Entrepreneurship in the Hobby Games Segment of the Publishing Industry

by Brant Guillory, originally written while a student at the University-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named, back in 2007

Note: This paper was written in 2007, and minimally-revised since then.  Although the numbers are not current, the analysis of hobby games as a niche within overall publishing, and the analyses of volatility and entrepreneurship are still of interest in examining the market.  Anyone with a burning desire to revisit this paper and update with current market numbers is welcome to do so, and to contact us about publication.

Additionally, the target audience is one that is not familiar with hobby gaming, and thus the very, very, very (did we mention “very”) brief section on the history of hobby gaming will appear laughably incomplete to pretty much anyone inclined to read this article on a strategy-gaming website.  Given that whole books have been written on this subject, just go with it – focus on the data analysis instead.

Analyses of the overall media market tend to treat media segments at a very large level.  For example, internet companies tend to be lumped together, regardless of whether they are search engines (Google, Yahoo), networking sites (MySpace) or extensions of off-line media (MSNBC, CNN).  Similarly, the “publishing” industry tends to focus primarily on periodicals (newspapers, magazines) or mass-market books.

There are, of course, niches in every media segment that occupy a relatively small space in the market, but whose performance in the market may run contrary to the overall market segment performance.  While these niches may not wield sufficient influence in the overall market segment to sway the numbers of that segment, they are nonetheless interesting cases worthy of analysis.  An example of such a niche is the world of tabletop and hobby gaming, a subset of the publishing industry.

While the mass market of the publishing world is dominated by bestselling hardcover authors like Michael Crichton and Anne Rice, smaller publishers have churned out remarkable numbers of hardcovers books as rules for a variety of games, from tabletop miniatures to fantasy and science-fiction roleplaying.  Wizards of the Coast has over 150 books currently in print for Dungeons & Dragons, merely for rules, options, and settings for games.  Including novels based on settings in Dungeons & Dragons games, that number doubles.  White Wolf, a smaller game company, has over 100 books of their own currently in print.

As described by Hoag and Seo (2006), entrepreneurship in the media industries exists to varying degrees, depending on market segment.  Although Hoag and Seo noted that publishing was marked by relatively lower rates of entrepreneurship than other media industries, this is not necessarily true of the games publishing niche of the overall publishing marketplace.

Studies of Entrepreneurship

While studies of entrepreneurship abound throughout the business literature, examinations of entrepreneurship within a media-specific context is more limited (Shane, 1997; Hoag and Seo, 2005; Hang and Weezel, 2005).

Shane and Venkataraman (2000) define entrepreneurship as “concerned with the discovery and exploitation of profitable opportunities.” Although often cited in the business world, this definition is not necessarily accurate in a media environment.  In 2003, Shane seemed to revise his earlier definition by noting that entrepreneurship exists in an “individual-opportunity nexus.”  The distinction being that organizations and firms could be interested in discovering and exploiting profitable opportunities, but entrepreneurship includes the unique component of the individual.

While laypersons might have an instinctive ‘feel’ for the meaning of the term ‘entrepreneurship,’ scholars demand a clearer definition, and Bruyat and Julein (2000) examined existing literature of entrepreneurship seeking a clear set of definitions. They attempt to coalesce multiple definitions and concepts of entrepreneurship into one core unified principle and finally propose a paradigm of entrepreneurship that focuses on the interaction of the individual and new value creation..  Entrepreneurship inherently involves an individual shepherding an idea or concept through its initial stages of life, and into a form in which new value is created in the marketplace.

Hang and Weezel (2005) surveyed the literature addressing entrepreneurship within the media, and (secondarily) the effects of the media on entrepreneurship.  Of note is that the research on the publishing industry almost exclusively discussed the changes in the newspaper business, with scant mention in the academic literature of book publishing as a whole, much less the niche of hobby games.

The literature surrounding entrepreneurship studies includes a wide variety of metrics used to assess the markets in which these entrepreneurs operate.  Initial public offerings, buyouts from larger firms, and regulatory requirements for certain media (such as broadcasting) combine to offer a wealth of market data for analysis of entrepreneur-driven organizations.  Gartner and Shane (1995) examined historical trends of entrepreneurship, and included prominent analysis of census data identifying individuals as self-employed.  However, this approach would miss any entrepreneurs whose individual business ventures were a secondary pursuit in their lives.

