To Charge or Not to Charge?

Started by Stregheria, September 01, 2010, 04:38:36 PM

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I read somewhere (might have even been on this forum) that some writers give the .pdfs of their games away for free with a view to making money if people buy the proper book version. Is this a good idea, or financial suicide? My game's being released soon and I'm toying with the idea of just giving the .pdfs away for free to increase my customer base and the game's awareness with the hope that they'll then go and buy the books

Thoughts and experiences?
Stregoneria RPG

Eero Tuovinen

I do this, sort of: you can read the HTML versions of Solar System and the World of Near in the Internet, download and distribute them, or even reuse them for your own game design or other projects according to the Creative Commons licensing terms. This tradition of openness for Solar System was started by Clinton R. Nixon, the designer of the original Shadow of Yesterday; I'm just following his lead out of respect.

This sort of thing is not a commercial suicide for an unknown game; far from it, in fact, as you're benefiting more from the lowered threshold of checking the game out than you're losing in sales to people who wouldn't have bought a no-name game anyway. As much as the designer would like, the audience won't know an unknown game from a banana tree, which means that your game will only gain in reknown slowly at first unless you find a way to attract larger numbers of people to your game. Giving the game out for free is not a bad way to start gathering a fan base when you remember that the greatest enemy of the unknown artist is obscurity.

The above assumes that you know what you're getting into in terms of publishing plan, though. I don't recommend going free out of a random whim. Better to think through the short and long term effects of the decision and how it affects the other facets of your publishing plan.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


How about just giving the core rulebook .pdf away for free and charging for everything else (including the hard copy of that book)? I read that  WOTC  were stopping selling .pdf versions of their books because it was hurting sales of their hard copies. Someone on this forum said though that no matter what you do, your game will have its .pdf copied anyway, or the actual book will be scanned in and turned into a .pdf and get distributed around the net, so you may as well give it away for free in the first place.

This is a big decision for me to make. On the one hand, distributing a free core rulebook .pdf could gain my game a wide audience that might go on to buy hard copies and future supplements that get released. On the other hand, it might mean that nobody bothers buying the hard copy because they're just happy to have the free .pdf.

What should I do?
Stregoneria RPG

Eero Tuovinen

The thing about your game ending up pirated anyway is true for the really big productions. It is not true for a small press game simply because it's actually quite a bit of work to scan and distill a distributable file out of a paper book, and somebody needs to care enough to do it if there's no pdf version in existence in the first place. Of course if you're selling a pdf version of the game, then the threshold is much lower for somebody to start pirating it. I'd say - remembering what I know about your operation - that if your game faces the sort of success that inspires somebody to pirate your book, then that piracy is going to be the last thing on your mind. In general this piracy thing tends to work in a way that makes it a commercial problem only for the most insanely successful culture industry outfits: the rest of us won't see much piracy of our stuff due to that obscurity factor, and the piracy we see might very realistically be seen as free marketing for our thing instead of lost sales.

For the sake of argument, go ahead and try to find a pirated version of some suitable small press roleplaying game in the Internet. Some game where we have a sense of the sales record and that is not available as a commercial pdf... how about Elfs, it's the first thing that springs to mind that might be fairly comparable. It's been available for ages and it's sold several hundred copies (no humongous commercial success), I think, so it should be reasonably comparable to your game in many ways.

One observation I have on this is that complex games of traditional heft are rarely played out of pdf files due to usability issues. This means that giving out a pdf of your game should not ultimately impact your sales negatively if you have a game like that: some rare individuals might be stingy enough to get by on the electronic file, but most anybody else will spring for the real book if they decide that they want to actually spend time playing the game. If this was the only issue here, of course, then more publishers would be doing the free content thing; the balance of the matter is in the fact that many games rely on the curiousity factor for their sales - the game's idea is not to sell you on the experience of playing it, but rather on the experience of reading it. If your game is like this, that it's mostly about satisfying customer curiousity, then it might take a heavy impact when people get to satisfy that curiousity for free. As publisher you might well ask yourself: will the average customer be more inclined to buy the book unread than he is to play it after reading it? If you think that you're selling only to people who'll want to play, too, then free distribution should be profitable; if you think the opposite, that people mostly won't want to play the game once they've read it (a truly sorry thing if you ask me, but who knows), then it makes no sense at all for you to allow them to read the book without paying for it.

