Monday, April 7, 2008

D&D: Suffering a slow death?

Having spent eight years in the newspaper industry working for a small, family-owned broadsheet (which are as commonplace nowadays as milkmen and encyclopedia salesmen, and about as wise a career choice), I know what it's like to see a business suffering from a slow death. Not a death that can be measured in months or even years, perhaps, but in decades, their life blood drained away by a series of innumerable nicks and cuts. The same fate I fear is in store for D&D.

Not that I expect newspapers or my favorite pastime to ever completely die, but rather, I fear they may cease to exist as profitable business lines. They will likely live on as pale shapes--wraiths, to draw a comparsion with the Lord of the Rings, another favorite subject of mine--neither alive nor dead, but living some undead existence, a dim shadow of their past greatness.

Newspaper circulations are indeed decreasing year-by-year as people turn towards the internet and other media outlets for news and information. But what about D&D? Aren't there claims from Wizards of the Coast that the hobby is as robust as ever? Some figures I've seen thrown around are $30 million a year in RPGs sold and roughly six million D&D players playing worldwide last year.

Frankly, I find the evidence that D&D and other RPGs are going strong less than compelling. And although my experiences are of course anecdotal, all indications--at least from my perspective--show an unhealthy trend for its long-term future.

When I was a pre-teen and teenager, the two local malls (Woburn and Burlington) each had a thriving hobby store that made their business selling RPGs and miniatures, along with the usual model trains, cars, etc. Both are now gone. My hometown had a bookstore that also sold RPGs and miniatures. It too is gone. I was shocked to find out that my current neighboring town of Amesbury actually supported two game/comic shops when I moved here four years ago. But in the past year one has gone out of business.

RPGs were everywhere in their heyday (late 1970's to mid-1980s). You could find ads on television, in the back of comic books, and in magazines. D&D had even had its own Saturday morning cartoon. When I was in seventh grade (circa 1985) my middle school had a Friday afternoon, seventh-period Dungeons and Dragons elective (yes, it rocked). And the game itself--I started with the classic Tom Moldvay-edited box set, with its 64-page ruleset and copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands--was available in all the major outlet stores.

Now, you have to squint to find evidence that D&D is still played. The big bookstore chains (Barnes and Noble, Borders), at least in my area, might have a single, poorly stocked shelf of D&D in the hobbies section or science fiction section. Other games like Call of Cthulhu or Rifts are nowhere to be found. TSR and WOTC have tried to put basic versions of the game in the larger outlet stores, but largely without success. And when was the last time you saw an ad for D&D in any major news outlet?

D&D let slip what could have been a great opportunity for good exposure in 2000 with the release of the film Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, what we got was one of the worst movies I've seen in 10 years. What should have been a nice marketing vehicle turned into two painful hours of my life flushed down the drain that I still want back.

But aside from a bomb of a movie, why are RPGs declining? Like a lot of others familiar with D&D, I blame computer games. World of Warcraft, Everquest, and their ilk--i.e., graphics-heavy, story-based, immersive, computer RPGs--offer experiences that satisfy the cravings of many potential (and former) pen-and-paper gamers. Why bother with the hassle of having to get together a group of 4-6 people with busy schedules, and doing all that pre-game prep work and post-game paperwork, when you can turn on your computer from the comfort of your own home and play whenever you feel like it? The siren song of computer games existed when I was younger with titles like Wizards Crown and Ultima, but the new breed are light-years more advanced, and much more effective at drawing potential players away.

For more great recent discussion on this topic, check out Whither D&D? at Trollsmyth and D&D in the News at Grognardia (great name for an RPG blog, by the way).

Wizards of the Coast is trying to fight back with an online version of D&D, which will reportedly allow players like me--30-something, with demanding jobs and busy family lives--to break down traditional barriers to play by providing a virtual tabletop. This Associated Press article sums up the issue a lot better than I can. It's a model that could work, but it's also fraught with danger. D&D simply cannot do some things as well as a computer, and trying to fit a round peg into a square hole could result in WOTC squandering millions, perhaps leading parent company Hasbro to drop the line.

A unique strength of D&D and tabletop RPGs in general has always been the face-to-face social component. In addition to fun and adventure in imaginary worlds, RPGs allow creative, like-minded folks to gather around a table and enjoy each other's company. While I know WOTC is touting that this face-to-face experience will remain a viable part of fourth edition, part of me has doubts. Remember that WOTC also maintained that 3E can be played without miniatures, but then rewrote the rules to all but cripple a game that doesn't have a tabletop grid and some type of figures.

So should D&D ignore the online space and continue to churn out hardbacks until the line eventually goes the way of the newspaper? That would be the safe route, but also the path of a long, slow, dance with death. I credit WOTC for trying a new approach, but I also fear that traditional RPGs, like newspapers, are by their nature destined to become relics of a forgotten age, played and debated about only by a small, dwindling fan base like me.


