Now that Gen Con Indy is over, I was thinking about the state of indie RPGs and of the RPG hobby in general. Besides the Indie RPG Awards, I was inspired by two threads: Steve Dempsey started thread on the Story Games forums about the state of indie RPGs, and on theRPGsite, "Bloody Stupid Johnson" made a thread on Gen Con Event Breakdowns.
In the ENnie Awards and the Origins Awards, the Dresden Files RPG took top place. In the Indie RPG Awards, Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World was the big winner - taking Game of the Year by a large margin and also netting two other awards. In the Diana Jones Awards, Jason Morningstar's Fiasco took top place.
Gen Con Indy was apparently a big success. An ICv2 report says that Gen Con Indy broke previous attendance records, with 36,733 attendees.
To see what was played, "Bloody Stupid Johnson" analyzed the schedule of games at Gen Con Indy 2011, and broke them down by system. For each, he had number of scheduled games, maximum number of players, and total hours.
D&D (all editions): 436 games , 10469 max players
Pathfinder: 251 games, 3258 max players
World of Darkness (LARP): 17 games, 2715 max players
Legend of the Five Rings: 30 games, 1008 max players
HERO games (various): 104 games, 769 max players
Shadowrun: 97 games, 718 max players
Call of Cthulhu: 98 games, 657 max players
Star Wars: 71 games, 442 max players
Savage Worlds: 71 games, 442 max players
GURPS: 18 games, 121 max players
World of Darkness (tabletop): 17 games, 76 max players
Palladium: 6 games, 47 max players
Indie RPGs*: 55 games, 1216 players
The status for indie RPGs is hard to measure. I count 35 specific games of the recent indie RPG trend (Dresden Files, Dread, Don't Rest Your Head, FATE, Mouse Guard, etc.). However, there are 20 identical slots of "Games on Demand" for any "indie RPG" with maximum 48 players.
Note that there are no numbers for how many games got their maximum number of players or even how many ran at all. So this is more a measure of interested GMs than of players. Interesting point that I took out of it were the resurgence of HERO games, that World of Darkness has shifted almost entirely to LARP.
Edited to add: The breakdown of D&D into different editions may also be of interest.
4th Ed. - 232 games, 8325 max players (including 188 RPGA games, 7742 max players)
3.5 Ed. - 77 games, 1291 max players
2nd ed. - 17 games, 60 max players
1st ed. - 110 games, 793 max players
Most RPG companies don't release their sales numbers. However, there was interest last October because Evil Hat released its sales figures at the same time as its Dresden Files RPG made ICv2's top 5 RPGs in hobby store sales. (ICv2 depends on self-reporting from hobby stores, so its rankings are prone to error, but they are still significant.)
Fred Hicks of Evil Hat posted Q3 2010 Sales Numbers post, showing a combined 3061 DFRPG book sales through "distribution orders" and 4427 DFRPG book sales total. Cyclopeatron's blogged about the ICv2 Q3 2010 sales. I can't do this for other quarters because Dresden Files didn't again make the top five. (If someone paid a bunch they could get the ICv2 full report - I don't). For comparison, Vincent Baker posted his 2010 sales numbers, showing that Apocalypse World sold 174 copies total in Q3 2010 - an order of magnitude less. On the other hand, countering the ICv2 numbers, author Shane Hensley commented that Savage Worlds product sales were 3-5 times bigger than the reported Dresden Files sales.
(For historical perspective, Gareth Skarka noted that his game Underworld sold 7500 copies in 2000.)
About Indie RPGs
Dresden Files has both taken mainstream awards and is selling an order of magnitude more than any indie RPGs. However, it is doing so mainly through the traditional distribution network - not the direct sales that most indie RPGs do. While I don't have sales numbers to confirm, I suspect that the best-selling indie RPGs would be Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard. However, these also have traditional distribution. Also, although Mouse Guard is solely written and copyright by Luke Crane, it is printed and distributed through Artesia author Mark Smylie's company Archaia Press.
Along related lines, I note that last year, indie RPG authors Rob Donoghue and Ryan Macklin helped freelance write the Leverage RPG for Margaret Weis Productions. Also at Gen Con Indy, Margaret Weis Production announced that they will be created a Marvel Heroes RPG line - a very major license.
The short form is, the current community of indie RPGs have started to merge with the mainstream. Even if they aren't really #5, Evil Hat have become a success in mainstream distribution - like previous author-founded companies Steve Jackson Games, Palladium Books, and even TSR. Authors of the current indie scene are being recruited for freelance work. However, the bulk of the indie RPG scene remains a small corner of RPGs as a whole - as evidenced by Fiasco and Apocalypse World. Whether you see this as indie authors gaining ground or selling out may depend on your point of view. *
Edited to add: The Dresden Files RPG was primarily written as work-for-hire and thus should not be considered indie. That mostly matches up with my point, that Evil Hat who published many indie games now also has a non-indie success.
About RPGs In General
The sales numbers I included above provoked some controversy. Gareth Skarka, in his October 2010 post Tabletopocalypse Now, predicted the "utter systemic collapse of the tabletop games industry within the next 5 to 10 years at most." He cited low sales numbers, and moves by White Wolf towards online play. Malcolm Sheppard added his own post, noting the decline of Google searches on the term "Dungeons & Dragons" - which Skarka responded to in a follow-up post. The significance of the Google search trend was fairly debunked by noting downward trends of "chess" and "Microsoft" and other terms. As noted earlier, the ICv2 numbers are also suspect. So while a downward trend in the industry is likely, the scale of it isn't clear.
I don't think doubtful about predicting any long-term future trend based on this. The RPG market has had plenty of ups and downs, and it has always been small after a brief fad around 1980 or so. There was a rise in the early 2000s with d20, but that bubble burst and there was a decline that followed. I suspect that the industry will continue to decline, though not drastically, until there is a new big splash.
In the meantime, convention attendance seems to be strong and not declining. Gamers continue, and lots of people are still publishing RPGs. Recruitment is limited, but it always was. On a good note, I have been seeing more kids events at the conventions I am going to. These are generally the children of gamers. Given that the peak of RPGs was around 1980, there could be a second wave as kids of those people come of age. As an anecdotal data point, my sister has not played any RPGs since high school - but her two sons are quite enthusiastic about D&D and the PS238 RPG.