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.

influencer.jpg

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!
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Maggan

Writer for CY_BORG, Forbidden Lands and Dragonbane
One of Sweden's most legendary athletes, when asked about how much luck was involved in his success, once said "it's funny, the harder I work, the more luck I have."

Maybe there's truth to that, the harder you work the more luck you have in business.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Are there any unlucky people who are success stories?

Napoleon is said to have asked before considering a man for promotion to Marshal 'Is he lucky?'

Bill Gates is a truly skilled business man, but had he started out ten years earlier or later he would be a valued employee to someone else. But instead, he made his move at the exact time technology and the market came together. Henry Ford didn't invent much of anything, but he was the first one to combine the new concept of an assembly line, the horseless carriage, and mass marketing into an empire.

As a student of military history, luck is even more pronounced. Bad luck dogged Lee that fateful week in June/July 1863, for just one example. The Japanese Empire hit a brick wall in 1942 when a single seaplane had an engine failure, a plane whose sector the US task force was in.

Unlucky people do not succeed.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
Orwell has the best quote about luck:

“No one I met at this time -- doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients-- failed to assure me that a man who is shot through the neck and survives it, is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be shot at all.”
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Possibly one of the most quotable people of the 20th century. People hate luck because it is non-quantifiable, and robs them of agency. Hard work is still important, persistence pays, it's the hammer that forges the steel, luck is more in the ore, or crucible.
 

dchart

Explorer
No, he's saying that luck is the critical factor,
No, I'm not. I'm saying luck is one of the important factors.
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?"
As dragoner said later, people hate to acknowledge luck when they have succeeded, because it robs them of agency. (When you fail, however, it's great.) That's why the comparison is useful.

"Well, I worked hard, but so did he. I'm a talented writer, but so is he — have you seen his [Book Name Here]. I did a lot of research, but so did he. I put in long hours, but so did he. I kept at it for years without much to show for it, but so did he. Hmm. I guess I was just lucky."

Now, obviously, the speaker wasn't just lucky, but that's the factor that made the difference between financial success and its absence.

In terms of financial success, I would wager that you cannot find a single example of someone who has been a financial success without luck (in the sense of positive factors outside their control). You can find people who have been a financial success based on, essentially, pure luck. (Lottery winners, or people with inherited wealth.) Thus, the only thing that consistently distinguishes financially successful people from financially unsuccessful people is luck.

Of course, that is loading a lot into "luck", and it probably shouldn't be asked to support that much. There might well be other factors that are controllable, that people do not often think about. It would be nice to know what they are, but in order to find out, you have to look at people who were not successful, and compare them to people who were. We do, in fact, have good evidence that talent and hard work substantially increase your chances of being a success, as does competent financial management. It would be an equally serious mistake to neglect them and claim that it is just a matter of pure luck.

There are two reasons why I am harping on this point.

First, the article gives the distinct impression that, if you work hard and have a Patreon, Kickstarter, podcast, and stuff on DTRPG, you too are likely to make a living in the RPG industry. This is not true, and we know it is not true, because we have lots of examples of people who are not making a living despite doing it. It is possible, and your chances are rather better than your chances of winning the lottery, but they seem to be lower than your chances of rolling a critical hit. (Probably more likely than a party of 1st level characters taking down Orcus, as well. Maybe 3rd level?)

Second, if people who have been a financial success in RPGs claim that their success is all down to their talent and hard work, then that implicitly says that the people who are unsuccessful are not talented enough, or not working hard enough. You'd better believe that the people who have not succeeded see that implication very clearly, even if the successful people do not notice it. I think that is unfair, and I think it is demonstrably unfair.
 



I drive by a perfect example regularly.

I live on lakefront acreage. A few years ago a very talented guy opened a welding shop next to the largest public dock and very near the largest private marina, on the lake. He offered custom boat docks (by law, only steel-frame docks can be used on the lake, which means custom work), custom trailers, trailer repairs, house boat frames and platform boat frames, repairs of same, and so forth.

The area is booming. Houses on the lake are being snapped up, boats are selling fast, fishing was excellent. He was perfectly placed to fill a lucrative niche.

And then we got hit with five drought years in a row. Four years of 100/100: 100+ days with 100+ temperatures in a row (which dries things up fast).