Falze said...

Unbelievably, we were in the local B&N a couple of weeks ago and I happened across a curious, stand-alone rotating display near the fantasy/scifi section of books. It contained many copies of the latest D&D manuals (stuff I've obviously never seen before as I'm about, oh, 20 years out of D&D date). But there they were. I was amazed.

I still stopped to glance through them (something like 'how to be a magic user', 'how to be a thief' or some such), even after all this time, and it made me itch for a return to a bog full of lizardmen with some low-level daredevils armed with decidedly non-magical 1d8 battleaxes, a lust for electrum in their hearts, and belts full of pudding.

trollsmyth said...

I think D&D Insider has been failed in a big way by WotC marketing. There are far too many blogs and forum posts about how WotC's digital initiative is an attempt to woo WoW players or bring some of the "digital cool" to D&D. If those are the goals, then yeah, I agree with you completely.

That said, I really don't see that as the goal. The goal is to make it a lot easier for DMs and players all over the world to hook up and play the game. The virtual table-top, after all, doesn't handle any of the rules. It's just some dice, some minis, and some terrain. There's nothing preventing you from using it to play Moldvay/Cook D&D. Or even Exalted if you don't mind subbing a beholder for your Abyssal Lord.

Combining D&D's brand strength and draw with the social networking of Gleemax and an easy-to-use online play space ought to be an idea full of all sorts of win. Unfortunately, WotC's not exactly inspired much confidence with their fumbled computer projects in the past, and the anemic versions of Dungeon and Dragon out there now seem to be part of that same pattern.

Like you, I'd rather see a healthy industry, and a popular D&D again, but I'm thinking this isn't the year. :/

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, that's more play than I usually see given to RPGs.

And it's never too late to start gaming again! I'm living proof. Although my belt is decidedly pudding-free.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Trollsmyth, I also think that a virtual table-top could work. But what has me the most worried is that WOTC will gradually shift the focus of the game to require an online element (or pour all their creativity and talent into it, leaving the traditional books and supplements bereft of imagination and talent).

I think you've hit the nail on the head with Dragon and Dungeon, which could be an ominous sign of where D&D's future lies.

Chris said...

Which gaming store in Amesbury closed? I knew there were two of them, Toy Soldier and another one (can't recall the name), but if it was the other one that closed, I'm not surprised. It didn't look too healthy last time I went there (which was well over a year ago, probably longer).

I also wonder how many gamers are out there that buy all their books online, have a well-established group that they have played with for year, and would never even think of stepping into a local gaming store? You really didn't have that before the internet, so I'm not sure if loss of local stores is a sign of the hobby dying.

That being said, it has been argued that without local stores less new blood will enter the hobby, and as old players go elsewhere due to attrition, the hobby will shrink.

Something to think about...

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Chris, the store that closed was Amesbury Comics (located on route 110). I'm not surprised either, given that The Toy Soldier was a much better store, and I don't see how any small town is capable of supporting two game/comic shops. Still, it was a bit disheartening to see. I've seen a lot of hobby and book shops go under. Some others include The Wizards Tower in Nashua, NH, the Name of the Game (also in Nashua), and another former hobby shop at the Rockingham Mall in Salem, NH (remember that one? I used to go there occasionally when I lived in Methuen).

I do agree that more people are buying books online these days, but there's something to be said for a real, brick and mortar store in which you can actually look at the books, read them, and enjoy the artwork before buying. As a kid I was captivated by the books on display at the old hobby shops and I'm convinced that they play a role in bringing new gamers into the hobby.

Rick said...

I don't think its that simple. Sure newspapers are fading from popularity, but is reading? Or journalism for that matter? I'm sure there are millions of pages of blogs discussing whether or not blogs themselves are the bane or boom of modern journalism.

As Chris pointed out, online sales of books reduce the number of book stores. We may have seen the zenith of table top RPGing come and go - but if you think of the huge numbers of people who are playing these games today compared to the small numbers of early adopters it is hard for me to say the industry is dying.

D&D, or any table top RPG for that matter, will never be main stream. But heck, look how many people know who Gary Gygax is. And how many major news organizations credit him with creating so much change to popular culture.

I always believed the most effective marketing for D&D was word of mouth, come join my game. I think more players discovered the game that way than through any clever marketing strategy or advertisement. I do not see that has changed much, no matter how much $ WoTC or Hasbro chooses to throw at it.

Brian Murphy said...

You make some good points Rick, and I myself am not sure whether the disappearance of local hobby shops=death of RPGs. The internet has indeed opened up a whole new world, not only for gamers to buy books, but to "gather." I guess it's just more of a lament on my part to see the old hobby shops go, since they were such a formulative part of my own experience as a young gamer discovering D&D.

As for journalism (and reading as a whole) going on the decline, well, I'll leave that for another day.