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4 Hours w/ RSD: Who Am I?

Who Am I & How Did I Get Here?

Greetings! It’s been a while since I’ve been an active member of the ENWorld community or actively involved with publishing tabletop RPGs so I may need to make a few introductions.

Almost 20 years ago I created one of the first ecommerce businesses, RPG International, to supply tabletop hobby games to players without easy access to a local game store. While running that business I ran advertisements in Shadis magazine, published by John Zinser and Jolly Blackburn. John & I became close friends that lead to our co-creating the Legend of the Five Rings world and the collectible card game of the same name. In 1996 we co-founded Five Rings Publishing Group, and in 1997 that company was acquired by Wizards of the Coast as a part of the same deal that brought TSR to Wizards.

In late 1998 I became the VP of Tabletop Roleplaying and the Dungeons & Dragons brand manager. In 2000, I guided the 3rd Edition of D&D into production. I also wrote the Open Gaming License, the D20 System Trademark License, created the 3.0 System Reference Document and hosted the Open Gaming Foundation and its two email lists, ogf-l and ogf-d20-l to support the community of 3rd party developers created by the OGL and D20.

I left Wizards in 2001 to found a new venture, OrganizedPlay, which developed tools to aide publishers in adding Wizards-style player network support to their websites. In 2003, I wound that down and started a consulting company with Luke Peterschmidt, co-designer of the Guardians CCG and ex-brand manager at Wizards as well. In 2007 I was recruited to become the Chief Marketing Officer of CCP, the Icelandic company that purchased White Wolf Game Studio in 2006, and develops and publishes the EVE Online MMO. I left CCP at the end of 2010 and now I’m planning my next move in the gaming space.

I’ve had a long history with ENWorld. Eric Noah was instrumental in creating an on-line community for 3rd Edition during a time when Wizards was struggling to deliver web based tools for our use. My brand and business team, including Keith Strohm, Cindi Rice, David Wise, Jim Butler, Anthony Valterra and Lisa Stevens practically lived on the ENWorld forums throughout most of 2000. I have always tried to keep abreast of the goings on here, watching with great pleasure as the ENies became an industry standard for recognizing excellence, and seeing the site transition first to supporting 3.5, and then to the 4th edition of D&D.

I’ve been asked occasionally in the past to work more formally with ENWorld, and other than a couple of opportunities to MC the ENies, professional entanglements have made that impossible. Luckily, my window of opportunity coincided with another generous outreach, and this time I was able to happily accept.

The plan is to write an essay each month, focusing on ways that you can improve the experience of running your game sessions (either as a player or as a GM). From time to time, I may digress into a discussion of industry topics – my days as a pundit are mostly behind me as I lack the open channels of information flow I enjoyed when I was running the TRPG business at Wizards, or actively consulting for gaming companies, but I still have some connections to the grapevine and rarely lack for opinions on the things I see going on around me.

Some Thoughts About The Past 10 Years

People often ask me if I think the OGL was a success. Its detractors most commonly suggest that the “glut” of D20 product and the “crash” of D20 sales seem to indicate that it was not. I kind of laugh at that, both from the insider perspective and from the hobbyist perspective.

In all of 1989, when TSR transitioned from the 1st to the 2nd Edition of D&D, it sold 289,000 copies of the Players Handbook. In 2000 when Wizards of the Coast did that transition from 2nd to 3rd, it sold 300,000 Player’s handbooks in one month. And then, sales continued to grow. The core idea behind the OGL was that Wizards of the Coast should focus on the highest value part of the D&D ecology – the core books and a handful of core adventures, while the rest of the industry explored and exploited all the niches and genres that Wizards couldn’t do profitability.

By 2001, that initiative was in full bloom and there were D20 offerings galore. I called that year’s GenCon “The Year of D20”. Some of the companies featured, including Mongoose, Goodman Games, and Green Ronin, were started specifically to ride the wave of D20 and are still going concerns today. Other companies with deeper roots in the industry, like Atlas, White Wolf, Fantasy Flight, and AEG were able to diversify into the D20 segment and leverage their existing expertise in new and innovative ways.

