Friday, August 18, 2017

A Fault In Our Stars: Starfinder, ADnD 2E, and Repeating History

So I wanted to talk a bit about Starfinder and how I see it. Not as a game or in comparison to White Star, but as a business move and why I think Paizo chose to release a sci-fi adaptation of their juggernaut fantasy roleplaying game. But to do that, I have to go back to 1989 and the release of AD&D, 2nd edition.

However you feel about AD&D 2nd Ed, it was an absolute runaway hit. It made money hand over fist and sales had exploded far beyond expectations. The books brought slick, previously unseen production values to the game with full color core books that were priced to buy. By 1993, AD&D 2nd edition dominated the market and it was the game when it came to tabletop RPGs. Granted, tabletop RPGs get compared to D&D by default, but this was unprecedented.

It seemed as though there was nothing AD&D 2nd Edition couldn't do. The campaign settings were fresh as gamers explored Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Birthright. The seemly endless slew of class and race books gave players new ways to customize their characters with optional kits and new equipment, spells, and sub-races. There was no end in sight.

Until there was.

The long and short is that TSR was on the verge of economic collapse because of the runaway success of AD&D 2nd Ed. They had to keep producing supplements to maintain an ever diminishing revenue stream. That's the nature of tabletop roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are a niche of a niche of a niche market. Most folks who play them do so casually, briefly, or out of curiosity. They borrow a book from a more active friend while they're playing, or they buy a single core book for their own reference. Maybe they buy the "core three" books, but never grab a supplement. They might grab a supplement which focuses on their favorite species/class if they're really into the game. But the fact is, most gamers aren't rabid consumers of every single thing published for a game line.

So, TSR had to keep producing supplements on more minuet elements of their flagship game to keep the money coming in. But as the product line bloated, the profit margins thinned. AD&D 2nd edition had more books released for it than you can count (I stopped at 250...) and let's face it, some of them were very narrow in their focus. (Did we really need Thief's Challenge, let alone Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Pointe?)

But, to keep these more tightly focused products viable, you have to keep much of the previous library of material in print, maintain storage space to keep unsold product, pay your employees, and keep the lights on. So, eventually, the numbers just didn't add up and TSR was on the verge of collapse. That's when Wizards of the Coast came in and bought the company.

Then came D&D 3E. There was a lot of backlash against it at first. So many people had spent over a decade chasing the dragon (so to speak) keeping up with the endless gamut of 2nd Ed books that they felt betrayed by the fact that D&D 3E was going to render all that time and investment invalid. While many players recognized that a new game being published did not obligate them to play it, I still understand their frustration.

But in the end D&D 3E and its OGL were a success beyond all predictions. So much so, that when it ended and 4E was announced in 2007 and released the following year many gamers decided not to invest in yet another itteration of the world's most famous fantasy roleplaying game. Enter Paizo's Pathfinder. Serving as as rallying point for those who wishes to continue playing D&D 3E, Pathfinder was released under the OGL with a few minor changes to D&D 3.5.

And it exploded. Pathfinder was a runaway hit, like AD&D 2nd Edition before it. It even managed to out-sell Dungeons and Dragons, the very game from which it was born. For a brief time, Pathfinder was the Rebel Prince, dethroning the king of all roleplaying games.

Pathfinder began to release supplements, as is expected. From the Advanced Player's Guide to Mythic Adventures, they left no stone unturned, no supplement unpublished. Soon the runaway success of Pathfinder ran away with them. Ten years later, and countless supplements later, Pathfinder feels its in the same place as TSR was in 1998. But, unlike Wizards of the Coast, my guess is that Paizo doesn't want to alienate the fans that have been loyal to them for the past decade by releasing a Pathfinder, Second Edition. So, how do they add longevity to their product line when the vein of ore that is fantasy seems tapped?


Starfinder feels to me like an attempt to extend the longevity of the Pathfinder product line and IP without releasing a second edition. But, I'm uncertain about it's potential for success. Yes, it sold out at GenCon - but there hasn't been a whole lot of buzz surrounding it that I've noticed. Admittedly, I'm over here in the OSR corner of the RPG community - but still, the tabletop roleplaying game community isn't exactly vast.

Do I hope Starfinder is a success? Absolutely. By all accounts Erik and the folks at Pathfinder are good people. Besides, even at its most successful, RPG publishing profits are razor thin. Given that many fantasy gamers aren't interested in sci-fi (and vice versa), I'm doubtful that Starfinder will be as successful as Paizo needs and that may create a rough road for Paizo in the days to come.

16 comments:

  1. If what I am hearing is any indication then it will be a runaway hit. I am seeing a lot of good buzz right now. The proof will be after GenCon when everyone gets it home to play it.

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  2. For what it's worth, there was a LOT of buzz at my FLGS when the Starfinder boxes came through. While PF isn't my cup of tea as a game, Paizo seems like a well-run, fan-friendly business so I hope the game goes gangbusters. Early signs seem pretty good but, as noted above, its about what happens when people start playing it...

