Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roleplaying Games as IP Generators

I haven’t been in the hobby games industry for a really, really long time. When I got out, 3rd edition D&D had just been released (well, actually version 3.5), and everyone was jumping on the OGL bandwagon. Around that time, everyone seemed to be talking about roleplaying games as a breeding ground for choice intellectual properties. And by “choice”, I mean lucrative. As in, “screw your Natalie Portman navel sucking fantasy, I’m too busy nuzzling Megan Fox.”

Now, heretofore, the history of the RPG industry as lucrative IP generator had been pretty poor. White Wolf had managed to get a short-lived vampire soap opera on Fox, but then Spelling Entertainment appeared to screw them with Blade. They had one really good Xbox game, though. People had high hopes for Deadlands; but then that Will Smith movie with the giant mechanical spider came out and seemed to kill the vibe. And FASA had success porting over games like Shadowrun and Crimson Skies to the videogame market. Nonetheless, there seemed to be this expectation in the air that Hollywood would be turning to us soon for their next big movie or TV series.

It never happened. If I had to guess, it’s because we’re so lousy at exploiting our concepts across multiple platforms. Part of that problem stems from the nature of roleplaying games. Really, the most successful games are the ones that are the most generic. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t Arthurian Fantasy, or Tolkeinesque Fantasy, or Vancian Fantasy -- it’s every kind of fantasy. You can play Star Wars, Alien or Avatar using the Traveller rules. And what would a TV show based on GURPS look like, anyway? The point is, the RPGs that garner the most “mindshare” are those that aren’t very specific on setting. I don't see anyone rushing to make a Jorune series.

(Though now that I’m really thinking about it, why isn’t there a Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms TV show? Both are Dungeons & Dragons, but are more specific when it comes to setting. How hard would it be to produce a Tales of Elminster? Every week, Elminster sits at his desk, opens up a dusty, leather-bound book, looks into the camera and intones “now let me tell you the tale of the time…” )

The other part of that problem, however, is that we’re lousy at cross-promotion outside our own little corner of the universe. We don’t know how to take our ideas and put them into other formats. I remember when I was working with a successful game company, which I shall not name. They had a card game, and a roleplaying game, and a miniatures game… They’d done a good job capitalizing on all areas of the hobby games industry. We had a meeting where we were supposed to brainstorm other areas in which to expand. Nothing was off the table. We came up with action figures, novels, posters, beach towels, soap... Oh, and video games.

Exactly nothing came out of that meeting. Were our ideas ridiculous? Some of them were. Some of them weren’t. But I’ll bet if someone had come up with a pilot script for the property, complete with storyboards and concept art, they could have gotten a few meetings in Hollywood. After all, they had tons of artwork laying around. And this company had a metric buttload of money coming in. At the very least, they could have gotten an anime series off the ground; it was a time when everyone was into anime, and it would have been a natural fit for the property.

So what was the problem? Resources. If you've got people putting together a promotional package to shop around Hollywood, then they’re not working on the game. The writer isn’t generating content for the game. I’ve got to put an art director on putting together the artwork, which means he’s not art directing for the game. The sales of the game actually pay the bills. After all, we're a game company. If we're not selling a supplement this month, then we're not generating income.

And once I’ve got the package, I’ve got to get it seen by someone in Hollywood. Do you know how to do that? I don’t. Better to make a game. Oh, and with them, it’s got to be couched as “picture Adam Sandler, with a magic sword, and a talking dog. We’ll call it ‘Sword Boy’!” I'm completely serious about this. Hollywood producers are as dumb as a box of hammers.

We simply don’t have the economic resources to properly exploit our ideas in the marketplace. If I want to create toys for my steam punk setting, then I’ve got to get sculpts and find a Chinese factory and get them shipped here, which means a whole toy division. Plus, I’ve got to break into the toy market, to get carried by Toys R Us, which means hiring a suit who speaks “toy” to the salespeople…. I often wonder why Hasbro doesn’t gin up the action figure department to make Magic: the Gathering action figures. It’s not like it actually costs them anything to do. And how many different sculpts of Darth Vader do we really need (now, with helmet removing action)? It’s not like they’d have to pay a licensing fee….

