How does the TTRPG industry works?

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Hi!

I know there's several people on these forums that designed games, made books out of them and got to printing them, and today I'm interested in seeking a bit of knowledge. I work in video games and for months I've been trying to convince the stakeholders of the company to diversify and attempt something in the tabletop RPG market. I love video games, but I'm really interested in trying to design a tabletop RPG of some kind. I don't know what yet, but that'll come. I've got projects going on right now that won't finish for another year or two anyway.

Anyway, I'm curious as to how the tabletop RPG industry works when it comes to printing material. Designing a game and giving PDFs is one thing, but the printing business is something else. Let's say I had a game already designed. I do a crowdsourcing campaign, and I want to offer the option to buy print books.

What's the chain? There's the company that creates the game, there's distributors in different areas of the worlds, there's a printing company? How do you find informations about these distributors and these printing companies? Does any regular commercial printing company would be able to do products like that? How is transport, storage and shipping handled? Do most tabletop companies outsource that part or take care of that themselves?

I've tried to learn a bit more about the process at my local gamestore but they've been pretty secretive about it, and the couple of searches that I've done haven't yielded much results. So maybe a few nuggets of informations from ENWorld will help me start my market research and hopefully allow me to work on something cool in a year or two!
 

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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
There’s a handful of printing companies that the industry typically uses (in China, Europe, the US). You contact one of those and arrange the print job. They ship the pallets of books to a location of your choosing — usually the warehouse of a fulfilment company, but some publishers maintain their own warehouses. Customers are fulfilled directly from there. You then contact distributors and try to sell them as many copies of your game as you can. They’ll buy X number and then local stores get their stock from them. That’s the super short version.

We print with Standartu in Europe, then ship to ShipQuest in the U.K. and another company in the US.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
I used to work for travel industry and designed travel brochures of 148 pages with soft cover. Starting the presses has a minimum fee. Thus the more you print the less it costs per copy. Below 5000 you won't get much savings with big printers.

In Montreal you can call Transcontinental for an idea of prices. They use large multi-page continuous paper roll printers like newspaper but in full colour. Green Ronin prints books in Montreal which are then distributed in the US.

You can get lower price if you can find a deal with a printer that does printing on individual sheets 8 pages. Those are good for print runs of less than 5000.

Rule of thumb: a book is always a multiple of 8 pages (interior) + 4 pages for the cover.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
We print with Standartu in Europe, then ship to ShipQuest in the U.K. and another company in the US.
Thank you! I'll look into these companies just to see what's the vocabulary, their services, etc. But what about distributors? Are they distributors specifically for game shops, or they distribute a ton of other stuff? How do you find information about them?
In Montreal you can call Transcontinental for an idea of prices. They use large multi-page continuous paper roll printers like newspaper but in full colour. Green Ronin prints books in Montreal which are then distributed in the US.
Transcontinental was on my list, my dad works for them! But I didn't know Green Ronin printed there. Very interesting. Thank you for the informations regarding the 8 pages sheets and the minimum fee!
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Thank you! I'll look into these companies just to see what's the vocabulary, their services, etc. But what about distributors? Are they distributors specifically for game shops, or they distribute a ton of other stuff? How do you find information about them?
There’s a handful which deal with TTRPGs. It’s a pretty small industry.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Thank you! I'll look into these companies just to see what's the vocabulary, their services, etc. But what about distributors? Are they distributors specifically for game shops, or they distribute a ton of other stuff? How do you find information about them?

Transcontinental was on my list, my dad works for them! But I didn't know Green Ronin printed there. Very interesting. Thank you for the informations regarding the 8 pages sheets and the minimum fee!
Montreal is a hub for a lot of US printing. Don't know if it has changed but a lot of comics titles used to be printed in this city (and paper porn).
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Thank you! I'll look into these companies just to see what's the vocabulary, their services, etc. But what about distributors? Are they distributors specifically for game shops, or they distribute a ton of other stuff? How do you find information about them?
In Canada one of the major gaming distributers is Lion Rampant. In Montreal there is Universal Distribution.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
In Canada one of the major gaming distributers is Lion Rampant. In Montreal there is Universal Distribution.
Thank you! Knowing some actual ones will make it easier for me to look around and find others. I'm still very early on in the process, but I've got much research to do.
 

Hi!

