Although this article is written from a D&D / Pathfinder perspective, since they are the two biggest games in terms of global popularity, the contents should be appliccable to any game system with a little tweaking as necessary.
RPG sourcebooks these days can easily cost $80-$100 or more Australian – $40-60 US. In a conversation a little while back, the thought arose – are books of this price level enough to deter new players from entering the hobby?
The answer is obviously yes – and equally obviously no.
In a previous two-part article, Value for money and the pricing of RPG materials, I argued that perceived value-for-money was a better metric because it incorporated everything from expected production standards to postage and shipping – an important factor when you live on the far side of the world, and then proceeded to break down the production costs that went into game supplements and rulebooks with a view to assessing how each cost functioned as an investment in perceived value for money.
Wages growth world-wide has been slow-to-stagnant since the Global Financial Crisis. That’s shown as true in Australia by this article (The Guardian – Is Australia stuck in a ‘new normal’ of low wages growth?) and also this article (ABC News – Fact check: Is wages growth now the lowest since records began?), and this PDF working paper by the I.M.F. shows it to be also true of the US economy. Finally, this report by the London School Of Economics shows the same story taking place in the UK. While there have been a few gains here and there, in general, the best outcome has been a treading of water on real incomes (i.e. adjusted for inflation) and most countries have fallen well short of even achieving that much.
That effectively means that disposable incomes have been getting tighter. Quite obviously, that means that at least some potential purchasers are being put off by the price tags involved. There have certainly been a few items that I would have bought since the publication of the previous articles in September 2012, but the money simply wasn’t there. So that’s a definite ‘yes’.
But, at the same time, D&D 5e continues to sell well, and while Pathfinder sales may have peaked (because most of the people who want it already have the core books), there is still demand for adventures, and there are enough people making game supplements that there is a solid implication of continued popularity. So there is a strong “no” case to be argued, as well – at least according to this recent report (EnWorld – Is Pathfinder “In Its Twilight”? Observations From A Retailer).
A Kickstarter Perspective
Adding to the confusion is the success of Crowdfunding, which effectively adds extra discounts and/or supplementary bonuses that kick up the perceived value-for-money at what is usually a bargain price. Over the last couple of years there have been some astonishing successes (most notable 7th Sea second edition) and an equal number of perplexing failures.
Having looked over several of these, some of which I have reviewed here at Campaign Mastery, it’s my impression that the Value-For-Money impression is now a razor-sharp cut-off. Land on the happy side of it, and even quite high prices are seen as justified and the fundraising campaign succeeds (whether or not a lower price and lower production standards would have been an even greater success is an entirely separate question, though one worth exploring if you have the industry sales knowledge to do so intelligently; I don’t). But land on the wrong side of it, and fundraising campaigns fail catastrophically.
There seems to be less room in the market for an “only just achieved target” result – projects either succeed brilliantly, unlocking several (or more than several) stretch goals, or they bomb out. Though this might not be a correct assessment, that’s my impression, anyway.
This also seems to suggest the ‘yes’ case, but with enough uncertainty to be definitive.
Is Kickstarter moving the goal-posts?
It’s also fair to ask whether or not the Kickstarter fundraising model (with its stretch goals and inherent discounting relative to the prices of subsequent commercial release of products funded in that way) is changing the base-level expectations of the marketplace? In other words, is some degree of price discounting, either directly or in the form of bonus content, now assumed by customers, or are these still viewed as bonuses earned by being an early-bird investor?
Despite their best attempts to persuade people otherwise, most people who back a project through Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites feel as though they are pre-ordering a product that will be delivered when work is complete. This is quite evident by the angry responses when a supposedly fully-funded project fails to deliver the promised article, because of mismanagement, or under-estimating the difficulty or expenses, or due to ill-health on the part of a creator, or any of a dozen other reasons, both understandable (but regrettable and legitimate) and unconscionable.
Backing a kickstarter project is a promise to invest in the attempt to bring a product to market in exchange for a copy of that product (and any promised extras) if that attempt is subsequently successful.
Probably the biggest success of Kickstarter fundraising in RPG terms in the last year has been the unparalleled success of the second edition of 7th Sea. 11,483 backers pledged $1.3 million plus US dollars against a target of just $30,000. Part of the reason for that success was the long string of stretch goals which are expected to take years for the authors and artists to complete. I can no longer recall if there were 14 or 15 additional supplements promised, but it was a quite staggering total as I recall – and they had to add more several times in the course of the campaign because the project backing had already exceeded all possible expectations.
