Gazing into the Abyss: Is There Even a Tabletop RPG 'Industry'?

Hello All,

A few disclaimers to this before we get going:

  • The following are my own musings and opinion on the state of tabletop gaming, and while I have been looking into, thinking about it, and studying the "industry" as it exists, I'm a relative neophyte.
  • These opinions are mine, not those of Fat Goblin Games. To that end, The Fattest Goblin and The Janitor have both variously argued against my viewpoint, and also strengthened other sides of it. Not that they agree or disagree, they're too busy just making great products to be too worried.
  • I'm not going to back up each and every point with solid facts from a specific link like this was a scholarly piece. I started it that way, but realized I was pulling in my ideas from so many pieces and stray bits of text that I'd need to link to three different articles sometimes just to make one small point. Instead, I'm just pitching the idea out there and we can discuss, debate, or disagree on it in comments and on Facebook.

Also, this is a Gazing into the Abyss blog, a small series I was writing and managed to recover one of my old blogs which you can find on here. 

They're mostly meant to be only semi-serious navel gazing as I muse on tabletop RPG 'industry' topics. For instance...

Is There Even Really an Industry?

I am not going to be able to give any kind of definitive answer to that question, but a large number of people talk about it as a homogeneous "industry" and there are organizations, like ICv2, which collect data about our niche within the larger Hobby Games Market, and so perhaps it at least is or can be treated as an industry.

Assuming their figures for 2015 are right, ICv2 estimated that the overall Hobby Games Market is at $1.2 billion, of which "roleplaying games" make up $35 million dollars.  You can make a fancy chart like so:

U.S. / Canada Games Sales -- 2015

Category Retail Sales (in millions, US dollars)
Collectible Games $625
Non-Collectible Miniature Games $175
Hobby Board Games $250
Hobby Card & Dice Games $105
Roleplaying Games $35
TOTAL Hobby Games $1,190

Which helps to put into perspective how very "small" but also very "large" RPGs are; $35 million dollars isn't even 3% of the ~$1.2 billion hobby games market, BUT you could support a LOT of RPG companies on a pie $35 million in size. 

Now the Top 5 publishers of RPGs, also from ICv2, for Spring 2016 are:

  1. Wizards of the Coast -- Dungeons & Dragons
  2. Paizo Publishing -- Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
  3. Fantasy Flights Games -- Star Wars RPG
  4. Catalyst Game Labs -- Shadowrun
  5. Green Ronin -- Fantasy AGE (Dragon AGE)

And then also even more telling is that the $35 million dollars is UP drastically from even 2014, when it was at $25 million -- which is itself UP from 2013's estimated $15 million. The "industry" more than doubling in two years time is... hard to wrap-one's-head-around.

Now better people than I have put together amazing charts and think pieces about this all, so I'll just recommend checking out stuff like: 
Top 5 RPGs Compiled Charts 2004-Present

Hot Roleplaying Games

Now, all that money then is NOT making it into the hands of lil ol' gaming companies like ours. Much of that growth year-to-year is very likely WotC/D&D selling to people, people that may not have even been part of the equation before, but it also entirely possible that not only was 5e gaining ground, but so could have Paizo/Pathfinder and others like Fantasy AGE, etc. I mention this just because there have started to be forum posts and blogs asking "Is Pathfinder Dying?" in various forms (like see this here) or "Is Pathfinder In Its Twilight?"), but with this kind of crazy growth within the industry, Paizo could have doubled their fan-base and subscription base from 2,500 to 5,000 unique buyers, and while it may have been a massive influx of money for them, they'd still be #2 as in that same time WotC sold 50,000 more copies etc.Meaning that the "rising tide floats all boats" it might just be floating the bigger ones the most.

