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Author Topic: Successful RPG Line  (Read 8164 times)
Zak Arntson
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« on: December 07, 2001, 11:38:00 AM »

In another thread (http://indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?topic=972&forum=4&4), Ron Edwards sez,

Quote

The common plan of releasing supplements which are both (a) setting details and (b) metaplot continuance does NOT, ultimately, serve a given RPG well in terms of long-term sales. What it does do is MAYBE get your core book reordered from stores for about a year. That's a lot of "if's" to rely upon for success, and failure to meet one of those "if's" can cost you many thousands of dollars. And even this picture is changing.


So my question to Ron (and everyone else, of course) is What, in your opinion, serves a commercial RPG in the long-term?

I would hazard that Metaplot & Setting combined seem to help White Wolf's sales. And maybe Deadlands (but I haven't read their books ... do they combine Metaplot with Setting supplements?)

Something to note: Some Wizards high-up (Ryan Dancey?) said that TSR didn't do so hot (profit-wise) on their supplemental lines (Planescape, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, etc.), but rather their core rulebooks were the big money-makers.  Something that probably didn't hurt their decision to go d20 and OGL.

And here's my current opinion: An RPG shouldn't need a Metaplot unless it's tied to the Premise, in which case you should provide the gist of the Metaplot (if not the whole thing) up front. Which leads to Metaplot not being something that's doled out from one supplement to the next. If you absolutely have to provide some Metaplot, then make sure the supplements & adventures are usable without using it.

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[ This Message was edited by: Zak Arntson on 2001-12-07 15:05 ]
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Nathan
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« Reply #1 on: December 07, 2001, 12:03:00 PM »

And another question to this could be, "Could a publisher do a metaplot correctly?"

I figure that supplements and a changing world are one of the best ways to keep a game fresh -- especially a game tied with one specific setting. I could be wrong - in fact, I hope I am.... Deadlands, tied to one setting, can get PLAYED out. You can explore everywhere, defeat a bunch of stuff, and then get kindah bored. Therefore, what do you do? Pick up a new supplement with a more detailed new area, character classes, magic, items, monsters, and whatever.

This mentality is the same in the computer game world. buy Baldur's Gate, you play, you beat it, you get tired, and want more... Then you get the expansion set. Of course, computer games have very short life cycles. We don't see this so much in rpgs, but maybe it is becoming a feature of the industry - games have life cycles.

I figure another way around it would be to provide ADD-ONs, sort of like buying a car and getting a choice on extras that you could add. With an RPG, these extras might be special dice, books with optional stuff, and so on. I really don't know.... Maybe a viable way is to provide a quality of material that is ranged - but is simply not required.

This is a great question.. I want to hear what others have to say..

Thanks,
Nathan
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #2 on: December 07, 2001, 03:43:00 PM »

Quote
Nathan wrote:

I figure another way around it would be to provide ADD-ONs, sort of like buying a car and getting a choice on extras that you could add. With an RPG, these extras might be special dice, books with optional stuff, and so on. I really don't know.... Maybe a viable way is to provide a quality of material that is ranged - but is simply not required.That
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Nathan
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« Reply #3 on: December 07, 2001, 11:26:00 PM »

Wow, Fang...

Great way to approach it. In a way, your approach sounds similar to GURPS. It seems to me that many recent GURPS products have included the GURPS Lite system in the back so that anyone could pick it up and play it, especially in licensed settings such as GURPS Myth and GURPS Discworld. What is the strength of this approach is that it presents new material that is solid and familiar to current fans but interesting and possibly a draw to new fans.

But this works for a generic system -- what about a rpg with one setting - ala Orkworld?

While we know Orkworld is a one shot "piece of f'ing art", what if it was one of our goals to produce supplements for it? This is where it gets difficult -- At the start, Orkworld has the potential of being bought by billions of people. A supplement though only deals to the x number of folks who bought Orkworld. It does not have the same potential of sale.

I think the metaplot/supplement idea in RPGs is related a lot to the way things have been done in the past -- but it has been strengthened by the CCG movement. CCGs are great products because they encourage players to buy more and more and more. They both add on to the game, provide new strategies/rules, and keep money coming in. In that way, looking at a line like Deadlands, it is easy to look at the other supplements as simply booster packs to the game.

