What is the biggest hole that needs to be filled in the RPG industry?

Started by My Precious, March 19, 2012, 09:02:36 PM

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My Precious

Hi all. Longtime lurker, first post. I hope this is the appropriate forum for this topic.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest hole in the RPG market?

When I go to my local game store or browse online stores, there seems, almost, to be too much. Too many systems special to their creators, that might not be all that interesting to anyone else. On the other hand there's innovative and exciting things happening.

Frankly, I'm a lifelong gamer who has fallen into a giant pile of money. I'd like to do something with it related to RPGs (but am not accepting proposals - that's why my email is hidden for now).

So I'm asking everywhere I can think of: what do you want or need that you feel is lacking in the current market? I could, of course, produce our house setting/system that my group has tinkered with for a decade, but does the world really need another fantasy or steampunk setting/system? I want to do something that actually fills a void. Is there a void?

Having already been chastised once on another forum for "buying my way in" while others "have to work hard," let me apologize in advance for having the good fortune I've had. I realize that could be frustrating to some who have tons of talent but few resources. This is legitimate request and I'm hopeful for some honest, useful answers.

Thanks in advance, folks!

Ron Edwards

Hello and welcome,

It'd be great to know your name, even if it's just your given name. Your allusion to some kind of previous impression or reputation is rendered obscure without it, although that's not my main reason for the request - the main reason is merely that I prefer them and feel more comfortable that way.

Anyway, I have some thoughts to share about this topic, but I can't get to it right away. I'm posting now to let you know that moving this post to the Publishing forum was no big deal, and not to sweat anything about that.

Best, Ron

My Precious

My reference was related to a post on another web site, not this one. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it. I don't think I've ever posted here, though I may have joined once a long time ago. I'll PM you my name but see no compelling reason to post it for everyone.

I do plan to self-publish. But what to self-publish? I'm not seeking advice on any other topic here, really.

I'll clarify that what I want to know is: what are people not making, that they should be? What resources do you, as GMs and players, really want? This isn't some cynical market research thing; I don't expect to make serious money from this. I just want to produce something people need and would use.

Thanks again!

My Precious

Apparently this topic is of little interest...? It's always a little embarrassing when you ask a question and no one answers for days on end. Is it because I haven't given my real name? Because I said I had money? Because this is a close-knit community? Throw a guy a bone here. It took a lot of guts for me to post in what can be a pretty intimidating online community, due to the high intelligence exhibited in many of these posts. I feel a little silly at the resounding silence.

I've been hitting all the local game shops and talking to folks there. Overwhelmingly, they say they want tools, not adventures; ideas, not settings. It's been my experience from my research so far that many GMs are quite creative on their own; what they want are supplements that make less work for them or that help them determine things on the fly.

When I first decided to self-publish, I thought I'd work up the setting my group and I have developed over the last decade. I've done several iterations of it so far and feel it's finally where I want it. But I'd like to self-publish whatever people would USE most...I have nothing against vanity projects (perhaps the way I worded my first post has turned folks off or offended them somehow?), it's just that for me, when I go to the game store and browse the shelves, I see lots of dark fantasy. Lots of steampunk. Lots of space opera. Lots of D&D clones. Lots of so-called urban fantasy or modern horror. So I feel that for me, personally, it's not creatively rewarding to self-publish my own setting/system that, at the end of the day, is not that different from whatever else is out there. That's not to judge what anyone else does, it's just my personal choice. I'd like my projects to fill a void, to matter to someone besides me.

This is one newb who ain't going away, so maybe when ya'll get to know me better you can help me out, here. Thanks!

Ron Edwards

Answers are slow here. "Days on end" at the Forge means literally weeks. Please be patient.

Best, Ron


I'd be very surprised if anyone was offended. I suspsect it's of interest, but you are posting asking publishers what the best thing for them to pubish is. They are either publishing the best thing they can think of to publish already, or are intending to. If I knew the answer to your question, you can be sure I'd be doing it to.

The people to ask would be potential customers, not publishers, and I very much doubt that this is the place to ask - but even they aren't likely to know exactly what they are missing.

Anyway, a warning - the best way to end up with a pile of money in the RPG industry is to start with a bigger pile. Almost nobody makes any money at all in this hobby. cf Ron's essay on the Fantasy Heartbreaker.

Still, I'll give it a go.

The best way I can think of to set up a viable business in the RPG market is to service the whole market with utilities. A decent NPC utility which could be used on a handheld device with a massive bank of portraits, random names, personality types and drivers would be great. A GM organiser, as it were. I'd buy that. The reason I think it's the best way is because it's what I know, as co-owner of ProFantasy Software.

If you insist on an RPG and you have money, then a licensed property might be the way to go. I'm quite taken with Sherlock Holmes, but there are others.

