The Current Developing Markets: An Opinion on the TTRPG Market

As a gamer, a designer, and someone whose family work in a game shop I’ve begun to notice some definite emerging markets in the TTRPG landscape as we move forward.  I decided to write this out to codify my feelings on the entire experience and really I’m not expecting what I write to have a major influence or change opinions because this isn’t about what’s good or bad.  There are obviously people who specialize in maneuvering through these markets and helping your product such as Ed Healy and the Gamerati as well as other troubleshooters.  Here’s where the rubber meets the road…everything I’m going to be talking about really is this final point.  What if each market is not as intertwined as we’ve thought?  What if it has become time to realize that with the explosion of the TTRPG industry in recent years, everyone should figure out where each companies niche is and focus there first before moving into the others.

What I’ve noticed and would like to discuss is that we have various markets in TTRPGs that are emerging, separating, or being established:  Kickstarter, PDF, Subscription, or Brick-and-Mortar. 

Kickstarter

Kickstarter is an amazing process that has brought us some fantastic games over the years from tiny, one-time publishers to bigger projects by some serious forces in the TTRPG landscape.  Games such as 7th Sea by John Wick Presents, Conan or Star Trek by Modiphius, Pugmire or Scion by Onyx Path, and so many more were made possible by Kickstarter.  At the same time smaller press games have also come from Kickstarter—games from companies on the IGDN (who you know I love) as well as international games such as Part-Time Gods by Third Eye Games, Masks: A New Beginning by Magpie Games, or Never Going Home by Wet Ink Games.

How did this become a market?  Kickstarter has allowed creators to specifically target those who want their games.  The indie and non-d20 game market has effectively moved online to Kickstarter where gamers who want indie games can peruse sometimes up to 400+ titles being released and discussed in the TTRPG/Boardgame area of the website.  There’s a certain badge of honor amongst indie game aficionados to get a special edition cover or add-ons only available at the Kickstarter stage.

What’s the downside?  Kickstarter is not normally Brick-and-Mortar friendly.  Since these games have directly targeted their audience the demand outside of Kickstarter begins to wane. Some companies try to ship to FLGS (Friendly Local Game Stores) first through their distribution lines but tend to alienate fans who paid for the Kickstarting privilege to get their books first.  A prime example would be Catalyst Game Labs who released their Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition books to the FLGS without informing their backers first.  Smaller, indie games find distribution is much harder following their Kickstarter as demand from store-to-store is dependent on store owners being excited about their product and willing to take a risk or believe in profitability.

Is there a solution? Wizards of the Coast struck some gold with a release of a title for Dungeons and Dragons where there was an exclusive cover only available through Brick-and-Mortar stores (raising the demand and collectability of the book).  It could be that in-store exclusives through distributors may be the next major innovation.  Inexpensive Beginner Boxes unavailable thru Kickstarter has also seen some good demand in recent months (the release of Cyberpunk Red Beginner Box Set at GenCon proves this).  Otherwise, it may behoove smaller companies who adopt the Kickstarter model to put their eggs in this basket fully moving from Kickstarter to Kickstarter without immediate lines of distribution and joining different entities for convention representation such as the IGDN or Indie Press Revolution to build interest.  The other side would be to continue to develop a strong social media presence and maintain a presence in social spheres to continue to grow your future market beyond your initial Kickstarter release.  Otherwise, its time to generate some models of the data we have for at what point you move beyond the Kickstarter level of pertinence and into the wider public sphere.

PDF

The PDF (or Portable Document Format by Adobe) has become an industry standard spearheaded now by DriveThruRPG.com and proprietary clones such as the DMs Guild.  A modern wave of gaming centers on this market where gamers who don’t want “dead tree games” and people in pursuit of titles to boost their game night repertoire for less cash gather.  Other electronic formats have tried to do battle with the PDF, but the gaming community as well as the illegal and immoral underground market for game books generated backlash that spelled their doom.

How did this become a market?  For the player the PDF took off with the advent of personal portable devices making carrying your library to game night a lot easier.  For the businesses out there, creating their games as PDFs and allowing Print-On-Demand options has made it easier to build an audience and keep their overhead low.

What’s the downside?  Perhaps the biggest downside has been getting lost in the deluge.  Sources of PDF games (such as DTRPG) are constantly receiving product and new games.  Without an established social media presence or budget for targeted advertisement you can be left behind.  At the same time, with the automated preproduction with print-on-demand groups out there rather than fully staffed printing presses, companies can waste tons of money paying for talented layout specialists to constantly be adjusting their PDFs bleed and graphics without accurate feedback to speed up the process.  Then, of course, there are those who share and trade games (sometimes only at their table, sometimes in mass) lowering the demand and profitability.

