A few weeks ago SJG published its report to the stakeholders for 2015. After several years of growth, the company experienced a decline in its gross income compared to 2014 ($6.6 million, down $1.9 million from 2014). This is the first significant decline in income since 2005 – nonetheless, the company remains profitable and it looks healthy: SJG is still making big money on Munchkin.
What doesn’t look very healthy is the state of GURPS. The venerable role playing game isn’t even in their top 40 products by profitability. SJG claims that they will be keeping the core books (i.e. the Basic Set) in print, but unfortunately many semi-core GURPS books (eg. GURPS Powers, GURPS Magic, and others) have been out of print for years and are currently available only as PDFs. They announced two new products (the Discworld RPG and GURPS Mars Attack) but, by their own admission, they’re not a priority, and anyway they are not products of broad appeal. Except for these two new books, there hasn’t been anything new in print for years. All the new stuff has been released almost exclusively in the form of (often short) PDFs.
In short, while SJG seems willing to keep GURPS alive, the support they are currently offering is arguably not the best GURPS has seen. Not that I can blame them as a company – GURPS is clearly not very profitable. However, as I see GURPS less and less played, I’m starting to worry about its future.
First of all, the move to a (near) PDF-only release strategy means that GURPS has gradually disappeared from the shelves of hobby stores. The lack of visibility could potentially result in a downward spiral on the long term, where the player pool progressively shrinks as old players retire from the hobby without being replaced by new players. Once the veterans stop playing, how will GURPS attract a new generation of gamers? If this trend continues, GURPS may end up dying of a slow death, eventually fading into obscurity.
Nonetheless, I believe that SJG made the right call by moving to PDFs back in 2005. That decision, perhaps risky at the time, is probably the reason GURPS managed to stay afloat all these years. Let’s be honest: GURPS is no D&D. Focusing on PDFs is a great strategy for a niche game like GURPS, whose returns are unlikely to make up for the printing costs; at the end of the day, PDFs allow SJG to support the line while keeping costs contained. And, in any case, physical book stores are sadly disappearing. All things considered, the loss of shelf space wouldn’t be a problem if GURPS had a strong online visibility. Many indie RPGs are released exclusively in digital format, but they thrive without problems all the same. If you go full PDF, you need to bring attention to your product in some other way. You need visibility.
Unfortunately, GURPS is hardly being marketed effectively, especially to new customers. For example, I feel that sales/discounts would greatly help spreading the game, but I’m not aware of any discount on GURPS PDFs – at least, in recent times. $54.90 for the Basic Set (characters + campaign) is a fair price considering the quality of the content, but it’s still a high entry price for many people. Furthermore, in 2015 SJG participated in the Free RPG Day with a… Munchkin-related freebie. No GURPS-related freebie.
On top of that, GURPS PDFs are exclusively sold on warehouse23, SJG’s own online store. Meanwhile, searching ‘GURPS’ on DrivethruRPG and RPGnow, the two major online stores for RPGs, turns up no GURPS product. If you want to buy GURPS, you have to look specifically for a second-tier online store, register a new account, and buy it from there. Again, this is by no means a terrible situation, but it’s not ideal either. DrivethruRPG and RPGnow are wildly popular, and GURPS would probably benefit in term of exposure if it was sold there as well.
And even when new players manage to discover GURPS (either in its physical or digital incarnation), what do they see? Boring, unattractive books. Don’t get me wrong, I love GURPS, but the books and the PDFs look straight out from the ’80s. And – no offence to the artists involved – the artwork is often not that great. I’m not saying that GURPS books should aim to look like 5E D&D, but the look and feel of GURPS really needs a redesign.
All things considered, GURPS isn’t likely to die in the short term, but the long term perspective isn’t bright. How can we avoid the death of GURPS?
First of all, we (the fans) should promote the game. We should play it. We should talk about it. We should introduce new people to it. We should show them how awesome GURPS is.
SJG on the other hand should start doing marketing, and pushing the game more aggressively, rather than waiting for people to discover it. They should try to get GURPS (even third edition) on Bundle of Holding for example; or they could start doing time-limited discounts or other offers to encourage people who normally wouldn’t buy GURPS to buy it.
Moreover, the whole line would probably benefit from a reassessment. GURPS might not need a fifth edition (even though there might be good arguments for it ,), but at the very least its look and feel should be redesigned. I want attractive GURPS PDFs, not PDFs designed like a book from the ’80s.
That said, I think that in order to really revive the line, SJG should take a more drastic approach: GURPS should be released under the OGL or a similar licence. If you don’t have the resources to support effectively a line, open up to external contribution, like WotC is doing with D&D 5e.
At the moment SJG is doing a decent job keeping the line alive, but they’re doing just that: GURPS is merely alive, it’s not really growing. It’s not getting enough attention, since the focus of SJG is on Munchkin. The RPG industry seems to be moving towards rules light games. However, the fact that Pathfinder is still going strong suggests that there is a significant audience that might be interested in complex games – or at least, an audience that (potentially) is not deterred by complexity. I believe that GURPS could become popular among these players if it was marketed to them or if enough interest could be generated in the line thanks to an open licence.
In summary, GURPS is far from dead, but I fear that SJG’s strategy is doing more harm than good – especially in a long term perspective. At the moment, the game appears to be stagnant; it is isolated from the rest of the industry; and it is practically not marketed. If SJG do not have the resources for GURPS, perhaps they should open the line to external innovation. And we, the players, should continue doing what we do best: we should play more GURPS.
 As this whole post may seem like a rant from a disgruntled fan, I should add that I don’t think that Steve Jackson is incompetent. Steve Jackson is doing what’s right for the company – they’re focusing their resources on the most profitable product. And Munchkin is more profitable than GURPS could ever be. At the same time, I can’t help but feeling like GURPS has been left in a dusty corner.