D20 was used as the basis for some amazing original games: Spycraft, Midnight, Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants & Masterminds and Dragonstar, to name just a few. And it was the skeleton of some incredible licensed work, like EverQuest, Babylon 5, Stargate and World of Warcraft. Publishers used D20 to produce unique and diverse setting material like Nyambe, Oathbound, Testament, Ptolus, and The World’s Largest Dungeon. Many of those works would not have been done were it not for D20 because prior to D20 there wasn’t a good enough economic case to publish them. After D20, there was.

Over time, the OGL itself became a driver of innovation. The Action! System was the first 3rd party game to publish with the OGL. After FUDGE was released with the OGL, the FUDGE-derived FATE system followed soon thereafter and enjoyed a critical success with Spirit of the Century. BESM D20 was a hybrid work combining the original Big Eyes Small Mouth rules with D20 mechanics. Still later West End Games put the D6 game under the OGL. One of the ideas behind the OGL was that by sharing a common license many different game systems could “share DNA” with each other and the common pool of design would improve the many derivative works that drew from it.

It may be a bit difficult to remember now, but on its inception the OGL in particular faced widespread skepticism both from the community of players and the community of publishers. Fears that this was some kind of Trojan horse designed to “trap” publishers by Wizards of the Coast were rampant. Many believed that the perceived risks would make it impossible for any serious investment to be based on the OGL. There were even those who suggested that nobody would use it.

Around the middle of September 2000, I received a fat package from White Wolf, by way of their imprint Sword & Sorcery, containing the hardback Creature Collection. While it wasn’t the first D20 product from a 3rd party (that award goes jointly to Atlas Games Three Days to Kill and Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport which debuted at GenCon the same day as the 3e Player’s Handbook), Creature Collection proved all the doubters wrong. Holding it in my hands like a proud new father I walked all over the Wizards HQ showing it off - physical proof that other publishers “got it” and saw the opportunity before them.

Some will now shout “but what about all the crap!?” To which I respond, Sturgeon’s Law reminds us that “Ninety percent of everything is crap!” No creative publishing business is immune from this Law – not music, not comics, not chick lit, not reality TV – nothing. If “crap” was a crippling factor in creative work there wouldn’t be any businesses based on creativity.

The hobby gaming industry has a 4-stage process to deal with crap. First, someone has to pay to publish it in the first place. That weeds out a lot of the worst ideas – they’re so obviously bad that nobody will fund their production. Second, the publishers have to sell to the distributors. The distributors will take just about anything, but for new publishers and untested products they’ll only agree to pay for it if it sells, and they’ll order very small amounts of anything they perceive as risky. Even multiplied across all the potential publications these policies minimize the amount of dross that enters the system. Third, the distributors sell to retailers. The retailers usually expect to sell what they order within 30 days and they order accordingly creating another hurdle that product must overcome. Finally, there are the consumers – you & me, the people who have to put our money down on the counter and fund the whole industry by looking at something and deciding to take it home. I’m constantly reminded at how sophisticated a market we operate in – most customers can discriminate between the good work and the bad at a glance.

Another thing people tend to forget is that the D20 “boom” happened in the shadow of the biggest expansion of the industry ever – the rise of mass market collectible card games. First Pokèmon, then Yu-Gi-Oh! poured revenue into the hobby gaming channel in hundred million dollar increments. The D20 products were a trickle compared to this deluge. If anything, the mass market CCG wave empowered distributors and retailers to become a little lax on their gatekeeping duties because with profits so high they could absorb more losses.

And Wizards had a pretty big impact too. They decided to release 3.5 about 2 years ahead of the planned schedule. And the 3.5 they released was just a bit too incompatible with 3.0 to make conversions of pre-existing work easy enough to do on the fly by GMs. The result was that overnight a lot of existing material became obsolete – I would say “unexpectedly obsolete” because the 3rd party publishers didn’t as a group seem to have their act together on how widespread the changes to the core game would be. The result was the spectacle of a lot of pages of content being dumped on the market at deep discounts – not the kind of thing likely to inspire confidence in anyone.

But there is a silver lining in every cloud. Pathfinder from Paizo couldn’t exist without the OGL and the D20 System Reference Document. And according to my industry sources, it’s outselling Dungeons & Dragons a feat (no pun intended) I would have considered almost impossible 10 years ago. Furthermore the older generation of tabletop RPG players have been asserting their own passion through the “Old School Renaissance”, essentially rebuilding a very frayed social network around a particular style of play that the industry hasn’t well served for nearly 25 years using the OGL and the various Reference Documents to reverse engineer games in the style of the 70’s and early 80s.

