Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Today Your Subculture - Tomorrow The World!

by Steve Darlington and Jody MacGregor

In which the authors explain exactly how to fix the entire gaming industry.


There's still a lot of talk going on in the role-playing hobby / artform / fraternity /evil cult bent on world domination, about the State of the Industry. Even people like us, who would normally never dream of using a word like 'industry'. The general consensus is that the industry is in a slump. Magazines like Arcane and Australian Realms went under and still nothing has arisen in print to replace them. Small press continues to suffer.

The industry giant was bought out by the other industry giant. A lot of people blamed a certain card game that shall remain nameless (to avoid royalties' charges). Role-playing's audience was just too small to support it and some parts got pruned back.

Therefore, the topic of choice right now, in newsgroups and around tabletops, is on finding ways to bring the gamers back. Or rather, to bring new gamers in. But as any gamer knows, inducting mundanes into the ranks of the cult of gaming is no easy task. Even assuming they get the concept, people tend to resist the idea of spending their Friday nights hunched over a polyhedral dice talking about how big their sword is (snigger, snigger).

Some people had the temerity to suggest that the aforementioned card game would be a useful option. In fact, for many years every newcomer to the gaming scene has been touted as "a great introduction to roleplaying": Fighting Fantasy books, computer games, CCGs, whatever. There are two fundamental flaws with this idea.

Firstly, it presumes that there is some sort of great divide in the industry, that there are people who play trading card games or strategy board games or computer games have no idea what an RPG is. I guess at conventions they were too busy spitshining their favourite Cyclopean Mummy to notice all the other guys across the hall shouting how big their sword is (guffaw, guffaw). The fact of the matter is that the sub-culture is a self-contained whole and once you enter at one point, there is no impedance to branching out into all the others, should you want to. You're average CCG player almost certainly dabbles in RPGs, LARPs, boardgames, wargames, party games, mind games, any sort of game they can find. It's no accident we call ourselves "gamers".

The second flaw with this argument is that it asks us to believe that your average Bridge player is going to pick up the latest Garfield effort to perk up his next cards evening. Or that your average Scrabble fiend is going to suddenly run out and buy Talisman when he gets jaded of the thrill of putting "QUIZLING" on a triple word score. These "normal" games are comparable, if not superior in design, and so their players are not going to branch out into the more extemporaneous arenas unless there is something else to attract them. It's that something else which is the real key to bringing in new gamers.

Role-playing has always been about subcultures. It was the fantasy culture - particularly Tolkien - that got the whole ball rolling in the first place. Fantasy and science fiction fans have always been the main markets of RPGs and nothing can change that. Even TSR's attempts in the early 80s (remember those ads in the back of comics and that scene in ET?) didn't shove us into the mainstream. Titanic may have been the biggest-grossing movie of all time, but the knock-off boardgames it has inspired are having piddly successes compared to the new Star Wars Monopoly game.

Clearly, this is not about quality of design. Monopoly has got to be one of the dullest games in the universe and the monumental stupidity of combining its mechanics with the cinematic fun of the Star Wars ethos is enough to make you marvel that the human intellect ever figured out how to bang the rocks together. But we're not selling games here, we're selling subcultures. Even being consumed more widely than Coca-Cola doesn't turn Titanic-worship into a culture. Not even if Billy Zane had turned out to be DiCaprio's father at the end.

And while I'm on the subject, I have a funny feeling that if Luke had leant off the front of the Death Star yelling "I'm King of the Force!", George Lucas would be busing tables right now. But I digress.

Probably the best example of subcultures bringing new blood (ahem) into the hobby was Vampire: the Masquerade. Before White Wolf hit the big time, the stereotypical role-player was a very different beast to the one that exists now. John/Jane Random Gamer is now a pseudo-goth. Vampire did exactly what Sandman had done for comics. It took something equated with geeky adolescent fantasies and made it cool and dark. Goths who formerly sat around putting their creativity into depressing music, or depressing poetry, can now sit around reading depressing comics and playing depressing RPGs.

The transplant, it seems, was a complete success. The lesson is: role-playing can be readily acceptable to other subcultures, but it'll be a cold day in Athas before it's acceptable to the mainstream (God no, an AD&D joke? Make it stop!).

So what should the industry have done after Vampire's initial success? Cast around for new subcultures to infiltrate, or try to milk the new one for every dollar it was worth, just as had been done with fantasy and sci-fi? The answer lies within the endless White Wolf supplements and clones like Witchcraft, In Nomine, Nephilim, Immortal, Nightbane... need I go on?

There was one game though, before Vampire, that expanded us into another subculture without quite sucking it dry. I speak of Call of Cthulhu, which was voted the number one RPG of all time in Arcane's world-wide survey. I don't know any Lovecraft fans who haven't heard of it and those who mock it ("pronounced KAH-thool-hoo my pseudopod!") are soon righted when shown some of the Delta Green inspired fiction, or whupped over the head with the Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep. Perversely, the contamination has worked the other way, with many gamers being led to the world of Lovecraft through the RPG.

