Tough Truths About the Game Industry

If you're new to the game industry, you've probably heard a lot of myths about publishing. The truth is more complicated -- and, if you're planning to publish your new game, perhaps more encouraging.

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Picture sourced from Pixabay.

“PDFs should be free!”

It costs nothing to copy a PDF, everyone knows that. Digital books are no more complicated to produce than it is to move a mouse. So, games companies must be just trying to gouge their customers.

While many games companies do give out free PDFs, it isn’t because they cost nothing. A PDF book costs the same as a printed one in terms of commissioned art and writing, layout and graphic design etc. Now, it does have a much smaller unit cost, which is zero. However, the unit cost of any book is a tiny fraction of what the customer is paying. The unit cost is the base charge the publisher will add a little to when they sell to a distributor. The distributors add their own mark up and sell to retailers who add another. This makes the unit cost much less than a quarter (or even a fifth) of the final retail sale price, if that. So discounting a PDF by half that price (as is the standard on DriveThruRPG) is actually a pretty good deal.

Some companies offer PDFs for free, but this is not because they cost nothing. In general, a customer with the PDF might come back to buy the hard copy, but if they have the hard copy they rarely come back to buy the PDF. So given those statistics, offering a free PDF with the hard copy is a good sales incentive. It is a pain for retailers to compete with this, but that’s another article! All I’ll say for now is check out Bits and Mortar (.com).

“Amazon knows the real release date!”

You see this a lot. A customer announces on a forum that they know when a product is coming out as Amazon (or similar) has it listed with a date, despite the publish having said nothing. This then picks up traction across the forum until people are demanding it for the ‘correct date’.

So, first off, if a company hasn’t put out a release date, any other date you hear is probably wrong. But how do these spurious dates appear? After all, Amazon didn’t get it from nowhere. The reason is due to what publishing companies have to tell retailers and distributors to get their products into shops at the right time. The lead time on this is three months at least (and longer for a Christmas release). So when a company thinks it can deliver a product in three months it offers it to distribution so they can place orders at the right time. But it doesn’t always work (in fact it often doesn’t work). There are legions of things that can delay a release, and all the while some distributors the order date to their customers as a release date, even though it was only ever a hopeful guess from the publisher. When it’s a big company like Amazon who don’t update all their products, these dates stay on their website, further convincing people that it is on the way. These confusions are why most companies stay vague about release dates for their customers until they know they can hit them.

“The gatekeepers won’t let me in!”

With the advent of digital publishing, the gates to becoming an RPG game producer have never been further open. Yet still you see a few people complaining that the industry is hard to get into and no one will ‘let them in’.

There are a lot of reasons for why you might think that, and these are mostly because you may be approaching the industry the wrong way. Most games companies have their own lines and anything that doesn’t fit into one of them isn’t going to be considered, no matter how good it is. Even for a writer with a good track record, getting someone to publish your new games idea is a huge investment for any company, and one that can seriously stretch their resources. So, if you want to get into the industry, talk to the people who produce a game you know well about what they might be looking for in terms of supplements and adventures.

However, if you have a game idea and you want to get it out there, you don’t have to wait for someone else to produce it for you. Print on demand companies like Lulu and DriveThruRPG (One Book Shelf) are a cheap and easy way to get your game on the market, and Kickstarter can get you the funds to take it further. But that’s a whole other article!

“It’s OK to base something on a book/TV show/film/video game if I don’t make a profit.”

This one comes up a lot, and there are many sad stories of people falling foul of it. I can’t give you all the legal details (and British and American law are also a little different) but this is generally an abuse or misuse of someone else’s ‘Intellectual Property’ (IP). It is never OK to use anyone else’s intellectual property for any reason, and some will sue you for a lot of money if you do, whether you made money or not.

There are a number of legal reasons for this. For one, if you own an intellectual property, you need to preserve its standards and integrity. Letting anyone do any old thing can bring down the perceived quality, sometimes even more so if they are doing it for free. It comes down to the fact that an IP belongs to someone, and you need to ask before you play with someone else’s property. Additionally, there are some forms of law that work on precedent, and if you allow someone to do something with your IP without your permission, you have effectively allowed anyone to do the same, profit or no profit.