I know there's several people on these forums that designed games, made books out of them and got to printing them, and today I'm interested in seeking a bit of knowledge. I work in video games and for months I've been trying to convince the stakeholders of the company to diversify and attempt something in the tabletop RPG market. I love video games, but I'm really interested in trying to design a tabletop RPG of some kind. I don't know what yet, but that'll come. I've got projects going on right now that won't finish for another year or two anyway.

Anyway, I'm curious as to how the tabletop RPG industry works when it comes to printing material. Designing a game and giving PDFs is one thing, but the printing business is something else. Let's say I had a game already designed. I do a crowdsourcing campaign, and I want to offer the option to buy print books.

What's the chain? There's the company that creates the game, there's distributors in different areas of the worlds, there's a printing company? How do you find informations about these distributors and these printing companies? Does any regular commercial printing company would be able to do products like that? How is transport, storage and shipping handled? Do most tabletop companies outsource that part or take care of that themselves?

I've tried to learn a bit more about the process at my local gamestore but they've been pretty secretive about it, and the couple of searches that I've done haven't yielded much results. So maybe a few nuggets of informations from ENWorld will help me start my market research and hopefully allow me to work on something cool in a year or two!
Why? Take however much you can make on a game in the videogaming industry, and multiply by about 0.00001% and that's what an RPG is going to make, lol. This is a HOBBY, unless you are, basically WotC. There are a couple (literally) other companies that publish games and make more than trivial money. There are a handful of other publishers that are conservative enough in their ambitions that they only release material that doesn't actually LOSE money, and maybe makes a bit.

And there is everyone else, who just plain doesn't make a dime, and maybe at best gets lucky and publishes a 'successful' game that makes a small profit. Usually they try again, or make a supplement, and away it all goes. This is why there are so many games with 0 or 1 supplements, and so many publishers that are pretty much one-hit wonders.

There is just very small amounts of money in the industry. Even today, in 'boom times' for TTRPGs the size of the entire business roughly approximates the weekly take of a single successful box store, actually only on an off week for the box store! lol.

I mean, there are many reasons to publish an RPG. Maybe to increase the value of some other IP, or just because you love doing it, etc. It is not wise to approach as a business opportunity, that is a really good way to be disappointed.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
The first motivator is not money. I'm interested in doing that. That's about it.

From a business perspective, the goal is to diversify. I will not go into too much details but we have several different video game projects and are trying to build strong IPs. There's interest in diversifying through different mediums (animated shows, TTRPGs, collectibles, etc). I'm probably the individual with the most experience and interest in reading up, dissecting, understanding and playing TTRPGs.

The TTRPG by itself doesn't need to break the bank. It needs to not be a financial disaster and create some synergy and movement between different demographics and populations of customers.

Also, I probably would not undertake such a project by myself, trying to get some money to pay artist left and right and cobble up together a game on my off time. But, depending on how things go financially at my work, we have over a hundred professionals with relevant skills (testing, localization, design, artists, programmers, etc) that are always looking for work.

Lastly, and this is entirely a personal opinion, I think the TTRPG hobby is quite obscure and hard to get into. It's pricy (or at least the entry point can be), it's time consuming, it demands that multiple people schedule time together and most of the time, the rules are daunting, numerous and require a real investment from at least one person to master them. These are all entry barriers. No wonder the hobby hasn't grown as much as other hobbies.

I think there's an unfilled space in the market and that TTRPGs can be spun into something that's:
  • Easy to learn, easy to try and streamlined.
  • That's heavily supported by technology. For example, Paizo products have some unofficial websites and databases for feats, spells, etc. I don't understand why companies don't do this themselves.
  • That's not too pricy because it doesn't require people to buy multiple 50-60$ books.
Tabletop Games are gaining in popularity, video games are the biggest commercial media on the planet by a huge margin, play is becoming more and more prominent in education, formation, therapy, etc. We have many clients that think that the only solution to their solution are pricy technological apps and softwares that cost hundreds of thousands to develop when tabletop games could be a solution.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It would be short-sighted to say "it's a small market, there's no money to be made, why do it".
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Why? Take however much you can make on a game in the videogaming industry, and multiply by about 0.00001% and that's what an RPG is going to make, lol. This is a HOBBY, unless you are, basically WotC.
Well, that's not true. Even I make a living from it, and my company is tiny. And there are plenty of other companies employing full time staff for whom it's a living, not a hobby.
 

