Friday, March 19, 2010

Interesting Times

One of the things I've always respected about Steve Jackson Games is how forthcoming it is with information about its finances. It's, so far as I know, the only company in this industry that tells us its gross income ($3 million in 2009, up very slightly from 2008, when it earned $2.9 million). I did some work for the company quite some time ago (for GURPS Traveller, primarily) and, while I have no desire to do so again, it's not because the company lacked professionalism or in any way mistreated me. SJ Games is in fact one of the only companies ever to pay me promptly for my work, according to the terms of my contract with them, something of which much larger companies cannot boast. To this day, I still get regular reports from the company on the quarterly earnings of a book I did for royalties, even though it rarely sells any copies anymore. In short, SJ Games is a class act, all around.

So, I found it interesting to note that, in 2009, only one GURPS product was released in print format, the rest all being PDF releases. Given that Munchkin now accounts for 80% of the company's revenues, I guess this all makes sense. Still, it's interesting to consider that there was more new old school product released in 2009 than there were was GURPS, a venerable and well-established game line with lots of fans. Unless I missed it, no one is seriously claiming that GURPS is dead or that its largely-electronic release schedule last year heralds its doom -- food for thought when thinking about the old school renaissance and its impact.


  1. I actually do think of GURPS as being an essentially dead product line. And I no longer think of SJG as an RPG company.

  2. I'm glad you brought this up. GURPS would have been my alternate game of choice. Heck, after the Dangerous Journey's fiasco that turned out to be my own game of choice as I boycotted TSR until WoTC game back and they mended some fences with EGG.

    It is kind of sad to see GURPS go downhill like that. They used to publish I think anywhere from 4-10 supplements per year. I was a devoted fan for many years. Yet it seems after the big 4.0 launch the game has lost a lot of its punch.

    I know a lot of old-schoolers are fans of the OGL and love that it opened D&D, but one of the downsides of the OGL and the d20 license was that instead of getting a heterogeneous variety of games, we got a lot of variations of the same thing. I think the d20 glut hurt the marketplace, with several companies taking shares away from those who were doing something different, then a double-whammy of 3.5 and 4.0 pretty much hurting that market. Now, it seems WoTC is truly the only big player nowadays.

    That's why I think one of the OSR's downsides is the fact that it's yet another encouragement to just emulate the same damn game (with 1e instead of 3e being the template) rather than build brand new games. Look at EGG--he reinvented his one interpretation of Fantasy not once but twice. Even if you consider his alternate games a "failure", they did show that he was willing to try new things. The true old school game from Wargamers who were used to playing new and different games. Heck, even early TSR encouraged all types of games such as alternate RPGs and boardgames.

    I fear for SJG if Munchkin ever starts fading. I don't see that as being a long-term product.

  3. Yes, aren't all these free games great for Old School gaming, but not so good for anybody who wants to make a living selling games?

  4. Steve Jackson Games has always been a flexible company, able to shift focus to the demands of the market. Some game companies aren't able to do that, they either stay too focused or spread themselves too thin.

    They've gone through cycles of being focused on games like GURPS, Munchkin, Car Wars, Illuminati, INWO, OGRE, and moving away from them when the interest (and sales) seems to decrease.

    From another standpoint, I never switched from 3rd to 4th edition GURPS, nor have many of my GURPS friends. We have so many 3rd edition books, and the price of 4th edition seems so high, that we decided not to switch.

  5. While problems with the RPG Market would have caused issues with GURPS sales. It main problem continues to be that it is overwhelming for gamer to get into.

    The core rulebooks require too much work in order to start a simple campaign in common genres like fantasy, space, or horror.

    Granted this is pretty much a problem with GURPS since day one but the 2nd edition BASIC set + 1st edition GURPS Magic was a lot easier for a gamer to use coming from AD&D than what GURPS 4e has.

    What GURPS needs is a complete RPG for each of the major genre of Fantasy, Space and Genre. A single book that implements the GURPS system for that genre. Plus a small number of support products.

    Otherwise GURPS will remain as a niche RPG.

  6. When the Stars Are Right...GURPS will rise again. It has to remembered that Traveller saved SJG from the onslaught that was D20. For D20 did what GURPS had been doing all the time, take a generic set of rules, and apply them across the board for games from fantasy to science fiction.

    However, d20 was much more prolific by having the OGL. As GURPS did not go that route, it slowly slid into redundancy. So while it may not be over for GURPS, it is over for them producing deadtree products.

    As there are not enough people who will play GURPS as a rule system. They will steal or enjoy world books with the GURPS filed off - hence the enduring appeal of Transhuman Space. SJG finds there is more money in creating innovative boardgames. When the market shifts back (if it ever does, they might go back but other than GURPS and their worldbooks - what can they produce?)