Is there a solution?  The PDF market works great as a backup or startup for RPG companies and hobbyists.  It does do exactly what it sets out to do and few long-term PDF central companies exist (although Adventure-A-Week definitely comes to mind).  Companies and independent creators who want to go this way really should invest in learning design software themselves to cut their initial costs until they reach a point where they can afford to have a staff themselves.  Beyond that, I can say never doubt the power of swag—secondary product available to confirmed purchasers of product (stickers, pins, posters, dice, etc).  I’ve worked in education and you can create a desire to perform and act a certain way from Kindergarten to Highschool when that model is well applied.

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Subscription Services

Separate from PDF subscription services and Print-On-Demand groups (but seemingly the next step in this evolution) is the subscription service for hard cover and softcover book lines.  It’s a very small and limited group of companies who have a following enough to make this a viable model with a good standard of quality to allow for it to continue.  These are not glossy-paperbound magazines (with a smattering of art and articles), but targeted books intending to be part of a game shelf collection.

How did this become a market?  It’s hard to imagine the birthplace of the subscription service for RPG products.  It could perhaps have started in the zine and magazine movements of the 70’s and 80’s and been further established with White Wolf Magazine, Dungeon Magazine, or Dragon Magazine.  With these names attached to it, really it is no wonder that Paizo Publishing, whose members had fingers in each of those pies, would begin multiple subscription services for their various product lines. 

What’s the downside?  This is without a doubt the most unfriendly service towards Brick-and-Mortar stores.  This more than became apparent at the GenCon 50th Industry Insider meeting where representatives of a few FLGSs point-blank asked Paizo why they were being forgotten.  The collector of hardbound books is specifically targeted and those who have the subscription service also often get a PDF of the book on the street date while their package is in the mail.  As such, it has become in the best interest of FLGSs not to carry the wide variety of lines of product for a larger company.  At the same time this has led to a collection bloat larger than 3rd Edition or 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons with people comparing the overdose of information to Forgotten Realms where players can often have a greater understanding of the world than the game masters.  Without a good working relationship with FLGSs Paizo uses the immense size of its Pathfinder Society for demand and recruitment.

Is there a solution?  I guess the question is, is there a problem?  As a company Paizo eclipsed Wizard’s of the Coast during 4th Edition in online reports (referring to usage of these games per quarter on Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds) although 5th Edition D&D has certainly turned the tables and holds the vast majority of online demand simply on brand name (D&D has withdrawn from most gaming conventions and 3rd Party companies have stepped in to run organized play and tournaments for their product lines).  Paizo has now dominated the convention circuit and started their strategy over with new lines of products.  The question will now be whether they can surpass their previous quality to maintain the demand for the new lines.  If Paizo wants to fight for ground in the Brick-and-Mortar arena it will be necessary to provide products that can only be obtained in these venues or can be obtained there early, but is there enough goodwill between players, Paizo, and FLGSs to re-enter and re-establish that relationship with viable demand?  If not, then the subscription service IS a new and separate market that others should investigate—and if you have a Patreon account as a game company you already are doing that.

Brick-and-Mortar

When we refer to Brick-and-Mortar we are talking about physical stores as part of a wide variety that includes bookstores, toy stores, and game stores—which when divided into substrata includes the independently owned and operated Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). 

How did this become a market?  This is the old school market of just about everything prior to the internet.  Learning what was coming down the pipes or obtaining your games meant traveling to the store and asking the employees and owners who had purposefully scoured catalogs from distributors to build a sellable stock.  In previous years FLGSs have been the social hub of the gaming sphere providing semi-neutral ground for gamers to gather and meet and as such holds a great deal of social value to players.  Having your product in a game store has, for good or ill, become synonymous with having relevancy.

What’s the downside?  Out of the hundreds of TTRPG companies out there; most have moved into targeting their audience and leaving targeting the FLGS to the distributors and troubleshooters.  For example, this September Alliance Distribution is holding its open house where game stores from around the world will travel to talk with them and a few representatives of various game companies and get the opportunity to walk their warehouse and facilities.  This is essentially the equivalent of a small “insider-only” convention.  Let’s put all our cards on the table—if you as a game company aren’t there and yet rely on the distributors and troubleshooters to court the FLGS and Brick-and-Mortar store; what is being done to ensure that relevancy you desire? 

Is there a solution?  This is a tough question because each game store is different and often their owners and managers need to ask what will sell to their local clientele?  Right now, the powerhouse locally for me is D&D 5th Edition and supportive products (dice, dice trays, trackers, and a few 3rd party books).  However, other game communities stand with Paizo’s Pathfinder and a few others specialize in Indie Gaming—but each of these markets have either developed or been created over long periods of time with dedicated lines of influence from what local GMs are willing to run to what the distributors have traditionally pushed.  If Brick-and-Mortal as a market developed and is entered into through long-term strategy its time that companies begin operating with that long-term strategy mindset and not a month-to-month one. 

Also, having seen some distributors online ordering software I can definitely say if you are a game company you need to go ask your FLGS IF they can even pull up your product on your distributor’s page because sometimes your product might be intentionally or unintentionally “not available”. 

And now to ask that dreaded question: What do you think?