The first motivator is not money. I'm interested in doing that. That's about it.
:) Good for you! I mean, I agree, its fun and rewarding. Your OP did make it sound like you were interested in taking your business in that direction, that's all. Most businesses do want to make money, at least as one of their goals. You will be very unlikely to do that in this industry!
From a business perspective, the goal is to diversify. I will not go into too much details but we have several different video game projects and are trying to build strong IPs. There's interest in diversifying through different mediums (animated shows, TTRPGs, collectibles, etc). I'm probably the individual with the most experience and interest in reading up, dissecting, understanding and playing TTRPGs.
Yeah, it might make sense. RPGs are funny though. D&D is virtually the only thing the world knows about, in general. The hobby obviously is about more, but the size of the whole thing is pretty tiny. So the question then is if there's much exposure to be gained. Also the prevalence of D&D suggests you would want to associate your IP with that (IE maybe write D&D 5e compatible setting/game supplement material that relates to your IP).
The TTRPG by itself doesn't need to break the bank. It needs to not be a financial disaster and create some synergy and movement between different demographics and populations of customers.
Again, I would strongly consider a 5e-related product then. They seem to be the most popular, WotC obviously has some interest in their success, etc. I don't know what their relationships are like today with 3PPs publishing 5e-related material, but I think they are at least friendly, and probably mildly encouraging, if nothing else.
Also, I probably would not undertake such a project by myself, trying to get some money to pay artist left and right and cobble up together a game on my off time. But, depending on how things go financially at my work, we have over a hundred professionals with relevant skills (testing, localization, design, artists, programmers, etc) that are always looking for work.
I mean, I can see how that might align, yes. OTOH they are expensive. If you want to not lose anything/much the budget will need to be tiny by standards of most video games (I'm saying 5 figure sized pretty much, at most).
Lastly, and this is entirely a personal opinion, I think the TTRPG hobby is quite obscure and hard to get into. It's pricy (or at least the entry point can be), it's time consuming, it demands that multiple people schedule time together and most of the time, the rules are daunting, numerous and require a real investment from at least one person to master them. These are all entry barriers. No wonder the hobby hasn't grown as much as other hobbies.
Well, I think this is true of D&D, yes. There are some VERY simple and straightforward games out there though. They simply don't attain much market. If it was simply a matter of making a much more accessible game and that would unlock a big untapped potential market, it would have happened decades ago by now. Many have said what you are saying, and tried it! Consider games like Everway, which is simply played with a deck of cards and a couple other play aids.
I think there's an unfilled space in the market and that TTRPGs can be spun into something that's:
  • Easy to learn, easy to try and streamlined.
  • That's heavily supported by technology. For example, Paizo products have some unofficial websites and databases for feats, spells, etc. I don't understand why companies don't do this themselves.
  • That's not too pricy because it doesn't require people to buy multiple 50-60$ books.
Yeah, but building web infrastructure is EXPENSIVE. WotC tried it 13 years ago with 4e. DDI wasn't a disaster, but it fell far short of their wishes, and I suspect was a lot more expensive than they expected. Weirdly it also seems to have had negative impacts on their overall business model.

I would never say what you are dreaming of is impossible. I will say that if you achieve it you will definitely be a great innovator in the space! It isn't exactly clear what direction to go in either. Do you build a VTT? (I bet you have the skills to make a really good one). Is it purely a board-type game? Euro-game style? What? How does the web tie in to that? What creates high replay value in a fairly simple to play game? I guess you guys have designed games, maybe you can crack it! I hope so!
Tabletop Games are gaining in popularity, video games are the biggest commercial media on the planet by a huge margin, play is becoming more and more prominent in education, formation, therapy, etc. We have many clients that think that the only solution to their solution are pricy technological apps and softwares that cost hundreds of thousands to develop when tabletop games could be a solution.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It would be short-sighted to say "it's a small market, there's no money to be made, why do it".
It is a legitimate question though, when the market today is SO small (well under $100 million with one really dominant player absorbing most of that, with the rest split between many small but highly experienced players).

Certainly business will ask you this question, and they will ask it many times and very hard!
 


amethal

Adventurer
Again, I would strongly consider a 5e-related product then. They seem to be the most popular, WotC obviously has some interest in their success, etc. I don't know what their relationships are like today with 3PPs publishing 5e-related material, but I think they are at least friendly, and probably mildly encouraging, if nothing else.
Agreed, "compatible" with 5th edition D&D would be the obvious choice for a new game as it probably has the largest "built-in" market.

