Why in the name of everything that’s unholy would anyone want to design, publish and market an RPG-focused non-video game today? There’s no money in it. There was no money in it when the idea was completely new and unsullied…if TSR couldn’t figure out a way to make it viable in 1980, why in hell would someone think it was a good idea now, financially speaking?
Sure, there’s the argument that TSR had its collective head up its ass, that opportunities were missed or directions taken that showed unqualified stupidity. Regardless, those opportunities don’t exist today. The community has killed them. Let me just run off some of the things standing in the way of someone wanting to get their remarkable new roleplaying system to the public.
1. RPGs have a reputation that’s POISON. Oh, perhaps not to you, or to anyone reading this blog or one like it…but for the great consumer market any game that suggests of dungeons and dragons (and for the public, there IS no other RPG) is worth nothing but a belly laugh. That allows for a very, very limited market, pretty much only those people who are already interested in RPGs, most of whom are already playing the RPG of choice…which means you must fight uphill against that familiarity in order to sell your product to to anyone.
This doesn’t even work well with products that are insanely popular. How many alternative baseball, football and hockey leagues have been attempted and have proven to be utter failures after just a few years—and we’re talking about the SAME sport, just played by different people. A sport that is familiar to millions of participants and spectators, that is loved and worshipped by small communities throughout the country and is even a religion to some people. Yet, try a little competition against an established league and those same people just ignore you.
And what about lacrosse, soccer, rugby or cricket? Popular somewhere, sure, but in spite of a century of trying to make inroads into the American market, most of these leagues have to operate on a non-profit basis just to survive.
Your personally created RPG better have a substantial money behind it in order to raise even the awareness of the community that might buy it…money that doesn’t exist because no one believes such a game will sell. The recent advancement of 4e only happened on the grand scale it did because its based on an existing game. And from what I hear, sales aren’t providing wild profits.
2. Brand loyalty? What the hell is that?. Spend enough time in this community and you’ll find pretty quickly that the last thing anyone believes in is the companies producing the games they play. A lot of these players don’t know the name of the company—they don’t look at the box any more than they do for the video games they buy or the CDs they rip off the net. You’re not going to build a business based on the sale of your game that has a hope of growing and evolving because—for these particular consumers—you don’t exist. Your game is just another brandless box sitting in the shop’s bargain bin. Which means that if someday you produce another game with another unique, interesting design, you’ll have to fight uphill against the same ignorance you did the first time.
The most significant game designer to appear and do well in the last decade has been Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH & Co. See? You have no idea who that is. But you’ve probably played Lost Cities or Settlers of Catan, without any idea that the first versions of those games were printed in German.
But even if you do play those games, you don’t really give a shit if the company exists or not, do you? You’ll buy a game from anyone. There’s absolutely no perception in the market that THIS company makes great games and THAT company makes shit. For a period, some of us geeks knew who TSR, Avalon Hill and Steve Jackson were. Those days are long gone.
The community is hopelessly fragmented. So what if you produce an amazing game? You can’t get two D&D players with a fifty years experience between them to agree on any three aspects of the game, much less the value of a game they haven’t played. RPG nerds are like violent predators lying in the tall grass waiting for anything new to appear so they can pounce and rip it to shreds. 4e was laughable, but it was also widely acknowledged to be shit before the game was released on the market. Oh, not by everyone…the game had it’s rabid supporters as well, even though they hadn’t seen it either. Did anyone change sides once the game was released? I saw no evidence of it. What I witnessed were two fanatical camps that established themselves and are still waging war to the death.
Who would want to release any product into that kind of consumer market? It’s tough enough on theatres to have to put up with critics, but when you have hundreds and hundreds of amateur, self-deputized pontificates screaming at the top of their lungs in every chat room for and against your product, pretty soon even the people who might have bought what you have to sell with close their eyes and wish that you’d just GO AWAY. They don’t want to buy, they don’t want to look, they’re so sick of the controversy they’d rather just get a fucking beer.
Your product is sold nowhere. Well, not quite nowhere. It is sold in about eighty or ninety game stores across America. Seriously. Last time I was in Michigan, about 2001, I was introducing my partner to the game and we looked up game shops in the Detroit/Flint area. We found ONE. It wasn’t even in a town. It was on the side of a secondary highway in St. Clair County—real practical for young people under the age of 16 wanting to buy games, huh? Like all game shops, including the one in the city I now live (one million people—ONE game shop), it was run by a surly, lazy, easily offended self-styled pundit who looked down his nose at half his own product.
What I really want is a business model built on a series of shop owners who have studied how to sell merchandise by watching Kevin Smith’s Clerks fifty times in a seven-day period.
Print is dead. It is as far as business publishing goes. At present, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are perennially losing money and probably will both cease to exist within thirty years. Printed books, particularly of games, are a baffling dinosaur, supported by a gang of hard-core individuals who clutch them desperately in the belief that somehow being tangible gives them a more marketable potential than the billions of dollars being made by video games, which are “clearly” inferior.
I repeat: there is NO money in the production of a printed book that must compete for profit against the emotionally visual mediums of computers and game systems. There’s no money in the creation of an electronic version of said book, either, as it can never capture the imagination of millions of supremely stupid people who are too dumb to A) read or B) care.
If, by some profound series of events, the license and rights of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise were to fall into my hands, even then I wouldn’t bother creating a RPG for the benefit of the existing fringe people who might play it. I would use that franchise to finally make an intelligent, humorous, indulgent movie, the sort Hollywood can’t make because they always fail to do their homework, and they have no sense at all that a community can be both fanatical and self-deprecating at the same time. The movie Dungeons and Dragons applied a baffling mixture of farce and piousness that left its viewers cold. I would produce a film that would combine the elements of sarcasm, black humor, brutality and sacrifice that fills my campaign, a stewing pot that I’m certain would do very well.
But I would not bother using the franchise to print anything.