The Future of Tabletop Gaming

During Pax East, there was a panel on the future of tabletop games. Moderated by Ryan Dancey (of GoblinWorks and formerly of WotC), with Mike Mearls speaking. When Dancey shared his expected future of the gaming industry (an unnamed Paizo versus WotC), Mike Mearls had some interesting things to say:

…this kinda goes back to what I was talking about earlier about the change and about how we look at the ongoing support for D&D and how I think this is actually interacting with tabletop games in general. So I kinda have this theory I developed, I call it the Car Wars theory. So back in 1987 when I was 12 I bought Car Wars, it was the game I bought that month, and it had a vehicle design system. And I spent hours and hours and hours building new Car Wars vehicles and drawing maps and just playing with all the things around the game but very rarely able to actually play the game, because in order for me to play the game I had to get my parents to drive me to a friend’s house and then get that friend to actually want to play Car Wars and then teach him all the rules and all that other stuff, right? And in addition to having Car Wars, and D&D and other stuff, I had my Nintendo and I had my Apple, too. And I bought new video games at about the same rate, maybe once a month if I did chores or I had a little part time job, I’d get maybe one new game a month.

What has changed now is that a game like Car Wars can work very well if I’m not getting a new constant stream of games. Because I have all this time where I want to be gaming but I can’t play a game, so I’ll do all the stuff that exists around the game. But now thanks to, like, this phone… [something] smartphones, tablets, Steam, uh, XBox Live, PSN, I can buy games whenever I want. I mean, I was at the airport yesterday and I was bored so I bought Ten Million for my iPhone and I just started playing. Because I have other games on my phone, but I thought, nah, I’m sick of the games I have, I’m just gonna buy a new one. That would have been perfect time, back in the 80s, to like work on my D&D campaign, or read that month’s D&D expansion, or work on new designs for my, uh, for for Car Wars. But what’s happening is we have so many new games coming in that the amount of time that one game can take up without having you actually play that game, like World of Warcraft where you just log in and play, or you do things like in the auction house, that’s part of play, right, trying to get resources, you’re selling stuff for actual money that’s helping you play the game.

I believe that’s what’s really happening to tabletop roleplaying, is that it used to be a hobby of not playing the game you want to play. And there are so many games now that you can play to fill all those hours of gaming, you can actually game now, and that what’s happening is that RPGs needed that time, we, a GM or DM needed that time to create the adventure or create a campaign, a player needed that time to create a character, allocate skill ranks and come up with a background, and come up, you know, write out your three-page essay on who your character was before the campaign. That time is getting devoured, that time essentially I think is gone, that you could play stuff that lets you then eventually play a game or you can just play a game. And people are just playing games now.

And what we’re really doing with D&D Next is we’re really looking at thriving and surviving in that type of market. If you’ve playtested the game, you see we’ve run much simpler with the mechanics, things move much faster when you play… one of our very early things was was to say, look, I was playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 at the time. I can complete a mission in Mass Effect in about an hour and a half. So why can’t I complete an adventure in D&D in that time? Why does it take me 4, 8, 12 hours just to get from page one of the adventure to the end? I mean, yeah, you can have huge epic adventures but I can’t do it in less than four hours.

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There’s some interesting points there, but I can’t say I entirely agree with Mike Mearls. Or even mostly agree.

Avoiding *The* Issue

Much of what Mearls said was related to the long-term health of the tabletop role-playing game industry. However, it didn’t actually respond or counter Dancey’s prediction that the immediate future would be two heavyweight games vying for primacy. And, when all was said and done, one of the games would “win” and one would “lose”.

While TT-RPGs are facing more competition from other sources, there can still only be one best-selling RPG. Much of what Mearls talking about was making the Dungeons & Dragons brand successful by countering competition elsewhere, spreading out into other venues, and strategies for competing with other interests. But not competing with other gaming companies.

This sounds like a viable strategy: rather than competing with Paizo’s Pathfinder for a share of the increasingly small tabletop role-playing game player base, WotC is competing with mobile games, video games, board games, and the like for brand awareness of D&D. This not only means attempting to bring non-D&D gamer into the TT-RPG fold, but getting them playing other games under the D&D umbrella. Which is a strategy for growing the hobby. This strategy also positions D&D to better weather the changing marketplace dynamic. This means WotC doesn’t need D&D5 to directly compete with Pathfinder, just outlast Pathfinder in the changing market.

Additionally, as this doesn’t establish an adversarial relationship between WotC and Paizo, it’s a marketing strategy not based around edition warring between D&D5 and the remnants of 3rd Edition. Which is certainly better for the health of the fanbase. And nice considering the two companies share the same pools of freelancers and employees have moved between companies.