If, for whatever reason, 5th edition is a bad fit then I'd suggest using another existing game system such as Savage Worlds or Fate. It's a lot easier than writing a new game from scratch.
 

Why? Take however much you can make on a game in the videogaming industry, and multiply by about 0.00001% and that's what an RPG is going to make, lol. This is a HOBBY, unless you are, basically WotC. There are a couple (literally) other companies that publish games and make more than trivial money. There are a handful of other publishers that are conservative enough in their ambitions that they only release material that doesn't actually LOSE money, and maybe makes a bit.

And there is everyone else, who just plain doesn't make a dime, and maybe at best gets lucky and publishes a 'successful' game that makes a small profit. Usually they try again, or make a supplement, and away it all goes. This is why there are so many games with 0 or 1 supplements, and so many publishers that are pretty much one-hit wonders.

There is just very small amounts of money in the industry. Even today, in 'boom times' for TTRPGs the size of the entire business roughly approximates the weekly take of a single successful box store, actually only on an off week for the box store! lol.

I mean, there are many reasons to publish an RPG. Maybe to increase the value of some other IP, or just because you love doing it, etc. It is not wise to approach as a business opportunity, that is a really good way to be disappointed.

There are a lot of people making little to no money. But this poster may be in a position to start with a strong advantage if they have existing IP and if they have the financial resources to make quality stuff with solid marketing. One of the big hurdles I face is resources and reach. I think those are big for most smaller RPG companies. So its very easy for people to release a book, and have it get lost amid all the other books coming out that day. But if you have resources, reach, etc; or if you are very savvy with social media and online marketing, you can crack through. There is also an element of luck as well as timing. Coming into RPGs from another market seems like it would be a potential advantage here to me.

Also WOTC and D&D right now are dominating. But there have been times when the IP holder of D&D has been challenged by other companies (white wolf gave TSR a serious run in the 90s---and WOTC did as well with magic the gathering: which I remember siphoning players out of groups like mad---and Pathfinder ten years ago). I could see that happening again in the right circumstances
 

RPGs are over 100 million now, not well under, and that's just USA+Canada.
Tabletop in general is something like 5-10B.
Yeah, I went out and dug for numbers. What I found were wildly varying numbers from various groups claiming to be doing market analysis, gathering data, etc. Their definitions of the industry didn't seem to vary radically, at least in an obvious way, but the numbers vary by a full order of magnitude, from about 1.5 Billion to 15 Billion. Nobody really talked at all about different geographical regions (though there are reports on certain localities, like Japan). Given that I saw figures in most of these reports for European companies like Asmodee I am not convinced that you can argue the numbers are "US + Canada only."

Anyway, the most consistent figures put the 'Hobby Game' industry at about $1.5 billion, with CCGs being about 50% of that (M:tG basically) and then you have various other categories, board games, miniatures, TTRPG, and a couple other ones. The TTRPG numbers vary between different reports between around $50 million at a low, and I didn't see any that topped $100 million. I would say, they all talk about 'strong growth' and most reports were written at least a year ago, so I wouldn't think $100 million as a sort of round figure would be crazy. Remember though, WotC has a very high % of that, nobody else is even in order of magnitude close to them.

So, think about business. In ANY industry you are not going to capture huge % market share on day one. Even if your product is completely revolutionary the incumbents will continue to be the largest share for some time (IE D&D is not going to wither suddenly because someone produces a revolutionary new TTRPG product, it will take a few years). Nor will those players, with their long experience, deep libraries of IP, and talent pools and connections with service providers, simply give up and walk away. They will come back at you!

The upshot being, what if you get 20% market share? That's $20 million. Game studios spend $20 million just doing preliminary design and PoCs on a major game release. A single game can net $100s of millions. Even assuming you achieved FIFTY PERCENT market share in the TTRPG industry, AND you grew the industry by 50%, radical assumptions, you'd basically have the equivalent of one video game, which is probably a bunch less risky to produce, since you don't have to assume blockbuster never heard of before success to make money.

If I was a producer, maybe the pitch "Hey we have a neat TTRPG idea, can we spend $500k trying it out using the Foo Bunny IP?" OK, let me see what you got, maybe we can do something... I mean, I think that's enough to make a good RPG, for sure, and then some! I don't think you will make back your money in strict terms, but the synergy with other uses of the IP might make it a winner.
 