And in reality, Deadlands has progressed to a point where new sourcebooks are really clawing for fresh material. I mean, they released Back East: North and Back East: South sourcebooks.... two of the worst supplement names ever. Boring and probably unnecessary... *sigh*

Well, it's late and I believe I am done rambling.

Afterthought: Would an rpg work where a new edition of the same book was released each year? Consider it - like a model of a car. You have the 1999 Ford Explorer, 2000 Ford Explorer, and so on and on. Each year, the rules get modified, expanded, clarified, fixed -- each year, new features show up in the game - tossing out old features that don't make sense but keeping much of the familiar stuff.... I don't know - but it would be a strange way for an rpg to be published...

Hmmmmm...

Night all,
Nathan
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #4 on: December 08, 2001, 03:49:00 PM »

Quote
Nathan wrote:
Wow, Fang...

Great way to approach it.

Thanks!

Quote
In a way, your approach sounds similar to GURPS. It seems to me that many recent GURPS products have included the GURPS Lite system in the back so that anyone could pick it up and play it, especially in licensed settings such as GURPS Myth and GURPS Discworld. What is the strength of this approach is that it presents new material that is solid and familiar to current fans but interesting and possibly a draw to new fans.Quote
But this works for a generic system -- what about a rpg with one setting - ala Orkworld?

While we know Orkworld is a one shot "piece of f'ing art", what if it was one of our goals to produce supplements for it?Quote
And in reality, Deadlands has progressed to a point where new sourcebooks are really clawing for fresh material.Quote
Afterthought: Would an rpg work where a new edition of the same book was released each year? Consider it - like a model of a car. You have the 1999 Ford Explorer, 2000 Ford Explorer, and so on and on.
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Joe Murphy (Broin)
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« Reply #5 on: December 08, 2001, 06:24:00 PM »

Quote

On 2001-12-08 02:26, Nathan wrote:
[snip]
Afterthought: Would an rpg work where a new edition of the same book was released each year? Consider it - like a model of a car. You have the 1999 Ford Explorer, 2000 Ford Explorer, and so on and on. Each year, the rules get modified, expanded, clarified, fixed -- each year, new features show up in the game - tossing out old features that don't make sense but keeping much of the familiar stuff.... I don't know - but it would be a strange way for an rpg to be published...



I can think of a few games that would have to include a metaplot, really. Something like Torg, where the first book shows a reality war from Earth's perspective, the second book shows the magic rules from the enemy's perspective, a later one shows a post-apocalyptic background, etc.

Or something like... the rise of civilisation. Caveman to Bronze Age to Renaissance to Nano-age. The first book would have, say, more simple social interaction, later books would have more tech rules...

You could even have the books describe a non-Earth world. Proto-magic based on 4 elements running to modern 47-element magic, etc.

But I can't think of a game where anyone would really *want* to pick up new rules etc. Backwards-compatability would also be a problem.

Joe.
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JSDiamond
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« Reply #6 on: December 10, 2001, 10:28:00 AM »

Zak, speaking strictly as an indie, to imitate the big boys is suicide.  The survival and growth of the game relies on something more (what I'm not sure), -but as an indie it definitely isn't a large 'payables to printer, shipping & distro' column in our ledgers.

And don't even get me started on d20.  

We as indies need to take a different path.  I have become numb with the silly attitude that we cannot compete with the so-called 'legit' publisher like WW, WotC and others.  We can.  But the applecart was nuked over a decade ago and we need to do something different.  Our success (money, quality, fun, or however you measure it) relies more upon our direct connection with the people playing our games.  The distro is a dinosaur in my opinion and the retailer (not online) nearly is. After that, I admit not knowing which way leads to the promised land.  But I am willing to try and find it.  And if I do I'll post the map.    

Jeff

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Zak Arntson
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« Reply #7 on: December 10, 2001, 11:36:00 AM »

Quote

And don't even get me started on d20.  


I'd like to hear your opinion, but maybe in a different thread or private email?

Quote

We as indies need to take a different path.  I have become numb with the silly attitude that we cannot compete with the so-called 'legit' publisher like WW, WotC and others.


