Right out of the gate I’d like to apologize for my pontification. I’m not that guy, as I tend towards wanting to simply make and play cool games. So if you’re like me and tend not to like such soap-boxery, I hope you’ll bear with me, as I feel driven to post my thoughts on this subject.
Over the last several months I’ve found more and more blogs, news items and other publications filled with doom and gloom surrounding role-playing games. Obviously this isn’t something new. Ever since the glut of the early ’90s (1993 saw almost a dozen full-fledged, unique RPGs publish at Gen Con) and the rise of electronic gaming (especially consoles), the cry has been sounded. And when MMOs rose to new heights of technology and accessibility, those cries became wails of despair: a cacophony that rises and falls in volume but is a constant companion almost everywhere I look or read.
Now, many of the points made by a host of people have a lot of validity concerning the price of production, the overall downward trend in sales, and so on. My beef is not with such number-crunching, though I believe you need to be very careful when extracting information out of such data. Instead, my beef is when I hear things like, “Why would kids want to play an old-school RPG when they can plug into a console or an MMO with almost no effort?”
Not to sound too long in the tooth, but back in the early ’80s my imagination got broken wide open when I discovered such novels as The White Dragon and cartoons like G-Force, Star Blazers and more (which I remember getting up an hour before grade school to watch with my brother). At that time, I was desperate to find ways to get my geek on. I couldn’t read enough; I couldn’t find cool enough such shows to watch; there simply was never enough to fill my imagination. So I was driven to find friends with similar interests. And once you find friends like those, you look for others. You look in libraries, in study halls and eventually you find comic book shops, and finally you find a hobby game store and role-playing.
Looking at it now, it’s easy to cover that experience in a few sentences. In reality, I spent years looking and transitioning from the boy trying to find a way to get my geek on, until I was fully embraced in a group of friends with role-playing, board games and more. But I was driven. An insatiable hunger to feed my imagination that finally felt satisfied as I fell in love with RPGs and discovered the endless gaming sessions that good friends, great imagination, pizza and Jolt can fuel.
Like 90 percent of gamers, my introduction to gaming came through D&D. But it didn’t stop there as I sampled a plethora of imagination-boosting treats. TMNT, Heroes Unlimited, Robotech, Palladium, Earthdawn, Ninjas and Superspies, MechWarrior, Star Frontiers, Rifts, Twilight 2000: and those are just the ones we ran multiple campaigns in over the years. I’m not even counting the ones we sampled here and there (Paranoia!).
Yet it wasn’t just RPGs. By mid to late high school, I got my geek on every way possible: an RPG session every other week; a board game (Talisman to Axis & Allies) almost every week; BattleTech every other day (pretty sure my junior year I logged 300+ days of BattleTech, only taking off Sundays); major board games once a month (along the lines of Supremacy); and reading, reading and more reading (novels to comics and more). Looking back, it’s hard to believe I found time to eat (’cause sleeping wasn’t an option very often). All that to feed my geek habit.
Fast forward to today, and I see kids just as insatiable to get their geek on. My own 12 year old is about as geeky as they come, and his best friend is just as bad. Now some might say they’re not representative of a “standard” kid. After all I’m a stay-home dad who works out of the house developing and writing for numerous companies. Then I’ve got games flowing out the door, and he’s been playing board games with me for years (no Americana-style games here, but meaty games and of course a host of German-style board games). Over the last two years, he’s also blossomed into a huge BattleTech fan/player (how could he not, right?). However, while I’ve got RPGs on my shelves and obviously he’s heard me talk about them, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not played in or run an RPG game since before he was born. So his indoctrination to such things is almost non-existent.
Now in addition to BattleTech, a host of board games and his insatiable reading habits, h’s also a huge computer game player, from PC games to the console; and as of a year or so ago, he discovered a certain MMO, and at times we have to lob him out the door to ensure he gets his Vitamin D quota. So, according to so many of the arguments I’ve read of late, my son absolutely should have no interest in playing an RPG. After all h’s got his MMOs, he’s got his computer games, and if he wants other types of games, he’s got a pile of board games.
Yet several months back, he attended a local gaming convention and decided he’d like to try an RPG. While I went back and forth between several panels, my son and his friend played a first session of D&D Fourth Edition (as mentioned, their very first RPG game ever): for almost 8 straight hours. And they loved it to death. In fact they loved it so much and have become so great at manipulating me (I swear they’re rolling 2D20 to make their negotiation rolls) that I suddenly find myself starting to run a D&D game. The first RPG I’ve run in well over a decade (I know, hangs head in shame…again). Yet the excitement on their faces as they played; listening to them talk about their characters and what occurred in the game; it re-awoke all my own insatiable hunger that drove me to play RPGs for so many years-a drive that stuttered and died, of all things, because I work in this industry, and with three kids, who’s got time?
