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How Long Before the Digital Dam Breaks?

The recent crash in pricing for digital comics provides a data point for the future of electronic versions of tabletop books, 3D-printed miniatures, and terrain. How long can retailers keep their price points for physical product before the dam breaks?

[h=3]The Line is 99 Cents[/h]Many businesses are being upended by the move to online sales, as products transform from physical to a digital format. Chris Anderson at Wired explains why Web content continues to get cheaper and cheaper:

It's now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.


This is the challenge facing the comics industry today. Comics in digital format is not new, but as the market has matured some patterns are emerging. For one, the massive back catalog of comics are plentiful, such that anyone seeking to jump into comics no longer has to worry about the significant barrier to entry of hunting for a comic. One side effect of the availability of these digital comics -- and the desire to bring fans up to speed quickly on hot properties as they are launched in films and TV series -- was deep discounting. According to ICv2 columnist Rob Salkowitz, this has had the unintended effect of normalizing consumers' perceptions of what a comic should cost:

It’s also fulfilled the prophesy that programs like Humble Bundle, which led the way in dumping piles of digital issues on the market for ridiculous prices, would eventually erode the perception of value for non-current material, permanently lowering the ceiling for profit margins on publisher back catalog in exchange for the sugar-high of short term revenue.


Role-playing games have also been sold in Humble Bundles. Salkowitz points out that there are benefits to this kind of deep discounts:

It’s a huge plus for consumers to be able to catch up on storylines or track down old favorites in digital format without breaking the bank. It’s good for publishers, who can use promotional sales to generate attention for characters poised for a big moment on screen or in a featured upcoming series. It’s good for creators, who can expose new (and old) fans to their previous work without driving them to the back issue bins.


The concern is that consumers will not buy new products at full price. After all, today's comic book is tomorrow's deep-discounted back issue. Will fans stop buying?
[h=3]Digital and Tabletop RPGs[/h]PDFs of tabletop role-playing game rules and adventures share a lot of similarities with comics. They have a finite lifespan but are still accessible later, and as future editions of RPGs are released, the back catalog loses its appeal at brick-and-mortar outlets, often ending up deep discounted to clear shelf space. The digital space is where a back catalog can thrive.

It's also where a lot of innovation takes place, unrestrained by production and distribution barriers that would normally prohibit a creator from launching a product. OneBookShelf's (OBS) consolidation of digital gaming products (DriveThruRPG absorbed its rival, RPGNow, back in 2006 and now manages DM's Guild) draws a parallel with the dominance Amazon's Comixology in digital comics. So far, DriveThruRPG has resisted deep discounting on the scale of Comixology, perhaps because the price point is set by the creator, not by OBS.

OBS' management of its channels provides a path forward for companies like Wizards of the Coast, who shifted from removing all of its PDFs online in 2009 to partnering with OBS to create a DM's Guild in which creators can leverage WOTC's own content to create new products. This shift was likely influenced by the decline of bookstores, a major channel for RPG distributors.

By all accounts, the digital market for comics (and books in general) has stabilized. Reference books in particular lend themselves to digital distribution. Given that tabletop gaming books are often purchased for reference during play, they can be even more useful in electronic format when indexed and searchable. The same can't be said for 3D models however.
[h=3]Digital and Miniatures[/h]Miniatures have slowly fallen out of favor among companies like WOTC, who once offered pre-painted randomized miniatures, only to abandon the product after the Great Recession in 2008 made the price of production and shipping unfeasible. WizKids picked up the slack, acting as a consolidator for multiple companies' plastic miniature lines, WOTC included.

WOTC has paid careful attention to 3D products on sites like Shapeways, a platform WOTC's parent company Hasbro has an existing agreement with. With a few exceptions, most D&D models are free to download and print. Games Workshop, on the other hand, went after a creator on Thingiverse for creating a Warhammer-style figure back in 2012.

Cool Mini or Not (CMON) has adopted a Minimum Advertised Pricing Policy (MAPP) for advertising of its games:

CMON believes that by unilaterally imposing restrictions on the minimum prices advertised by our distribution and retail partners, we can reduce counterfeiting and enhance our customer’s perceived value of the CMON brand, and that serves the best interests of our consumers, retailers, and distributors.​

CMON's MAPP focuses primarily on advertising vs. the actual price of the product (in CMON's case, products cannot be advertised lower than 15% of the standard retail price). A MAPP's attempt to "reduce counterfeiting" may not be comprehensive enough. Six years later, any concerns about keeping counterfeit and copycat products off digital shelves are quickly dispelled by browsing Thingiverse.