So then you'd say that there's two different tracks for a successful RPG?  One for established companies and one for us indies?

I agree that we can compete, but only on a small scale. And we shouldn't delude ourselves that our game will be the next BIG THING.

I do remember buying White Wolf's Vampire 1st Ed. before ANY hype. The store owner said, "Yeah, I've heard it's a good read, but a lousy game. Nobody else is picking the thing up, so I'll give you a deal." (or something like that). But this discussion isn't about the next big thing, so I'm getting off-topic.

Was White Wolf's success due to a "right" product line? I'd guess it has something to do with it, but it was also in the right place at the right time (goth and/or powergamers = big untapped gamer audience, it turned out)

So, what do y'all think successful methods of releasing product are?  Corebook + Metaplot sourcebooks? Multiple corebooks?  Sorcerer-style corebook w/ how-to supplements?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: December 10, 2001, 12:05:00 PM »

Hello,

We are really discussing what "success" is. As I have stated before, this term is not a shared, single concept across role-playing publishing. Zak asks, "What serves a role-playing game best in the long term," and my only response can be, "For what?"

If we are talking about continued business success for the company, even that is not well-defined. Adept Press is in the black; that, to me, means it's successful. However, in absolute terms, its profit margins wouldn't pay to empty a Hasbro exec's wastepaper basket - not even the glimmerings of success to someone else's use of the term.

All that said, which casts the entire discussion into darkness and confusion, I see only one small pinpoint of light remaining. That is the "continued sale of core books."

Not, note, a huge and overwhelming landslide sale of core books. Just their sale. If a few get ordered per unit time, and if, every time that happens, they sell within a month or three (I'd put a quarter as the ideal meaningful unit, although two-quarters is more realistic) ... in other words, if your game is being bought according to its demand, and you can roll out copies to meet that demand, then all is well.

Any other promotional or publishing effort relative to that game is valuable insofar as it aids this phenomenon. It is not valuable if it, for instance, distracts retailers from the fact that your core book is not selling. This is called "the supplement treadmill" by Ryan Dancey, most accurately. It can sustain a company for an additional year, maybe two, but it will eventually backfire if the plain old core books are not in demand.

The industry myth states that ongoing publication of supplements will establish core-book reliability. This myth is demonstrably false; it exists because it is perpetuated by those who stand to profit from you believing it.

Best,
Ron
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Zak Arntson
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« Reply #9 on: December 10, 2001, 12:25:00 PM »

Quote

On 2001-12-10 15:05, Ron Edwards wrote:
We are really discussing what "success" is.

If we are talking about continued business success for the company, even that is not well-defined.


I'm talking about continued existence and (at least marginal) profitability of a company. Even if the profits solely keep the business running.

Quote

All that said, which casts the entire discussion into darkness and confusion, I see only one small pinpoint of light remaining. That is the "continued sale of core books."
  ... snip ...


So my question would be, then, is there another business model beyond "continued sale of core books" that works? If I were to start an RPG company, what approach to a product-line would be in my best interest?

It seems that core books are the only things that sell in quantity. Yet, how do you keep core book sales going?

Would it be a profitable approach to release quality supplements?  And that would encourage people to check out the supplement, and but it and the core book?  Or is that the big fallacy?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: December 10, 2001, 01:01:00 PM »

Hi Zak,

That's indeed the fallacy. The treadmill tactic essentially makes the continuing core book sales carry the weight of BOTH their own production AND the production of the supplements.

But maybe we should back up a little. I think the core-book sales as the priority is a fine thing. After all, that is the game, and selling the game is (or seems to me to be) the whole point.

OK, then your question is solid: how to keep those core books out there and selling? The hell of it is that the answer has two tiers.

A) The end-use customers actually have to want the thing to some appreciable extent (duh).
B) The industry itself has to be curried and soothed into getting those books ordered at all.

If I may say so myself, (A) isn't such a problem for Adept Press. (B) is much harder. Most retailers' orders and reorders priorities operate on a much faster "cycle" than the time it takes to deem whether an RPG is popular (or semi/niche popular, which is appropriate for most RPGs).

No one really knows a solid answer to solving the (B) problem, and the current (or chronic) disarray of the distributor/retailer organization isn't helping.

