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.

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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


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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
As someone who put 10 years of my life into a business venture that kept my family fed and sheltered as well as that of my employees, but eventually had to be closed down, I'll say that hard work and luck are, of course, both important. It is too easy for us when we are successful to attribute our success to all hard work and too easy for others to attribute it to luck. Equally important, however, is making decisions that that help mitigate risk. I'm fortunate that my experience was marketable so that I could continue getting consulting contracts until I landed a decent and more secure job after I had to close my company down.

It seems to me that mitigation is the most difficult thing for those pursuing careers in the TTRPG industry, or many artistic careers for that matter. It is easy to follow your bliss into penury, as the too-frequent, go-fund-me-style campaigns for some of our hobby's great talents sadly makes all too apparent.

One benefit I see with the 1000-supporters model is that it involves building skills in marketing, sales, client management, communications, social media, and other skills that are marketable in other fields. If you are a creative who hates those things, then you should seriously consider how to develop other backup skills. What else are you interested in, or at least do not hate, that can keep you fed, sheltered, and insured?
 

macd21

Adventurer
As someone who put 10 years of my life into a business venture that kept my family fed and sheltered as well as that of my employees, but eventually had to be closed down, I'll say that hard work and luck are, of course, both important. It is too easy for us when we are successful to attribute our success to all hard work and too easy for others to attribute it to luck. Equally important, however, is making decisions that that help mitigate risk. I'm fortunate that my experience was marketable so that I could continue getting consulting contracts until I landed a decent and more secure job after I had to close my company down.

It seems to me that mitigation is the most difficult thing for those pursuing careers in the TTRPG industry, or many artistic careers for that matter. It is easy to follow your bliss into penury, as the too-frequent, go-fund-me-style campaigns for some of our hobby's great talents sadly makes all too apparent.

One benefit I see with the 1000-supporters model is that it involves building skills in marketing, sales, client management, communications, social media, and other skills that are marketable in other fields. If you are a creative who hates those things, then you should seriously consider how to develop other backup skills. What else are you interested in, or at least do not hate, that can keep you fed, sheltered, and insured?

This.

You can have two talented and hard working writers, and one succeeds and one doesn’t. But putting the difference down to luck is ignoring a huge number of factors. Simply producing a good product isn’t enough. You also need to know how to market it, produce it, supply it. The successful designer wasn’t just ‘lucky’ that he had a higher social media profile they let him market his product to a wider audience, that profile was something he’d cultivated. He didn’t just randomly pick a better printer, and he didn’t randomly pick a better distribution method.
 


Von Ether

Legend
A counterpoint: the 1,000 fans model can be a double edged sword. Be wary that pleasing them constantly can put a creative in an echo chamber or be at the mercy of entitled fans who know how much they control the purse strings / or refuse to understand how the sausage is made (like the taxes coming to Patreon.) And then as the "true fans" leave through changing tastes or literally dying off, the creative finds themselves starting from scratch.
 
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A counterpoint: the 1,000 fans model can be a double edged sword. Be wary that pleasing them constantly can put a creative in an echo chamber or be at the mercy of entitled fans who know how much the control the purse strings / or refuse to understand how the sausage is made (like the taxes coming to Patreon.) And then as the "true fans" leave through changing tastes or literally dying off, the creative finds themselves starting from scratch.

Very true. The first generation of gamers are graying.

And the gaming model is hampered by the fact that the hobby can be cyclic: many gamers tend to fall away from the hobby after leaving school, and return later in life when their lives have stabilized.

Meanwhile, electronic games, with a much larger customer base and much simpler social commitment in their hobby, continue to grow in complexity.

The doom of RPGs is that it requires a group of 3-6 liked-minded hobbyists meeting regularly, and the fact that that group will consume only a fraction of a product line (the players do not need to each have a book, and only the GM will buy scenarios).
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
A counterpoint: the 1,000 fans model can be a double edged sword. Be wary that pleasing them constantly can put a creative in an echo chamber or be at the mercy of entitled fans who know how much they control the purse strings / or refuse to understand how the sausage is made (like the taxes coming to Patreon.) And then as the "true fans" leave through changing tastes or literally dying off, the creative finds themselves starting from scratch.