There are miniatures for just about every game imaginable on Thingiverse and Shapeways. Warhammer-compatible models are ubiquitous on Thingiverse (over 1,700 models). Don't like the Robotech miniatures from Palladium's recent Kickstarter? You can print them yourself. Missing a ship for X-Wing? Print it yourself. Fans who have a 3D printer can even make their own terrain with OpenLock, a rival to DwavenForge's terrain.

The hobby market will likely shift its strategy from providing printed products to providing high-quality digital files (indexed PDFs, high-quality 3D models) that can't be purchased for free online. One thing's for sure: if Thingiverse's catalog is any indication, the price of digital products in the 3D space have already been socialized well below digital comics' $0.99.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

God

Explorer
Hiya!

I'm going to be deliberately vague here so as to not get "in trouble". I don't think that dead-tree comics (and comics in general) lowered sales is primarily because of "digital availability". If you follow comics at all, and watch a few of the better comic-book reviewer channels on YouTube...it is painfully obvious that the sudden decline of, at least Marvel, comics has been because of...hmmm...how to put this... "a certain style of writing and story-telling" that has been in full swing since about 2015/2016. Some love this new take on writing comic's, but the old fans...the "collectors", so to speak... are, by and large, not happy. When you start to get pro-comic writers/artists coming out and saying "This is whats wrong", people should listen to them. But the top-dogs at Marvel and DC, for whatever reason, have decided to not only stay the course on their "new reboots", but some actually attack FANS for saying "We don't want this...we want more of what we had"? Well, you know something is not only wrong, but SERIOUSLY wrong with the comic book industry right now.

If I'm too vague, here's two decent Youtube guys I watch to get my comic info:

(Actually, first... TRIGGER WARNING! ...for those who, uh, need such things I guess...)

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrlzSqLSGj8GIOeT5jrQsJA

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWLmf0zALibUALCZoaDg2jw

^_^

Paul L. Ming

Dog whistle much?
 

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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I'm fortunate to have re-discovered TTRPGs and comics at an age where I have the disposable income to not worry much about indulging in them and have kids who are now at an age that I share these hobbies with.

There is a lot to unpack in this article. Here are my highly subjective reactions as a 40-something professional who is spending quite a bit on these hobbies for me and the kids:

1. Comics

Comixology has gotten me into comics as an adult in a way I never was as a kid. The convenience and more palatable cost have gotten me to spend more on comics than I ever would were it not for Comixology. I tried to support my local comics store, but it was not worth having to go drive to pick something up that I would read in less time than the time spent on travel and waiting in line and then having to worry about storing a flimsy magazine in case I wanted to read it again. Sorry, I don't see the point of brick and mortar comic stores.

The only print comics I buy are expensive collections that I want to have on my self. Works that I know I'll read again and again. For such expensive books, I'm looking for the best price, which is almost certainly going to be an online source. I'm not going to pay a brick-and-mortar store a premium to be inconvenienced. Also, I can better browse potential series online and online tools have proven better at helping me find other titles I'm interested in.

2. Miniatures

There are people who spend way more on miniatures than I ever will, but I've spent quite a bit--a lot of it trying to find the best solution that balances price, convenience, and aesthetics. I've supported Kickstarters for Bones, for Arc Knight (2D plastic), and Fat Dragon's first Dragonlock kickstarter. I have purchased paper 2D and 3D minis and terraign from One Monk, Fat Dragon and I support PrintableHeros on Patreon. I have a paper cutting machine for churning out 2D paper minis and 3D terrain parts. I sometimes paint, but spend more on Wizkid prepainted, because time is rare.

Of all the time and money I've spent, 3D ended up being the format that turned me off the most. The quality isn't great (better for terrain than figures) and it isn't convenient or particularly cheap. The money for the printer and filament is not insignificant. They are slow to print, so to print a lot of terraign or minis, you'll need to be running it constantly and will need to have a well ventilated space to do so. Then you still have to paint them. For those who ask, I always tell people who are thinking about getting a 3D printer for cheap minis and terrain that they are basically getting themselves into another hobby. In addition to the game system and miniature and terrain painting, the selecting of 3D printing equipment and supplies and tweaking the configurations is another hobby in itself that requires time and dedicated space.

Until the technology gets much better, I prefer just about any option over 3D printing.

3. Game Stores

I've participated in a number of discussions about this here in the past. In short, although I buy fewer books and gaming supplies from my FLGS, I spend a lot more money there than in the past. That is because my current, preferred gaming store has become a great place to hang out with good food. And I do end up buying games there (mostly board games that are new to me or that I've only heard of) because it is actually more convenient. (1) I'm already there, (2) I can look at the game (and try it out if it is available in their extensive game library), and (3) I don't have to wait (the power of the impulse buy).