It says something when the largest, most profitable game company in our industry can’t bring itself to exploit the value of its own intellectual property. (Speaking of which, why the hell isn’t there a G.I. Joe trading card game or roleplaying game? Hey Hasbro, you have a freaking game company. It’s in Renton, Washington.) So I’m guessing the days of talking about RPGs as the next, big source of intellectual properties is done.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The PDF Revolution

I am told by no less august a publication as The New York Post that Natalie Portman is now pregnant. The father is a French ballet dancer. Had I been told in high school that there was a chance to impregnate Natalie Portman, I would have become a ballet dancer. Hey, the chances are clearly better than being a waiter. I imagine Mr. French Ballet Dude had some serious modifiers to his Charisma roll. Since it is now unseemly to lust after Ms. Portman's navel, I'll have to choose someone else for my Mai Tai sipping future. I'm taking suggestions. None of this, of course, has to do with our topic of the day, the .pdf revolution.

I have been intentionally harsh on the RPG industry; I was hoping to get a bunch of responses to refute my assertions. I was being provocative in order to start a conversation. Several friends pointed out that RPGs aren't "dead" because they've migrated over to the internet in the form of .pdfs. Mark Carroll has been a particularly vocal supporter, and he makes a good case.

As many of you know, I am a fan of Apocalypse Now. I watch that movie like people eat mashed potatoes; it's comfort food. I also like the smell of napalm in the morning. In his documentary on the filming of the movie, Coppola ruminates that he'd like to see everyone with a camera making movies. He wanted to see an end to the tyranny of Hollywood, with its slavish demand for the banal. He wanted to see the collapse of the barriers to entry for budding film-makers. I admire that about the man. (I wonder what he thinks of YouTube, but that's another story). And that is what we in the gaming industry have with the .pdf format. A way to lower the barriers to entry. I get that.

What are those barriers? Aside from having to have, and actually write, a good game setting, if you want to publish a print version of your RPG, you've got some hurdles to jump. First, you need someone to lay out your game. I've used Quark to flow text; it's about the only thing Decipher let me do in layout. Because Quark is a serious program. So you need someone who understands it (or similar programs), to design your border, and pop in your art, and flow your text, and make sure the page numbers are all in the same place, and yadda, yadda, yadda. The first hurdle is getting a graphic designer. Second, you've got to find a printer. Transcon and Quebecor are the two big ones. You schedule press time, tell them page count, paper stock, binding, and cover stock. What's that? You don't know paper stock? What do you mean "binding?" Ah, you've got to learn the language of book publishing... Oh, and you've got to pay for the printing; they expect at least a third up front, before they even hit the "print" button on their giant printing presses (the rest when the book is printed). These are the second and third hurdles. Next, you've got to get your game in stores. Avoiding the difficulties in getting carried by Barnes & Noble, you're still going to have to deal with distributors. Go outside, fire up your snowblower, and stick your hand in -- that's about what it feels like dealing with distributors. See, they want your product to sell as quickly as Magic: the Gathering or YuGiOh, and that's what their business largely focuses on these days. Oh, they'll carry your game, and promptly ignore it. When their sales reps aren't playing World of Warcraft on their computers, they'll call game stores... to see how much Magic they want this week. They don't actually push your game. Hurdle four: the distribution chain. I haven't even gotten into warehousing and shipping and returns.

Nowadays, however, you can write your game, get a decent, simple layout program, .pdf-iffy your game, and upload it to RPGnow. As an added plus, in addition to lowering the barriers to entry (which I maintain is a good thing), it also makes games cheaper (and thus more accessible). I have a Nook, and I like buying $24.99 hardcover books for only $12.99, just like any other red-blooded American. As Mark points out, all this leads to the democratization of the marketplace. Anyone can do it. And apparently does. I'm told there are all kinds of terrific games out there, in .pdf format, just begging to be downloaded. That's terrific, but I'd never know. Because I dislike the .pdf format.

