Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Specious Model Railroading Analogy

Recently, Ryan Dancy was quoted in an article in The Escapist where he repeated the canard that the tabletop RPG industry is "becoming a dead hobby", because it's falling into the same pattern as the model railroading industry:
"Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business."
The exact same argument (nearly word for word, interestingly), was recently featured in an anonymous guest post over at Wise Fugaros' blog:
Historically there was a time when model trains were a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy their time, or to play with with their friends. Then over time the trains got more complex, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their model trains, but not too many new kids came in. Now we see an interesting situation: it is hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into, and you don’t go looking in a toy store for one, you go to a hobby shop.
Likewise, there was a time when an RPG (“Red Box” Dungeons and Dragons) was a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy the time, or to play with friends. Then over time the games got more varied, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their games, but not as many new kids came in. I’ll stop there to avoid belaboring the point, but the parallels are pretty clear.
The fallacies here are numerous, so I'll start with the most obvious.

The Hobby Manufacturers Association estimated that in 2010 alone the model railroading industry had sales of some $424,770,000. The tabletop RPG industry wishes it had sales anywhere near that. You can find model railroading magazines-- at least a half-dozen different titles-- at every Barnes & Noble in the country and a couple even in my local convenience store. That's hard copy, not some dubious "online magazine". If that's Dancy's idea of "a dead industry", then I say bring on the mourners. As for the claim that "it's hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into", well, this.

But the more general notion is that tabletop RPGs don't attract enough kids. Without kids, the thinking goes, the hobby is doomed to die as the older players die off and aren't replaced with fresh youngsters clutching a red box to their breast.

That, of course, is specious because it presupposes that all growth must come from kids. While it is true that a large segment of newcomers to the hobby back in the 1980's were tweens and teens, I would argue that any attempt to recapture that golden era is doomed, and any attempt to make comparisons between the market today and how things were in 1983 is just not credible. Those times are gone, the product of a number of different factors that will never be repeated.

And you know what? I'm fine with that. Who says the hobby only has to grow through kids?

I'm perfectly fine with entrants into the hobby skewing older. Disposable income is not a vice! Just to take some anecdotal evidence, the folks I see playing D&D or Pathfinder at the local stores are in their early-mid 20's. They're not stymied by the lack of an introductory boxed set (a holy grail that some seem to think is the key to bringing back the hobby to its 1983 levels). They buy the core rulebook(s) and start playing. Whence this notion that people advancing from Pokemon when they're young to RPGs when they're older is a losing proposition? Why the need to dumb things down?

Plus, I would point out that most games today don't have the same model as Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. Not every game is an attempt to get the customers hooked through a "gateway drug" cheap and easy boxed set so they'll feel compelled to step up to the heroin of endless $50 rulebooks. You buy Swords & Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord, or Diaspora, or Call of Cthulhu, or Tunnels and Trolls, or any one of hundreds of games out there, and you don't really need anything more than that. There's no "starter set" required because the whole thing is self-contained, and can be played entirely as-is, with maybe an adventure module or pre-made setting for those who are inclined to use such.

That may not be good news for the RPG industry (which is built on the "call R&D and see if there's a way to make the pages physically addictive" model), but it's terrific news for the RPG hobby.

And every day dozens of new designers and publishers, often the much-maligned one-man-startups, are coming out with new games, new accessories, new ideas, and new twists on old ideas. That's where the future of the hobby lies. There will always be a few Big Players, who can afford full-time staffs and salaries, R&D budgets and television advertising, but experience has shown that innovation rarely comes from such corners. Once the lean newcomers "make it big", they begin to ossify, and are left in the dust by newer, leaner, entrants (I'm looking at you, White Wolf).

Personally, I don't really care what happens to the RPG industry (aside from the personal effects on friends of mine who are in it), because it is distinct from the RPG hobby. I am most decidedly a hobbiest, and proud of it.

The RPG industry is changing and facing challenges from new technologies. Does that mean that we should all give up and start playing MMO's? Well, Ryan Dancy might want us to, and belittle those of us who still think that getting together with friends... you know... across a table is an enjoyable thing, but I think it's hardly inevitable. But even if Wizards of the Coast went out of business tomorrow, and Dungeons and Dragons went unpublished for 20 years, the RPG hobby would still endure, and probably flourish. Or at least be as "dead" as model railroading. And I'd be okay with that.