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Johnny Come Lately

The Future of Roleplaying Games as a Commercial Enterprise

Note: This article also appears on the author's website.

by John Tynes

For five dollars, you could have your photo taken with a female porn star. For less than that, you could buy a comic book that told her life story--or at least, the juicy bits. Throw a rock and you'd probably strike the curvaceous breasts of a woman in skimpy clothing as depicted on a lurid poster; throw two, and you'd hit a poster of one holding a knife dripping with blood.

Welcome to the San Diego ComiCon, the GenCon of comic books. It's a far cry from the adventure gaming industry's yearly Milwaukee gathering in every way but one: the smell of money pervades them both.

You can smell it in San Diego, rising from the lusty covers of comics depicting the umpteenth variation of Gorgeous Babes Who Kill and from the shiny trading cards with the flavor of the month imprinted with gold foil and a hologram. You can smell it in Milwaukee, where for a brief shining moment it's possible for anyone with gumption and investors to make a quick killing with a collectible trading card game. It lingers in the aisles, is fanned by rabid fans making card trades by the hot dog stand, and positively fulminates from the lucky holders of the latest hot media license. You want your X-Files, your Highlander, your Star Trek? We've got the word, baby, and the word is HOT!

This ain't Dungeons & Dragons anymore, Toto.

The conventional wisdom among adventure gaming professionals has it that RPGs stay a couple years behind comic books in terms of big market trends. Collectibility, die-cut covers, gold foil, holograms: comics did it first. Speculators, big print runs, rabid fan followings: comics did it first. Collapsing distributors, bankrupt retailers, exclusive and direct distribution deals: comics did it first. The only thing comics have that gaming doesn't is a proliferation of truly lurid breasts-and-blood subject matter; that may be one area where gaming bucks the trend. Not even the grossest excesses at GenCon hold a candle to the kind of slime-drenched proto-porn coming from comics these days. TSR's iron grip on GenCon is partially responsible, but the nature of the medium is also to thank. It's one thing to buy some randy, bloody comics and sit and read them while snarfing chips, but it's quite another to experience that sort of entertainment as a participant.

(On the other hand, readers of the true-life porn comics who attended the San Diego ComiCon could bring their con membership badge to the publisher's "private photo studio" after the show for a discounted session in which you took photos of a porn star in lingerie, one on one. A little live-action gaming, anyone?)

For a long time, gaming had a certain security; it was, in economic terms, a mature market. No one got into gaming expecting to make big bucks. Big-scale success was still measured in years, not weeks. Even the likes of Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade took a long time to achieve saturation and break out into other media, because gaming simply doesn't have the pick-up-and-consume appeal of a comic book or a movie. Progress towards The Big Money was slow and almost certainly doomed to failure. TSR, for years the biggest company in gaming, had occasional stabs at the mainstream with cartoons and toys but could never keep the momentum going for a real break-through. Shadowrun and Battletech have credits racked up in the computer gaming market, but the average joe has never heard of either one. Vampire, a dark horse contender from the start, tapped into a subculture most people didn't know existed and is making a well-organized run for the mainstream with an ambitious line of fiction and a television show--but can anyone really imagine vampires as the next big genre for mainstream pop culture? Fringe city, baby.

But gaming has reached The Big Money, and with its first taste decided it wanted more. The unprecedented success of Magic: The Gathering has introduced money into the gaming hobby equation. For the first time, your average gaming retailer actually has a product that's worth pushing because he or she can score quick cash without much shelf space. The latest AD&D or Cyberpunk supplement doesn't do that, but trading card games do. In search of the next sure thing, companies look for media properties with fan followings that can be turned into attention-drawing CCGs; to the surprise of anyone who has worked in gaming for more than a few years, those companies are getting the hot properties. Entertainment conglomerates who wouldn't have returned a phone call from the likes of FASA or TSR a few years ago are now jumping all over companies like Wizards of the Coast (or nearly anyone else who says they can produce a CCG); when I was working there, we got phone calls from places whose names you'll find plastered all over movie marquees and bookstores around the world--and more than a few came calling in person, hat in hand, eager to get their foot in the mouth of the next big cash cow.

