Before we get started: normally, articles like this one will attempt to either be clever by over-writing some paen to the roleplaying game “experience,” or else kind of weaken their major argument by trying to evangelize for paper-and-pen role-playing games, or RPGs. Let’s just skip past both, all right? If you’re already into RPGs, you already know that it’s a great time to pick up old and new titles; and if you’re not into them, this article will make no particular difference in your decision about whether or not to pick up this particular hobby. So let’s just go into why the RPG industry is, if not a mega-entertainment behemoth, at least no longer slowly strangling to death.
Shockingly — hopefully, this is not actually shocking — it’s because of technology. More accurately, it’s because of improvements in communication technology. The most obvious examples? …Well, it’s much easier to both create, and buy/sell, digital content. Not to play the In my day game, but In My Day (the 1990s, essentially) PDFs were clunky and annoying, while PayPal was still waiting for eBay to swoop in and acquire it. Imagine, if you will, trying to run a digital business without either tool. No? Well, neither could most of the existing RPG companies. But things are more flexible now, particularly when you consider the rise and market penetration of tablets.
As for physical RPG material… well, there’s crowdfunding. I’m going to discuss Kickstarter in this context because Kickstarter is currently the dominant player in the crowdfunding industry — and yes, it’s an industry. Also, Kickstarter is where the most controversy is.
Oh, yes, there’s controversy involved. For those who are still not aware of Kickstarter: it’s a professional fundraising company. You submit a project, and if it gets approved you have a fixed amount of time to solicit funds. Kickstarter handles all of the technical details of the fundraising itself: if you make your target goal, Kickstarter collects the money and gives it to you (minus its cut). If you don’t, nobody gets anything — but there’s no fee for using the service then, either. As the company notes, it’s all or nothing.
All of this makes Kickstarter extremely attractive to artists and creators… and celebrities and businesses. As you can see from those two links, people can get incredibly upset over the idea that the service can and is used in a manner that is quote-unquote “inappropriate” (what is actually “appropriate” is not defined, or more accurately, defined differently by everyone involved). There’s also a definite amount of zero-sum thinking, but you get used to that in any endeavor involving people of a certain kind of political ideology.
The counter-argument from businesses? (I don’t really care about celebrity-backed projects, one way or the other.) Simple: funding projects via Kickstarter works. To use just gaming examples: a successful Kickstarter can bring a dead game back to life (Atlas Games’ Feng Shui reboot or Chaosium’s Horror on the Orient Express campaign) or guarantee that a new title will run (Arc Dream’s Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man adventure or Monte Cook Games’ Numenera game world) or even significantly improve an already-existing project (Steve Jackson Games’ new edition Ogre or Pelgrane Press’s Dracula Dossier supplement). These companies range from brick-and-mortar facilities to folks working out of their houses and rented storage; either way, generating the money beforehand helps give them the ability to stay in business.
Lastly, and to get back to the zero-sum thinking problem: Kickstarter did some research on projects that originated from big studios or established filmmakers, and noticed something interesting. Basically, projects like those were bringing in a significant number of people who weren’t crowdfunding to begin with, but who did start crowdfunding afterward. In other words — and to mangle the Terry Pratchett quote* — Kickstarter is discovering that it shouldn’t be about fighting over every crumb of a piece of pie: it should be about increasing the size of the pie. Of course, if you do that, then you kind of have to admit that there may be a reason why the market doesn’t like your particular pet project…
*An article on how one could determine the true political, economic, and cultural leanings of the late Sir Terry Pratchett from his Discworld novels would be of some interest… except for one small problem. Which is that there are far too many of those kinds of essays already existing, to the point where one more might very well start the Apocalypse. And I can’t let the Apocalypse start: X-COM 2 is finally coming out in 2016.