Because many of these, if not most of them, were grandfathered into pledges that had already been made, the net effect was a snowballing of the perceived value for money received by backers, something that made it easier and easier for the unconvinced to continue to sign up for the project. It’s telling that the first day of funding produced pledges of about 1000% of the funding goal.
This is obviously an extreme case. No game producer in their right mind would ever launch a fundraising project with any expectation of achieving a similar outcome. But I can’t help but feel that this very extreme success changed the public perception of the publishing landscape simply by showing that it was even possible to achieve that level of success.
I can’t give a definitive answer to the question, but my gut response is that for at least some customers – perhaps half the potential customer base, give or take – the answer is ‘yes,’ Kickstarter and crowdfunding have now raised expectations in terms of value for money. Certainly, people are more acutely aware of what they can expect to receive, all going well, and with the inevitable tightening of belts that comes with ‘soft’ wages growth and diminishing disposable incomes, that can tip the balance between choosing to back a project or not – hence the pattern of great-success-or-complete-failure identified earlier.
What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)
There is at least one way that the games industry could boost their perceived value for money for most of the world. That would be for someone to start a multinational locally-based print-on-demand service.
Such an organization would then negotiate contracts with ‘trusted local printers’ in a whole host of countries – that’s the “locally-based” part of the description – to fulfill orders placed through the game producer or vendor by means of the central organization and electronic document transfers.
When a customer purchased a physical game product (as opposed to an e-book), the retailer would notify the multinational service of the specifics of the order. The products ordered would be sent by the central point-of-contact of the service to the printer most local to the customer as one or more electronic documents (if they didn’t have them already) who would then print and bind the print-on-demand product and ship the purchase to the customer.
This eliminates one of the biggest overheads faced by the retailer, international postage and customs duties. It’s a single-contact print-on-demand service with – eventually – something approaching a global reach.
It benefits the retailers and the multinational service, too; the larger the operation, the more impact economies of scale have on the overheads of production. So it becomes a lower-cost higher-profitability production option.
But its success would hinge on a return to a lower expectation of production values by the customer – or a technological improvement on the production side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – if a product is designed to fit this production model from the start, other overheads and production costs can also be minimized or reduced, resulting in an overall reduction in the price of the products, further enhancing the appeal in terms of value for money.
In a world where there is ever-increasing competition for a slice of an ever-shrinking disposable income, the only alternative is for RPGs to risk pricing themselves out of existence by continuing to demand ever-higher production values.
Prognosticating: If nothing changes
As effective reductions in the purchasing power of disposable income, the knife-edge will grow ever-sharper. A lot of politicians have made a lot of promises to ‘fix the problem’ but so far, no-one has found the magic bullet of policies that will do so. I’m starting to think that it will take a whole new economic theory, some radical change to the fundamental concepts of economic management, just as Keynesian economics was a fundamental shift in its time. Nothing short of that will solve the current distribution-of-wealth crisis being experienced world-wide, and the alternative – one that’s been played out many times in the past – is a violent redistribution of wealth at the hands of a revolutionary mob. The parallels with the French Revolution, and the American Revolution before that, are too clear to ignore. The current US election cycle is a symptom of the growing sense of discontent with the current situation.
But hopefully this is all a worst-case nightmare, and the problems can be solved without such radical and unwanted measures.
It’s reasonable to expect that those already in the hobby will continue to purchase new products that excite them. But this is an aging customer base, and one that is shrinking as a result, year-on-year. The challenge currently faced by the industry is one of luring new blood into the hobby, in a way that hasn’t really happened since D&D 3.0 came along.
If you study the sales of comics, you find a very similar pattern. When they shifted from being newsstand-based to being sold through specialist retailers, it enabled a major improvement in production values. This, coupled with an overheating collector’s market, led the major producers to start producing collector’s editions with different covers and all sorts of other sales gimmicks, and for a while this was incredibly successful; but it also meant that prices continued to creep up and up. I got out of comics collecting when they hit a price of Australian $10 a copy, going from collecting 30 or 40 titles a month to collecting none; they had priced themselves out of my range. Nor was I alone; a great many others followed suit over the next decade, and the result was a tremendous implosion in the market. Marvel Comics even went bankrupt. If you look at current sales figures, a successful book these days sells only about a tenth of the equivalent level of success back when I jumped out of the hobby. One of my friends still collects a few titles – but he’s gone from getting 10-15 titles a month to getting three.
