Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling

An honest answer to an honest query:

I'd honestly like to hear more about whether and how you think we can correct the artificially low selling prices of RPG materials that prevent smaller companies from hiring professional editors and thereby narrowing the gap between WOTC and Paizo and everyone else.

I think Zack and others have a valid point as consumers who don't want to purchase shoddily edited products - the way this sounds to me is that they'd be willing to pay a premium to get quality. My gaming dollars, reduced though they are, are in the same predicament.

What kind of changes in your market would there have to be for you to offer this sort of stuff, James? Please don't take this as a request to change your business, just a fairly sober assessment of what would be involved with someone like you being able to make money by switching and doing things in a way that's sustainable.
-- Neal Hebert

The short answer: the changes that would be required are impossible to achieve.

The long and rambling answer:

There is one core issue that keeps adventure game industry small and micro press role-playing game companies from being able to charge what they need to in order to be able to afford all the bells and whistles much larger companies can afford: the price sensitivity of the gaming consumer. All other measures of what goes into the pricing decisions of game companies remaining equal that is the only issue that can change what small and micro press companies can effectively charge.

Here are the basic inputs that go into determination of a role-playing game product price (MSRP):

Cost of writing/design/development
Cost of editing
Cost of art
Cost of graphic design
Cost of advertising, marketing, and sales
Cost of printing
Cost of shipping
Cost of distribution mark-up
Cost of retailer mark-up
Willingness of the game consumer to pay the final MSRP

The relative inelasticity of all these inputs, especially that final input, is what keeps the small publisher down.

Cost of writing/design/development: In the adventure game industry, if a writer gets more than five cents per word, he’s doing well; at 10 cents per word, he is counted among the RPG demi-gods. At that point, the much, much, much better rates in fiction and other genres become more attractive and such opportunities open up, regardless of his or her desire to continue writing for games (a writer can earn 10 to 20 times or more this rate writing even poor fiction). And with so many people clamoring to get into RPG writing, the lower end of the scale is effectively zero. So the basic cost of writing on a game product for most game companies in this industry ranges between zero and 10 cents per word, whether we speak of a micro company or Wizards of the Coast… I’d say today, the average is around four cents per word. Obviously, the writing element of price is not avoidable completely, as there must be a writer for every product, even if it is a monkey chained to a word processor.

Cost of editing: Historically, the cost for editing is about half that of writing, or two cents per word, or up to double that for the large companies with an editor on-staff. And as mentioned, this is one of the first expenses that many companies either go cheap on or cut out altogether, counting on play testers, if any (who are never, ever paid cash money) to find these errors.

Cost of art: Cost ranges wildly, from zero to exorbitantly stupid pricing levels. I’ve encountered start-up companies who have spent so much on art from top-name artists that they’ll never, ever recoup their costs… but they have some really beautiful doorstops. However, as even poor artists are far rarer than poor writers, even poor art is relatively expensive, so if any art is included, it can be a major factor in the cost of a product.

Cost of graphic design: This is one element of cost that over the years has decreased dramatically, thanks to the development of software that can be used on a home computer (InDesign, Quark, even Word with a PDF maker). Cost of this has gone down effectively to zero when the cost of a program can be amortized over many products and units, and the publisher can do the work from home; of course, a major complaint of many consumers is just that, that many products look like they simply went from the author’s Word file to the printer, and many these days do. A good graphic designer can cost as much as an editor or even writer, as like regular artists, graphic designers are not as common as writers and require training.

Cost of advertising, marketing, and sales: If there is one input that is dropped faster than editing, in all likelihood it is advertising/marketing/sales (which I lump all together here, as most publishers do, but are all in fact very different things). Today, most publishers consider having a Website and maybe, just maybe an entry in Game Trade Monthly (Alliance Game Distributor’s monthly catalog magazine) to count as all three. A full and proper budget would include money for ads in game magazines (if such existed today), ads on Websites other than one’s own, ads in game convention registration books, product and event support at game conventions, consumer questionnaires and circulars, and all forms of sales, from regular friendly calls to distributors to cold-calling retailers. As things stand today, even the big boys spend minimal attention to and dollars on any of these (in the RPG market; organized play in the TCG market is a core requirement of success). The most that many small press companies manage is maintain multiple sock-puppets to boost their reviews on various Websites…

Cost of printing: While the cost of printing has gone down over the years on a relative level when quality is concerned, the absolute cost of printing has gone up considerably. While in its heyday Judges Guild could get away with printing a 32-page book on newsprint with a two-color cover and black & white interior, today that would not cut it in the wider market, and anyone who tried to get that sold into distribution would be laughed out of the business. The equivalent today is the home- or Kinkos-printed, hand-stapled product, which never, ever gets into distribution in that form. Quality of printing has gone up, to the level that was undreamed of in Gygax and Bledsaw’s time, but the cost has also gone up considerably thereby, as the gains in print costs for earlier modes of printing are lost due to the requirement of publishing in the new glossy, full-color, hardcover form, in order to remain competitive. And still, save in the lesser quality of printing, costs per unit remain very high until you reach ~1,500 units, which is about three times as many units as most RPGs sell these days, sometimes many times more. This is the biggest input for setting the base price.

Cost of shipping: Though it is a minor thing, the cost of freight of a printed product from the printer to the publisher and thence to the distributor (or direct from printer to distributor, or more likely these days, from printer to consolidator to distributor), must be factored in, as well as the shipping and handling cost of selling a product direct to consumers. Though a minor cost, if not accounted for in the final cost of a product, due to very slim margins, this cost will eat into what little profit is made, if any.

Cost of distribution mark-up: Here we need to look from the MSRP backward; the distributor effectively takes 10% of the final MSRP, i.e., if a book has a final MSRP of $10, the distributor gets $1 of that.

Cost of retailer mark-up: Here we need to look from the MSRP backward; the retailer effectively takes 50% of the final MSRP, i.e., if a book has a final MSRP of $10, the retailer gets $5 of that.

Profit: Somewhere in there, one must account for making some sort of profit.

Willingness of the game consumer to pay the final MSRP: Here’s the biggest problem. Once you have all the other inputs, you can try to figure out what your MSRP will be on a product. But regardless of all these other inputs, you have to realize that the willingness of the game consumer to pay your final price will determine whether you sell anything at all. You could get the most expensive authors, the best editors in the world, the demi-god of artists, and have gold-foil covers and full-color 3-D effect interior pages, but if the final result is a book that is going to cost the consumer $1,000, you will maybe sell one copy, if you catch Peter Adkison’s attention.

The basic reality of the situation is that though most other products in publishing have increased their MSRP almost ten-fold for similar products over the last 30 years, games generally have only been able to increase their cost for similar products two to three fold, maybe, and that doesn’t really take into account the cost of inflation. For example, if that Pocket Book that sold for forty cents 30 years ago were still around, it would retail today at $4; however, it is not, as most paperback books today are double that length and run $8. However, a 32-page game module with a color cover and black and white interiors that sold for $5.50 back in 1979 generally today retails at $11… even though every single cost that goes into that product has increased dramatically!