I'm curious though if that conversation, about Pathfinder being past its prime is more a function of the history of "the industry" and less that a real concern. If you look at various attempts to tell the story of tabletop RPGs, you get a lot things that focus on key companies (i.e. TSR, then WotC, then Paizo) but it ignores that some companies have nearly as old a release date as D&D's 194: Games Workshop was founded in 1975, you start having various forms of Traveller in 1977 and Runequest from Chaosium in 1978, and then 1980 and beyond sees quite a few other companies come into existence and games produces from Steve Jackson Games, FASA, Iron Crown , Palladium Books, etc. While rough times were had by all, and still other companies came around after this point while some of these have come and gone and even come back, there almost always have been "other companies" and we may just be in a space now where we can have D&D 5th edition AND Pathfinder AND Fantasy AGE AND a host of other options.

Other Reasons it IS an Industry

For one, we talk and treat it like one. It has fairly specific delineations that make it not one thing or another and it actually has a fairly long history (again, see here). 

But then there is also recognition of contributions of game designers and writers from spaces outside the immediate industry. While the ENnies are one of our own biggest prizes, having an organization like the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) now accepting "game writers" changes the conversation some, as a form of recognition from outside is being made.

Recognition of what we are doing from "outside" helps it feel like there is an "inside" -- and its interesting to have people at least remotely aware of what it is that I do now vs. just a few years ago when I talk about "write tabletop RPGs" because they may have read major newspapers or TV shows (or both) talk about even something like Pathfinder, let alone when Dungeons & Dragons features as not just a part of, but a key point of story development in TV shows as wildly popular as Stranger Things. This leads to articles like this and even mentions of D&D in publications like The New Yorker. And even more interestingly, to articles like this one from The Hollywood Reporter about all the people in Hollywood playing RPGs these days.

The Ways It Matters to Us

But so does it, or should it even matter if there is an "industry" for tabletop RPGs to people like us, small publishers. I think yes.

While you can sometimes find just how small sales can be for say third-party publishers (like Rite Publishing's "First 90 Days" releases like this one), you also should realize that if a company is currently managing to make a living, year-to-year, and keep producing books on less than 500 sales/$3,000 for a book they release, just imagine how much MORE productive companies could be if we too are benefiting from doubling our sales in 3 years time.

But also, if we're more than just a niche or something else that is "sub"-industry, then we might to remain worried and dedicated to a single-system dominance model where we all do focus solely on whichever brand is popular at the moment. Lets hope though that that is NOT needed. 

Instead, maybe at $25 or $35 million+, we are finally large enough that we can start to diversify our industry, similar to the rise and changes to video games over the past few decades of their timeline. Today, saying you are "a gamer" is almost as meaningless a phrase as saying "I am a movie goer" -- of course you are, they've become mainstream. It might not all be the SAME game, not everyone is playing the latest FPS title, in fact, many self-identified gamers might HATE FPS, but they still can claim that title because they play one of a hundred other genres and subgenres of video games. And likewise, not every game released needs to be WoW or CoD or something that becomes well known for having three initials. We can have silly games we play on our phones in our down-time and triple-A games we play at home on consoles, and deeply customized games we play with via PC or apps or whatever.

And so we get to what I think might be the a great "experiment" of this in our field today, and the sort of "spark' for this whole Gazing into the Abyss -- Invisible Sun. Its all still new and going on and I still don't, myself, fully "get" what Monte Cook is doing with the game, but 909 people at this point, for a combined $250,577 and growing either do get it, or are at least $197-sure they want to be part of whatever this will be. I look at it and find it cool and wonderful sounding, which is similar to how I felt about No Man's Land. I fully support it existing, but I know that I just wont get the chance personally to ever play it. 

But that's OK.

In fact, that's partially my point. 

We can likely have, in our tabletop RPG "industry" enough space for Invisible Sun from Monte Cook Games AND for vs. Ghosts from Fat Goblin Games. Both can even likely flower in the shade of titans of the industry like WotC and Paizo and on and on. We are serving and servicing different needs and wants and its possible, in part, because we have been able to grow ourselves an industry to tap of people looking for different things and experiences.

And that's really cool!

Lucus Palosaari on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ & LinkedIn

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