As for what Wizards thinks of it, I can’t really speak for anyone there today. I know that 3.x lasted nearly a decade, and a lot of credit for that has to be laid at the feet of the OGL/D20 project. If you compare how thin TSR had to spread itself at the tail end of the 2nd Edition era to the robust work Wizards was producing up until the end of 3.5, you can see the hand of the OGL at work – keeping the company focused on high-value core projects and away (mostly) from profitless detours into the niches.

And no door is ever closed. Another feature of the OGL is that it is permanent. There’s absolutely no reason that Wizards could not choose to embrace either in whole or in part the many great designs produced over the past decade by 3rd party publishers and add them back into the Dungeons & Dragons canon. I had high hopes that this would be the standard practice at the company, and even though they haven’t really done so until now, they can always change course. That door never closes.

How I Named This Column

One of the wives of a member of my brand team at Wizards famously remarked, on watching her husband’s weekly D&D game, that it was “20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours”.

That comment has always resonated with me. I think it speaks to a fundamental truth about our hobby – that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Rather than taking it as a dismissive critique, I’ve always seen it in a positive light – there’s at least 20 minutes of something in those 4 hours that has kept 3 generations of players (at least) enthralled enough to keep coming back week after week.

So my objective here is to explore ways to expand those 20 minutes to fill more of those 4 hours. In the past decade I’ve spent a lot of time researching this topic and I’ve got lots of ideas I’d like to share with you, and get your feedback on.

I’ll be happy to respond to commentary based on these columns. I may not be able to address every question or comment, but I pledge to do my best to read them all. Community interaction is at the heart of my passion for this hobby, and it’s the central force that drives ENWorld.

Thanks again to the ENWorld team for hosting these essays, and I’m looking forward to speaking with you all again soon!

--RSD / Atlanta, Jan 2011
 
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Ryan S. Dancey

Comments

Very glad to see you :)

Second, I have no clue what Wizards thinks it is doing with the "red box". The Intro product for D&D has one, and only one purpose: To introduce 12-14 year old kids to the roleplaying hobby and start them on the path to become purchasers of the core books. That product must be designed to sell in mass market stores where it can get the widest possible distribution outside of the hobby core (where you can safely assume that gamers are teaching gamers without the need of a special product to do it). It must be priced correctly vs. the other games it is shelved with, and it must be packaged and presented in a way that a mother would be comfortable buying as a gift for the son or daughter of a friend.

The "red box" looks like a nostalgia product designed to be sold to 40 year-olds who want to relive a moment of their childhoods. I don't get the art or the font - neither will appeal to either kids or moms in CE2011. It doesn't look like any other products in the 4E line so how will people know that it connects? Doesn't even matter what's inside the box - this is one of those things that has to sell on its presentation on the shelf.
I think you've almost hit the nail on the thread. Those 40 year olds are the parents of the kids the red box is meant for. Which means that the nostalgia trip involved isn't primarily for the 40 year olds, but it's intended for the 40 year olds to give their twelve year old kids or nephews and nieces. "I enjoyed this when I was young. So my kids should too." It's not appealing to the moms, but the dads who used to play :)
 

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darjr

I crit!
I should have known better than to go up against Living Greyhawk. It was such a better solution than Living City. I learned a lot about large social campaigns but also spent way too much money trying to fight the tide.

Ruins wasn't a good idea but it was the only one I had. I should probably have shut the campaign down rather than try a reboot. Hindsight is 20/20, and the biggest lesson learned was that the constrained resource was quality scenario writers not event organizers. When the design community switched to Living Greyhawk it sucked the oxygen out of Living City. I was kidding myse.f to think I could keep writing enough content all by myself to keep the game alive.
I know your focus isn't on living campaigns, but I would be keenly interested in what you have to say about them and their current forms. Especially LFR vs PFS vs Encounters and this new thing by wizards.
 

