If you’re in and around the gaming space, you’ve probably heard something about Cyberpunk 2077 by now. The game, being developed by CD Projekt Red (CDPR), is the company’s next major release and is based on tabletop RPG intellectual property, specifically Cyberpunk 2020 by R. Talsorian Games. It is also a game receiving a lot of attention, most notably last Sunday (June 9th) when Keanu Reeves took the stage at the E3 conference to announce the game’s release date next April. Now, this is a tabletop RPG blog, but Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that, love it or hate it, you should pay attention to. Extrapolating from the sales success of CDPR’s previous game, The Witcher 3, and assuming that the game is at least good enough to partially live up to the hype, Cyberpunk 2077 will be the largest TTRPG-to-video game crossover to date, and that may have some big impacts on the TTRPG audience in the coming years.
To start off, I must concede I’m an immense Cyberpunk 2020 fan. But to consider the impact of a huge TTRPG-based video game, I need to step back from the source material. What we’re looking at is a potential shift in the tabletop market merely because it will be exposed to a crossover event of massive scale. There has never been a modern AAA title based on a tabletop roleplaying game, never mind one where the designer of said game is both an active participant in the design process as well as releasing a tabletop game tied into both the existing franchise and the video game. Now I think R. Talsorian will do well with this pretty much regardless of what happens, but if the game does particularly well and the crossover marketing is particularly good…well, the numbers can be a bit overwhelming.
Let’s put a stake in the ground here. Grand Theft Auto V, a high profile AAA title, sold north of 100 million units. The Witcher series has been quoted to have sold around 33 million, so given the significantly higher exposure for Cyberpunk (CDPR reported a roughly 400% boost in views between the gameplay trailers for Cyberpunk versus The Witcher 3), a sales total somewhere between those two figures (let’s say 50 million) isn’t out of the question. Exact sales numbers to find for RPGs are difficult, especially those with significant traditional channel sales (bookstores and sites like Amazon guard their sales data very closely). Still, there is a relatively recent estimate from Wizards that 12-15 million people were playing D&D in North America in 2017, which grounds us to the type of market we’re looking at. Extrapolating from a 60% market share for D&D (same source as above, but originally from Roll20) and throwing some growth in there, we come to somewhere around 25-30 million people playing tabletop RPGs in the US. So if Cyberpunk 2077 comes out, does well, and 5% of its players then start playing Cyberpunk Red or Cyberpunk 2020, we’ve just blown up the demographics of tabletop roleplaying in a way likely not seen since Vampire: the Masquerade came out in 1991. 5% of Cyberpunk 2077 sales is a player base larger than that of Pathfinder.
So what does this mean? That really depends on what you see when you see a bloc of new players who are coming from a mainstream video game. The optimistic view is the one that a Cyberpunk 2020 fan has: Now there will be more Cyberpunk players, which means Cyberpunk Red will have more players, I can find players, there will be more splats, etc. It does go further than that, though. Literally millions of new players will shift the genre balance in an ecosystem that has no balance (because it’s all fantasy). Cyberpunk Red and Shadowrun 6e (and maybe other games like Eclipse Phase if the timing works) could ride a wave into a sci-fi gaming renaissance and maybe D&D won’t outnumber everyone as much.
The pessimistic view is informed more by the culture clash that already exists between tabletop gaming and video gaming. The “4e is like WoW” meme encapsulates an attitude shared far too widely among gamers pertaining to their chosen hobby and how it compares to video games. Beyond that, a flood of new players coming from media not exactly known for its progressivism (and some of the controversy around Cyberpunk 2077’s earlier marketing may exacerbate that) may not make forward momentum for the sort of inclusive hobby that we want to create. And of course there’s just the most cyberpunk issue of them all: if the Cyberpunk property really does grow in scale from this crossover, R. Talsorian could be bought out, bringing us back to the pernicious issue of corporations owning the most significant game properties.
I personally don’t think either extreme is going to happen. As much as the math is promising, I don’t think Cyberpunk 2077 will suddenly make the Cyberpunk series the most popular RPG. Nor do I believe the hobby will be overrun with video gamers who will shift the market in a negative way, or think that the Pondsmiths will ever let R. Talsorian be bought out. Those who are driven to Cyberpunk 2020 or Cyberpunk Red from Cyberpunk 2077 will have self-selected to a degree and enter the hobby in a very similar way to any other new player. I do think there will be a shift, though. Since coming to DriveThruRPG on the waves of the Cyberpunk 2077 announcement, Cyberpunk 2020, in spite of being 30 years old, has been in the top one tenth of one percent of products on the site in terms of copies sold. That’s a pretty amazing figure for a game which has had no supplement support in about twenty years. Once the game is out and marketing for Cyberpunk Red begins in earnest, there’s going to be an influx of fresh blood, pretty much regardless of how Cyberpunk 2077 ends up selling. I don’t know what the conversion rate will be, but when you consider that roughly 10% of the US already plays RPGs (based on the numbers we talked about above), capturing merely the existing overlap would still get you a player base larger than every tabletop RPG on the market other than D&D itself.
So why is this important? Well, even if the growth caused by Cyberpunk 2077 is just additive to the already significant growth we see in the hobby, it will mean both more genre diversity and a bloc of players coming at the hobby from a different angle. It will also, hopefully, prepare us for this happening more and more. The tabletop hobby is growing, and shifts happening outside the hobby will have larger and larger impact. On one hand, the network effects of a game that isn’t D&D, any game that isn’t D&D, bringing in this many new players will begin to have knock-on effects which erode the ‘Kleenex’ status of D&D. This is a good thing. Not only will there be multiple games that catch the public eye to some degree, there will be game studios, looking at what CDPR has done and browsing DriveThruRPG, looking for their next hit. On the other, a true mainstream push into the RPG design and publishing world could mean things a lot worse than D&D’s monopoly ever did. Only time will tell.
Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the first RPG crossover video game and it won’t be the last. What it may be though, at least through 2020, is the biggest. While saying it will be a shot in the arm for R. Talsorian Games is a no-brainer, Cyberpunk 2077 could also have a significant effect on the hobby as a whole if it sells at the level that current media engagement predicts. Whether this future excites or worries you, it’s time now to consider what it means that we may be entering a period where the hobby is driven by properties being used in this way. I don’t claim to know the future, but a future where more RPG properties enter the mainstream and a future with a more fragmented tabletop hobby are both increasingly likely. Cyberpunk 2077, whether its tabletop conversions bring this about or not, is a harbinger of this eventual future.