In short, IP law is a very complicated subject. You can often make something similar if you are careful, but the names (and especially anything trademarked) and specifics of a world are not available without license. So, before you write your version of ‘Game of Thrones’ ask yourself if you could defend it as solely your own work in court.

“No one will be interested in my game!”

To finish on a more optimistic note, you may be thinking the idea you had for a game just isn’t any good. But you may be wrong. Gaming is a small industry with a huge product base. There are plenty of games that are very similar to each other all doing well in the market. You do need to find something that makes your game stand out. But the variety of the community means that even if you have nothing but a clone of D&D with a few tweaks, it might be just what someone out there is waiting for. Self-publishing and the array of community content options have made it easier than ever before to get your work out there. But to do that you have to get it written. So get back to it and finish it right now, because just maybe, you have inside you a game that everyone will want to play.

This article was contributed by Andrew Peregrine (Corone) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
Andrew Peregrine

Comments

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
My wish is we could buy PDFs with some pre-paid card bought in a videogame shop, or spending "sponsor-points". I bought a lot of things from the store of the sims 3 watching advertising videos by sponsorpay. The future advertising should be like this.

* RPG is speculative fiction, and as videogames, music and movies industry it needs something to catch public. Now franchises or IP (intellectual property) has a value because people would rather something is known.

And don't forget there is some "rivals". Some works are public domain, and today if somebody wants background he reads wikis of teleseries, books or videogames.
 

Rhineglade

Explorer
The funny thing about 4th point is that so many of these "original" ideas are in truth based on previous ideas or even historical events. Game of Thrones for example is roughly based on The War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster (Lannister) and York (Stark) from English history. Even the Red Wedding was based on a true event in Scottish history. So nothing to stop you if you base your writing on that.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
While there are free PDF making sites and some software comes with "Export to PDF", it should be noted that there is often a software cost to making a PDF. There may even be slight differences in the PDF version of a book and the physical copy. Someone has to take the time to index the PDF. So while the PDF may be small or even appear negligible if you produce many PDFs (cost over time), for a small or indie publisher, the cost may not be zero or insignificant.

I am not trying to disagree with point #1, just adding the idea that in fact PDF creation may not and often does not have a "zero" cost. It is also the easiest medium to share around, which we know inevitably will happen. That being the case, a decent up front cost for a PDF is not a strange idea at all.
 

Mistwell

Hero
Justification given then by publishers for print books to go up dramatically higher than the rate of inflation?
The cost of printing books has gone up.

Justification given now by publishers for electronic versions of those books to be priced at or near the same price as print books?
The cost of print is only a small fraction of the cost of books.

Not that this applies as well to RPGs, which have a lot more artwork and layout than a typical novel. Still, it bothers me that we pretend the baseline price didn't go up well beyond the rate of inflation with prior explanations that don't hold up well to scrutiny.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Mistwell said:
The cost of print is only a small fraction of the cost of books.
Yup. Especially if you’re paying writers, artists etc. a fair wage. Per book, the printing cost is very low.
 

Corone

Explorer
My wish is we could buy PDFs with some pre-paid card bought in a videogame shop, or spending "sponsor-points". I bought a lot of things from the store of the sims 3 watching advertising videos by sponsorpay. The future advertising should be like this.
Good points.
I'd add there already is something similar to what you suggest in 'Bits and mortar'
This is a collective that holds pdfs by a selection of companies so that retailers can offer a free pdf with their hardcopy sales.
Worth checking out, and either mentioning to producers to support or retailers to take advantage of.
 

Corone

Explorer
The funny thing about 4th point is that so many of these "original" ideas are in truth based on previous ideas or even historical events. Game of Thrones for example is roughly based on The War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster (Lannister) and York (Stark) from English history. Even the Red Wedding was based on a true event in Scottish history. So nothing to stop you if you base your writing on that.
That is a very good point.
You could easily return to the source material for a lot of things to create a new game, and as you say, its public domain.
History is often far more interesting and complex than plenty of the settings that draw from it :)
 

Corone

Explorer
While there are free PDF making sites and some software comes with "Export to PDF", it should be noted that there is often a software cost to making a PDF. There may even be slight differences in the PDF version of a book and the physical copy. Someone has to take the time to index the PDF. So while the PDF may be small or even appear negligible if you produce many PDFs (cost over time), for a small or indie publisher, the cost may not be zero or insignificant.