There’s a very similar tale of woe from the Music Industry, too. They got greedy and started charging for everything, killing off many of the video programs (and channels like MTV) that used to provide their artists with free promotion by playing their video-clips. A lot of people turned to mp3s as a way of sampling product before investing in a purchase, because the prices of CDs kept going up and up. The music industry attacked them as pirates. When CDs first came out, there was a lot of hype about them lasting forever; when it became clear that this wasn’t the case, people started converting their collections to mp3 format so that they could put the source disks away. The industry labeled them as pirates, too. In a nutshell, the marketing channels available to the industry collapsed and sales collapsed with them, and the industry blamed a symptom instead of addressing the cause. These days, a number one single can sell one-tenth as many copies as was the case in the 80s and 90s, or less. Album sales have collapsed even further – just as was the case back when the Beatles were just starting out, an album is effectively just a collection of singles.
If RPGs make the same mistakes, in other words, if current trends continue, if we ever do reach the point of pricing out the casual new entrant into the hobby, it risks a similar fate.
What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)
Awareness. Advertising. Marketing. Making the general public aware of a new game product while enhancing the value for money.
It’s a simple prescription – but it’s not that simple. These things cost money. There are ample free channels for people to get the word out to the existing customer base – blogs, and podcasts, and free samples, and Kickstarter (which lets you essentially market a product before it even exists and then use the funds raised to attempt to make the promotion a self-fulfilling prophecy), and social media, and company websites.
Increasing not just the perceived value for money but actually lowering the costs of production, passing some of that on to customers as reduced prices and investing the rest in marketing to people who don’t currently play RPGs would head off all potential disaster and reinvigorate the hobby.
Here’s another way to look at the whole situation: Printer companies make their money on the inks; they sell the printers for next to nothing in comparison. I’ve seen printers priced so low that when the toner runs out, it’s cheaper to throw away the whole printer and buy a new one – a practice that is not very sustainable for the industry. Similarly, mobile phone companies make their money on the data (it used to be on the phone calls, but those are a relatively negligible component these days). The phones themselves are ridiculously cheap unless you buy a state-of-the-art model. I’ve seen one phone company advertise a new phone for A$99 with a free printer for the digital photos you took with the built-in camera! You could argue that D&D 3.x was the success that it was because it adopted a similar philosophy – the core books were expensive, but the cost could be spread amongst multiple players; it was on the additional supplements and adventures that the real money was made. Viewed this way, WOTC’s problem with the generous terms of the OGL was simply that most of this money went to third parties and not to them – and the changes to the OGL in subsequent editions was a response on their part. It both worked, in that a much greater percentage of the profits from 4e went back to the company, and failed, in that the pie being divided up was nowhere near as big. 5e was supposed to be somewhere in between the two in its generosity of licensing – but by then, Pathfinder had come along.
This might be an oversimplification of a confluence of complex issues, and I certainly have no analysis that comes close to being proof of anything – but it’s an interesting perspective to consider!
A model for the future (Caution, even more Speculative)
Can all of these thoughts be melded into a new model for future game publications that eases the barriers into the hobby for new players?
I hadn’t actually decided to write this article when I thought of one that might do the trick, which is what tipped the balance in favor of pubication. And it’s a solution that doesn’t require a massive multinational printing alliance (though it could benefit from one), or improving low-cost laser printers so that the output looks like it came from a D&D/Pathfinder core book (and which might not be possible); it’s practical today, at least as far as I can see.
The concept is to take a holistic, modular, approach to the entire product line’s lifespan that is designed to maximize the potential to get new players signing up to buy the product.
- A Low-cost (Print-on-demand?) player’s starter book that contains everything a player needs to run one specific class/race combination in table form, without explanations.
- A mid-priced book (hardcover? softcover?) that contains all the explanations for the content of all the starter books without the tables in the starter books, that can be shared amongst the entire group.
- A low-page-count glossy art book that illustrates all the combinations from the starter books that can be shared amongst all the players in a group and that serves as a catalog for the starter books.
- A mid-cost single volume, mostly black and white, with perhaps a section of color plates, with the entire GMs guide.
- A low-cost starter pack with three low-level adventures using only creatures from the monster starter pack (see below). That means that all you need to start playing is a player’s starter pack for each PC, the GM’s Guide, and a low-cost monster pack (possibly even bundled with the GM’s Guide). Call it US$10, maximum (and preferably half that) – but with LOTS of add-ons available.
- A low-cost stat-block-only starter pack (Print-on-demand?) with only the most ubiquitous creatures and mundane creatures included – minimal art.
- A larger monster volume that contains stat blocks, descriptions, and illustrations for a wider range of “core creatures”, and – as a bonus – descriptions and illustrations of the creatures in the starter pack without the stat blocks (no redundancy).
