Wednesday, March 16, 2011

GAMA 2011 Report: When the king abdicates the throne...who will rule?

Well at GAMA this year, the RPG throne was noticeably vacant. Last year I wrote a bit about my take on the GAMA trade show. This year, it was both better and worse. Note, working for a game company I had access to the show floor yesterday while MFG's were setting up so I got to see it all and talk to folks before the show officially opens today.

Of note it seemed like the number of retailer attendees was up. That's good although whether it was due to increased freebies at the show, the timing of the show this year, or a strengthening of the hobby market overall is not clear. Attendance was strong in the “new retailer” presentation by distributors so that is a good sign. In speaking with some retailers, they have seen sales remain strong in the first quarter this year up from same time last year. What categories are strong? Boardgames lead the way in the strength of sales, card games second, then minis, then RPG's a distant 4th. Now that is not a blanket statement for the industry, only the feedback I got from ten different retailers in different parts of the U.S. Mostly west coast and mid-west stores. Distributors I spoke with concurred with retailers on a category by category basis. RPG's were as an average less than 20% of overall sales. Of that 20%, roughly 90% would be split Paizo/WOTC, with everyone else dividing up the last 10%. Again that's not biblical, just a breakdown of hearsay conversations from multiple industry distributors and from retailers.

Okay so RPG's are the weak horse in the hobby industry currently, but what did I see from the RPG companies at the show? Not much at all.

It was a bit of surprise here as really only Green Ronin and Indie Press Revolution showed anything. No Paizo, no Fantasy Flight, No Steve Jackson Games, No Goodman Games, and WotC was only an INFORMATION BOOTH! So in terms of the RPG market, for all intents and purposes NO ONE was showing! All the gorillas who OWN the market did not show a damn thing. Is it arrogance? Laziness? Cost cutting? You make the call on your own as I think its a stew of all of the above. Furthermore in discussions with a Paizo person, they believe WotC has ceded the RPG market to Paizo at this point. It's a statement I can't argue against.

You see WotC is cutting back on all D&D RPG because it does not earn enough revenue for Hasbro to invest resources in. Regardless of what you or I consider to be “enough revenue” current D&D is NOT meeting Hasbro's goals. The scuttlebutt with distributors was a potential D&D 5.0 announcement this summer. D&D 5.0 may print only core books (and or boxed sets) and then everything else goes PDF. Apparently Hasbro is happy with the online revenues generated by D&D, but print is dead and not worth the expense to Hasbro. So the edition wars may have one edition less to deal with, but a new one could be on the horizon. Now 5.0 is one possibility, alternatively-they could sell it off to someone else and divest themselves of the brand. I think that is less likely unless someone overpaid Hasbro for it.

You see the D&D lines of board games are successful, and that could be the way Hasbro chooses to represent and sell the D&D brand going forward. This would not mean a death of the Original RPG, only a reduction in stature to possibly a tertiary brand treatment. Anyway you look at it though, the king is at least grievously wounded and no one is looking for a cleric to save him.

So enter Paizo, with it's version of the grand old game. I never liked 3.0 nor 3.5 when I worked for WotC, so my own interest in the continuation of Encyclopedia Gamika books and manuals is nil. Regardless a HUGE amount of RPG players love it and actively play it. Game shops sell the heck out of it, and I can't see an end in sight as D&D continues to weaken, Paizo continues to pick up steam. Plus there is an interesting, though overdue, Pathfinder product coming. I am not sure the target audience for this product will be interested, but the market will decide.
If RPG's are less than a 2% showing at GAMA then what's the rest of the show? Well trading card, and constructable card games are huge. Board games remain big, and miniature games continue to hold their own. Here is an odd thought. As the RPG market declines to a no show status at a major retailer trade show, will dice manufacturers sink as well?

RPG's require a large commitment in terms of time and energy from individuals to play. A card game can be over in as little as 10 minutes. A simple board game, maybe 45 minutes. Sure on average a card game or a board game (depending upon the game) can be much longer, but even at an hour or two hours, it is much less time investment than an RPG and you can play it and put it away with no further commitment. .

My point being the barrier to entry on an RPG is substantial compared to a card game or average board game and the notion of campaigning is fairly central to playing an RPG. Character leveling and improvement over time of playing means campaigning IS a central tenet to RPG's. They system itself assumes you will be playing for a long time to come. If I win or lose a game of Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, or Memoir 44, there is no expectation that it will have any impact on my playing the game again, whenever I chose to do so. With RPG's that is not the case. In an age of on demand, twitch gaming, is there any room for RPG's in the long term?


Just because it will never be the golden age, nor the silver age, nor the cubic zirconium age, does not mean it isn’t still a viable and potentially strong game format. It's about adjusting your expectation and accepting and building upon they way things are rather than how they have been in the past.

SO here is a perfect opportunity for one or more small press RPG companies to steal the show-there really is no competition on the show floor, you have hundreds of retailers, every major distributor at the show, and you are...maybe reading this blog and hopefully kicking yourself in the ass. Next year you may not be so lucky to have the floor to yourself, but maybe you will?
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