I am not trying to disagree with point #1, just adding the idea that in fact PDF creation may not and often does not have a "zero" cost. It is also the easiest medium to share around, which we know inevitably will happen. That being the case, a decent up front cost for a PDF is not a strange idea at all.
Very much agree.
As pdfs are becoming more common and expected, so are full bookmarks and the like and all this does indeed take extra work.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Justification given then by publishers for print books to go up dramatically higher than the rate of inflation?
The cost of printing books has gone up.

Justification given now by publishers for electronic versions of those books to be priced at or near the same price as print books?
The cost of print is only a small fraction of the cost of books.

Not that this applies as well to RPGs, which have a lot more artwork and layout than a typical novel. Still, it bothers me that we pretend the baseline price didn't go up well beyond the rate of inflation with prior explanations that don't hold up well to scrutiny.
Morrus already touched on this but in the last few years there has been a big change in pay expectations of writers, editors, etc. A lot of the pricing changes are a reflection of that change (at least for smaller publishers).
 

Corone

Explorer
Justification given then by publishers for print books to go up dramatically higher than the rate of inflation?
The cost of printing books has gone up.

Justification given now by publishers for electronic versions of those books to be priced at or near the same price as print books?
The cost of print is only a small fraction of the cost of books.

Not that this applies as well to RPGs, which have a lot more artwork and layout than a typical novel. Still, it bothers me that we pretend the baseline price didn't go up well beyond the rate of inflation with prior explanations that don't hold up well to scrutiny.
Prices always go up, so I'm not sure it really needs any justification on the part of producers.
(and as Russ points out, games are also more expensive the more appropriately you pay staff costs too, which are still very low compared to standard publishing)
However, RPGs compare well in price rise terms for the most part against most other things (like Starbucks coffee and sneakers).
While I can't find it, John Wick did a video comparing 1st and 6th edition Call of Cthulhu to illustrate this.

I'd add some of this is also due to the bar constantly going up for rpg production values.
Some corebooks are incredibly lavish, with some amazing art, and this is becoming the standard.
(just compare the 1st and 5th ed player's Handbooks for D&D)
Whether this is a good thing or not is a whole other argument.
But producers make books like this because of demand, not just because they think they can grab more cash.

I love what these lush books look like and I'm lucky enough to be able to afford them still,
but if this starts to price people out of enjoying RPGs then that is clearly a bad thing.
Having said that we also have more free stuff available, so maybe some sort of balance is still there.

Either way, rpg pricing is a very long conversation. :)
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
As pdfs are becoming more common and expected, so are full bookmarks and the like and all this does indeed take extra work.
It shouldn't take extra work. If the printed book is going to have a table of contents and an index, the page numbers should be generated automatically. The TOC is generated by heading styles. And the index is generated by going through the text and tagging key words. Then you tell the publishing software to generate the index. Having the PDF turn the ToC and Index into hot links is just a checkbox you check when generating the index/ToC.

Now, there are other PDF features that would not take extra time, such as "printer friendly" copies of the PDF. But bookmarks? Not really.
 

Corone

Explorer
It shouldn't take extra work. If the printed book is going to have a table of contents and an index, the page numbers should be generated automatically. The TOC is generated by heading styles. And the index is generated by going through the text and tagging key words. Then you tell the publishing software to generate the index. Having the PDF turn the ToC and Index into hot links is just a checkbox you check when generating the index/ToC.

Now, there are other PDF features that would not take extra time, such as "printer friendly" copies of the PDF. But bookmarks? Not really.
I'm not as computer savvy as I should be on the actual specifics of what needs to be done to pdfs.
I'm sure all the things you mention are as straightforward as you say, and your point that many of these can be done as part of the usual publishing process is well made.

But as we increase the needs and demands for what we expect of pdfs this may well increase.
Probably not that much these days, I've yet to see a company take on a 'pdf manager', but even the small jobs can add up.
 

