Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Awesome Post

James Mishler has a truly terrific post over at his blog entitled "The Doom of RPG: The Rambling," in which he discusses the whys and wherefores of RPG sales then and now. It's well worth reading if you have the time and it might shed some light on just why the RPG industry is where it is today.

Very good stuff.

28 comments:

  1. "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."

    This is the simple truth of the matter.

    One of the interesting things about the rpg market that James barely touched on is the secondary market. I can get high quality games in great shape on the secondary market for half, sometimes less, of the MSRP. And there's so much of it. And so much of it is so good. And it's been thoroughly reviewed and vetted.

    Given the secondary market, the sheer amount of free product out there, and the ability to just make stuff up, it's a wonder any new rpg products are purchased at all.

    One thing I was wondering though... Have rpg gamers REALLY become that picky on price. If someone came out with "Caverns of Thracia II" tomorrow matching in quality both the original's production value and content, would the amateur art and newsprint really matter that much?

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  2. Thanks for the heads up. It was an interesting read.

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  3. The production"quality" issue makes me wonder a little bit as well. If reasonably priced I don't see why some formats would be rejected.

    Comicbook styles and even pricing certainly look doable for adventures.

    Would it be possible to use a service like ComiXpress to do RPG modules?

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  5. I think a boxed basic D&D set could be a big money maker, but only under certain conditions:

    WotC would have to start treating D&D like a game rather than a way of life. Imagine essentially the Holmes basic rulebook (with "updated" art, alas), some geomorphs and monster & treasure lists, plus a set of dice all in a box selling for $20.

    And imagine that as the ONLY D&D product published by WotC. Then imagine WotC putting serious money into advertising it and getting it on store shelves everywhere. (Note: NOT merely in FLAGs.) I'm talking Wal-Mart and such.

    That way lots of people would eventually buy it and occasionally play D&D for an hour or two. In other words, they would treat D&D in the same way they treat Monopoly and other classic games.

    Those of us who wish to devote countless hours to D&D would be left to our own devices. The hobby would be by and for hobbyists.

    WotC flooding the market with high-priced, thick D&D books is antithetical to the goal of getting a big-selling boxed D&D game out there.

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  6. Sorry, James, but I didn't see this post as quite as "brilliant" as you did. I read it mostly as sour grapes from a guy who chose to serve a tiny, tiny niche, and who is now disappointed that he can't make any money off of it.

    At a time when the Old School Renaissance, the Indy Games movement, and patronage projects like Wolfgang Baur's Open Design effort are finding success with new, innovative ways of distribution and community building, to have him call out Paizo for pricing our Pathfinder RPG in a way that grows the audience is particularly galling.

    It is not our job to price our PDFs in a way that supports James Mishler's niche business.

    It's his job to make books people want.

    From my point of view, it's as simple as that.

    --Erik Mona

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  7. Erik,

    As you know, I praised Paizo's decision to sell the Pathfinder PDF cheaply and hoped it'd herald an age of more rational PDF pricing. What I found interesting in James's piece, though, was his analysis of the current state of the industry as it pertains to him. I'd frankly love to see more publishers, big and small, talk about the economics of their situation, since it might go a long way toward dispelling some myths about the industry and its future.

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  8. Erik, I don't think it is fair to single Paizo out, either, because you priced Pathfinder maybe lower than larger publishers would, but still higher than many smaller publishers would price a similarly sized book. However, I do agree that PDFs are being continually devalued, and in fact I think the same is true for POD, which I just blogged about. I think the devalued PDF issue is not as big of a deal unless you're counting on those sales more than print sales. With small volume for small press publishers, one will never even break even. Most sales seem to happen within the first 4-6 weeks for PDFs, after which time trickling to very small numbers. If you essentially fail to recover cost of production within that time, you won't for a very long time if ever.

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  9. The Pathfinder situation is equally complicated by the fact that the entire game is being released under the Open Game License, which means that all of the rules will be available in online databases similar to d20srd.org FOR FREE shortly after release.

    I agree with (Grognardia's) James in that if more publishers talked openly about their business it might dispel some myths and allow a truer picture of the business overall to emerge, certainly.

    I don't take issue with every element in James Mishler's post. Mostly I'm just grumpy about him saying Paizo is nailing shut the coffin of the RPG industry with a $10 PDF and by the whole throw-in-the-towel pessimism of the whole affair.

    In less than a month, Paizo will release what is looking to be its best-selling product of all time. We've worked VERY hard to make that happen, and we've taken advantage of opportunities related to new technology, new business models (mainly subscriptions), and new marketing and development strategies (the 50,000+ gamer Open Playtest) in order to pave the way for that success.

    There are a lot of challenges to the current tabletop RPG market. A lot. I'm not trying to discount that.

    But I have very little sympathy for James, and even less after he calls out my company in such a bullshit way.

    --Erik

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  10. While the numbers in James Mishler's post are an interesting view into the state of the traditionally sourced print industry then and now, I find the post has too much of a "you kids these days" flavor to it for me to take it seriously.