This is a complex enough issue for there to be no right answer to it. The choice influences your entire market strategy and is influenced in turn, so we can't tell you the right answer without being inside your head and knowing your goals and expectations in intimate detail.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks for the really informative reply. I guess the fact of the matter is it could go either way. The sensible thing to do would probably be to initially charge for the .pdf and if that ended up being a dead end, then give it away for free.

I need to give it some serious thought.
Stregoneria RPG

Callan S.

Don't forget the option of making a quick start set of rules, which are your main rules stripped down. Capes does this and so did riddle of steel (which probably helped push me toward buying TROS). Since it's not a full version of the rules, it gives that teaser taste of them. How much it's stripped down - whether it's got 80% of the rules (I think capes has this) or far less, is up to you. I think it's probably a little better than giving out the entire game as a pdf.


Two things to take into consideration are:

1.  PDFs have no "per unit" cost- any money you make from a PDF is money you get right then.
2.  Overseas customers may have no desire to pay for shipping for your books- PDFs might be the only thing they'll deal with, period.

There's three models I've seen people use successfully:

-Low Cost-

John Wick charges $5 for both Houses of the Blooded and Blood & Honor, this was a small enough fee that people had no problem paying for it, and brought a lot of interest.  I don't know the numbers on his hardcopy sales, but it did give him both the benefit of direct PDF sales money and still had a wide reach.

Granted, John Wick has also a lot of fame as a designer from his Legend of the Five Rings days, so he can roll on name status in a lot of ways.

-Bundled with Hardcopy-

A lot of folks will send you the PDF at no extra charge if you buy the book.  This helps initial players spread the word and share rules with the rest of their group or potential players.  Obviously, this doesn't have the same immediate interest building factor, but does make use of the natural tendency of players in spreading info along their own networks of friends.

-Full Price-

A lot of publishers here on the Forge charge full prices for PDFs.  "Full" meaning either a price that is sizable but not necessarily the cost of a book, up to the full cost of a book.  Because there's no price for printing or shipping on PDFs, this is actually a sizeable source of profit for many folks.

There's a lot of unexplored territory and possibilities with PDFs, but the above methods have worked in general.

For the larger issue of getting interest, the #1 consistently good method we've seen is having a good game that consistently gets good play reviews over time.   Everything else tends to flash and fade.   Make sure your game is strong, reliably produces whatever experience it's supposed to, and sooner or later you end up with "advocates" - fans who promote your game for you.  This has worked much more than any PDF/advertising/quick interest method.



Thanks for another great reply. You raised points that I hadn't even thought of. I'm weighing up all the pros and cons in peoples comments and when the game is released , I'll make a final decision based on what I've read.

Thanks guys, you've been a great help. :)
Stregoneria RPG


I suggest that all discussion of and concerns about piracy are a huge red-herring you should waste no time on nor concern yourself with.

The claimed "impact" of piracy has been vastly overblown in the commercial media sector for really boring economic reasons (ie: piracy was a great way to get government kickbacks and a great tax break, so studios over-reported losses with a lot of clever juggling in accounting or outright lies about amounts of loss). When during the past decade it became very easy to distribute files electronically, those same companies saw a great way to multiply their reported losses to record levels without actually suffering from those losses*.

The spill-over effect of which is now everyone else is terrified that "pirates" are going to destroy their ability to make money on their products, producing a situation where there is now a lot of money to be made on that fear (as in "You'll lose THIS MUCH money! I can help you stop this...if you pay me."), which simply perpetuates the whole thing.

* Note the exact same occurred in the early days of radio, then when personal tape recorders became available, and then during the era of video tapes -- in no case, despite reported losses, despite claiming the opposite, did the affected industries actually shrink or lose money. Even government experts and economists have argued for years, and again this year, there is no evidence for these losses.

But the actual impact of piracy in the gaming and independent sectors is simply negligible. You may as well be worrying yourself over how many of your readers are going to peruse the text under a 45-watt bulb for all the harm such a concern would prevent and all the good such a concern would do.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Another side to a fascinating subject; thanks a lot. :)
Stregoneria RPG