RPG Business Models

Rjstreet over at Purple Pawn has a great article analyzing Games Workshop’s financial performance. That got me thinking about the nature of the business model of the role-playing game industry. Games Workshop has a model that presupposes that their customers will continue to buy new WH40K figures, on the assumption that new figures (and, by extension, new armies) allow the game to be played in new ways, preventing the game from becoming stale.

RPGs seem to have a related sort of business model, but not quite to the same extent. Where WH40K has new armies and unit types to add to diversity and new options for game play, RPGs must rely on either rules expansions or pre-written adventures to keep their customers coming back and forking over that credit card.

But I would argue that the situation from the RPG side is much more precarious than that of the miniature game company. Once the “core rules” have been purchased, regardless of the game system, the customer is no longer beholden on the company to provide expansion material. Unlike their WH40K-playing cousins, who are hard-pressed to make their own models and cast their own molds, RPGers can write their own expansion material if they so choose. They don’t need to buy the latest Monster Manual if they don’t really want to; they can write their own stats for Lolth or the mimic. The experience towards the end of D&D 3E, with a gazillion and three “splat books”, most of which are still to be found in bargain boxes in game stores across the country, demonstrates just how replacable such things are. Adventure modules are even more problematic; most RPG rules are written specifically to allow (and in many cases help) the game master to write his own adventures.

I’m inclined to think that there is no commodity that the RPG publisher could come out with that the customers would have more of an incentive to buy on a regular basis, other than the rules themselves and the occasional major rules supplement. Something that would increase the options for play, but that are of such a nature that they would be superior to do-it-yourself. WotC has tried with their own lines of miniature figures, and tilting the rules of D&D 4E to almost requiring figures, but they didn’t overcome the problem that many gamers already had boxes and boxes of figures, and the newer ones didn’t really add anything, other than having 4E on the box. Their battlemats are closer to what GW is able to do, but even there, Photoshop seems to be digging into their profits more than piracy ever could, since gamers are able to create their own gorgeous customized mats for pennies.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

13 thoughts on “RPG Business Models

  1. Honestly I have a hard time figuring out how most RPGs would keep a steady flow of income going. I've bought more books than most would out of the novelty of wanting to own them and have an Insider account in the case of D&D 4E but that's it. I've not purchased any of their adventure modules, minis or map tiles and unlike my minisature gaming, I don't need anything here on down to be "competitive". I personally think that Magic sales is what keeps the D&D side floating.

  2. Games Workshop recycles & renews its rules for Fantasy & 40,000 every few years. One of their main problems is updating their army codexes along with their rules.

    RPG's is similar, as you've mentioned with 3E, having a supplement for every day of the month. 2E began that way; it started off well-intentioned but then it just became silly.

    Whereas rule updates/upgrades are an answer of sorts, I think some new approaches to old ideas would help.

    Miniatures: stop with the random figure packs & sell sets of orcs, hobgoblins, skeletons, etc. Even pre-painted ones are acceptable.

    Battlemaps and tiles are good. Not everyone prints their own, so this area isn't a total loss.

    Supplements. Hmm. Kept short & simple. One for each gameworld: Forgotten Realms, Eberon, etc. Maybe a few of the classics, like Vikings, Romans, etc. It opens up a more historical element to mesh with D&D. Similarly, having supplements akin to other fantasy genres like Conan, Fafrd & the Grey Mouser, Elric, Thieves World, etc.

    Some of these fantasy writers could be up for the chance to further promote their works. Okay, some of these works are already spoken for with other companies, but the general idea is sound. Just like the old Dragon Magazine articles used to stimulate cross-pollination of genres and themes for D&D.

    If any RPG publisher wants to help make things "easier" for fledgling DMs & players, this is the weay to go. Give them a few matches and watch them light their own fires. They'll be back so long as you can give them more shiny things to assist their play, not totally dominate it.


  3. I should probably have mentioned that some companies have "cash cows" that they can count on to keep revenue flowing in. Knights of the Dinner Table comes to mind as an example for the RPG industry. They can use the revenue from that to pay for a lot of modules.

    On the board/wargaming side of things, Munchkin comes to mind for Steve Jackson Games. They crank out a zillion of those Munchkin expansions a year (and there's something that most gamers aren't going to take the trouble to do themselves; the artwork and the quality of the cards is beyond most photoshoppers and DIY'ers), and that pays for their other gaming offerings (OGRE/GEV, Nuclear War, Illuminati, etc.).

