09
Jan
12

Why Monetizing RPG Design Sucks

In the discussion following a fascinating roundup of the state of the RPG business at the nerdNYC forums, deliverator asked:

Isn’t it bad for the hobby if the business side can’t support full-time, professional game designers?

I think full-time professional game designers are bad for the hobby, from my limited experience of playing with some of them and having done some professional design work myself.

The problem is that, at least given the current financial difficulties of the product-based RPG business, if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play. During the development of a new core system you might have a R&D budget that supports just sitting around trying things out and figuring out what’s fun, but the limited profitability of each supplemental release means that you really ought to be spending all your time cranking out more words.

Sure, maybe you play RPGs in your leisure time, but probably with people who have the same narrow focus on the particular thing you’re all working on, and who could blame you if when you finish a long day of RPG writing what you want to do is passively kill orcs playing WoW instead of going back to the same well of creativity you use during your day job? The strong temptation when you play is to make it a playtest of whatever your current assignment is, and those assignments usually have a distant relationship to the things you’re getting into with any independently existing actual play.

Doing the stuff that would refill the creative well – going and playing different games with different groups and experiencing the full diversity of styles and approaches – is something I generally don’t see full-time professionals doing. Mostly this is just due to lack of time. Sometimes it’s because the personality types that want to delve deeply into rules design are kind of autistic, and/or eager for the authority and in-group status you can claim from being a RPG pro as ways to compensate for being poorly paid and not respected by anyone outside the subculture – neither of which is a recipe for happy experiences with lots of different groups and their variant playstyles!

My interest in finding ways to professionalize playing RPGs instead of writing them is in part to counteract this trend. I think it’d be good for the hobby if the people who were most deeply involved in it could financially justify spending time on the performance art side of things as well as generating products to support others’ performance.

Note that I have heard that some of the more famous mainstream designers of the last decade do run games for fans who have approached them with offers to pay e.g. $100 an hour for their GMing. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are people whose writing I really respect. They’re not eager to talk about this publicly because there is a stigma against “pay to play”, but I think the desire to live up to their self-imposed professional standards when running a game – to engage with play with the same commitment they bring to design – makes them better writers as well as better GMs.

Thanks to Matt for setting me up with this strawman – you’ve heard me do this rant before; to Chris for suggesting it’d be a useful addition to the conversation over here; and to John for the confirmation and pointer to alternate publishing strategies


19 Responses to “Why Monetizing RPG Design Sucks”


  1. January 9, 2012 at 5:04 am

    I rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreally think you should address the “GMing is not a service any more than playing is”/”The guitarist analogy is bad because every player at the table is in the band, too” question brought up in the last thread.

    A book is an object which offers value to the writer, the reader, and, because it is printed and probably on the web, the knowledge base of the universe of anyone else who sees it for all time.

    GMing is a trade of the pleasure of having players for the pleasure of having a GM that is not eternal except in someone’s memory.

    The only way regularly monetizing GMing makes sense is if the GM is having less fun than the players, in which case, they suck at GMing and should stop.

  2. January 9, 2012 at 6:13 am

    As to the GM being an equal part of a contributing band or the play group:
    Why is there a custom to specifically acknowledge a GM after a session of play by thanking them, or paying for their beer, or not requiring them to chip in for pizza? Isn’t it because it is known that they put more effort into the preparation and organization of the event? Isn’t that a low form of payment already? What is the difference between curtsey and transaction? Requirement?

  3. 3 Bargle
    January 9, 2012 at 6:27 am

    A published adventure is a monetized DM experience in absentia.

    Someone with the skill to write a professional adventure (or improvise one!) is worth paying to DM for you, just as their adventure is worth buying.

  4. January 9, 2012 at 8:20 am

    I would assume this post was written by someone who never wrote or published (or played?) anything, but I know that isn’t true, so I’m pretty confused about the whole thing because just about none of it rings true with my experience.

    This statement right here: “if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play.” really makes no sense to me.

    How has writing and bringing ACK to market affected your own play habits?