There are a lot of people making little to no money. But this poster may be in a position to start with a strong advantage if they have existing IP and if they have the financial resources to make quality stuff with solid marketing. One of the big hurdles I face is resources and reach. I think those are big for most smaller RPG companies. So its very easy for people to release a book, and have it get lost amid all the other books coming out that day. But if you have resources, reach, etc; or if you are very savvy with social media and online marketing, you can crack through. There is also an element of luck as well as timing. Coming into RPGs from another market seems like it would be a potential advantage here to me.

Also WOTC and D&D right now are dominating. But there have been times when the IP holder of D&D has been challenged by other companies (white wolf gave TSR a serious run in the 90s---and WOTC did as well with magic the gathering: which I remember siphoning players out of groups like mad---and Pathfinder ten years ago). I could see that happening again in the right circumstances
Right, I think there's always some potential. I suspect in the end D&D will always come out on top in the tradition TTRP market, though eventually even that will have to give. In fact I do feel that 5e is too conservative a design, to anti-progress really, to survive long-term. I think many at WotC might have felt that way at the end of 3.x, that only a much re-imagined game system could live on long-term into the 21st Century.

So, maybe the OP has a concept so good that it is the one that will just rewrite the whole industry forever. If not, he could make money, I agree that Paizo is a successful company. It just requires either very long diligent work in the industry (Paizo) or a very radical and extremely strong new style of game (or some sort of really radical shtick). You cannot COUNT on either working. Effectively the successes are people who said "heck with it, I'm really good at this, I am doing gaming regardless of what else I could make 10x more money at."

I mean, @Morrus, you're no idiot, I am guessing there are plenty of ways to use your skillset that are at least as lucrative, maybe a lot more so, than EnWorld. That was the sort of decision I faced back in the early 80's, to start publishing games, or go into a more traditional and well-paying career. Not saying I made the right choice necessarily, will never know...
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
The upshot being, what if you get 20% market share? That's $20 million. Game studios spend $20 million just doing preliminary design and PoCs on a major game release. A single game can net $100s of millions. Even assuming you achieved FIFTY PERCENT market share in the TTRPG industry, AND you grew the industry by 50%, radical assumptions, you'd basically have the equivalent of one video game, which is probably a bunch less risky to produce, since you don't have to assume blockbuster never heard of before success to make money.
Except that we've got no intentions of aggressively sizing the tabletop market. Once again, our goal would be to create synergy. Offer other products linked to our IP to the dedicated fans (see the Avatar kickstarter) and create a funnel for TTRPG fan to discover our IP and possibly become consumers of our video games.

With the advent of streaming, subscription services and other shenanigans, IP is the future of video games. The goal is to build strong IP. And a way to increase growth is to expand your customer base by investing in different medias.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Except that we've got no intentions of aggressively sizing the tabletop market. Once again, our goal would be to create synergy. Offer other products linked to our IP to the dedicated fans (see the Avatar kickstarter) and create a funnel for TTRPG fan to discover our IP and possibly become consumers of our video games.

With the advent of streaming, subscription services and other shenanigans, IP is the future of video games. The goal is to build strong IP. And a way to increase growth is to expand your customer base by investing in different medias.
Just do it, is my advice. ;-)

DragonAGE with Green Ronin is a good example of what you want to do.
 

So, maybe the OP has a concept so good that it is the one that will just rewrite the whole industry forever. If not, he could make money, I agree that Paizo is a successful company. It just requires either very long diligent work in the industry (Paizo) or a very radical and extremely strong new style of game (or some sort of really radical shtick). You cannot COUNT on either working. Effectively the successes are people who said "heck with it, I'm really good at this, I am doing gaming regardless of what else I could make 10x more money at."

This is all speculation based on how I remember these things happening, but I feel that Paizo and WW kind of offer to very different potential paths to other companies or other games dethroning WOTC or D&D. In the case of WW I think it was more in line with what you mentioned in your first paragraph, they were bringing in a new and fresh approach (a new aesthetic, new system, something more culturally relevant to the 90s youth culture) and they both attracted a a lot of existing D&D fans but also seemed to bring in new gamers. With Paizo I think WOTC left open a vacuum when they shifted editions, where many existing fans didn't feel like changing to the new edition, and Paizo basically grabbed the market that vacuum opened up. Going forward I have no idea what is going to make D&D have the maximum size RPG fanbase but I do think any time there is a change in D&D other companies will see opportunity to step in if the change causes loss of fanbase.
 

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