Monday, July 20, 2015

Old Days, New Days

Here's a comment I just banged out for a io9 article asking how a field has changed over the years. I'm posting it here as well because Kinja never sponsors my comments; maybe more eyes'll reach it on my home turf.

In my early days of hobbyist tabletop gaming, 25 years ago, there was a established structure to the whole industry that supported it. Most hobby games were produced by full-time companies with a few dozen employees (Avalon Hill, TSR, GDW, White Wolf) with both full-time offices and contracted free-lancers. Designs were produced in-house, finished product was distributed through local game stores or mail-order catalogs. The only source of information on games and their designers was through physical access to them (meeting/playing at a convention) or information filtered through a handful of monthly professional print magazines (Dragon, White Dwarf), usually house organs for the company that published them. All of which enforced a top-to-bottom flow of influence. And the industry was still reacting (arguably over-reacting) to the twin precedents of Dungeons & Dragons’ sudden early-80’s faddish popularity and the Satanic Panic that followed. Between that and the delay in audience/designer communication, design trends were slow to advance, innovation was seen as risky and product tended to ne self editted to keep it family-friendly. There was also a lower fan-directed level of the hobby, of fanzines, APA’s, amateur press magazines and small-press game publishers, more willing to experiment, but also severely restricted by the high costs of formatting and printing, and the difficulty of getting access to the distribution network.

Then the Internet happened. A lot of grognards thought it would kill the hobby, but instead it's made it thrive better than it ever did before.

Those venerable old companies mentioned above are now out-of-business, collapsed under the weight of their own high-volume/low-variety business models, and there are no more print magazines. In their place are hundreds of small imprints, individual designers and artists supporting a constant flow of day-to-day communication through blogs and various social media (game designers have particularly taken to G+). PDF stores and desktop publishing have almost entirely eliminated production costs so anyone with the time can publish a game, and even those who want to offer dead-tree product can make use of Print-on-Demand services and Kickstarter to mitigate costs. 3D printers are on the way to doing the same for physical components. In the Role-Playing field, several Open Source systems have given venues for aspiring writers to market content (heck, a whole new genre, OSR, sprung from one Open Game License). With so many dedicated gamers finally able to talk to each other directly, deep critical examination of game design has expanded and innovative designs have taken off (Fate, Burning Wheel, sooo many boardgames).

On the surface, hobbyist tabletop gaming is superficially the same as it was decades ago, but the structure supporting and producing it has changed entirely. For much the better, I think.