My solution is a matter of record - it consists of several tactics, the most important of which are (1) keep production costs way down without sacrificing quality, (2) maintain solid and rewarding contact with end-use customers, and (3) provide direct-sale outlet on-line as a backup or parallel means of distribution. A great deal of this combination relies on having sole proprietorship as well; otherwise all three are very hard to sustain as a unit.

I can't say I've managed to provide the absolute 100% guarantee of the sort of success we're talking about, but I think it's a stronger model than most. A related topic has to do with understanding what quantity of sales is deemed successful, and I tend to let the market tell me that, instead of setting galaxy-spanning expectations and then blaming the market for failing to fulfil them.

Best,
Ron
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Dav
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« Reply #11 on: December 12, 2001, 10:12:00 AM »

Hey Zak, et al;

The model we over at Apophis use (and please read with all caution) is to model a variant on the treadmill concept.  More a law of dimishing returns with the treadmill.

Once the core book is out there, it will spike quickly (in my experience, most roleplaying uses a fad-based product life-cycle... meaning it will spike quickly in demand, then nearly as quickly taper off).  A supplement should (in my opinion) be used to manage the tapering slope of demand.  

YOU CANNOT STOP IT.  This is the key point.  By producing and marketing a game, you have officially committed yourself to a limited lifetime saleability (I say nothing about playability).  Therefore, once the return on supplements ceases to bring in reorders at some critical point set by your marketing department (I'm kidding, the guy sitting next to you in the basement who has the calculator), you stop producing supplements, even if there are still bringing in marginal profit.

The reason for this is because at the point where core books sales cease (or reach a point that is functionally the same to the company in question), you have saturated your market, and penetrated as deep as you can go.  Stop the game.  Make a new one.

Then, in 3-5 years, revamp, retool, and put in new art, and rerelease the bastard.  (Or, alternatively, have a one year delay then post all the stuff for cheap download on the net)

Ron's points are valid.  Point 1, low cost, high quality is rather intuitive (I don't know anybody who can look at that statement and say anything about it not being right).  And his statement that supplements, in standard fare, must carry cost of both supplement and core book is valid.  And, I agree, ludicrous.

The point is to say that you have X books out there in consumer hands at a given time.  10% of those are used by gamers to game.  40% of those are people who will collect them.  That means 50% of your sales (conservatively, I admit) will be repeat sales for the supplement.  Each supplement will bring in 10% of its sales in new customers.  Ideally, then, each supplement will sell 50-75% as well as the previous supplement, and bring in 5-7.5% in gross of new customers.  Keep in mind, however, that the average customer also becomes more valuable to you (core book + supplement cost).  The average Apophis client is worth $21.24 to Apophis in aggregate averages, and we have 3 books (core book + 1 supplement + 1 novel/supplement [think of it as a minisupplement]) with a retail value of $63.  

Yes, direct sales distribution helps immensely.  Rather than a simple $11.20 (distributor pricing), we earn $28 on the core book.  Of course, costs are about $6 per book (all said and done for art, production, etc. with a small percentage of supplement costs factored in to keep things fair).  Thus, we make about 4 times as much selling direct.

I stray a bit, but let me put it this way:
let's run some numbers on a game:
Cost to produce: $5 (total)
Price (retail/direct): $25   -Profit=$20  
Price (Distributor): $10  -Profit=$5

5000 books in first run.  Cost: $25000

Sell 3500 books (80% distr./20% direct): $28000


Produce 2000 supplement 1 books (cost $3 total: $6000), price $15 (direct)/ $6 (distr.)

Sell 1750 books (80%/20% as before): $8400
Brings 175 new core book sales (80/20): $1400


Produce 1000 supplement 2 books (cost as sup. 1: $3000), price (as sup. 1)

Sell 1000 supplement 2 books (80/20): $4800
Brings 100 supplement 1 sales (80/20): $480
Brings 100 core book sales (80/20): $800

STOP.

Total Income: $43,880
Total Costs: $34,000

Profit: $9,880

Looks nice, but remember, this is spread across a 2-3 year span (depending on speed of production).  And, you still have a bunch of corebooks, and some supplement 1 cluttering your home.  Also, remember the Bite.  Taxes.  Clever accounting can let you keep all of that up there.  Straight-laced, you get about $6000 (depending on personal income).

