Welcome back to my yearly look at the RPG industry, covering what went on in 2010.

Before I get there, however, I’d like to offer an update on the Brief History book which will take the original company-oriented articles that kicked off this column and multiply, expand, and revise them. Early last year, I reached an agreement with a publisher to put out the book. I’ve since spent the last 42 weeks revising and expanding about one article a week.

The book is due on February 28, and I’ve got about a dozen pieces to go, with some of them being totally new ones, but I believe I should get everything done. I’m looking for help scanning covers to illustrate the book. If you’ve got a scanner, I’d love your assistance in getting me cover images for even just one company that I don’t own books from.

My hope is that the book will see release this summer, but that’s of course entirely up to the publisher. It’s going to be a massive offering that might end up towards 250,000 words, so I can’t even promise it’ll be one book.

With that said, here’s my thoughts on the RPG industry in 2010:

A Bad Year: Overall, it felt like this was the year that the Great Recession really hit the hobbyist field. I’ve been hearing retailers and publishers alike talking about poor sales for the year. I think it was Mongoose whose yearly update struck me the most. Year after year, they’ve talked about how great things are going for them–and how they don’t know why other people are complaining. This year, they admitted the RPG market was down.

You can measure a bad year by the tombstones along the road. Though a lot of them weren’t caused directly by the Great Recession, I suspect they’re all related to decreasing economics in the hobbyist market.

  • You can’t blame Catalyst Games‘ problems directly on the economy, since they appeared to involve personal fraud, but it was another downer for the year. Perhaps most surprisingly, they seem to have recovered—something which pretty much no one expected. We’ll see if it sticks.
  • Goodman Games looked DOA at the start of the year with nothing coming out for months and their 4E magazine seeing a 9-month gap in its schedule, but they’ve gotten a few books out toward the end of the year, so they might be on the mend.
  • ICE‘s problems were long-standing, but they collapsed totally in 2010 thanks to the actual owner of the ICE properties pulling their license. Word is the old ICE staff is now working on their own fantasy heartbreaker.
  • Mongoose had some of their only layoffs ever, though that was in part due to changing economics caused by their leaving the Rebellion Group. Despite their problems, they maintained an impressively comprehensive schedule throughout the year.
  • Necromancer Games has really been dead since 2007—another 4E casualty—but they also gave up the ghost this year when they passed the baton (rod?) to Frog God Games.
  • White Wolf isn’t dead and hasn’t laid anyone off, but their retreat from the RPG industry is obvious.

A Super Year: A surprising amount of enthusiasm was shown in 2010 for the superhero genre. It’s been almost a decade since the Big Two were available as licensed RPGs, thanks to the failures of the d6-based DC Universe (1999) and the resource-based Marvel Universe (2003), but now DC has finally returned, with not only DC Adventures as a Mutants & Masterminds game, but also Smallville as a Cortex game.

The indie world saw ICONS, a FATE-derived game as well as a variety of small-press offerings like Beyond Belief Games’ Supers!. In a very surprising blast-from-the-past Villains & Vigilantes re-emerged in a new 2.1 edition produced by the game’s original authors. Could it have finally escaped FGU’s deathless grasp?

This all occurred against a backdrop of strong existing games. Wild Talents continued happily on with new supplements, Champions reappeared in its Sixth Edition form, and M&M got a pretty big revamp for its third edition (in just under the wire, on December 29th!).

I can’t remember that many superhero RPGs ever hitting the market all together, even in the superheroic hey-day of the 1980s.

The Continued Rise of Indie and FATE: Last year I talked about how indie games were starting to go mainstream thanks to Cubicle 7 and Evil Hat. This year, it felt like the trend sped up even more.

Evil Hat put out The Dresden Files, their biggest success ever, while the FATE system’s market penetration multiplied, with other releases including the aforementioned ICONS, Cubicle 7’s Legends of Anglerre, Void Star Games’ Strands of Fate, and a variety of reprints, small-press releases, and supplements. I suspect more FATE books came out this year than in all previous years combined.

In addition, indie ideas continued to seep into mainstream games, with Margaret Weis Productions showing the trend off the most. Their Leverage roleplaying game had aspect-like distinctions while Smallville described its characters with values like truth, justice, and duty rather than traditional characteristics.

