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

Andrew Peregrine

Black Campbell

Villager
I agree that the "bang for your buck" with RPGs is high. You buy a book or a few and you have entertainment for life. Add to that the value across a number of people is a higher value over ti e than most other forms.

That said, the value of RPGs with higher production values does have diminshing returns as they get more expensive. I love the Tales From the Loop series, where the art is integral to the flavor of the game, and showing it can enhance the game. The opposite, I would suggest, is the new Star Trek game, where the print is far too fine and the color palette not complementary enough to make them easily readable. There's a lot of flash, but the amount of substance is 't there. Additionally, the amount of verbiage can actually detract from finding the rules you need quickly. Charging for 400 pages of scene-setting and short stories isn't more effective and 200 pages of rules and pointed setting material.

The argument that a less expensive product, with less attention to gloss paper and high ink density printing is "cheaper" often misses the quality of the writing and game design -- let's use Free League again -- "Forbidden Lands" is an excellent book, but the pages are white with black type and simple B/W line art. It's easy to read, well laid out, and while it looks "cheap", it!s a high value for the price. Similarly, my "one man shop" only has a few writers, editors and artists and we make our products on a shoestring budget. We specifically chose a similar aesthetic to make the books easier to read (seriously, look around you gaming table...there's a lotta glasses on people's faces), cheap to print bits of if needed, and inexpensive to purchase considering the amount of work that goes into them. But they aren't pretty.
 

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ddaley

Explorer
Thanks for speaking for me. But you are wrong.

A game can target a small community independent of it's price tag. Many inexpensive PDF-only games enjoy small communities. I'm assuming the player community for Invisible Sun with it's hefty price tag is also relatively small. A game does not have to attract a large community to be successful. What makes a game successful? That depends on the goals of those who wrote and produced it.

If I am an independent RPG writer who just wants my game out there, and I keep my expenses low, I can easily make back my investment if the fan base for my new game is only in the hundreds. I won't get rich off my work, but if that isn't my goal in the first place, that's okay. My fans are happy, I'm happy.

If I am running a small RPG company that has a lot of name recognition within the larger RPG community (but we're still small), and I want to push the artistry and quality of games farther than anyone has yet, I don't need a mass-market product. I need something that a small community of folks would be willing to pay a lot of money for.

There are tons of very successful small-press indie games out there with small player communities. Invisible Sun has enjoyed two very successful Kickstarters, but still has a small community of players. And somehow, games for all genres, styles, and price-points thrive and grow the hobby without "stifling the young" (I am very much rolling my eyes right now). And there are, of course, games that ARE aimed at a larger audience doing quite well too. There is plenty of room for all in this growing and more diverse gaming community today.

I guess if your goal is to publish something and only have 5 people read it... then good for you. (y)
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I guess if your goal is to publish something and only have 5 people read it... then good for you. (y)

I'm not sure why this is such a problem for you. This is the situation now, some well-received and successful games, ranging from free to very expensive, have small player communities. This is not a hypothetical, this is simply what is. I'm not sure why it bothers you either. How does the existence of a small-press, small-community game impact your own enjoyment of the hobby in any real way?

I'm beginning to think a small-press indie game killed your dog when you where younger.
 

Personally, I think the game looks like it's worth $250 as far as the production goes, but the rules themselves could affect that impression if I didn't feel they were of high enough quality.

I bought the Torg Eternity kickstarter boxed set for $200, with a lot of the same sort of things as this one looks like it has. I enjoy the rules of the game, and the physical play aids are a major boost to the experience. You only need the rules, dice and the special card deck to play, but the various other tokens improve the experience greatly. Not only is the tactile element of handling little condition and wound markers enjoyable, but it means that, combined with the variety of included adventures, I almost never have to write down anything (and I'm the GM) during play. I only have a pencil there "just in case". It makes me not want to play it online because I can't use all the toys. But here's the thing: the basic game (assuming you get your cards usable in an online format) can be played just fine and enjoyed without all of that extra stuff at normal RPG pricing (hardcover and pdf available). If you buy all of that extra stuff you really are paying for an upgraded play experience. I'll also point out that I do not have a lot of money and that was a significant investment for me. This isn't something I can do regularly.