Here are ideas for RPGs I've always hoped someone would publish, but I'm not likely to:

1. An RPG with a resolution system based on snippets of text from The Prince.
2. An RPG disguised as a board/card game which would appeal to the mainstream.
3. A LARP called "The Ambassador's Reception"

But, unless you are paying someone else to write the game (and this isn't the place to discuss that!) then the amount of money you are sitting on is hardly relevant - what really matters is your writing and design chops. So, if you want to write a game, my advice would be write it, playtest it and don't even think about publishing it until you know how people react. You'd better be prepared, though, for a modest reponse until you have established yourself though word of mouth.

My Precious

Perhaps patience is not my strong suit.

I figure those who publish their own games are also consumers of other games, and are perhaps some of the best-informed consumers of games, which is why I'm asking here. In all my lurking I've seen very strong opinions expressed, and wanted to hear some.

And indeed, I hope not to offend. I just felt a little guilty for asking "does the world really need another steampunk game" when I pictured someone reading it who has been working on, say, a new steampunk game.

I have heard similar advice re: some sort of hand-held utility, though I doubt I have the technical chops to pull that off. That's exactly the type of suggestion I'm looking for though, so thank you! Indeed, a buddy of mine made a starmapping utility for his iphone and its been one that we've used at the table over and over to great effect. So you may have something there.

As for the money, I think the best thing to do is to save it for marketing and, more importantly, convention appearances. Other than that, I see my goal as self-publishing in the PDF format, just as I would if I had no money. I don't think sinking money into the project will make it better. This is found money so I don't mind losing it. I don't expect to make any serious money in this field. I've some close friends on the publishing side who have assured me there are very few people who do. I'm not worried about my writing or design skills, which have been honed in the magazine industry for more than 20 years.

Game-design wise, I've tried dozens of different approaches and playtested thoroughly at my local store. I feel good about it, and was thinking of posting it here until I read all the "winter" stuff and realized I started posting way too late in the game. No sense in starting something up at this point, though maybe I should post it and get some comments before it all goes away. The reason I'm hesitant to release my own system/setting is because of the way I, as a consumer, react to such things. Unless it's just shockingly new and original, I'm not particularly interested in more iterations on the traditional themes. Too many others are doing that. I'd feel better about doing something folks needed to have, rather than what I, for emotional reasons, need to publish. Hope that makes sense.

BTW, love Fractal Terrains!

Ron Edwards

OK, let's see what I can do with this ...

Clinton Nixon articulated a common point of view between him and me when he wrote about designing games one really wants to play, about stuff one really cares about, with the intended audience only being those who shared those feelings to any meaningful degree. In other words, seeking a target audience beyond one's own interests is a slippery slope to designing without heart, and as he saw it, with reduced hope of making a game worth playing. I agree with this point of view, although I readily admit it is quite touchy-feely.

You mentioned "too many systems special to their creators, that might not be all that interesting to anyone else." I think that observation is debatable. First, one's own eyes are not everyone's eyes. Second, and more importantly, any number of those creators might be satisfied by reaching as many people who satisfy Clinton's criteria as they can, and never mind how many that might be, or how many everyone else might be.

During a long-ago panel featuring Vincent Baker and me, he presented two questions that he considered fundamental not only to good design, but also to commercially-viable design. Begin with someone telling you they are designing a game about pirates. The questions are (i) "Why a game about pirates?" and (ii) "Why a new game about pirates?"

The first question addresses whether the creator actually thinks anything about the topic fun, or whether he or she is merely aping what's all around them, or any other non-productive decision-process that falls short of fun. The second addresses the fact that people really can "play pirates" with literally hundreds of available role-playing systems, so what does yours offer which makes it do pirates notably well.

I went ahead and thought a lot about those two questions over the years and applied them as part of a how-to-publish discussion model at GenCon last year. I describe it in detail in GenCon 2011: at the booth; in a way, it's pretty much an already-written reply to a number of your concerns.

In line with my first point, the only perceived holes in a market that I trust are those I feel myself. I don't trust much talk about people perceiving a need, then stepping up to fulfill it, in some kind of entirely analytical and observational way. Nor do I place much stock in so-called research polls that seek to discover an unmet need. That process seems to generate crap as often as not. I think ... well, I think that if Clinton's point is attended to, and if Vincent's questions are asked and answered, then one may well find that there was a hole that needed filling.

My main concern with your phrasing about holes is the implication that there exists a demand for what's being filled, and not only that, a substantial demand, in terms of dollars and eyeballs just waiting to be directed that way.

For example, I think the designs I talked about in Three games about religion are rather well suited to a gaping hole in role-playing design topics. I think even in their current rough state they offer rather strong play experiences for those who are interested. However, I don't think they are particularly marketable and I don't plan to release them in a financially risky way. So, hole? Yes. Big hole? Conceptually, yes. Big demand? Probably not.

This is a pretty big issue, in fact. When talking about holes in a perceived available range of design, we may well be missing the far more important insight that the range itself is pitifully narrow. You can poll and poll and poll, and never get information about the possibilities outside it.

Comics offer an excellent analogy: that to "do comics" one must stay within a fairly narrow range of topics, i.e., superheroes of a particular visual type, or they "aren't really comics." This may sound odd today but it was a brutal debate among comics folks three decades ago. The first chapter in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics was devoted to getting away from topic and focusing on medium, using the analogy of a pitcher (comics as a medium) holding any kind of liquid (superheroes or otherwise). You can see some of my views about that in Mainstream: a revision (I shudder to think that was nine and a half years ago ...), also inspired directly by the comics biz.