- This one-two package is repeated for themed monster packs – dragons, undead, aberrations, etc, essentially splitting the monster manual up into a number of smaller, cheaper, books.
- Further expansions follow the same principle – “Undead II”, “Aberrations II”, and so on.
- Include “Enemies” by character level in volumes of their own – pre-packaged villains and flunkies ready for insertion into campaigns, as though they were a class of monsters in their own right.
- A moderate-to-high central setting reference book with illustrations for each game setting.
- Small, low-cost expansions that detail individual locations or a group of related locations. This one might detail a city, the next might describe 10 typical villages from Kingdom X, and so on. These would not be lavishly illustrated.
- A “map book” with illustrations and maps from a group of themed expansions, which also serves as a catalog for the expansions covered within that “map book”.
- Each expansion and map book to come with a single small adventure set in the location so that you can start using the setting pack right away, after only a small outlay – but, once again, with LOTS of add-ons and expansions to add to the collection.
- Adventures to be either a collection of 3-5 unrelated small adventures or one larger adventure, entirely stand-alone in nature. Each to specify on the cover which monster packs and setting packs are required – and ONE of those two to be a single volume common to all the adventures. So you might have one pack of “Underdark Adventures” (one common setting book) and then “Undead Adventures” (one common monster book) and then “Trolls, Trolls, Trolls” (a larger adventure with one common setting book). (The core books don’t count and are always considered to be available for use).
- Adventure packs to be released monthly if not more frequently so that there is always more to play. Some of these can mid-priced but most should be relatively low-priced.
- These are larger, and each reprints an expanded adventure that’s already appeared in an Adventure Pack, and at least one or two larger adventures that haven’t appeared before, that are designed to integrate into a campaign structure. They would specify which monster and setting packs are required for use, but are not limited to the “one common” rule. They can vary from mid-price to high-price deluxe versions.
- Each Campaign Pack is designed to take a single party 2-3 character levels, and combine to form a series that details an entire campaign by a single author. That means that they have a single unifying theme or overarching plotline. A key element of each would be how to adjust the contents if characters enter the module under- or over-powered, with a view to getting them back “in sync” with the series by the end of the campaign pack.
- The goal would be to publish one campaign pack for each campaign series every three-to-six months.
- Once the core books are all done, and you’re getting into “Dragons III” and “Undead IV”, and there are at least two or three campaign packs, and so on, it’s time to start compiling and releasing material into “deluxe editions” – these are the equivalents of the D&D/Pathfinder Core Books, glossy art throughout, premium-priced products.
- Because the deluxe editions relieve the restrictions of earlier campaign packs and adventure packs, this is an opportunity for a whole new wave of adventures and campaigns with wider variety of encounters and content.
- This “Phase II” of the game system supports overall product sales while material is prepared for the ‘next edition’. Key to success of this next generation is an “adapter book” that gives a clear and functional guide on how to adapt characters, creatures, and adventures from the previous edition and vice-versa. This enables an osmotic transition from one generation of the rules to another, and means that the investment in past material is respected.
The guiding principle: Smaller, cheaper, and more numerous products, not all of which are required, which compile and build into larger collections of related works, ultimately conflating into deluxe editions.
There is so much material to be published that no one game company could do it all. Beyond some form of OGL that permits third-party publishers to put out their own Campaign, Adventure, and Setting packs, the publisher should outsource the production of some of the ‘official’ content, retaining editorial oversight and sharing imprint rights and profits. They should also designate a single line editor to work with third party submissions of variant monster and player packs to ensure compatibility and uniform standards. This would combine the best aspects of the OGL with the greater control desired by publishers, enabling a liberal, even generous, approach toward fan contributions and small game publishers.
Obviously, a secondary publisher who puts out an approved variation on a core class or monster package is more likely to build adventures around those elements, enabling a number of coherent campaign ‘sets’ with a unified promotional effect on the whole. No two campaigns would be the same, but the central rules structure would unify everything.
Over to the industry
It’s long been one of the truisms of my gaming life that where there is one solution to a problem, there are apt to be many. Even if the solution I have proposed is not adopted, the mere possibility suggests that there are other solutions to the problem. Disaster for the RPG hobby is not inevitable. And that’s a cheery thought on which to conclude! But it’s all still a subject worth thinking about.
I’m not a game publisher, I don’t have access to the sales numbers to make definitive judgments. I have contact with a number of such publishers through Twitter, though, and I’d love to hear their thoughts on the matters and proposals raised in this article.