In my opinion that is the ideal model for both customers and publishers. A good quality game at a standard price-point, with higher price premium versions being value-added. Bonus points if there is a free quick-start or bare bones (D&D Basic style) pdf for people who aren't ready to commit.

So that's where I'm personally coming from, but I think we need to look at the psychology going on with regards to the various experiences different people are having. Emotional responses are based on actual, understandable, reasons.

Why would anyone resent high-priced RPGs?

This isn't as ridiculous as it might first sound. An RPG is inherently an imagination experience. The rules for the game are just instructions for how to direct our imaginations in certain ways. People reasonably object to paying a lot of money for someone to tell you how to use your own imagination in an enjoyable way. If you want to go a little lighter on the imagination, but stick with the paying for game rules idea: how would you feel if playing a sport required buying a book that explained the rules of the sport? Buying the equipment, sure. Cheap or premium based on what you can afford. The option to buy various extra accessories is always there. But it's the information age, and we absolutely expect to be able to go online and look up how to play the game. And I expect most people would be rather dissatisfied if someone held the IP to the rules for a sport and required you to purchase them.

Most people today don't want to pay for ideas alone. We really don't. This isn't the ancient world where knowledge was available to a few who spent years "earning" the right to know stuff. Physical objects, yes. Art, yes. That all depends on the individual's preferences. But ideas? No. Just no.*

And I agree with that. Heck, even the US Copyright laws agree with that with regards to games.

But, you say, what about novels? Do we feel like we have some kind of right to the story without having to pay for it? I mean, we're probably only going to read it one time even. Well, most people are okay with the idea that they should pay for (or borrow from a friend or library) a novel. Because what you're paying for there is essentially equivalent to the setting element of an RPG. The "fluff". I don't think there is a lot of a negative response about paying for fluff/fiction, as long as people feel that the price is reasonable. And the intuitive comparison there probably is with other forms of fiction. Some of us remember buying paperbacks for $4. Both novels and RPG books have come up in price, but I believe there is a comparison to be made there as far as what consumers intuitively feel the fiction ("fluff") of an RPG is worth. And note that, even there, people generally expect to be able to get the non-artistic elements of the fiction ("just the facts") for free. I'm pretty sure I could look up timelines of the Star Wars Expanded Universe if I were so inclined and find out the basics of what happened without paying for more than my internet access. People, to a greater or lesser degree, respect artists. People don't respect knowledge being kept behind a paywall.

We don't want to pay more than a pittance for rules. We'll pay fair market value for artistic presentation of fiction/fluff. And we'll pay based on our personal preferences for art and toys. And that all makes sense.

I think that's the reality that creators of RPGs should take into account. People feel like they have (essentially) a right to know the rules of an RPG. You might as well put those out for free--it will build good will and it doesn't seem to have negatively impacted the sales of D&D, Pathfinder, FATE, etc. Then compare to fiction to determine what sorts of prices to charge for the setting/adventures/fluff, and compare to other art and enhancements to determine what to charge for those. (I essentially bought the Alpha Omega line as art and setting books, knowing from the reviews I'd read that I probably wouldn't like the rules.)

...

To address another point in the discussion, there is a real issue with GMs bearing a huge share of the cost compared to players. I can't seem to get my players (most of which have more money than me) to even buy stuff for themselves. I've told everyone in my group a couple times about Humble Bundles where you could get the core books+ of a game line for $1, and encouraged them to buy it in case we want to play. Nobody did. I literally just bought them each a copy one time, which is absolutely ridiculous. I have a D&D player who has been playing with me since 2015 and still doesn't have a PHB.

But...at the same time, as a GM, I want to be in control of what I do. If I ask everyone to chip in--or worse, to pay me--then I'd feel obligated to run exactly what they want. I'd feel like my performance is constantly under review by an employer--not the feeling I want in my recreational environment. If I buy everything myself, then they can take or leave what I offer to run, but at least I'm in control of my role-playing vision (so to speak). I get to feel like an artist rather than a service provider.

I'm not sure if there is any "fix" for that GM/Player cost discrepancy, but it does mean the price comparisons that involve splitting costs amongst the group just don't apply for many role-players.

