Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Exponential Game Growth (Part I)

The emergence of the “Internet Age” has brought about explosive growth in all fields of gaming, even those like roleplaying and board games that have traditionally been published as analog games with physical rulebooks and game components. Today the choices available to gamers seem infinite compared with those available way back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”).
I’m starting to read R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (1969) -- one of a few choice gaming-oriented birthday goodies I recently received -- and it helps illustrate the vast number of games that have existed across time and world cultures. Unlike today’s games, these primarily consist of non-proprietary diversions many people in a society would have played with some degree of familiarity in their rare moments of leisure time. While many were produced and sold or given as choice gifts, some simply required a board drawn on sand or some other surface, a handful of pieces, and some randomizing element (the latter two scrounged and crafted from readily available materials). Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did games become the purview of professional enterprises producing and selling them to a broader market (usually a growing middle class with more leisure time and some disposable income for entertainment). R.C. Bell’s comprehensive catalog of games and rules -- as well as other works, like Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca (1995) -- pales in comparison to the specialty games available today, particularly roleplaying games and high-end board games.
When I first started immersing myself in gaming back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” game-industry giant TSR produced a slick catalog that found its way into every boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons, a 16-page, full-color flyer entitled “Gateway to Adventure: 1981 TSR Hobbies, Inc.” The glossy pages provided images and descriptions of every available product at the time, everything from the “basic” D&D materials to the core Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and all the then-current modules, plus other roleplaying and board games (remember Dungeon!, Snit’s Revenge! and Divine Right?). I wish I could find my copy, though I fear it was thrown out long ago; it’s the kind of gaming ephemera that reminds us of the hobby’s roots (like early copies of Dragon Magazine and their period advertisements). I will confess there was a part of my naïve, youthful self that hoped to someday collect all the D&D materials in the catalog.
Even back then a vast horde of roleplaying games crowded the market: TSR had D&D and AD&D, plus Top Secret, Boot Hill, and Gamma World; Judges Guild produced a plethora of supplements and modules compatible with D&D; Traveller dominated the science fiction roleplaying game genre; Aftermath! and Bushido from Fantasy Games Unlimited covered more genre-specific game settings; Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip established the groundwork for GURPS; and I’m probably forgetting and inadvertently omitting several seminal works available at the time. The ranks of professionally published games would only grow exponentially.
In 1991 Lawrence Schick wrote Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, an ambitious book cataloging all the roleplaying games, supplements, and scenarios available at the time, along with detailed bibliographical information, general commentary on most game lines, and short essays from notable game designers offering background on their contributions to the field. Amazingly it’s still offered through Amazon.com (new) and other online venues (used). Even in the early 1990s the vast catalog of existing roleplaying games could somehow fit into a 448-page printed tome.
Many factors aided the roleplaying game market’s explosive growth: an overall acceptance of roleplaying games after the stigma of the early 1980s; popular media producing more television shows, movies, and novels in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror (vampire) genres; an increase in publishing companies; and successes in related gaming fields, most notably the card game Magic: The Gathering. Before long roleplaying games appeared not only in specialty hobby stores but large chain bookstores and even general retail outlets. By the early 21st century, some of those early “D&D geeks” had good jobs in the technology sector, empowering them with larger disposable incomes to spend on their gaming hobby. Driven by business concerns, game companies more aggressively designed and published games to satisfy the growing market; in the latter years of the 20th century this exponential growth occurred primarily in the roleplaying game field, while in the early years of the 21st century this escalation has also spread to high-end board games (a term I’ll use to cover any board game with high-quality components often retailing above the $20 mark, including Euro- or German-style games, “battle games” with nice boards, cards, and pieces, designer games, and family strategy games).
When I worked as an editor, game designer, and editorial director at West End Games in the mid-90s, the company maintained an aggressive publication schedule of two or three Star Wars roleplaying game books per month, impressive not simply for the volume of material produced but for having to navigate the Byzantine labyrinth of the approvals process from Star Wars licensor Lucasfilm. These products shared the schedule with other items supporting the company’s other game lines. It fed a growing demand for Star Wars material at a point between a time when the license was considered “dead” and the release of new films.
The emergence of the Internet Age fostered a generation of gamers capable of employing new technologies like desktop publishing, graphic design programs, PDF files, and even program coding to share their creativity in the gaming field without the requirement of a publishing house to produce their ideas. Professional game publishers still exist, but they’re working to adapt to new technology; sure, they still produce books and high-quality board games, but they also port these materials to electronic formats, from PDF e-books to smart phone applications and online gaming sites. The Internet Age also provides a place where gamers can mingle and interact more easily than before. Where early gamers used to meet at the local hobby store and regional or national convention, they now congregate constantly online.
I’ll explore more about how the internet has affected game growth in an upcoming post; particularly how technology has empowered gamers and broadened the interaction among the gaming community.

(I regret this missive is little more than my own casual musings on the subject; it is in no way intended as a comprehensive or academic essay on the subject, though in time, I’m sure, we will see that in a retrospective analysis of our times.)