Perhaps the most useful model of entrepreneurship analysis within a media industry is that explicated by Hoag and Seo (2005).  The authors define media entrepreneurship and innovation, and then apply their definitions to media segments, and the overall US economy.  In defining “entrepreneurship” as a whole, Hoag and Seo jump around a bit

First, it includes a broad spectrum of media sectors. Second, it talks about both new entrants and existing small firms. Third, it implies Schumpeter’s entrepreneurship–innovation connection. Next, it rules in both for-profit and non-commercial forms of media enterprise. Finally, our conceptualization sets aside the psychology and sociology of entrepreneurship, though they are well- developed strains of entrepreneurship research.

Additionally, they focus more tightly on the idea of an entrepreneur-as-innovator with a definition that will almost assuredly ring true to the game designer.

She is an innovator, that individual who invents and then disseminates a “new combination” of inputs and processes to create new products and services, improve efficiencies, reduce costs or create new markets. Her motivation for identifying and exploiting the opportunity is profit. These innovations are superior to existing market offerings. Their flow from entrepreneurs to the market is the process of creative destruction, a force that reshapes market structures by eliminating any advantage or market power of incumbents.

Ultimately, Hoag and Seo admit

In practice, however, applying the theoretical definition proves difficult.

Their findings note that “media industries, with the exception of publishing, … are more entrepreneurial than most other industries.”  However, Hoag and Seo describe several methods of measuring entrepreneurship in an industry segment, including organizations per capita, and turbulence within the market sector.  While the capital investments and audience inertia of the overall publishing sector may dampen entrepreneurship in a wide context, entrepreneurship, as defined by Hoag and Seo, appears to be alive and well within the hobby games niche.


A Very Brief History of Hobby Gaming

The world of tabletop gaming is full of entrepreneurs.  Although tabletop gaming can trace it’s origins all the way to chess and backgammon, the niche market of hobby gaming (also known as ‘adventure gaming’) can be traced back to the late 1800s, including H.G. Wells and his publication of Little Wars, codifying a set of rules for playing combat games with toy soldiers.  Professional ‘games’ attempting to replicate military combat had been used by professionals for years before Wells’ book, but they were considered the purview of military professionals; Wells and others opened the door for such games a pure entertainment.  Simulating military combat on a tabletop became a pastime that enthusiasts followed through to the mid-20th century.  Even in Wells’ time, tabletop hobby gaming was inherently connected to the publishing industry:  although the soldiers were manufactured by a variety of toy companies, the rules were published in book form, and necessary for the game (Dunnigan, 1992).

Charles S. Roberts published his board game, Tactics, in 1954, and the toy soldiers of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars became more abstract cardboard counters.  Nevertheless, the rules, maps, counters, and play aids were all put through the printing press, and Roberts’ Avalon Hill Game Company began their rapid climb to the top of the hobby games world (Consumer Reports, 1980).

In the early 1970s, E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson grafted rules for magic onto a set of miniatures rules for medieval combat.  Arneson and Gygax later added additional rules that allowed for the individuals represented by the figures to improve their abilities in the game over time, and thus ‘role-playing’ was born as a game concept.  Dungeons & Dragons was published shortly afterwards.  Although initially sold in a box, D&D was a set of three books, with four supplemental books following soon thereafter (Schick, 1991).

Since the early 1970s, D&D books have numbered into the hundreds, all of them churned out on printing presses not unlike those producing bestsellers for the discount tables at Barnes & Noble.  Other tabletop games have proliferated, with books currently in print for space operas (Star Wars), alternate reality WWII (Gear Krieg), historical fantasy (Imperium), a haunted wild west (Deadlands), and comic-book superheroes (Champions), among literally hundreds of others.