The basic example in this is Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics, which in every way emulate the classic dungeon modules published by TSR back in the day. A 32-page module by Goodman Games retails at $11, double the cost of the original modules at $5.50… even though by the basic costs of inflation alone, a $5.50 module from 1979 should retail today at $15.52. The problem therein is that the costs are not the same for today’s publisher as for the publisher of 1979. Cost for every other input has gone up as well, beyond even the rate of price inflation, from writing and editing to sales and marketing, and especially printing costs, as rather than printing in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of units, he can print in maybe the high thousands of units… if he’s lucky. And this is when price inflation in print has skyrocketed compared to general price inflation… while printing in China is now dirt cheap, the price of paper, until recently, skyrocketed (one of the major reasons for the much, much greater rise in non-game book prices…).

The rule back in the day was the Rule of 10… you could multiply your basic print costs per unit (the cost of printing the book and freight from the printer to your warehouse) by 10 to derive an MSRP on your product. Considering that even then, distributors and retailers took 60% of the MSRP for themselves, you knew that per product, your other costs had a total budget (known as the gross margin) of 30% of the MSRP (remember, cost of printing was 10% MSRP). So with a module that cost 55 cents per unit to print, you had an MSRP of $5.50, with a gross margin per unit of $1.65; this is why the old Judges Guild products were cheaper than TSR products, because their cost of printing was so low, as they printed on newsprint with fewer cover colors (this also explains their odd prices, as Bob usually went with a strict 10 to 1 ratio, damn how pretty the final price looked).

Unfortunately, though prices in virtually every other sector of the economy and especially in other markets that publish on paper have increased at a rate greater than the general rate of inflation, not so for role-playing game publishing. Why? Good question. Are role-playing game consumers spoiled? Have role-playing game consumer incomes not kept up with the incomes of other consumers? Were role-playing game publishers unwilling to increase prices due to competitive fears from other game markets? Is there a natural downward pressure on role-playing game products due to the infinite re-usability of the core rulebooks? Probably a bit of all these things; but the end result is, gamer consumers expect to pay less today for their games, in relative costs, than most any other leisure market. And with the advent of PDF products and game piracy, there has been even further downward pressure on price points for RPGs, especially in the PDF market.

So with this downward pressure on MSRP from the consumer, and increasing costs in every other input, something needed to give… until today, unless one goes with the dirt-cheap printers out of China, the typical role-playing game product commands merely Rule of 5, a five-fold MSRP over unit printing cost. So today, that same book that cost you 55 cents back in the day probably costs you around $2 to print, and you can only charge $10 MSRP… upon which you get a gross margin of only $3.

Now we get into the total units factor. Back in the day, Judges Guild sold upward of 10,000 units on even a bad product, and 50,000+ units on a good one; today, unless you are Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and maybe Green Ronin, Goodman Games, Mongoose Publishing, or Steve Jackson Games, you are lucky to sell 1,000 units on a good product... very lucky. At the beginning of the d20 OGL run, sales of 10,000 units were not impossible; by the end, 1,000 units were the norm.

So at a minimum, back in the day, on a $5.50 MSRP product Judges Guild made anywhere from $16,500 to $82,500 gross margin; today, on an $11 MSRP product, your typical small publisher at best will bring in $3,300 if he manages to sell 1,000 units; more likely, he can sell 500 units, for $1,650 gross margin. Even in the d20 OGL heyday, he was still looking at best at $33,000 on his best-selling product, only double the gross margin of the worst selling product from Judges Guild. And remember too, these are not at all the same dollars… $16,500 in 1979 would be equivalent of upward of $46,000 today, just at the normal rate of inflation.

And none of this considers if the publisher has to eat any inventory… even a small inventory overstock means that all profitability is lost! For example, in the case of the publisher who sold 1,000 units on a 1,500 unit print run (the dead least he can print at a “regular” printer and get a decent per unit cost); he now has to eat the cost of 500 units; at $2.2 per unit, that’s $1,100, which drops the $3,300 gross margin down to $2,200 before he even pays a single contributor! And that’s not counting the cost of warehousing these unsalable products, which can range from a portion of a monthly storage unit fee (not the best idea, as most such are not climate controlled) to merely the opportunity cost of keeping it in your garage or basement.

It is just simple math from there…

A 32-page module probably runs around 32,000 words… at two cents per word, cost for writing is $640. A more professional writer at five cents per word runs $1,600. Let’s say that the author of this book cost merely three cents per word… round it up to $1,000. Out of $2,200, that leaves $1,200 in the budget.

Editing… let’s say he pays an editor half what he paid the author, or $500. That leaves $700 in the budget.

Graphic design… let’s say he pays a semi-professional graphic designer $5 per page (let’s not forget the four-page cover), thus $200. That leaves $500 in the budget.

Art… man, where is he going to get semi-professional art for a 32-page module for only $500? A pro second-run cover costs more than that. With one full page of art in eight, we’re looking at four full interior pages (from 16 quarters/spots to simply four full page pieces), plus at least two full-page maps, plus a full-color cover, plus a full-color back splash… yeesh. So he goes to DeviantArt, chats up an aspiring artist, and gets a full package deal for only $500. So now he has… nothing in his budget. Hmmm…

And remember, that all was “best case scenario,” where he actually sold 1,000 units of his 1,500 unit print run. If he sells even a single unit less, he’s out of pocket… effectively, subsidizing the gaming habit of other gamers. So he has no advertising, marketing, or sales, and he makes damn sure that every consumer he sells to directly pays full shipping fees, or then he’s out of pocket… and still, the publisher hasn’t made a penny.

Of course, if the publisher is the author, he makes $1,000, but gets paid nothing for all the effort he put into publishing the product in the first place… which is a LOT more time and effort than just the writing. So what is he to do to make a few extra bucks? Where can he cut? Should he cut? Should he not be satisfied with making $1,000 on a 32-page module? If he cuts out the editor, he makes another $500… if he does the graphic design himself, another $200. Cut out the art, there’s another $500… but cut out the editing, your sales drop a bit. Cut out the art, and sales drop even further… and indeed, it can be a death spiral, depending on how many units you print, and the method you use to print them.

Now, if he goes with print on demand, he has no worries about inventory (well, mostly… even with print-on-demand you need to keep a little inventory, as gamers these days do not go for the four to six week ship time that would be required if you did true print-on-demand). However, print on demand is more expensive per unit, with little or no discount for more units, so your gross margin per unit is even less… which means you still have to cut the costs of your other inputs.

And don’t get me started on Lulu, where the printing cost per unit is astronomical!

So unless a publisher is in it for vanity (and many are), it is extremely difficult to make dollar one in this industry.

So what can change all that, and make it possible for everyone in the game industry to make a “living wage?” As you can see from the various inputs, you can do one of two things to change total income, either lower the cost of your inputs or raise the price of your products. As lowering the cost of your inputs is actually the opposite of what you want to do, there is one way to increase income… and that is to raise the MSRP so that all these inputs can be better compensated.

Unfortunately, that has proven almost impossible, as role-playing game consumers are extremely price-sensitive, some would even say, "price entitled." You can create a “premium” product, like Nobilis or Ptolus, but then you also limit your market, as there are few consumers willing to pay $100+ for a single book… and then, it had better be a pretty damn good-looking and valuable book, which itself again raises the cost of inputs. There was, until recently, a good way to improve your income on a per-product basis… PDF sales. With PDF sales, your printing cost is zero, and distribution cost is much less than normal channels (significantly less if you sell them yourself rather than go through DTRPG/RPGNow or another seller, but then you are only preaching to the choir and have a very limited market). Gross margin on PDFs was quite nice, when you were able to charge full MSRP. Unfortunately, that is becoming less and less of an option, in the race toward zero that has become the PDF Price Wars.

