The only reason why I'm posting this blog is because every 6 months or so I see someone hop on G+, RPG.net, wherever and they start asking the wrong questions again and again:
Why is the hobby doing so badly?
How can we get more players?
What makes RPGs less popular?
They are all wrong, all pessimistic, and very myopic to the truth of the role playing hobby in general. Let me break it down for you.
The Hobby is doing very well actually due to a number of reasons. The biggest ones I can point at is diversity of product (a great sign) and selection of vendors and venues to play. There are plenty of players out there, and more keep coming into the market, but it is on the gamemasters and other players to introduce them to the products out there. Finally, they are super popular. So much so they have become in order: a fad, a joke, a social political issue, and finally pop culture icon. What? How so? Let me break it down.
The Market is Evolving.
If your expectations of roleplaying games is the old "Friendly" Local Game Store and it's shelves and shelves of books, or say Barnes and Noble's RPG/Comic aile of books, perhaps a few books in a hobby story then your 'world' of products is shrinking. This has nothing to do with RPGs, but rather physical stores are being destroyed by the online marketplace. Welcome to the Amazon generation kids. Brick and Mortar may not die, but they won't be big like they use to be. Local Game Stores shift more to boardgames, card games, etc to make money. Magic the Gathering players pay more steady money than we occasional book buyers. We have been, will always be, a niche of a niche market to these guys. Wargamers buy armies and models at a steadier pace than we do.
To make thing worse the cost of printing, shipping, and holding onto large volumes of printed books is killing the companies that make and sell the games. If a store like Barnes and Noble can't sell product they push them back on the publisher. And when big book stores like Borders close it pinches the bottom line as all that material either has to be returned, destroyed, or sold on second hand markets. It's not a pretty picture. Book bindery costs have gone up, and international shipping (say if they print the books in China) is NOT cheap. There is a reason why smaller companies are turning to Kickstarter to get enough funds to pay for their first print run. They have to cover crazy logistics and overhead costs.
But it's not all bad really. There have been changes to the market that make things easier on publishers.
Welcome to the era of the Tablet! The Ipad, Android tablet, and various eReaders have given publishers a big open market to sell their books too. Game pdfs are by far way easier to maintain. Almost no overhead costs, updates to the book can be sent out in almost real time (errata that shows up in the electronic copy months before new printings of the books.), and finally a much cheaper market value allow for more casual buys. Sure, not every company gets that the electronic versions of their books need to be cheaper than the physical copy to make sales. (I can name a few companies.) But most small indy press guys often will GIVE their core book away just so it drives the sales of the supplement players. Also, Kickstarters often have crazy bonus deals if you just get the pdf level of books. Or seasonal sales that drive players to make impulse buys. (Like I picked up Runequest 6 this year when the core book hit $5 for Black Friday!)
And there are a growing number of places to BUY the product. Drivethrurpg.com/RPGnow, e23, Amazon, Nobel Knight Games, publisher web sites, Kickstater/Indiagogo, etc. Each day new marketplaces open up, pdfs, physical books, and other materials are becoming casual and friendly places to shop. Also the advent of Print on Demand allows for minimal overhead costs on publishes. Want a hardbound/soft copy of the book, willing to pay a little more? Presto, a week to print and ship. Done.
The Players are Pickier.
The other big misconception is that somehow after the 2000's thanks to MMO's we lost a lot of players. Nope. The players are still there, they just have a LOT of other things to occupy them. Remember the key words here are "Ease Of Use". More a byproduct of the Internet than MMOs users can get online to play video games, talk to friends, update Facebook/G+, watch movies and shows via streaming. The same things that use to take people away from the hobby take them away these days. It's just there are SO MANY of them out there and they are so easy to get at!
It was something of a Catch 22. The mass media market when through growing pains, but video games lead the pack with online connectivity and play, then slowly TV, social networks, etc caught up. Roleplaying games were still having a massive identity crisis around the early 2000's on HOW to shift to online market models. To put it bluntly, we were late. To many other entertainment sources beat us to the punch so we lost market share, people. Only recently has there been a robust enough number of play options for casual players (the majority) to check out.
Projects like Roll20, Paizo's new Virtual Tabletop, WoTC's on-again off-again virtual table top, push out play-spaces that casual players can reach out too. Other tools like Skype, IRC, etc were 'okay' But it wasn't until the advent of Face Time, G+ Hangouts, and Facebooks similar group/call like programs did the virtual play spaces evolve enough to be useful to real time play. I prefer Skype/G+ Hangout btw.
So, now that we have the venues to play, we have to bring it to the attention of potential players. And remember, game masters and companies need to keep it easier to use. It has to be accessible, or the casual players will hop back on WOW or go play PayDay 2 a few more hours than bother with writing up characters. You don't have to dumb it down for them, just keep it simple and functional!
I swear, if Games Workshop finally works out how to sell virtual armies to the Warhammer 40K crowd to play on virtual battle fields, they'll bank a mint.
The Products need to Diversify.
Ah, the "Good Old Days". Remember the height of the 2000's. WotC was king and you could find every flavor of d20 product out there. Countless great games from the 90's suddenly had d20 variants, and everyone under the sun was predicting a golden age for RPGs. Then the market tanked and WotC started talking about 4th Edition. Ya, lets just say I don't remember the d20 era so fondly. Why?
Market homizination. Too much of the same everywhere. Mind you, that era gave us Green Ronin, Fantasy Flight Games, and a number of decent publishers that 'went big' in that era. But it also murdered countless non-d20 game lines, flooded the market with too many overpriced unplayable d20 clone books, and eventually tanked a lot of the small sellers who thought they had to have 1 of EVERY d20 product on their shelves. And worse, Hasbro looked at the deline of the d20 market and did silly things like kill the SRD for 4th Edition, tried to turn D&D into a online paywall market (almost an MMO, not mechanically but in market terms, model).
When I saw the d20 boom, I was excited too. But after a few months of reading the quality of the early d20 products I knew what I was really looking at. A fad. That's right, D&D had turned into a fad product. We had horrible movies about it? Check. We had pop culture chatting about it? Check. We had everyone trying to square peg the round hole by d20ing every old game under the sun/or every game concept into a d20 flavor? Check.
Welcome to bound to fail. Add in new markets in the MMO field, the Superhero movie boom, other mass media catching their attention as that generation of gamers grew up...and *POP* the fad died, the market crunched, and then we had a decade of people scrambling to capture new business.
And thankfully, I can say with out a doubt the market is STRONGER for the fall fo the d20 era. Look at it these days! We have classic systems like d100, Runequest, Metamorphosis Alpha, Open d6, Traveller all making comebacks with NEW product! We have new(er) systems out there GUMSHOE, FATE, Whatever they're calling Numenera/The Strange's system (Cipher?), AGE System (Dragon Age), The Warhammer 3e/StarWars EoTE system, you name it it's happening.
And it is GOOD! More options mean more choices for players and GM, it means competition in the market, it means new ideas and new writers, it means that if a product line dies there are a dozen more to pick from. Just like any other form of evolution, the RPG hobby must adapt or die. Thankfully it seem that much needed change is happening.
So the next time a naysayer says to you RPGs are dead. Tell them to pull their blinders off.