It is the beginning of a new millennium. The anointed champions of the two greatest empires in existence square off for what may be the decisive battle for superiority.
Rumors fly as the two champions and their massive armies prepare to take the field. In the supersaturated environment, conjecture morphs into assumption nearly overnight, and the fans quickly divide into two camps, trading verbal volleys as the battle approaches.
Is this a presidential election? The Olympics? No, this is the war of the console video game, and it will be fought by two of the largest companies in the world: Sony and Microsoft. Victory conditions are assumed to be simple: The most stunning graphics will win.
But a funny thing happened on the way to victory…
Anyone familiar with fantasy tropes could have predicted what happened next. Virtually unnoticed in the fanfare, a plucky challenger rises from the home of a former champion. Small. Simple. Unsophisticated. Yet this hero carries the heritage of generations gone before. And before either massive empire can claim victory on the basis of cold calculations and raw power, this upstart will win the hearts and minds of the people. Wii will win.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t so cut-and-dried, and maybe my poetic license needs to be revoked. But the fact remains that the Wii blew away much more expensive and sophisticated consoles by focusing on gameplay and interaction instead of detail. Both Sony and Microsoft jumped into an arms race over processing power and graphics, because the assumption was that gamers wanted eye-popping visuals. As we know now (and as Shamus Young shouts from the barricades), it ain’t all about the graphics; if the game isn’t fun to play, then folks won’t play it.
Yeah, but who the hell cares about videogames?
I’m glad you asked. In videogames, monstrously complex programs and huge amounts of processing power are required for lifelike graphics, which (obviously!) make for better gaming. The analogue in tabletop gaming is that complex rules and number-crunching (obviously!) make for better gaming.
The Wii challenged those assumptions and won big. Not only did it get the attention of the gamer market, the Wii’s greatest feat was appealing to those who don’t consider themselves gamers. By simplifying videogames and making them fun at nearly any level, the Wii expanded the market.
Original D&D was three thin booklets, but AD&D quickly joined the pack with an incredibly complex (at the time) collection of three books totaling an unheard-of 478 pages. AD&D 2E complicated the issue even more, often with contradictory rules. Third Edition attempted to simplify things, but I have nearly six feet of D&D 3.x bookshelf, and I’m not even a collector. D&D 4E was launched with plenty of fanfare and 832 pages, with the promise of much, much more to come.
(I’m not here merely to trash D&D. White Wolf has quite a penchant for verbiage and supplements, Iron Crown Enterprises had the most complex game I’ve ever run, and don’t even get me started on Hero System’s 592-page core rulebook. D&D is merely the most popular example of the trend towards complexity in gaming.)
So, what does it all mean? Well, all analogies fail at some point, and if you enjoy the complexity of a crunchy game, then this one fails before it leaves the gate. I’m not about to tell you how to game, or that you’re doing it wrong. But there is a strong element in gaming that values complexity, just as there is a strong element in videogaming that values high framerates and polished pixels.
When Nintendo thought outside the box, and focused on gameplay over graphics, they took a chance. Nobody predicted the Wii phenomenon, not the analysts, not Sony, not Microsoft, and not even Nintendo, who missed out on up to a billion dollars in revenue by not having enough production capacity. (Unlike MS or Sony, Nintendo actually made money on console sales.) Sony and MS fought tooth and nail over the hardcore gamers, of which there are only so many, while Nintendo picked up heaps of folks who hadn’t owned a console since Atari was in business. By going outside the box, Nintendo expanded the customer base.
And here’s where the analogy may or may not mean anything. Will there be an RPG that will appeal to the broader market, and not just RPGers? Will someone write a simple yet fun RPG that will actually require the ever-present “What’s an RPG?” page at the beginning of the book? Or will increasingly complex games continue to fight for the same small market share?
Keep it polite, but sound off! Am I following a logic train to nowhere? Do you think that anything might actually expand the pool of PnP RPGers? If so, what will that thing be?