    I'll note for myself that I probably average 2-3 new RPG related products a month, and the majority of my spending is now via Lulu & IPR, not because of price, but because those are the places selling what I want to buy (OSR & indie small press). I've stopped buying the big publisher games for the most part (D&D4e being my exception) not because they are the wrong price, but because they are simply not interesting.

    It is also interesting to note that in my anecdotal experience I'm far more likely to find editing errors & poor layout & art in "professional" gaming books, which are rushed to market to meet a pre-established publishing schedule, than in small press books which are made available for sale when they are done.

    Now most of the people publishing small press stuff are NOT depending on it for a livelihood. Yes, this is hobby publishing. But I hardly think this is necessarily a bad thing. I'd rather have products of their author's love, rather than bland sourcebooks cranked out to satisfy a distribution schedule.

    He also mentions the "collapse" of the wargaming industry, and while it is true that today's wargaming companies have print runs that are a fraction of those from the heydays of Avalon Hill and SPI, there has never been a better time to be a wargame player. The breadth and quality of titles has never been greater, and publishing is driving by something analogous to POD (the pledge in advance P500 style systems) that make sure that publishers are delivering what consumers want, and not stuck with piles of unsellable inventory.

    If the RPG industry is headed for the same sort of model, I'm not terribly concerned.

    My only regret would be the demise of the FLGS in this climate. Certainly hands on browsing and the opportunity for fortuitous discovery is something I value. There needs to be some way to connect the thriving ecosystem of small publishers with the retail store owner. I don't know exactly what this is though, although I will say that stores like Guardian Games in Portland, at which I dropped a significant chunk of change over the weekend, seem to be figuring it out. I think there is hope.

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  11. One more note on PDFs: these days when I buy an RPG product, I typically want to get BOTH a PDF and a print copy. PDF for search and reference on my laptop, printed book for reading on the bus and using at the game table. I'm willing to accept a 50% premium over the cost of the print product alone, but more than that makes be balk. Many many games I buy through IPR these days are now offered as bundles. This is huge for me. Just my perspective as a consumer who does spend significant money on RPG products on a very regular basis.

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  12. I agree with Rafial 100% - very well said.

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  13. I think a boxed basic D&D set could be a big money maker, but only under certain conditions:

    WotC would have to start treating D&D like a game rather than a way of life. Imagine essentially the Holmes basic rulebook (with "updated" art, alas), some geomorphs and monster & treasure lists, plus a set of dice all in a box selling for $20.


    And RPG publishers should start recognizing that they can grow their audience by appealing to the 30+ demographic instead of exclusively marketing the majority of their product toward 20 year old video game players.

    For someone like me, one of the biggest draws of a game like Swords and Wizardry is the fact that it's such a straightforward and versatile product. Picking up the book, I was able to internalize the rules very quickly, and immediately start adapting it to my needs. That strikes me as being highly appealing for older gamers who don't want to obsess about the intricacies of a system, but would rather pick up a book, read it once and then sit down with their friends one evening every few weeks for a good time.

    It brought me back to the fold, why wouldn't it work for others?

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  14. I think this was a brilliant piece of writing. It manages to weld together fascinating and strong points of view about a long vista of subjects: RPGs design theory, industry history, current budget hardcore number-crunching, and the history of the global economy.

    That said, I suspect and that hope he's wrong about some of this stuff (esp. global economy going forward). Tabletop gaming tends to pick up in a recession. I can see why Erik's pissed off, and how it pushed some of his buttons. And I'm thrilled that we'll all get a chance to see if Paizo can prove him (Mishler) wrong in the very near future.

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  15. I hate to say it, but as a WOHF fan I really wanted to like and buy lots of Adventure Games Publishing products.

    But they are just crunch and more crunch, classes, races, items, monsters, and fluff and setting story I'm just not interested in, expansion on new maps I don't need either since the WL are big enought.

    I want to see adventures, I want to see ready to use game material. I'm sory, but I don't need more classes, more spells, more monsters, or 100 calamitous curses.

    No single adventure module, other than a very well done City has been offered by James. I would have been a happy suscriber to his products if I would have seen more stuff in that line, in JG's traditional line.

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  16. Good post, though I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, yes, it is very cool to have publishers talk up front about their end of the business. On the other, I agree with Erik that there is a whiff of sour grapes in the Pathfinder RPG PDF section.

    Look, barely making ends meet is the price you pay for doing what you love. Why should game writers and publishers be any different from any other artist out there? For every thousand fiction writers who barely pay the bills there is one who does pretty well, for every ten thousand their might be a Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Gaming is part of the entertainment industry, and all of its branches (acting, singing, music, creative writing, etc) have it rough.

    Regarding Erik and the upcoming Pathfinder PDF, I think it's a smart strategy. For someone like me, who loathed third edition and its revised form, there was very little chance of purchasing a $50 hardcover derived from it. Don't get me wrong, I spend a lot of cash on RPGs...I am in my late thirties, single, have a good career and disposable cash...but $50 is still a gamble on a product you aren't dying to own. But as an avid gamer and collector, I certainly will snatch up the PDF, and if I like it, the odds have increased that I will buy it.