Entrepreneurship in hobby gaming

Roberts created The Avalon Hill Game Company to publish Tactics, and for several years it was the only company producing board wargames.  In 1969, James Dunnigan and several other designers left Avalon Hill and formed Simulations Publications, Inc., or SPI, a new company whose sole focus was wargaming (Avalon Hill did produce some family and sports games, as well as wargames).  In 1977, Frank Chadwick, another game designer, opened his own company, Game Designers’ Workshop, which was one of the first ‘hybrid’ companies to produce both wargames and role-playing games. (Dunnigan, 1992)[1]

Gygax and Arneson had founded a small company named after their first product, Tactical Studies Rules, which was later shortened to TSR, about the same time their product was renamed Chainmail; TSR would later be the company name under which Gygax and Arneson would produce Dungeons & Dragons.  After the success of D&D, Ken St. Andre founded a company (Flying Buffalo) to publish Tunnels & Trolls; and the Chaosium was founded to publish RuneQuest. (Schick, 1991). Bob Bledsaw founded Judges’ Guild to create material for existing games, after Bledsaw’s disappointment with the available materials from the games’ publishers (Bledsaw, 2006).

None of these companies were owned by corporate parents.  None of them were founded as divisions of existing game giants such as Parker Brothers or Mattel.  The innovators of the hobby games world were, without exception, entrepreneurs.  In almost every case, they were game players and game designers first, and businessmen second, which inevitably lead to bad business decisions by many of them (Dunnigan, 1992).  There are success stories to be found, such as the UK’s Games Workshop, which has successfully published, manufactured, and marketed a variety of fantasy and sci-fi franchises for over 30 years.

It was not until the mid-1980s, when Milton Bradley attempted to capture some of the board wargame market with their GameMaster series of conflict games that a major company attempted to enter the hobby games market.  Hasbro’s buyout of Avalon Hill, and later, Wizards of the Coast, didn’t happen until 1998 and 1999, respectively (Wizards of the Coast, 2007).

Even today, the hobby games world is full of entrepreneurs, building small companies around limited product lines, and often losing money, in order to be a greater part of a hobby they enjoy.


The Challenges of Studying the Hobby/Adventure Games Market

While there is an industry trade organization – the Game Manufacturers’ Association (GAMA) – to which most hobby games publishers belong, membership is not seen as necessity among many in the industry.  Mining companies almost universally join the National Mining Association, but even Wizards of the Coast, one of the largest hobby games publishers worldwide, allows their GAMA membership to lapse from time-to-time (Gallela, 2007).  Additionally, where many media are either regulated (broadcasting) or large public firms (publishing), niche publishers (such as hobby gamers) are rarely either.  Because there are no governmentally-mandated reporting requirements for profits, products, or market share, it is difficult to compile thorough and accurate statistics that aggregate the overall market.

Finally, entrepreneurship that does not require any organizational membership, regulatory filings, or even physical location (with digital distribution of content) is almost pure entrepreneurship, and therefore a key focus of this analysis – the lone visionary building a business in an attempt to join a market.

Nonetheless, there are certain measures that can be used.  Comics & Games Retailer magazine, from Krause Publications[2], attempts to capture semi-annual snapshots of the hobby games industry by surveying retail stores, distributors, and manufacturers.  While not on par with the accuracy of a regulatory filing with the SEC, CGR’s numbers are considered accurate enough that GAMA cited them as their ‘official’ numbers (Gallela, 2007).

Similarly, when assessing the entry and exit of new companies on the landscape of the games market, distributors can provide data on both the numbers of companies coming and going (based on products the distributors are selling for them) and numbers of retailers, based on the accounts that they service.   Additionally, there are numerous current and former leaders from the hobby games industry willing to offer expertise and opinion on the hobby games industry.  The ease of digital distribution has given these well-informed pundits a wide-ranging voice in discussing their hobbies. (Dancey, 2007a).


Concentration and Market Share

In 2000, total industry sales in the United States were estimated as $240-335 million (all figures cited in this section from Mishler, 2007).  In 2003, the market had expanded to $265-$400 million.  2006 showed a considerable slowdown, with the most current estimates between $150-340 million.  While these numbers do show a wide range, the difficulty of accurately assessing the market was detailed earlier.