Mistwell

Hero
Morrus already touched on this but in the last few years there has been a big change in pay expectations of writers, editors, etc. A lot of the pricing changes are a reflection of that change (at least for smaller publishers).
My comment is much more applicable to novels than it is to the gaming industry. But, there was a point in the gaming industry where a justification for large price hikes (well above inflation rates) was given concerning the actual cost of printing. If those justifications were as legit as they claimed, then the cost of PDF wouldn't be virtually identical to the cost of print.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
My comment is much more applicable to novels than it is to the gaming industry. But, there was a point in the gaming industry where a justification for large price hikes (well above inflation rates) was given concerning the actual cost of printing. If those justifications were as legit as they claimed, then the cost of PDF wouldn't be virtually identical to the cost of print.
But a lot of the prices have shifted primarily on the pre-production side. I can't speak for other companies. I think with RPGs, a lot of stuff gets eyeballed too because it isn't the most professional industry, so there are probably a lot of examples of oddly priced books. Also I think publishers are trying to recoup that pre-production cost and the place they can increase is on the PDF side. I keep my PDF prices pretty low (print is harder). For a 500 page book I typically charge 50 bucks for print and 10 bucks for PDF. I don't think a PDF is worth the same amount as a book. But the margins are pretty tight. And as the pay expectations are changing, it is definitely not as cheap to produce a book as it used to be. My choice was to slow down production. But it would have made sense to raise prices as well.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
Price of PDF versus print has always been an issue of not annoying the distributors of the physical books. If the D&D PHB is $35 in stores and only $14 in PDF, the stores and the distributors would be harmed. Purchasing physical books is on the decline.

The real problem producers are running into now is people don't just want the PDF. They also want the D&D Beyond rights to the book. And maybe Fantasy Ground or Roll20 rights to the book. Keeping the price of PDFs artificially high to please the FLGSs going to be harder and harder to justify as these third party digital products become more commonplace.
 

Corone

Explorer
My dumb ass writes for the RPG industry. If I can get in, anybody can. Just takes work.
I feel the same. :)
My usual advice is 'write what they asked you to write and turn it in on time' then you'll find plenty of people looking to hire you :)
 
Justification given then by publishers for print books to go up dramatically higher than the rate of inflation?
The cost of printing books has gone up.
This is complete tangent, but do you have any information showing that the price of gaming books is going up much greater than inflation?

I remember getting into the Star Wars WEG RPG in the mid 90's, and most books cost about $20. When 3e came out an I got serious about D&D, I think the core books were still $20 each. I recently bought the 5e books and paid about $35 for them. Going by a quick online inflation calculator, that seems pretty on par with inflation. And the new RPG books I'm buying are much higher quality (color, glossy, more pages) than the books I was buying in the 90s.
 

dm4hire

Explorer
The problem I have with PDF price is that traditional print was based on a layer structure. The publisher set a price to recover their costs and make a profit off the sale to the distributor. The distributor then marked up for sale to the retailer to recoup their expense and make their profit. The retailer then marked up for the same reason. IRC the matrix was based on a split of 5, where each 1/5 accounted for one step along the way with the remaining 2/5s being the retailer's profit margin, thus generating the MSRP.

That structure is no longer in place for the most part. With the exception of places like Drivethru and Amazon, most PDFs are now sold directly by the publisher, thus removing 3/5s of the matrix. The publisher still has their 1/5 cost and 1/5 markup, but no distributor or retailer outside of themselves.

The other fault with pricing is that it was normally set by print run. If it cost the publisher X to print 2000 copies then they would divide that cost between those 2000. Once sold they would go back to print. PDFs do eliminate the paper cost, but the publishing costs still remain as mentioned. However that paper cost needs to be backed out of the PDF cost.

I've seen this done by some publishers that do sell both and normally the pdf is on average around $20 less than the print (books costing $49-69). Though I have seen lots of game companies charge full price then they wonder why people aren't buying the PDF like they should.

I'm sure it's possible to guesstimate a projected sales total similar to print run. Based off of interest determine that Y number of PDFs will sell then divide that into the cost of creating the book. This would give an underlying price range that once surpassed would allow the price to begin to come down. If print is done just mark up the cost of the physical book by the cost of print publishing.

So overall PDF prices should reflect the absence of traditional distribution and the physical print cost.
 

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