Last Year This Week, But Not This Year Last Week

OUT OF THE BOX
1999-03-02

It’s earlier this year than it was last year, but that’s due pretty much to the on-the-ballitude of the steel-drivin’ men and women at my favorite print rag de l’industrie, Comics Retailer. In short, their State of the Gaming Industry issue (#84, March 1999) slid under my nose earlier this year than last year, which is why this column (which is based almost entirely on Comics Retailer data where it’s based on empirical data of any kind) is almost a month earlier than last year’s column, which I urge you to click back on for reference, although we’ll be recapping it in grand style below. (Quick aside: I used to get my copy of Comics Retailer from my comics retailer, Greg, but as a Noted Industry Pundit who didn’t look too much like a psychopath at GAMA last year, I’ve been put on the Swell Comp List. If you happen to be a comics (or games) retailer yourself, you too can be put on the Swell Comp List and get Comics Retailer for absotively free simply by calling (715) 445-2214. And believe me, you want to.)

The unfortunate downside of getting to recount the data for last year this early this year is that I don’t get to brag about this being my second full year as the happy host of Out of the Box here on MANIA! In short, I don’t see any easy way to do a remotely timely anniversary column this year, so you’ll have to click back on last year’s anniversary column and pretend that it’s this year’s. Just cross out “TSR bought” and fill in “West End bankrupt,” add a gratuitous plug for the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG from Last Unicorn Games, and sprinkle with Unknown Armies references, and it’ll look just like this year’s would have. So, with that out of the way last week, on with the 1998 State of the Gaming Industry. This week.

That Pie Done Shrunk Down Ta Cobbler Size

What I (and Comics Retailer; where I don’t give any source for a figure below, it’s a Comics Retailer figure) estimated as the size of the “adventure gaming” market in 1997 ($300 million domestic market) has shrunk still further in 1998. CR‘s “optimistic” high estimate for 1998 is $260 million, and that’s counting miniatures. Much of that discrepancy comes from an assumed loss of a third of the retail outlets in 1998 (highly believable, given the travails of the comic biz), and from further assuming that the majority of those customers didn’t go to other outlets like supergiant bookstores, go to mail-order businesses from the Web or otherwise, or buy direct from the company. Even if all those happy occurrences eventuated, it’s still darned likely that the industry lost a chunk of change simply from the continuing deflation of the CCG bubble and the disintegration of the distribution network. So, caveats in hand (and keeping in mind that those other outlets weren’t represented in the 1997 numbers, either), I’m inclined to buy the CR numbers as a good first cut. Which is to say, the industry took a loss of around 13% — given what was going on, or rather, what wasn’t going on, I’m surprised it’s that little. (The “pessimistic” numbers indicate closer to a 30% decline, which is probably a good high-end guess.)

Scalpel, Forceps, Spatula

With the best will in the world, though, I can’t say that roleplaying did more than hold its own against other product categories; if you don’t include miniatures or minis rules, the numbers break down roughly as 27% RPGs, 70% CCGs and 3% wargames (I broke out wargames from minis rules this year but not last year, so it’s about the same as last year’s estimates); if you include minis and minis rules (as well you should, given that minis are where CCGs were five years ago: getting ready to burst expensively for everyone but the Top Dog, Games Workshop) your numbers look like 21% RPGs, 55% CCGs, and 24% miniatures and war games. Either I overestimated minis last year, or Comics Retailer is overestimating CCGs this year; either way, RPGs stick at 20-odd percent, same as the 1997 level, which is all I care about, frankly. Again, though, holding one’s own after the essentially total collapse of the best “entry drug” the roleplaying business has (West End’s Star Wars RPG, of course — what did you think I was talking about), and throughout the malaise factors indicated above, is a pretty good record. Those retailers who did survive reported increased sales of games across the board (slight increase for RPGs, slight decrease for CCGs), indicating that Darwinian selection may actually be living up to its billing for once. 1998 was the year of bottoming out, let’s all devoutly hope.

So Who’s On First?