The concentration of the marketplace is not measured in an overall sense, but rather by segment, with role-playing games (RPGs) and trading card games (TCGs) separated from everything else.  CGR tracks percentage of sales only within the two largest market segments, and the market overall, and only in the United States (so Games Workshop’s large UK sales figures are not included).  Those two segments are the primary focus of their news coverage; the majority of their readers are in at least one, if not both, of those markets.

Eshipfigure1In 2000, RPG sales were $42-64 million, with the top four companies collectively holding 74% of the market.  In 2003, sales dipped to $39-59 million, and the concentration of the top four had held steady at 74%.  Finally, in 2006, RPG sales had dropped all the way to $13-20 million.  However, the concentration among the top four had increased to 78%. (See Table 1)

TCG sales followed a very different trajectory.  2000 sales were $98-196 million; the top four companies owned 92% of the market, led by Wizards of the Coast’s remarkable 76% share.  By 2003, sales had increased to $101-201 million.  However, the top four companies had shifted dramatically, as Upper Deck cut Wizards of the Coast’s market share in half; the top four companies still held 85% of the market.  By 2006, TCG sales had slumped (though not nearly as dramatically as RPG sales) to $70-175 million.  Wizards of the Coast once again held the highest share of the market, and the top four represented 84% of the market. (See Table 2)

Eshipfigure2So although the hobby games industry has fluctuated wildly in sales over the past 7 years, the dominant companies have generally remained on top, and the concentration of the top four firms in each market segment has never dipped below three-quarters of the market for either of the major market segments.  Thus, a huge number of companies are combining to represent less than one-fourth of the total hobby games market (this idea is explored further, below).

As entrepreneurial businesses are often small businesses, especially in their early years, the concentration of the market is worth examining.  Mapping out the levels of concentration can show the degree to which the market is entrepreneur-driven, especially among the ‘long tail’ segment of the market – those products outside of the four or five top-selling companies in the segment.


Volatility in the Market

Hoag and Seo (2005) have stated the case that an indicator of the level of entrepreneurship in an industry is level of turbulence or volatility in the marketplace.  As firms exit the market segment, others – presumably steered by profit-seeking entrepreneurs – enter the marketplace.  If the industry is seeing high levels of volatility then entrepreneurs are continuing to enter the market segment.  Lower levels of turbulence are described as indicative of less entrepreneurial participation, as fewer firms come and go.

Based solely on the numbers from Mishler (2007), there appears to be relatively little change in the firms, but only the top five in each market segment (TCG/RPG) were tracked.  From 2000 to 2003, only one company changed among the top five RPG companies, and from 2003 to 2006, there were two.  However, the top three remained stable every year.  TCGs saw a more pronounced shift, as a relatively young market (TCGs were first introduced in 1994) continued to seek new entrants.  From 2000 to 2003, two of the top five changed, but one of those changes went from non-existent in 2000 to the market share leader in 2003, cutting the previous number one in half.  From 2003 to 2006, two more companies came and went.  More telling, only one company remained from the top five in 2000.

However, C&GR’s / Mishler’s numbers only track the entry or exit of a company into the upper tier of the hobby games market, and only in the United States.  Another measure might better capture the overall volatility of the marketplace for firms outside of the top five market leaders.  Distributors who move the products from manufacturers to retail outlets are well-positioned to capture snapshots of the marketplace by counting the number of new companies whose products they add from year-to-year, as well as the number of companies who stop soliciting product (Gallela, 2007).  While this metric is, like so many others in the hobby games industry, far from comprehensive, it is sufficient enough to allow observers to gauge the level of volatility in the market segment.

Alliance Games distributes to roughly 2000 stores nationwide, and was considered (at the time) by GAMA to be the largest distributor in the hobby games market (Gallela, 2007).  In 2000, Alliance was distributing products from 257 different companies, which was +48 from the previous year.  In 2003, they had dropped to 216 total companies, which was -12 from the previous year.  In 2006, the total was 215, but that number was actually an increase of +2 from 2005, indicating that quite a few companies had exited the marketplace between 2003 and 2006. (All figures attributed to Alliance are from Webb, 2007).