I've seen two games as .pdfs: Dresden Files and the old Fasa Star Trek rules. I found both to be difficult to read and unwieldy. It would be nice if someone would turn them into Nook or Kindle formats, to fascilitate the page turning, font changing, and bookmarking -- those functionalities that make e-readers appealing. Bonus points if someone enabled hot-linking their rules, so I could read about saving throws on page 12, then hit the hot link that ports me over to the rules on making saving throws on page 64, which would make the book easier to use during game play.... Yes, I'm aware I just increased the work and cost of the virtual book. Some of you out there are going to respond to this criticism by saying "but you can print it out at Kinkos." So, then why don't you, the game company, print it out and sell it as a book? Why do you have to shift the work over to me?

Moreover, my prejudice against the format stems from its greatest strength --  its lowering of barriers. If you can't publish your book, why do I want to read it? You really haven't put any effort into it; you're not "invested." Mark Carroll says: "It takes just as much effort to create a PDF - look at Eclipse Phase, again, or Dresden Files - as it does a book for paper publication." Then create a book for paper publication. In fact, you can get Dresden Files in game stores in hardcopy. I respect that. And I guess that's where my prejudice lies -- respect. If it's not hard for someone sitting in a basement to produce their homebrew D&D campaign ("now, with dragon player characters; it totally roolz!"), then how good can it be? Those barriers to entry are there for a reason: to discourage the dilettante. You may have an awesome idea for a Barsoomian RPG; if so, then publish it. Otherwise, the hobby games industry is just a hobby to you.

(Which brings me to print-on-demand. I'm in favor of this alternative. It seems a great middle ground for game designers. Print only what you need, no warehousing necessary. I'm told, however, about some of these smaller publishers braging at GenCon of "being on their third print run." Dude, printing 25 copies at a time is not a "print run." It's functionally the same as photocopying something 25 times. Talk to me when your print runs are 5,000 copies per. Don't get all uppity.)

Thus, I'm of two minds on the .pdf revolution. I like that it's lowered the batrriers to entry, and made games more available. I just hate using the format, and think companies that use this format should plow any money they make into publishing an actual book.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Example: All Flesh Must Be Eaten

There is an unwritten rule in the hobby games industry; it's called "thou shalt not criticise another company's product."  No matter how much you dislike a game, or more often the game designer in particular, you never, ever criticise the product in an open forum. First, it just looks like sour grapes. Second, the person on the receiving end will likely criticise your product in an open forum, and you've got a nemesis for life. What's truly odd about this is that if you talk to individual game designers, you'll hear all kinds of juicy, cutting remarks about various and sundry games. We just don't air our dirty laundry in public. Until today, of course.

To recap, I think RPGs are dead as an entertainment format. I think they can't compete with various technological alternatives, like Gameboys and MMOs. In a cost-benefit ratio analysis, you can either buy a $45 book, read it, and try to find four friends to play it, or you can pop in a $60 disk and start beating on dwarves immediately. And really, who doesn't like beating dwarves? Since we cannot compete, and we seem to be stuck in a closed system (i.e., the roleplayers we have currently are pretty much all the roleplayers we're ever going to have (I know that's a HUGE assumption)), what can we do?

For one thing, we can stop pretending that it's 1985 or 1997. The days when Dungeons & Dragons was part of the cultural awareness are long past. The heyday of Vampire: the Masquerade is gone. In other words, the days when you could sell a book a month, hardcover, are long gone. At least for those of us who are not WotC. So what's left?

"Beer and pretzel" games always seemed promising to me. These are simple little games intended to be played quickly, and for not a lot of time. You'd play them while enjoying beer and pretzels, like a pick-up game of Cosmic Wimpout or Lunch Money. That's not to say that they couldn't be played for longer periods of time. But they weren't intended to be played that way. Which means that the creator didn't have a year-long production schedule of monthly releases upon which his cash-flow depended. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a great example.

