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?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

7 thoughts on “The State of the Industry and SPIEL”

  1. As a non-system specific publisher we haven't noticed any significant decline in sales (at Spiel or elsewhere), which would support your theory I guess.

    I just hope that the decline in rpg presence at Spiel doesn't grow into a self-reinforcing trend – less publishers, means less interest for the fans, which in turn might mean less rpg sales at Spiel, resulting in even more publishers skipping it.

    Hall 6 has definitely been seeing less rpg booths for at least 3 years now. This year boardgame booths began encroaching on the edges, with the Messe apparently unable to adequately fill the hall with its traditional stuff (rpgs, miniature games, LARP, import games).

    On a positive note I think that there is enough overlap of roleplayers and boardgamers that a rpg booth at Spiel will always generate some interest, even if people don't go there for rpgs specifically.

  2. Good article – but I have to disagree with one central point:

    The fact, that is as easy as never before, to publish a RPG is a mute point. Wether roleplaying is alive and kicking is not defined, by what is being published and available but by the number of people sitting down, throwing dice and actually playing!

    The thing that struck me and other people this year at Essen, is how big LARP has become. LARP related booths were taking up most of Hall 6 and, as Ralf has pointed out, there were more boardgame booths in that hall than ever before. P&P RPGs? Almost none. Doesn't look too good from my point of view. 🙁

  3. I can't comment from the publisher's side, but I can share the spending habits of my gaming group.

    Our core group is 6 people, and the number of games and supplements we buy hasn't decreased. If anything, it's increased over the past few years.

    We're branching out too. We're trying new things and buying from small publishers.

    What's changed for me is what I spend on 'entertainment.' I've cut back on DVDs, iTunes, going to the movies, computer games and other things in order to continue spending on my gaming hobby.

    I don't think the hobby is going anywhere. The hunger for new, creative and fun gaming is as strong as ever. We certainly haven't slowed down, but we have diversified our purchases among multiple publishers. And for us, that's a good thing. I think for the industry, that's a good thing.


  4. People that look at role playing by itself are not seeing the whole picture. The hobby gaming market includes RPGs, board games, models, and anything else your local game store sells. Game stores that survive decades or so know that they need to follow what does well at one point and stock lots of it. Board games are doing well right now. If someone had told me 15 years ago that board games would be coming back, I'd say they were nuts, but that is exactly what happened.

    Why did board games come back? Well, gamers are busy. So we're playing games that can be played in 2 hours with little-to-no prep with whoever is there. Couple that with some creative games being put out, and you've got a recipe for a smash hit.

    Eventually, that desire will change. Those gamers will want to not be constrained by a board and minis games will enjoy a major resurgence (which I do think we are seeing the beginnings of right now). RPGs were born out of wanting reason to the fights between the minis forces, and a similar resurgence of RPGs will eventually come. That may take 5-10 years for that resurgence to happen, but it will happen. The cycle will come back. And the major players now will be sitting very pretty when it does.

    Dale McCoy

    Jon Brazer Enterprises

  5. I’ve read the article, and I think you’ve hit some important beats. Currently, we’re facing several things that are fracturing the RPG market, there has been a shift in what the Major Players are doing (and who the Major Players are varies depending upon whom you may ask at any given moment). I’ve been in the industry for six years now, and have maintained a constant, steady growth from a combination of print + PDF sales. With such items as the iPAD coming into the mainstream, there is certainly going to be a larger growth of the PDF market then we’ve ever seen before. However, if you have a number of items that are PDF-only, it can appear that you are not producing as much. It’s interesting, for example, to note that White Wolf is going straight electronic moving forward, while WotC adamantly refuses to offer anything in PDF form.

    A number of new systems have risen over the last handful of years–Savage Worlds and FATE–for example continue to experience good growth with a number of thirty-party companies producing some solid materials. Ubiquity (the engine in Hollow Earth) grows as well, plus there are a tremendous number of new, really innovative story games, such as Fiasco that are certain to be around for some time.

    Speaking towards resources in the real dollar-and-sense or (Euros, Yen, or what-have-you), the world economy is tough right now. I know a number of folks in other diverse industries, be they lighting, furniture, and further afield that are having to tighten their belts, and weather the storm, so, in a very large sense, this is happening across the board to a number of folks. Just think of the number of video game companies that have closed their doors in the recent years? Companies that produced solid stuff.

    Granted, the barrier to entry is lower in RPGs, but there is an essential cost beyond time–art, layout, and editing–that is needed to craft a solid book (even if one has no intention of having it physically printed).

    As addressed, there is constant competition for our entertainment resources–books, dvd, and video games. I remember when there was just Pong, and now there is such a flood of really good games, I couldn’t play that all through if that was all I did. As time —and not just money–is a valuable resource, even if one has deep pockets, a choice must be made upon how to spend one’s time. I have a regular game group now, but for some time the only RPG experiences I had (outside of writing) was playtesting, so I was content to play video games.

    However, nothing can replace the experience of a good game group with a GM with his chops (well, until we get a computer that can pass the Turing Test and learn all the rules to our favorite games, which I think we can all agree will be awhile).


    Sean Preston, President

    Reality Blurs

    P.S. This may be a bit rambling in places, but I think I conveyed the points I wanted to hit upon, so thanks for a)getting this dialogue going and b) sticking with my response until the bitter end.

  6. Having gone to Spiel now 10 years in a row and being exclusively interested in English RPGs (since English is my native language) I can say with confidence that English RPGs have never been prominent at Spiel. DSA, German versions of CoC, and LARP, yes. Most others, no. In the last few years there's been more penetration of German translations of more "fringe" mainstream RPGs like Savage Worlds and HEX, but there's never been any substantial representation of the original publishers at the messe. Indie RPGs in the past couple years have seen the light of day via booths like Think Indie and this year LotFP was present, but they tend to see much less traffic – the lack of play space for demos makes indie RPGs a very tough sell IMO. WotC's near complete withdrawl from the German RPG market means you don't see any D&D and Paizo doesn't come to Essen formally AFAIK (I did have dinner a couple years ago with a Paizo rep but he was the only person at the show and was there mainly to press the flesh as we say).

    As a whole Essen has always (or at least for the past decade) been a consumer show focused on vendors selling games; while you can find demos and play space, it's almost entirely dedicated to board & CCG play and offered by large companies to try their games – there's no real play space nor events for RPGers and thus trying to gauge the "state of the industry" based on Spiel is neither appropriate nor accurate. You go to Spiel to try out board games, and buy stuff.

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