Already, game consumers wondered why, if they were not getting a print book, they should have to pay the equivalent price… and so many publishers slashed their PDF prices, some drastically. Now, with Paizo offering the Pathfinder RPG PDF at merely $10 (1/5 the price of the actual book), begun, the PDF Price Wars have. Essentially, Paizo gets only half their normal gross margin on the PDF version of the product… more or less giving it away, or at least, subsidizing each and every purchase! Now for them, I am sure they view this as a loss leader… but it sets a very bad precedent. Now game consumers will wonder why they can’t buy every PDF at the same ratio; they will neither understand nor care that Paizo is using the PDF as a loss-leader to get consumers to buy into Pathfinder, with the hopes that they will, down the road, buy Pathfinder products at the full MSRP (print or PDF). They will begin to demand that other publishers follow Paizo’s lead… which may well be the final nail in the coffin of publishing role-playing games as an industry, rather than a hobby. Yes, the industry is that strained, especially in the current economic conditions in which leisure dollars are at a minimum.

And with an ever greater portion of role-playing game company income coming from the sales of PDFs, what effects will ripple through the industry with even a 10% overall drop in prices due to this Pathfinder effect? This is going in the very opposite direction that prices need to go in this industry.

Of course, there is another way to improve publisher and thus editor/author income… increase the number of gamers, and thus the gross number of sales; this lowers the per unit cost and increases the gross margin. But I do not mention this, because this is the Holy Grail of gaming. More companies have fallen tilting at this windmill than any other. The mythical “introductory boxed set” that will ignite consumer imagination and sales has broken more game companies than I can recall. The problem is, everyone (well, all the oldsters) remembers the great success of the Moldvay Basic Set for Dungeons & Dragons, and seek to recreate that feel and success; the latest in this long line is of course HackMaster Basic from Kenzer & Company, who have gone so far as to hire the original cover artist, Erol Otus, to create a cover in homage to that legendary king of starter sets. Some of this is out of a desire to evoke the feel of the original for the OSR crowd, but I’m sure there is an element of hope with HMB that it can somehow catch fire, just like its hoary predecessor.

The problem is that when Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons released back in 1981, the market was very, very different. There was no Internet, and there were no computer games; heck, D&D is the granddaddy of World of Warcraft, after all. There was then in the United States a larger group of moderately well-educated semi-curious young men with more leisure time and more discretionary income and an interest in reading and in fantasy than at any other time in world history, who had nothing better to do than to sit around and play a table-top role-playing game with their friends. I would argue that the vast majority of today’s youth are not remotely as well read (hours spend on the Internet notwithstanding), utterly incurious, have less leisure time, less discretionary income, no interest in reading other than what’s up with Britney Spears and Megan Fox, no interest in fantasy save for watching LotR on DVD and checking out hot dark-elf-chick ass on WoW, and little or no interest with actually physically hanging out with friends (after all, that’s what Facebook is for, right?) And that’s not counting the amazing push D&D got with the whole “D&D is Evil” campaign, which proved the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The advertising and marketing required today to crack into this current market is simply cost prohibitive for the return gained, as Wizards of the Coast has discovered much to its chagrin.

And I should note, a repeat of the Third Edition miracle is impossible. Third Edition did not succeed based on new acquisitions in the youth market; the bulk of their market was in gamers returning to the fold. Third Edition hit just as all those gamers who started playing back in the early ‘80s were once again looking around for something to do; they had started their families, were well into their careers, and wanted something to do with friends once a week that would not get them in trouble with their wives. Gaming was a perfect solution… and when they went around seeking new products for AD&D (some not having played since 1E or even OD&D), they discovered that there was a whole new edition! And so D&D struck gold a second time, as the same generation that had such extensive leisure time and discretionary income in their youth now had more of the same in their 30-something stage… and often vastly greater discretionary income than in their youth, even if they may have had slightly less leisure time. And so they fueled the Third Edition miracle and the d20 OGL boom and eventual bust. There is no “third time’s the charm” for D&D; it has run its course. Even with Wizards pulling out all the stops with transforming the D&D experience into a table-top replica of the World of Warcraft experience did not draw in remotely as many new consumers as had been hoped; and D&D is the primary mode of acquisition of new role-playing game consumers, likely by an order of magnitude over all other role-playing games combined.

And it should be noted that today, with the Greater Depression we are entering, discretionary income simply does not exist for the vast majority of consumers… the “savings rate” in the US has gone from negative (i.e., spending future earnings through debt) to a robust 6%+ (mostly not true savings, rather, the money thus "saved" going to pay down existing consumer debt, i.e., credit cards). Ask any retailer what most of his customers used to buy games in the last 10 years, and you will hear him answer, “credit cards.” And of course, that’s what folks generally buy PDFs with, too. With consumer credit in collapse, jobs in free-fall, state budgets being slashed (or in the case of California, debt being issued in the forms of IOUs), the lack of discretionary income will only get worse. [Note: I maintain that we are entering an economic dislocation the likes of which has not been seen since the Roman Crisis of the Third Century.]

Increasing the absolute number of role-playing game consumers and raising prices, the only viable solutions to increasing the income of game publishers, writers, editors, artists, and so forth, are essentially no longer possible, or so improbable as to be virtually impossible. The former is possible, but only with an advertising and marketing campaign the likes of which would bankrupt even Wizards of the Coast; the latter has become impossible due to general economic conditions. Unfortunately, the adventure game consumer market, which until recent developments I viewed as open and expandable, has become a zero-sum game, save for within very small, niche markets, where much blood, sweat, and tears (and usually treasure) can generate a handful of new players. It is in the beginning of the death spiral that struck wargames 25 years ago. For every dollar that a game consumer pays for the product of one game company, another game company loses. Thus the current “Edition Wars,” which make all previous edition altercations pale by comparison.

Every game consumer now struggles to ensure the survival of his preferred game system, consciously or no. Without enough support to a game system, the publisher collapses, and support ends, and thus for many gamers who vest their interests in the continued support of a game, so ends all the fun. With the rise of the OSR and the veritable bifurcation of the D&D market between 3E and 4E, overall purchasing trends in the RPG market have collapsed. The OSR consumers buy only the rare OSR product, and many of these are free or virtually free, completely subsidized by the publisher. The 3E market has collapsed, though many gamers still play 3E; many of them have more game books than they could ever use in a lifetime, purchased during the heyday of d20 OGL sales or at pennies on the dollar following the glut and collapse. Some d20 OGL games, notably brands such as Pathfinder, Castles & Crusades, Conan, True20, and a few others, still have moderate support. 4E is selling whatever 4E sells, which from anecdotal evidence, barring Amazon sales, is not much better than what 3E sold near its end (though these days, Amazon sales might be picking up a good bit of that slack… we have no way of knowing the truth). On the fringes are a few non-OGL based games, with their own niche markets.

Note that I have mentioned that the “adventure game consumer market” is now a zero-sum game, not the “number of people playing role-playing games.” With unemployment likely to hit 12% at the end of the year (U-3; U-6 is likely to be more around 20%, and True-U likely to top 25%, with even those working “full time” only getting 30 hours per week on the average), there will be plenty of leisure time to go around. Though there will be plenty of leisure time, of course, even those living on unemployment will be hard-pressed to pay their regular bills (and pay down existing debt), let alone purchase games! And so, though many might be playing role-playing games, and there might even be a great number of players generated in the coming years, most of these will not be role-playing game consumers. And therein lies the great truth and, for the industry, the tragedy of role-playing games.

