Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Steve Jackson Games Stakeholder Report for 2016

I'm a little worried about SJG. The latest Report to Stakeholders covering 2016 is not all that great and has a few specific things that concern me. They're a Texas game company, they've been around a long time, and they've made a lot of things I like so I take an interest in how they are doing.

  • In the 80's they were Car Wars and Ogre
  • In the 90's they were GURPS
  • In the 2000's they've been mostly Munchkin
Lots of people have been touched by those games. 

They have always seemed to have a handle on cash flow, which is the thing that tends to kill game companies. That part still seems to be OK, largely due to Munchkin I would guess. They're selling Munchkin at Walgreen's now - Walgreen's!

Today I'll talk about the first issue I see, then tomorrow we will hit the second. 

The first thing I see that might be a problem is GURPS. From the report:

Discworld and Mars Attacks - We published two new GURPS hardcover books late last year. GURPS fans celebrated, and the books turned out well, but their disappointing performance further supported the unfortunate realization that sales are no longer strong enough to make traditional distribution work for GURPS hardcovers. Today's cluttered market, combined with our insistence on getting it right, made both books expensive experiments that tell us one thing: Do not produce more GURPS hardcovers until we have guaranteed that the sales are there. Does this mean more crowdfunding for GURPS? Maybe! But until we see the retail sales of Dungeon Fantasy, we're holding off on any more printed GURPS releases. PDFs will continue, and we'll revisit the question of "print GURPS?" later this year.

OK, I'm sure some of the rest of you can see a potential problem here. After the big Kickstarter (which we will get to in a bit) the two big "kickoff" books were Discworld and Mars Attacks?! Seriously? 

I love the Discworld books - I've been reading them for 30+ years and I own most of them but I would never try to use it as an RPG setting because it's just not going to work. It's the same reason there's not a Hitchhikers Guild to the Galaxy RPG - a huge part of it is the wit, and your players are not going to be able to do that on the fly while playing the game. As a Big Book of Stuff About Discworld I'm sure it's great but for a roleplaying game it's a niche of a niche at best and the people who wanted one got it with the third edition books.

Then there's Mars Attacks. I don't even know where to start, really. I know Mantic put out a miniatures game of it in 2015 and it looks as though it's already being discontinued.  Who do you know that's really passionate about MA? What's the fanbase? It would not surprise me if the total number of people in North America saying "I can't wait to run a Mars Attacks RPG!" is in the single digits.  What else is going on with the universe? A new movie? There was a movie 20 years ago that was not all that big a hit even then. I'm sure the license is cheap because NO ONE CARES ABOUT MARS ATTACKS! It's not something to build or reboot a game line on!

I know, I know, but it had to be said

GURPS has always had a problem in that while it inspired some system loyalty, it has no marquee setting, and settings are what keep people interested over the decades. Consider:
  • D&D has gone thru a ton of changes from the 80's to now but there's a core group of Forgotten Realms fans that stay with it and provide a big chunk of the energy around the game. They're the ones buying the novels and other product tie-ins. They're the ones recruiting new players  talking about all of those overpowered NPCs, arguing the history of fictional countries, and all of the things that come with a deep setting. Greyhawk has fans too, as do the other D&D worlds. Regardless of the rules particulars, they keep coming back.
  • Why does any edition of Runequest that ditches Glorantha struggle? Because for that game the Gloranth-philes are the biggest mass of players. That's where the energy is! 
  • What was the early core of Savage Worlds players? Deadlands players! It's probably still the biggest single setting but now they have Rifts, Lankmahr, and they're working on Flash Gordon! They have a strong mix of original IP and licensees that draw people in. 
I've talked about this before, back when the Dungeon Fantasy Kickstarter was going. It baffles me that GURPS still has no well-known setting of its own. Would you play 1920's Call of Cthulu without the Mythos elements? Well, that's GURPS. Sure, it's a great toolkit for making your own game but the core books have been out since 2004! If you want to draw new players in, get people excited, and most of all have people spend money on it then you need something people care about beyond mechanics! That would be "setting" and they just do not have one.