RyanD

First Post
Well Living City was one of the most humbling experiences I have had so I better have learned something from it. :)

OrganizedPlay was never supposed to be in the content creation business. I designed the company to be the "back office" for hobby gaming businesses (and hopefully later videogame businesses) that wanted Wizards of the Coast level on-line support for their games.

I licensed Living City from Wizards because I felt that I needed a test case for RPGs. My relationship with AEG meant that I would have a test case for CCGs with Legend of the Five Rings, and I thought Living City would be a good platform to show what we could do for RPGs.

When I was extricating myself from Wizards Living Greyhawk had not really "hit". Living City was still doing well in terms of drawing submissions of content and interest from event organizers. In the 6 months or so between the time I started the licensing process, wrote the software, and took charge of the campaign, all hell had broken loose. RyanD of 2011 would have known to pull the plug right there, but RyanD of 2000 was still too damn stubborn to admit he'd made a mistake.

What happened was that the supply of usable scenarios completely evaporated. The ability of Living Greyhawk to induce vastly more content out of the community just overwhelmed Living City. That in turn lead players to prefer Living Greyhawk, and eventually event organizers to cater to the market by running Living Greyhawk in place of Living City.

Here are some key lessons I learned:

1: It's all about the scenarios. CCG organized play is all about the event organizers. RPG organized play is all about the content.

1A: Writing a good 4 hour scenario is really hard. It's not something that most people get right on their first try. Most people tend to make them too long, so that they can't be finished, and they tend to assume too much about the potential characters (they mostly vastly underestimate them).

1B: Making a 4 hour scenario that will be generic enough to be interesting to a lot of people for a long time is hard too. These things have to live in libraries of content for a significant time so they really can't be too locked in to a moment of continuity.

1C: The default designer idea of making "X of Y" scenarios is a rat hole. Far too many abandon the project in the middle leaving players who were playing them frustrated. Players who have been burned before don't start them. Soon nobody will use them so it's all wasted effort.

1D: You have to assume the min-maxed character. When building a scenario you have to assume that the Rogue will have the maximum possible skills vs. "thiefing" stuff. And you have to really understand the game to understand how big that number will get. Likewise you have to understand how high the save DCs have to be and how high the AC of the PCs will be. All these numbers astound the average home gamer.

2: People care less about who they play with than you might think, with one major exception. You really don't have to worry too much about who sits at what table so long as there's a good mix of classes and the right levels.

2A: The exception is parents who play with their kids. There's a number of people who have convinced themselves that this is a family bonding opportunity and if they can't play with their kids (or less common their significant other) they won't play. Even if they "only" have a 15th level character and the scenario is for 5th level PCs.

3: Cheating is rampant. We shut down several well organized cheating rings during my time running Living City and sadly, some of the most intense volunteer effort for the campaign went into stopping this. Far too many people were willing to look the other way and not report cheaters, or served as "laundromats" to "wash" forged materials creating a chain of provenance to hide their compromised origins.

3A: This is why we were working so hard on digital certs. Today, with iOS this would be a snap but in 2000-2001 it was perceived as "impossible" technology by too many players & event organizers.

The #1 biggest lesson I learned is that you MUST monetize through sales, not through subscriptions or event fees. If we had started with the idea of publishing the scenarios for profit and letting people play for free, we may have been able to make the campaign work because good content will be purchased by people who aren't playing the campaign just for their home games.

This is (in hindsight) particularly irksome to me because the contract I had with Wizards would have let me do this including using the Forgotten Realms and the Dungeons & Dragons brand trade dress. My desire to NOT be a game publisher blinded me to the fact that I should have become one if I wanted to try and keep the campaign alive. I started down this path but didn't have the resources or the will to continue.

(All to the better though. I was really unwilling to invest money in a publishing company at that time and I really did want to be a service company instead so the correct decision was to exit the campaign, not transform the company. I wish I'd done it before I spent a couple hundred thousand dollars though. :) )

I can't comment on anything happening currently because I stopped paying attention when I exited Living City. Just had too many other things on my plate. I do like to cruise through the "Living" area of most cons I attend and get a sense for the crowd size and activity levels. Seems like there's more of this than ever but a fairly diverse mix of what's being played. The RPGA, to my mind, seems to have had its act very well together but that's a surface impression not a detailed analysis.