I can participate in organized play there. I can schedule a one-shot with strangers (generally not comfortable inviting people to my home that I've only "met" on Meetup.com). I can get together with friends and not have to worry about cleaning up.

In short, they offer convenience and a good experience. I think that there is a lot of room for growth for gaming stores.
 

The Zweihander pdf goes for $9.99 on DTRPG. That's a fair price for a pdf. DTRPG charges 30% for it's services, so that's $7 for the publisher. What do you expect that normally a print publisher get's for it's book? They sell it for 45% (or less) of MSRP to a distributor, add to that cost of printing, storage, shipping, etc. Unless your a large player, your not getting that much for your work. Look at some of the older formula's in the forum's publishing section for what's expected.

Sure, there's a lot of garbage (but one man's garbage is another one's treasure), but so was there during the D20 glut in printed form.

Paizo's policy of asking only $9.99 for their core books in pdf is an awesome move, it's low enough that everyone is willing to pick it up at that price if they are even moderately interested in playing it. And while they might earn less per item sold, how many more pdfs will get sold then physical books?

To be specific, the last I looked was when Zweihander was on sale for $4.99 on drivethru deal of the day. I am not particularly knowledgable about the economics of the RPG industry but from what I've heard it's pretty competitive. If you are making $7 from a book that took many months to produce you better be selling a lot of them, especially if it's a high quality product that is well-written, nicely designed, and beautifully illustrated.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Hiya!

I'm going to be deliberately vague here so as to not get "in trouble". I don't think that dead-tree comics (and comics in general) lowered sales is primarily because of "digital availability". If you follow comics at all, and watch a few of the better comic-book reviewer channels on YouTube...it is painfully obvious that the sudden decline of, at least Marvel, comics has been because of...hmmm...how to put this... "a certain style of writing and story-telling" that has been in full swing since about 2015/2016. Some love this new take on writing comic's, but the old fans...the "collectors", so to speak... are, by and large, not happy. When you start to get pro-comic writers/artists coming out and saying "This is whats wrong", people should listen to them. But the top-dogs at Marvel and DC, for whatever reason, have decided to not only stay the course on their "new reboots", but some actually attack FANS for saying "We don't want this...we want more of what we had"? Well, you know something is not only wrong, but SERIOUSLY wrong with the comic book industry right now.

If I'm too vague, here's two decent Youtube guys I watch to get my comic info:

(Actually, first... TRIGGER WARNING! ...for those who, uh, need such things I guess...)

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrlzSqLSGj8GIOeT5jrQsJA

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWLmf0zALibUALCZoaDg2jw

^_^

Paul L. Ming

What, you're going to post some alt-right stuff in the hope I'll be too stupid to see though it? And then post links to video channels which decry how "SJWs destroys comics for a living" in the title? Don't post in this thread again.
 
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Daniel D. Fox

Explorer
But the cost differential is big. I sponsored the Zweihander Kickstarter a couple of years ago and got the book and PDF for $50. The last I looked the PDF was going for $5.

I don't see how a company can survive selling their work product for so little. Not if they are going to maintain high production values. Unfortunately, that is what you see now, a proliferation of companies with pretty low production values selling all kinds of total crap. At the same time, tactics by other companies to not produce PDFs aren't exactly giving the customer what they want.

Hi there, this is Daniel, creator of Zweihander.

Rest assured that the print, art, editing and writing qualities are well-within the margins for Zweihander Grim & Perilous RPG. There is certainly some sorcery behind the scenes to make this real (release schedule, excellent marketing, regular deals, print-on-demand offerings, smart social sharing, strict project management). Looking solely at Zweihander, we're at a little over 26K physical copies sold and over 62K digital copies as of last month. That's not even taking under consideration the 14 other products I've released over the past 21 months.

I firmly believe that other gaming companies are charging far too much and giving far too little in return for their digital offerings (Onyx Path comes to mind). I feel there's a distinct lack of practical business experience (and sometimes ethics) for creators. And the market is already correcting itself; look at the prices of PDFs vs where they land in the top sellers list. The general rule is that those who continue to sell their PDFs at ridiculous mark-up have a well-known license tied to them, while those who have a more affordable price point that have an excellent marketing plan stand shoulder-to-shoulder with overpriced giants of the industry (Zweihander). Seriously, take a look at the Platinum Rated sellers on DriveThruRPG (top 1% of all product ever sold). It paints a very interesting picture: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/metal.php

While DTRPG, POD options, Kickstarter, Patreon and others have lowered the barrier to entry for creators, it's also created a deluge of substandard products. Which isn't all that bad, because as a creator, sometimes you need to fail to figure out what to do right.
 
