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Making It in the RPG Industry

Can you make a living in the tabletop role-playing industry as your sole source of income? Unless you work for one of the major game publishers, the odds are against you. But there’s another way, and it revolves around the Thousand Fan theory.

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The Thousand Fan Theory

As I noted in a previous article, the Thousand Fan Theory (TFT) posits that a creator can make a living off of 1,000 superfans paying $100 year, with few middlemen and low additional fees. This approach changes a creator’s goals from simply creating product to creating relationships. It is more important in the TFT to have subscriptions than it is to make one great product.

Applying the TFT to the tabletop role-playing game industry, this means it’s not enough to simply make one tabletop game. In fact, it’s more lucrative to create many products over an extended period of time as incentive to keep superfans coming back for more. So while a core game may provide a temporary boost to income, it’s subsequent supplements, accessories, and adventures are key to supporting a creator.

This shift in focus from one large product to many products over time means that individual creators need to create constantly. Certain mediums lend themselves to this, like web comics, podcasts, and video streams. This is why great podcasters (Russ’ podcast being one example) record so frequently. You can’t create a fan base without a steady stream of content.

Conversely, a loyal fan base does not come quickly. It can take years to launch, which means that the TFT is not feasible for someone who needs the money immediately. Ideally, a creator planning to use the TFT needs to start creating before they graduate from whatever education they’re pursuing. They’ll need at least four years to build that fan base and create a content stream.

For most adults going without income for four years is simply not feasible, so achieving the TFT means having a full-time job or a partner who pays for other expenses in the meantime. Raising a family complicates this calculation; a spouse may be able to help with expenses, but costs increase accordingly to support a family.

It’s daunting, but achieving the TFT is possible. And we know this because there are creators out there doing it. Here’s how.

Patreon

Of all the income streams, Patreon has the clearest path to the TFT. To achieve $100,000 year in come, you would need to make about $112,000 (Patreon takes up to 10%, but this can vary based on your legacy membership with the platform). This assumes you have a tier of $10/month or a flat contribution of $120 that members contribute yearly.

In terms of RPG content, a creator will likely need to bolster their Patreon with updates frequently, if not on a daily basis. Fortunately, RPGs lend themselves to this. One monster, artifact, species, or class a day is entirely feasible.

DMDave is an example of a RPG creator clearing the $10K/month mark. At the time this article was written, DMDave ranks 16th in the games category. Interestingly enough, there are higher-ranked Patreon RPG creators but those affiliated with tabletop play are all mapmakers. DMDave’s Patreon went from just 12 patrons in November 2018 to 3,563 patrons in June 2020, earning $15,835 month or $4.45 per patron.

DriveThruRPG

After Patreon, DriveThruRPG is probably the single-most likely distribution channel that an individual creator can use to achieve the TFT. DriveThruRPG takes 35% of the sale of each product, so you would need to sell $153,846 worth of product a year or make $12,820/month (updated thanks to JohnnyZemo). If the average product sells 10 copies a month and retails for $10, you need 128 products in circulation, selling well (most products sell a lot initially, and then level off to a trickle).

It’s worth noting that DriveThruRPG’s algorithm favors new products over old ones. Appearing on the front page of DriveThruRPG is key to driving sales. This means that to keep a content top-of-mind for consumers amid the massive amount of content on DriveThruRPG, a creator needs to produce products monthly if not weekly.

The adamantine list currently has 74 products in good company, ranging from R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk Red to Hero Kids to ZWEIHANDER to FATE. We know that if a product is on the adamantine list it's sold over 5,000 copies, but that's no guarantee of steady income. The product has to both sell at a certain price and frequently enough per year to achieve the $153,846 mark. I plan to reach out to the creators on the list to see if they can achieve this level of steady sales enough to support themselves with the income.

YouTube

Many kids these days want to be YouTube stars, but it’s a lot of work to get there. More production tends to be involved with video, which means successful YouTube stars are actually teams rather than individuals, segmenting the overall income stream. Additionally, YouTube scale is variable depending on a lot of factors, which makes it difficult to accurately estimate how much any one YouTuber makes a year. We can make some educated guesses, however.

Google pays 68% of their AdSense revenue, but advertiser rates vary between 10-and 30 cents per view. On average, a YouTube channel receives $18 per 1,000 views with advertising, or $4 per 1,000 views total. The calculator at Influencer Marketing Hub gives us an idea of what it takes to achieve the TFT.

