Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Future of Game Publishing

Last weekend was the second anniversary of this blog, and I've been reflecting upon how much the OSR blogging community has changed and grown in that time.  Not only has there been a tremendous proliferation of blogs about old-school gaming - more than I can possibly follow, there has also been a veritable explosion of publishing ventures initiated by members of our community.  I've even published my own game this year.

What really strikes me is the high quality of these 'amateur' publications.  My last three gaming purchases, Barrowmaze, Vornheim, and Weird Adventures were all products of the OSR community and they are the best gaming purchases that I've made in years.  Advances in desktop publishing and POD services make it possible for anyone to create products that are as slick and polished as any produced by a professional game company.  And even those products that are not as slick still have an old school charm reminiscent of the games from the '70's and early '80's that we all remember so fondly.

This begs the question: what is to become of professional game designers, who are shackled by the need to sell enough product to make a living?  This means that they need to produce new products on a regular schedule in order to generate steady revenue.  These shackles become even heavier for corporations, which are not content to make living wages for employees, but need to produce profits for their shareholders.

Hobby publishers, on the other hand, do not depend on selling games to feed their families, pay their mortgages or enrich their shareholders.  They can afford to take their time to produce games and products that are true labours of love.  This probably explains why I get far more bang for my buck from hobby publishers than from professionals; because we are publishing as a hobby we can produce a better product for less money.  I've long maintained that a labour of love always trumps a labour of profit and this has certainly proven true of the gaming hobby in recent years.

This is why I have no hope, whatsoever, that the next edition of Wizards of the Coast brand D&D will have any soul.  This game is nobody's baby.  It hasn't grown, organically, out of someone's home game, like its ultimate progenitor did, and which all of the above-mentioned OSR products did.  Instead, it, like 4th edition before it, was the result of artificial insemination by the marketing department.  This is no love-child, and neither 4th, nor 5th edition grew out of the needs of the game, but rather a need to generate large amounts of cash.  That, in my opinion, is an ass-backwards way to run a game business.

In contrast, OSR products are almost always the by-blow from somebody's game table.  Barrowmaze is Greg Gillespie's home campaign; Vornheim is the collection of rules that Zak S. uses to run his city adventures; and Weird Adventures is the setting of Trey Causey's pulp adventure campaigns.  Likewise, the much anticipated Dwimmermount megadungeon adventure has grown out of James Maliszewski's own campaign.  There is no way that a product whose only reason for being is to make money can compare, and it makes me wonder how much longer professional game companies can continue to compete with home-based hobby publishers who aren't forced to crank out product on a fixed schedule.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been badly burned by some over-priced and entirely useless game aid that sounded much better than it actually was.  I've purchased a number of badly-written and -edited products from WotC that were cranked out to make money and will never get used - probably by anyone.
It isn't just Wizard's of the Coast, either.  I've been stung by over-hyped, high priced products of limited value produced by Paizo as well.  Even small companies, like Troll Lord Games have produced their share of disappointments.  And it isn't that the writers are bad, or aren't capable of creating some amazing material, it's just that when you are forced to produce products, clockwork fashion, to pay the bills you are going to wind up with more stinkers than hits.

In the past we had to put up with it.  That was just the way it was, so you plunked down your money, crossed your fingers, hoped for something special then, more often than not, came away with nothing more than a lighter wallet.  But now we have a whole host of amateur publishers in the OSR who are turning out some very high-calibre work - often at prices that are so low that I'm a lot more willing to take a chance because, even if I don't like something, I'm not out a lot of money.  But you know what?  That hasn't happened to me yet.  Every single OSR product I've bought, I've actually used.  I've never been able to say that of any game company.

Now, there are some companies that are publishing labours of love, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics, which Joseph Goodman wrote for Joseph Goodman.  I have a great respect for Goodman for having the passion and conviction to write the game he always wanted to play - that's how you make good games.  Even though, from what I've seen of the DCC beta rules, it isn't the game for me, I have no doubt that it will appeal to many others.  I don't know what Goodman's situation is; whether he has a day-job or supportive spouse that pays the bills, or is making enough money from his other products that he could afford to indulge in a pet project.  But I suspect that most other companies couldn't or wouldn't take the risk of investing so much time and effort in such a niche product of potentially limited appeal.

Anyhow, the times, they are a'changing.  We've seen Wizard's of the Coast losing ground to Paizo, and I have to wonder whether, if the proliferation of high-quality products from indie publishers continues, game companies might be in their waning days.  For many years now, traditional brick-and-mortar game stores have similarly suffered from competition with online retailers, and to survive they've had to adapt and offer customers services they can't get online.  Store owners have done this by fostering a sense of community, hosting events, and giving customers a reason to come into the store instead of buying, often more cheaply, online.  Similarly, if professional game companies are going to compete they will have to offer a level of support that customers can't get from indie publishers.  I'm not sure what might be, but I do believe that they may have no choice but to adapt to the new reality or face an eventual demise.


Will Mistretta said...

Amen. The corporate/industrial age of RPG design is dying, and it's too late to prevent that. My own feelings are best expressed in song:

Na na na na
Na na na na
Hey hey hey

James Maliszewski said...

