I have been watching the Robot Wars revamp for the last couple of weeks. For those who don't know the programme, you can probably guess from the name: hobbyists create robots and make them fight. They usually have punnish names ("Sir Killalot") and the creators are usually endearing eccentrics. It is great Sunday evening "I-have-to-go-to-work-tomorrow-but-at-least-I-can-have-a-few-beers-and-watch-Robot-Wars" TV.
I was probably not quite the right age when Robot Wars first came out for me to fall in love with it. It was the late 90s and I think I was in the region of 17 years old; it probably would have captured my imagination a lot more if I had been, say, 12. But I still really enjoyed it - and I'd say that if you can't enjoy a bit of Robot Wars you must have a heart made out of slate.
The most interesting thing about Robot Wars, looking back, was that when it first began you got a lot of different kinds of robots, all with different forms of attack and defence. There were no real expectations about what a "winning robot" would look like, so people tried all kinds of different tactics. It was a sort of mashing together of many different styles. But very quickly almost all robots began to develop common features. First, they have to have a low centre of gravity. Robots get knocked over a lot. And second, by the same token, they have to have a self-righting mechanism. In the early days a robot would get knocked or tossed over and that would be the end of it. Pretty soon all robots had ways of turning themselves the right way up if toppled.
And similarly the great initial variety of robots got sieved into a few basic types. There is the flipper type, which is shaped a bit like a dust pan and drives around quickly trying to wedge its way under other robots and then flip or level them over. There is the spinner type, which has a disc or similar which spins around at ludicrous speeds and does damage to other robots that way. And then there is the shoving type, which just tries to bully other robots into danger zones in the arena (like pits). Most winning robots are variants on these. You still get people who turn up with robots which have, say, a big axe or hammer or saw or whatever, but these tend not to do well. Through the process of competition you get a sort of narrowing of development into certain fairly restrictive pathways.
Let's call this the Robot Wars development model.
Not all development happens this way. Sometimes it doesn't happen through competition, but by accident. The classic example of this is the QWERTY layout for typewriter and computer keyboards. QWERTY may or may not be the best layout for a keyboard. There has been a lot of controversy about this down the decades (you can read about it on the wikipedia article or in a somewhat famous Stephen Jay Gould essay), but really it almost doesn't matter. The simple fact is that QWERTY caught hold of the workplace fairly early on, and got a significant head start on its competitors, and once that had happened, it became destiny. QWERTY is, and will likely remain, the layout for computer keyboards forever and ever and ever (or until the singularity takes over and we have nothing to do except get wheeled around having our every need taken care of, or exist in realms of pure thought, or whatever). This is not because QWERTY was tested against many different alternatives and found to be best. It was just because of fluke and then path dependence.
Let's call this the QWERTY development model.
Perhaps surprisingly, because RPGs are ostensibly in competition with each other (if I spend my pocket money on RuneQuest this month, I won't be spending it on Rolemaster), the development of RPGs leans much more closely towards the QWERTY model than the Robot Wars one. There are some competitors, so D&D does not have the utter dominance that the QWERTY layout has in the keyboard arena, but D&D came along early and established itself and has never looked back. It has been the dominant RPG ever since, and will almost certainly remain so forever and ever (until we are playing RPGs in realms of pure thought). The competitors, such as they are, are mere gadflies on the back of the elephant.
This, I think, makes the RPG industry very unusual. It is hard to think of other commercial sectors which are like that. Coca-Cola is somewhat bigger than competitors in soft drinks, and McDonald's in fast food, but do they quite capture the lingua franca role in their respective arenas that D&D has among RPG hobbyists?