It’s been another year gone, with all the highs and lows that you’d expect. For readers of this (occasional) column, the good news is that I’m planning to get my Brief History book back heading toward completion in 2010, with an intended submission date of the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the world of gaming is constantly moving and changing, so without further ado, let me offer up some of the biggest events and trends of the last year (most of which, as it happens, have been moving forward across the whole decade).
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #18 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.
Farewell to Dave Arneson (& Keith Herber): There were two fathers of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax who came to the game via Chainmail and Dave Arneson who came to it via the Braunstein war games. In 2009 we lost the second and less heralded of the two, Dave. Though quiet and unassuming, Arneson was just as important to our hobby as Gygax was, and we should remember his passing thus.
When speaking of luminaries who passed in 2009, we should also remember Keith Herber, the author of many notable Call of Cthulhu products, but also the man who really revitalized the line with the Lovecraft Country setting books which incorporated Lovecraft’s writings into the game more thoroughly than anything before it. It’s a particular tragedy that he was taken just when his Miskatonic River Press was just bringing him back to the hobby.
The Rise of the New Giants: The decade of the 2000s saw many companies rise up due to the easy success of d20, but it was in 2009 that we really saw two of them solidify their claim as new giants in the industry, grown far beyond their early D&D success.
The first is Fantasy Flight Games, whose return to our industry thanks to their Games Workship Warhammer licenses has allowed them to apply a high degree of professionalism and the artistic skills required of a board game publisher back to the RPG field. I have no doubt that their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition is a truly innovative product–though I don’t particularly expect other companies to follow the biggest trends of the game because they just don’t have the component-producing infrastructure that FFG does. Nonetheless, FFG is making waves with all three of their Warhammer lines, which have together made them a giant in the RPG industry.
The second new giant of the industry is Mongoose Publishing, who has been on the way up ever since that first d20 product in 2001. I think that 2008’s publication of Traveller was what really locked them in as a publisher of numerous systems. The number of successful lines they have is pretty amazing, as are the facts that they’ve been continuously hiring over the last few years and that they’re the only company I know of who always talks about how their sales are up when the rest of the industry looks downward.
2009 also saw the very sudden appearance of a company that I think is going to rise up into the hallowed halls of the major RPG publishers, perhaps in the coming year: Cubicle 7. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a major publisher appear, especially without the crutch of a major license (and Mongoose got started with d20 while Fantasy Flight got its beginning with Call of Cthulhu). But Cubicle 7 already seemed to know where it was going before it picked up funding from Rebellion Group, linked up with Mongoose, and acquired licenses for both Call of Cthulhu (from Chaosium) and Doctor Who (from the BBC). They’ve also followed Mongoose’s lead in picking up a huge slate of smaller publishing partners, and I think that’s really got the potential to place them at a nexus of opportunity in 2010 and beyond.
The Rise of the Indie: If you want to talk about decade-long trends, the rise of indie games is certainly one. I personally date its beginnings back to the 1987 publication of Ars Magica, the game that brought Mark Rein*Hagen and Jonathan Tweet into the RPG industry. However it was really the growth of the internet and PDFs which changed what could have been a blip on the RADAR into a major gaming trend.
In 2009, indies went mainstream. If you accept my categorization of Cubicle 7 as a major publisher, than you have to accept Starblazer Adventures as an indie product gone mainstream. That of course couldn’t have been done without Evil Hat creating the whole third-edition FATE product line with their own Spirit of the Century three years previous–and I think Evil Hat themselves might break out into bookstores and the rest of the mainstream with their (probable) 2010 publication of the a Harry Dresden RPG.
However, the mainstreaming of indies in 2009 wasn’t just the product of one or two companies. The year also saw Western City put out by Mongoose, while it looks like a whole bunch of indie games starting with Qin and Wild Talents are going to be getting more exposure thanks to Cubicle 7.