RyanD
 
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amethal

Explorer
It's essentially worthless. So few entities are using it that Wizards would have been better off with a confidential set of 1-off licenses.
Interesting to see your opinion on the GSL.

By one off licenses, do you mean give each company its own individual license, tailored to what they want to do? Or do you mean a license to do 1 product, and come back and see us if you want to do another one?

I got the impression at the time that a section of WotC (and/or Hasbro?) hated the very idea of licensing, and so each one off license would have taken months if not years of wrangling before it could be finalised.

And maybe with the GSL, WotC ultimately got the result they wanted without having to come out and admit that 4th edition was going to be a completely closed edition.
 

RyanD

First Post
Yes, I mean a liscence just between the parties.

I think Wizards ended up with what they wanted and minimized the fallout on launch of 4e.
 

Matt James

Game Developer
Not sure if my post got lost in here, I was just curious to see what you were up to these days in the industry. Last I heard it was CCP? Also, I wanted to see if you would comment on this post stating that D&D 4e was in a death spiral a couple years back. There are many similarities between that post and this current article, and I wanted your insight as to what has changed that would make your current prediction valid. As we know, D&D 4e did not death spiral after all.
 

see

Explorer
As we know, D&D 4e did not death spiral after all.
We know that? Really?

D&D is no longer the indisputable #1 RPG, and a whole bunch of announced D&D product was canceled last month. Sure looks like serious decline to me. But maybe you have some actual hard evidence to the contrary?
 

RyanD

First Post
Matt, I left CCP in November. I can't talk about the major project I'm currently working on except to say that I am working on one. In addition I'm doing some side projects like judging the 2011 edition of RPG Superstar for Paizo, writing this column, and doing some consulting work for MMO publishers.

Is D&D in a death spiral? Well I have seen some things that would tend to say yes, and some that would tend to say no. In the affirmative column is product cancellations and what appears to be a very confused product offering. In the negative column is the continued commitment Wizards is showing to the DDI project and to RPGA activities.

Wizards just hired a new executive who is in charge of the marketing for all its brands. I suspect that there's a period of introspection underway while strategies undergo a top-to-bottom reassessment.

I also know that D&D except for tabletop gaming (and DDI) has been put into some kind of intra-company working group to better manage it as a license. D&D makes Hasbro an astonishing amount of money from licenses, most of which appears without much direct work on their part - companies come out of the woodwork with ideas for licensed D&D products and Hasbro pretty much has to just work to pick the best ideas and then impose some brand discipline on its licensors. Those matters are confused further by the fact that the D&D movie rights are in play (always), and the D&D videogame rights are (or were) a part of the Hasbro/Infogrames/Atari/Whateverthehell tie-up which seems to undergo periodic revisions. Anyway, a little bit of focus in this area probably is a good thing in terms of making Hasbro happy with the return on its D&D investments, regardless of what the tabletop game does.

Lets revisit this topic in February of 2012. I think the matter will be decided by then. The current state is just too murky to make a determination.

RyanD
 

Feeroper

Explorer
We know that? Really?

D&D is no longer the indisputable #1 RPG, and a whole bunch of announced D&D product was canceled last month. Sure looks like serious decline to me. But maybe you have some actual hard evidence to the contrary?
The products cancelled were partially done so to put their release schedule in line with the new philosophy of theme. They are releasing these products to conincide with themed encounters seasons for example.

Another reason stated was that they didnt want to add any more bloat ala 3.X. Some of the materiel was repurposed into other products, and other stuff was removed as it isnt ready for release, or wasnt a worthy addition.

I was initially curious about it and what it all meant, but after hearing them discuss it in length at DDXP, I felt pretty satisfied with their answer.

Also, just to add, we know 4e didnt death spiral back then because it still sells today. It was stated by Mr Dancey that he thought it was in a death spiral a couple years ago, yet still it occupies the largest shelf real estate in most book/gaming stores. It is true that D&D may not be the undisputed #1 anymore, as Paizo has done a fine job with PF and deserve their success, but just because you are no longer head and shoulders above, does not mean that you are now in a "death spiral". Its just not the only big kid on the block anymore.