So what happens next? License deals in comics have been going on for decades, but they've only acquired that modern hype and flash in the last few years. Unlike RPGs but like comics, the new CCGs have a collectible, speculator element. No doubt there are rabid Star Wars fans who collected everything West End Games has produced for their RPG, but the success of the RPG didn't depend on that non-gaming faction; can the same be said for Decipher's Star Wars CCG? Probably not. If we take comics as a model for our industry, what happens next is easy to see coming: The Big Money and the increasingly apparent unprofessionalism of many gaming and card distributors make exclusive distribution deals or even direct distribution a very appealing prospect. In comics, we've seen Marvel and DC Comics both go exclusive with a single direct distributor for the comic shop market, cutting out everyone else and sending the rest of the distribution system into a financial nosedive. In gaming, it's happened now in the U.S. with Games Workshop, who have begun selling direct to retailers and effectively cutting out the entire distribution system that the rest of the adventure gaming industry relies on.

Hand-in-hand with this tactic, comics also teaches us something that Economics 101 should have: speculative fervor can drive a market to new heights, but not for very long. The boom and bust of black-and-white comics in the 1980s, and then the twin disasters of the sports card crash and the fall of high-hype comics from publishers like Image left distributors and retailers holding a huge bag full of unsold comics. This situation simply could not have occurred at that scale or speed in the non-collectible market of gaming until CCGs came along; now that it has, we are likewise ripe for a fall.

People have predicted a CCG crash since 1994, but the question is what form it will take. At the San Diego convention, the brand-new CCG Hyborian Gates was being sold at cut-rate prices despite its tie-in with famous artist Boris Vallejo. Brand identity is a common method of insurance against a crash, which is why we've seen CCGs based on The Crow and Highlander among others. But will Magic: The Gathering go bust and if so, how big will the bust be? And who will suffer? Distributors already hurting from losing their Games Workshop sales (which are much bigger in the U.S. than you probably think) will be ill-equipped to handle a warehouse full of CCGs that don't sell; many have already had problems with over-ordering on some titles that didn't sell, and as more games come out and fail it will become more and more likely that we'll see some major damage to gaming distributors in the rest of 1996.

Will adventure gaming survive the next couple of years? That's another question altogether. It's very doubtful that people will stop playing AD&D no matter how bad the CCG market gets, and as long as AD&D is around so will RPGs from other companies, too; it is the tentpole around which the canvas is gathered. Of course, should TSR go exclusive or direct it'll make things tougher but regardless, enough of the distribution system should survive that adventure gaming will weather the storm. Yet other signs aren't very encouraging; only two RPGs from major companies have been released in 1995 (Changeling and Everway) and there's not a lot on the horizon. This suggests that, as resources are diverted to CCGs and as distributors have less and less money to sink into product, we'll be seeing a drought of RPGs that will do very little to either bring in new players or take advantage of the expanded market created by CCGs. Who out there is producing an RPG to appeal to those people and get them to stick around in gaming after they're tired of CCGs? No one seems to be making any effort to appeal to those people, who have demonstrated that they like games, like spending money on games, and are willing to look at new games from new companies as well as old ones. They represent a substantial opportunity, yet RPG companies seem to be doing little more than retrenching.

So let's skip forward a couple of years. Adventure gaming will still be around, and most likely CCGs will still be with us. Games Workshop will still be direct, and they may not be alone, but the distribution system will probably still be able to get product to stores and keep the money flowing for those who can't or won't go direct. What will things be like?

First off, a new game release will either be heading straight into the realm of mass-market-licensedom with computer game deals, a comic book, and who knows what else striding alongside--and may well have been initiated outside of gaming, with the RPG being the license and not the original a la West End's Species, Tank Girl, and Necroscope--or it will be on a fast train to nowhere. People from other markets are watching what we do now, looking for the next cool idea that can be transmuted into other products. RPGs that are produced above a certain water-mark of originality and professionalism will actually have a real chance of making it in other markets through license programs. RPGs that come out below that water-mark--like the game those friends of yours are just sure that everyone will want to play and that they can produce at the local copy shop--will suffer the twin indignity of receiving attention from neither distributors nor licensors.

