Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why Tabletop RPGs Collapsed & Continue To Do So

When it comes to tabletop RPGs, there's a metric fuckload of delusion and incompetency going on. It's been there for years, and the Dunning-Krueger Effect is so strong here that you'll go mad if you try to make sense of the stupidity. The people running the TRPG companies don't know what the fuck they are doing, and can't be convinced that they don't. So they keep repeating the same mistakes, year on year, and wonder why their commercial sector keeps collapsing.

As I noted yesterday, gamers that got into tabletop RPGs did so because at that time the tabletop RPG medium was the only viable means to scratch the itch. As soon as a viable alternative arose, gamers immediately jumped ship. What can we conclude from this? Tabletop RPGs, for most gamers, were only a temporary measure AT BEST. The TRPG medium did well enough for the moment, but were never truly satisfying the demand those gamers had; this is why they quit the medium as soon as those very alternatives arose.

The people, and companies, that made tabletop RPGs never properly understood what their product did and few had any idea how they actually worked. They had no real idea what their audience--their customers--was, how that audience perceived what the games were or now the games worked, or had any idea as to what they wanted, and to this day few (if any) actually give a shit about either of those issues. We see this with every D&D edition, especially the last two, listening too much to the forums and the letters and not to their own analytics (if they even had such data, and I doubt they did). Publishers display business incompetence that would get them fired and blackballed in any other gaming subsector.

Quite frankly, I am astounded that tabletop RPGs are still commercially viable now that the technology has caught up and routinely produces gameplay experiences that--while often narrower than what TRPGs can do--are superior within that niche to the TRPG in delivering those experiences and do so with superior convenience and reliability.

What this means is that, first and foremost, there must be a recognition that the formerly-huge TRPG player audience only existed because the TRPG medium was the only game in town for most of those playing them. They played TRPGs because, even if they couldn't give a shit about the rest, the medium did deliver what they wanted out of gameplay at a time when no other option existed. As I noted with the horror gamers, as soon as those gamers could get what they wanted without putting up with the stuff they hated from TRPGs, those gamers bailed and never came back, nor want to.

Until the following is actually addressed, tabletop RPGs will remain on a tailspin to irrelevance.

  • A complete and comprehensive investigation into how the machine actually works. Not how it's said to work. Not how it's reported to work. But actually how it works, with a focus on comparing the claims made against the results produced. This is where the Mech Pilots actually are helpful, as this is the source of their behavioral methodology. If you're wanting to make a commercially-viable product, this is necessary. (Home hobbyist use is another category entirely, beyond this scope.)
  • A complete and comprehensive survey, like what WOTC did in 1999, of both current and former players that compares their reported preferences of what they want out of TRPGs to how their behavior reveals their true preferences in TRPGs. Purchases and usage of products need to be accounted for seperately, so as to separate collectors from actual users.
  • Identification of the salient qualities of tabletop RPGs that distinguish them from competing RPG media, and then comparison of those distinct qualities against competing RPG media (boardgames, videogames, etc.) to produce a constrast that's actually useful in product design going forward.
  • Identification of the target audience that actually wants the qualities that TRPGs are good at, and the elimination of those previously targeted but either do not respond or respond negatively to marketing aimed at them.

Right off the bat, I will tell you a HUGE reason people quit TRPGs for other competing alternatives: scheduling your fun. No one likes the idea of scheduling time to play RPGs, and the revealed preference of gamers over the decades shows this; the power to play what, when, where, and how you like is a HUGE draw away from TRPGs and towards alternatives. Related to that is long-term commitments; revealed preferences show that gamers want to come and go as they please, with no obligations to others, and when an alternative arises that allows this it's a HUGE pull.

Why? Because scheduling and commitment is too much like work, and gamers will not work for their entertainment unless they have no other choice. TRPGs were tolerated because that was exactly the case: they had no other option to scratch the itch. As soon as that changed, they bailed. Simple as that.


  1. You say that there is an alternative to TRPGs, but you never say what it is. Can you explain?

    1. What consistently pulled gamers from TRPGs are videogames, then board and card games.

      The big reason is that each of these competing media put out stand-alone products that delivered a narrow (by comparison) gameplay experience, but did so with superior quality of experience and superior convenience of engagement.

      It turns out that gamers want specific experiences, and prefer to focus on that specific thing. The TRPG does deliver the experience, but never well enough to keep them around when a focused alternative arises. Further, the common gamer doesn't like having to tolerate those parts of TRPGs that they don't care about. (e.g. lore and culture for fantasy RPG players) Getting what they want, without the stuff they don't, whenever they want to play is what gamers want. Their behavior shows it.

      They don't want to make up names, pretend to be someone else, and immerse themselves as active agents in a virtual world. (This is also why sandbox MMOs are so few, and why all but one has failed as a commercial venture.) They want smaller, focused experiences that are repeatable, easily engaged or dropped as desired, and require no time wasted figuring out what to do or how. (What I call "cold and stupid".) Videogames nail this. Boardgames nail this. Cardgames nail this. TRPGs, by and large, DON'T.

  2. Another reason why TRPGs became popular: the favorable cost to entertainment value ratio.

    If you were a kid with no independent income or a student on a tight budget, TRPGs were a cheap alternative to increasingly expensive movies, sporting events, and older generation video games.

    The rule books presented a slight monetary barrier to entry, but that entry cost could be effectively distributed among members of the group. After that, all you needed were pencils, paper, and a small group of guys with more free time than money.

  3. >>I will tell you a HUGE reason people quit TRPGs for other competing alternatives: scheduling your fun. No one likes the idea of scheduling time to play RPGs<<

    "No one" seems wrong to me. I think many people value the social aspect of RPGs, their nature as an inherently social activity, and also that they are a structured social activity (of which there are many others, like meeting to play a ball game like Rugby or cricket). Regular scheduling is an important aspect of that, which then allows for other social activities like a barbecue before the game or drinks afterwards. Maybe this is a British thing but I think it's a significant element here in UK.