05
Jan
12

On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity

Opening night gaming party for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward. Photo by Timothy Hutchings; pictured are Luke (Burning Wheel), Ray (Compleat Strategist), Stefan (Dwarven Forge), and Peter (Gen Con).

It is not interesting that a great time was had at Adventuring Parties’ event for the opening of Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward show at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. No reader of the Mule requires further proof that it is fun to get together with friends and make new ones by rolling dice and imagining adventures while eating chips and drinking beer. Should it surprise us that it is even more fun when you are also looking at fifteen monitors each displaying a different loop of gaming-related art and supplementing the usual gamer-snacks with wine and cheese?

What’s worth sharing is the knowledge I gained about party gaming. Around the time that the picture above was taken, I was talking about the basic problem faced by anyone who wants to sell roleplaying games as a product: no gamer actually needs a rulebook.  Poland’s first samizdat RPG proved the only thing you need is the idea that it’s possible to use dice and imagination to tell a collaborative story. If I’m correctly understanding the story I heard from some gamers in Krakow, no game-system texts made it across the Iron Curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Just the distant rumors of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons was enough for Polish gamers to whip up Kryształy Czasu and start playing. (The fact that it is known for having insanely complicated charts may be because engineering students had the best access to what their counterparts in the Western world of nerds were up to, or because trends in gaming exist independently of borders or causality).

It was very gratifying when Luke arrived in the middle of this conversation and, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I could collar him to make a point. His unhesitating reply to “what do gamers actually need?” was “More people to play with.”

So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?

We know from the general success of the RPG hobby industry to date that there is a role here for selling game systems: rulebooks and accessories and all kinds of support products. If we want to have more people to play baseball with, it helps if everyone shows up with their own mitt. And even though we don’t really need Big League Chew to play, it’s nice to have. So there is some correlation between how many businesses are trying to sell baseball equipment to people in our community and how easy it is to get a game together on any given sunny day.

The problem is that even a cursory look at the RPG industry shows that a product-driven business model can do as much to drive gamers apart as it does to bring them together at the gaming table.  The Open Gaming License was a great leap forward because it got manufacturers to collectively produce baseball equipment, instead of trying to market the Bases & Balls System to the customers they could splinter from the userbase for Advanced Balls & Bats. But new editions and meta-plot-driven supplement treadmills and requiring a deck of Dungeons & Dragons Fortune Cards to contain a multiple of 10 cards when they’re sold in decks of 8 are typically cases where the publishers’ need to make things outshines the customer’s’ need to buy them.

Last night’s Tower of Gygax event was many things in addition to fun. In part, it was another of my ongoing experiments in ways a business could meet its need to generate money by directly creating the play experience that’s the essence of what gamers need.

I started this post meaning to talk about the results of this experiement. Unfortunately I have to run out to get the stuff for Adventuring Parties’ afterschool class. One new, not unexpected data point is that doing stuff for kids remains the best source of revenue for a RPG service business that I know about. Here all my experimental data just confirms the example of the Roleplay Workshop, the Brooklyn Strategist, and their many counterparts in Israel: parents are accustomed to paying for their kids to have educational/wholesome/creative experiences. I was happy with some of the things I tried last night to get adult gamers to feel like having these experiences themselves was worth money, but the fact remains that we already know how to DIY our own balls and bats; the amount we’re willing to donate to a fun event like the Tower of Gygax seems like the same amount we might spend on Big League Chew.

Tonight’s event is an example of another reason product-based businesses are motivated to create opportunities for gamers to sit down and play: promotion. Here you’re not asking them to pay up front or during the event, because you have something you want them to buy later. In this case Adventuring Parties is promoting the distribution deal for Adventurer Conqueror King that Autarch just signed with Game Salute to get the hardback and PDF combo into stores where this buying and selling can happen. Hooray to Bits & Mortar for helping tie these two halves together! Here is the press release which has some details about tonight’s party.

