Whenever Gen Con rolls around, there’s always an understandable impulse to take the temperature of the gaming industry. If one were to use Gen Con attendance numbers as a metric one could be forgiven for thinking the industry was on a pretty good upward trajectory. Since moving to Indianapolis Gen Con has practically doubled it’s attendance…which is no mean feat given the economic turbulence we’ve seen the last few years.

But what do people mean when they ask about the ‘State of the Industry’? Is it the total revenue generated by RPG’s? Is it the financial well-being of industry leaders (which is now clearly divided between rival corporate entities)?

I haven’t got a single clue, myself – my head for business is about as good as my head for particle physics, so if you want me to prognosticate about the financial well-being of the RPG industry you’ll get just as accurate a prediction out of me by handing me a goat and a sacrificial dagger as you will by giving me a stack of sales reports.

A few things are clear:

1.) Wizards of the Coast is no longer in a position to assume they’re at the top of the food chain.
Thanks to the cold reception given to 4e by the gaming community, coupled with some pretty unwise decisions to kick the OGL (and by extension their former partners at Paizo) to the curb, they’ve now got someone else eating off their lunch tray. Frankly, as much as I despise Pathfinder as a game, this is probably a good thing overall. Competition drives innovation – at least in theory. If nothing else it keeps everyone on their toes.

2.) Gaming – meaning the entire ecosystem of games – RPG’s, board games, video games, casual games…the whole lot – is mainstream.
This is largely thanks to the phenomenon of Geek Culture becoming the New Cool. I mean look – The Avengers didn’t take in a billion dollars merely because it was a good movie. There has been a huge cultural groundswell which laid the groundwork for that film’s success…and I’m not just talking about the other Marvel movies. Geek is the new norm. The Avengers was primed and ready at just the right time to take advantage of a seismic cultural shift that has been occurring for the last couple of decades. This is partly because people whose tastes skewed definitively nerdy in the 80’s are now in charge of creating the media and culture landscape we now wallow in, and gaming is a large part of that culture.

3.) The bar one must reach to produce a game product is absurdly low. Lower, probably, than at any point in the hobby’s history.
I don’t mean the ‘quality’ bar – I mean the means of production, the elbow grease and capital required to get your thing in front of gamers. One person, with a modicum of sweat equity, can produce a product and put it in the hands of purchasers for zero dollars. Presuming one already owns a computer (and who doesn’t these days) it’s trivial to get one’s hands on layout and design software, and with the rise in popularity of tablets and other devices which can display .pdf or other e-book formats the cost to print and distribute a game also drops to zilch. And if you do want to get your books into someone’s hands but don’t have the capital necessary to print a bunch of tomes? Fund it through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. A well-run funding campaign can not only help you print and distribute your game, it can also raise your profile – in effect, it is both a means of filling your coffer and promoting your work.

4.) This is related to #3, but a growing trend is people who are established game designers – whose credentials and previous work could guarantee them a job or freelance position at any publisher in the business – turning to the patronage model to produce work.
The most prominent recent example would be Monte Cook with his Numenera property. After leaving his post as part of the Dungeons and Dragons Next development team at WotC, Mr. Cook turned his attention to Numenera. After launching a Kickstarter to fund production of the game, he eventually raised a staggering half-million dollars with which to make Numenera a reality. Since then, the game’s IP has been licensed for a computer RPG (the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera, which itself raised an insane $4 million via crowdfunding) and a Numenera-themed edition of the popular card game Thunderstone. Following quickly on the heels of the Numenera Kickstarter, Robin D. Laws launched a successful Kickstarter for his new game Hillfolk which netted a sizeable $94,000.

So what does all this mean? What am I getting at, you ask?

Here’s what I think when asked about the State of the Industry. As a gamer, I don’t think that question has ever been more irrelevant. There are plenty of doom and gloom scenarios one could paint about the relative size of the industry (the failure of Marvel Heroic to catch on, or to produce the necessary revenue to renew the license, despite the popularity of the IP would be one such canary in the coal mine) – but really…I cannot think of a better time to be a gamer. Gamers today probably have it better than during roleplaying’s supposed Golden Age during the 80’s. I mean, let’s take stock of this.

The number and variety of systems available to us is a complete embarrassment of riches. Whatever you’re into, no matter how niche your tastes might be, there are probably multiple games to satisfy your need…and your access to those games has never been easier. You are no longer dependent on what your local game store decides to stock. Even classic, out of print games are trivially easy to locate and purchase if you’re willing to pay the cost.

And while D&D Edition Wars have always been silly, they are even more ridiculous when you consider that nearly every single edition of D&D – soon to include OD&D – is now in print. Think about that. No matter which version of D&D is your poison, you can find and play that right now. Meanwhile Indie games and the OSR have proven to be fertile niches – and while many players won’t cross the divide, we are seeing products like Dungeon World and Torchbearer which bridge that gap.

Player groups with geographically distant members can now gather online, on Google Hangout or via any number of VOIP and Virtual Tabletop solutions. It has never been as easy to find people to play RPG’s with as it is right now.

Creators have never been as free to make their ideas reality. The cost of production need never be a barrier to bring a game to life and get it into the hands of players. Creative types no longer have to worry about compromising their vision to satisfy commercial needs. The old model of printing ‘x’ number of books and having them sit in a warehouse, hoping your sales projections were correct, is no longer the Way It Must Be Done. Make something – pitch it to the internet. Make it happen.

How’s the industry doing? Who knows? Who cares? When I look around me, I see a vast ocean of possibility and creativity that did not – could not – exist without a confluence of factors falling into place. But they did – and we are reaping the benefits.