Saturday, September 4, 2010

12,000 A Month

I've mentioned before Rudy Kraft's interview with Gary Gygax in the premiere issue of the fanzine Gryphon, from the summer of 1980. I was re-reading it over the last few days and I was struck by a section that I'd somehow either missed or just not fully grasped when I'd read it earlier.
Gryphon: Several other companies Fantasy Roleplaying games are doing very well in sales -- Chivalry and Sorcery, for example.

Gygax: Where do you think "very well" is?

Gryphon: Probably nowhere near Dungeons and Dragons.

Gygax: 1000 copies a month is what I heard.

Gryphon: For Chivalry and Sorcery?

Gygax: Uh-huh.

Gryphon: What's Dungeons and Dragons a month?

Gygax: 12,000 a month. That's the basic set.

Gryphon: So the various manuals and the original stuff would add on above that.

Gygax: Oh, sure, sure.
The mind simply boggles at these numbers. 12,000 a month just for the D&D Basic Set, which, in 1980, would mean the Holmes-edited one. And FGU's Chivalry & Sorcery was selling 1000 copies a month? If true, that's simply amazing and further evidence that we're not likely to ever see the hobby achieve a comparable amount of mass market success.

I doubt most RPGs sell 12,000 copies over their entire lifetimes, let alone over a single month (or a single year, as in the case of C&S). I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I'm generally of the opinion that the mainstream success of D&D was bad for the game, or at least the version of the game I most enjoy, so I don't pine for a return to those days. Barring some unforeseen shift in popular culture, a return is pretty much impossible anyway. Still, it's fascinating to be reminded of just how much of a fad roleplaying was back in the late 70s and early 80s.

30 comments:

  1. Fad? It was a veritable craze. In the UK, RPGs were so common you could buy them in the book section of newsagents. Well, some RPGs anyway.

    The Fighting Fantasy books were the breakthrough in the public conscious. Prior to them, there was only one place in Belfast you could find RPGs, and that was the Modeller's Nook in the Markets area. The Modeller's Nook (never a big place) sold RPGs as a sideline to its military model kits. It also happened to be within spitting distance of the only comic shop in Belfast.

    After the Fighting Fantasy books were released, the other UK publishers got in on the act. The most widespread RPGs were Dragon Warriors (sold as a series of paperback books) and Tunnels and Trolls (sold as a paperback version of the V5 rules and as a series of stand-alone solo adventures). It took the book companies a while to work out that they had to change their distribution model to cope with the fact that people wanted to buy the complete set in one shop.

    The RPG fad lasted for almost 10 years in the UK. In my opinion, Games Workshop dealt it a serious blow by mving from being a games shop to being a Warhammer-only zone. The advent of modern gaming consoles finished RPGs off as a mainstream hobby. I think we guessed it was over when people turned up to our university RPG club asking about which computer games we played.

    Would I want to go back to those days? I don't know. I am sure they will be forever coloured by my own experiences at the time, so it might just be a case of rose-tinted glasses. Instead, I look forward to being able to live in a home for retired gamers.

    "Are the patients alright? They seem to believe he is living in a fantasy land?"

    "We get a lot of people of that age who think they're Conan the Barbarian. Let them have their dice and they're happy."

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  2. I dunno about that. I was playing C&S at its height and it was like being inducted into a Hellenic mystery cult. Even other RPGers had never heard of it, let alone the wider gaming community (ie wargamers and boardgamers).

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  3. Its kind of like the Buggles song , the Computer killed the TTRPG..

    And yes I know we had computers (my gaming group of six had three and were were not affluent on the whole) then but they didn't provide as much compelling entertainment as they do now.

    Also many of us were kids. This meant we had a social network of buddies to play with. Speaking only of American society, facey-space or not, its a lonely place for adults.

    The book Bowling Alone actually discusses this phenomenon at some length.

    I would say that if we work we might actually be able to take advantage of the Great Recession layoffs and lower incomes a bit and drag a few people back to the table if we try. This is a dirt cheap and fun hobby after all and I'll bet more than a few OG (Old Gamers) have some Auld Skool stuff stashed in a closet somewhere. What better time for the old Grenadier Figs and Moldvay

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  4. Considering that pretty much every person I've ever met under 70 has heard of Dungeons & Dragons, I believe they were selling 12,000 copies a month. I wonder how many copies they ended up selling of the 1981 basic set? With the Saturday Morning cartoon hitting the network?

    Wow.

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  5. And according to Frank Mentzer, his Basic set outsold Holmes and Moldvay in '84 or so. Wonder how many units of that they sold? Orange spine AD&D books were all over the place in those days, as well.

    No, I don't think we'll ever get back to that level of interest in the game.

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  6. "The Modeller's Nook (never a big place) sold RPGs as a sideline to its military model kits. It also happened to be within spitting distance of the only comic shop in Belfast."

    Dark Horizons. Good old Fred and Spike. Where are they now, I wonder?

    "In my opinion, Games Workshop dealt it a serious blow by mving from being a games shop to being a Warhammer-only zone."

    If TSR had bought over GW, as Gary wanted, it's intriguing what things would be like today.

