This article is based on a paper I wrote for an introduction to business class I took several years ago. The assignment was to write about some aspect of business we were interested in and I decided to write mine on some of the changes in the role playing game industry. The first paragraph is probably nothing new to most RPG fans, but I had to write the paper with the assumption that my professor knew nothing about role playing games, their history, or the business. For more information about the material presented in the second paragraph see the "About POIGS" section of my website. I would also like to give an extra thanks to Fred Hicks from Evil Hat Productions for taking the time to answer a few questions I had while writing this paper. -Al
How the RPG Industry has Changed
As an industry, role playing games have been around for about forty years. Role playing games, or RPGs, descended from another hobby: war gaming. The war gaming hobby involved using published rule systems and miniatures to simulate various historical battles. In 1971 Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren published Chainmail, a medieval themed war game with a fantasy supplement that introduced magic and monsters into what was once a strictly historical game. The foundations of the role playing game hobby were laid in 1974 when Gygax and Dave Arneson published Dungeons & Dragons. In this new game each miniature no longer represented a unit of nameless soldiers but instead a specific character with defined abilities and as detailed a personality as the player wished to develop. Since that day the role playing game industry has went through many changes, branching out from fantasy to cover nearly every genre imaginable. Like any industry it has been through changes, several of which are in part due to changing technology.
Currently, I am involved in this industry as a self published author working under the name Point of Insanity Game Studio. However, this has not been my first foray into the role playing game industry. Shortly after high school I started designing a role playing game with some friends of mine and eventually formed a company called Lasalion Games. A new role playing game company didn’t have too many options back then. Selling digital materials over the internet wasn’t common place like it is today so the choices were to buy equipment and print the books yourself or take it to a commercial printer. If you couldn’t afford to advertise in a gaming or hobby magazine the best way to get your name out was to give demonstrations of the product at a local hobby store or gaming convention. Instead of getting a loan my company paid for everything with our own money, using it to buy artwork and pay for all business expenses. Needless to say, it was not an inexpensive endeavor!
The industry’s landscape is certainly different today than it was during the 1980s and 90s. I asked game designer Fred Hicks from Evil Hat Productions what he thought one of the biggest differences was and he replied “Breadth of options (many more games) and a net smaller pool of players (fewer buyers). The general age of Joe Gamer is on the rise; he has two kids and a day job competing for his time.” To add to that perhaps one of the most notable changes to the industry has been the rise of independent, or “indie” RPG companies. The definition of what makes a company an indie company isn’t always easy to pin down, but one major difference is these publishers enjoy creator ownership of their products. Ron Edwards, game designer and founder of indie RPG community The Forge, points out the differences between the indie company and the commercial company in his article "The Nuked Apple Cart":
“Commercial RPGs are owned in a complex relationship between authors, publishers, and third parties; the bulk of their production value is spent on advertising (e.g. magazines) and aggrandizing (presence at conventions). They depend on the approval of distributors and retailers on their basis to sell-through in large quantities for a limited time. Often they become a small portion of a large-scale merchandizing effort involving a wide range of products.”
Edwards expands upon this difference in the same article by contrasting this approach with his own game and company:
“Sorcerer is an independent roleplaying game. That is, it's owned, marketed, distributed, and so forth by me, its designer. No one gets a penny from its sales but me and the credit card web-people…there's no associated card game, series of novels, board game, or miniatures. Advertising is limited to reviews, trading information on the internet, and occasional flyers at convention.”
Perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of the role playing game industry occurred in 2000. It was in this year that Wizards of the Coast, the new owners of the Dungeons & Dragons brand, introduced the D20 System and the Open Gaming License, or OGL. This was significant in a number of ways. First, the D20 System was a set of rules that the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons was based on. The OGL allowed anyone to publish and sell material that would be compatible with one of the world’s most widely played games. It “…allowed smaller companies and even individuals with big ideas to bring their products to the market.(1)” The OGL would also allow Wizards of the Coast to expand their product line with little risk or investment on their part “…because it let hundreds of developers fill in the niches that Wizards didn't have the time or the inclination to do… (2).” While the OGL has had its share of criticism it has had an impact on the RPG industry. When I asked Fred Hicks if he thought the OGL had been good or bad for small press companies he replied “…I think it's been unalloyed goodness, once we've made it past the d20 boom and bust (3). The OGL and its ilk work great in that context, allowing fan effort and community crowdsourcing to turn small popularities into ... less small popularities.”
In any event, the rise of indie RPG companies and self published game products has been greatly aided by, and can perhaps be attributed to, the internet and improving digital media technologies. Having been a small press publisher in the 1990s, I can attest to the options a company has now vs. the options a company had then. Physical products and small print runs are no longer the only option a publisher has. Thanks to online PDF sales and Print on Demand websites a publisher can now distribute his products without having to spend a lot of his own money or risk taking out a loan he might have difficulty paying back. In an aptly named blog post “How Do I Start?” Fred Hicks advises potential game publishers to “…consider platforms like Lulu and DriveThruRPG. Invest very little up front; until you’ve proven yourself, and importantly, until you’ve found an audience willing to buy your point of view, it’s not worth losing a ton of money.(4)”
That is certainly good advice for anyone considering publishing a role playing game. Today it is possible to at least get a product out there without draining one’s bank account dry. PDFs can easily be distributed online and are infinitely reproducible (some publishers might argue that is not always a good thing, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). Print on Demand is helpful as well because it allows customers to buy physical products without requiring the publisher to order a run of books he might or might not be able to sell. Websites like Lulu not only handle the printing of the product but ship it to the customer as well. Finally, royalty free stock art allows publishers to obtain the images they need to make their products look good at far less than it would cost to order custom artwork. So while the RPG industry is no doubt easier to break into because of the lower investment required of the publisher it is arguably harder to stand out. As of this writing (March 14, 2012), there are over 250 publishers offering their products on the DrivethruRPG website, each offering games to cover nearly every genre you can imagine. When I asked Fred Hicks what he thought the biggest challenge to a new company in the role playing game industry he replied “Aside from finding an audience, the biggest challenge is about finding a new, grabby concept that really sets folks on fire. It's still happening, year after year, but that doesn't make it easy to do.”
Exposure and getting to know the audience is certainly important in any industry. Fortunately, the internet offers a way to make this daunting task easier. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter plus involvement in discussion forums found on sites like RPG.net allow fans to connect directly with the people who make the games they enjoy. When I asked Hicks about how a small press company can use the online world to his advantage he advised “build up an audience of friends and peers, and stay accessible. The biggest thing you have over the big guys is the ability to look and feel like a person making a personal connection.”
The role playing game industry has come quite a way since its war gaming roots and the first publishing of Dungeons & Dragons. It has become an industry that anyone with an idea and a little dedication can enter without a large investment. It is an industry in which we work with ideas and concepts, so even a small company has the potential to produce a product of equal or superior quality to that of a major corporation. But perhaps one of the greatest things about the current state of the industry is the unlimited potential it has from the creative minds that do it not for money, but for the love of the hobby.
1, 2: The Ghosts of D&D: Past, by Greg Tito
3: The d20 boom and bust Hicks is referring to is a term used by some RPG fans and publishers to describe the sudden growth in the number of companies that entered the RPG market selling d20 compatible products in the early 2000s (the “boom”) and the decline in the number of such companies a few years later. The Ghosts of D&D article also briefly touches upon this boom and bust and possible reasons. -Al
4: How do I Start?, by Fred Hicks