Descriptive characteristics were truly the new statistic in the field in 2010.

The Rebirth of D&D: Heading into 2010, D&D was burdened by a 4th edition that fractured WotC’s user base, a bad decision to stop selling PDFs, and a marketing department that seemed continually unwilling to talk to retailers or consumers. Though those factors all continued into 2010, WotC also did quite a lot to reinvigorate their prime RPG.

WotC’s most notable move might have been their launch of “Encounters”, a new hour-long weekly gaming session intended to get lapsed RPGers back into the fold. In a stroke of marketing genius, WotC decreed that the same Encounter would be played everywhere each Wednesday night, allowing people to talk with other players across the world about their experiences–and hopefully giving WotC a lot of guerilla marketing on social networks as a result.

D&D’s brand-new “Essentials” line likewise seemed directed toward lapsed RPGers. A lower price point and books that are more bite-sized are both likely to lower resistance and get people into the game. (Of course, Essentials was hindered by WotC’s aforementioned marketing problems, as the year opened with no one knowing what it was or what its intent was.)

Though I said that WotC was sticking with their fearfully luddite view of PDFs, they’ve actually pushed into electronic publishing in one way: their novels. You can now get D&D Fiction for the Kindle and other platforms.

It’s hard to say if WotC’s decision to reinvent their popular 4e Character Builder as a web-only app was intended to also attract new players by making it easier to use or if it was another piracy-phobic response to a problem that actually can’t be solved, but in either case I’m pretty sure it’ll be WotC’s least popular initiative of the year. Of course, people immediately converted the new web-CB files to the old platform, so if WotC was trying to fight against pirates their effort was as futile as their ending PDFs sales of their products (and likely as counterproductive, since both decisions seem destined to actually drive players to illegal copies).

The End of the Old d20 Market: The d20 market has been a long-time going, since the bust of 2003, the announcement of 4e in 2007, and the revocation of the d20 Trademark License at the start of 2009. However, 2010 seems to be the year that the d20 market entirely collapsed in its old form. The reason: Pathfinder.

Over the last 12 months just about every product that would have been released under the d20 Trademark License (or more recently as an “OGL” product) has instead decided to make use of the Pathfinder trademark. It was certainly obvious that Paizo intended to position themselves as the 3e replacement, but I find it more astounding that they were successful at doing so at such a high level. This changeover also seems to have resulted in more and higher-quality PDF and print products for Pathfinder than were generally being seen for d20 just a year or two before. Owen K.C. Stephens has partially attributed this to Paizo’s supportive attitude to third-party publishers, as he writes here.

Meanwhile, the companies that were major d20 movers have largely completed their diaspora away from the system. Mongoose closed down its final d20 system, Conan over the course of the year–and though this was largely due to licensing issues, those licensing issues originated because Mongoose wanted to shift Conan from d20 to RuneQuest. Meanwhile, you couldn’t tell that companies like AEG or FFG had any interactions with d20 any more.

Finally, publishers who created standalone d20 games under the OGL now seem increasingly comfortable with moving away from the d20 standards. Thus we’ve seen the slow rollout of Kenzer’s new Hackmaster, but the evolution of Mutants & Masterminds into its third edition was perhaps more notable: they pared down the skill list and even added two stats! In five years, when games like Castles & CrusadesHackmasterMutants & Masterminds, and True20 have enjoyed yet another revision, I expect it’ll be increasingly hard to see the similarities among them.

The Winners of the Year: Since I started off with a look at some of the companies that had a bad year, I want to end with their opposites. The success of Wizard of the Coast’s new initiatives and Paizo’s Pathfinder have already been noted. I’ll add that I’ve heard the occasional rumble that Pathfinder matches Wizard’s sales in some hobbyist stores. Fantasy Flight’s Games Workshop RPGs seem to be going gangbusters, a pretty big turnaround for someone who was out of the RPG market just a few years ago. Cubicle 7 got out a ton of books, just like they hoped, and next year(?) their One Ring RPG should be even bigger. Finally, I think that Evil Hat broke the indie barrier by making The Dresden Files a hit in hobbyist stores.

And that’s it for this year! I’ll be back here next year with a look at 2011, and hopefully in the meantime I’ll be starting a new column intended to complement the print book.

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