But, of course, D&D5 still needs to succeed against Pathfinder in the short term. And while this plan helps D&D the brand, it does less for D&D the tabletop RPG and almost nothing for the current fanbase. Mobile games, board games, miniature games, and greater brand awareness elsewhere mean nothing to people who only play the RPG.

The Myth of Distractions

A big part of Mearl’s theory is that people are more distracted now that games are easier to come by than they were in the past. As games are easier and quicker to consume, there’s less time for the filler activities/ bookkeeping of D&D. I don’t buy that.

First, more options of distraction does not equate with more distraction. As a youth, I may have only had a couple games for my old Commodore 64, but I played them endlessly. For years. The difficulty was also much higher; the time it took to master Mario is far longer than even the Dark Souls games. Just because there is are “smartphones, tablets, Steam, uh, XBox Live, PSN,” doesn’t mean things are all *that* different from fifteen years ago when gamers might just have had a GameBoy and a Nintendo 64. I had just as much mobile gaming as a youth than I do now. More technically, as my GameBoy didn’t require an internet connection for its games, while half my current “mobile” games require WiFi. Mearls himself says he had a Nintendo and an Apple computer. And I presume he also had a television and VCR (or Betamax). Plus books. It’s reasonable to assume he had plenty of opportunities to do activities to keep himself occupied.

The reason he can buy as many games as he wants now is as much about money as availability. His few games were precious to him as a youth because they had to be earned, while now he has much more disposable income so the games are more disposable and forgettable. This hasn’t changed: today’s youths still have a limited income for new games. However, unlike older games, modern AAA video games can pretty darn short in terms of content. This is due to the longer development times and increased graphical expectations. So, paradoxically, youths might have *more* time as their digital games will hold their interest for shorter periods before being completed.

Yes, this is ignoring the myriad free mobile games and various cheap games on platforms such as Steam. However, there’s still only so much time spent gaming. I have thirteen games of various lengths sitting on my Steam account waiting to be played. I’ve stopped buying new games until I finish more. The fact I can drop $3 and get a great game means nothings if I lack the time to actually consume it.

This is ignoring parental involvement in gaming. As an adult, especially a single one, it’s easy to distract yourself with endless timewaster video games. As a youth… not so much. Parents might impose limits on video game time. I had a hard limit on the time I could spend on the computer and television, and I plan on imposing similar limits on my son. While 30-year-old me can fill every hour on Netflix, 15-year-old me would reach a television cap and have to switch to reading or planning my D&D campaign.

Commuting is also a different time sink. For adults, it’s time spent driving, which is always non-productive; playing a video game while driving is rather suicidal. In contrast, for youths a commute frequently involves a bus or being a passenger, which is time that can spent doing other activities, such as video gaming or working on a D&D campaign, dependant on motivation.

Lastly, D&D books and RPGs have one other big factor that affects their consumption: potential access. I can play games on my Steam account one place: at my PC. I’m equally limited in my console play. I can enjoy a book anywhere. And, with PDFs, I have access anywhere I bring my iPad, even if I leave the physical copy behind. The physical book travels as well, independant of power and wi-fi. And as the light from electronics interferes with the body’s ability to sleep, I’m incentivized to read a non-digital book before bed. If it’s easy to access and use the D&D RPG from many different places that makes the game just as accessible and prevalent as any mobile game.

Invested & Involved

How much time I spend on a D&D game has nothing to do with my available free time. Period. It’s entirely related to how excited I am about the campaign. If I’m jazzed about a game, I will find the time to prep for the game. I’ll plot sessions in the shower, jot notes while watching TV, or do some writing on Google Docs during my lunchbreak. If I’m really psyched about a campaign or game, I will choose planning over other video games. However, if the prep feels required, if I’m not thrilled or committed to the game, I’ll procrastinate and think about other things.

This is not just me. I have a couple committed players in my game. They like thinking of builds and creating new characters, because that’s how they enjoy spending their free time. It doesn’t matter that they have an iPad, iPhone, a PC, and dozens of games across multiple platforms. If they have a neat idea for a character, they will find the time to build that character, design a personality, and write a lengthy backstory.

Mearls decided to download Ten Million rather than plan for a D&D game solely because he wasn’t interested in D&D. At that moment, D&D just wasn’t holding his interest.

Mearl’s apathy might go hand-in-hand with working on D&D, especially with the heavy playtesting going on. He’s likely tired of the game. It’s a job and not a hobby. He’s too close to see how people might still choose to play D&D and invest hours thinking about D&D rather than other games. The solution to this problem has nothing to do with other games, and everything about making a version of D&D people will fall in love with, a game people will want to invest time into playing, a game that engages people outside of the table rather than just during play.