Think of it like this - the Sony PlayStation 3 launched to really low sales compared to what was expected. They were the king of the hill the previous generation with PS2 and no one came close. When PS3 launched everyone said sony was in its own "death spiral". They really were the joke of the industry at that time. But wait, what happened? They rebranded the PS3 image with the 'slim' model, and regained some lost ground, building up their image again with new IPs as opposed to only relying on the previous winners. Sure PS3 isnt #1 anymore, infact, its arguable that they are still #3 in the console war, but does that mean the PS3 is basically dead? Clearly not.

I know its apples and oranges, but thats kinda the way I see it. WotC ruffled a few feathers with the radical shift in design for 4e, and as a result Paizo was able to capitalize on the market for those that prefered 3.5. However 4e did not just roll over and die, it grew and expanded greatly, and pulled alot of people into the hobby who hadnt played before, as well as bringing some old 1e or 2e players back into the fold. So despite not obliterating the competition, they ran with what they had, and grew it into a success. At least from what Im seeing it is a success.

In the end though it doesnt matter - people like what they like. i happen to like both 4e and Pathfinder and play both regularily.

Also to Ryan - I meant no offence to you in this post, I really appretiate what you did for this industry, and I certainly respect your opinion on the matter.
 

see

Explorer
Also, just to add, we know 4e didnt death spiral back then because it still sells today.
Um, no. We know 4e hasn't crashed. But the whole point of a real death spiral (a spiral dive/graveyard spiral) is that it starts slowly and gradually, the plane doesn't look like it's in trouble even though altitude is declining, and the seemingly-reasonable effort to correct what seems like a minor problem actively worsens the situation.

D&D may well have entered a death spiral in 2009 and still be in it. Certainly, we don't have conclusive evidence that the spiral exists, but we also have seen no conclusive contrary evidence, either. Saying "Ryan Dancey was wrong in 2009" might be stating a fact. But it might be the equivalent of a skydiver yelling, "See! The parachute failure wasn't a big deal! I've made it 19,000 feet without it or injury!" a mere thousand feet before he hits asphalt head-first.
 

Feeroper

Explorer
Um, no. We know 4e hasn't crashed. But the whole point of a real death spiral (a spiral dive/graveyard spiral) is that it starts slowly and gradually, the plane doesn't look like it's in trouble even though altitude is declining, and the seemingly-reasonable effort to correct what seems like a minor problem actively worsens the situation.

D&D may well have entered a death spiral in 2009 and still be in it. Certainly, we don't have conclusive evidence that the spiral exists, but we also have seen no conclusive contrary evidence, either. Saying "Ryan Dancey was wrong in 2009" might be stating a fact. But it might be the equivalent of a skydiver yelling, "See! The parachute failure wasn't a big deal! I've made it 19,000 feet without it or injury!" a mere thousand feet before he hits asphalt head-first.

This is just a different climate for D&D. However I can understand though why some people jump to that conclusion based on the previous editions success.

Although Im certainly willing to concede that maybe it is in a bad spot and that we just cant see it. However, the opposite could also be true, and based on what I can see, I dont believe it is in a death spiral. It sells today, and it sells wel enough to take up the shelf real estate it does. The Encounters program is a success. DDI is a success. Obviously we dont have any hard #'s and cannot truly say one thing or the other, but based on what my FLGS staff tell me, 4e sells really well. I know thats not proof of anything other than 4e sells well in my area, but still, its something.

Now I know there will be quite a few 3.5/PF fans that loathe 4e on this columns board. Thats fine of course, but you cant make grand claims about a "death spiral" and then shoot others down for having an opposite opinion when neither one of you is armed with straight facts.

As I said, I concede that I could be wrong, but that is merely how I see it. Obviously there are others who see it the other way, and thats fine. Either way, this is a great time for me as I actively play both 4e and PF, so I feel like the competition works in my favour. In the case of weather or not 4e is "death spiraling" or not, We will just have to agree to disagree. We are all gamers here after all :)
 

Banshee16

First Post
Also, I wish you were still had a say in WotC's production. I don't know why there aren't iPad or smart phone apps for D&D.
Likely because nobody has either paid to develop them, or has spent the time to develop them. I've asked some developers I know about costs to develop iPad apps, and it generally doesn't seem *too* expensive......but you'd still have to sell a fair number of them through the app store to turn a profit. I'm not sure what Apple's take is.

Banshee
 

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