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Hi there, this is Daniel, creator of Zweihander.

Rest assured that the print, art, editing and writing qualities are well-within the margins for Zweihander Grim & Perilous RPG. There is certainly some sorcery behind the scenes to make this real (release schedule, excellent marketing, regular deals, print-on-demand offerings, smart social sharing, strict project management). Looking solely at Zweihander, we're at a little over 26K physical copies sold and over 62K digital copies as of last month. That's not even taking under consideration the 14 other products I've released over the past 21 months.

I firmly believe that other gaming companies are charging far too much and giving far too little in return for their digital offerings (Onyx Path comes to mind). I feel there's a distinct lack of practical business experience (and sometimes ethics) for creators. And the market is already correcting itself; look at the prices of PDFs vs where they land in the top sellers list. The general rule is that those who continue to sell their PDFs at ridiculous mark-up have a well-known license tied to them, while those who have a more affordable price point that have an excellent marketing plan stand shoulder-to-shoulder with overpriced giants of the industry (Zweihander). Seriously, take a look at the Platinum Rated sellers on DriveThruRPG (top 1% of all product ever sold). It paints a very interesting picture: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/metal.php

While DTRPG, POD options, Kickstarter, Patreon and others have lowered the barrier to entry for creators, it's also created a deluge of substandard products. Which isn't all that bad, because as a creator, sometimes you need to fail to figure out what to do right.

Thanks for writing. I really enjoy Zweihander and we've recently started a campaign. I am glad the product has done well. I consider it to be a high quality RPG with excellent writing, great art, and a cool design. My players love the grim and perilous feel to it. Thanks again, one of your backers, -- Edward Haggerty
 

Guide he’s always so quick to come down on diversity and equal region, I always wonder how pming hasn’t gotten himself perma-banned. Especially with posts like that above, which pretty much just outright repeats the BS going around about how diversity is killing sales of comics.
It’s the opposite really. Comic sales have been declining for two decades since a mini-bump in the ‘90s, and the push of diversity is a response in an attempt to bring in different readers. Graphic novels are what makes money, with the best selling of those being Raina Telgemeier’s work and Saga.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I believe the digital dam burst a while back; about prices, there are a bunch of formulas around price, it was a big stumbling block for people in business school. Most people just do cost plus margin for pricing in which there is no real way to know what is charging too much or too little on price that way, except to hope one gets it right. Beyond that, there is a huge amount of other details to selling a product, such marketing, which is an involved situation in itself.
 

talien

Community Supporter
My next article is going to dive into the economics of all 3D printers as a viable replacement of miniatures and terrain. Originally it was part of this article, but the article was way too long so I decided to dedicate space to just this topic alone.

I have a 3D printer and I've been pushing it hard in an attempt to replace figures: Star Wars spaceships that don't exist in mini-format, terrain that I created as papercraft, unique 28mm miniatures, etc. To your point, 3D printers aren't Star Trek replicators, but there are definitely some economics on what it IS feasible that I think is worth discussing.
 

... but the old fans...the "collectors", so to speak... are, by and large, not happy.
This sounds like the same kind of thing any core-nerd-audience property must deal with when trying to grow: appeal to the potential new crowd vs acceptability to the old. If it's sufficiently unacceptable to the old guard, they can create a toxic environment in the community that can make outsiders who may have been curious about it re-think that interest. No matter how appealing the product, if the community around it is sufficiently hostile, outsiders won't want to try it out.

I doubt it has a whole lot to do with prices swinging on the growing acceptance of a new lower-margin distribution model.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
My next article is going to dive into the economics of all 3D printers as a viable replacement of miniatures and terrain. Originally it was part of this article, but the article was way too long so I decided to dedicate space to just this topic alone.

I have a 3D printer and I've been pushing it hard in an attempt to replace figures: Star Wars spaceships that don't exist in mini-format, terrain that I created as papercraft, unique 28mm miniatures, etc. To your point, 3D printers aren't Star Trek replicators, but there are definitely some economics on what it IS feasible that I think is worth discussing.

Nice to hear it. I've been thinking about the uses of 3D printing for awhile now. Terrain, buildings, etc. seem like a fairly good possibility. I used to do some 3D modeling, but that's been a decade plus and I'm curious about how easy / difficult it is to get the files set up for printing among other things.
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Not that big of a comics reader; nevertheless the diversity issue I doubt has hurt readership any if at all, most likely it has been: ISTR comics were heavily criticized for violent themes ~30 years ago, and their product placement went from being by the checkout counter in grocery and drug stores to (using a local example) a seedy strip mall between a vape shop and tattoo parlor. Where once you could get your parents to buy you a comic at the checkout, I can't see parents going to the comic shop where it is, even though the owners are very nice, the area is just too run down and out of the way.
 

