Defining Nested Niches
As blogs go, this is not a well-known or popular one. I’ve done very little to optimize or publicize what I write here, as it is mainly an outlet for my own musings. Sure, it would be great to get some measure of publicity for my reviews and ideas, but that really isn’t the point of why I made a blog in the first place. I have a few people that have found my site, and that’s fine. I can even say that I had someone take my advice once on how to revise an Adventure Path, so I have that going for me. Which is nice.
But if I’m being truthful, it actually is a surprise when people do find what I write here. And it’s really fascinating when people take issue with it.
Just recently, a semi-anonymous person found some of my opinions on Savage Worlds. I’ve made no secret of my disappointment for the system, since I hold the designers in fairly high regard otherwise. Shane Hensley is a great guy, and nearly everything that he has had a hand in, ranging from old TSR boxed sets to Deadlands, all the way up through the newly minted Torg Eternity, has been gold. I’ve actually gone to the trouble to get most of his old stuff signed, because it is quality work and I can appreciate that level of dedication to the hobby.
But seriously, I really dislike Savage Worlds.
I’m not going to go back over the reasons that I dislike the game; that’s been hammered out to the point that I don’t need to justify it all over again. Right now, I want to talk about something that this “Shockwave” fellow tried to put forth.
In the midst of his typo-ridden defense of Savage Worlds, he made the claim that it was a “strong niche” game within the hobby. He actually threw a lot of claims at me, including the idea that I should spend more time playing a game that I don’t like, as though I would somehow change my mind on the issue with continued exposure. But it was the “strong niche” idea that actually stuck with me.
Role-playing games are already a niche hobby at the outset. There are no hard numbers, but some estimates put the US gamer population around six million, give or take, with perhaps another three to four million additional for the rest of the world. Put up against the broader US or world populations, this is not a high number by any stretch.
But I was curious. In Shockwave’s mind, Savage Worlds was a quality product, based on its sales and its particular niche within the hobby. Personally, I have always assumed that this was more or less true. I have seen Savage Worlds products at nearly every game store I’ve ventured into in the last decade, so there is a demand, right?
So, I started looking around. I knew that it wasn’t pulling the sales on Kickstarter that its predecessor, Deadlands, had been capable of. When Pinnacle launched simultaneous KS campaigns for the Deadlands 20th Anniversary Edition and a new Plot Point book for the Savage Worlds Deadlands, the 20th Anniversary KS far out-performed.
Using Kickstarter as a base metric, we can see that (with the exception of Savage Rifts) the interest for Savage Worlds hovers around a thousand backers. This number flexes a little bit, depending on what is being adapted to the system, but it offers a baseline to work from and compare to other known lines.
For one thing, Savage Worlds books are actually offered for sale in your standard FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store), so that’s going to bump up the numbers a fair amount. I say this because pretty much everything done by Onyx Path (heritors of the old White Wolf licenses) is only available through POD or their online store. They’ve cut out the distributors to make themselves money, and as a result, their stuff only ends up in the hands of the people that already want to buy it.
So, we’ll leave out any of the Onyx Path Kickstarters. They go stupidly high, in terms of backers and pledged cash, but their audience is kind of locked in. (And dwindling, given the responses on the KS comment pages. The Exalted 3rd Edition did them no favors on that count.)
This leaves something of a cross-section of immediate utility. Without devoting too much time to my research, I have a fair chunk of odd foreign games and a number of relatively identifiable mainstays to work with, many of whom I have put in money to support. The hobby leaders – Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Fantasy Flight – don’t bother Kickstarting any of their products, because they already have the working capital to support their respective lines. But I do have some idea of numbers to throw at this later.
Let’s start with the bigger numbers. Chaosium launched a Kickstarter that actually was able to fund enough to bankrupt the company (I might have to talk about this in another post, at some point) to bring out 7th Edition rules for Call of Cthulhu. This garnered near to 3,668 backers, with over half a million dollars. And when Sandy Petersen (the original designer of Call of Cthulhu) did a campaign to convert the Mythos over to Pathfinder, he pulled over 2,300 backers.
Atlas Games brought back two games from the 90’s in their Kickstarters. Neither of these games were barn burners in their original run, but they had respectable followings in their way. Unknown Armies managed 2,819 backers, and Feng Shui 2 had 3,402 backers. And for our last domestic publisher, we have Green Ronin’s conversion of Blue Rose to their new Dragon Age rules. Blue Rose is the very definition of niche product, being an attempt to bring Mercedes Lackey-styled “romantic fantasy” to tabletop. For that, we have 1,513 backers.
Foreign games are a weird category. These are games that were popular (and sometimes award winning) in their home country, but until these Kickstarters, they’ve never been played outside of their place of origin. These include Riotminds’ new edition of Drakar och Demoner, brought to the US as Trudvang Chronicles, which managed 3,273 backers. Agate partnered with Studio 2 to translate Shadows of Esteren from French. This one got more backers with each successive release in the line: Main book – 705, Prologue – 601, Travels – 951, Tuath – 1,053, Occultism – 1,066, Dearg – 1,160.
Then we have Ulisses Spiel, publishers of Das Schwarze Auge, brought to the US as The Dark Eye. This brought them 1,619 backers, with a follow-up sourcebook, The Aventuria Almanac, netting 696 backers. They also brought back Torg, originally published by West End Games in the early 90’s, with Torg Eternity with 2,282 backers.
Finally, we have the efforts of Fria Ligan, the Swedish game company that now owns the rights to the old Swedish game, Mutant. They have been flogging a new edition of this game, Mutant: Year Zero through Kickstarter. Genlab Alpha pulled 1,010 backers, and Mechatron managed 1,653 backers. They have also brought over two unrelated games, Coriolis (described as Arabian Nights meets Firefly; 1,915 backers) and Tales from the Loop (described as drawing from ET and Stranger Things, kids in the 1980’s in a setting where dimensional rifts are prevalent; 5,600 backers).
At this point, I’m not sure what Shockwave’s contention was based on. Savage Worlds hits a level roughly similar to English translations of dark medieval fantasy French games and pulls less than nostalgic re-issues of games from the 80’s and 90’s. I’m not seeing how this is a strong niche, by any definition.
Comparatively, the darling of the Indy Press, Fate Core, racked up 10,103 backers when it finished its Kickstarter (and that’s just a fraction of the copies sold). I guess, if you were comparing Savage Worlds to all of the Fate-derived games that show up on Kickstarter, you might have a case to build, but that’s a rabbit hole that I’m going to personally stay out of.
Inevitably, none of this matters in comparison to real games. There aren’t hard numbers for Pathfinder or D&D 5e, but there are some estimations that can be made. Paizo has done very well with their 3.5-sourced RPG, to the point that their executives imply that it woutsold their expectations by an order of magnitude. And well, the Player’s Handbook for D&D 5e managed to hit #1 in sales on Amazon for a while, which requires thousands of copies sold per day.