Either way, you are looking at 2000-4000 per year income (which will not come in a lump at all).  Beer money.  

Not bad.

Anyway, that is how we do it.

Any questions? (Looks out upon barren landscape)

Dav
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #12 on: December 12, 2001, 11:21:00 AM »

Dav,

Very interesting. And it makes sense of something that never previously made sense to me, that a game's later supplements are harder for a consumer to find. Intuitively, as a consumer you think a game's earliest supplements would be the hardest to find, snapped up by early adopters, the way the first few Elvis collectible plates in the series are harder to find than the later ones. But in actual experience, it's not true. I can't tell you how many times I walk into an unfamiliar game store and see the Legions of Darkness supplement for Kult, with no sign of the core book or any other supplements. The same is true of some of the early Birthright supplements.

Paul
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mearls
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« Reply #13 on: December 12, 2001, 11:21:00 PM »

My answer is this:

THERE IS NO "LONG TERM" IN THE CURRENT RPG MARKET OUTSIDE OF TWO GAMES, D&D AND VAMPIRE.

Many people want you to believe otherwise. A lot of them either chase that dream themselves or have a vested interest in your buying into it.

Allow me to explain.

RPGs should be packaged and produced along the lines of self-contained boardgames. A single book should contain rules necessary for a game session, setting information necessary to a game session, and a clearly defined story arc that gives the GM a skeleton for a campaign that carries the themes and story embedded in the setting and rules forward to its logical conclusion.

Example: Let's say I produce an alternate history RPG set in a world where a band of heroic freedom fighters seeks to topple a communist regime that has taken over the USA. The game rules should cover small unit combats, personal combat, and political interactions between freedom fighter bands and between freedom fighters and uncommited people. The campaign arc should detail rules for scaling up the campaign to cover the following story lines:

* Toppling the commie dictator who runs your home town.
* Uniting the freedom fighters in your home state.
* Toppling the commie dictator who runs your state.
* Uniting citizens on a national level against the commies.
* Tossing out the national commie regime
* Building a post-revolution government.

Note that the book doesn't provide exact detail on this stuff; it's all examples, advice, and mechanics. After all, you want players and GMs to buy the book, not just GMs.

RPGs today try too hard to cover too much. They're ponderous, 200+ page beasts that try to do too much and end up doing nothing at all. Face it, while a GM can in theory do ANYTHING with an RPG, most don't. Most try to extract the core adventures encoded into a setting and go from there.

That's the genius of D&D. It's extremely simple to figure out what the game is all about, and the systems built into support that game's basic idea while remaining extensible enough to support all types of adventures or campaign styles.

The problem with the RPG industry as a money-making enterprise is that very few publishers have figured out that RPGs don't work too well as trashy, serialized fiction.

RPGs should be no more than 128 pages long. Anything more is often superfluous. UNKNOWN ARMIES is probably the only game I've bought in the past four years that felt like FULL of useful information.

Deep settings and continuing metaplots are the death of a game. As soon as you begin to define events and your game world, you erect walls that cut off future developments. Supplements should always revolve around a core of new mechanics that increase player options or expand the scope of play. Supplements should encourage play, not reading, as an active player base is a far better mechanism for recruiting new players. Who gets people to play a game, the running a weekly game who's looking for players or the guy who read your supplements on the can, chats about the game on line, but never gives his friends a reason to buy it? The vast majority of gamers will not buy an RPG unless they plan on playing the game.

All metaplot does is add layer upon layer of cruft that alienates everyone outside of your hardcore fanbase. As the amount of trivia and background info pile up, it becomes harder and harder for the newcomer to easily pick up the setting. If you want to produce readers rather than players, publish novels with the game's logo on their cover.

- Mearls

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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #14 on: December 13, 2001, 11:48:00 AM »

Quote

The problem with the RPG industry as a money-making enterprise is that very few publishers have figured out that RPGs don't work too well as trashy, serialized fiction.


But what about Sorcerer? Oh, you mean supplement-wise, not Premise-wise.  :wink:

What explains Vampire then?

Mike
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