  7. If Steve Jackson games actually showed a climb in profit from '08 to '09, that's a remarkable thing for the economic climate of the last few years.

    I'd say that SJG is doing well, and that what we're seeing is that SJG is changing its business model to stay with the changes in how books are sold. E-readers and .pdf downloads aren't just a fad, fellas. Pop on over to your local Barnes & Noble. Is it closer to resembling a department store since the last time you saw it? Do you notice an emphasis on its proprietary e-reader the Nook? That's because that's where the publishing business model as a whole is shifting to: the digital domain.

    So kudos to SJG for switching early.

  8. White Wolf is going down the same path. Near the end of this RPGnet post, Russell Bailey (Vampire developer) flat-out states, "we're phasing out traditional print. No more giant print runs, no more book-a-month going out to distributors. We've quite directly grown out of having to do that. Our future is in PDFs, POD, and that stuff we aren't talking about."

    Interesting times, indeed.

  9. What GURPS needs is a complete RPG for each of the major genre of Fantasy, Space and Genre. A single book that implements the GURPS system for that genre. Plus a small number of support products.

    I think Rob is on to something here.

    Savage Worlds only manages to pull out the "core, plus supplements" schtick because the core is, what, $10? And supplements are also cheaper; of course, the books are generally smaller and leaner.

    But for a crunchy, crunchy GURPS this may be a great approach. I'd sooner pay $50 for a GURPS Space RPG, than over $100 for the two corebooks plus GURPS Space. I have never met any gamer, even among the most diehard fans of the system, who used it for every genre, to the exclusion of everything else. Then again, that may be just my experience.

  10. I can't imagine paying $50 for any single book right now--the going price for most WotC books is around $35. Cheaper if you get one discounted on Amazon.

    I guess I can be counted as having waning interest in the system, unless it was generally lighter--like Savage Worlds.

    Perhaps GURPS really does have something to learn from the OSR.

    OSGURPS anyone?

  11. Don't forget, SJG has their Munchkin cash cow, and they necessarily need to focus on that line.

    Interestingly, though, they just announced that they're going to be releasing an Ogre 6th Edition, with some interesting looking cardboard minis. I'm cautiously intrigued.

  12. @John Adams,

    The domain name appears to be parked ATM.

    And to stay on topic, I really liked GURPS 3e and the GURPS Lite PDF that introduced it. The GURPS Lite 4e PDF is less complete and not, IMO, capable of properly introducing people to the game. And yes, I agree that making self-contained genre books with all the basic rules would be a fantastic idea.

  13. I think that has much to do with it's smaller fan base and the ability of that fan base to understand the realities of printing costs couped with SJG long running support of Pyramid magazine as an electronic vehicle. Those who want the paper products were trained long ago to enjoy the computer.

  14. "And I no longer think of SJG as an RPG company."

    I doubt that Steve Jackson himself ever thought of Steve Jackson Games as being an RPG company. Over the years he has had much success selling Ogre/G.E.V., and then Car Wars, and then GURPS, and then Illuminati: New World Order, and now Munchkin. And he has always sold various types of games, and that will never change.

  15. "Munchkin now accounts for 80% of the company's revenues"

    Damn, that makes me sad somehow. Like, really sad.

  16. SJG has always been a Game company, and has always been one that focuses on its cash cow. Many companies fall into what is called the 80-20 split where 80% of revenue comes from 1 product line and the other 20% from other product lines. In fact, it is a marketing term.

    It isn't a wise strategy in long term as shifts in the market can cause things to crumble for many companies who are 80-20. But SJG has been 80-20 with many lines in the past and has endured due to flexibility and creativity. Car Wars was a cash cow. Ogre was the cash cow that started the company. Now Munchkin is the cash cow.

    My only hope is that they have another one down the pipeline.

  17. I'll note that GURPS 3rd Ed. was a complete game in a single paperback volume (yes, I'll grant it had supplements from here to forever, I own a lot of them). GURPS 4th Ed. is two hardcovers, and thus more than twice as much. So I'm not surprised by some of the analysis of pricing that other people have brought up. I've made a similar price observation on my own blog.

  18. Evil Hat is another company that goes to considerable effort to open it's books, and explain the problems facing a small publisher these days. Which is effectively all rpg publishers when compared to the mainstream industry. Books which are runaway successes in our small pond would be utter failures outside it.

    And I don't think GURPS is in decline. They are just recognising that it is more profitable to make the shift to ebooks, especially for the "worldbooks" (with exceptions that might have appeal outside the hobby, such as GURPS Vorkosigan). Board and cardgames require physical components, which are expensive to print, ship, and warehouse for limited (but steady) return after an initial surge of sales to the faithful. RPGs don't. Since the initial costs are the same, further savings can be made by moving digital.

