Friday, January 29, 2016

My Life as a Gamer: The Time Problem

In yesterday's post, I said that the reason for why tabletop RPGs face abandonment from irrelevance is due to the significant time commitment that they require, on par with a part-time job, and that this requirement is the single issue that's been wrecking the medium and hobby for over 30 years.

Tabletop boardgames and card games eliminate the commitment and reduce the time to something far more suitable to most people's lives. The same is true for their virtual counterparts. You may play for three or four hours, but you do so only when you--the individual--have that time and want to use it that way (and nothing more compelling arises). Play doesn't carry over from session to session, or even instance to instance, so you can get on or off and miss nothing. You can not play for indefinite periods of time, and miss nothing.

Tabletop wargames engage many of the same things that some boardgames do, often with a secondary hobby (contrary to Games Workshop) of modeling as a parallel process. Again, this allows an individual to engage when and how he likes with no commitment. Go with a virtual wargame, or one of the chit or token-based ones, and even that secondary thing is gone. (It's why I'm back into Car Wars and BattleTech.) Newer wargames do make an effort to reduce overall time down to an hour or less, from setup to breakdown.

Videogames combine rulesets and campaign scenarios into one product, whereas the tabletop RPG (and others in the same situation) seperate the two; for the few hobbyists willing to roll their own content as a secondary hobby, that's great, but most want plug-and-play because they are utterly and totally unwilling to do useful labor--to work--for their entertainment. Furthermore, outside of raiding in MMORPGs, they are drop-in/drop-out affairs and have small or no time issues as well as commitment issues.

In short, if it requires routine scheduling--and that is what tabletop RPGs and others like them do--then the return on the investment has to be so superior to the easier alternatives that it is compelling in the way that books called "page-turners" (or browsing the Tropes Wiki) compel people.

And, quite frankly, they're not.

Hence, as I said yesterday, the threat of irrelevance.

No amount of belated embrace of technology will help. It only makes the case against them clearer through immediate and obvious contrast with the alternatives. (Why play a tabletop RPG online when I could just play a MMORPG, especially now that free-to-play games that aren't shit exist.) No amount of storytelling wankery helps; it makes comparison to just writing your own fan-fiction too easy to do (and fan-fiction would be a better use of their time). No amount of overloading on information that is not immediately useful at the table helps; it just gets in the way and rarely makes a difference in actual play.

What will help is a serious reconsideration of what the medium is, identify its strengths and weaknesses, compare against the alternatives, and then--and only then, not before--make new products that eliminate the time commitment problem. These new products would attack the alternatives' weaknesses while playing up the medium's strengths, focus solely on relevant information at the table, and foster a gameplay culture where the time commitment returns far superior dividends- and thus justifies engagement at all.

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