Old school games and indie pubs are right now being put out by the same publishers for perhaps the first time since the indie label appeared. That seems a small step from them being blended into the same games, truly integrating indies into our roleplaying hobby–which is a trend I expect to see moving quickly through the 2010s.
The Uncertainty of PDF: The growth of the PDF industry in the 2000s was just as big of a story as the growth of indie publishing–and integrally tied to it. I have little doubt that DrivethruRPG has changed the face of gaming and will continue to do so. However, 2009 also showed how new the technology still is, when Wizards of the Coast abruptly pulled all of their books out of the PDF market.
Personally, I find their decision a colossal misstep. If Wizards wasn’t lying when they claimed that getting out of PDFs was an attempt to combat piracy, then they’re surprisingly deluded. Given how many of the pirated Wizards PDFs were printers’ proofs and internal documents and that pirates are willing–nay, happy–to to scan books page by page, every new WotC book is still out there.
Many of us gave Wizards the benefit of the doubt, figuring that they were going to merge their electronic publication with their other electronic interests, but the rest of 2009 sure didn’t pay that theory out …
The Growth of Electronic Accessories: It’s pretty ironic that Wizards looks like a bunch of machine-smashing luddites in their PDF decisions, because their D&D Insider product certainly seems to have blossomed (despite the problems with release dates and the employee layoffs that plagued it in 2008).
Every report I’ve seen suggests that the Character Builder has entirely revolutionized the way players interact with their D&D characters, to the point where third parties don’t want to publish new character classes (unlike in the giddy days of d20), because players aren’t interested in Character-Builderless classes.
Though the year end has focused a lot on the new way that FFG has thought about physical RPG components, I think that Wizards’ focus on electronic RPG components may be much more important.
D&D Only Fractures a Little: The final big RPG event of 2009 was almost a fizzle. Perched on the edge of 2009 with games like Pathfinder Beta and True 20 already available, it looked like the entire d20 market might shatter. 2009 saw more releases with the full Pathfinder, Trailblazer, FantasyCraft, and others … but no real shattering.
Though some games, like FantasyCraft have gotten pretty big kudos, I’m pretty surprised that only one has got big third party attention: Pathfinder. Though the scale is smaller, the flocking of PDF and small-print publishers to Pathfinder reminds me of nothing less than the third-party adoption of d20 back in 2000-2001. I think that some of Paizo’s hype on Pathfinder‘s success is just that, but you can’t argue with the fact that an increasing number of publishers seem to be treating Pathfinder as the de facto system to publish for if you want to continue supporting 3.5E. If that success continues into 2010, then Paizo will clearly have achieved their goal with the new game.
I find Paizo’s success particularly notable because it coincides with Mongoose backing off of their RuneQuest open license. Though Mongoose has made their RuneQuest available for easy licensed development since 2006, in the span of just four or five months, Paizo has already surpassed both the number of third-party developers and the number of third-party products for their own Pathfinder system, by my rough estimate. Mongoose’s decision to drop the OGL from RuneQuest II, scheduled for this January, is a clear acceptance of the fact that RuneQuest just won’t be the next big open system. Neither, I suspect, will FantasyCraft or the many other worthy contenders. Pathfinder seems to have the spot sewn up tight, as 2009 comes to a close.
What’s to Come: It feels like some long-term trends are finally cresting in 2009, be they indie games, PDFs, or even the final(?) fallout of the d20 OGL. It leaves the future pretty open, so I’m not sure what the future will bring, but I’ll talk about it in 365 days–hopefully alongside an announcement that a complete “Brief History of Game” book is sitting in a new publisher’s hand.
If you’d like to see my thoughts on board games in 2009, take a look at my BoardGameNews column, where I’ll be publishing “2009 in Review: The Board Games” on 1/7/10. In short: it was a game of reprints, expansions, and revisions, which means I wasn’t impressed overall by the new board game publications of the year. (There were, of course, 3 or 4 exceptions.)