How Expensive is Too Expensive?

A couple of years ago, Monte Cook Games began an experiment, kickstarting a project called Invisible Sun. The game itself has plenty of interesting ideas, and an amazing (although not unique) setting. But one thing that makes it stand out is the price. The core box set will set you back around $250, three or four times the price of most high end core books. However, one look inside the box made it clear you were getting what you paid for. Four lavishly illustrated hardback books, a ton of cards, maps, handouts and tokens, dice, character sheets, play aids and even a big statue of a hand. Invisible Sun was designed and conceived to be a luxury product, a game given every possible advantage to shine, with a price tag to match. The experiment posed a simple question, would it sell? Are enough gamers able and willing to part with that much cash for an RPG, even one as lush as Invisible Sun?

invisiblesun.jpg

The answer was a resounding yes. The kickstarter was very successful, and so MCG offered a second kickstarter project to give people another chance to get hold of it with a second print run. Obviously, such a complex project was not something they could offer as print on demand. The second kickstarter also hit its target and drew even more fans. However, the project also had its detractors. Some called MCG ‘elitist’ for making such a game only available in such an expensive form. In my case the first kickstarter coincided with my having had a very good week of overtime and I eagerly backed it. But I found it interesting that two of my friends, who regularly back huge, miniature laden board game kickstarters, declared that it looked nice but ‘they’d never pay that much money for a role playing game’.

Does this mean we don’t value role playing games in the same way? I wonder if this is the case. We’re used to board games being expensive, but given that you need the components there has never been the option to pirate a copy from a dodgy website. We still see people pirating PDFs of games and even trying to justify it as a reasonably necessity. I have known people say ‘I can’t afford them so I have to pirate them’. I have nothing but sympathy for anyone unable to afford to buy an RPG. But there are plenty of free games and quickstarts out there for all of us to play for free forever. The same pirates probably wouldn’t think of stealing something they actually need (like food and clothing) yet feel perfectly OK stealing from RPG creators.

When we look at RPGs today, it is a wonder they are as cheap as they are. The market is demanding more illustrations, graphics and content than it ever has. Thankfully, advances in printing have made such gorgeous books possible and affordable for creators. But all that art, layout, writing and graphic design (and the rest) all has to be paid for. Yet a game without such lush production values is often derided for looking cheap and tawdry, or just ignored. When I did some work on the Monte Cook Games stand at Gen Con, Invisible Sun had plenty of interest. While many people were taken back by the price tag, not a single person complained the product was overpriced when they saw what it contained. I wonder if those making calls of elitism would be so interested in an expensive game that wasn’t so well produced.

I would be very interested to see if Monte Cook Games produced a plainer version of Invisible Sun, whether it would sell. Monte himself has declared that the game is designed to be played as an experience, with all the tokens and components, and making a cheaper version takes too much from the game. But Invisible Sun is an awesome game in its own right, so, given its popularity, would it really be so bad to offer a lower cost version, if only to offer more people the chance to play it? But then, where do we stop? We again come back to ‘how much is too much?’ Should the industry make everything as cheap as possible or insist that to play their games, you (or a friend) will have to put your hand in your pocket? Sadly, the option of extremely cheap but lavish production values doesn’t exist.

Role playing games are a luxury market, much as we’d miss gaming, RPGs are not essential to life (hard to believe, but true!). So should the games continue to be prestige products, or do they need to be cheaper? To a certain extent, the market is the deciding factor. If people are buying them at this price, and there are plenty of cheaper options out there, why shouldn’t some games be more expensive than others? While we are used to limited editions alongside plainer standard ones, sometimes making a cheaper book isn’t always that much cheaper for producers. One company made a ‘cheap gamer edition’ of one of its rule books, a plain text print version without all the art and graphics. But not only did it not sell as well, it wasn’t that much cheaper. It still had to be printed, still needed writing and still needed layout and production.

