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There Will Be Games

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skintI’m considering taking the drastic step of no longer watching the news. Things are just too depressing and, perhaps worse, there’s so much uncertainty about what lies ahead economically that it frees every commentator and columnist to pour as much doom and gloom as they like down the gaping maw of a willing public. After all, we lap this stuff up. But in reality no-one knows how good or bad things are actually going to get. All we know for sure is that we’ve bequeathed a terrifying amount of debt to our children. How the people and the governments of the world will manage it is yet to be ascertained.

The point where I got really scared is when it dawned on me that, economically, I’m Mr. Average UK. Our household income is a smidgen above the national median. We have two kids, which is about average, and we owe about the national average in debt thanks entirely to our mortgage - I have nothing else on loan or credit. And while we’re hardly struggling to make ends meet, we have reached the point where our disposable income after essentials and semi-essentials (i.e things most people take for granted like a week on holiday and TV) is virtually zero. I’m thankful that we don’t have to worry about affording the most important things in life but if that’s our cut-off point, what the hell must it be like for the full 50% of the UK population that have less income than we do? The thought is terrifying. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

By this point you’d be justified to ask why the hell I’m posting a lengthy whinge about the state of the global economy on a gaming site, right slap bang in the middle of the season of goodwill when we should all be jollying up. Well, partly it’s because I was somewhat devoid of inspiration this week and economic uncertainty has been on my mind a lot of late, so it seemed a natural way to fill the gap. But it’s also because economic hard times tend to hit small businesses disproportionately hard, and pretty much the whole of our hobby relies on small businesses. That’s a scary thought.

Something I’ve noticed on boardgamegeek recently is that where once a new game would be announced, get into the hype machine and then on release be buoyed up in a vertiable sea of reviews, forum posts and comments now that snowball effect has slowed to a snow flake. A new game comes out and I click on my geekbuddy analysis to see the opinions of people I trust and where once I’d get five or six opinions now I get one or two or often, nothing. The cheap and critically acclaimed Blood Bowl: Team Manager lists a little over a thousand owners on the site. Compare that with the much more expensive and less widely praised Castle Ravenloft from 2010 with over four thousand owners, or the more comparable 2010 game Seven Wonders with over ten thousand. These aren’t exactly fair comparisons of course, since the older games are, well, older, and so have had more time to spread ownership. But given the propensity for gamers to buy on release at the very least we have to conclude that that rush to buy is a thing of the past. I get the feeling that things are worse than that, and that gamers are just buying a lot less games at the moment given the big price hikes and the economic stagnation. We’ve joked in the past about how game obsessives will buy the latest releases while their families go hungry but suddenly that joke doesn’t look so funny anymore.

If this is right, and game sales are plummeting, then the minnows in our particular pond are either going to have to innovate hard, or go to the wall. And by innovate, I largely mean find ways to make appealing games on a shoestring budget that can be sold cheaply rather than the rarer innovation of making games that are so brilliant no-one can ignore them. You can plan for the former, but the latter is as much a matter of luck as it is of skill. So for the majority of gamers this means a simple choice: either you buy less games or you get used to buying games that don’t look anywhere near as good as they used to.

And this is the point at which things, unbelievably, might start to look up. Regular readers will be aware that I have a long standing opinion that the hobby game market is flooded with boring, cookie-cutter, derivative crap that fans will snap up because they like to feel like collectors and because they belong to cults of adoration surrounding certain designers or publishers. It happens in every genre of game but Euros are particularly egregious in this regard. That’s my opinion and everyone is, of course, free to disagree. But I knew we’d turned a corner when I started to hear more and more people, many of them big Euro-devotees, say similar things. And if this sort of awareness is indeed the norm, and gamers are starting to run out of money, then of course the dross is hopefully going to be the first stuff that dries up in response. And deprived of such an easy income stream, we can hope that designers and publishers will respond by improving the quality of what they’re putting out.

One thing you’ll hardly ever hear a gamer say is “I’d love to have more unplayed games that sit on my shelves gathering dust for years on end!” The other bonus to this situation is that it offers gamers a signed and sealed excuse to get out of the destructive cycle of desiring and acquiring things for the joy of acquisition and then forgetting about them. Personally I’ve found that if I get a new game and don’t end up playing for a month or two, then enthusiasm wanes and it’s liable to sit around for whatever length of time it takes to become embarrassing before I bother trying to get it to the table. The TED talk on “Less is More” that’s been doing the rounds on our forums recently (I started writing this piece before it was posted, co-incidentally) might be full of well-worn homilies and tiresome soundbites that inspire people without actually giving them any meaningful levers with which to help control their behaviour, but the core sentiment is sound.

Another potential side effect of a squeeze on incomes is changes to the larger landscape in which board games sit with computer games. I have Ghost Stories on my iPad for example, which cost me about £4. If I had bought a copy of the actual board game it would have cost me £30 more, plus some postage and packing. Now admittedly whilst I enjoy Ghost Stories, it’s not a favourite of mine but I can see no earthly reason now while I would bother owning a physical copy of the game when there’s a perfectly satisfactory iOS version available. I can play it solo, and it’s good for pass and play when I want to play with friends. Sure it’s not quite as good an experience as playing on a big board with cool haunter figures but it costs less than a sixth of the price. As iOS or online console-based implementations become more and more definitive and disposable incomes shrink it seems entirely plausible that we’ll see more and more gamers getting their fix of particular titles from a computer version. There may also be a driver for families to go back to board games as a way of spending time together. An XBox, Kinect and a couple of games may give you enough for a fantastic family gaming experience but it’ll set you back in the region of £300-350, never mind the prices of the next-gen consoles we might see as soon as a year or two’s time. A couple of well chosen board games will cost a quarter of that and offer you an experience that’s different, but probably just as much fun for most families (assuming they don’t contain dedicated video game fans). As hobby board games from the likes of FFG and Mayfair are becoming a more common sight in mainstream book and toy shops, while Hasbro’s mass-market designs appear to be becoming ever more influenced by hobby design, this seemingly unlikely scenario begins to look more and more plausible.

So, after admitting that this is all totally pie-in-the-sky stuff founded on fairly flimsy suppositions in order to construct an interesting article, what might the gaming scene look like in a couple of years’ time? Basically, more gamers playing fewer, better, games more often. But if that’s the end point and the upside, then we need to remember that the cost is people going out of business. Gaming is a small community and the people who’ll be hit will be real people we know and may have interacted with in the past, not some far-off financiers in ivory towers. That’s sad, but if it must happen then there’s little enough that we as gamers can do in the teeth of an economic maelstrom. The only responsibility we could, and should, grasp is to make sure that the ones who survive are those who, by dint of creativity or amiability or both, deserve it rather than those who are simply too big to fail.


There Will Be Games

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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