Monday, April 26, 2021

Childish Fantasies, Booming Business

 On March 19, 1978, The Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin (located about forty miles east of Lake Geneva) ran a news story about TSR Hobbies, "a small corporation, headed by E. Gary Gygax, 39." The article recounts the history of TSR up until that point, in addition to providing plenty of space for Gygax to talk about games, Dungeons & Dragons and otherwise. Given its relatively early date, the piece, entitled "Childish Fantasies, Booming Business" offers a valuable historical snapshot of TSR a little less than a year before D&D would become a household name across the USA, thanks to the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III.

The first thing I noticed upon first reading the article is that, just before introducing TSR and Gygax, writer David Autry states that "While large producers, like Parker Brothers and Avalon Hill, are familiar names in the games game, smaller concerns are successfully competing for their share of the market." That single sentence is like a visit to another world. Avalon Hill? Parker Brothers? Neither of those companies exist anymore, swallowed up by the behemoth that is Hasbro – as is, ironically enough, D&D itself. 

Also worth mentioning is that the article never once mentions Dungeons & Dragons by name – or indeed that of any game TSR published at the time. Instead, there are references only to "wargames," "games for adults," and "fantasy role-playing games," along with heavily fictionalized examples of play: "... imagine you are an elf or a wizard," "... you are Harold, king of the Saxon English," and so on. The article's focus is not so much on the games as on the business of TSR and the thoughts of Gygax about the growing popularity of the products his company was selling.

Autry recounts the founding of TSR, noting that it had "gross earnings of $50,000" at the end of its first year of business (1973). By 1976, its gross earnings grew to $300,000; the next year, it was $600,000. Though 1978 was only just beginning at the time of the article publication, Gygax predicted "approximately $750,000" in gross earnings. "People can make a lot of money out of this and our sales keep increasing." Assuming this figures are accurate, you can see that TSR was doing well enough in 1978 and had enjoyed steady, incremental growth in the five years since its founding but it was not quite a runaway success. I wonder what the sales figures for 1979 and 1980 were?

As is so often the case, Autry wonders "what kind of person is attracted to this unusual hobby and pays upwards of $10 for a game?" 

Gygax says he is not the usual sort you might expect.

"It's kind of a fringe hobby and attracts really imaginative people," he says.

"They are usually the smarter ones with all kinds of political views and philosophies."

He notes there is a similarity between fantasy gamers and chess players. But Gygax, himself a converted chess player, feels people have become bored with such abstract strategy games and are searching for something different. 

"I have a theory and I don't know how valid it is," he said, "but there really isn't much adventure left in the world. There is no darkest Africa to explore, no new world to discover and these games give people a chance to break out of reality and give them a frontier to explore."

A youthful Tim Kask
In reading these early articles about roleplaying games, this is something I see often: the suggestion that the world is devoid of adventure and that RPGs provide a means to experience adventure vicariously. As I think I've said before, there's merit in this perspective, though it's not one I share. The fact that these early articles all the thing likely reveals something about the times in which they were published, as well as the utter newness of the concept of roleplaying games. Nowadays, I suspect that even those who don't participate in the hobby have a better, if still vague, notion of what it entails.

The article also contains a sociological aside in which Gygax states that

"You know, there are a lot of wargame widows out there, just like golf widows … A lot of wives get upset because these games provide hours and hours of play for the guys and I guess women can't relate to them."

However, he thinks the fantasy role-playing games will change all that and attract more women.

 However, this aside serves as the introduction into a larger point by Gygax that proved prophetic.

"Soon there will be as many fantasy and sci-fi gamers as there are military simulation enthusiasts," he said. "They may even surpass them in a couple of years."

7 comments:

  1. Interesting article thanks for sharing it.

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  2. Fascinating article and post. It's amazing to read this sentiment the year after Star Wars was released. Of course, its childish fantasies also meant big business, and transformed the entertainment and toy industries forever.

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    1. Gygax actually references Star Wars briefly, noting that, while he didn't think the movie would have a direct impact on RPGs, he felt that it made science fiction and fantasy more popular and thus would drive people toward them.

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  3. Hmm. Can't find info on sales in 1979 or 1980, but by 1982 they'd broken the $20 million mark, and there's this interesting article from 1982 with financial data from 1981:

    https://www.inc.com/magazine/19820201/8302.html

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  4. once again, Gygax shows he has no business talking about business. that INC mag article, he messed up earnings with SALES. oops. Gross earnings normally refers to individuals, ie: pre-tax income. It can be used in business, refer to earning after cost of goods sold, but not very many people use that, as it is generally useless (yes, gary, you still need to pay salaries, interest and taxes....

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  5. Heh! That pic of Kask sure doesn't look like the wizard of Fineous Fingers fame or Foglio's depiction from the last, pre-Wizards, episode of What's New. Too baby faced!

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  6. I love that quote about adventure. I think it's more the 'taking down a mammoth' kind of group adventure that RPGs satisfy, though. There are probably other things too, like camaraderie/social needs, a desire for a simpler life, progression/achievement needs, seeking a challenge, escapism and doing something in which we feel we have some agency.

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