John Wick addressed this issue very well in a youtube video, taking Call of Cthulhu as an example. It’s an especially good example as First Edition Cthulhu and Seventh Edition (John uses 6th but it was the latest edition at the time) bookend most of the history of gaming. While 1st edition is a nice boxed set, and a lot cheaper (even if you adjust for current values) it doesn’t even have a third of the page count of seventh. The two books in first edition add up to 128 pages; where seventh is a massive 488 pages, with far more illustrations and art throughout.

I’d offer that even the most expensive games offer more value for money than most other hobbies. A core book or box might set you back a chunk of cash, but given you can role play until doomsday with it, that’s still not a bad price. If you find the game you want to play is too expensive, get together with your group and buy it together. Even Invisible Sun isn’t that bad divided by 5 or 6. Failing that, given the variety of games out available, there is always a cheaper option. Can’t afford Invisible Sun? Take a look at Amber, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, Itras By or Nobilis, to name but a few. Better yet, if you can afford to buy expensive games, run them for friends who can’t afford them and enjoy them together. Even the cheapest game isn’t much use without a gaming group.

Finally, when it comes to price, give games creators a break. Let them try new things, even if they come out expensive. Remember that few, if any, companies are trying to cheat you or bleed you for cash. In fact, most are doing the opposite and cutting their profit margins down considerably to offer an affordable game. In this way the industry develops and learns, and even the most expensive games end up in the second hand bin eventually.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Comments

unknowable

Explorer
I passed on invisible sun because its price was high to what I personally value from a RPG product. But I can respect it.

Then we get artifically limited products like kingdom death monster that ruffle my feathers quite a bit.
 
Wizard of the Coast has also licensed premium-quality versions of their recent storylines. I think there's a market for this sort of products between DM who want to feel professional, and collectors. Most people don't need products of that level because the imagination is the main asset, not the material components. To most people these high premium games may as well not exist, and will not be missed.

As for more expensive RPG product lines, the book market, in general, has leaned towards higher quality and higher production costs material as a main differentiator from the chase to zero PDF market. RPGs have been affected by the Kickstarter effect where the more premium the product looks and feels, it is likely to appeal to a larger audience who perceive its value higher. I tend to agree that this allows some products to shine stronger on their artistic feel or sheer amount of content that can scale on a sizable budget. This is a welcome direction on the market as long as not taken too far, and it looks like it is very stable and higher cost is usually met with higher content and value proposition.
 
Counters, cards, and all the other stuff included in Invisible Sun are not things that I care about. I don't care for board game elements in my roleplaying games. Given that, it isn't worth it to me, even if it was half the price. Other people have their own ways of evaluating such things.

I don't buy "deluxe" editions, either. The game itself is what I value, not the way the book looks.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I like deluxe editions and have bought many "deluxe" options (Geekchic, Wyrmwood, Elder Wood...)

I don't quite see buying an entire RPG as a "deluxe" only option. This is something I have to convince people to play, and convince them to play multiple times. When I spring for Gloomhaven I know it will get onto the table. WIth RPGs I always have to test the waters.

That said, something nice enough, and unique enough will definitely get a look. There is an incredible market with way more cash than many internet commentators have (see: Wyrmwood, Dwarven Forge, etc.) who are fueling all of these gorgeous Kickstarters. Honestly, $250 for someone like Monte Cook is play money for a LOT of people.
 

DaveMage

Slumbering in Tsar
For me the key is (my perceived) value. I don't mind paying more if the value is there.

Also, RPGs are like works of art to me. Some are wonderful, some are trash. I don't mind spending money on the wonderful.

(Oh, and I bought Invisible Sun in the second kickstarter. I don't feel like I overpaid.)
 

kunadam

Explorer
Monte Cook became too expensive for me. The main problem is that if I'm honest with myself, I know I will not play the game (lack of time / people to play with), so I buy RPG for my own reading pleasure. And for that, these props laden product are just not worth it.
 