That's 18 million views per year on YouTube, to reach the upper end ($104K). That implies an engagement rate of 81%, which is highly engaged. To reach that, you'll need subscribers. Your average subscriber can contribute around 200 views. You'll need at least 100,000 subscribers to reach that. For an example of a video channel that achieves this, see the Critical Role YouTube channel with 957,000 subscribers.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter takes 5% of any revenue with an additional processing fee of up to 5%, which means to achieve TFT you’ll need to make $112,000. According to The Hustle, games (including video, card, miniature, and tabletop games) make up 10% of all Kickstarters, are successful 38% of the time, and of those successful Kickstarters they tend to have goals around the $13K range. For games, 76% of the most successful were in the $1K to $9K range. Despite these challenges, successful game Kickstarters net on average $54,635, for a grand total of $879 million in total since 2009.

To achieve the TFT plateau of self-sufficiency, you would need to launch 11 successful Kickstarters a year with goals of $10K. The more successful you are with each Kickstarter in exceeding those goals, the less additional Kickstarters you would need for self-sufficiency. Given that almost all the highest earning Kickstarters in the game category were video or board games, this can seem daunting for tabletop gamers, but it’s not impossible. Matt Colville’s Strongholds & Streaming made $2,121,465.

Adding This All Up

Any one of these sales channels alone is probably not enough to sustain an individual. Even if they did, there's no guarantee an income stream one year will be the same the next year. Patrons leave, subscribers quit, and pandemics happen. And none of these estimates take into account advertising, marketing, development, licensing, and other production or distribution costs. This thought experiment also doesn't assume you hire anyone else -- teams of people are necessary to make great products, so if you only use your own talent, you're going to be doing a LOT of work up front.

Conversely, effort put into one channel can bolster the others; Colville's YouTube channel was a massive boost to his Kickstarter, which created a virtuous cycle of fans generating income multiple times through different streams.

Can you make a living creating RPGs? Absolutely. But it will take a lot of effort, a lot of time, and more than just writing; creating includes editing, art, layout, design, marketing, and sales. If you’re planning to make a living from the industry, you’d better get started now!
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

jasper

Rotten DM
Nice article. At Dragon*Con in the scific track the authors had a similar idea. You don't need awards just 5k to 10K steady fans who buy your work. I have dropped $10 for a Kickstarter book up to $100 for games. So yes you can make a living doing this. But please take business classes and what ever classes you need in your field.
 



philreed

Adventurer
Supporter
I've run seven personal projects in 2020, six of which have been delivered. (#7 closed late last week and I'll send the review PDF to backers this coming weekend.) So far, for 2020, the Kickstarter funding has hit about $90,000 across those seven projects, so I don't think your goal of eleven projects in a year is impossible. Challenging, yes, but not impossible.

Of course, a large percentage of that goes to expenses -- artwork, taxes (so many taxes), software, hardware -- so my numbers aren't quite as impressive as they first sound. To hit your 1,000 fans/$100/year goal, I suspect I'd need to be roughly twice where I am in terms of funding.
 



Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I think you missed one that seems somewhat obvious, running a RPG website.
Well, that's not necessarily super profitable in itself, but it helps support the rest and vice versa. It's all part of a whole. Of the above, I do Patreon (three Patreons), DTRPG, and Kickstarter (usually two or so a year). The website, podcast, etc. are all part of the general picture, but they aren't the money earning bits themselves.
 



Zaukrie

New Publisher
I can vouch for the difficulty in starting..... Like, I can't pay artists or editors at this point. Even being sure what your focus is is hard. I thought I was going to do a series on reusing your garbage as terrain, but we aren't playing in person for a long time, so I'm using roll20..... So then I do stuff, short videos with one point, on roll20, but getting traffic is tough, even with people asking the same questions on Facebook groups everyday...

My first product on dmsguild needs reformatting and editing, but I bit off so much with it.... That my next product was easier to write from scratch than editing that one.....
 
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Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
Well, that's not necessarily super profitable in itself, but it helps support the rest and vice versa. It's all part of a whole. Of the above, I do Patreon (three Patreons), DTRPG, and Kickstarter (usually two or so a year). The website, podcast, etc. are all part of the general picture, but they aren't the money earning bits themselves.

Yep, my impressions from others who have run successful websites is that money like my once a year subscription/support fee aren't really making things profitable for you, just helping the costs out of running the site. I like supporting this outlet because it's a gathering of information in one location of the hobby I love. So I feel it's worth the yearly fee to help support.