Compared to the measures of industry turbulence in Hoag and Seo (2005), the hobby games industry is significantly different from the overall publishing industry.  In 2001, Hoag and Seo calculated a rate of turbulence of 19% for publishers.  Using their same formula and the numbers from Alliance, the hobby games industry in 2000 had a 29% turbulence rate, well ahead of publishing as a whole.  In fact, 29% is higher than advertising and equal to motion pictures for the same year (2001) as publishing in Hoag and Seo’s calculations.

At the retail end of the hobby games industry, Alliance can further illustrate the turbulence in the industry by tracking the retail outlets that come and go.  As a measure of entrepreneurship in the hobby games industry, this metric is almost as helpful as the number of companies for two reasons.  First, there are no large national chains of hobby games stores.  National chains of stores exist for books, groceries, computers, bicycles, lingerie, and virtually any other product.  But stores whose primary sales are hobby games and accessories (such as miniature figures, maps, and dice) are virtually all locally-owned and –operated (Gallela, 2007; Webb 2007); there are no stores coming and going on distributors records because of expansion of contraction of existing companies, but rather because of the opening of local stores by local entrepreneurs.  Second, hobby game stores are rarely multi-purpose stores selling other products in addition to hobby games.  There are occasional pairings with comic books, or science fiction and fantasy novels.  But even these other media offerings tend to be tied to licenses that are present in hobby gaming, such as fantasy novels set in the same imaginary worlds as a game’s reference material.  Thus, hobby games stores tend to be local operations founded by local entrepreneurs, focusing almost exclusively on a niche market.

In 2000, Alliance was servicing 2192 active purchasers (some purchasers did have more than one retail outlet), which was +122 from 1999.  In 2003, there were 1987 active purchasers, a -53 change from 2002.  In 2006, the total had rebounded to 2084, which was +38 from 2005.  Although Alliance’s numbers are expected to increase again in 2007, it may be due in part to the closure of one of their competitors, and the transfer of those accounts to a new distributor (Dancey, 2007b).

Again, there is no consolidated set of numbers examining the overall industry, but for the sake of estimating the volatility in the marketplace, Alliance’s numbers show the retail end of the hobby games industry had a 6% turbulence rate in 2000, well below the turbulence rates in virtually every other industry.

So, compared to the overall economy, the hobby games turbulence rate of 29% among publishers and manufacturers in 2000 was slightly higher than all US industries (22%) and significantly higher than publishing (19%) (both figures for 2001, the closest year for which figures were available).  However, hobby games lagged well behind telecoms (40%), broadcasting (45%), and cable (38%) as well the media industry as a whole (35%) in turbulence rate.  Note that these comparisons use hobby games numbers from 2000, and industry numbers from 2001, as those were the closest years available.

In 2006, the turbulence in the hobby games industry was much lower, based on the numbers from Alliance.  With a net change of only plus-two companies from the year before, the turbulence rate was barely 1%.  Some of this dramatic change in turbulence could be due to changes in the marketplace overall (such as the stabilization of the TCG marketplace) or the general slowdown in the market overall (Webb, 2007; Dancey, 2007a).


Future of new Entrants

Alliance’s numbers illustrate just how highly-concentrated the hobby games market really is.  While Alliance distributes both RPGs and TCGs, as well as board games and miniatures figures, their largest and most popular product lines are the role-playing and trading card games from major publishers.

In 2000, only one company was in the top five of both RPG and TCG sales, so the top tier of market concentration in these two market segments was divided between nine total firms.  In 2000, Alliance distributed products from 257 different companies, which included an increase of almost 23% in the number of companies from the year before.  Clearly, there are entrepreneurs willing to jump into a highly-concentrated market in which the largest companies dominate the market landscape.  By 2006, several of the companies in the top five of RPGs and TCGs had changed, but only one (Wizards of the Coast) was still present on both lists.  Again, the market was concentrated among nine companies at the top, but Alliance was still distributing products from over 200 companies, each hoping to grab a slice of an increasingly-smaller market.  By the end of 2006, 190 companies were essentially vying for a share of 25% of the market, and that market had collapsed by almost half from 2000.