  5. 5 Crose87420
    January 9, 2012 at 9:03 am

    “Sure, maybe you play RPGs in your leisure time, but probably with people who have the same narrow focus on the particular thing you’re all working on…”

    “Doing the stuff that would refill the creative well – going and playing different games with different groups and experiencing the full diversity of styles and approaches – is something I generally don’t see full-time professionals doing.”

    And this information comes from experience with what/whom RPG wirting and gaming proffesionals?

  6. January 9, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Huh. All of the professional full-time RPG and game designers I know – and there are very few, admittedly, and even fewer that I know – play lots and lots of games. And playtest the hell out of those games.

    I’m an RPG freelancer, and even though I’m paid by the word or in royalties, I still play the hell out of my games, too. I do not support myself only by freelancing, and I don’t know anyone else who does. Yet even so the more I play the more I write, because game helps me test ideas and inspires ideas.

    So I personally find the basic premise that “The problem is that, at least given the current financial difficulties of the product-based RPG business, if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play. ”

    If RPG writing played more, I’d run more games – because running games gives me more material to write from.

  7. January 9, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Er, I mean if writing *paid* more, not played more.

  8. 8 James Nostack
    January 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    @ Tavis:

    Part of the hubbub here is that money, professionalism, and sharing are culturally charged topics, especially within a DIY movement that arose as an explicit rejection of late-stage corporate control of a hobby game. Some of the fuss is therefore unavoidable.

    But the discussion is going to be very acrimonious unless everyone knows exactly what’s being discussed. Last time around, for example, there was a lot of avoidable confusion between corporate gig versus small business, and between getting paid for “actual play” in any capacity versus getting paid specifically to GM. It’s helpful to make it very clear what’s on the table.

    My feeling is that gaming is a pleasurable hobby that carries opportunity costs. If the opportunity costs were less, I’d game more and feel happier in general because I like to game. Some obvious ways to lower the opportunity cost include getting paid somehow, gaming more efficiently, or softening my economic pressures (lower my rent, make my family be cool).

    A lot of folks on the Forge and elsewhere, including much of the OSR which I see as a sister movement, have put a lot of thought into improving game efficiency. I figure lowering my rent is my own problem.

    As to getting paid, I think the least problematic way to do that would involve third parties. The kids’ birthday party approach, or some other situation where people are happy to witness others doing this stuff. But that’s at least partially parasitic on brand awareness cultivated by a large corporation. Parents aren’t forking over money for someone to play Tunnels & Trolls or Toon with their kids.

    Here is a crazy bad idea! What about competitive tournament play? People pay in ($5 to $10). GM is not financially interested beyond taking a small cut off the top. Whoever ends with the most XP, or gold, or some other victory condition, gets the pot. I don’t know enough about the early 80’s tournament scene to know how well or how poorly it worked. (Again: I suspect this is a bad idea, but I’m just throwing it out there.)

  9. January 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    @Zak: I wrote a longer reply but apparently forgot to post it before I left for work, and will blog just on this later. For now yeah those are important issues. The music analogy is appropriate because both RPGs and music are performance arts, but complicated by the fact that audience and performer are intermixed in a RPG session. It is great that the highest ideal is chamber music performed by a group of experts for their own pleasure, and that those folks are well supplied by RPG businesses that provide them with sheet music and spaces to play in. I still feel that our hobby suffers from the lack of service businesses providing support for people who can’t DIY their own chamber music, whether that’s in the form of music lessons to reach the requisite level of skill (e.g. a RPG afterschool class) or as Bargle said in the last post, hiring a “ringer” to improve the experience of the participants in an otherwise amateur group (e.g. professional GMing). Yes, players also contribute valuable skills; when one of the kids is DMing in the afterschool class I am getting paid to be a player in that group, and still feel like I am helping set an example and avoid/redirect problems within the group and show how to keep things moving forward and otherwise provide a service the kids need.

    @Greengoat: For sure it’s customary to socially reward the DM and not the players, but lots of work has been done by the OSR and the Forge to challenge the idea that it’s all about the GM’s role. The assumption that the GM is the hardworking railroad conductor taking us passively to scenic destinations is as problematic when it’s reflected in a module as when we say “thanks for the trip”. That said, the New York Red Box has gobbled up as much RPG theory as any group could possibly be expected to swallow, and we still sometimes buy beer for our DMs. Whether this is because there is something to this or because we are still unwitting slaves to orthodoxy is open to debate.