As Gary Gygax may have said, “The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don't need any rules.” Frankly, with most games, all one needs is the core rules… modules, supplements, sourcebooks, campaign settings, all is fluff, and for a game master with enough time and creativity, completely unnecessary. Personally, with the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert D&D sets, I have everything I ever need to run every kind of role-playing game genre or scenario I would ever contemplate running. Some could do this simply with the original D&D boxed set. And of course, at its most basic, you don’t need any books or even dice at all, just a handful of friends and a common understanding of the ground rules so that the game doesn’t descend into the classic, “I shot you!” and “No you didn’t!” arguments.

Gamers do not need us and our products, the writers, editors, artists, and publishers of the adventure game industry. They may want us, but they do not need us.

Like baseball, once you buy a bat and a ball and a glove, you’ve got everything you ever need to play the game a thousand times over; heck, my father still used the glove he had when he was a kid when we threw the ball around when I was a kid!

And that’s the reality of the situation, sans rose-tinted glasses. I have seen the future, and it isn’t pretty… in general, but most specifically, for any sort of leisure market, particularly adventure games, and most especially role-playing games (though I think we’ll do better than anything that has “collectible” in the title… that’s for damn sure!)

That’s the long and rambling of it, from Septimius Severus to Gary Gygax…


Timeshadows said...

Thanks for giving it to us straight, James. I appreciate it.

lessthanpleased said...

This was a phenomenal read.

I've gotten kind of inured to the Death of Roleplaying Games Apocolyptica because Ryan Dancy's analyses always seem to kind of descend into sour grapes, but this is fascinating stuff.

What I find most interesting is the stuff on .pdfs, particularly the Pathfinder analogy - when I heard the price point of the .pdf, all I could think was that they're banking on a long tail of sales of the print product that strikes me as incredibly unlikely given the market right now.

And it does make a great deal of sense that consumers interested in paying a premium are significantly outnumbered by 1) casual gamers and 2) hobby enthusiasts who buy so much that they can't continue to buy at their preferred pace if prices go up to where they should be.

The point about advertising is interesting, and something I was trying to explain to NewbieDM when he was complaining that someone needs to figure out how to grow the hobby. Though gaming magazines still exist, advertising within them gets far less bang for your buck these days given the contraction of readership. But even barring the expense of larger outside of niche advertising budgets, is it even possible to market this stuff such that new gamers will think gaming is cool or fun?

This is an honest question. Avant-garde marketing scholarship is one of my favorite things to research, but I'm not certain there's even a way to do this sort of thing anymore - and that's with genre books like fantasy becoming more widely read!

Kobold Quarterly just did an interview with Goodman on the state of the gaming industry which was a pretty great read. Would you be willing to do an interview with us on this topic, or are you too busy?

I don't know, I think this stuff would be pretty challenging stuff for our readers - which is what we should be doing.

I definitely understand if you're not up for it, but I can promise that we'll plug you're Web site in the interview. Just let me know if I can pass the idea around to the rest of the editors on staff and our reviewer.

Thank you again for posting this.

James Maliszewski said...

What an awesome post.

JDJarvis said...

The world economy is flattening.

I'm a technical Illustrator who has been working as a concept-artist/animator for a decade or so now with over 20 years experience.

I used to pull in a lot of work doing the technical art for text books, government reports and the like. These days I have to compete with folks willing to attempt to do the same work on the other side of the globe for 1/10th or less of what I and others with equal experience charge.

Publishers are swayed by these lower costs, and then typically discover they have to spend more time editing and correcting tech art which impacts their entire product cycle and the costs. Most of my tech-art work has lately been correcting others mistakes and the error rates are actually pretty fearsome at times.
So the publisher ends up making less on the book line then they planned and can't afford as large an art budget on their next product line making the folks still learning to do their trade well much more attractive for a smaller budget despite the risk it presents to the production cycle and final expenses.

There is a sort of pdf effect for text book publishers as well. Text book publishers find themselves having to produce on-line product to supplement their print lines but to also replace some of what their print lines once supported which drives down profits on the entire product line as well.

Profits go down, budgets go down, wages go down.

The economy flattens. It doesn't leave much room for earnings for those that aren't producing the essentials.

Anonymous said...

Essentials - US farmers made more money for the first time in 30+ years in 2008.

I agree with this on the whole except for the bit about fiction pay rates, which in my experience are about 5-10 cents a word at best, at least for new writers in the genre areas that overlap with gaming.

Jason said...

Outstanding post, James. Sadly, I fear it'll do little to quell the wails of fans who think it's easy to write, design, lay out, then thoroughly edit and proof things all by yourself.

Jonathan said...


Given all the "writing on the wall" I wonder how many game publishers have their head in the sand? Perhaps the route people should be taking is to change the business model entirely. I mean... your analogy about the baseball, glove and bat is dead on; but gamers still love to consume new ideas. Of course, I'm biased by our new experiment with Nevermet Press, but maybe taking the rules out of the content entirely is one way to reach a broader market. The content becomes transferable to a wider variety of markets and mediums since it, at its core, is structured fiction and nothing more. Of course, we are marketing to gamers currently - but long term its obvious to me that there's a larger market out there for this content; either through b2b relationships or via more traditional consumers of fiction.

I guess what I'm saying is that, from my point of view as an industry outsider (for the most part) looking in, it seems like the survivability of the industry over the long term is recognition of the importance of and truth in your baseball/glove/bat analogy. Figure out some new ways to deliver the "baseball experience" and then you'll be way out ahead of the pack.

couple minor comments:

Disposable income - I think your analysis is probably true about people saving and not spending; but one thing is missing: Teenagers and twenty somethings always have disposable income. The trick is to convince them that your product is more important than that cool iPhone they want.

Facebook - I think the recognition that the __way__ in which the new generation of gamers interact is fundamentally different is going to be key for RPG publishers to survive. Who says the RPG gaming experience has to be limited to rolling dice on a table? I'm frankly amazed that companies haven't put more efforts this market - game over twitter, txt, or FB... (yeah, i know WotC has that FB App, but that's not really social per se) Now... if someone would come out with a full distributed gaming app for the iPhone, with twitter integration or something similar, I would be on board in a minute. I'm not talking about video gaming; I mean social gaming.

Delta said...

Yeah, this is pretty brilliant, and hits an enormous number of interesting topics.

I'm hoping that your analysis of the economic downturn turns out to be a worst-case scenario.

Fitzerman said...

Your invocation of the "wargame death spiral" brings an interesting idea to mind. Though the complex, simulationist wargames of yore seem to be well and truly buried, the independent board game industry as a whole has experienced a true Renaissance lately, with an unprecedented variety of high-production-value games available to a seemingly ever-widening audience. Interestingly, many of these games sell at a significant premium when compared to the mainstream games that might seem to be their main competition (Risk, Monopoly etc tend to go for less than $20, while games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan can go for $30+, and more like $90+ for games like Descent or War of the Ring.)

Are there any lessons for the niche RPG industry to learn from the hobbyist board game industry?

The Duke of Arkansas said...

I "enjoyed" this post greatly. I use quotes because it's hard to truly enjoy a well-reasoned explanation as to why an industry that provides me with so much entertainment is in such trouble.

