Saturday, April 14, 2012

Long live the king!

If I could only travel back in time to the middle of the 90's what kind of result would I get from googling the RPG's acronym? I'm not sure off course but I guess that most hits would have been about pen & paper games: Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, Call of Chtuluh and the other traditional role-playing games. Just try now and most result will be about computer and console role-playing games: for most people in the world, RPGs are just a videogame's genre.

I'm not an expert in semantic but I know that the meaning and the use of words is important. It's hard to deny that the shift in significance of the role-playing game's term on the costumer level reflects the respective popularity of both forms of entertainment. While the traditional RPG market is becoming smaller and smaller, MMO and single player RPGs are thriving.

The future of the traditional RPG's industry looks bleak. Dungeons & Dragons is in bad shape, Whitewolf's World of Darkenss has become a legacy business and it's hard to find an RPG with a follower base that's strong enough to support a dedicated team of designers. The problem with pen&paper games is that their real value in the market lies not in the quality of the rule and setting books but in the gaming web they create. The bigger is this web, the stronger the sales are going to be.

If the RPG's web fractures in many little autharchic nodes that plays a different game, all those fine books becomes nothing more than fan-fiction. Thats' why the third edition of D&D was so popular in term of sales and that's why Pathfinder is the only RPG who's thriving after the "post OGL schism", since it's the game who have inherited what's left of the d20's follower base, when Wizard of The Coast decided to turn D&D in a laptop/boardgame hybrid with the 4th edition, splitting his fans in two opposite sides in the process.

On the other hand console and computer RPGs represents one of the driving forces of the videogaming industry. Their influence on the media is getting stronger and stronger to the point where most AAA games are starting to use classical RPG features like levels, quests and branching storyline to appeal more players. The MMO phenomenon in itself speaks volumes about the health and the growth of the genre: World of Warcraft is probably the most successfull game in the history of the media.

Is it the end of the world? Well, no. At the end there are still a lot of players who enjoy pen & paper games more than their computer counterpart. Maybe the industry will fall and the good old days of D&D are forever gone, but there will always be a market for niche or indie titles. Moreover, the health of a player base is not defined by the state of the industry behind it. There's a lot more than consumerism in the gaming world. There's not a chess industry as far as I can see, but chess is still one of the most popular game in the world.

And most of all, there's something in the traditional RPG experience that's irreducible to its computer counterpart. It's the quid that can only spring from the spontaneous and direct interaction of real people in real time, without software moderation or hardware limitation. There's no graphical simulation or advanced AI that can hope to match the creativity of a bunch of friends who meets to play a traditional role-playing session. 

Maybe, the decline of the pen & paper RPG industry is for their greater good and will help them to advance in a direction that enhances what's special in the experience they can offer instead of competing with what a computer game is bound to do in a better and more convenient way. In the meantime, computer and console games are developing their own version of role-playing and there's a lot of interesting things that are happening. But time is short and I already talked more than a bit: I will return on those arguments in the future.

So, there's no reason to be conservative or afraid. Traditional RPGs aren't going anywhere and will always have a place in the gaming world. They can only benefit from the absence of marketeers, brand managers and CEOs. It's a good thing that gamers are taking back the hobby, no matter the cause. The king is dead. Long live the king! 

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