Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Future of RPGs: Learn to Embrace Innovation

WARNING: Today's post is in response to Ryan Dancey's comments on EN World regarding the past, present, and future of the RPG industry. If you hate reading posts by outsiders with no direct experience, then you are gonna detest this one.

I am the Warden and I wish you a Happy New Year!!

Timing aside, there are many reasons for those of us passionately trying to break into the industry to consider its future. And I don't mean our place in it, I'm talking about it's "survival." I put that word in quotes because I don't believe it'll ever truly go away, but there will be time to get into that later. For now, I want to talk about something few seem to consider in this business and any other, for that matter.

Innovation.

Every goddamn post I've read on the possible future of roleplaying games talks about numerous factors - marketing, distribution, audience, growth, age, technology, and more - yet none of them consider the possibility that the future of RPGs depends predominantly on the innovation of the games available. Seeing as the majority of these posts (or at least the ones I've read) focus on D&D, it does seem as if everyone warrants this entire industry's success on one company's results, even when those results are being questioned by the impact of another very close to home. The consensus seems to be if D&D and/or it's resulting d20 brand should fail, the entire market will collapse.

Don't get me wrong, I completely agree all those other factors mentioned by Mr. Dancey are incredibly valid and there's likely no one better to comment with experience than him. It's just striking - yet no less surprising given my experiences - that the applicability of the games to the audience they're trying to lure is never mentioned. MMOs have threatened the TRPG (traditional RPG) market for sure by giving players what they wanted, an instant world ready at a moment's notice with no prep time and the freedom to play whenever they want rather than wait for their friends to be available. Anyone who stopped playing TRPGs did so because they were going to eventually. It's the same argument used for piracy in that only those who don't want to pay for stuff will steal. But it's just as likely people who steal do so because they don't have the money to pay... right now. When they do have access to cash, they'll pay and do so happily. Can the same not be said for TRPG players?

The irony is that you can turn to D&D itself for evidence of this. In 2000, 3rd edition came out and people flocked to it for the innovation it brought to a familiar game. Even MMOs have gone through their own flashes of innovation, once again spearheaded by the D&D brand. D&D Online skipped the mandatory monthly fee for a free-to-play option, a staple of the MMO industry now which even World of Warcraft has caved to in limited fashion. These points, however, eventually work against my final conclusion.

Perhaps the state of traditional roleplaying games requires new blood, something far from the old guard. The current state of the market doesn't seem to indicate that, but that's the kicker about innovation. It steps out of left field and catches everyone off their feet, giving it the spark to ignite a media frenzy. We all know such an event will occur in all fields of entertainment, it's why everyone's climbing over top of so many corpses to reach that transcending product first. Yet our industry is ignoring the one facet of roleplaying games which made it such a significant experience: the game itself.

When was the last time a truly incredible and original RPG experience came out? Twelve years ago when the aforementioned D&D 3rd Edition was released and even that was rehashing something old. If so many other facets of the industry are changing - from how we produce to how we sell our products - are we sure that keeping the game itself the same is what's needed?

To make this point, I'd like to use one perfect example of inadequate innovation. Crest 3D. You've all seen the ads for it and if you didn't roll your eyes and groan, get the fuck off my blog. It's Crest toothpaste with the word "3D" after it. What the hell's the 3D for? It's not about preventing three forms of dental care which all start with the letter D, it's there simply because "3D" is such a buzz word right now. Not even an effective buzz word at that as slumping theatre attendance would tell us. It's very likely the exact same Crest in every tube but squeezed between a pair of big tits.

If the industry survives the storm of the coming few years and readapts itself to suit an evolving consumer base and its technology, will it just be the same stuff we saw before with big tits or will it be something new and innovating, drawing on what we knew and excelled to new heights? There will always be a demand for these games so long as those generations who have grown up with it continue to exist and those who have played it will always keep fond memories of those bygone days. But it just might be possible that the audience is shrinking because they grew tired of doing the same thing over and over again under different titles and turned to something else to pass their time until the glimmer of hope from something new - and somehow familiar - caught their eye and turned them back to roleplaying.

When I took the train out east last month, we played a game from our seats. Dice and all. A friendly chap around our age passed by on his way back from the bathroom and picked up the unmistakable sound of dice rolling on a table, stepped back, and asked what we were playing. He had played once before and figured us to be much younger than we were. We asked him why he stopped playing and he said he didn't  have the time anymore. But the glimmer in his eye told me he would pick it back up in a heartbeat if given the chance. You can toss out as many numbers as you like, read so many surveys, but that glimmer tells me more than anything some business graduate ever could.

Our game was never meant to fit into society. I've said that before and continue to do so. The idea of applying typical business models to it seems a bit ineffective and counterproductive to what we create, yet I understand it's all business can understand. To me, business is risk taken by timid people. Everyone keeps talking about expanding the market and trying to fit into a mould like so many other publishing segments, yet no one with the experience seems willing to proclaim this the best time for designers and publishers to be in the market. We don't have to play by the same-old same-old any more. Is it risky? Yes. Hell yes! We're about to set fire to the forest. Some homes may be destroyed, but that fire will eventually give way to new growth and sprout new life, a place for new homes to be built on a stronger foundation.

All we need is a match.