Minimal Time Requirements

One thing that D&D5 is doing is reducing character prep: the time needed to generate a character and prepare for a game session. Mearl’s emphasises this, saying “a player needed that time to create a character, allocate skill ranks and come up with a background, and come up, you know, write out your three-page essay on who your character was before the campaign.” This is rather handy because 3rd Edition and 4th Edition had high minimum time requirements for making characters. You had to spend tens of minutes advancing your character and making changes, picking spells, feats, magic items, abilities, and the like. This was always a problem, even before mobile games took over: some players would happily advance their characters between sessions and others only leveled at the table and forgot the game when away from the table. This was really dependant on how excited the players were to level.

The Essentials flavour of 4th Edition stepped back from the complexity with far simpler characters, where you made a single choice at first level that determined much of your future choices. D&D5 seems to be continuing that design. However, according to previews, D&D5 seems to be retaining some complexity as an option, so people can *choose* to spend tens of minutes customizing a character. So unlike Essentials, you are not locked into simplicity, it’s simply the default that you can opt out of. This is a very good idea, as I have some players who just want to quickly level and not think about the campaign between sessions, and some players that want to advance and plan regularly, continually tweaking their build and options.

However, Meals also implies D&D5 will speed things on the DM’s side. Faster, quicker adventures is as much a focus. Having played a myriad of games, both crunchy and rules lite, I can say that the system has very, very little impact on my prep time. I *could* spend hours building NPCs for my Pathfinder game, laboriously levelling the monsters and abiding by all the rules. Or I could spend ten seconds pulling a single monster of the appropriate CR from the Monster Manual. I could spend hours in my 4e game building encounters of five+ monsters whose abilities synergize and designing new, unique terrain with interesting powers and effects. Or I could spend twenty seconds grabbing a monster type of the appropriate level and dumping five variants onto a handy poster map. Regardless of game system, I spend 95% of my time planning the actual adventure: designing the plot, considering likely PC actions, generating NPC (names, personalities), and the like. The time I spend planning for a session is more affected by my free time than by game system: if I have three weeks before the game I’ll likely create something little more complex and detailed, but if I have a day I’ll go for a dirt simple delve or brawl.

Meals also made a very curious statement regarding the time it takes to complete an adventure. “I was playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 at the time. I can complete a mission in Mass Effect in about an hour and a half. So why can’t I complete an adventure in D&D in that time? Why does it take me 4, 8, 12 hours just to get from page one of the adventure to the end? I mean, yeah, you can have huge epic adventures but I can’t do it in less than four hours.” I very much disagree with his statement. I can complete a “quest” in a videogame in a very short period of time, but actual “adventures” tend to be longer. I’d say each “adventure” in Mass Effect would be a planet or zone: some are very quick and some take several hours. And the “campaign” of Mass Effect would be the entire series, a total runtime of 120+ hours. Which is the equivalent of thirty 4-hour D&D sessions. If this was a D&D5 game, and you levelled every other session (after level 3) you’d be level 16. Pretty darn equivalent in time spent.

There’s a lot of other factors in play with this issue. Individual turns in video games will always be faster, as single attack can take a fraction of a second rather than a minute to resolve. And how fast adventures progress is somewhat dependant on game system, as a good boss fight in 3e or average fight in 4e will easily consume an hour or two. However, D&D adventures take longer not because of the game but because of the players. In an average D&D, how much time is spent playing and how much time is spent socializing? How much time is spent advancing the plot, and how much time is spent screwing around? If you condensed down the actual play of D&D, the actual time spent running a campaign will be a fraction of the time spent at the table. Speeding up play will help individual encounters run faster, but likely won’t accelerate the speed of adventures as people will spend just as much time quoting Monty Python or trying to seduce their server at the tavern. And, realistically, adventures run the length they do because of the time people allot for them, not because they have to be that length. Adventures grow to fit the available duration. WotC has shown that itself with D&D Encounters. The game still managed to have small adventures, despite being limited to 90-minutes of play.

Back in High School, when playing 2e, I would get together with friends for all-nighter sessions of D&D. A rookie DM, I planned numerous short adventurettes. We’d play until we ran out of adventure then swap over to bad movies and video games. We’d blast through several short stories and small adventures in a four-hour period. This lasted until I learned how to plot, and I started building larger adventures that spanned multiple locales with longer and more complicated stories. Because there was time. If we only had a couple hours to play, the stories would get much shorter.


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5MWD is also getting into Publishing!

My first novel How to Become an Adventurer is available now.  Electronic copies are available on Google Play, the Kindle store, KoboDriveThurFiction (and soon on Kobo). The Print on Demand copy is available on Createspace and Amazon.