Can gamers trump the greedy capitalists?
Can gamers trump the greedy capitalists?
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Forty years ago a boy on the street told me about this cool new game, Tunnels & Trolls. Something about his explanation escaped my comprehension. Was it a computer game like Pac-Man or Chuckie Egg? A board game like Risk or Monopoly? No. There was no computer and usually no board either.
Much of the gameplay took place in fantasy, with players taking on the roles of heroic warriors or powerful sorcerers. A ‘game master’ described the setting, using a combination of dice and judgment to decide what was possible and even improvised all the small parts of the drama. It was “role-playing,” a radically new way of having fun. At the age of 11 I was enchanted.
RPGs are having a moment in the spotlight – a moment that offers valuable lessons to the rest of the economy. The oldest and by far the most popular game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has tens of millions of players – including celebrities like Vin Diesel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert and Deborah Ann Woll. A big-budget movie is imminent, and D&D is hoping to join Marvel and Star Wars as a major entertainment brand.
But with increasing power comes responsibility, and the hobby has been rocked in recent weeks by one question: who owns our game? The answer to this question is not obvious. D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, now a subsidiary of toy giant Hasbro. Hasbro clearly owns the trademarks and many of the creative expressions of the game’s monsters, imaginary worlds and fantastical spells.
But the basic idea of an RPG itself, while closely related to D&D and its creation by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax in the 1970s, is not copyrighted. My gateway to the hobby, Tunnels & Trolls, blinked at his intellectual debt to D&D. The rules were different, but the basic idea was the same.
More precisely, this basic idea means that the fun of the game is created in the game. Players invent their own characters, while the gamemaster usually develops the scenario from scratch. Claiming that Hasbro owns what’s happening around the gaming table makes about as much sense as claiming that a conversation at a dinner party sparked by a New Yorker article is owned by Condé Nast.
Hasbro, of course, hasn’t attempted to claim ownership of gaming experiences. But it made an awkward sally for a bigger slice of the pie. Back in 2000, Wizards of the Coast released an Open Gaming License (OGL) that allowed other publishers to create material compatible with D&D. (Intellectual property nerds claim this compatible material has always been legal, but having it laid down in black and white has been reassuring to the widespread cottage industry of role-playing game publishers.)
The OGL seemed irrevocable, but in January of this year, journalist Linda Codega reported on a leaked proposal that suggested Hasbro was in the process of tearing up the OGL and replacing it with something far more incriminating.
After a big outcry from gamers and small publishers, Hasbro caved in and even adopted a more standardized and permissive Creative Commons license. Ten thousand semi-professional game designers breathed a sigh of relief.
While I have little sympathy for Hasbro, I understand the impetus behind their ill-fated land grab. To use an ugly word, these games are difficult to “monetize” – or as an economist would put it, they produce a huge consumer surplus.
For example, my absolute favorite game is Dragon Warriors. It cost me £10.50 which wasn’t a lot of money even for a teenager in the 1980s. So I bought a game that I still love and play 40 years later. The publisher, Corgi, and the writers, Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, benefited financially from my purchase of the game – but their gain was tiny compared to mine.
Hasbro does a better job of squeezing money out of players, but faces the same challenge. You can download the rules for free or pay around $25 for a starter set. For less than $200, gamers can own all of the core publications in glossy hardcover, and they don’t have to spend another penny to enjoy a lifetime of gaming.
So what is a predatory capitalist to do? The real money is in repeat purchases. Soccer is hugely profitable, but not out of business selling soccer balls. Instead, sell tickets to see famous people play, along with branded shirts, TV subscriptions and bets on who might win.
Soccer is hugely profitable, but not out of business selling soccer balls
The tabletop gaming hobby is smaller, but the same principle applies. Wizards of the Coast made a small fortune selling trading cards for a card game and offers digital gaming tools on a subscription basis. Games Workshop, the games retailer who sold me my first copy of Tunnels & Trolls, dropped role-playing games in favor of wargames, a hobby conducive to countless miniature figure sales.
In games, as in so many other walks of life, the good stuff is free (or almost so) and companies make money by selling us the accessories. From internet searches to penicillin to flush toilets, the world is full of products that are of great value but cost very little. It’s a reason to be thankful and also to be vigilant: someone somewhere is trying to figure out how to sell you a monthly subscription to your own toilet.
But vigilance can work. Hasbro’s attempt to squeeze more money out of players has made younger players aware of something we Grognards have insisted on for decades: we own the games. Once you learn the idea of a role-playing game – just as you might once learn the idea of soccer or entertainment – you don’t need anything expensive to keep playing forever. All you need is some friends and some imagination.
Tim Harford’s new children’s book The Truth Detective (Wren & Rook) is out March 15
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