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?


x said...

This has been the discussion point since last year. One of the articles about sales was when Dresden Files was second in sales for the Q and they had sold less than 5k units to be there.

A little more than 1500 a month to be a top dog?

The rule of thumb I see is if it fits in a pdf it will go that way and I don't think a proper accounting of sales is being done on the RPG front because a lot of the companies you mentioned are doing fine. They just don't see the retailer as their primary outlet anymore.

Amazon, Lulu and other PoD are becoming the destinations for the product.

Also I don't think the reporting really represents the OSR / Indie scene where most of the new activity is taking place.

And yes, I would give up a testicle for a customer base like Paizo has.

Feel the love! :)

Fenway5 said...

True enough, it is a hobby market again and while that may mean sales of any one "hot" RPG book is smallish, it also means their should be a rebirth off RPG's through indie press games as you pointed out. Better yet, a hobby game will take off at some point and become the next big thing. The passion and experience of a hobby gamer trying to produce something new in the RPG market will eventually lead to someone getting it right and a new era of PG players will emerge. I love the OSR, but that isn't where its going to come from. Republishing an old edition won't kick off the next big thing, but it will inspire someone to try their hand at making their own RPG and THAT is where the revolution will come from. I think OSR lit a lot of imaginations, now I am anxious to see what blows up as a result!

Anonymous said...

Most of the RPG companies don't exhibit at GAMA because the convention has kind of been on deathwatch for the last couple of years, with dwindling attendance and very little value to publishers.

The new folks in charge of GAMA have tried to do a number of things to improve this perception, and from early reports (increased attendance, etc.), it may very well be working.

If GAMA makes GTS a must-attend show for RPG producers, RPG producers will exhibit at GTS. We have two folks there right now, and I eagerly look forward to hearing from them whether or not they think it would be worthwhile for Paizo to exhibit at the show again. Early signs point to "probably," but we'll see.

--Erik Mona
Paizo Publishing

Fenway5 said...

Hi Erik, I certainly understand that thought process, and I agree GAMA has certainly been in decline and no doubt other folks felt the same way and made a similar decision-to go but not show. Yet, WotC's lack of showing at GAMA really left it wide open for Paizo to take the throne in retailers minds. I understand the business reasons and costs associated with doing a booth, shipping product, give-aways, room & board, airfare, etc. but if Paizo is planning on doing some or all of the individual distributor shows (GTS, Alliance, Diamond, ACD, etc.) which have less attendance and reach than GAMA, it seems like a potentially more expensive and potentially less impactful brand decision. At least from the bleacher bums perspective. I am probably completely wrong, but its food for thought.

Clovis Cithog said...

I just bought my Texas Super Lotto ticket
estimated cash value = $128, 300, 000

Charlie Sheen and I will RULE you all ;-O)

x said...

I think the days of the 'one to rule them all' mono-systems are past.

The technology that is currently impacting the hobby has changed the rules forever. With the advent of things like pdf publishing and VTT a company of 3 people could produce a product bought by 200-300 players and be a viable company.

As for the OSR, things are changing and a split is forming between those that just want to play the older editions and those who see it as a re-boot and going semi-pro or pro. I'm as old school as they come, but I don't see that as I only play a certain game or a certain time period. Being a (soon to be) first time publisher I have worked for the past year on a project that is based on the Microlite systems and the SRD, uses the core mechanic and a simple blend of skills and attributes to create a modular system that anyone can pick up and play. With the majority of gamers playing some version of 3x I thought it best to try to reach out to that demographic.

And I might be onto something.

Congratulations to Erik Mona and his team for their recent advances (#1 selling rpg product at Amazon still) and proving that this is a proper model to follow.

(And understand, I never set out to create a system. I had a large story / setting that I wanted to finish (10 years in the works)and try and publish and just couldn't settle on a system currently in print to attach it to. So I built a custom engine from the ground up.)