The State of the Industry and SPIEL

On last Saturday I attended SPIEL, the international game and toy fair in Essen, Germany. It’s the largest consumer fair of its kind with over 150,000 people attending every year. Especially this year roleplaying game fans in Germany have noticed that there were less RPG publishers at SPIEL than last year and theorized that the RPG hobby is in the decline.

For various reasons this contradicts what I experience almost every day. Of course RPGs are not as popular as they were in the 80s. One of the reasons is the rise of computer and video gaming. But the hurdles for releasing RPG products never have been smaller than today.

Print-on-demand and digital distribution makes it much easier to release games with almost no prior investment needed. For a lot of small publishers the only cost factor is their only time. And when you look at the new releases at DriveThruRPG you’ll notice that a mindboggling amount of RPG products are released every day.

In my opinion the industry is far from being in a decline. But it’s obvious that the largest publishers lost some of their market shares to hundreds of small press publishers.

And while the production costs for RPG products have decreased, the costs of going to a trade fair haven’t. And if a publisher decides to go to a convention or trade fair, it chooses the one where the chances of meeting the most customers are high. While there are over five times as many visitors at SPIEL than at Gen Con for example, the chances of meeting people interested in your product are much lower.

That has a lot to do with the German RPG fans. The vast majority only plays RPGs written in German. And that’s exactly what I have seen at SPIEL. The major German publishers have been there, but most international ones skipped this year. Which in my opinion makes perfect sense. Why waste precious money at SPIEL when it makes more sense to save your money for Gen Con or Origins?

The face of the industry has changed. While the market was dominated by a few big companies before, it’s now much more fragmented. If you are not as active on the Internet as some of us are, you just don’t notice that there are thousands of small games out there, you just notice that the big publishers are getting smaller, without seeing the vast number of small publishers out there. Then it’s no surprise that you think the industry at a whole is in decline, when you notice that less publishers visit SPIEL every year.

And there’s one thing I haven’t talked about yet: the internet. Back in the day, the only way to get the word out about new product was by word-of-mouth, magazine ads and events like SPIEL or Gen Con. Today a lot of this has been replaced by the internet. Especially a small press publisher who focuses on digital distribution doesn’t even have physical product to show off at one of these events.

I know that a few game designers and small press publishers are reading my blog and it would great if they could let me know if my theories are somewhat close to the truth or if they are flawed. Is what we are seeing just a sign that the industry is changing or is there really a major decline in sales?