It was intended as a one-off game. If it succeeded, it succeeded. If it didn't, no skin off Eden Studio's back. The rules are pretty simple. They have to be, because it was intended as a beer-and-pretzels game. Admittedly, I think they dropped the ball on character creation (the game's only misstep); I would have gone with a "race and class" system to speed things along, rather than a point-build system. However, where the game really excels is the zombie creation rules. What does the zombie eat? Brains or hearts? How does it move? Is it a shambler or a fast-mover? How can you kill it? Fire or a headshot? Pure genius. The game largely allowed you to create whatever kind of zombie you wanted, and start killing them. I could create an AFMBE game right now, on the fly. You're playing in twenty minutes. Even the size and price point was perfect, too.

Then came the supplements. Zombie cowboys. Zombies in space. Zombie wrestlers. Kung Fu zombies. It became the GURPS of zombies. Truth in advertising, I had a hand in that. I used to work for Eden Studios. And I love George Vasilakos and a lot of those books. (I even plan on writing my own AFMBE supplements.) Some of these supplements were great. Some, not so great. They were inconsistent across the line. Some books in the line presented a genre, and all the attendant permutations on the genre. For example, the Cowboy Zombie book was great. You had Singing Cowboy style zombies, and Eastwood style zombies, and Historical Cowboy zombies. Each chapter basically presented you with a pre-written adventure; you didn't really need to do much preparation in order to play the game. You could pick up the game, create a cowboy, and start blasting zombies with your six-shooter in no time flat. The Gamemaster didn't really need to do more than read ten pages of material. Perfect.

Other supplements, however, broke this model. I'm thinking of the Fantasy Zombie book. I worked on that one. There should have been an adventure/setting for each flavor of fantasy: The Tolkein chapter, the Dark Fantasy chapter, the Urban Fantasy chapter, the Romantic Fantasy chapter, the D&D rip-off chapter.... I felt the book was uneven. And each chapter was less about presenting a pre-generated adventure, and more about presenting an entire setting in one chapter. There was more work for the Gamemaster to do. Admittedly, I couldn't do much with this book; it was already written and dropped on my desk to edit. Had I actually solicited this supplement myself, it would have been much different.

And as time went by, the game collected barnacles. Did we really need a zombie wrestling supplement? As much as I enjoyed the zombie midget wrestlers (that one was mine), I didn't feel there was a burning demand out there for this product. Not as much, say, as there was for the Nazi zombie book. There are currently dozens of skills and zombie powers spread across a large number of books. The buy-in for the game, which was once low (one book) now looks prohibitive (10+ books). I suspect the only people buying these supplements are those who already own the game (and that in ever-decreasing numbers; that's just the nature of the industry). It's no longer a beer-and-pretzels game with a low buy-in. It's a big, sprawling game that tries to comprehensively cover the subject of zombies.

(Speaking of which, I haven't covered the subject of creating an intellectual property. By far, the most popular of the zombie settings was called "Mein Zombie." This was an opportunity to craft a distinctive zombie setting, which could have been exploited for profit. There's now a World War II zombie miniatures game. I'm betting Eden wishes they could've unleashed a cease and desist order, but they can't because "Nazi" and "zombie" are too generic.) 

I'm not sure how one would go about fixing this, how you could return it to it's beer-and-pretzels roots. I suppose you could take all non-setting specific rules and put them into a new core rulesbook. Take all those neat zombie powers from across 10+ books and put them into one book. Same with skills and advantages and disadvantages. The problem is, then you have no reason to buy all those splatbooks. Or rather, if the splatbooks only contained scenarios and setting-specific rules, they'd appeal to a far smaller audience; this has always been a problem for the industry. The only people who buy "modules" are the gamemasters. So you've got to put in player information to get them to buy, too. But then you end up with vital, interesting, useful information spread out through a dozen books... and we're back to the large buy-in and unwieldy size.