    @Bargle: There are already guys who get paid to run adventures based on having extensively demonstrated their ability to write them, but I think this reinforces the idea that what’s valuable in the DM’s role is that they have spent more effort than the players which usually means laying railroad track. I think it would be better for the hobby to have it the other way around. If more people got hired to write modules based on their ability to improvise adventures and teach others to do so, we’d have more products that reflect the way I want to play and provide the support I’d pay for as a DM.

  10. January 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Tavis said:
    “our hobby suffers from the lack of service businesses providing support for people who can’t DIY their own chamber music, whether that’s in the form of music lessons to reach the requisite level of skill (e.g. a RPG afterschool class) or as Bargle said in the last post, hiring a “ringer” to improve the experience of the participants in an otherwise amateur group (e.g. professional GMing).”

    NO!!!! Our hobby ROCKS because the lack of support for people who suck and have no imagination. They fail and no-one has fun and they disappear out of the hobby. That is AWESOME! That is meritocracy.

    If no-one is a professional and everyone is just DMing in their spare time, people are only limited by the amount of time and brains they are willing to put into it. If GM instruction is bought and paid for, then the rich have more access than the poor.

  11. January 9, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    @Zak, I think we’re on the verge of agreeing to disagree about some really interesting and fundamental stuff, let’s keep at it!

    @James, I think this discussion has been remarkably unacrimonious and productive but yeah I will try to define the terms better, and your “reducing opportunity cost” is a good lens. I did run a competitive D&D tournament, “Kill Monsters & Win Money”, at Gen Con So Cal in ’05; mine only violated gambling laws, one step better than its inspiration “D&D for Cash” which added trademark infringement but ran profitably for many years. I thought it was a failure both financially and artistically, but the players were really into it & some still talk about the experience; it succeeded in doing something that I didn’t really want to do, but some embraced.

  12. 12 James Nostack
    January 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    @ Zak
    “If no-one is a professional and everyone is just DMing in their spare time, people are only limited by the amount of time and brains they are willing to put into it.”

    What if I want to play with someone who’s got a lot more time than the local pick-up crowd can supply?

    “If GM instruction is bought and paid for, then the rich have more access than the poor.”

    What makes GM’ing lessons different from cooking lessons, music lessons, or personal trainers? Even within hobbies, there’s room for commercialized services. There’s a surprisingly large market for knitting instructional DVD’s and workshops, for example. I bet there are people who give lectures on home-brewing too. And nothing prevents people from saying to their friends, “Hey, here is a neat technique I picked up at Knitting Camp, let me share it with you.”

    None of this is meant as disagreement with the implied political POV of your post. But I think those issues are much broader than D&D. If I didn’t have to pay rent, my life would be very different.

  13. 13 Adam
    January 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Tavis, have you read Martha Nussbaum’s writings about the criminalization of prostitution? If not, I think you might find them interesting. The one I’ve read is an essay in _Sex and Social Justice_; it’s an academic work, but very accessible to the non-specialist.

    Part of the analogy is that she discusses (and critiques) the idea that some things ought not to be paid for because they are too intimate or because the social bond around them is supposed to be different. So the idea goes that prostitution is bad because sex is supposed to be an intimate act between people who love each other, not a commercial transaction between people with no personal tie.

    To my mind, part of the hobbyist idea in RPGs is the idea that gaming should be a labor of love–of love of the GM for the game, of the whole playing group for each other, of the authors of material for the game–and that money taints that. I think that’s part of the source of the hostility towards the idea of paid GMs; you can also see it in someone like ckutalik’s hostility towards the idea of for-profit game publishing (or at least his own participation in for-profit game publishing–I’m not entirely sure of the bounds of that, and don’t want to misrepresent what the Hydra Cooperative is about normatively); I think it’s related to people like James Maliszewski’s fixation on develop-in-play rules and setting, rather than develop-at-start, although that also ties in to other concerns. This notion of a “labor of love” is very parallel to the idea that sex shouldn’t be commercialized, even though there are other problems with the analogy.