    Core books will probably still be printed (as will the exceptional books), but I see an overall increasing shift to PDF releases with either POD or small print runs of "deluxe" hardcopy editions becoming the norm in the industry and not anything to comment on.

    It is interesting to see how this strategy compares to, say, FFG's Warhammer strategy where the components of the game are of vital importance, and WoTC's strict anti-pdf policy.

  19. I've been a GURPS fan since I playtested GURPS Cyberpunk. I own hundreds of third edition supplements for it, going all the way back to Horseclans, and nearly all of the fourth edition hardcovers that matter to me (I will never pay money for Banestorm, I'm not that interested in Vorkosigan, and I couldn't find a copy of Infinite Worlds before it was out of print). The problem I'm having with the new model is that not enough of the pdf supplements are available as POD physical books. I don't trust pdfs, find them cumbersome to use in actual gaming circumstances, and I don't always have my laptop with me when gaming anyway. I realize that this makes me a dinosaur, but it does mean that I haven't purchased nearly as much SJG product in the last 5 years as I have in the past.

    In my opinion, and that of the formerly-GURPS-oriented group I regularly play with, the mistake SJG made was to release the books in hardcover only. That made the price point too high for many people who otherwise would have changed over. Now, they aren't releasing enough of the books in POD format. Ah, well, at least I still own all of my old FGU games (and they are still available!), and there are some new games which are fun being produced.

  20. I think that we will continue to see GURPS hardcovers for at least a few years, albeit at a reduced rate of publication. GURPS Vorkorsigan was recently released, and editing on the GURPS Low-Tech hardcover has just finished. In addition Ken Hite is currently working on the forthcoming GURPS Horror hardcover, and there is a fairly good chance that it will be released in the latter half of 2010 (depending upon the vagaries of production schedules). Interestingly, a number of GURPS hardcovers that have fallen out of print have just been re-released as softcovers (GURPS Ultra-Tech, GURPS Fantasy, GURPS Space, et al). It's probably too early to know if this is the start of a move back to the softcover market in a larger way though. However, a couple of the most successful PDF releases for GURPS have also recently been released in softcover. Interesting times.

  21. @faoladh, depending on the page count of the PDFs, you can make yourself some nice booklets. You'll also need to find yourself a big-ass stapler and a printer that can do double sided sheets without becoming too time/labor intensive. Might have to break a bigger book into smaller ones, but I've done it and it works great!

    @John, I think Brandon may have picked up on the fact that your profile still links to the old website.

  22. @Jay: And so I have done (with Psionics Institutes, one of the GURPS Traveller pdfs). It's a pain in the rear, and depending on one's printer might not be cheap, either. Obviously, POD copies might be even more expensive, but they're also generally more durable than diy booklets, don't have staples (which damage other books they are stored next to on the shelves), have spines that can be read, and so on.

    I realize that some of these complaints are idiosyncratic to me, but they are still my complaints. I prefer to have the option to buy my books already made.

  23. GURPS is fine, 4th edition is a much improved refinement over 3rd edition as I've played GURPS since 1987.

    Nevertheless, SJ Games is one of those rarities in the hobby: a fiscally-responsible entity. Kudos to Steve Jackson. On the other hand, it means he will go where the money is.

    In addition, with all the 3rd edition sourcebooks and pdf products, what more does one need to play? The pen and paper RPG hobby is niche at best, dying a tortuous death at worse. At least GURPS is updated and supported in its own way (pdfs) by a company that can afford to do it (thanks to Munchkin).

  24. I do consider GURPS to be dead. SJ is also one of the few persons in this business I'd take business advice from.

  25. You can also see the PDF sales rankings. etc.
    which might be useful in comparison.

  26. To be honest, I'd be happy to see other RPG publishers follow the lead of SJ Games and release only 1-2 new books each year. One of the things that impresses me about GURPS 4e has been the high quality of the books that have been released in the past 2-3 years. The release schedule has definitely slowed, but the quality of the stuff released has been exceptional. Although I prefer quality to quantity, I'm not sure that it's possible to build a sustainable business model out of that philosophy in the current economic climate.

  27. Incidentally, why do some people consider a system to be dead if there are few new releases? Do you really need a stack of new sourcebooks each year to justify the existence of a game system? I tend to feel that a system is still alive and kicking so long as people are playing it.

  28. @Rob Conley: I don't think GURPS is overwhelming at all. I can teach someone to play GURPS as easily as I could teach them D&D. The main challenge GURPS has is that it doesn't make assumptions for you. You have to decide what sort of game you want out of it, and then start building it. Your idea of the themed corebooks is interesting, but let's remember that it didn't work for WEG and the D6 System.

  29. @Rob Conley: There is the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line in PDF and POD. It's up to about 11 releases now with 2 or 3 more expected this year. My group has had a lot of fun with it.

