Worlds of Design: Eight Awful Truths About RPG Marketing

I often compare fiction writing and publishing with game designing and publishing. They’re similar creative efforts in many ways, especially in tabletop and in the lower ends of video games where you can have one person creating the game.


To compare with my own book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish (2012 McFarland), I wanted to find out what the average nonfiction book sells over a lifetime (turns out, about 2,000). Along the way I ran across “10 awful truths about book publishing,” an online by the president of Berrett Koehler publishers in late September 2016. It's about books, but if you change a few words eight of the ten points are also about games, especially RPGs (which, after all, are books). RPGs face the same problems for much the same reasons.

I am going to paraphrase and talk about these “Truths” in RPG terms.

  1. The number of book (or RPG) titles published has increased immensely. As a result, each individual title sells fewer copies even though the market as a whole is growing. My book publisher McFarland, which is a large independent, reacted to this by publishing more books. The reaction of most game publishers is to publish more game titles, even though they can sell fewer copies of each. They're trying to avoid a drop in total sales. But the result is even MORE titles being published. Further, in RPGs it becomes easier over time to self-publish an RPG thanks to crowd-funding (which is particularly friendly to tabletop games of all kinds) and to digital printing, which makes small print runs more practical right down to Print on Demand (PoD).
  2. Book industry overall sales are stagnant despite the explosion of titles published, and despite the growth of e-book sales.
  3. (Cont.) Nowadays RPG sales are increasing, but each individual designer or publisher below the very top has a smaller piece of the pie.
  4. Average individual book (RPG) sales are shockingly small and falling fast. Also true in tabletop games in general. Here I’ll take average to be the median, not the mean, as the big hits in RPGs skew the mean. Think about the hundreds of self-published RPGs: usually the Kickstarter has attracted, not thousands but hundreds of backers,. Sometimes they get into main distribution, usually they don't, and however many backers they got is the amount of the sales they get. 500 (not thousand) is OK for independents selling games, modules, and settings.
  5. A book (RPG) has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in average bookstore. Go to a game shop, compare the RPGs they have in stock with the number of RPGs and supplements being published. In many cases the RPGs on the shop shelves were published years ago, not published in the past year.
  6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books. In games, we lose many friendly local game shops annually, despite the profits that come from Magic: the Gathering which tend to keep shops afloat. There are so many new games coming out that people don't pay attention to the old ones for long, and neither do the retailers. They move on to the next new one. The “Cult of the New” is very strong. So the game sells when it’s released (if at all), but not later.
  7. Most books (RPGs?) today are selling only to the author’s and publisher’s communities. Discoverability is a big problem. Discoverability essentially means “if they don't know your RPG exists they can't buy it;” it's hard to get the attention of buyers. (Example: how many readers knew I’d had a game design book published, though it has been mentioned here before, and even though it’s been selling for six years?)
  8. Most book (RPG) marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers. That’s certainly true for independent RPGs. Think about this from a major publisher's point of view: they sell fewer of each title so however much money they have to promote games, they have to allocate more carefully, that usually means they allocate to something they think is going to be a hit. That is, only a few potential hits get the big treatment, so designers have to go on social media, blogs, podcasts, and so on simply to let people know that their game exists. Reviews may not make much difference.
  9. No other industry than books has so many new product introductions. [Video games may have more, and pricing there is dismal indeed, with many products free-to-play.] Not true for RPGs, which are a small part of the tabletop game industry and don’t approach numbers of book introductions. But the volume of RPG introductions may still be very large compared with the damand.
  10. A never-ending state of turmoil. It’s a mess, with the market changing rapidly. Whether RPGs are also in a state of turmoil is unclear.
There are differences, of course. RPGs strongly differ from books in that so many supplements and adventures, and even many of the games, are dependent on the success of D&D.

Sometimes the truth is daunting, but it's better to know the truth, than to act on bad assumptions.

Reference: The original awful truths.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

TerraDave

5ever
For (other) hobby games, the major producers complain relentlessly about too many titles, and I think this is one reason there has been so much consolidation in the industry. But bunches of new games--and supplements to games--keep coming out.