If I'm too vague, here's two decent Youtube guys I watch to get my comic info:

(Actually, first... TRIGGER WARNING! ...for those who, uh, need such things I guess...)

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrlzSqLSGj8GIOeT5jrQsJA

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWLmf0zALibUALCZoaDg2jw

^_^

Paul L. Ming

I'm a huge fan of comics, but none of the mainstream ones. I think spider-man was fun when I was 12. Now that I'm forty, I want something more mature to read, that won't continually reset every couple of years. For example, I'm a fan of Black Science and Saga.

As for your second link, the video titles seems very click-baity.
 


pogre

Legend
Making a 3D print is not like making a printout of a page or even a book. Most affordable printers also require skill to use that people who haven't used one before don't really understand. This is not a Star Trek matter assembler!

A 3D print requires:
- A 3D printer
- A 3D file
- Material
- Power
- TIME

A 3D printer rangers from the $100 to the $1,000,000+, then there are different types of printing that have pros/cons and purposes.

The 'cheapest' are FDM printers, those have a printhead and deposit material like some sort of inkjet printer. There's a limit on how fine the details are and you're often stuck with visible layer lines. These might be appropriate for some types of terrain, but not human sized 25-35mm models. Still, you get what you pay for, a $100 model often won't perform as well as a highend $3500 model. Personally I'm buying am Original Prusa I3 MK3, that's a $749 kit (plus shipping), a kit that requires assembly. Assembled that printer costs $999. This is one of the most silent and advanced models of it's class (hobbyist), you can buy professional models at $30.000 that are far more user friendly, but wholly outside of the hobbyist purview.

That's a quality hobbyist's printer, but as you point out very well there is a learning curve. It makes some very nice terrain, I just painted some up a friend printed for me.

3D printed miniatures made by a home hobbyists does not compare favorably to even Reaper Bones. I'm a miniatures snob, but if I am going to paint something I want quality detail and a quality sculpt. I'm not seeing it yet.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer

D@mn it! If you don't let them blame in on diversity, they'll turn on the House of Mouse next! Have mercy on corporate America... next thing you know they'll be on the new Star Wars trilogy too... :)
 

To be specific, the last I looked was when Zweihander was on sale for $4.99 on drivethru deal of the day. I am not particularly knowledgable about the economics of the RPG industry but from what I've heard it's pretty competitive. If you are making $7 from a book that took many months to produce you better be selling a lot of them, especially if it's a high quality product that is well-written, nicely designed, and beautifully illustrated.

Most "new" products from major companies run half cover or higher for the PDF; several participate in "Bits and Mortar" - buy at your FLGS, your FLGS has B&M send you the PDF.

Several companies, however, keep prices down to $10 or less for PDF.. The advice to new sellers on DTRPG is Pick one of $19.99, $9.99, $4.99, or $1... because those prices sell the best.

I've seen corebooks priced in the $30+ for the PDF, tho', for several systems. big licensed games often charge 3/5 of cover for the dead tree...
 

AmerginLiath

Explorer
If we're talking digital comics, don't forget Marvel Unlimited. While it's not purchasing, paying a subscription to accessing an entire 70k book back catalogue and read all the "new" books six months after they come out is beyond worth it. I've gone back and read/reread entire runs of titles dating back a half century without dealing with purchases or storage (real or virtual); it's the Netflix of comics and I'd love to see someone like WOTC do the same.

Consider how adventures are rarely played a second time. Imagine a service where subscribers get access to digital versions of all the classic modules (to use, not to own) while they keep up their subscription, while additional new adventures (the AL season modules?) upload a short time after they've been played in the stores. It wouldn't replace the market for Adventure Path books or for classic splats and core books (the stuff that get used repeatedly), but it covers the material a group uses for one or two sessions and then never touches again, much like folks might never read a comic a second time (versus a trade or hardcover).
 

talien

Community Supporter
Consider how adventures are rarely played a second time. Imagine a service where subscribers get access to digital versions of all the classic modules (to use, not to own) while they keep up their subscription, while additional new adventures (the AL season modules?) upload a short time after they've been played in the stores. It wouldn't replace the market for Adventure Path books or for classic splats and core books (the stuff that get used repeatedly), but it covers the material a group uses for one or two sessions and then never touches again, much like folks might never read a comic a second time (versus a trade or hardcover).

You might be interested in https://adventureaweek.com/subscribe/. It's not classic D&D adventures, but the subscription service idea is similar to what you proposed.
 

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