  4. Classic Reprints! Perhaps with a reference to update to current rules with them.

    Not to knock off the online auction sites, and some collectors' retirement plans, but oftentimes those early classics are more expensive then a new 4E book.

    A little quality can go a long way.


  5. Roleplaying games are all about the endless journeys in the realm of imagination and products that can spark the imagination will sell to rpgplayers. It can be a extremely interesting and fleshed out setting like Harn or the original Dragonlance, or it could be works of incredible detail like Castle Zagyg and other well celebrated adventures, things normal players are hard pressed to think up in an evening. It can be extremely detailed game rules and workable(there are people who like this) or it can a bit of the above with big dollops of good writing to speaks to the audience, such as Gygax's DMG. The original D&D products out of Lake Geneva had these things but they didn't crystallize it, which I think it why TSR turned up the way it did. The OSR movement has tapped into this though so that's the sort of thing that will sell going forward, this coming from a person who hasn't bought anything in years and then this year started splurging on new OSR products. Take the 1st edition DMG, the great adventures like Tomb of Horror or Temple of Elemental Evil and go from there. Dungeon Alphabet was good, Philotomy's musings was good and so on.

  6. This is not unique to role-playing games. There are plenty of products that are similar. When you have such a product, you don’t try to build a company around just it. You create lots of role-playing games. Or you create a lot of other games besides role-playing games. Or whatever.

    And you size your company based on the products you sell. That’s why so many role-playing products are written by freelancers. Role-playing games (with perhaps a few specific exceptions) can’t support a staff of writers, developers, etc. That’s OK, as long as you don’t try to pretend that they can.

  7. For my personal taste, WotC goes the right direction with their ddi subscription. Since most mature gamers can come up with their own stories and don't have the time to spare to read hundreds of books and supplements (although I wish I had), the only thing they need are very condensed background information, abstract and adaptable rules, and a nice set of encounters they can weave into their stories. Mix with a few programs which organize data and do the math – voila! – I'm more than willing to burn € 7/month on this. That's the only way I see WotC making regular profit with my gamer life.

  8. I believe that the RPG industry is more like Tupperware than Warhammer minis.

    Think about it… when a customer purchases a Tupperware spatula with a lifetime warranty, the company has just kissed that customer goodbye – forever!

    This has two side-effects:
    1) Price: Tupperware goods cost more than cheapo plastic containers.
    2) Quality: Tupperware goods are universally better made so that they can withstand the lifetime guarantee.

    Yet Tupperware continues to release new things – updated versions of old favorites, seasonal specialties, and new products to handle other modern lifestyle updates.

    …but who really wants to admit that RPG business is like Tupperware…

  9. Hmm, Tupperware…

    That explains how those monsters in all of those subterranean levels stay so "fresh"! 😉

    Okay, as Tupperware is still in business selling basically the same product to newer and newer cutomers, this means RPG publishers should just stick to a core model and keep re-selling the same with "new colors" based on…

    OMG! RPG = Tupperware!


  10. Tupperware is a fair analogy but the difference is TW's immense practicality (you can always use new containers…especially as you warp your old ones in the microwave).

    I think a quality product (or handful of quality products) with various setting "lines" might be a possibility. This is the tactic taken by GURPS and Rifts, after all (though the latter appears to be more by accident than purpose).

    If you develop one generic game (say D&D) with multiple possible settings (Planescape, Hollow Earth, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, etc.) you can put out additional material for those optional settings based on demand.

    Of course, no one should develop a single "one type fits all" games (e.g. D20) as this kills the whole goose, besides being f'ing boring.
    ; )

  11. > RPGs must rely on either rules expansions or pre-written adventures

    Awe there's a lot more than that.
    – Settings <- this one is huge for TSR, Palladium, SJG.
    – Miniatures are huge also.
    – Off shoot games (board, card, dice, etc).
    – Accessories (dice, screens, char sheets, etc).
    – Books, comics, movies, video games, action figures, lunch boxes and all the endless other merchandising/licensing opportunities.
    – Operating game conventions / game stores (although, based on history both seem to be costly loss leaders)
    – Then there's the obvious just keep on churning out new different RPGs rather than revising/supplementing same RPG.

    But yeah, in an era when publishers (and other content providers) no longer have a monopoly on distribution (thanks Internet!) It is very hard to convince consumer to constantly hand over $$ for what he or his friends (friends being everyone on the Internet) can create for free. Maybe not create with as high production values or as fancy artwork. But many gamers want to play rather than collect fancy looking former trees.

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