We had mesquites twenty feet tall in what used to be the deepest part of the lake. Then, as was customary in Texas, we had a flood, and since then the lake has stayed full, houses on the lake are being snapped up, boats are selling fast, fishing is excellent.

But he went broke long before the drought was halfway over.

The sole factor was luck. Wrong time, wrong place. There was no way he could have known that the worst drought in 60+ years was about to hit. No amount of skill or hard work would have created a demand.
 
Last edited:

macd21

Adventurer
No, I'm not. I'm saying luck is one of the important factors.

You previously said:

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

As dragoner said later, people hate to acknowledge luck when they have succeeded, because it robs them of agency. (When you fail, however, it's great.) That's why the comparison is useful.

"Well, I worked hard, but so did he. I'm a talented writer, but so is he — have you seen his [Book Name Here]. I did a lot of research, but so did he. I put in long hours, but so did he. I kept at it for years without much to show for it, but so did he. Hmm. I guess I was just lucky."

Now, obviously, the speaker wasn't just lucky, but that's the factor that made the difference between financial success and its absence.

Or not. For one thing, we don't know how much hard work or research each of them did. So many factors that have nothing to do with random chance - things like target markets, marketing strategies, budgeting choices, choice of business partner etc. When a kickstarter fails, it's not usually down to luck, it's down to the kickstarters screwing up their presentation, or just having a product no one wants. When a kickstarter succeeds, but then fails to deliver product, it's usually because the kickstarter screwed up their budget, or cut corners they shouldn't have, or were just never ready in the first place. And kickstarters who succeed and deliver, but then fail to make any money, usually screwed up their budgeting and promised too much. And you can see the difference in experienced kickstarters, those that have a few successful one under their belt - they improve their presentation and budgeting, get better suppliers and distributors, don't promise too much etc. Sure, sometimes a kickstarter failis because of bad luck - but usually success is a result of skill, not chance.
 

dchart

Explorer
First, asking the question "How do you know luck was not the critical factor?" does not mean that I think it is. It means that I would like to know why he thinks it isn't. Those are very different. (It does mean that I think luck could be the critical factor, but I don't think we disagree about that.)
Sure, sometimes a kickstarter failis because of bad luck - but usually success is a result of skill, not chance.
On this, we simply disagree. I think skill has less to do with success than people would like to think.
 

talien

Community Supporter
First, the article gives the distinct impression that, if you work hard and have a Patreon, Kickstarter, podcast, and stuff on DTRPG, you too are likely to make a living in the RPG industry. This is not true, and we know it is not true, because we have lots of examples of people who are not making a living despite doing it. It is possible, and your chances are rather better than your chances of winning the lottery, but they seem to be lower than your chances of rolling a critical hit. (Probably more likely than a party of 1st level characters taking down Orcus, as well. Maybe 3rd level?)

Second, if people who have been a financial success in RPGs claim that their success is all down to their talent and hard work, then that implicitly says that the people who are unsuccessful are not talented enough, or not working hard enough. You'd better believe that the people who have not succeeded see that implication very clearly, even if the successful people do not notice it. I think that is unfair, and I think it is demonstrably unfair.
At no point in the article did I write the words "you too are likely to make a living in the RPG industry." I said it was possible. I gave examples of people who are doing it.

I explained my math on what it takes to get to the $100K on any one of those platforms. It is a long grind of marketing and incremental sales building a brand without a lot of income for years.

Build your brand over several years, increase your followers, and by the time you're ready to start a full-time job you MIGHT have a platform that can sustain you, if you keep your expenses low. The article shows what you need to get there. This isn't in any way unique to gaming, it's part of the Internet economy -- all the articles I linked to are models applied to other creative industries like musicians and artists.

What I didn't discuss, because it's a personal question for each creative, is the level of debt you're willing to sustain in the meantime. A spouse, kids, other dependents, car and house loans, etc. eat away at the $100K calculation. Frankly it's a young person's game. If you're an older creative jumping into the Internet, it's going to be a lot harder with a lot of debt.

I plan to interview folks to dig at exactly how people are able to sustain their business models, so look for follow-up articles if creators are willing to share. So far, nobody wants to (understandably) share the secrets of their success, but I'll keep at it.
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Related Articles

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top