That's really well said. Thank you.

Aaron E. Steele said...

It's part of some larger societal trends, of course. Some of those are good, and some of them (like Amazon) are very, very bad...

burnedfx said...

I'm not sure what else I could add to that, but I'll try!

It's easier (and more fun!) for me to use Wotc as an example.

Prior to their 3E launch, they hawked product under the Silver Anniversary banner.

Under the guise of "TSR," Wotc spit out Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff, Return to White Plume Mountain, and so forth. The point being that the creativity was gone, taken over by the need to pay the bills.

Granted, they had taken over a bankrupt TSR two years before that, but if what they were trying to resurrect ends up a hollow shell of it's former self, they should just let it die.

Just so there is no confusion, Barrowmaze II does not fall into this type of category. I believe the difference is fairly obvious to those familiar with the product.

But we may have to check Greg's sanity when he lets someone else write "Return to Barrowmaze" with a silver logo stamped on it. You know, in 2037, after he holes up in the future giant OSR corperate office building in Canada.

Trey said...

You make a good point Sean. There is a big difference between well put together products put out because someone had an idea and well put together products put out to fill a publishing schedule.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, guys.
The quality and utility of the OSR community's publications is so good that I haven't paid the slightest attention to the development of 5E, not even out of morbid curiosity. I no longer have any interest in anything that WotC might do with the brand, because all of my gaming needs are served right here in our own little corner of the hobby. The industry can do what it wants; they have nothing to sell me. I have everything I need right here.

Sean Robson said...

@Burnedfx: But we may have to check Greg's sanity when he lets someone else write "Return to Barrowmaze" with a silver logo stamped on it. You know, in 2037, after he holes up in the future giant OSR corperate office building in Canada.

That's brilliant, I hope Greg sees this; I'm sure he'd get a kick out of it.

Kiltedyaksman said...

No such grand designs here lol.

Actually Barrowmaze has been ghost-written by...Sean!...and this post is part of his larger plot of RPG world domination wherein he conducts tri-annual meetings at a secret country mansion known as The Meadows.

cr0m said...

"neither 4th, nor 5th edition grew out of the needs of the game, but rather a need to generate large amounts of cash"

I was no fan of 4th edition, but AFAIK it was written to solve some perceived problems with 3e--the so-called 15 minute adventuring day, and the difficulty in preparing adventures to name two.

It's not fair to deride the work of a designer just because he's hoping for a commercial success. There are plenty of OSR guys who would like to make money of their product, at the very least so they can keep making products. The difference is a matter of degrees.

Now, you can argue that the commercial pressure that comes from working for WotC tends to take a front seat in terms of the priorities of the designers... and I agree completely. Nothing compares to a product that's been tested over months or years of a home game, and it's pretty obvious that many of the products being put out by RPG companies aren't seeing much game play before publication.

But just saying "commercial == bad" seems way too easy and pandering to the whole OSR "WotC/TSR/money ruins everything".

As a side note, fantasy in general is pretty suspicious of commercialism--I read a critique somewhere that claimed that swords and sorcery exists at the historical moment when mercantilism superseded feudalism...

We both agree about one thing though: Barrowmaze is awesome!

Sean Robson said...

It's not fair to deride the work of a designer just because he's hoping for a commercial success.

I didn't deride anyone's work for wanting a commercial success.

But just saying "commercial == bad" seems way too easy and pandering to the whole OSR "WotC/TSR/money ruins everything".

I didn't say that, either.

What I said was that if you need to continuously publish at a rate sufficient to earn a living you will not be able to produce the same level of quality as someone whose livelihood doesn't depend on rate of publication. That isn't the same thing at all.

cr0m said...

Okay, I re-read your post and I may not have read it carefully enough (or charitably enough) the first time through.

In my defense, the part where you call 4e D&D the product of the marketing department seems awfully prejudiced against WotC. I think that's where I got the idea that you were against commercial publishing on philosophical grounds.

In any case, I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions. I agree with you about hobbyists having more time to polish their work. Certainly if there's one thing I've heard from freelancers, it's that their deadlines rarely allow for significant playtesting. They're talking about non-core products, but still.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Crom: My intent was not to dump on professional game designers because, as I said, it isn't that they aren't capable of making good products, it's just that they don't have time to given the need to create steady revenue. This applies to companies big and small; especially since with small companies the game designers are often the same guys running the business and seeing to its day-to-day operation, which further cuts into their writing time.

I'm wondering how long they can continue to compete with amateur publishers who aren't under any of these constraints.

TorOtteson said...

No offense ment.. but you said you would often buy products and then be dissapointed by their contents. If that was the case why didn't you simply browse the book beforehand? I always took a glance through (carefully mind you so I didn't bend or wear anything) Just to make sure what I was getting was something I wanted. and because of that I have never bought a supplement book I regretted.

Sean Robson said...

TorOtteson: Leaving aside shrink-wrapped products and internet purchases, quick perusal in a store seldom reveals the inadequacies that become apparent upon closer look. I'm glad that you've never bought anything you didn't like; sadly my experience is much different.

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