So there is a lot of stuff going on here. There is a market no one begrudges for premium presentations of otherwise standard-price available games. There is a contextually understandable demand for free (or very cheap) access to the game rules of any RPG that comes out. And there is a difficult to address unequal cost distribution amongst players/GMs for many role-players.

* People will pay for ideas in the realm of self-help books or intricate technical manuals...but even that is becoming less necessary and willingness is dropping as the information becomes available for free.
 

Kaodi

Hero
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?

Skyrim is a bit of an outlier but I have 2099 hours on that game and when I finally have a computer that can comfortably run it on ultra settings I will probably put in at least another 400 more so I can see the whole game "as it was meant to be seen", :D .

In any case I think this conversation is missing a few things. That, or I just missed them being brought up already because I was kinda skimming.

a) There are always more costs to a game than the listed book price. The Legendary Edition of Skyrim ran me in the ballpark of the aforementioned 75 bucks. But you also need to consider the costs of the computers to play it. Of course we could probably also make similar arguments about computers: high outlay, incredible $ per hour value.

b) The price of a mainstream RPG is not dictated by you, veteran gamer with dependable group and a firm grasp of "opportunity cost" . It is determined by the ability of a teenager with uncertain gaming prospects to gamble on an uncertain proposition, and often to convince their parents of that value proposition. I bought my first set of D&D books at a yard sale somewhere around 22 years ago and I have probably spent only a couple of hundred hours in a face to face group in all that time. It is actually kinda sad when I put the numbers that way, :\ . Of course I have put in a lot more time here on the boards and in chat based games and PbP to an extent but I could not tell you what the "value" is there.

c) If you consider that most RPGs are probably priced to reflect the hopes of a reasonable profit then substantially increasing the price without changing the product would lead to a windfall. And where there is a windfall in profits, you breed competition. And competition drives prices down, at least in theory.

Anyway those are just some thoughts.
 

TheSword

Legend
I spend a large part of my life playing Warhammer. It is impossible for me to spend even close to what I spent on that on rpgs.

I think the question shouldn’t be about price, but rather about value.

I recently found a set of 10 DL sized adventures. They were about 6 or 8 pages long and were one shots for 3e. Flicking through them I realized that they were frankly atrocious and even though they were only £1.99 each I thought they were far poorer value for money than a £29 campaign book like Tomb of Annihilation.

If a box has attractive unique items that I can’t reproduce myself (the reason I find the Beadle and Grimm sets unappealing) then i say go for it.

If Pathfinder for instance sold AP bundles with the adventures, a couple of campaign sourcebooks, flip maps to accompany and minis for the special characters I’d be down for buying that for £500 or so. I’ll typically play a 1-20 full campaign for 18-24 months. In 8 hour monthly sessions. That’s about 50p an hour per person. I literally can’t think of a cheaper hobby... even buying an expensive set like that.
 

ddaley

Explorer
Good grief, a new AAA video game is what, 75 bucks or so?

Where are you guys buying games? If you pre-order from Amazon, they are usually $49. And, video games generally drop in price pretty quickly. I have spent more hours than I care to admit playing Division and Division 2...
 

Hussar

Legend
Where are you guys buying games? If you pre-order from Amazon, they are usually $49. And, video games generally drop in price pretty quickly. I have spent more hours than I care to admit playing Division and Division 2...
We should be comparing apples to apples then too. Buying RPG books from Amazon is typically quite a bit cheaper than MRSP. We've been posting 150 bucks to play D&D, but, that's certainly not true. That's only true if you pay full price for the core books.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
We should be comparing apples to apples then too. Buying RPG books from Amazon is typically quite a bit cheaper than MRSP. We've been posting 150 bucks to play D&D, but, that's certainly not true. That's only true if you pay full price for the core books.

Not so easy for non Americans.

Core sets around $140 USD, via Amazon you might save $10-20 bucks maybe. It's more than a weeks went for say a student.
 

Hussar

Legend
Sorry @Zardnaar, I have no idea what you just said. "more than a weeks went for say a student"?

A week's rent? maybe?

You're in New Zealand right? I'm looking at Amazon New Zealand and the core set is 95 NZD with box and DM's Screen. So, I'm really not sure what you're on about.
 

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