This column has been quiet for a while. First, I got involved with turning it into a book, and then, when the book deal fell apart, I put everything on the back burner until I could regain my enthusiasm.
However, rather than entirely neglecting my duties as RPGnet historian, I’ve decided to recognize the changing of the calendar by offering a new article that talks about the biggest gaming trends and news of 2008.
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #17 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The Platinum Appendixs.
The Passing of the Old Guard. Ours is an aging hobby, and it was with great sadness that I saw many of its pioneers pass on in 2008. Most notably, we lost Gary Gygax, Bob Bledsaw, N. Robin Crossby, and Erick Wujcik.
Gary Gygax invented our genre and thus touched all of our lives in ways that we can’t begin to define. I’ve written about this debt elsewhere.
Bob Bledsaw created the market for gaming supplements and his Judges Guild was an important force through the hobby’s youngest days.
N. Robin Crossby discovered Harn, one of the three great settings (a triad which I believe also contains Glorantha and Tekumel) that helped to define the ideas of world-building in RPGs.
Erick Wujcik co-founded Palladium, one of the most successful RPG companies in its time and also created one of the most innovative games in the hobby, Amber Diceless Roleplaying, presaging a lot of the indie development that’s followed.
Everyone passes too soon, but I think that’s particularly the case for these trailblazers of our medium.
D&D Moves Onward: Meanwhile, life goes on. Our hobby’s flagship game continued its evolution with the release of the fourth edition of the game, created by some of the younger generation: Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt.
Though some have argued otherwise, I think there’s little doubt that 4th edition was the release that merged tabletop roleplaying with the MMORPG, at least in its strategy, terminology, and theming. I’ve seen little indication that anyone else is following this path–though it’s probably too early to tell. If D&D ultimately acts as a gatekeeper between the MMORPG and RPG domains, it might actually keep everyone happy.
D20 Fractures: However, the release of D&D4E was also accompanied by a trend that should be somewhat more scary for Wizards of the Coast: the fracturing of the D20 market.
Some sort of fracture was probably going to happen in any case, as many folks felt that D&D3E didn’t need a total revamp. However, Wizards made it much worse than it might have been otherwise. First, they called back all of their external licenses, such as Dragon, Dungeon, and Dragonlance–ensuring that no one else had “skin” in the game. Second, their new “open gaming license” was so badly delayed–and in a sufficiently unfriendly state when it finally emerged–that many publishers were forced out of the D&D-support biz just because they couldn’t afford to wait and see.
As a result, the top 3E supporters have decided to depend upon their own games. Green Ronin is concentrating on True20 and Mutants & Masterminds. Troll Lord Games is focusing on Castles & Crusades. Paizo was forced into the position of creating a brand-new 3E-compatible game, Pathfinder, which will do the most to emphasize the d20 rift if it’s successful.
Of the notable d20 publishers, only Goodman Games quickly made the leap from 3E to 4E–though others who had gotten out of the market (such as Mongoose and Fantasy Flight) appear to be tentatively finding their way back in. Overall, however, there are many fewer 4E publishers than there were for 3E, and conversely many more publishers continue to publish for 3E than even considered doing so for 2E.
Retail reports suggest that after a spike surrounding the release of 4E its sales have very quickly died down to old 3E levels, which has been a disappointment to many retailers. Likewise publishers like Adamant and Mongoose have expressed disappointment in their own 4E supplemental sales. Though it’s impossible to say why, I’d guess it’s because of the market fracture rather than anything about 4E itself (though of course some of the elements of 4E’s differentness could have accentuated the market fracture).
The Continued Roll-Up of the Hobby: I don’t think many of us blinked when the big boys started buying up hobby IPs in the late 1990s. Microsoft’s 1999 purchase of FASA Studios made perfect sense given the success of MechWarrior. Similarly, the roll-up of Wizards of the Coast into Hasbro was reasonable given the size of the company.
What’s been more surprising is that, over the last couple of years, big companies have been digging deeper into our hobby world, looking primarily for IPs. Thus CCP bought White Wolf back in 2006. And now, in 2008, the process seems to be accelerating. Cryptic Studios purchased the Champions IP in February. Then, the Rebellion Group acquired Mongoose Publishing.
Content is truly king in the world of the internet, and a lot of computer companies are realizing that RPG companies are sources of really cheap, yet well-developed IP. I expect we’ll see more of those roll-ups in the years to come.
Mongoose is sort of a weird case, since they had a lot less IP to offer, as they’ve gone so heavily with licenses. On the other hand, Rebellion Group has a lot of IP of its own, in the form of the 2000 A.D. properties. So, it’ll be interesting to see where that goes.
Companies Rise & Fall: A year of roleplaying just wouldn’t be complete without companies rising and falling.
The most unexpected departure of the year was Games Workshop, who put out Dark Heresy, the Warhammer 40k RPG that they’d been promising, literally, for decades–then pulled the plug on it (and their entire RPG line) mere days later. Of course, the announcement of GW suddenly dumping their (successful) RPG products could as easily have come from the 1980s as the 2000s. History repeats itself.
GW’s RPG departure led to one of the most unexpected returns of the year: Fantasy Flight Games, who had largely abandoned the RPG market for their very successful adventure games like Arkham Horror and Descent. They picked up the Warhammer RPG licenses and immediately started putting out new supplements. There was also some talk of them returning to the world of D&D production with 4E, but thus far that hasn’t occurred.
The Return of Traveller: GW’s attitude toward roleplaying wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of the 1980s. 2008 also saw the return of our hobby’s premiere science-fiction game: Traveller.
Mongoose Publishing’s resurrection (and continued support) of three of the greatest lines from the 1980s–Paranoia, RuneQuest, and Traveller–is nothing short of amazing for my generation of gamers. Hopefully, even with the entire 2000 A.D. catalog in their hands, we’ll see stories of Alpha Complex, Glorantha, and the Imperium for many years to come.
What’s To Come: So what’s 2009 to bring? Further fracturing of the d20 market as Pathfinder goes gold or a slow consolidation around 4E? Indie publishers rising up to become the newest full-time manufacturers or another older company disappearing forever? More roll-ups or more amazing new releases? We’ll have to wait 365 days to see.