    I personally think that there’s nothing wrong with commercializing RPGs. Sure, the GM is kinda like a guitarist, playing with other people playing in the band… but if a guitarist is good enough, they can get paid to play. (And even the analogy of being paid by the other members of the band can hold–it’s common for members of community choirs to pay membership fees, at the same time as the chorus as a corporate body pays a salary to the music director and fees to individual soloists/instrumentalists). There’s nothing wrong with being a completely hobbyist guitarist. But there’s nothing wrong with being [insert favorite guitarist], either. The question for me is whether many (any but a token number?) of GMs can actually pull it off, but there are people I would gladly pay to GM for me more often.

  14. January 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    I’m some ways, I’m more worried about the financial incentives and forces that shift the game design itself. The big games from big companies have to be design to be expandable to make sense. Have to support more rules, more add ons, more complexity and options. Books that offer that material represent sales to both players and GMs. So companies have an incentive to create more byzantine and complex games. Simple games allow for more setting material and frames, but less generally marketable material, IMHO.

  15. January 9, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    FTR Tavis’ comments about not getting to play games ring exactly true to me as a former video game designer. I never had the time or inclination to play anything.

  16. January 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I didn’t get around to answering some important questions:

    “this information comes from experience with what/whom RPG wirting and gaming proffesionals”?

    Those who work for companies big enough to hire people full-time to do nothing but writing/design/development.

    “How has writing and bringing ACK to market affected your own play habits?”

    I’m not really in the category of people I’m talking about, because I never tried to do design full-time. I did get close enough to get to know people who did and get a sense of their work and play habits, what reading material was on their shelves, etc.; what I saw convinced me I didn’t want to give up so much & do the relentless hard work to make it on their level.

    My work bringing ACKS to market is only partially writing and design – lots of what I do is talking to people, whether that’s the other designers about development issues and goals; backers and fans about customer service, what they want from the game, etc. I can imagine doing a mix of roles like this all day long without burnout; I wonder if those who are saying that they know people who make design their full-time job are looking at folks working at small companies where there isn’t a strict separation of roles.

    In any case, working on ACKS has increased the amount of time I’ve spent playing as compared to the times when I’ve had a freelance gig for WotC. Part of this is because we’ve been in the pre-launch R&D period where figuring out what to do by playing is part of the agenda. Part is because in a small company without strict separation of roles the things you figure out by play can actually affect the design specs, which are handed to you by the lead designer when you are a freelancer and are subject to a host of constraints even when you are the lead.

    And even though my gaming is far from a full-time effort, part of my weekly schedule of professional RPG work involves playing, most reliably with the afterschool class; so that even if I did try to do RPGs and nothing else, I’d be certain to have part of what I do always involve rolling dice and doing improv.

  17. 17 Sakusammakko
    January 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Connect people. 

    D&D is a social game. Find ways to make it easy for interested players & DMs to meet (in person or online). Make sure they have a fun playing experience through modelling good behavior and by being attentive to what they want/need. Give freely of yourself and your time.  

    Once they’ve decided that this hobby is a passion, provide a mix of paid/unpaid products and services that help gamers continue to scratch the itch.  Focus on the delivering a superior gaming experience and the money will come (if your pockets are deep enough).

    These comments are not meant to suggest you aren’t already doing these things.

  18. 18 Sakusammakko
    January 10, 2012 at 9:17 am

    In principle, I don’t see any thing wrong with providing (and paying for) direct services that help people become better players/DMs. D&D is one of my passions and most serious vice- I don’t mind paying for material or to play.  

    In some respects, I’m a bit surprised there aren’t more small companies offering paid advice and services– instead of getting $1.50 from me for a map from THEIR imagination, why not ask me for $150 for a set of custom maps that indulge MY imagination? Why not charge me $250 to help me customize something you’ve created for the mass market for my campaign?

    Are there enough customers at the high end of the market to make a go of things? Some of us have more money than time (and possibly good sense).

    I know the hobbyists are shaking their head in horror. ‘How could you PAY someone to help you create content? That’s YOUR job as the DM!’, I hear them saying. And I agree. And we pay for published material all the time. Why can’t I have the option to pay a lot more to work with someone else to help me get more of what I want, faster?


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