Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Poor Investment

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.


JimLotFP said...

>>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.

Money is the worst reason to do anything.

James V said...

Money is the worst reason to do anything.

Thank you for saying that. If the whole point of this post is rooting for the death of the idea of an RPG industry, I can kinda get that. RPGs were a niche business at its heyday, and it's even smaller now. People looking to make an RPG to pay off their mortgage is likely skiing uphill.

At the same time, I have nothing but respect for the guy who out of sheer love of the hobby and what they think is a neat idea, tries to share it. Sometimes packaging that idea into a nice book is an expression. I think it's great that in this hobby we have more ways than ever to share our ideas.

GreyEyedGoddess said...

Money, while in your estimation, may be the worst reason to do anyting, it is also, however, the most common reason.

JimLotFP said...

I suppose I'm in agreement with the basic point of the post... "Writing game books for the purpose of making money" is probably not a bright idea.

"Writing game books because you're spending all that time doing gaming stuff anyway and holding a finished, formatted book that did yourself is a pretty good feeling" doesn't have a lot to do with profit anyway...

Alexis said...

I understand that feeling, Jim, I really do. And I get a bit of it now and then, sometimes from this blog even.

But I've been published fairly continuously since 1990, and at the moment I can find six magazines on racks within a half mile of me which have my name in them, and I am working for a magazine besides. So a lot of the shine has worn off.

I am obviously willing to work on and write my material for the sake of writing my material, without any expectation of financial compensation. It is obvious because I am doing it now.

But to outlay a cost for a game system, for distribution to strangers who don't read this blog and don't belong to my little circle of acquaintances, and not expect at least enough financial compensation to cover the original publishing cost is the height of idiocy. Particularly when I can do it here, online, for free.

Which I think was the gist of the suggestion made by Carl a few days ago: that I should consider having my game ideas out there, not to pat myself on the back for a job well done, but for the benefit of the community. I don't love the community so much that I'm willing to spend my money for them, and I don't love myself so much that I need to have a hard, artworked copy to pump up my need for self-aggrandizement.

Forgive me, but being a member of the publishing/journalistic community, there ceases to be any point in producing a print copy of anything unless you mean to sell it. And let me just say, as someone who always wanted to be a writer, who at one time had trouble getting paid to be a writer, and who is now paid to do that so that this is my job that I love and that I am free to do as much as I wish without having to take some other shit job to pay my way...

MONEY is a fucking excellent reason to write. Money may not be freedom when you are a slave to earn it, but when you are respected and people want to pay you for a product that you provide, that they wait to hear your opinion on what you'll write next, then praise you in the bargain, then money IS freedom, the kind I've never known.

As for statements that a game won't pay your mortgage, I'll remind the others that writers are told every day that they'll never make a living at it. There's no way to know what will pay the mortgage and what won't. This article is about why the community shoots itself in the foot killing new ideas. Someone smarter than me might be able to find a way to get around that and make millions--but they only will if they accept realistically what stupidities exist.

James V said...

As for statements that a game won't pay your mortgage, I'll remind the others that writers are told every day that they'll never make a living at it. There's no way to know what will pay the mortgage and what won't. This article is about why the community shoots itself in the foot killing new ideas. Someone smarter than me might be able to find a way to get around that and make millions--but they only will if they accept realistically what stupidities exist.

Since I was the once who actually said it, thanks for responding.

I agree that there is a difference in perspective from someone who writes for a living and someone who doesn't. Even then, for better or worse, there will be people hoping to get a book published for reasons other than money. I've learned there is a gap of understanding between both sides. It's hard for me to say how well that gap has been crossed, but it is there.

Unfortunately I still have to be pessimistic in regard to the business potential in RPGs. You post lays it out very well. There are tough obstacles to making a living off RPGs. Maybe we are just one great idea and business model away from witnessing a genuine commercial success, but I guess I have my doubts.

Who I really appreciate are people like you and many other bloggers, just looking to share what they have for free. IMO, this is an environment that has been really good for the hobby. I still buy books from time to time, but right now it's the blogs that have been giving me what I'm looking for.

Alexis said...

"Since I was the once who actually said it, thanks for responding."

You are most welcome, James. Someone else said something similar to me in another forum.

Carl said...

Build the hobby. They will come.

The single biggest mistake that WotC has made with D&D is the failure to support it with the same enthusiasm as their card games.

I know a guy who has been playing Magic for nearly 20 years. He's flying out of the country this weekend to judge a major tournament. When was the last time there was a major D&D tournament? When was the last time you heard about an official D&D game hosted by WotC?

There are significant obstacles to creating a successful RPG. These can be overcome and it would not take a metric ass-ton of money to do it. There's a rather large population of people out there who play or have played the game and have good jobs to support their hobby.

Thanks for the last two posts, Alexis. The more you shoot holes in this stuff, the more I see the potential for something huge.

I'll be back. :-)

Dwayanu said...

These days, I think D&D-like computer games are a bigger business than paper-and-pencil fantasy games were even at the peak of their fad. Had the computer games been already at such a stage of development back then, my guess is that the RPG phenomenon would have been even smaller. I think a lot of folks got into role-playing simply because D&D was at the time the closest thing to what they really wanted.

Now, though, the RPG is a well-established form. Like many things in overlapping subcultures (e.g., comic books and heavy metal rock), it's in a post-fad state that happens to be a long way from extinction. Maybe not as far as some fans would like, but not a mere museum piece. From what I can see, it's doing much better than the hexes-and-chits historical war-games (a la Avalon Hill, SPI and so on) on which I cut my teeth as a young "gamer."

There are people making a living at least in part from RPGs. There's a reason they remain a significant part of the produce of Wizards, Chaosium, Steve Jackson, Iron Crown, Kenzer, and so on. A new RPG can potentially grab some of the existing market the same way card, board and miniatures games do. There's a significant segment of big spenders always on the lookout for something new; whether they actually play Game X does not necessarily bear much on their purchases!

There could be growth in the market due to people who started with computer games, card games, miniatures, etc. -- coupled with other changing demographics.

The first thing, I think, is to have something that really excites not only oneself but others. When ever more people are bugging you to publish your game, you may be on to something. Even if it's never quite a household name, it might still be bringing in revenue 30 years on.

What great value you see in another D&D-branded movie is beyond me. The brand seems more likely to be a hindrance than a help in marketing. Just make a good movie, for crying out loud!