When talking about money or politics, and their near cousins products and publicity, a hard-boiled tone tends to creep into one’s voice. Also when talking about two companies I’m part of as if they were separate things, I run the risk of A Scanner Darkly dissociation. Before I run off, here are some points I don’t want to be obscured:

  • Buying a shiny new (or enticingly old) product is an important source of a gamer’s recommended allowance of joy, and even if I think DIY playing together at the table should be at the base of this food pyramid, I don’t scorn those for whom buying things is their primary source of RPG fun.
  • The primary goal of just about everyone involved in producing new RPG materials, myself included, is that they want to make it easier to find players for their own favorite kind of baseball. We can’t talk about how business motives distort play without also talking about how individual motives to be like Gygax and have your name on the cover of a beloved gaming book distort business strategies.
  • The #1 way that adults spend money on their gaming hobby is by treating it as a business. Even though I know it will never be anywhere near as profitable as my day job, I passionately seek to get involved in just about every RPG business I can, whether it’s selling products or services or vapors, because I find this to be really, really fun. It’s almost as much fun as playing RPGs, it uses many of the same skills, and you can spend more time doing it.
  • Finally, a bit of hucksterism for the Roleplaying Retirement Home, coming soon, in which being off the hook business-wise means we will be able to spend as much time playing as we want. The return on our willingness to pay for our kids to have educational roleplaying experiences (aka babysitting) will be that they will pay for us to have dignified end-of-life experiences (aka babysitting). Suckers! I know there will be a potion of longevity in one of the many treasure hoards I will loot in my elder years. It will be a long time until you can pry the dice from my cold, dead hand.

11 Responses to “On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity”


  1. January 6, 2012 at 3:02 am

    The thing I love about the multiplicity of gaming blogs is that it lets me encounter viewpoints that are far outside my own “head space.” Like in this post, when I saw the initial question…

    “So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?”

    …My initial response was something like “Well, maybe the people involved should reconsider whether they really want to BE an RPG business at all.” Rather than thinking up more ways to “monetize” the hobby, why not step back and re-engage with the amateur/D.I.Y. aesthetic that (presumably) was the thing that got us all interested in the first place?

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking one’s players to kick in a few bucks to cover the cost of the snacks and drinks. But I’ve got to say that this “pay-to-play” model (or the related model of “pay nothing now, but here’s some hard-sell for a timeshare”) strikes me as the wrong direction for the hobby to go. I hope I’m not whacking at a strawman of my own making, but this whole deal of increased monetization just smells, smells, smells…

  2. 2 James Nostack
    January 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    It’s not how I would have phrased it, but I think the question isn’t out of bounds.

    I spend an absurd amount of time farting around with gaming stuff. It would be nice to be able to earn a living doing something I enjoy and can do with reasonable competency. Or, if not an actual living wage, then at least a few extra bucks to be able to say to loved ones, “Sure, I could have spent some time with you at the Museum of Shrieking Children’s Cafe of Indelible Tomato Sauce Stains, dear family, rather than gaming. But look, I have a tiny amount of money to show for it!”

    I’m not Tavis, but I understand the impulse. In a week I’m going to be running a little D&D scenario at a local mini-con. It’s 4 hours of play time, but it’s easily taken 40 hours of sometimes very frustrating prep–time which I really should have spent more wisely. I’m doing it for free as a favor to the con organizers, who are friends of mine, but in an ideal world I’d have something to show for the effort expended.

    And, if you’re tempted by the idea to earn a few bucks on the side doing something you enjoy, it strikes me that it’s more moral to meet a real need as opposed to a manufactured one. Last year I worked with Tavis in the Hunter Elementary Afterschool D&D Class. I would have done it for free, because to survive the gaming scene needs a new generation of players. But it was nice to have a little extra money, and everyone involved–the teachers, the kids, their parents–were happy.

