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…