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  7. I remember reading that 3e sold better. If that is true, than it goes to show how badly they dropped the ball and lost their momentum to WOW.

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  8. In France, Mega, a sci-fi multidimmensionnal / timetravel rpg, was released in magazine format at 100,000 copies. there was three successive editions and it attracted a wide range of people to rpg.

    Red Box was common enough, as France Loisirs, a very popular by-post bookseller, diffused it widely, as well as B3. That's were I got mine.

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  9. the times dictated its success. its just like anything that swept through for its phase of consumer dominance and faded. BMX bikes (joe kid on a stingray is a great documentary on this), Skateboarding, etc... both of those have a way of ebbing and flowing with pop culture though as its more marketable with celebrities and "sport"/trick development for new generations to bite into with dollars. these types of games, as we all know, reduced in popularity not only through computers but i would say the Card Game phase that later phased into heavily more pervasive computer gaming. when Magic hit (and all the other companies that had to make games to follow suit), GENCON in Milwaukee was virtually ALL card gamers sitting around the open halls (and even to this day, my local gaming store still holds more Magic nights/events than any other game). yes, there was still a ton of TTers but even as a early teen i could sense how hard the craft of roleplaying was disappearing at a rapid pace. ill never forget that scene.

    a lot of people find TT's too tedious and laborious.

    point being, yes, its nice to have the niche more closed off for the die hard players and thinkers/writers/artists... but at the same time, without that commercial success of D&D - its hard to imagine where any of this (and a lot of pop culture in general) would be. things are always changing, in flux and never static. even today its ridiculous to think of these games as "old school" or archaic. as long as there are people playing and things within them are changing, and people are forming new creations - theyre still as "alive" and new as ever.

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  10. If I'm not mistaken the 25th anniversary boxed set booklet discusses some print #s of the products it included (as re-prints).

    I no longer have my 25th set exceopt for the holmes reprint, but IIRC I believe the estimated total run for the Holmes book was 200K plus copies?? Perhaps someone has it and can correct/clarify?

    at any rate- It was a great time, and fond memories of the sheer # of RPG products available, and my time as a kid. Moreso I think I miss the sheer amount of creativity that comes with something "new" or that is a "fad". The RPG market these days is completely tapped it seems for "flavor": nothing is all that different or exciting anymore-unless you count rule mechanics. Rarely does something REALLY intrigue me or capture my imagination. Maybe I'm just old, jaded and cynical, IDK.

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  11. And according to Frank Mentzer, his Basic set outsold Holmes and Moldvay in '84 or so. Wonder how many units of that they sold?

    I've heard that claim too and it may well be true, but I've never seen any hard numbers to back up the claim. But then, except for stuff like this Gygax interview, I never saw any numbers associated with D&D's sales. TSR was always very tight lipped about its sales figures and print runs, which is a pity, because it'd be very interesting to learn which games/products sold best and which sold worst.

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  12. I remember reading that 3e sold better.

    I believe that 3e sold better than late 2e was selling and I can certainly believe that. I don't believe it was ever claimed that 3e sold better than any previous edition of D&D.

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  13. If I'm not mistaken the 25th anniversary boxed set booklet discusses some print #s of the products it included (as re-prints).

    That would be useful information to see!

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  14. Pokemon...there, I said it.

    Sure, Pokémon sold very well in its time, as did a lot of other CCGs, but they weren't RPGs. CCGs are a lot more "traditional" as games than are RPGs, so their success doesn't really surprise me. I can certainly imagine other similarly spectacular successes for traditional games, but tabletop RPGs? I just don't think the mass market will ever again go crazy for them as they did 30 years ago.

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  15. Yes, those numbers are pretty impressive. We probably won't see that ever again in tabletop rpgs. I can't say I wouldn't like them to become more popular than they are now, the retro-clones in particular. I think there is room for growth, though I certainly don't think it will be anywhere close to where it was in the early 1980s. That said, I think it can grow beyondthe level it now occupies, andIfor one wouldn't be against that.

    A friend of mine who is a teacher at a middle-school was able to interest some kids and get a TT game group started. The first few meetings involved several dozen students, though I'm not sure how it is doing now. But he reported many students having played WoW and finding it too limited. Now, that might not mean they would all be picking up Labyrinth Lord, but any movement from the computer to the tabletop in rpgs is good in my opinion.

    I remember reading something a few years back about sales of various D&D products, and I'm pretty sure the peak years were 1982 and 2001. IIRC, the article, or blog post, mentioned the Player's Handbook from 1st ed. AD&D and 3rd ed. D&D had comparable sales numbers, and those were the highest selling D&D products.

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  16. For better or worse, that itch for many that a RPG tabletop would hit is filled by the computer/console version.

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  17. @Veil: "I remember reading that 3e sold better. If that is true, than it goes to show how badly they dropped the ball and lost their momentum to WOW."

    No, any time you try to track down that claim it's a widely-spread misunderstanding or obfuscation (depending on one's interpretation).

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  18. I believe that 3e sold better than late 2e was selling and I can certainly believe that. I don't believe it was ever claimed that 3e sold better than any previous edition of D&D.