Sure, but again, what's new? If you want to make money at something you are likely going to have to find a way to appeal to those who have the money to spend or work even hard to find those whose interests match your vision. And at least TTRPG fans tend to stick with a campaign or game system for a few months or even a few years if they are are really into it, which I assume they would be if they are bothering to subscribe to content for it. There are many other industries, creative or not, where tastes and fads change much more quickly. Bottom line: you have to hustle or partner with someone who will hustle for you.

But one thing that I think may be different is with Kickstarters, you get a lot of backers who really have trouble understanding that it is not a pre-order system or, worse, those who think that their $100 investment entitles them to high levels of communication and attention. I can imagine that being incredibly draining and distracting. Add to that the fact that some creative types who start Kickstarters have no aptitude for project and product management and are not great with customer service and you can get a toxic brew of dysfunction and negativity. Patreon is a gentler because the amount of money spend up front is generally low and it is easy to just cancel your support/subscription if you become unhappy. They may be some negativity in the comments or sent to you by e-mail, but not nearly the level of vitriol, doxxing, and threats of lawsuits I commonly see in Kickstarter.
 

macd21

Adventurer
Sure, but again, what's new? If you want to make money at something you are likely going to have to find a way to appeal to those who have the money to spend or work even hard to find those whose interests match your vision. And at least TTRPG fans tend to stick with a campaign or game system for a few months or even a few years if they are are really into it, which I assume they would be if they are bothering to subscribe to content for it. There are many other industries, creative or not, where tastes and fads change much more quickly. Bottom line: you have to hustle or partner with someone who will hustle for you.

But one thing that I think may be different is with Kickstarters, you get a lot of backers who really have trouble understanding that it is not a pre-order system or, worse, those who think that their $100 investment entitles them to high levels of communication and attention. I can imagine that being incredibly draining and distracting. Add to that the fact that some creative types who start Kickstarters have no aptitude for project and product management and are not great with customer service and you can get a toxic brew of dysfunction and negativity. Patreon is a gentler because the amount of money spend up front is generally low and it is easy to just cancel your support/subscription if you become unhappy. They may be some negativity in the comments or sent to you by e-mail, but not nearly the level of vitriol, doxxing, and threats of lawsuits I commonly see in Kickstarter.

I think the issue there is that some creatives need to recognise that KS is effectively a preorder service, and that their backers’ €100 investment entitles them to a lot of communication. That’s just the reality of Kickstarters these days. If a creative can’t get a handle on that, his first KS is likely to be his last.
 

Tapdance

Villager
Overall it's a nice and thought provoking article :)

Though the "luck" discussion has probably been more or less settled, I'll contribute that while hard work and needed skills are a must, and talent is preferable, true success really requires some X-factors (or luck if you will) to collaborate. Wrong place and time, and the product won't sell. Bad selling skills and insufficient marketing, and the product won't sell (enough). Crappy layout and/or finished quality, and you screw your rep and don't survive long term.
Any number of random events happening, and the product won't sell. Pick the wrong people or manufacturers to work with, and you'll screw your rep or end up being unable to make enough money to survive long term. And so on. Like the story about the guy that set up a welding shop at a lakeshore, just when 5 years of drought were about to hit, I was told a story by a professor at my old University, about a start-up he mentored. Company was about to be shut down due to lack of success, when one of the founders end up talking to a guy he's taking a leak next to in a restroom in the theater. Turns out the guy is the CEO of a large company that at just that point in time, is looking for a supplier that offers exactly what this start-up is offering. The large company becomes a customer of the start-up, and they survive and end up thriving because of this freak event. Imagine just how many random little things that could have changed that outcome, or prevented that conversation to have taken place as it did. It's obviously not exactly the same as the RPG business, but every day billions of little things happen that shape our reality, and some of these end up aligning in such a way as to ensure that some people become successful, while other people with the same baseline of ability and effort etc. don't.
 

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