The fact remains, however, that AFMBE is a great game (so much so that Palladium tried to call it out for a fight when they released their zombie game). It's an example of how you can produce and fun, economically viable roleplaying game with the beer-and-pretzels mentality. You don't need a 256-page, hardcover, full-color rulesbook that minutely details the socio-political structure of your fantasy setting. You just have to be careful about managing such a game's growth over time.

Now let's hope George doesn't want to beat me with a large stick.

All Bow Down

Yes, that's my navel. It's telling you to worship me. Now give me all your money.

(Thanks to George Vasilakos for the URL). 

What Makes a Good Game?

If I could answer this question, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging. I’d be in Aruba, sipping Mai Tais from Natalie Portman’s navel. Because to successfully answer this question would be to catch lightning in a bottle; every game I ever produced would become an instant sensation. I’d become the Reiner Knitzia of RPGs. And let me assure you, he’s sipping Mai Tais from someone’s navel right about now. But I’m going to try to answer this question as best I can, in order to get closer to tropical navel sipping heaven. What does make a good game?

What makes a good game isn’t rules. It makes no difference if you’re rolling percentile dice or a d20; it’s all just a way to randomly generate a number. I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re rolling above a target number, or below it. Neither does it matter if that number is static (based on a fixed number like an attribute) or dynamic (a variable number based on the phase of the moon). That’s one of the problems with designing a game system -- there are too many options, and each one is really just as good as another.

This isn’t strictly true, however. Playing Call of Cthulhu is different from playing Traveller. Certainly, the subject matter is different. But at base, you’re still rolling dice to get a random number. So what makes them different? And why is that beneficial?

The difference is “feel”. The games feel different. It’s the difference between playing chess and backgammon, or the difference between playing bridge and poker. In the former example, in both games the player moves pieces around a board. But the manner in which they move those pieces differs. There is strategy in both games, but this depends on how the pieces move. Personally, I prefer backgammon, because I like the randomization factor of rolling dice, and it’s more fast-paced. Both bridge and poker use little pieces of paper with numbers and symbols on them, but both games play very differently. Those reasons lie within the rules, the manner in which they’re played. So rules do have an effect on a game, and contribute to their “feel.”

For example, I know of no one who played AD&D using “speed factor” for their weapons. It, quite frankly, slowed play down. And you’d also end up with everyone using the fastest weapons. Yet while no one cared if they got a +2 to hit against plate mail with a dagger, they certainly did care about their +2 magic dagger. Why care about one bonus, and not the other? Was it because the +2 magic dagger provided its benefit against all opponents, while the speed factor only depended on the type of armor your opponent wore? Was it too much of a pain to continually consult the speed factor table? I don’t know. But I do know that the same person who didn’t want to include speed factor in D&D absolutely, positively wanted to account for the most minute variables when it came to shooting a gun in Traveller. (I’m using a gauss rifle with spin-stabilized, armor-piercing ammo, a bi-pod, and a scope. I get a +8 to hit). I think that’s largely a function of setting.

That is to say, the setting defines the type of rules one should incorporate. Imagine playing Call of Cthulhu without the sanity rules. There would be no point. You may as well play poker without the aces in the deck. No. Rules clearly are important to a game, but not in the way we think. It’s not the die-rolling mechanic. It’s not how you calculate saving throws. It’s something that happens in between the assumptions the designer makes about the game, and how those assumptions are expressed in the rules. That brings us to setting.

One of the things that made Deadlands so much fun to play, so unique and interesting, was its inclusion of cards and chips. Cowpokes and Dudes playing poker in the saloon is a stable of the genre; you can’t have a wild west movie without a card game occurring somewhere. But rather than including rules for playing poker (using dice, no less), Deadlands flipped it. You were sitting there at the table, roleplaying, while tossing chips on the table and holding your cards close to your vest. You felt like you were playing a Western. It was genius. It’s also an extreme example of what I’m trying to get at.