However, the numbers from Alliance must be taken with a grain of salt.  Digital distribution has grown dramatically since 2000, and new companies such as DriveThruRPG.com and RPGNow.com have been founded to help smaller companies sell intangible products.  These digital products are not tracked by Alliance, as they are not shipped to stores, or displayed on shelves.  Each of these websites currently have products for over 450 different companies available (DriveThruRPG.com, 2007; RPGNow.com, 2007).


Summary & Discussion

The greatest difficulty in describing the hobby games market is that of measurement.  With so many small firms, and no regulatory requirements for reporting of firm performance, accurate metrics of the industry are frustratingly difficult.  Even the numbers from CGR include estimates that can vary by as much as $180 million (Mishler, 2007).  Additionally, the available numbers of market share are further segmented within the hobby games industry; there is no overall measure of market concentration.

Even tracking companies coming and going in the market is difficult.  While distributors such as Alliance can offer one potential measure, comparing Alliance’s stable of publishers to that of RPGNow.com shows just how limited the distributors can be in measuring the number of entrants in marketplace.  And the author is personally familiar with at least fifteen additional companies not included in either place, including his own.  The remarkably low barriers to entry for a small publisher – web-based distribution and order fulfillment, home-publishing software, and self-created content – make entry into the market enticing for a variety of entrepreneurs.

Based on the methodology of Hoag and Seo (2005), the hobby games industry shows a much higher rate of entrepreneurship than the ‘parent’ market segment of publishing.  Worthy of noting is that these metrics were calculated with a set of numbers of volatility that likely understate the levels of entrepreneurship within the hobby games industry.

As with many other media, hobby games seems to engender a high participation level among the audience, in which the audience is eager to create their own content.  In a survey of over 3500 hobby game players, over 56% reported designing their own rules from scratch, and 73% reported designing their own scenarios for  games from scratch.  Additionally, 15.5% and 21.3% (respectively) reported distributing their materials to the public (Guillory and Reinhard, 2007).

Thus the nexus of the motivated individual, seeking to create new value in a market, and a market that engenders a sense of participation among the members, forms almost a perfect storm of entrepreneurship.  If only more accurate numbers were available for confirming the behavior of entrepreneurs in the market, the hobby games segment could be seen as the true incubator or entrepreneurial spirit that tangential data seems to indicate.


[1] In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of early game designers, Dunnigan’s history of SPI in his book appears under the heading “Hey, Let’s Start a Wargame Company in the Basement!”

[2] Note that Comics & Games Retailer magazine ceased publication in mid-2007.

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Dancey, R. (2007). Followup: 2007 Game Industry Predictions II.  From RSDancey on the Web, http://web.mac.com/rsdancey/iWeb/RSDanceyBlog/Blog/66F6C6FD-C8AB-4E93-940E-E66C34E83605.html, accessed 12 May, 2007.

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4 Responses to Entrepreneurship in the Hobby Games Segment of the Publishing Industry

  1. […] we’re kicking off a new monthly series on Research and Gaming.  The first of these papers was published in early August, and we plan to follow with one each month.  And we’d like you to submit your research to […]

  2. Tom Grant says:

    As you say, electronic publishing certainly helps with entry costs. It might be interesting to track, over the course of several years, how many companies have published through DriveThruRpg.com. Are there a lot of new entrants in the last few years?

    Another interesting question: How much does Kickstarter help? And does it help small, new companies more than established ones, or is the reverse true? I suspect that Kickstarter helps the one-person companies a decent amount, but not as much as some might assume.

  3. Brant Guillory says:

    Kickstarter certainly helps entrepreneurs establish the viability of a product. Additionally, they can establish the viability at a profit they’re willing to accept for the work they put into it but setting the funding thresholds wherever they want.

    Keep in mind, too, that Kickstarter was 3-4 years away when this paper-turned-article was written 🙂

  4. Brant Guillory says:

    Upon further reflection… what electronic publishing can do is establish a production track record (lines on the resume, as it were) before a designer/author moves to dead-tree editions of the products, for very low risk.

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