You've mentioned WOTC and Paizo as the big contenders in the industry, and the gap between them and the small press entitities. I wonder where you'd (or anyone else willing to comment) put Pinnalce Entertainment Group (PEG) and their Savage Worlds product in this continuim. Obviously PEG is not a major player like WOTC and Paizo, but they do seem to be having some success with their products. Their books may not have all the bells and whistles of a WOTC product, but I think they're still good quality products. I don't think they're making any money off of their $10 basic rulebook (that's just a guess on my part, I have no true knowledge of the facts), but it seems a method to encourage people to buy other PEG product which seem to be priced more in line with the rest of the industry. Of course you may view the $10 basic rulebook part of the problem for the industry.

My objective is not to point at PEG and say "look, this invalidates some or all of your post." I think your post is probably 99% spot on. But, is PEG's model a fluke? Are they positioned at some near-mythical spot between the big boys of the industry and the small presses? Are there other publishers that also might be bridging this gap?

The Recursion King said...

"As Gary Gygax may have said, “The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don't need any rules."

I doubt Gary Gygax would ever have said that, given that he states in his introduction to the original D&D that the rules are intended to be guidelines. Otherwise I thought your post was very informative, if a little defeatist. It seems as though you've already given up. Take heart, where there's a will... there's a way ;-)

JB said...

In the future, game designers will all have to be Kevin Siembeda!

Artist, Author, Publisher

Thanks, James. Depressing as hell, but it's always good to know your location when starting a journey.

Erik said...

There's a lot of good stuff here, but also a lot of bold assertions and back of the envelope nonsense, in my opinion.

Part of the problem, here, is that you're assuming that anyone can make any kind of money at all selling 1000 units of just about anything. I'm not sure that's ever been true at any time in the history of the tabletop gaming industry, and it's certainly not true now.

You've got to find a way to develop and audience for your product that is larger than 1000 potential sales. Every product Paizo produces, for example, must endure a rigorous cost/profit analysis before it gets the green light. Everything we do has realistic break-evens in the sub-2000 units category, and only extremely rarely does a product in our lineup not sell significantly more copies than that.

If your potential audience is fewer than 1000, you probably are better off either throwing in the towel and finding more lucrative business opportunities, or going for some sort of "deluxe" high-end approach that more reasonably charges gamers for the time, effort, and resources put into your product.

Ptolus is a good example of this. Yes, it was outrageously expensive both to produce and to buy, but Monte Cook (who, despite the drawing power of his name, is really just a guy working with his wife to create cool games) found a way to build the book affordably (mostly by writing it himself and offloading production costs on a better-capitalized print partner with strong distribution). As you say, there are only a limited number of gamers willing to fork out $100+ for a book like Ptolus, but Monte had them lining up at its release, and the book is now completely sold out and almost impossible to find. Oh, and I'm confident Monte made a ton of money on it.

No one in this business, from the smallest one-man publishing operation to the biggest wholly owned subsidiary of a multinational corporation, is entitled to a successful career in gaming.

People producing niche products for a niche market (which is what producing material for Judge's Guild is) are never going to make much money at it, and success is going to come (if it comes at all) from spending more time building the audience than writing the products. Or from realizing that the older market you serve is probably willing to pay more for a product (PDF or otherwise) that caters directly to their interests. The good news is that fans who are familiar with Judge's Guild and want to see it continue probably have a lot more disposable income than fans interested in, say, an anime game or something, so the potential for a supporting cadre of essentially patrons is much more likely in your case than in most.

And as far as the "Pathfinder Effect," I find your statement on PDF pricing regressive and myopic. If Paizo is not worried about the effect our subsidized Core Rules PDF pricing will have on even our other non-deep-discounted PDFs, why is it that other publishers are so convinced it will affect their business?

Lastly, if you're in the business of selling core rules, getting those rules as widely distributed as possible and then making money off of the support products sold to that audience is, I think (and hope!) a very viable business strategy.

You've got to have an audience if you want to make any money, in this business or anywhere.

--Erik Mona
Paizo Publishing

Stuart said...

Excellent post - tons of interesing, useful information and ideas. :)

Just to add something else to the mix, this was recently posted on CNN Money:

Board games are back - Jul. 10, 2009

"In 2008, board game sales climbed 23.5% to about $808 million, and they're expected to grow more this year.Of course, board games have lived in the shadow of video games for the past decade. Through 2007, video game sales had been growing steadily by more than 7% a year -- sales that year totaled $12.4 billion -- while board games had been experiencing a steady slide since their heyday in the '80s.
But with the onset of the recession, as video games have suffered from the dip in consumer spending, their older, less-costly cousins -- Clue, Candy Land, and the like -- have benefited.
The economic downturn has created what many experts call a "recession-resistant" industry -- one that, for families operating on tight budgets who have children to entertain, is attractive no matter the economic climate. And in the case of board games, they might even be most attractive in the worst times."

James V said...

It is pretty definite that the RPG industry as we know may be starting its death throes. Oddly enough, however, this doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would.

I think it's primarily because I'm just the consumer who sees RPGs not just as a commodity, but as a hobby with a surprisingly low entry point. As you brought up, Gygax admits that friends and an imagnation are all that is really necessary for Role-Playing Games. The rules are just different expressions of that imagination made for the sake of bringing a little structure to the usual chaos of pretending. This means that nearly every Joe or Jane with a brain can at least attempt a contribution to gaming at large. The quality can vary, but when there are a million roses planted in the garden, and the internet gives you a thousand spectators to each bloom, it becomes easier to see what's worth picking and what isn't.

I think this is going to be the trend of the future, fans taking their favorite ideas, finding some way to get it out to the masses, likely online for as little as possible, and let the crowd decide.

This is definitely deadly to the market of shiny full color hardcover books, where a guy might get lucky enough to make enough cash to pay the bills. What I'm wondering is if something new will replace it if/when it happens.

Chris said...

@Stuart: That sounds like a pure piece of marketing puffery to me. You know, the same way it's always the rag trade that pushes the line that "the suit is back!" ;)

So if RPGs are doomed, what comes next? Squaremans reckons that dead tree press RPGs are a dinosaur, and the next big thing is probably going to be enhanced reality games using your next-gen iGadget. Brace for a revolution...

Wulfgar22 said...

Wow. Truly enlightening. Cheers.

Stuart said...

@Chris: The title is puffery of the "Bam! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" variety, but the it claims that sales are up in 2008, and projected to continue.

Whatever the quality / merit of the story it's an indication that the board game market is not in its death throws... and any trip to a toy store / department store should confirm that.

I think that Erik is right - a lot of people are looking at a very, VERY narrow market for their material, which is okay for a hobbyist... but not for a business.

Stuart said...

I also want to say that anyone claiming the future or "evolution" of tabletop games is somehow something that's NOT a tabletop game and involves computers and online play... that's not the future - that's the present and it's a different industry. :)

Anonymous said...

how would you categorize Burning Empires and Mouse Guard?

Did you get a chance to look at the Dogs in the Vineyard numbers?

Josh said...

I don't think Adventure Games will completely die off but, I do see a big change coming in the market. If I had to bet on the outcome, I would lay my money on only one or two of the big companies surviving. The rest of the market would be either the free producers or small houses like TLG making up the rest of the landscape.

What this does is return the games to the small groups as in the early days. Will it be a revival and return to the days gaming was popular? I don't think so. Those days are passed.

In the end I don't think the industry is as much dying as changing forms.

Matt Finch said...

Rather than thinking of this as the doom of rpgs, a couple of points:

1) it outlines the demise of the high production value, brick and mortar distributed RPG product published by someone who relies on the products to make a living - it doesn't outline the doom of rpgs themselves.