What makes a good game is its setting, and how that setting is expressed as a function of its rules. There should be a harmony of form and function. You wouldn’t include sanity rules in Traveller, but you sure as hell had better have decent gun rules. (Also, having a one-in-six chance of your character dying during character generation doesn’t hurt, either). And you can ignore speed factor in D&D, and it doesn‘t hurt the player‘s experience with the game. I’m not entirely sure why this is the way it is; like I said, it‘s like catching lightning in a bottle. Which means I’m no closer to Natalie Portman’s navel.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So what have I said that's new? What insight have I provided? All I've asserted is that electronic entertainment is more popular than old-fashioned pen-and-paper RPGs. And in other news, water is wet. Way to go with pointing out the obvious, Ross. Next, you'll tell us TCGs destroyed the retail system. I'm amazed at your insights.

So what am I trying to say? First, I think the barriers to entry for RPGs needs to much lower than they currently are. Not barriers to production, mind you. Those are already pretty low. As others have pointed out, all you need is a computer, a fairly decent layout program, and an idea. No, I'm talking about the barriers to entry for the end user.

Now, there's no way to overcome the inherent limitations of an RPG. You need friends, you have to meet them someplace, and you should do this on a fairly regular basis. Oh, and you need dice. Unfortunately, there's no way around this. You'll never be able to compete with computer games, with their ease of access and use. You've got to have friends and leave the house. I can't help that. I can, however, address the barriers to entry that manufacturers impose.

RPGs are too big, by which I mean their page counts are too high. They're too expensive, too. I know I'm largely to blame for this; I played my part. It would be nice if we were all White Wolf or WotC, and could justify putting out hardcover books at $45 a pop. Then again, I'm not even sure they can do that. Really, I can say with all honesty, we at LUG (and Decipher) released our games in hardcover format solely because we knew we could charge more for them. We were goosing the price point. It wasn't because we were using glossy magazine stock for all the pretty screen grabs. If Simon & Schuster could put out a 600-page glossy Star Trek encyclopedia and make it a softcover, we could have done the same for our 256-page game. But hey, we had to pay off a $150,000 licensing fee....

It's all about making money. I'm an ardent capitalist, so I understand making money. It would be great if roleplaying games could generate enough income that you could quit your day job. I know very few people who can do this. Even some of the "big names" of game design do it part-time. This doesn't stop people from trying, however, and they do this by releasing large games and a supplement a month (the so-called "splatbook" approach). Why release a 128-page book for $19.95 when you can put out a book at twice the size and at a higher price point? It makes economic sense.

Except the more expensive something is, the fewer people will buy it. I don't see a lot of people tooling around in Maseratis. This will rankle long-time professionals in the industry. After all, the price point for an RPG in the mid-80s was around $20. And the price point twenty years later appears to be... around $20. So to compensate, companies will put out more stuff. The problem is, your customer base has a hard time keeping up with all the releases, they may not want all that ancillary information, and (let's face it) eventually the creators run out of ideas and start putting out crap. You start putting out The Complete Guide to Red-headed, Gimpy Dwarves, and trying to figure out a way to justify it to the fanbase. And then the whole house of cards falls apart.

But what if we took the "microgame" approach? Remember those? Steve Jackson Games really pioneered this area. You could play a great game, like Car Wars or Illuminati, for not a lot of money. If you didn't like the game, you were out not a lot of money. You could pick it up quickly, and put it down, then come back to it later. I played the daylights out of Ogre, for example. I could play it now (if I still had a copy, that is). And I think this concept is what could keep pen-and-paper roleplaying games relevant.

There is just no reason for a WotC or Paizo to put out huge, coffee-table worthy books. In fact, that's what keeps me from buying Pathfinder, D&D 4e, and Dresden Files.

I'm a Crumudgeon

It's been about a million years since I've posted to this blog (or any blog, for that matter). Mostly, it's been a change of fortunes that's prevented me from being online as much as I used to be; I used to manage a restaurant, which means I spent most of my time sitting around, doing nothing (except for yelling at waiters, which shouldn't be considered work in the first place; it's more like entertainment). Now, I work as a waiter, and spend most of my time getting yelled at. The universe, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. Or sarcasm. I can never remember the difference. Anyway, I've been thinking lately that roleplaying is dead.