Second, we'll be a couple years closer to obsolescence. It's been said before and I'll say it again: we are playing in a doomed hobby, and as the months and years roll by it will become increasingly apparent that we'll soon be where wargames are now. Adventure games as we know them will be a tiny niche market that won't even support the likes of a TSR let alone a WotC (use Avalon Hill for your model), while "RPGs" will be the nigh-exclusive province of computer gaming much as wargames and strategy games are now. Our hobby won't have seen another Magic, let alone another Shadowrun or Vampire. We're about as big as we're going to get, and it's all downhill from here.

Third, happily, RPGs will still be fun to play and we'll still be enjoying them and who cares about all this other stuff. Right? On the other hand, you know those people at the cons who push little miniature armies around the table and bid at auctions for ancient, out-of-print wargames? That's you in ten years, unless you get into computer gaming (which you probably will) or are a participant in the Games Workshop juggernaut-slash-hobby which will be its own entity separate from the rest of adventure gaming and which will probably be doing better than anyone else around, thank you very much.

So another question: Games Workshop aside, will adventure gaming companies survive? I said above that nothing bigger than Avalon Hill would be around, but that isn't completely true. It's true if all the company does is adventure games; it's not true if adventure games are only one of many things a company does.

Once again, the comics market shows the way. Marvel Entertainment group derived the vast majority of its revenues from comics sales even as late as 1988; today, comics make Marvel much less than half of their total revenues. The rest comes from toys, animated television shows, collectible merchandise like trading cards, and other spinoff products.

As befits the johnny-come-latelys that we are, adventure gaming companies are following suit. White Wolf has launched a solid line of fiction and is moving into computer games and television.Wizards of the Coast is betting the farm on professional tournaments and tours. TSR is already fabulously successful as a fantasy fiction publisher, and will probably continue to have occasional flare-ups of mainstream success from time to time. FASA has been doing virtual reality computer gaming for several years now at their Battletech Centers and they have a bright future in that area. (In addition, the success of their Battletech and Shadowrun fiction lines is nothing to sneeze at.) In other words, these companies realize that to survive and thrive, they must diversify. The core market for adventure gaming isn't all that big and doesn't grow much--even the legions of people going into game shops for CCGs will evaporate if no one makes an effort to really snag them--and as computer entertainments develop the interactivity (via networking) that RPGs have today the audience for traditional RPGs will devolve more and more until we're at the subsistence level that the non-computer wargaming hobby exists at today.

Not a pretty picture, is it? As a friend of mine in the industry likes to say, "Evolve or die. Adapt or perish." Adventure gaming companies either know that, or they don't. The ones who do, and who operate at a respectable level of revenues and market share, will still be here in a few years.

Ironically, the picture isn't so bad for little companies. The drought in RPGs means that a new RPG release from a small company will get proportionally more exposure than would happen otherwise, and their ability to operate with low overhead and less ambition means that they could do just fine even in a drastically depleted market. Few tiny RPG companies would object to being as successful as Avalon Hill is, even these days. As traditional RPGs appeal to a smaller and smaller market, that market will at least be more fervent and excited about the hobby. That's good news for small companies--as long as they don't have their sights set on becoming the likes of FASA and White Wolf.

In closing, it should be clear that this is, by and large, a fairly pessimistic assessment. More optimistic ones can certainly be assayed, and more to the point you may notice I have avoided any real predictions on just how fast the doom and gloom I'm foreseeing will occur; in five years, ten years, twenty years? Beats me. The simple truth is that we're at the mercy of technology's pace: the faster people can have as good an experience via computers as we have with tabletop RPGs today, the faster you'll see the dust collect on the shelves of your local hobby shop.

What about comics? Oddly enough, they probably have a better chance. Unlike adventure gaming, they aren't facing the prospect of hundreds of hi-tech companies aiming to replicate what they do. There has yet to be anything really like the comic-reading experience in computer form, and the ease of access and variety found in comics can not be readily imitated and nor can its audience readily be subsumed. The grand old man of genre hobbyists, the comic book may outlast adventure gaming as we know it and then some--with blood, breasts, and all.

Copyright ©1996 John Tynes

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