  3. January 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    That’s a good discussion, although I disagree with the idea that existing players need more new players most of all. That’s what the hobby needs. What existing players generally need is more time to play. I have a couple jobs, and all of my players have full time jobs and many have kids. Getting together more than 1-2 times a month is tough. I’d love an extra player or two, but that wouldn’t really solve the problem of finding time to play.

    Now the RPG industry can’t really find me some extra Sundays to play. I don’t think they can provide me any better tools – is WOTC or SJG or Paizo or some other game company going to come up with better social tools than Google+ already has? It’s hard to monetize something specific to RPG play. I don’t really need a GURPS Google+ framework/theme/app/interface although that would be fun to have.

    So I’m not sure what the way to growth of the hobby is – I agree that creating new players is critical. I’m very bad about this personally since I’m not a “go demonstrate games” kind of guy. But I’m happy to support those who do with good gaming tools and moral support. :)

  4. January 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Fair enough. I’m probably an oddball, in that anything that goes beyond “pre-existing friends gathering to play an RPG” strikes me as strange. Even such old-school practices as putting up flyers for new players, or signing up to play at a local game store (with people that either one hasn’t met before, or knows only from that store), seem just as alien to me. But good on ya’ for reaching out and fostering that next generation.

  5. January 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Great question, Cygnus, I devoted a whole ‘nother post to it! Keep the critiques coming, please.

  6. January 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    I think the ideas here are related. I’m with Peter, what I need is more time to do this thing I love. And what I love most is making things. One way to have more time would be to “monetize” it in some way so I could quit my day job. But then, unless you’re very clever, you’re ensuring your customers won’t have the same fun time making stuff, which begins to produce the smell Cygnus mentions.

    I think there is still potential for products that teach DM’s to make and run games. A lot of this hobby is still sink or swim, learn on your own. I think Vornheim was cool to me because it was that kind of product “Here’s how you can run your own city.” I also have great hope for your Adventuring Parties because, it’s true, I feel differently about giving money to someone to look after kids. Also, I think it would be great if more kids got to experience, not just the imaginative aspect of our game, but the making part too.

    I think there might also be some room for selling things that are slightly peripheral to the hobby. Like miniatures. Every time Jeff Rients points out cool lantern, or campfire, or overloaded hireling, I think why aren’t companies selling those kinds of things. With 3d printers getting cheaper and better this becomes more a possibility.

    I’m personally still looking into screenprinting maps and such. I think they might be cool enough that people will pay for the labor even if they aren’t essential to the game. Both this and the miniatures are examples of something you might make money from that are difficult for the everyday DIYer because they require investing in equipment and learning how to use it.

  7. January 6, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Jed gave me a screenprinted vinyl Outdoor Survival map for Christmas, I would buy stuff like that in a second!

    I agree that teaching is the best foundation for a gaming service business. You need to worry a little about not making people dependent on having a teacher do it for them but there are things to be learned from the Israeli example that could help steer clear of this.

    The afterschool class works well because it’s doing this job of outreach and teaching, and it’d be cool to think about what classes adults might pay for – maybe in one of those personal growth education setups you see flyers for in newspaper racks, where the catalog has cooking and tai chi and how to be a more effective speaker?

  8. January 9, 2012 at 4:51 am

    There’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma that goes on with the whole “more time to play” issue, especially if you’re interested in an ongoing campaign—which I definitely prefer to endless strings of one-shots! If I keep my schedule on, say, Tuesdays, clear to play The Campaign, but the probability is high that at least one of the other people in the group is going to cancel, it’s very frustrating, especially for many game frameworks which simply don’t function without the whole group there.

    It’s quite telling that the most successful games I’m in right now are a BW game that I’m GMing for one player (with a rotating cast of my friends playing guest NPCs), and another in which I am one of only two players.

    Matt

  9. January 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    In addition to the after-school fun/babysitting companies here in Israel, in the last year Lance Social Skills (www.lance.co.il) was set up to combine RPG fun with social interaction expertise in order to help kids with social issues.

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