Of course trying to start up a D&D campaign right before Gen Con is rather like trying to stop the advance of a BattleMaster with an UrbanMech–and about as effective. Yet thanks to Mike Mearls and a big box o’ D&D, my son and his friend continue to devour the books (if he re-reads the Monster Manual one more time he just might have it memorized), and continue to drive me to set aside the time to run the campaign. And he just set up another sleep-over for later this week so their PCs can enter Winterhaven and I can let them have a true taste of the best part of role-playing; beyond hacking up an Orc or two, of course.
Now that my son is just discovering RPGs, has he suddenly decided his MMO isn’t fun anymore, or given up HALO? Right-ODST is on pre-order and he keeps tossing those 2D20s at me to pick up a year’s subscription to the MMO. Not to mention making me come home from Gen Con with Fantasy Flight’s new Battlestar Galactica board game (when we’ve yet to really get a game of Tide of Iron in from last Gen Con). Instead, RPGs are just one more cool way to let his imagination soar.
So what does all this say to me? If a kid is a big geek, then there is no such thing as “enough.” It says to me that just as when I grew up and got my geek on in every way I possibly could, today’s kids will do the exact same thing.
Then what’s the difference, right? Why do we go on and on talking about the doom and gloom of RPGs? Because kids, in general, don’t need to go very far to get their geek on. Again, when I was young we had Atari and the first of the word-text video games. Hardly enough to satiate any geek hunger. Yet today’s MMOs and console games allow for a huge geek on without having to leave the house-even I started to see the MMO draw as my son’s character flew around on a gryphon on my brand new 24-inch monitor.
Does this mean that those same kids don’t want to get their geek on more? Is there too much chocolate, or too much good music? I don’t think so. What I do think it means is that, unlike my generation, who got driven out of the house to find the geek feasts and were ultimately led to discover RPGs, today’s kids aren’t driven out of the house.
What does that mean for RPGs in general? Well, it doesn’t mean that all is wonderful in the land of make-believe. I know the sales numbers on RPGs, and it’s nothing to smile about. At the same time, I believe the “kids nowadays don’t want to play RPGs because MMOs and computer games are so much cooler” mantra is not only erroneous, but potentially harmful as companies fall prey to that way of thinking and eventually give up on this fantastic medium.
Instead, I believe the most significant hurdle (a hurdle that’s always been the bane of our industry, simply more so now) is market penetration. With kids not driven out of their houses to get their geek on and discover gaming by accident along the way, getting them to find our games is all the more difficult.
Yet it’s important to recognize that the market still exists. It allows us to see that instead of giving up on RPGs, we need to think outside the box for how to deliver RPGs to a hard-to-find market. Instead of bemoaning the lost days of yore, we can step up to the challenge and declare emphatically that RPGs still rock, are cool and can find a great audience, including the next generation.
And because I’m ultimate about the cool game and getting all our geeks on, check out Eclipse Phase: from launching a website almost a year before the book was released to a cheap PDF price, from constant twitters and blogs to releasing the book as part of the Creative Commons License (for the “mix-it-and-make-it-yours” generation of electronic media): Catalyst is trying to do exactly what I’m talking about. Make an ultra cool, you-must-check-it-out-RPG: and try every new path we can think of to create that all-important market penetration.
Of course we’re not the only ones championing RPGs. There’s a lot of great companies not only supporting RPGs, but striving to create new and innovative ways for RPGs to find that elusive younger kid market. From the amazing work of the Indy crowd and their unique takes on what can be considered an RPG (a 64-page RPG that you understand and can run as a GM is awesome) all the way to the king in Dungeons and Dragons, where the developers were willing to take one of the greatest risks I’ve ever seen in our industry and completely reshape D&D in Fourth Edition to allow the next generation to quickly and easily pick up the game and understand the concepts in short order coming from an electronic angle; this is an awesome direction that I’ve seen work first-hand with my own son.
Ultimately, I don’t have all the answers. And while one of my greatest pet peeves is to counter-argue a point when you have no solutions, I felt the call itself was worth making. If there’s some out-of-the-box thinking out there for how to create that marketing penetration for any RPG, I would love to hear it; if you don’t have it now, but this thread gets people thinking of how to do it, then that’s exactly what I’m looking for as well. We’ve spent years creating some of the coolest, most fantastical game settings out there: now we need to concentrate on how to take those settings and get them into the hands of the kids that’ll make the next great settings.
I know at the end of the day this all may sound a little obvious…but against the backdrop of the endless “RPGs are dead” cries, sometimes the obvious needs to be shouted. So please: go make cool games I can read, play and enjoy…and along the way, figure out how to grab those kids in the process.
Catalyst Game Labs