Gamer fatigue and the growth of the hobby

In a recent episode of Breaking Into Board Games, we discussed our predictions about 2017. One of my predictions was that we would start seeing a cap on attendance at larger conventions. I wanted to continue on that subject with a wider lens, looking at a possible scenario we may be facing in the coming years.

The board game industry is growing at an explosive rate (revenue from hobby board games grew 56% from 2014 to 2015; I’d expect similar numbers when the numbers come in for 2016), and I’ve heard a few pundits indicate that there’s no end in sight. As an independent board game designer/publisher, I certainly hope that’s the case.

But I always try to plan for contingencies, and part of that is planning for the possibility that this explosive growth slows, stops, or even reverses.

To be honest, I would expect the hobby to continue to grow in 2017, and perhaps in 2018. But I think we’re going to see signs of strain and constraint. And I think gamer fatigue is going to play into that significantly.

Gamer fatigue

Every so often, a thread like this appears on BGG. Or this. Both are examples of “gamer fatigue,” a phenomenon that seems to set in after a few years in the hobby.

When people first enter the hobby, they buy games aggressively. If they like something, they’ll purchase it right away.

This “honeymoon” period lasts for about 1-3 years. But at some point, a gamer realizes that they can’t sustain that pace. They run out of space to store their collection. They realize, via a life event or other need for frugality, that they can’t spend so much money on games. They realize that half their collection is still unplayed. Many times, they even start to find new games bland. They pine for a time when games were “better,” which tends to align with the exact moment they entered the hobby.

W. Eric Martin of BGG has written eloquently about this topic. While new games may seem uninspiring after a few years in the hobby, it’s important to remember that new games are for new gamers, and what seemed fresh and exciting to you when you were entering the hobby was not all that innovative to someone who had already been in the hobby for 10 years.

Back to the new gamers: it’s a lot like meeting in front of a restaurant. Most people will linger for some time there, deciding whether to go in or continue down the street. But at some point, you either go in or not.

Same with this position of “I like it, I buy it.” It’s unsustainable. At some point, gamers slow their purchasing. Some of them drop out of the hobby altogether. Most others remain in, but acquire their games through trades or secondhand sales, making sure they sell games they don’t fit.

New gamers and the growth of the industry

The business has been booming lately because we’ve had so many new gamers rush in and buy games. As they “age,” even more new gamers enter the hobby, and the industry appears to grow.

I should mention at this point that this process of aging is necessary; I’ve been through it myself! And I should emphasize that veteran gamers are no less valuable citizens of the community. Indeed, gamers who have been around for a long time should be celebrated and appreciated. And many veteran gamers who slow their buying habits down contribute to the community in other ways, like through podcasting or running events.

But in terms of pure buying power, it’s the people new to the hobby who are driving the industry’s growth. As long as we have more people entering this “honeymoon” period than leaving it, we will see industry revenue grow.

If, for some reason, the flow of new gamers slows, we’ll see it in the bottom line. We’ll see convention attendance level out and revenue flatten out. It could be for a number of reasons, like the global economy suddenly tanking. Or the hobby hitting a point where board games get so mainstream that the only people discovering it are teenagers who are getting their first disposable income. Or the number of new games per year growing so huge that discovery becomes impossible for all but the biggest game companies and brands.

Look at the current market and ask yourself: is this sustainable? I can think of four companies that manufacture gaming tables. I can think of at least three companies that make custom inserts for board game boxes. Right now, they seem to be doing well, but will all those companies be able to survive a contraction? (I have friends at most of those companies, and I want them all to succeed, so I certainly hope so! But sometimes we have to look at things from a cold, clinical perspective.)

A lot of people talk about a bubble bursting, but it needn’t be so dramatic. If this happens, it’s just as likely that we see a flattening and a contraction. And the first place we’d see it is with new gamers failing to enter the business just as the honeymoon is ending for more seasoned gamers.

A market correction isn’t inherently a bad thing in the long run, although it would certainly make a lot of dreamers and small businessmen miserable. If our current growth is not sustainable, a correction may be what it takes to make our industry realistic and survivable over the course of decades.

Of course, as a small publisher, I’m rooting for the business to grow. But to me, the influx of new gamers is the canary in the coal mine. If we see a flattening, that’s going to be the first place it happens.

In the meantime, keep playing games, keep buying them, and keep telling your friends about them! That’s the best way to keep our hobby growing.