A few weeks ago, I noticed that a group called The Onyx Path is now the officially licensed producer of tabletop RPG products owned by White Wolf. Of course, White Wolf was bought up by CCP, the Iceland-based publisher of the computer game Eve Online, a number of years ago.
It was clear from the start that CCP was only interested in acquiring White Wolf’s World of Darkness property, especially after White Wolf pretty much stopped publishing anything. Of course, in the time the World of Darkness MMO has been in development, the Iceland economy tanked and FunCom announced, developed, released and was disappointed by the performance of its MMO The Secret World. I’m sure Secret World will go to free-to-play and then shut down its servers for lack of interest before CCP gets around to launching a World of Darkness MMO. We’ll see how it goes.
Tabletop roleplaying games are a dying breed, of course, and have been for years. With the transfer of the World of Darkness license to Onyx Path, I think we can say that that property has entered the niche market of RPG publishing, which makes it a niche market in an already niche market.
The only “mainstream” RPG publisher that remains is Wizards of the Coast, and the only RPG it publishes is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. After the debacle that was 4th edition, Wizards has made a concerted effort to reconnect with D&D’s core audience in the development and promotion of 5th edition, dubbed D&D Next.
It sounds like Wizards has done two things with D&D Next. First, they’ve adopted — or readopted — much of the philosophy behind the development of 3rd edition in that they’re presenting Next as a framework gamers use to create whatever game they want. It was a pretty successful strategy not just for Wizards, but for the RPG industry in general. The D20 license rejuvenated the tabletop roleplaying hobby for years until it was basically killed by Wizards in preparation for 4th edition, in which Wizards appeared to want to return to the restrictive and proprietary practices of TSR before it went belly up.
Second, it sounds like Wizards is taking a page out of Paizo’s playbook. Paizo, as you may know, publishes the remarkably successfully RPG Pathfinder, which is basically just Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 with some revisions (it’s sometimes called D&D 3.75). Paizo has, in the words of one online commenter, eaten Wizard’s lunch. It’s hard to get good sales numbers, but the impression I’ve gotten the past few years is that Pathfinder sells better than D&D 4.
Of course, Paizo is still a niche publisher in my view because they only have the one product line. Oh, sure, they have some other stuff, but their bread and butter is Pathfinder. So, sure. Wizards looks at what Paizo is doing and telling themselves, “That’s what we should do.” It’s not exactly Apple vs. Samsung, but still, there’s a certain incestuous quality to it.
Meanwhile, Onyx Path appears to be following the path of Mark Miller with Far Future. I would call Mark’s efforts not just a niche market, but also a nostalgia market, as the only thing he’s doing is republishing the various editions of Traveller and the other GDW properties to which he has the rights. Sure, he has been working on Traveller 5, and that may actually come out sometime soon, but his efforts at the moment appear to be just keeping the property alive. Onyx Path has more people, and they’re also going to be putting out original content, but it looks like a goodly portion of their catalog is going to be electronic reprints of classic White Wolf releases, primarily Old World of Darkness. So, nostalgia.
It may very well be that nostalgia is the only thing that keeps the tabletop RPG hobby going. Computer games are getting better at recreating a genuine-ish RPG experience, and you can play them without having to do geeky things like learning a bunch of rules and, you know, reading.
Ah, well. We’ll see how it goes.