2) it also mentions the development of a new model that's beginning to surface, both with Paizo and with the old school renaissance publishers. In the case of Paizo, it's about disseminating core rules at a low cost. In the OSR, the cost is usually zero. See Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and BFRPG.

What's also happening in the Old School Renaissance arena is that part-time publishers are producing RPG products they don't depend upon for a living. The products are at a slightly lower production value than professional products, but only slightly less so - and in some cases the PV is actually higher. It's the profit margin that's lower (negative in many cases if you factor in the cost of time spent). This model of publishing is the tiny mammal that might be destined to survive in an environment where the mighty dinosaur can no longer find enough food.

Rognar said...

I believe another problem which most people in the industry would be loathe to admit, is that there is simply too much product out there. Just a quick perusal of the website of my FLGS indicates they added 29 new rpg books to their inventory last month alone. Combine that with collectible card and miniatures lines which have significant market overlap and it's easy to see that most of those products are going to pass completely unnoticed by almost everyone.

lessthanpleased said...


Your point about doing what you can to spread your core rules is pretty neat - I'm guessing you're a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

That being said, I don't know why anyone would want to buy a PF .pdf instead of a real book - you guys have earth-shaking production values.


Anonymous said...

Great post, James! There's so much info there that it's going to take me a while to digest it all.

Here's my inital thoughts, though:
I, for one, will not be sad to see the gaming "industry" taken down a peg. There's so much cheap or free gaming material out there on the web that purchasing game books isn't something I do often. I think the internet has given gaming hobbyists a big new forum to express their ideas, and I think what many of us are finding is that we don't need big industrial game companies to write good material for us - we can write it on our own. We can then share it on the web, refine it, and use it among our friends. It's taking the hobby to a grassroots level.

The other thing that the internet has allowed for is really small-run pdf sales. An example is One Bad Egg. A small retailer, selling short pdfs on isolated topics. Put out a few good products, next thing you know, they're nominated for Ennies.

StormBringer said...

The trend towards lower and lower prices isn't specific to the gaming industry, of course, nor are the repurcussions:

James V said...

@Matt Finch
Thank you for saying explicitly what I just tap-danced around. I can definitely see the industry changing in big ways, but it won't be all bad. I find the hobbyist in me is thrilled by this growing aspect of self-publishers being one of the growing outlets for RPGs and their materials.

I'm sure that these folks won't make a lot of money, the books won't always be the prettiest (though a few may be), and more than a few of these products might just plain suck, but again, I trust the meta-mind of the internet to filter out the good stuff for all of us.

Ross A. Isaacs said...

When I started out as a freelance game designer and writer in 1996, I was paid five cents per word. Here we are in 2009, and the best I could be paid is.... five cents per word.

Brunomac said...

>for one, will not be sad to see the gaming "industry" taken down a peg. There's so much cheap or free gaming material out there on the web that purchasing game books isn't something I do often<

I'm totally with Asmo on this one. The gaming item that has helped me the most in the last 15 years is the Old School Encounter reference. Highly valuable (to an old school D&D'er like me) and free! I think we need more of that great grass roots hobbyist stuff, and way way less of guys who are blogging trying to get into the Pro/Am side to get a few bucks for their efforts from a market that is over-saturated, and mostly weak financially.

If they stop making everything for gaming right now, I still have enough rules books for what I want to run, and enough material in my head, to keep my campaigns going for many years. Gaming won't die if these dudes stop making and selling game stuff. At least not for me. My gaming life dies only when I do.

Tenkar said...

I'm a bit conflicted at the moment. As someone that subscribed to James' earliest products, I obviously saw the talent and potential of what James can produce.

The reality is something different when it comes to our hobby. Making a living off this is few and far between, and many that do don't seem to do so for long.

James is targeting a niche in a market that is by definition, a niche itself.

Complaining about how the big boys in the niche do things is irrelevant to James' sub-niche. I bought in from the beginning of James' dream because I'm a C&C fan with the disposable income of a 40-something that enjoys the hobby and can afford what he wants.

I wish I could make a living off the hobby I love, but the reality is the vast majority of us have jobs that are separate from our hobbies.

James, I think your perspective is a bit skewed from the position you find yourself in.

Anonymous said...

Rognar has hit on something. The industry suffers from too many games and too many of the wrong kinds of supplements for those games. When I first played DnD, I purchased the DMG, PHB, MM, FF, and DD. I spent most of my money on content for those rules - Dragon Magazine, modules, etc. After getting burned on a couple of the later rulebooks, I just dropped out of DnD because TSR kept changing the game with more and more ridiculous rules.

WotC was even worse about it and so are many of the smaller companies. The only company that has done it right and survived, in spite of numerous other problems each of which would have been fatal to another company, is Chaosium. They sell great content for rules that are fundamentally the same as they were decades ago. I haven't purchased any new RPG material from any other company in many years.

If you are a game publisher, create a good set of rules and sell interesting content for those rules! People don't remember the chaotic rules of 1ADnD for example, they remember how awesome and fun Against the Giants was and still is. Stop trying to sell me new rulesets!

Shawn said...

Making oodles of money? Yeah, it's not a great time I don't think, but how much of that is because the market is just flooded? I sure do have a heck of a lot more choices for RPG's than I did back in the early 80's. There's a ton of stuff out there, and more every day. A lot of it is really good. A lot of it is drek.

In terms of Paizo and their PDF pricing...

A dense RPG PDF with hundreds of pages is of limited use to me. It's too expensive and time consuming to print, and not handy enough as a PDF to easily reference at the table. I buy a lot of RPG PDF's, but the big, glossy stuff is usually going to be a hardcopy purchase.

Now, I'm not all that interested in Pathfinder at this stage, but at $10 I'll buy the PDF just to evaluate it. If I like what I see, then I'm much more apt to pick up the hardcopy on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where you are getting your pricing from. Writer's rates - sure, if you are getting into something with distribution in the hundred thousands, you can get more. But any kind of writing with lower distribution, 5-10 cents per word is par. Fantasy & Science Fiction mag, with 26,600 paid circulation - 6-9 cents per word. Asimov's Science Fiction, 6 cents a word. Strange Horizons, 5 cents a word. Sure, if you get into Harper's you could make 50 cents to a dollar a word, but that's pretty leet and goes out to more than 200,000 readers. Sounds to me like RPG writer pay is fair.

How many words are in the usual 32-page adventure, as compared to a 400-page paperback? I have Steven King's Desperation here in hand; it's a 690 page hardback for $27.95. I also have Dark Heresy, which is $50. It of course has more art and layout, and is more expensive to print. But even if you compare to textbooks - other big, glossy, heavily edited, small distribution books, RPG prices aren't out of line. 650-page textbooks go for about $75-$120 and the factors leading to their artificial price inflation are well known.

Sure, there are problems, but the pay rate and the price of the products are not the issue.

BlackDiamond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BlackDiamond said...

There's a lot of "common industry knowledge" in this post, quite a bit of it untested and a little suspect.

As a retailer, and a former (small) magazine publisher, my observations are:

1) Viability. If you can't support a big enough print run that works with a decent cost model, that product (or your company) probably shouldn't exist. The RPG segment seems to be made up of a lot of very sharp guys with day jobs and home office RPG publishing company. The pie is cut too thinly for this to be viable. Add in the "long tail" and you've got a giant crowd of gamers who can't agree on what to play.