So no, I don't expect a big resurgence for the GURPS line, particularly when they are making decisions like this. I expect Dungeon Fantasy will hit the shelves and barley make a ripple as it sinks under, much like these other two have. The window for this to be a big deal was probably 2011-2014, while D&D was at a low ebb and people were looking for alternatives. Now, with 5E booming in popularity, Pathfinder still a strong second, and a bunch of OSR stuff taking up the rest there just isn't that much room left for something else. 

There might have been room for a sci-fi game in there too for the last few years but over the last 5 or so years we've had FFG's 40K universe games, their new Star Wars game, a new edition of Traveller, a new edition of Mutant Chronicles, Savage Worlds Last Parsec, and later this year we get Starfinder and a new Star Trek game! There's probably not a ton of room there either!

This is pretty clearly something that could happen in an RPG
"Remember that time we took out a tank with some muscle cars?"
To show I'm not just slagging them, how about some ideas of what they could do? OK:
  • GURPS Fast and Furious - You want to bring in some new people? Want to stretch the creative muscles a bit? Want to get some attention? Strike now! I think the company that's been doing a game called "Car Wars" for almost 40 years and that has a back catalog of GURPS books on thrillers, vehicles, espionage, and tech could do pretty well at something like this. Sure, it's a license but it's not one we've seen in RPG's before and they plan to make at least two more movies over the next 4 years. For a game that's "realistic" with some cinematic options this seems perfect. (If you think it's a bad RPG license then first, take a look up there at their last two licenses. Second, look at how many people have gone to see these movies in the last 5-10 years. It's a big number and getting bigger, at or beyond Star Wars and Marvel. It's also a heckuva lot more relevant than Mars Attacks.)
  • GURPS Big Superhero World - I think we all know superhero movies are big right now. There's room for another Superhero RPG if it's good. This takes two things:
    • One, put out a single-volume book combining the GURPS rules and the powers book. It can be a big book, but it really helps if you can point players to one book to play this game, not 3 or more. Champions did it and has done it again. M&M has always done it. It's time to make that change. 
    • Two, create an original setting that has some specific flavor, some likable, interesting iconic heroes and some detestable iconic villains and put out a setting book! Support the game with something beyond more rulebooks! It should look as good as Freedom City and Emerald City but with its own take on a superhero world. 
  • GURPS Munchkin - Start with GURPS Lite. Add maximum cinematic rules. Put in all of the monsters from the card game. Make it something like Dungeon Crawl Classics in tone, add a little Hackmaster, add a little Paranoia. Make it "The First RPG You Can Win". Make it playable in less than 2 hours - maybe everybody who's still alive levels up every ten minutes of real time. It's an IP you own and there's a ton of stuff to mine from it so why not explore it in RPG form?
So there's my thinking on the whole GURPS side of the problem. Tomorrow - the other stuff!


WQRobb said...

When I saw my FLGS had stocked "Mars Attacks" I thought the owner had lost his marbles.

You didn't mention this, but I think GURPS might also be suffering from some serious issues regarding rules. Universal systems are tricky to begin with, and the skeleton GURPS is built on is pretty old and rickety these days.

I like the "Fast and Furious" idea, mostly because it is something that isn't already out there in spades, like dungeon-crawling fantasy. I am wracking my brain for a license that might be out there that would both be affordable and generate interest. There was a Babylon 5 game. Dark Matter? Lost Girl? There's several zombie RPG's but no The Walking Dead game (just a miniatures one). I'll have to ponder...

Blacksteel said...

Honestly I don't think GURPS was ever as popular as an actual played game as it may have seemed. I think they sold a lot of books that were used as a sourcebook for other games or that were just read and put on the shelf (like a lot of RPG books). I assume there were more people playing in the 90's than now, but I don't think that number was ever all that big.

Licensing - I don't think Warner is doing anything with B5 licensing now but that would be a solid fit for the system. I'm afraid the setting is another relic of the 90's though. Without something else to keep it alive - new show/movie/video game - I don't know that all that many people out there are going to get excited about it either. I would, but that's just me.

Walking Dead would be another great fit and a huge license but I bet it would not be cheap. The miniatures game is specifically licensed to use only the comics so they've kind of limited themselves there. Love to see it happen though.