The Future of Creativity

Often people belittle those they disagree with as stupid or irrational. The music and film industries, for example, in their fight to keep music and movies off the Internet, are said to be blind to the wealth the technology offers them. I don’t agree. The entertainment conglomerates are certainly scoundrels. But I think their behavior is perfectly rational.

One classic illustration of the foolishness of their behavior is Jack Valenti’s hyperbolic claim in 1982 that “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston Strangler is to a woman home alone.” The sale of videos went on to become an profitable part of Hollywood’s business, to the point where video sales account for “35-50% of the typical film’s income1.” The Internet seems likely also to enrich and expand opportunities for the entertainment industries. So why are they fighting it?

The answer is that the the industry is not identical with the biggest firms. The tremendous promise of the Internet will be good for entertainment; it may not be good for the dominant players today. When you’re winning the game, changing the rules is not very appealing. So far, the incumbents in these industries have been reasonably successful at hindering change.

A Vision of the Future

Smaller industries with fewer profits, lacking the power to dictate laws or criminalize the behavior of customers, are already changing. I will be drawing evidence from a column by Robin Laws, a roleplaying game (RPG) designer. I recommend reading his piece even if RPGs don’t interest you; it is a fascinating depiction of an industry dying and being reborn in the age of the Internet2. Laws simply asked a number of people throughout the industry, “Is the RPG Industry Screwed?”

For retailers, distributors, and many publishers, the answer seems to be yes. This is a tiny industry – the market is estimated at $25 million, and it has shrunk enormously since its glory days in the 1980s. The market is fragmenting as barriers to entry fall. Potential customers are lured away by trading card games (like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon) and computer RPGs (like Everquest and World of Warcraft). Retailers are struggling to compete with eBay and Amazon; according to an interviewee in Laws’ article, 40% closed shop in the U.S. in 2005. Many have seen the writing on the wall and are diversifying away from RPGs. Despite all this, no-one is throwing RIAA-style tantrums: there is no war here between an industry and its customers, or even (as far as I know) between the old guard and the innovators.

For players and game designers, however, the answer to Laws’ question is quite different. As traditional publishing becomes uneconomical, game designers are shifting to print-on-demand (e.g. through Lulu) and PDF sales. The RPG industry is a rare field in which PDFs are popular: Laws suggests they are 8-14% of the market and growing3. Designers and publishers are experimenting with ransoming their works. This week, a small RPG company asked players to commit to buy before going ahead and printing a 224-page hardcover book. They achieved their goal of 400-odd patrons in only 48 hours. This diversity and fragmentation causes difficulty for publishers, distributors, and retailers, but it is a boon for designers and players.

What’s Good for General Motors…?

In economic terms, the news looks bad: more people producing smaller print runs of a greater variety of games for less (or no) profit. Bad for GDP, bad for productivity. For existing publishers, distributors, and retailers, this could be the end of their involvement with RPGs. Yet for many people who love the games, this looks suspiciously like the start of a new golden age. Ben Lehman, an independent game designer interviewed by Laws, captures the optimism:

I’m seeing a . . . movement away from the periodical/collector/fandom model of enjoyment, and more towards creative focus and real play. In this respect, and that’s what matters, I think that role-playing is at its healthiest state since the 70s. . . . certain aspects of the role-playing distribution chain are being eclipsed by an economic model that is more effective in both creative and monetary terms, and as a player and designer I just can’t see that as a bad thing.

Laws’ article can be seen as a depiction of a possible future for other creative industries. Spending shrinks as consumption gives way to experience, creativity increases and people have more fun. For the entertainment giants, this is the nightmare scenario. If what is happening to RPGs happens to music and movies, everyone might win. Except them.

Notes

1 Janet Wasko, “Show me the money”, A. Calabrese et al., Toward a Political Economy of Culture, 2004, p. 13.

2 RPGs are hardly unique. I believe the comic and wargame industries (among others) have experienced similar pressures and changes.

3 Consumers have objected to DRM and got their way. Despite concerns about piracy, one of the main PDF vendors shifted away from DRM-protected files; now they simply add the buyer’s name to each page of a download.

2006-06-11

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