2) Usability. My thoughts on RPG products are that a LOT of them were being bought, pre recession, as interesting reading or source material for OTHER games. I think this type of material is something around 30% for our store (about $75k/year in RPGs). When economic times are hard, this spending is cut sharply and we learn who is really playing what. My guess is some publishers have seen their sales grind to a screeching halt and may not know why. I wonder if this is a more universal trend and if anyone has noticed this?

3) The Hobby Need. Hobbyists will spend money on their hobby, provided they have a job. There is no need to worry about consumer spending numbers, or other macro trends. As long as they have jobs, they will buy. If you want to go macro, try to find some "true" unemployment numbers. At around 16%, there is not a lot of buying going on, but I believe that is entirely about employment.

4) Pricing. A 1st Edition Player's Handbook, adjusted for inflation, is something like $47. Yes, RPG gamers are cheap bastards. Not only will they not pay $47, they will turn around and tell you that the true MSRP is $28, because that's the Amazon price.

Most RPG gamers do not accept they are in a hobby. A hobby requires that you periodically buy supplies, equipment, etc. Compare it to bowling or skiing or miniature gaming. Most think they're done with a once a decade purchase of a book. And thus, the RPG segment is having trouble.

Anonymous said...

Thanx - a real great post!

Rob said...

>Brunomac said...
...I think we need more of that great grass roots hobbyist stuff, and way way less of guys who are blogging trying to get into the Pro/Am side to get a few bucks for their efforts from a market that is over-saturated, and mostly weak financially.

Grass-roots hobbyist stuff and professional books do not have a zero-sum relationship. If small publishers shut down, it will not mean more hobbyist out there offering free material.

I can't for the life of me understand why gamers who say they only use home-brew and free material have such resentment for the RPG industry. If you don't buy books, why do you care about the industry at all?

Nathan said...

Outstanding post.

One of things that make me cringe the most is the complaint that gaming is an expensive hobby. As compared to what?

Jonathan Drain | D20 Source said...

An interesting read. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

While the general gist of the article is correct, a lot of the facts are not. That added tot he harshly and exaggeratedly dystopian view of the worlds financial situation makes it a much darker piece than in needs to be.

Fer example - the average comic writer gets paid a lot less than your estimate for RPG writers and their end product sells to a much larger audience (and suffers the same problems with PDF piracy and cover price increases not keeping up with inflation).

veector said...

Great post. You said everything that needed saying.

Razz said...

The one thing I don't agree with is that we don't need the gaming companies.


First of all, only someone with absolutely no life and little friends would sit there and develop their own RPG, only for it to bog down as he's constantly playtesting, creating, editing, and so on, the game they are trying to make.

There're tons of people like myself that NEED a company to create a fun TTRPG game for me that I am willing to purchase and play if done right and if it is continually supported, no 50 edition changes within 10 years of my lifetime.

Please don't equate the simplicity of baseball to something like D&D or whatever. Totally different in all ways, it's like comparing apples to oranges.

The thing is, someone had to CREATE that baseball, the glove, and the bat for you to even play to begin with. No one is going to craft, or even knows how to craft, all 3 of those items just to play a game of baseball. Therefore, the game companies need to still create the tools for us to play with. Which they were doing just fine with 3E and 4E went and screwed it all up.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the RPG industry is that people think there is an endless market for shoddy product. Not only do romance novels pay more than RPGs, but most of the time, the writing quality and production values are, in objective terms, better. Deluxe products are supposedly a dead end, but the WoW board game spawned several expansions. Why? Because it was fun. Most of the stuff gathering dust at the FLGS is frankly not worth buying, whether because it's poorly edited, lacking in utility, written for a market that doesn't exist, or simply reeks of mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

I somehow ended up at this article and quickly found myself hooked. It was a great read! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I tend to think RPGs are too expensive, actually. Sorry to say, but I just cannot fathom how a book could or should cost as much as a new copy of Grand Theft Auto 4.

I don't really see where a RPG book requires more than 2 or 3 people to produce. It doesn't have to look fancy. PDF publishers, like are perfectly functional.

There's an issue of marginal utility. At a certain price point, the desire to purchase an item becomes less rewarding than the desire to purchase something else for the same price. I love RPGs, but I'm not going to forgo groceries to buy another book that I'm unlikely to ever use.

The other factor is that tabletop RPGs rely almost entirely on the players. It's all left to the imagination. Rules provide little more than standardization, and they are entirely flexible. Role players are creative people by nature, and as such, there's little need to purchase books, though nobody in the industry dares say that out loud. Any one of us could write our own rules system, and we'd probably be more satisfied if we did.

If you want to make a profit, commit yourself to a different pursuit. There's no money to be made in RPGs. Do it because you love it.

Jonathan said...

@anonymous -- OK, i have to bite on this.

GRAND THEFT AUTO? Are you serious? Take a quick review of the concept of Economy of Scale, and then get back to us...

GFA... funniest thing I've heard all day.

Maybe trips to the Moon should be free too...

Anonymous said...

It takes tens of millions of dollars to produce a game like GTA. In addition to all the programmers and designers - highly paid professionals- there's also all kinds of collateral costs... like music rights, actors, marketing, etc. These are huge expenses. Most video games barely break even or fail to turn a profit.

A book is just paper and ink. There are low cost means of production. You could do it almost entirely in your home, if you choose to.

Anyway, this is totally missing the original point, and it's moot, anyway. It's the consumer's ability to pay, and to weigh their wants and desires, that is ultimately the determining factor. GTA was just an example. I don't claim to speak for every consumer, but I do feel that GTA is a more efficient use of $50 than the umpteenth edition of a tabletop RPG.

Brunomac said...

Text book prices are similar to rpg books, in that if you want to truly master the material, you need the book. So they charge you what they think somebody who needs it will pay. Books that cost a couple of bucks to put together are ending up being 50, 80, even over a hundred dollars.

As anyone who ever had to buy text books knows, they also have a great strategy to keep new buyers coming to their doors instead of finding old copies for cheap - they create new editions with a certain amount of changes so you HAVE to buy them.

Anonymous said...

I think most publishers are to dependant on th rules and supplements and thats one of the main problems. If so to say those rules are the baseball club and the glove you just need to buy them once and your grandchildren can still use them. Thus the natural thing to do is to change the rules and to produce supplements over and over again. And while reading supplements and rules of other companies is fun and interesting it is only up to a certain point. Those 30+ agers might have more money but they sure do not have more time (or lets say they are more sensitive on how to spend their time). They tend to realize that they are only able to play 1-3 different roleplaying systems, that they do need supplements but only up to a certain degree (at which leafing hundreds of pages just to find that special rule is not fun anymore) and that effectivly they need a stable set of core rules because allways learning new rules gets bothersome and time consuming. What they truly need is new content - new adventures which they can use and which will free their spare free time from writing them themself. I think one of the successes of 3E is based on those facts. The 3E had a relative stable and matured rule set and lot of adventures ready to fill that gap for thos 30+. I also think that this is the problem with the 4E. On the same aspect the saturation with rule systems has reached a point of too much. The 14+ have time to read and to experiment but they do not have the money. Also in these times they have a lot of other similarly exciting hobbies which a touch of social interaction over the internet. The 30+ on the other hand have the money but not necessary the time BUT they also expect quality which much too often is sub standard in the roleplaying gaming industry.

My guess thus would be that we will see in time a seperation into high price but quality products and into a grass root industry.