Though horror games are more common now, nobody has re-tread over Cthulhu's territory and the game has remained much more powerful because of it. It seems then fairly obvious where the industry needs to head. If we want to keep the hobby growing and strengthening, we have to cast our net into each new subculture and grab all the gamers we can.

It's already happening, of course. Pinnacle's Deadlands is the first Western game in twenty years. With its miniature rules, it is bound to catch a few Western buffs. Conspiracy X is pretty much standing alone in tapping into the X-Files generation. West End Games looks like it might just be able to stay alive long enough to push their Hercules and Xena game, which, given the popularity of the show among pre-teens, could be the big drawcard for future gamers. In fact, West End Games has alway led the field in this area, so it will be a sad day indeed if they go under completely.

Even more impressive is the new Sailor Moon RPG. Your average D&D hack or evergoth gamer would have to be one dangerously obsessive pop-addict to pick this one up and yet the game is selling quite well. It's being bought, surprise, surprise, by young girls who like the show. Once upon a time, shows like Pokemon and Sailor Moon would have released a line of plush toys or colourful school supplies. Nowadays, we have collectible card games and roleplaying games. Call me crazy, but I like the sound of that.

What it does mean, of course, is that our next convention might be overrun with pre-pubescent females, but hey, who's gonna notice another ponytail in that crowd?

So the news is good. But there are still many more subcultures out there to plunder. Take Ultima Online, that moderately successful MUD which is bridging the gap between computer gaming and roleplaying and driving thousands into homocidal psychosis from frustration. UO, despite Origin's outlandish claims, still plays very much like a computer game. Every day, hundreds, possibly thousands of people world-wide are getting so pissed off at the lag and the PKs that they rip the CD from their computer and back their cars over it. Wouldn't it be great if they could then turn to a game that captured the feel of Britannia and the interaction of MUDs but didn't cost you an arm and a leg every time you logged on?

Other MUDs might also be a possibility. And, of course, there are computer games. Although these don't exactly appeal to the same desires (as Joel pointed out last issue), computer games are vaguely staggering towards a more role-oriented perspective. Hypothetically, this means that many computer gamers could be looking for some introductory RPG, so why don't we make some that appeal to them? Sure, Doom doesn't make the best world background (although some GURPS players I know have tried it) but settings like that of Fallout and Wing Commander are begging to be role-played in (maybe I'm biased here: to my mind, Privateer was the closest any computer game has come to role-playing, - partly because it didn't claim to be an RPG).

But let's not stop there. The biggest subculture event of the decade - Star Wars Episode One - is going un-RPG-ed at the moment because West End Games lacks the funds for a new edition. There's a market that BEGS to be tapped. The last big merchandising money-maker before that was Men In Black, and the RPG was right there along with it. When the next one - and there always will be a next one - hits the market, will there be accompanied by an RPG? Will there be a Matrix RPG? We can only hope. And ICE's Middle Earth has been pretty still for a while - so still, in fact, I'd be tempted to take a pulse. But if they're not prepared to cash in on the upcoming Tolkien movies, somebody sure as hell should. If there are any game company owners out there reading this, you should be taking notes by now.

And I still haven't mentioned probably the biggest subculture phenomenon on the small screen. OK, OK, besides Star Trek - which, thanks to Last Unicorn is back in the running. I'm talking about a certain spunky little vampire slayer from Sunnydale. Like Cthulhu with attitude and hip sensibilities, Buffy cries out to be made into an RPG. They'd be lining up in the streets to buy that one, for sure. And yet, I know that the next time I walk into my gaming shop, the new release on the shelves will be boasting about its incredibly unique and totally new, not-based-on-Tolkien-at-all-no-shit--we-even-made-the-elves-realistic fantasy setting. Is it any wonder the industry is in a slump?

Somehow, cross-over RPGs have acquired a bit of a bad image, as if they're in some way less "pure" roleplaying experiences because of the merchandising tag. But in the modern world, merchandising is, for better or for worse, a very effective way to generate bigger markets. If we don't make use of it, we're a bunch of mugs. Sure, sometimes you end up with the Tank Girl RPG, but that's a risk we should be willing to take. If we want new gamers to join up in droves, and the industry to grow stronger, then merchandising is the way to go. If we start taking the attitude that if it can be made into a computer game, it can also be made into an RPG, we're on our way to making RPGs just as ubiquitous and bankable as our virtual cousins.

The possibilities above are just the beginning. I'm sure that if we looked hard enough, we'd find countless more arenas to explore. We would probably also discover that a lot of people would like to roleplay if only they knew how. We just have to find a way to get them in. I reckon hard-core fans of Agatha Christie, or Biggles comics, or even the Telly-Tubbies can be dragged into this great hobby of ours somehow. All we need is some missionaries to preach the cause. Any volunteers?


[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright © 1999 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us: