Doom and Gloom in Gaming

Recently, a well-respected colleague of mine in the tabletop gaming industry (Owen KC Stephens) linked to an op-ed piece of sorts written by Ben Riggs, all about how the gaming biz was on the verge of collapse. Mr. Stephens described it as a “well-reasoned, well-considered analysis” and that he “disagreed with almost all of it.” It’s a long one, but here’s the link in case you want to spend the time to read it:

IN this piece, titled “The Golden Age of TTRPGs is Dead” (TTRPGs = Table Top Role Playing Games) the author talks about how the “balkanization” of gaming is sure to spell its doom.

In my humble opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.

His main point is that, through things like the TV program Stranger Things and live play sessions of D&D recorded and uploaded to YouTube, a vast number of new players have been exposed to – and developed an interest in – Dungeons and Dragons. He goes on to talk about how many publishers have been driven to create their own game systems rather than rely on the capricious whims of Hasbro’s corporate team, who in recent months attempted to pull the rug out from under those same publishers by eliminating the Open Gaming License. The OGL allows third-party publishers to publish material for Dungeons & Dragons under certain guidelines. In this, he is absolutely not wrong. Hasbro Corporate is behaving EXACTLY like the folks in the fairy tale about the goose that laid the golden egg. Never mind that D&D was the only division of Hasbro that was profitable this year; never mind that all these publishers creating material for their game is free promotion for them, and that the designers who worked on these projects represent a ready, willing, and knowledgable talent pool from which Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast can (and has) draw fresh new talent to work for them directly, either as employees or (more likely) contract help. The short-sightedness at Hasbro about how D&D works is staggering. They have, in fact, taken great strides to alienate the very customer base they depend on, and next year’s earnings report will prove whether or not claims by outraged gamers of “never giving Hasbro another dime” are only so much hot air. But I digress.

Many of these publishers, seeing the writing which is clearly printed in foot-high block capitals on the proverbial wall, have done the sensible thing and moved their products away from a reliance on D&D’s proprietary system. Here’s where Ben Rigg’s argument falls apart for me. He claims that this “balkanization” of gaming systems will be the thing that destroys gaming. He is mistaken.

Look; in my time as a designer for tabletop RPGs, I’ve written for fourteen different games comprising nine different distinct game systems, my contributions coming between 2005 and 2018. I’ve written material for D&D in third-party settings, for Vampire: the Masquerade, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and other that are less well-known. I’ve played dozens more. There has ALWAYS been a wide variety of different role-playing games, at least within a year or two of D&D’s first appearance on the scene.

The way it works is this: all these new payers have been drawn to D&D because of film, television, and Internet actual play sessions. As has been the case since D&D first appeared, some of those players will ONLY play D&D, now and forever. They have no interest in seeing what else is out there; D&D fills a niche for them adequately and they’re happy with it. Delightful. More power to them. A second group will “grow out of” gaming. Family commitments, time constraints, changing interests, and lack of sufficient resources cause them to give up the hobby and never return. But the third group, while perhaps happy with D&D (or perhaps not) will seek out other games. Maybe they’re more interested in horror, or superheroes, so they turn to games that scratch that itch more precisely. In that third group lies the hopes and dreams of literally thousands of game designers around the world. More interest in D&D means more people to feed into this latter group. The rising tide lifting all boats once again.

Will those indie designers and publishers make a living from their games? Probably not, but then, few of them ever have. During my peak year, with something like 100,000 words spread over five supplements, I made less than $4,000.00, and the majority of creatives in the industry are in a similar boat. The author states that the TTRPG business is devilishly difficult, and in that he is absolutely correct. His claims that the “death” of the OGL and the creation of these many new games has changed the industry; also correct, but not in a new way. We go back to how it was before, when D&D and other games were still new, and people published any god-damned idea that flickered across their fevered brows. Anyone remember Bunnies and Burrows? Toon? Paranoia? Niche games will have a tougher time getting on store shelves than ever before, it’s true. Many gaming retailers are former gamers, and some just aren’t interested in carrying games they don’t know anything about, but that’s been true since the beginning of the hobby, so again, nothing new.

I believe the author is expecting something to spring out of the woodwork to be the new 800-pound gorilla that D&D has become, but I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. D&D caught lightning in a bottle; while undoubtedly something will come along that will have remarkable success, D&D CREATED the category, and that sort of thing only comes along very infrequently. My hope is that these new indie publshiers and designers will learn from Hasbro’s many, sometimes spectacular mistakes, and figure out new ways to grow their own fan base. Recruitment of new fans should be a priority, and in that D&D continues to be – for now, at least – the gift that keeps on giving.

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