Also I think that partly pen and paper roleplaying will shift into the internet. While computer roleplaying games have a good audience they lack the interaction and flexibility a DM can give. Also those 30+ agers will have friends which they gamed with but had to move. On the other side those 14+ are used to the computer and "roleplaying".

This on the other hand will mean that rule sets need to be more stable and that the story will become more important and this will lead to more RPG companies dying out as they are to dependant one rule set sales.

Anonymous said...

There are so many flaws and false assumptions in this post that I was amazed to see you stumble upon the One Great Truth in conclusion:

Gamers do not need us and our products, the writers, editors, artists, and publishers of the adventure game industry. They may want us, but they do not need us.

RPG materials are not underpriced; gamers will pay whatever they are worth, because we want them. We will not pay what they cost to produce (nor should anyone, ever, think in such terms in a free market, by the way) because we don't need them.

RPG materials are worth what we gamers are willing to pay for them. It's just that simple. We don't care how much work you put into writing them. We don't care what artists may charge for their illustrations. But if you create something we want badly enough, we'll pay whatever that is worth to us.

But you have to remember, we don't need you. Since we can create our own RPG materials, you're really competing with us. And creating my own RPG materials really only costs me one thing: time. So the question I am essentially asking myself before I buy any RPG product is: is this going to save me X dollars worth of my time?

The reason why I don't buy most RPG products is that they're poor quality and/or have no relevance to the kind of games I play. I suspect most creators of RPG materials have a wildly inflated opinion of their own value as creators of RPG materials. The vast majority of RPG material for sale quite simply sucks...and that's why it doesn't sell, even at "artificially low" prices. We can create our own stuff, which is at least as good as what you're trying to sell us, as long as we're willing to spend our own precious time doing it.

I can't speak for all other gamers, of course, but the ones I know are generally like me in that they have a lot more money than time. Offer me a product that saves me time...that isn't of such poor quality that I have to spend hours of my own time "fixing" it...and I'll buy it for whatever it's worth (see above).

Jdvn1 said...

Short answer should be:
The price of RPG materials are quite naturally low.

Long answer should be:
Google "price elasticity of demand."

Sworddancer said...

Thanks for this Overview

I think one possible way in the future is the internet.

We´ve already PBPs and i think we need a few steps into the technology

Stacy said...

Good post - however, I think you missed something that's most definitely a factor in the dropping RPG sales, and that's the effect that the rise of computer/video games and MMORPGs has had on the TTRPG industry.

@Rognar re: too much product. It's a vicious cycle - the company must make money in order to survive, and so they must keep churning out new product of some kind (be that supplemental or new editions) in order to make money. Otherwise, once people have bought the book, your funding stream is over.

Zero said...

Personal opinion here, so you people can take it or leave it...

When White Wolf opened the old World of Darkness digichat in April of 2009 they did it as a means of increasing sales and providing players world wide a place to connect and roleplay.

That, in my opinion, was sheer brilliance.

Online Digichats are one of the atypical ways gaming companies can generate new revenue and users.

There are still a core collection of 300 or so active Players in the Old World of Darkness Digichats and at least as many playing on the New World of Darkness sites.

I know 300 people isn't a huge group in terms of revenue, but realize this-

That's 300 people who play a game that is entirely unsupported by the publisher, and do so on fan supported and moderated sites with absolutely no real advertisement.

If, for example, a publisher were to offer the core book free and then charge a minimal monthly access fee to a site with active and paid moderators who run scenes and the like daily, and also charge a nominal fee for suppliments I suspect that the new publisher would in fact be able to support a decent market share and bring in a good income.

Just a thought....

(Just a fair disclaimer here-

I 'work' at one of the online Digichats I mentioned as a Changeling: the Dreaming ST so I might be a bit biased about how useful Digichats can be to the industry.)

Anonymous said...


The number of active online RPers is probably much higher, but it's hard to reach a consensus due to sites and games being spread all across the Internet (and barely indexed - if at all - in many cases).

As a TT player who is transitioning to online RP due to a dearth of local games, I'd say I'm willing to shell out a few bucks a month for paid and active Moderators. Hell, I pay for EVE Online (when I have money).

Stacy said...


I assume that you didn't mean 2009 - because it was this year that White Wolf shut down their Digichats (no doubt because 1) they made no money and 2) why offer free sites when you are working on an MMO that will bring in revenue).

Now, there are quite a few "unofficial" chat games out there - not just on Digichat, but on a number of different chat platforms.

The Recursion King said...

The end is nigh!

We're all doomed!

etc etc

Come on people, wake up, today is still today and we're all still buying RPG products. :-)

Jeff said...

My roleplaying game budget is my roleplaying game budget. It is finite. I only have so much money to devote to my hobby and my collector urges.

Because rpg prices are set where they are I can afford to use the surplus money to purchase books from indie publishers. If prices increased to some magical profit sweet spot, the first books to go would be those made by companies that cannot afford all the fancy production values of the big dogs. Prices being where they are encourage diversity. They keep me out there searching for new companies to sample.

Can the rpg industry stop crying that WOW and the Internet are its undoing? The rpg industry holds its destiny in its own hands. If it cannot compete who's fault is that? I'm sure there was some indie publisher in 1980-whatever howling that its market audience will be too busy spending money on movie tickets to purchase its products.

Make products people want to purchase and people will purchase them.

The rpg industry needs more lifeblood. It needs new players. It doesn't need the perfect alignment of celestial bodies that caused the rpg influx in the late 70s and 80s. It needs a publisher who knows how to compete and draw that lifeblood into the hobby.

Over run WOW with bugs. Crash the Internet. Burn the movie theaters.
Will we complain that people are having too much fun with twigs and rocks to bother with reading?

Who is Orren Boyle?

robo the dino said...

This is a very interesting discussion on a topic that, of course, strikes close to home for many of us. I think any RPG player can agree that we are grateful for the people who take the hard, narrow path of a career in this niche industry. I think people who expect the market to thrive in a "grass roots" model are being somewhat naive. Every industry requires inputs from talented, unique people who are able to do what they do better than others.
Likewise, I think trying to squeeze more money out of the existing RPG market is like trying to get blood from a bitchy, self-obsessed stone.

Hence my next question:
What, if anything, has been investigated about attempting to make inroads into the Third World?
I know trying to make money by selling products to "poor" countries sounds asinine, but I'm convinced that this hobby could do quite well in Africa or Latin America. In fact, I'm writing a research grant proposal to that effect. Keep in mind that many of the problems JM noted with the high expectations of US hobbyists, in terms of production values and the like, wouldn't apply to those kinds of markets.
Is it possible that the cultural bias against adventure gaming is too strong and too deeply entrenched in the US? Or that our expectations for immediate gratification and graphic imagery have made imaginative pursuits obsolete? Maybe so. If that is the case, perhaps the hobby needs to literally go elsewhere.

Is this even remotely realistic?

Anonymous said...

It won’t be wrong to say that the IT sector has made the world stand up and take notice of the countries like India. India’s IT poweress is one reason why such massive deals like the Tata Chorus deal and the Hindalco Novelis deal could get shape and turn into India’s favor. Had it not been for the IT sector, there were chances that these multi million dollar deals would not have matured the way they have.

Barba said...

"Art… man, where is he going to get semi-professional art for a 32-page module for only $500?"

In countries where one dollar is a lot of money. I have friends who started their jobs as illustrators this way, with very small PDF gaming companies.

Btw, I'm from Brasil!

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