RPG Evolution: 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.

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

Cergorach

The Laughing One
I mean, No True Scotsman is usually done with more subtlety. :)
The same could be said about deflection... ;-)

Your publishing 'arm' isn't representative for publishers, it came with an audience. Just like certain Youtube channels that start an RPG publishing business, a different service/business that eventually starts RPG publishing.
 

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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
The same could be said about deflection... ;-)

Your publishing 'arm' isn't representative for publishers, it came with an audience. Just like certain Youtube channels that start an RPG publishing business, a different service/business that eventually starts RPG publishing.
Every publisher is different, sure. My approach is one approach. Others have different methods; some work out better than others. Kickstarter is a massive boon.

The point still stands: it is possible to make a profit in RPGs if you're a small company with little in overheads.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
The point still stands: it is possible to make a profit in RPGs if you're a small company with little in overheads.
Ah... You mean it that way, it can be done under the right circumstances, skills, work, etc. I agree. But I'm arguing that most people lack the skills/circumstances/work to make it work.

In the same line, you can win the lottery... ;-) I'm just not buying lottery tickets, because the chances are so small and pointing at people that already have won the lottery is ignoring all the people who didn't...
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Ah... You mean it that way, it can be done under the right circumstances, skills, work, etc. I agree. But I'm arguing that most people lack the skills/circumstances/work to make it work.
Businesses don’t run themselves, if that’s what you mean.

In the same line, you can win the lottery... ;-) I'm just not buying lottery tickets, because the chances are so small and pointing at people that already have won the lottery is ignoring all the people who didn't...
I can’t speak for anybody else, but what small success I have had was not a blind lottery win.
 

dchart

Explorer
I can’t speak for anybody else, but what small success I have had was not a blind lottery win.
It's difficult to ask this question without it sounding rude, but: How do you know?

I mean, I know you put a lot of work in, and time, and talent. But so did a lot of other people who weren't successful. How do you know that the difference between them and you wasn't just blind luck? (I'll settle for "plausible evidence"; I'm not after philosophical certainty.)

This is the fundamental problem with assessing anything by looking at the successes. It is important to know that success is possible, and they tell you that. But, by themselves, they are very, very limited in what they can tell you about the conditions needed for success. You really need to know what they had that the failures didn't.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Any data to support his? I don't really doubt it, but the one timeline you gave for DMDave was less than 2 years...
That was based off of the assumption you go to a four-year university (so in other words you'd start as soon as you enter school and hopefully grow your base by the time you finish your degree). DMDave is proof it's possible, but as Russ said it costs money which you may not have that early in your career.
 


dchart

Explorer
I mean, you're now the third person in this thread dismissing my work as luck. No wonder most creators have imposter syndrome!
OK, let me give you a contrast case. Owen K. C. Stephens. I know you know who he is, so the link is for people who don't.

His talent is undeniable. It's obvious when you read his work, or his resume. The level of work that he has put in is also undeniable. I mean, he put out huge amounts for Rogue Genius Games, and later worked for, IIRC, three different RPG publishers simultaneously. And he's been doing this for years. I am pretty sure he's been doing it for longer than you have.

But he's not in a strong position at the moment.

Now, if luck is not the factor making the difference between your success and his failure, and you are confident of this, you can presumably point to the thing that he has done wrong — the bad decision that he made, that you avoided because you were wiser.

So, what is it?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
OK, let me give you a contrast case. Owen K. C. Stephens. I know you know who he is, so the link is for people who don't.

His talent is undeniable. It's obvious when you read his work, or his resume. The level of work that he has put in is also undeniable. I mean, he put out huge amounts for Rogue Genius Games, and later worked for, IIRC, three different RPG publishers simultaneously. And he's been doing this for years. I am pretty sure he's been doing it for longer than you have.

But he's not in a strong position at the moment.

Now, if luck is not the factor making the difference between your success and his failure, and you are confident of this, you can presumably point to the thing that he has done wrong — the bad decision that he made, that you avoided because you were wiser.

So, what is it?
I have absolutely no desire to comment on somebody else's career or personal finances, even if I was intimately familiar with his situation enough to do so (which I'm not).
 

TheSword

Legend
OK, let me give you a contrast case. Owen K. C. Stephens. I know you know who he is, so the link is for people who don't.

His talent is undeniable. It's obvious when you read his work, or his resume. The level of work that he has put in is also undeniable. I mean, he put out huge amounts for Rogue Genius Games, and later worked for, IIRC, three different RPG publishers simultaneously. And he's been doing this for years. I am pretty sure he's been doing it for longer than you have.

But he's not in a strong position at the moment.

Now, if luck is not the factor making the difference between your success and his failure, and you are confident of this, you can presumably point to the thing that he has done wrong — the bad decision that he made, that you avoided because you were wiser.

So, what is it?
No one can break down a career that way, and even what they thought was a ‘big break’ could have come about through another means. I don’t think we have the info about other people’s careers to analyze them so specifically.
 

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