Want to point out I mention "yearly fee" a couple times. That's because I don't care for monthly subscription fees. They feel like a constant drain on my monthly income, if that makes sense? It's why I tend to skip on Patreons and other monthly subscription fees. I try to mitigate those as much as possible. When you're helping pay off four kids who went through university in the states, you have to think long term planning. (Mutters something about a half million in fees that will be paid off by the time I hit 85)
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
This may be one of the best and most informative of the articles on the subject that I've seen. I'm happy to see some of the success stories.

If you enjoy that, Google Gaming Ballistic that Douglas Cole runs. He designs and does Kickstarter's for GURPS and The Fantasy Trip. He does really good layouts at the end of each Kickstarter breaking down where the money went, how much he made if any etc. He also posts over here off and on. Really a nice guy and I really appreciate his insights on what he goes through with each Kickstarter.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
What I don't like about this is that this requires these creators to be entertainers. Some people don't like to engage at that level. It also opens up their personal lives to the public and not everyone wants to share that much. Not everyone is entertaining at all levels either. Someone could be put off from an individuals work based on the cut of their jib, having never seen the quality work itself. I am guilty of that, I don't like live play podcasts so I am put off by anything from Critical Role.

I feel bad on the one hand for up and coming creatives because they are expected to do so much more of the back end work themselves before getting any sort of notice from major companies. This is true in every sector of entertainment. While its nice there are less gate keepers and things are more diversified, not everyone is well versed in the other production tools and skills needed to "make it", whatever that means. Having no interest in that aspect of the industry could really hurt because if one lacks passion for running a social media machine, I would expect it to be done poorly.

I have a theory that this diversification causes another problem: The current landscape generates a glut of unpolished products, this creates a lot of noise in the space and gives possibly too many options. There is an idea called choice paralysis where, when one has too many choices, it becomes hard to make any decisions at all, for fear of making a wrong one. This leads to either making no decision, choosing nothing, or choosing the most recognized product because it has a proven track record, rather than taking a chance.

I feel personally blessed to have too many options, though my wallet is less enthusiastic. And like many hobbies, there has not been a better time, but for their sake, I wish writers could just focus on writing.
 

Yeah, for a while my boy wanted to be a YouTube star. I told him he couldn't upload anything to YouTube (he was about 10 when this thought hit him), but he could make all the videos he wanted.

After playing around with his iPad and trying to record himself talking, or playing with his toys, or whatever idea for a video he came up with, he realized that making a good video involved a lot more than just setting a camera in place and saying or doing whatever he wanted.

I've told him that if he really wants to do it when he gets older, I'll help, but he needs to understand that it is a real job, and isn't just talking to a camera or playing around for money. He's not really that interested in it anymore, once he realized the work that would be involved, and that the people who make the videos he watches actually have to put a decent amount of work into them.
 



imagineGod

Adventurer
When I was a youth, I had dreams of living of comic books and role playing books. Nowadays, not anymore, since only a regular day job in better paying industries can offer the extra income to survive writing games or drawing comics. A truly sad reality, this.
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
The 1,000 fans theory definitely holds true for small enterprises. In fact, 1,000 true fans can be better than 10,000 casual fans.

Of course, getting 1,000 true fans isn't necessarily easy. It can take a long time and a lot of work.

Two popular reliable Kickstarters are Shane Lacy Hensley of Savage Worlds fame (his publishing arm is Pinnacle Entertainment). and Monte Cook, formerly of WoTC, now of Monte Cook Games. Others like John WIck's 7th Sea 2nd Edition were just one hit wonders, though Khitai did well but so far below its predecessor.

Monte Cook is the safest bet since he has between 3000 and 4000 financially worthy fans, and these help successfully fund each of his Kickstarters to the tune of anywhere around half a million US Dollars. The fans are also dedicated enough to get the Version 2 after five years of Version 1.

April 2019 Kickstarter Arcana of the Ancients (Numenera for D&D5e) with 5536 fans and $521,207

CORE NUMENERA SERIES
September 2019, Kickstarter Numenera Limimal Shores (more regions) with 2595 fants £378,408
October 2017 Kickstarter Numenera Discovery and Destiny with 4185 fans and $84,5258
September 2015 Kicsktarter Numenera Into the NInth World (regions books) with 3317 fans and $417,560
December 2014 funded Kickstarter Numenera Boxset with 1985 fans and $286,565
September 2012 Kicksarter Numenera (the 1st Cypher Edition) with 4658 fans and $517,255
 

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