICE's discussion boards, a thread, which began on the topic of what Rolemaster fans thought of HARP, mutated into a discussion of the state of the RPG industry led by Bruce Neidlinger.

His argument can be summarized as follows:

In the early days of the industry, companies selected their products carefully, aiming to market games and supplements that would enjoy steady sales for years, generating solid income for all tiers of the industry (manufacturer, distributor, and retailer). In the 1990s, the "frontlist" phenomenon began to take over the industry, particularly in the distributor and retailer segments. New products sold well and quickly in the short term, only to be ousted by even newer products, while "backlist" products languished. Then the collectible card games arrived and took the "frontlist" to a new level, and finally d20/OGL came along and opened up the floodgates to scores of new companies all desperate to make an impact and claim market share at any cost.

The situation now is that the lifecycle for a new RPG product is almost always 90 days of sales followed by a decline to almost nothing. Manufacturers seeking to survive in this marketplace are forced on to a treadmill of "publish or perish", with some companies pumping out half a dozen new products every month, with prices of individual items steadily rising.

Bruce believes that this is unsustainable. Manufacturers simply cannot survive on this basis. Endless supplements ruin games and settings. Gamers cannot cope either - who has the money to buy all the high-priced hardbacks that are being released?

I agree. "Publish or perish" will become "Publish and perish". The rising prices of role-playing games (such as hardbacks at thirty pounds) and the frontlist phenomena have affected my buying habits. I'm now only buying books that I feel I can definitely use or need to have for "industry purposes". The latter only get bought when I need them. Previously I would buy new role-playing products simply because they grabbed my interest, even if I could not realistically expect to use them. Nowadays? Well, I haven't yet bought new games such as Mongoose's Babylon V RPG or AEG's Stargate SG-1, even though I am interested in both settings.

The heavy frontlisting also has another adverse impact. Too many titles for the popular games (e.g. D&D, d20, White Wolf) means that lack of shelf-space and retailer inventory constraints are forcing out new products from smaller publishers. It means that I'm not seeing new titles even for GURPS, let alone ICE's games, in my local game stores. This means that I'm losing the ability to flick through a book and make an impulse purchase. To be sure, I can special-order books from both game stores, but that means that I've already committed to buying the book in question.

As I said at the start, the industry is in a mess.

ICE's proposed solution is to make backlist work again through a high percentage of web sales and maintaining a strong fanbase.

Ryan Dancey (founder of the Open Gaming movement among other things) has his own take on how manufacturers can survive. Taking Wizards' Draconomicon (coincidentally reviewed in this issue) as an example, he suggests that manufacturers should strive to create, design, promote and sell 3 or 4 absolutely top-notch products per year (capable of selling 20,000 units) rather than killing themselves churning out products every month that will barely break even on a couple of thousand sales.

Ryan Dancey's model makes a number of assumptions about these best of breed products, notably that they be "D&D"-esque, scale for all levels of play (from low-powered games to Epic in d20-speak), and be modular (so that GMs can pick and choose which parts to incorporate in their games). Further, rules should be balanced against the core rules (in Dancey's terms, the System Reference Document) and contain new "crunchy bits" (in d20 that means new prestige classes, spells, feats, and so on), all of which can be added piecemeal. Finally, the products should enhance existing facets of the game rather than add wholly new areas, and assume that the player-characters will be "heroic" and "good-aligned" in play.

While I may not agree with all of Dancey's assumptions and I suspect that few manufacturers will be willing to risk their business on such a radical change of direction (or even have the capital to make it work), building new products with scalability, modularity, balance, and "crunchiness" in mind can only lead to better games.

In next month's editorial, I will talk about how our plans for commercial Guild Companion modules are progressing, and how they will compete in the RPG marketplace. Feel free to post your thoughts on the gaming industry and its products in our discussion boards.

HARPing on about Dragonmeet

As a final reminder, I will be at this year's Dragonmeet convention (Saturday 13th December, London) and will be running two sessions of High Adventure Role Playing (HARP). Full details are on the Dragonmeet website (www.dragonmeet.com).

Construct Companion Now Available

Construct Companion has finally been published, and is now available directly from ICE and many good gaming stores. I have not personally seen a copy yet, but first reports suggest that ICE has done a first-class job on the book. I'll be available on the Guild Companion Rolemaster discussion board to answer any queries on Construct Companion.

Farewell (for now ...)

I have final preparations to make for Dragonmeet and a new book to write, namely College of Magic (for HARP), so I'll leave you to enjoy this month's issue. Our next issue will be published in January 2004, but until then ...

Keep gaming and have fun!
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion