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

TheSword

Legend
Why wou
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...
Why would you expect a person lacking skills and favourable circumstances to be successful at something?

If I can’t cook, am a fussy eater and live in a small village of 200 why would I expect to be successful at operating a restaurant.
 

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dchart

Explorer
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).
That's fair. But in that case, what are your grounds for thinking that luck is not the critical factor in your success?

Just to be clear, again, I'm not disputing the hard work, talent, and time that have gone into your success. I'm just arguing that there is good evidence that those are a very long way from being enough to allow one to make it in the RPG industry. Similarly, setting up a Patreon, publishing things on DTRPG, and running Kickstarters are all helpful, but we know, because we have examples to look at, that they do not always succeed. So what is the other factor? You are very clear that you are sure that it is not luck, at least not in your case, so what is it?

A really useful article on this topic would look at the people who have succeeded on this model, and are actually making a proper living, the people who are making some money — a nice sideline, but not a proper living — and people who have a hobby that makes them some pocket change. (The people making nothing at all are likely to be hard to find, but it would be worth including them if they were available.) Then it would look at what they have in common — what's the bare minimum needed to get anything back at all. (I would expect to find "talent" and "hard work" in that category, so the people who are making nothing would be a useful contrast class.) Next, it would look at what distinguishes the people who are making a living from the the people who have a nice sideline, and the people who have a nice sideline from the people who have a hobby with benefits. And that would be the really, really useful information that might tell us how to make the RPG industry a bit more viable. I have no idea what that information would be. The really depressing answer would be "luck", because that would basically mean that the talent and hard work just buy you a lottery ticket.
 

dchart

Explorer
No wonder most creators have imposter syndrome!
Actually, I'd like to address this directly, especially post-edit.

If you have a product that a number of people who are not your friends have bought, then you shouldn't have imposter syndrome. A Copper bestseller on DTRPG is certainly enough. That proves that you have created something that people appreciate, and that you are a real creator, not an imposter.

Thinking that, because you have an Adamantine bestseller, you must be a better creator, or at least more talented in some respect, than someone who only has Copper bestsellers, goes beyond the evidence, in my opinion. If one pushes the idea that commercial success in the RPG industry is not a matter of luck, but only based on talent and ability, then one is suggesting that RPG creators who are not making a living are not real creators; they are missing some of the essential talents.

And that would certainly encourage imposter syndrome.
 

macd21

Adventurer
That's fair. But in that case, what are your grounds for thinking that luck is not the critical factor in your success?

Just to be clear, again, I'm not disputing the hard work, talent, and time that have gone into your success. I'm just arguing that there is good evidence that those are a very long way from being enough to allow one to make it in the RPG industry. Similarly, setting up a Patreon, publishing things on DTRPG, and running Kickstarters are all helpful, but we know, because we have examples to look at, that they do not always succeed. So what is the other factor? You are very clear that you are sure that it is not luck, at least not in your case, so what is it?

That someone skilled and hardworking didn’t succeed doesn’t mean that another person’s success isn’t down to their success and hard work. You’re asking ’how do you know it’s not luck,’ but that’s a ridiculous question. Random circumstance and chance will factor into any career, in any industry, but that doesn’t mean that talent, education and dedication aren’t a factor.

There are a multitude of factors that lead to two equally talented designers having varying degrees of success. ‘Luck’ isn’t really relevant.
 

Businesses don’t run themselves, if that’s what you mean.

Which brings up a question: evidently you have the skills and personality to successfully run a business.

Why did you pick RPGs as your business plan? That's certainly not a path to wealth, or even upper middle class.
 

I'm just arguing that there is good evidence that those are a very long way from being enough to allow one to make it in the RPG industry.
I think that is true for every career/industry. Consider acting and other 'artistic' industries. I think few would argue that what applies in the RPG industry also applies there.

I will also state that I believe this applies in non-artistic industries as well. Engineering and IT I'm familiar with. And while in most cases (Dilbert Principle aside), talent and hard work are directly related to level of success, but they are also not the only factors. These other factors are hard to define, and imo, 'luck' seems to be as good as name for them as any.
You’re asking ’how do you know it’s not luck,’ but that’s a ridiculous question. Random circumstance and chance will factor into any career, in any industry, but that doesn’t mean that talent, education and dedication aren’t a factor.

There are a multitude of factors that lead to two equally talented designers having varying degrees of success. ‘Luck’ isn’t really relevant.
I disagree, neither is it a ridiculous question nor is it irrelevant, imo.

Edit: I think you are missing @dchart's point, he not say it is only luck, but that luck is a factor. That talent and hard work are required, but also 'luck'. You must be talented and hard working, but you also must be in the right place at the right time, you must be recognized by the right person/people, you must also be 'lucky'. Or at least not be 'unlucky'.

There are things that are out of a person's control, or that are nearly impossible to define (to various degrees). Seems like usng the term 'luck' to define these is as accurate as any other.
Success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions.
 
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Michael Dean

Explorer
But it seems to me that folks are often only looking at the success stories and not at all those that failed and you never noticed. I suspect that very few small companies that start actually make a decent profit. In theory it could be done with the right people who have ALL the right skills, have the right idea, with the right sized target audience group, at the right time, in the right economy. In practice, most folks starting these small companies lack a lot of the skills or are just missing the right idea, started in the wrong economic period, or just are targeting a far to small audience...

You're pretty much describing small businesses in general. There is a market for rpgs, but not everyone will be successful.
 

macd21

Adventurer
I disagree, neither is it a ridiculous question nor is it irrelevant, imo.

Edit: I think you are missing @dchart's point, he not say it is only luck, but that luck is a factor. That talent and hard work are required, but also 'luck'. You must be talented and hard working, but you also must be in the right place at the right time, you must be recognized by the right person/people, you must also be 'lucky'. Or at least not be 'unlucky'.

There are things that are out of a person's control, or that are nearly impossible to define (to various degrees). Seems like usng the term 'luck' to define these is as accurate as any other.


No, he's saying that luck is the critical factor, and comparing the success levels of two people to try establish this, demanding one of them to explain what, if not luck, is the difference between the two. Sure, luck is always a factor. That was my point. Luck is a factor in every industry, not just RPGs. And asking someone to prove that their success wasn't down to luck (especially in the context of a comparison with someone else) is ridiculous. How do you establish that you weren't lucky? "Well, I worked hard, did a lot of research, double checked everything, put in long hours... but I guess maybe I was just lucky?"
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
Luck, skill, all play a part, we live in a deterministic universe, it took over 4 billions years for this moment to arrive. Much of the questions can be answered in business classes, and then you get fancy textbooks like "Global Business" to clutter your bookcase. Business classes are a good short-cut around the foot slog of learning by experience, something I went through becoming management before getting a degree. Interest in the field one is working in helps a great deal, though maybe too much leads to burn out, which is a real thing.
 

No, he's saying that luck is the critical factor, and comparing the success levels of two people to try establish this, demanding one of them to explain what, if not luck, is the difference between the two. Sure, luck is always a factor. That was my point. Luck is a factor in every industry, not just RPGs. And asking someone to prove that their success wasn't down to luck (especially in the context of a comparison with someone else) is ridiculous. How do you establish that you weren't lucky? "Well, I worked hard, did a lot of research, double checked everything, put in long hours... but I guess maybe I was just lucky?"
I'll allow dchart to answer for himself, he seems quite capable of it. As for my view;

Your interpretation is not the same as mine, it seems you are placing an emphasis that I don't see. And you seem to be looking at or assuming absolutes.

I see that luck is only the critical factor when everything else (talent, hard work, etc) has already been accounted for. It seems we all agree that luck is a factor, is there any disagreement on that?

Luck seems to be a significant factor, but not the only one, or primary one. Significant factors seem, to me, to be worth discussing.
 

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