    What I am saying is, far from a "nail in the coffin," Paizo is rolling the dice and hoping for a critical hit. And isn't that what the hobby is all about?

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  17. So basically, I am one 100% WL fan that would have been an automatic buyer of all Adventure Games Publishing material, but the focus of James in classes, races, monsters, etc. and no adventures or stuff like the old "Book of Islands", for example, has turned me away.

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  18. ""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."

    This is the simple truth of the matter."
    In my opinion this is too simplistic. I think the simple truth is "It is not our job to price our PDFs in a way that supports James Mishler's niche business. [replace "price our PDFs" with any other business strategy]
    It's his job to make books people want."
    In general, people need very few things... The business is usually give people what they want, not what they need, and managing it is a hard task, not only in the Rpg industry.
    However the post is very interesting, expecially in the first part.

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  19. "I hate to say it, but as a WOHF fan I really wanted to like and buy lots of Adventure Games Publishing products... But they are just crunch and more crunch, classes, races, items, monsters, and fluff and setting story I'm just not interested in, expansion on new maps I don't need either since the WL are big enought."

    Good observation. As I've said several times before: "Good adventures are hard. The rest of this stuff is relatively easy (which is why so much gets published)."

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  20. So... the point is that rpg publishers who are not nogoodniks like WOTC and Paizo cannot afford to run their documents through spellcheckers or drive around in H3s is because we're entering the worst world economic collapse in almost 2000 years... and rpg players are a bunch of skinflints?

    I'm not sure I'm convinced.

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  21. When I started freelance writing in 1996, the average going rate was five cents per word. When I worked for LUG and Decipher in 2000, we offered five cents per word. Here we are in 2009, and the best a freelance writer can reasonably expect is... five cents per word.

    As for the economics, and finding the MSRP, the article is spot on correct. That's how we do it.

    Rates are set (and haven't changed in over ten years); prices in the distribution channel are fixed. Neither has taken the rate of inflation into account. And gamers still complain about having to spend $35 for a game.

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  22. I don't argue with the numbers. My issue is with the assumption that he should be able to make a living of his hobby and that Paizo and others are insuring that he can't.

    James has talent, lots of it, but talent doesn't ensure success, or even the potential to make a living of said talent.

    Then again, what do I know? I'm just a disgruntled civil servant ;)

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  23. Hey, Ross, you're right in that the "base pay" for RPG writing hasn't gone up much in the last decade or so, and remains at $.05/word or lower for most companies, but there are a few who pay more than that, particularly if the author has proven trustworthy in the past and if his or her name on a cover will translate into more sales or attention for the book.

    Wizards of the Coast's base pay rate, I believe, is now higher than 5 cents a word, and I know I made a fair amount more than that on my last major project for them. Likewise, for the right person and project I know that we occasionally pay more than 5 cents.

    Anyone know what contributors to D&D Insider are paid these days? Are they open to outside submissions?

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  24. I shared something similar on the enworld boards, and it's just my take from a marketing perspective. It's doubtful that a single boxed set + a handful of accessories like geomorphs can make a sustainable long term model, nor can selling just one book of rules. It's the old Gillette thing - give the razor away, sell the blades. WotC, and largely TSR too, sell the core rules cheap, to upsell the consumer on add-ons over time. It's easier for them to do that, and harder for a small shop to do that. I don't agree with the whole article, but that sort of extrapolation is sound.

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  25. Santiago wrote:
    "I hate to say it, but as a WOHF fan I really wanted to like and buy lots of Adventure Games Publishing products.

    But they are just crunch and more crunch, classes, races, items, monsters, and fluff and setting story I'm just not interested in, expansion on new maps I don't need either since the WL are big enought."

    I must second Santiago, and I was a charter subscriber to James's service. I was really pumped by the likes of XXXI (a.k.a. The City State of Tell Qua) and happy with The Adventure Games Journal, but everything since has been just... different. He's had these plans for small, modular direct-to-game content like a bunch of ruin type encounters, and modules, modules, modules, and that didn't happen. And since that, AGJ's niche has effectively been taken over by Fight On! and Knockspell, which are, I am afraid, delivering a superior product. I feel sorry for AGP, but that's just how it is.

    WRT the wider topic, the face of gaming is changing, and I'd recommend publishers to take a good hard look at the amateur scene (old-school and not), because that's how everything will look like in 10-15 years. And that's conservative estimates, too.

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  26. Also, I can't help but comment that I find the "industry"'s terms of work insulting on a creative and financial level. Writing at $0.02 per word under work for hire arrangements and uncertain payment isn't a job I would be willing to take, and I live in a country with much lower costs of living than the USA. Imagine telling a novellist to give up his/her work forever for a pittance (and no future royalties). Unbelievable.

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  27. @Erik: "Anyone know what contributors to D&D Insider are paid these days? Are they open to outside submissions?"
    Sure, they accept outside submissions and their starting rate for articles and adventures is $.06 per word:
    http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/submissions

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