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  3. I'm reading this in line to muster for a Starfinder game at GenCon. They're running games every two hours that don't require tickets, and the book sold out yesterday. GenCon is not the real world however - it's the Con of Cons, and what flies here doesn't necessarily equate to what flies out in the real world. I too hope for success on this product, though to be honest I'm looking forward to the updated version of White Star more!

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  4. It's tough to say. I lurk on the Paizo boards, and Starfinder's generating a lot of buzz over there, but everything they put out generates a lot of buzz over there. It does seem that they're not immediately flooding their market with the same number of product lines that Pathfinder has, so hopefully they won't succeed themselves into financial ruin.

    Hell, I don't know. The complexity of of D20/3e/PF was what drove me back to the OSR in the first place, and now they're all, "Starfinder is like Pathfinder in space; it's science fantasy, not science fiction!" but I'm like, "Sure, but Stars Without Number is much, much, much closer to B/X in space, and neither of those give me a headache every time I roll up a new character, so no thanks." (Yes, James, it would have been 100% true if I had written White Star and White Box in that sentence, but look, I'm not here to kiss your butt. Just deal with it.)

    All that said, it's important to remember that CEO of Paizo has been in the RPG business since the last millennium, so she (hopefully) knows how to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

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  5. Hahaha...if you think you lurk only in the OSR corner of the RPG world, consider that I never even heard the name Starfinder until yesterday, and didn't know it was sci-fi Pathfinder until I read this article. :)

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  6. One of the things I had in mind when I bought Starfinder was that I'd likely be able to use it with White Star, SWN, or other OSRish stuff.

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    1. That would be my reason for acquiring it, also, as White Star is what I would like to run and Star Frontiers is as rules-crazy as I like to get when playing not-Star Wars sci-fi/space opera RPGs.

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  7. At best, the claim that "there was a lot of backlash" against 3E is an exaggeration. Inarguably there were committed partisans who resented the new edition (just like some had resented the changeover from 1st to 2nd), and it enjoyed great popularity for the first half of it's reign. But by the late 90's AD&D2 was a moribund brand, barely holding it's own against White Wolf and the juggernaut of Magic, largely perceived as bloated, archaic and flailing to hold on to an audience. Conversely, the overwhelming response to 3E was positive excitement. Note I say all this as a utter non-fan of 3E with no emotional investment in the status of the game, just a clear memory of how the hobby responded.

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    1. It depends where one visited in 2000. Dragonsfoot was born partly as a response to 3e and places like ODDboards, Rob Kuntz's old PPP boards, Troll Lord Games, and the K&K Alehouse were places to talk about the games that preceded 3E.

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    2. Yes, but that's the margin of the margin of the corner of a niche at that time. This is nowhere in comparison to how Pathfinder stole 4e's thunder.

      Completely different ballpark.

      I do however not agree with the previous poster that 3e had any merits in dealing with bloat. It was endless spam when it came to options and d20 books and whatever. It bloated up _real_ fast.

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  8. All I know is I had no plans to buy it and now half my group is going nuts over it. The other half it burned out on PF but probably willing to try it. Meanwhile our local rpg group forum is full of talk about Starfinder. I concede I found a copy at the FLGS and had to get it simply because the book is so gorgeous, but I'm not sure I am quite willing to return to the pathfinder D20 fold yet (pr ever). Will see when I finish reading it...

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  9. Maybe Starfinder will be the gateway drug for fantasy folks to dip their toe into the black of space.

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  10. Paizo and Starfinder's success are a mixed bag for Local Gaming Stores. Paizo has done an amazing job creating sales direct to their customers and making most of their products OGL where the material is free. While that is healthy for Paizo it isn't as healthy a seller at any of my stores so I couldn't rely on their line to support me the way I rely on Dungeons and Dragons. Additionally, during their youngest days they were lucky to have no competition from D&D as WotC was moving from 4E to 5E.

    I'm sure their sales are still healthy, but I feel certain that Starfinder is smart way to modernize some things and tackle a market that DnD isn't it. Sadly, Science-Fantasy has never had the market penetration as DnD-styled fantasy. Once again though, Paizo is relying on direct sales so that will give the line a better chance to thrive.

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  11. I think you miss how things have changed, James. Paizo does not have to keep old supplements in print. They can go PDF only. And with their own webstore by the time the print run runs out the PDFs are just free money. The print run paid for the book, the PDF keeps making revenue. And with a catalogue of hundreds of books, this can't be negligible. So the back catalogue problem is solved.

    If you want, you either make old books POD or if demand remains high (which you can gauge better these days) you can make another print run.

    So, I doubt Paizo has painted itself into a corner. The rules have changed, and unlike TSR Paizo does not have to hunt for its consumers through the FLGS. It can distribute there to get recognition, but it does not have to do it to the same amount as TSR did where this made them their money. It's just for awareness.

    So, I don't think history repeats itself. I think Pathfinder and Starfinder will remain around for good, even if I don't like them at all. ;-)

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    1. I genuinely hope so. They fill a niche in the market and folks enjoy them - plus, by all accounts Erik Mona and his crew are Good People (TM).

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  12. I think you miss how things have changed, James. Paizo does not have to keep old supplements in print. They can go PDF only. And with their own webstore

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