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

aramis erak

Explorer
It means cheap Amazon isn't an option in a few countries. I buy regardless but some of my new players don't have phb IDK why. Being honest I haven't checked we're only three sessions in.

Main point is some people might get salty at premium and luxury expensive game materials. Have you not noticed current events around the world about things like the 1%? It bleeds over.
It's not even a given inside the US. Many online points of sale for US companies do not ship to Alaska or Hawaii, even tho USPS is available throughout both states. I've talked with several from the territories, too... and it's the same issue for Guam, US Virgin Islands, Diego Garcia. I've seen a lot of evidence of similar issues for Puerto Rico.

Some simply will not do business with these states/territories, others will insist on UPS or Fedex instead of the cheaper US Postal Service. One I did business with insisted that only DHL delivered to my neighborhood...

the most annoying was the company that waited 2 weeks for the "needed customs forms for Alaska"...of which, for a shipper in the midwest US, are none.
 

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