Art from Arolos Weyr

Art from Arolos Weyr

The following essay has been written as my contribution to this month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by RoleplayingPro. It contains a great many personal opinions. These may be wrong; feel free to disagree with me. No offence is intended towards anyone involved, and I apologise for any offence inadvertantly caused. Comments and discussion are welcomed, but flame wars and attacks will not be tolerated.

Part 1: The Past Is Prologue

Back when I first got into Roleplaying, AD&D was just coming out. The core rulebooks had been released, Deities & Demigods was still a few months away, and you could count the number of game systems on one hand unless you thought VERY hard. Homebrew supplements were synonymous with the hobby because there was virtually nothing else (aside from the Judge’s Guild product line, which looked like homebrew supplements made available to the wider marketplace, with obviously hand-drawn maps and illustrations). TSR were the perveyers of the undisputed number one game, the aforementioned AD&D, and they published more game modules than they did game supplements.

In the years that followed, more publishers entered the fray, and the games industry seemed to explode. Champions, GURPS, and dozens more followed. TSR released “Basic D&D,” aimed at providing a younger audiance with a simplified game system, and kept right on publishing modules.

Part 2: Collapse

In the late 80s and early 90s, Roleplaying seemed to experience an implosion to match the explosion that had preceeded it. On the surface, the industry was going from strength to strength, but there had been a fundamental shift, starting with the release of 2nd Edition AD&D. For the first time, supplements seemed to outnumber module releases, and many of the older games like Top Secret quietly vanished, only to be resurrected (in some cases, such as Traveller) with much fanfare and limited success. There were dozens of game systems, publishers that I had never heard of before, and a smorgasbord of material – some of it brilliantly innovative, some of it fairly passe, and much of it both in parts!

But this health was only superficial; internally, game companies were struggling. The wealth of material was not a sign of a massively-growing marketplace, it was a shotgun, as companies threw anything and everything they could think of at the market in the desperate hope that something would be a success. Too many of them had tried to become “the next TSR” and failed, leaving the publishers unstable and close to insolvent.

For me, the writing on the wall became aparrant when a non-RPG game company, Avalon Hill, went out of business. They had been the unquestioned king of their particular niche market, now they were gone. At the same time, I started hearing stories of waning interest in Game conventions, and started noticing a gradual reduction in the amount of shelf space being set aside at the Military Bookstore that had been my FLGS throughout my interest in the hobby. I can remember forecasting that if Avalon Hill could fall, so would TSR, and being ridiculed by some of my fellow gamers for the suggestion.

Well, TSR DID fall, and so did a great many other game companies. And then a funny thing happened, called Wizards Of The Coast…

Part 3: The d20/Open Game Licence era

WOTC bought TSR, and created D&D 3.0. The publishing standards went through the roof, the books themselves were works of beauty. And they created a paradygm shift in the industry by recognising what fans of the old game system had been doing anyway, by creating the OGL – in effect saying, “use this content in any way that you see fit; only these bits are proprietary”. In the process, they gave a focus to all the young startup publishers that had arrived, and they all started publishing d20/OGL supplements. Hundreds of them. Occasionally, these suffered from mutual incompatability, but for the most part, they were “plug and play” supplements – buy it today and add it to your game tomorrow. Effectively, a large part of the game industry put their shoulders behind a single product line, and – unsurprisingly – it thrived.

D&D 3.0 was eventually supplanted by a revised and revisited version, 3.5; while there were a few differences, some of which were significant and some of which seemed superficial, for the most part the new edition remained compatable with all the third-party supplements already in print. More, the core game system was repackaged to give d20 Modern and other such variations, and for a while it seemed that d20 had consumed the entire market – you either published in line with the ‘Unified Game Licence Theory’ or you went home. D&D 3.x remains arguably the greatest success story of the roleplaying industry, and it engendered a new explosion of game publishing companies and a resurgant game industry.

Part 4: The Path To Now

In time, sales of D&D 3.5 slowed, probably because everyone who wanted one had a copy. Then Hasbro – who had bought WOTC in between the publication of D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 – decided to release D&D 4th Edition in an attempt to repeat their past success. Nothing wrong with that; first reactions to the announcement were excitement. But then details and troubling rumours began to emerge, indications that suggested that 4th Ed was going to bite the hands that had fed and nurtured 3.x, with massive licencing fees for the use of so-called OGL material that made third party publishers question the value of their participation. Rumours that some content would only be available to paid subscribers of a new online service to be created. Suggestions that some of the game’s traditional content was to be dropped – Gnomes seemed to suddenly be everyone’s favorite race.

It’s said that no publicity is bad publicity. Following those rumours, the fan community was divided, with firm positions (both pro and anti) firmly entrenched before the product had seen the light of day. The number of people adopting a wait-and-see attitude seemed to shrink daily, and even we (I number myself in this group) were wary and apprehensive – was the glass going to at least be half-full? Controversy raged. I have no doubt that the very success of the OGL/d20 paradygm fueled the debate, and that awareness of the product was greatly increased by the debate, which subsequently translated into sales.

My take on the whole affair iss that Hasbro got greedy, seeing the amount of money that 3rd-party publishers were making from the OGL and decided to try and keep more of it for themselves; they then made the fundamental error of believing their own hype about the scale of success that the product was going to achieve, and made questionable business decisions based on this compound of overconfidence, arrogance, and self-delusion. But that’s just my opinion.