    I had an online exchange on ENWorld with somebody from WotC who confirmed something similar to this. If I were a paid up member I could search my 61 posts and find it...

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  19. Ah, found it via Google. It was D20/4e versus D20/3e; my memory playing tricks! :D

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  20. I remember reading something a few years back about sales of various D&D products, and I'm pretty sure the peak years were 1982 and 2001.

    If 2001 was anywhere near the level of sales in 1982, that'd be an impressive feat! I don't know that it's not the case, but it seems unlikely to me. But since WotC doesn't release their numbers and TSR's numbers are almost as unknown, it's hard to know the truth one way or the other.

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  21. For better or worse, that itch for many that a RPG tabletop would hit is filled by the computer/console version.

    Absolutely. Many of the guys I started gaming with in 1979 would definitely have chosen video games over RPGs if video games of the sort that exist nowadays had been available back then.

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  22. I wasn't talking about the Pokemon card game but the Gameboy game itself. Kids have turned to videogame versions of RPGs because it is easier. All the mechanics are contained in the game itself so they don't have to do the math. RPGs in video game form are vastly more popular than any type of oldschool table top RPGs ever where, and for some reason that has made it less "nerdy". Having a Gameboy and playing Pokemon is pretty much considered a standard part of childhood at this point. Playing D&D back in the 80's when I was growing up made me a "geek". I don't know if the watering down of RPG concepts to make it more accepted and mainstream is a good thing or not.

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  23. I do have to wonder how many copies of the 4E rulebooks WotC moves each month.

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  24. I wasn't talking about the Pokemon card game but the Gameboy game itself.

    Aha, my mistake. Yes, I see what you're saying now and, as a father of two kids who've played and enjoyed various Pokémon video games, I think you may be on to something. They definitely include lots of aspects of the tabletop RPG experience in electronic form and could well serve as a useful introduction.

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  25. I do have to wonder how many copies of the 4E rulebooks WotC moves each month.

    A LOT. Just ask them.

    More seriously, I don't think we'll ever know that. WotC is even more secretive about their sales figures than TSR ever was and TSR was plenty secretive most of the time. Plus, anything WotC does say is so cloaked in market-speak and dissimulation that it's hard to know what it really means.

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  26. Do these figures represent sales to end consumers, or just distributors/retailers?
    Just from what I've seen at my LGS, some copies of 4e product go to the shelf 'to die'. I think he even still has a couple copies of the PHB that were part of his original order.
    BnN, B.A.M., and other booksellers represent a huge piece of that market-share pie, too, but do they sell a lot of them or have dragon hordes of the things sitting in some warehouse?

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  27. Last year on the Acaeum, Calithena posted a quote from another summer of 1980 interview with Gygax:

    From "It's Only A Game...Or Is It?", Moira Johnston, New West, August 25, 1980:

    "Gygax, a former shoe-repairman, insurance underwriter, unpublished novelist and unemployed gaming enthusiast, describes the phenomenal growth of D&D. 'In 1979 we sold a quarter of a million copies of the basic D&D set, a little better than double over 1978. Our gross sales volume has gone from $150,000 in 1975 to $2.5 million in 1979. We expect to double or triple everything this year.' Although FRP games still rank behind electronic games in national popularity, 'D&D is now equal to any boardgame, including Monopoly', says Dana Lombardy, whose games column in Virginia-based Model Retailer magazine has closely monitored the rise of D&D and FRP. The most stunning measure of growth, Lombardy reports, is that 'of a total national FRP games market of $20 million in 1980, TSR will account for more than $5 million of that - at least 25 percent!' FRP wasn't even listed as a games category in 1974."

    http://www.acaeum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8598

    The "quarter of a million" number for 1979 is in line with the ~12,000 month (240k/year).

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  28. >>James

    //If 2001 was anywhere near the level of sales in 1982, that'd be an impressive feat! I don't know that it's not the case, but it seems unlikely to me. //

    I don't think it's terribly unlikely due to the immense popularity of the Lord of the Rings movies, whose releases were ongoing at that time. Nothing proselytizes for roleplaying games better than successful mainstream fantasy films, and LotR was the first of such since the 80's. It certainly is capable of explaining the spike of D&Ders at my LGS around then.

    //BnN, B.A.M., and other booksellers represent a huge piece of that market-share pie, too, but do they sell a lot of them or have dragon hordes of the things sitting in some warehouse?//

    I've never had any trouble finding players for 4th edition in my relatively small hometown store. I dunno what this says about their sales in the era of Amazon (and swiping free scans of materials from the Internet, for that matter), but I'm certain that WotC isn't putting out continuous new material for a system that isn't selling at all.

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  29. James said:
    "WotC is even more secretive about their sales figures than TSR ever was."

    Which is a pity. I live a stone's throw away from WotC, and back around the time Magic: The Gathering hit it big, they were very open about their future plans, business models, etc. Being part of a gaming magazine at the time, they were very interested in showing us around, and showering us with free product, sales figures, and projections.

    Bob Dylan had it right: "The times they are a-changing..."

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