  30. Personally I think the reason GURPS feels like a dead system, is that it used to be a rules set for which a steady stream of support books were published and I always met people who played it.

    Now, it's expensive hardcovers, and they are republishing "core" books and have almost stopped publishing anything not related to basic stuff. I also meet fewer people who play the game.

    In comparison I think OD&D feels more alive.

    It's a very subjective evaluation, I know. :)

  31. Perhaps I'm biased (since I'm the e23 Manager and all), but I'm truly amazed that a game line that's had 1,791 pages of new material released last year could be considered "dead" by anyone. (That's the equivalent of almost 14 of the 128-page paper books we used to release in the old days.)

    Is the only criterion of whether a game line is living or dead the number of paper products released for it? If we released -- I don't know -- 20,000 pages of professionally researched, playtested, and edited material for GURPS, all of it via PDF, would it still be considered dead? (Conversely, if we started offering all those new PDFs via a POD service, would the system suddenly be considered "alive" again, because there would now dozens of new paper products released in a year?)

    Speaking strictly as a fan, I've been thrilled with GURPS the past few years. There's been a diversity in products and ideas the likes of which I haven't seen in almost two decades. And since I do the bulk of my reading on a computer (and soon -- I predict -- an iPad), the existence of many of those products solely in electronic format is an asset, not a liability.

  32. My long comment seems to have been eaten. Ouch. Short form:

    @Steven Marsh: I don't think GURPS is "dead", whatever that means, but I do think that the lack of paper product leads to a lower profile in my FLGS, which leads to fewer new players. Personally, I have dramatically reduced the SJG portion of my gaming budget due to a personal dislike of pdfs without paper, but I realize that the market demands what it does, SJG is the most solid business in the industry, and so my hobby is no longer supportable by professional companies in the ways I would prefer. This is not a criticism, but an observation that the world has moved on without me and that I need to stick to hobby companies, who can more readily fulfill my needs (though I do still purchase the occasional SJG product), and locally-produced material. This increased reliance on the locally-produced material is, in fact, part of my own understanding of what the OSR means, since it is reminiscent of my early gaming days, when we house-ruled most everything, made our own adventures, and so on.

  33. The first thing that I think is interesting about SJG is that their current cash cow may not be an RPG, but it is built upon the RPG hobby.

    While printing your own PDFs may have disadvantages to “print without demand” or POD, a PDF—by its very nature—is generally meant to be printed. PDF is the “low-end” of POD. The disadvantages of PDF when not printed are, IMHO, completely missing the point.

    (Although, I’m optimistic that my iPad may somewhat change that picture. We’ll see.)

    I think SJG is one of the smartest RPG companies around, and they’ll still be putting food on the table when D&D changes hands again. They aren’t trying to be an RPG company but a game company. They’re embracing electronic books rather than running from them. They don’t put out new editions of their RPG just to boost “core book” sales. They don’t go overboard on the supplements.

    (I keep wondering whether I’ll ever play GURPS again. Can it be played light enough for my current tastes? Will I at some point want its extra weight again? I keep wishing there really was a “light equivalent to GURPS”.)

  34. GURPS is the one system I always wanted to play, but never did.

    I did add to SJG's bottom line over the years by buying their supplement books and re-using the data for other games.

  35. To be honest, I'd be happy to see other RPG publishers follow the lead of SJ Games and release only 1-2 new books each year.

    Yes, I feel rather similarly, to be honest. Unfortunately, one can't make a lot of money off of only 1-2 products a year, so we're not going to see such a model adopted widely any time soon. A pity.

  36. Incidentally, why do some people consider a system to be dead if there are few new releases? Do you really need a stack of new sourcebooks each year to justify the existence of a game system? I tend to feel that a system is still alive and kicking so long as people are playing it.

    Many gamers are, first and foremost, game consumers rather than players. The measure of a game is whether they can keep buying more stuff to read rather than actually playing it. Me, I often prefer games that are "dead," because it means I can be left in peace to do whatever I want with the game rather than feel any compunction to keep up with the latest releases for it.

  37. James wrote: “Unfortunately, one can't make a lot of money off of only 1-2 products a year, so we're not going to see such a model adopted widely any time soon.

    Well, this is how real businesses run: They determine what the market can bear. Then they size that part of the business accordingly. If that business isn’t self-sustaining by itself, they diversify.

    That’s what SJG does.

    It seems it is hard for many people to remember that Wizards itself isn’t a RPG company either. The majority of their profit doesn’t come from RPGs. They don’t need to put out as many RPG products each year as they do. They obviously think their current strategy is the way to make the most of their RPG line.

    Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. All I know is that I buy more SJG products than Wizards. I’ve only bought one Wizards product since 2002ish.