JediSoth

Semi-Professional Author
I don't get the hate (too strong? derision, maybe) some people have for premium products. I guess there is some level of FOMO, but it literally costs you nothing if you choose not to buy it.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I don't get the hate (too strong? derision, maybe) some people have for premium products. I guess there is some level of FOMO, but it literally costs you nothing if you choose not to buy it.
"A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

Andy Warhol

There is something to be said for a commonality of experience; the idea that all people will have the same thing, that a plumber and a CEO both have the same access to a National Park, that they both drink the same Coca Cola, that their kids play on the same sports teams. More and more, we are losing it.

I am reminded of the Disney Resorts (theme parks), which formerly were a fairly egalitarian bastion*, but have increasingly become a tiered experience; where once you walked up and bought the same ticket as everyone else did, now you have purchase extended hours, stay at resorts on the site, and pay additional money (ahead of time) if you want to go during certain times.

Things are changing, and while it's more efficient in some ways, it also can breed resentment.


*To be clear, I am not Pollyann-ish about this; traditional Disney was more egalitarian in a white, middle class way. The past should not be viewed with rose-colored glasses.
 

Hussar

Legend
Heh. I remember years ago buying The World's Largest Dungeon. At the time, it clocked in around a hundred dollars (give or take) plus shipping. I don't know if it was the most expensive RPG supplement out there, but, it was certainly in the top end of things.

It was such a fantastic purchase for me though. I spent so many hours on that module, both during play and outside of game time. I actually worked it out once, that for my group of 4 to 5 players, plus me, over the 250 (or so) hours that we played, you still couldn't possibly beat the price. It was just incredible value.

So, yeah, I do think that RPG products are way underpriced. Good grief, a new AAA video game is what, 75 bucks or so? And that lasts you what, a hundred hours if you're really lucky? But, we balk at a 250 dollar product that's going to entertain 5 people for a similar amount of time? Gamers are really tight fisted.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I'll take two!

I keed

Between house, cars, etc.; games are pretty cheap, the only question is if I will use it, or some other value. A lot of game companies are bad at customer service, so it is easy to turn off customers as well, I have a mental list of ones I will never buy from again after buying hundreds of dollars of their stuff, to ones I will often buy from just to show a little goodwill towards.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
So, yeah, I do think that RPG products are way underpriced. Good grief, a new AAA video game is what, 75 bucks or so? And that lasts you what, a hundred hours if you're really lucky? But, we balk at a 250 dollar product that's going to entertain 5 people for a similar amount of time? Gamers are really tight fisted.
There's some truth here. A unique aspect of RPGs is most of the spending is done by DMs; who also spend huge amounts of time outside of the game working on sessions. So premium products get premium sighs from DMs who already feel a little underappreciated.

I'm sure there's no correlation to DM'ing and commenting more on Enworld too =)
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I don't hate premium versions of products - I don't mind a producer making some bank off people with more money than sense (as I see it). At least not with luxury passtime products like games (don't get me started on the differences between minimal and cadillac health care). Collect-ability or affectations for the specialness are reasonable variations.

I don't really value, however, a luxury design that has to have all the fancy bells and whistles. If that's the only form its available in - I'm out.
 

Hussar

Legend
Is there a hobby out there that's as cheap as RPG gaming? I'm serious. RPG gaming is ludicrously cheap on a per person per hour basis. Figure, what, 100 bucks for the core books, another 30 for an AP and you're good for about 100 hours of gaming with very little work. Good grief, I've spent a heck of a lot more than 130 dollars for dinner for five or six people. Gaming works out to about 20 cents per person per hour. That's it.

It's a ridiculously cheap hobby.
 

Hussar

Legend
A $100 PDF isn't exactly a concession to the mass market. Nor is a humble bundle that may or may not ever exist.
Sorry, but, how cheap do you think it should be? Figure that the game is being played by 5 people, even for 20 hours. That's still a dollar an hour per person. Show me a cheaper hobby.

Gamers really, really need to loosen their purse strings. Or, at least not get bent out of shape when someone charges what the game is actually worth, rather than the pittance that some gamers seem to think it should cost.
 

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