Thoughts On Dead Games
Eventually, when talking about the life cycle of games, the idea of “dead” games comes up and what being dead means for a game. Dead, in this context, generally means one of two things. The first is that it’s completely lost to the world except in second-hand markets. The game is out of print, the publisher may be out of business, and nothing more is ever coming out in an official capacity. The other meaning is that the game is just unsupported by the publisher or writer, no official new material is coming out but the game otherwise might be available in some format or another (increasingly in PDF or other digital formats). There’s a lot of overlap there, as you can see and sometimes it’s hard to tell where a game really stands.
Dead games happen. It’s a part of the industry. Publishers go out of business. Writers abandon a property. Companies (for a variety of reasons) release new editions of a game or system. It’s unfortunate, in a lot of ways, but the thing that often comes up when you talk about games is that just because a game is out of print or unsupported doesn’t mean that you can’t play it and enjoy it and get a lot of use out of it. This is undeniably true. So long as you have the books and the people who want to play a game it’s still just as viable now as the day it was published.
When it comes to edition wars or new editions, this is one of the key arguments of the people who are in favor of new editions of an existing game. Nobody can make you stop playing Shadowrun 2e or D&D 4e or Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition or whatever, so long as you have your books and people to play with them. That’s undeniably true. Your books are never obsolete so long as you have people wanting to use them. This is one of the best things about tabletop RPGs as a gaming medium for a lot of people. Twenty years from now, you can still be playing the same games you are right now as long as you have your books, pencils, paper, and dice.
The problem with the argument that dead games are never truly gone as long as you have people playing with them is the fact that a dead game is increasingly likely to have a shrinking playerbase and availability. It’s easy to say that you can play any game that you own, but what if you can’t find players? Sure, I may be able to run Shadowrun 2e if I wanted, but can I get anybody else who wants to? Even if I do have other players interested, they can’t exactly run down to their FLGS or local bookstore and pick up a copy of the rules. If there’s a more recent edition of an unsupported game available, the problem becomes even more complicated because players may ask (not unreasonably) why you aren’t interested in playing the version of the game which is actually in-print and has new material coming out.
This is, I think, one of the major reasons that people get upset when a new edition of an enjoyable game comes out. It’s not always the idea that there’s going to be changes and new mechanics and new books to buy and other differences. It’s the idea that even if you stick with the game that you’ve invested time and money into, you might not be able to play it or might have to put in a lot more effort to play it. You can see it really well with D&D4e right now. Ever since D&D4e was shanked and left for dead by WotC, many 4e players have scattered to other games. Pathfinder, D&D Next, 13th Age, Fate Core, and many other games have seen an influx of gamers who used to play 4e, which makes it really difficult for people who want to play 4e to get a game together.
Does that change the fact that you can still play dead games later? No, that’s still true. But it’s something to think about when you see people who are unhappy that a game they like is no longer in print, supported, or available. Don’t automatically dismiss what they’re saying or feeling as being a whiner or acting unreasonable. Remember that even though they can still play a game they enjoy, it’s probably a lot harder than it was before and probably will continue to get more difficult in the future as books are less available and players move on to newer or different games.