So let’s pry up that quarter or so of the market that I care about and root around in its insides a bit, shall we? A word of warning before we begin our exciting pryage, though: as a general rule of thumb, nobody in this industry on any level (with the exception of Games Workshop) has the faintest idea of market research. Even a professional and honest source like Comics Retailer is at the mercy of its survey data; data which, even if they weren’t scribbled between slurps of a Big Gulp, would have methodological issues. CR tracks the top 12 games sold at respondent stores in terms of “units” (books, boxed sets, modules, etc.) sold each month, using survey cards filled out by hundreds of game stores on what one hopes is a relatively regular basis. All those responses add up to numbers which undercount the big sellers (who move a lot of product through chain bookstores) and popular smaller-market sellers (who don’t have the national sales needed to break into the Top 12 on enough retailers’ return cards). In this age of no distribution to speak of, it also leaves out direct sales and sales through Web retailers — sales which are becoming an increasing part of any company’s bottom line: Atlas Games, for example, routinely chalks up “direct sales” as one of its best “customers,” and if I told you what I’ve heard about the level of sales Pinnacle does direct on its website, you’d be gobsmacked (it’s allegedly roughly 50 times the level any given store does, according to CR data). But, all that harsh warning and pointing of ink-smeared fingers aside, the Comics Retailer Market Beat data are far and away the closest thing this industry has to hard numbers — feel free to give me better ones if you have them.

Look, All I Want To Know Is, Who’s On First?

To no great surprise, then, the Comics Retailer numbers indicate that TSR remains perched perilously peakward with 34.21% of the market in 1998, a statistical tie with its level for 1997. Given that TSR didn’t sell much of anything for the first five months or so of 1997, that can’t be good news at Renton. Indeed, CR numbers indicate (if you squeeze ’em right) that TSR took about a 14% sales hit in 1998. Not good at any treasure type. Strong performance for Alternity, believe it or else, may have been what saved the ancient red dragon from an even more serious tail-whupping. The deserved success of Marvel Superheroes can’t have hurt, either.

At number two, again in a statistical dead heat with its 1997 performance (24.57% for 1998 compared with 22.96% for 1997), is White Wolf. Vampire remains the number two RPG in the industry, and saw sales stabilize after V3rd showed up; White Wolf even captured the number-one spot in months surrounding October (go figure). Werewolf is reliably number four or five in the RPG market, which helps quite a bit. Mage can often be found in the top ten or around it, although White Wolf’s plans to shuttle Changeling (and possibly Wraith) off to the “Arthaus” imprint are indicative of some sales softening at the filmier ends of the World of Darkness.

Again statistically identical to last year are Palladium (with 10.62% of the market) and FASA (with 6.35%). Palladium just keeps the Rifts a-coming, as the solidly number-three RPG in the lists (nigh double Werewolf sales, its closest competitor), and the rest of the Palladium line spackles in the cracks in the indomitable facade. FASA got some help from ShadowRun 3rd, which increased SR sales by nearly 30% and more than made up for the loss of Earthdawn.

Steve Jackson Games slid into the slot vacated by the evanescence of West End, posting 5% of the 1998 market almost entirely on the back of the venerable GURPS line, which showed even better growth than ShadowRun did, even beating Werewolf in December of 1998. That’s probably GURPS Traveller talking, although the extent to which SJG is cannibalizing its own core audience with a gearhead product line like GURPS Trav may become clearer in 1999. Bringing up the number six spot is Pinnacle, with 4.88% of the market from strong Deadlands performance. (Adding PEG corporate partners AEG gives Alderac-Pinnacle around 7.7% of the market, which would make them fourth.)

The last four, then, are probably Alderac, Last Unicorn, Chaosium and Iron Crown, in roughly that order, although I have to hope that LUG will surge ahead in 1999 based on a straightened-out release schedule and two more core game books (DS9 and TOS) due this summer. Of course, AEG has 7th Sea due in spring as well, and Pinnacle has a new superhero game a-comin’, so all bets are off: 1999 may bring some improvement, but it surely won’t be dull.

Next Week I May Get To Last Week At Last

Next week I’ll be in North Carolina working with Steve “all work and no play makes Steve a productive boy” Long on the aforementioned TOS RPG project, so you’ll probably be treated to a hamfisted batch of reviews plucked at seeming random from the Bigass Review Pile plus potential chittering about last week’s Winter Fantasy con. In the meantime, enjoy clicking around last year’s anniversary column to your heart’s content (oh, and be sure to vote in the poll at rpg.net before Tuesday). Boy, does your heart content easy.

Kenneth Hite is the author or coauthor of roleplaying game books from GURPS
Alternate Earths
to Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade and the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG; line developer for Chaosium’s Nephilim RPG; and editor or assistant developer for companies including Chaosium, Steve Jackson Games, and Last Unicorn Games. His column of general weirdness, “Suppressed Transmission,” now appears weekly in Pyramid Magazine. He deserves some credit for writing this entire blurb without once using the word “brilliant.”

I want more!

Send me emails with awesome news and cool events.