For me, the biggest topic outside of that narrow perceived range in role-playing is real-world politics, which as a term has become so debased and misunderstood that it leads me to daily despair. As it happens, I also consider its absence to render almost all modern printed science fiction blithering idiocy. Therefore, I think Spione is my best work, hands-down. Despite delays, a similar book-and-game, Shahida, is still coming along. My personal ambition is simply to carry on with this and similar work, with secondary projects (Sorcerer's annotated version, the religon games, reviving Gray Magick with a new name God help me) being fun and psychologically/creatively necessary, but not central.

Vincent offers some points about the absence he's perceiving, also turned toward that out-of-the-range space that we can't perceive well from within our own structural insider framework, in Monster Mania Con: barriers to interest. He's not talking about topic, though, but rather about presentation and positioning, in terms of consumer perceptions.

Well, that's what I've got at the moment. I hope some of it was at least interesting.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi My Precious,

My first thought is that if you want to grab the eyeballs and dollars of current roleplayers, you should make something like D&D that's as easy to successfully GM as it is to play.

I'm imagining your audience as people who have played D&D, but aren't currently playing it because they (a) can't find a DM and are scared by the work and responsibilities DMing entails, or (b) have burned out on DMing.  Or people who are currently DMing and not loving it.

Personally, I consider this a major game design challenge.  There are tons of fantasy games that are like D&D and easier to GM in some ways.  But I certainly don't know of any that reduce the barriers to GMing to the point that that's their hallmark.

In terms of a void in fictional content, I have two separate thoughts:

1) Ride the zeitgeist.  What seems big right now?  For example, I'm working on a game inspired by the Occupy protests.

2) There is no void in content.  Any setting or premise you can think of has been done.  But!  There is always room to do it better.  For me, this comes down to how the content is delivered during play via the game's design.  If you can consistently get players to leave your steampunk game going, "I've never felt so steampunk in my life!" then you're golden.  I don't think the world's steampunkiest setting will get you there, though.

I'm happy to discuss any of this further if you'd like.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Hi Precious
So yes, you need to be patient around here for your responses, but at least you know they're going to be worth the wait :)

I think I agree with some of what Ron said and I've been thinking about this a lot with my own game having just gone live and receiving some interesting responses. And the thinking is this, which is that you need to love what you are doing, that it needs to be the game 'you' want to play, and then it will attract an audience with the same playing style/goals/interests.

When Tolkien was asked why he wrote the Lord of the Rings he replied because it was what he wanted to read and no one else was writing what he wanted to read. My illustration lecturer said something very similar to me when I told her that I was concerned my art was too niche and not commercial enough for gallery display; she answered, let the audience find your work. And if you don't show it then the audience that wants it won't find it.

Most people don't really know they want something until they experience it.

But putting all that aside I know in my own musings about games to produce I always look for two things - a game which in some way explores the human condition, and a setting in which that condition is put to ultimate tests; emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. Now if I can add undiscovered territory to that then I've scored a hat trick.

Digital artist/Game Designer/Aurthor/Illustrator
<I>It's time to take Fate into your own hands</I>


I hope this isn't too much of an aside, but Ron mentioned Understanding Comics. I recommend that book to anyone in any creative endeavor if they're wondering what to do next. The questions of why are you thinking about doing this, what is your goal, and what does it mean that it comes from you, are well-suited to the cartoon medium. McCloud does a very good job of constructing a conversation around those questions.

In your case, Pelgrane is right: the best way to end up with a big pile of money is to start with your giant pile. What is it about role-playing games that inspires you to risk that pile even though you don't know specifically what you're going to do with it? In the wider world of business, that seems to me to be a bit of an odd desire, but it's not odd in RPGs. RPGs tend to inspire an unfocussed devotion, much like comic books do. What's the reason for that in your case? Your ultimate focus may lie there.
Gods & Monsters

My Precious


  I have dabbled in making a design that appeals to a wider audience. This always breaks down and fails before it is complete. This is because it takes a lot of time and effort to make a properly finished RPG. In  order to finish an RPG, you have to have a certain level of passion for it.
  The reality is that you can have a profit motive that inspires a lot of passion, but you cannot make enough money with RPGs to incite that passion. So, you have to find that passion somewhere else.
  You are concerned about trying to fit into a crowded genre, but think about this: D&D was dominating, but there is RuneQuest, RoleMaster, GURPS Fantasy, Palladium Fantasy, Exalted, HeroQuest, Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, Shadow of Yesterday, Donjon, PathFinder, etc. Each time one of these were published, you would think the market was glutted, but then it was met with wild success.
  My belief is that their success is due to the passion of the games' creators. If you love a game, that love comes through and you will find like-minded gamers who will buy your product.
  As Ron said, it is a bit of a touchy-feely answer, but unfortunately, in this industry, it rings true to my experiences.
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
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