And so D&D 4th ed was released. It’s not a bad system in terms of its game mechanics, as far as it goes – or at least, that’smy impression. However, it works too hard to stereotype characters (refer to this blog post) and forces campaigns into an official straightjacket – a problem that had previously caused problems for another system that I considered innovative and even brilliant in parts, TORG. It seemed to be D&D dumbed down – the difference between Merlin (which some reviewers have described as ‘Fantasy 90210’) and The Lord Of The Rings. Despite production values that are as high as previous releases, if not more so, the whole thing still felt cheap.

One of the great strengths of the 3.x regime had been the inherant variety and degree of customisation that was possible. 4th ed seemed to be doing all it could to undermine that strength. As a result, I doubt that sales of supplementary products for 4th ed are much better than were enjoyed by those of 3rd ed – and shrinking.

Part 5: And so here we are…

Many – even most – of the third party publishers that were so much a part of the ongoing drive of 3.x have opted to take the old OGL material and published their own game systems, hewing individual paths away from a common point. The unity that had been enjoyed has been shattered, and the entire situation is reminiscant of that prior to the last implosion. And then came the current global financial problems, effectively a global recession triggered by the greed and/or shortsightedness of a few American Banks. This has already had an impact on the gaming industry – most of the gaming magazines have folded (in fact, KODT is about the only one still being published!). A few newcomers have arisen, operating through an online/e-book publishing system; but the great flaw in that marketing strategy is that you can’t simply flip through the pages to decide whether or not it’s worth buying. WOTC/Hasbro has reportedly let 270 staff go. Other game companies, some with established names, have folded or dramatically restructured. The immediate outlook is gloomy.

Part 6: Looking to the future

Yet, the situation we now face is different in two major respects to that which has been witnessed in the past: the OGL genie is out of the bottle, and compatability between game systems remains easily achieved (by everyone except WOTC); and a new marketing strategy has arrived, the e-book. The first means that the lost unity can be restored if the game companies can come to an agreement to do so, the second that publishing costs can be dramatically slashed without cutting into production. On the basis of these points, and on the basis that Hasbro/WOTC aren’t complete idiots and will be looking to the future, I’m going to conclude this essary with some fearless predictions for what is to come in the next decade (in no particular order). Not all will come to pass; some may already have occurred without my knowledge; but I will be greatly surprised if at least half of them are not on the money…

  • At least one third party publisher will close their doors, trapped by the financial and market circumstances and unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes to their business plans in time.
  • At least one third party publisher will stop producing physical supplements and become an e-book / print-on-demand operation only.
  • Two or more third party publishers will merge and unify their variant game systems, cutting overheads while expanding their business, in hopes of forming a nexus around which a new OGL coalition can form.
  • A bunch of new publishers will emerge. Some will become the major players of the next phase of gaming history – the next-generation FGU and Mongoose.
  • There will be a general drop in production values – less full colour, more black-and-white, less glossy paper, etc – to facilitate a drop in price and an increase in profitability of game materials.
  • A major entertainment/media company (eg Warner Bros) will buy the rights to D&D from Hasbro.
  • AD&D will be relaunched to move the official D&D line back away from the simplified/stereotyping game philosophy at the heart of 4th ed.
  • An effort will commence to create the ultimate RPG through a fan-based public Wiki, in which rules can be endlessly tweaked and refined and evolved. From time to time, “snapshots” of the rules system will be released on CD-ROM, but to use the latest rules, you will have to visit the Wiki site.
  • An effort will commence to create the ultimate game world through a fan-based public Wiki, the Game-setting equivalent of an author’s ‘Shared World’.
  • A new generation of character generation/illustration tools will emerge from the MMORPG scene and be adapted to table-top gaming.
  • Sales of ‘universal’ d20-oriented game supplements will improve. ‘Universal’ became a bit of a sales killer during the heady days of OGL/d20; with so many companies now going their own way, it will make a strong comeback.
  • Despite predictions of doom and gloom, the RPG/Games industry will continue; it may retreat, but it won’t die. And games will still be fun.

After completing the preceeding essay and prediction set, I got to thinking about the impact that Apollo 11 had on society in general and science fiction in particular. Soft fiction that skipped over the technical details (or just plain got them wrong) declined tremendously and was panned, while at the same time there was a massive increase in general public interest in the months leading up to success; then the public seemed to lose interest. “2001” successfully depicted realistic space travel in a number of ways, and was hailed for it; but the resounding SF success was “Star Wars”, which didn’t go for technical accuracy, it went for a sense of adventure. Spaceships made sounds as they went past. Analogies can be drawn with both the proposed manned mission to Mars, with the public-access spaceplane flights of Virgin, and with the current panic over global warming – as they become hot topics, realistic games and fiction will abound. And within 5 years of the culmination, the trend will be for less realism, better gameplay.

Right now, were I owner of a computer-game company, I’d be looking at developing a civilization-style game in which the objective is to avoid (or minimise) all the possible calamities that could engender an apocalypse. A board game with a similar theme would also be on my agenda, as would an rpg tie-in. And as soon as it came out, I’d licence future development to a third party and start working on a ‘mad max meets indiana jones’ game to follow it up in three or four years…

Not really relevent, but interesting speculation!

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