Since the first of the year, I've been planning my return to game design. I know that I've tilted at this windmill before. It's the whole reason I started this blog. But then I came to believe that publishing a roleplaying game would be pointless. Yes, it had to do with the status of the distribution network and retailers and collectibility and all the other excuses I've been reading about on the net. It's safe to say that getting into stores seems like a sysiphian task for not a lot of reward. But that's not the real reason I think publishing an RPG is pointless. It's that, as a past-time, as a hobby, RPGs are dead. They're being propped up by a group of 40-somethings who fondly remember a time when they'd get together with friends in someone's basement, and roll dice, and have fun. They're reliving the '80s. It's nostalgia.

What makes me say this? Am I some kind of hateful doomsayer harshing on a beloved past-time? Am I somehow a bitter former game designer? Not at all. I merely look at the current trends. Back in the 80's, the only things we had to occupy our time were watching TV and going outdoors to play. Let's face it, we're nerds, so going outdoors to do anything is anathema to us; and back then, there were only so many stations playing Star Trek re-runs. There wasn't much to demand our attention.

No so today. We've got Xboxes and iPhones. We've got netflix and the internet. There is no end to the diversions to which we have access. But even this isn't why I proclaim the death of RPGs. It's the lack of new blood coming into the hobby. I offer, for your consideration, the average teenager; I'll call him Teddy (though he is a real person). Teddy's father owns a game store. He attends GenCon annually. He knows about roleplaying, and has even played RPGs. And yet I've never heard him mention playing in any kind of campaign. He doesn't meet up with friends weekly in order to chuck dice. He doesn't obsess over a character sheet. He doesn't tell you about his character, because he has no character to tell you about. If Teddy has any time, he's playing the aforementioned Xbox. Go out to dinner with him, and he's on a Nintendo handheld. Visit him at home, and he's playing an MMO. Teddy's brother is the same way.

Before you accuse me of being a Luddite, I completely understand why kids today prefer video experiences. Let's face it, men are visual creatures. Staring at a computer screen and manipulating an avatar is fun. You don't have to read a 256-page book, or ride your bike over to your friend's house every tuesday night. You can play anytime. With great graphics. But MMOs are to gaming what masterbation is to sex -- you don't need another person. Indeed, every time I've watched someone play an MMO, it's a singular experience.

You run your character around, performing certain "missions." I put that in quotes because these missions all seem to revolve around finding an NPC and whacking him with your sword. I've watched a friend play, and all he did was hunt (as in for furry little animals). Why? Because he was trying to increase his hunt skill; he didn't even really do anything. He set his avatar to "hunt" and walked away from the screen. After an hour, his hunt skill had increased, and he went on to running around completing missions. Which involved whacking NPCs with his sword. This seems boring to me. There was no interaction.

Why, I wonder, aren't there missions that require you to successfully sneak, or get information out of an NPC, or save a princess? It seems to me that MMOs just don't take the place of what an RPG used to be. The closest I felt the video game ever got to a real RPG session was Morrowind (for the Xbox). You had to talk to NPCs. You could accomplish the missions any way you wanted. You had to use other skills. It was, however, still a singular experience. And this is why I say RPGs are dead.

We seem to have lost the desire or the ability to interact with other people. Just as the internet has coarsened social behavior and discourse, technology has allowed us to disconnect from each other in the realm of roleplaying. No longer do we participate in a shared story experience created through the collaborative effort of a group. We fire up our computers to play Warcraft for a few hours, alone in our rooms. It's easier. It satisfies our demand for instant gratification. Why get together with friends in a smelly basement and imagine slaying a dragon? Who's got the time?

As Teddy, and others of his generation, continues to prefer the on-line, computer experience, there is less demand for the old-fashioned RPG. We are the buggy whip. We are the transistor radio. We are the phonograph. One day, Gen Con will consist of octogenarians hobbling around the convention hall with our walkers and canes, and AARP will be a major sponsor. It's inevitable.