For RPGs, there certainly seems to be more stuff out there then ever before, with a fraction of the shelf-space you would have had 20 years ago. Back then you could walk into a store and see everything available for, say, Cyberpunk. Those days are long gone.

There have been some big kickstarters lately, but they actually reinforce the point. The new Savage Worlds hit over half a million $, with over 5000 backers. Thats huge by industries standards, but this is the first new edition in many years, and this is one of the biggest games not D&D, and its thousands.

The millions of people now playing D&D create a market for other RPGs. But I am concerned that they may just move onto other hobby games, and not even realize that (many) other RPGs are out there.
 

Dave Walker

Villager
So this article seems to miss the move toward self-publication as a bad thing? The crowdfund model makes game design viable, it allows market leaders like Monte Cook to get wealthy - and allows indie creators like Avery Alder to make some form of living and not the poverty wages main stream RPG work pays (when I did some a few years ago for a 'big' publisher price per word was 2c and art between $25 and a $100.

The move is clearly to put creator in contact with their fanbase - giving a clearer and less speculative 'is this game for me' approach. From a business model this means the creator can also understand if the product is, viable, based on demand the 'premium' value of the product - so hits like Blades in the Dark have redefined the sector by word of mouth.

The distributor model is dying on its arse - companies who sniffed the distribution opportunities of Kickstarter like modiphius have been fast to exploit this - increasing wallet share to creators.

This article suggests RPG turmoil - I see it as a golden age that saves us folks from having to put up with a handful of major players - many who are doing well but in turn, like any other industry, have to adapt their operating models.
 

Rhineglade

Explorer
To add to this issue, I have always been concerned with the explosion in the self-publication trend of so many new RPG products. Variety is the spice of life but there is such a thing as over-saturating the market too. I would hazard to guess that many of these products are just sub par but the real danger is the consumer being spread too thin. By this I mean that the average consumer might see such a huge choice but obviously can't buy everything. They may be lead to purchase one of the peripheral products rather than one of the "core" items. Is this a bad thing? I don't know. But it warrants a mention nevertheless.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Maybe the future of games is watching advertising videos to get points as virtual coins to buy PDFs or videogames DLCs.
 

Toriel

Explorer
This article suggests RPG turmoil - I see it as a golden age that saves us folks from having to put up with a handful of major players - many who are doing well but in turn, like any other industry, have to adapt their operating models.
I think the article is more to inform potential authors to keep their expectations low, and not think they will make tons of money with a niche product.
 

Rygar

Explorer
Some counterpoints...

"Book industry overall sales are stagnant
despite the explosion of titles published, and despite the growth of e-book sales."

Um, e-book sales haven't been growing for a long time...
https://goodereader.com/blog/digital-publishing/ebook-sales-fall-4-8-in-the-first-six-months-of-2018
https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2018/04/29/traditional-publishing-ebook-sales-dropped-10-in-2017/#1ed4801f7943

That's why I keep asserting that WOTC's business strategy is foolish at best. Basing Dungeon and Dragon, the two things best positioned to keep customers engaged and grow the consumer base by catering to the (very large) portion of the market that doesn't have time to homebrew on a platform that's stagnant at best is a terrible business strategy.

"Average individual book (RPG) sales are shockingly small and falling fast"
Most of them are on a stagnant distribution platform (Ebooks) so of course that's going to happen. Most of the market isn't interested in Ebooks, so when you're producing something only perhaps 20% of the overall potential customer base is interested in, you only sell to 20% of the customer base. This is especially bad for RPGs since they're a critical mass product, if my 5 friends won't touch ebooks, but I will, I can buy a novel and their preference doesn't matter. With an RPG, it does matter, if they won't touch it then there's no point for me to buy it. The fewer people that buy it, the fewer people that will buy it since they know there'll be no content post-release. It's a brutal circle.

" A book (RPG) has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in average bookstore"
What bookstores? The U.S. has only one left, Barnes and Noble. Everyone else is gone.

"It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books"
This section needs *a lot* more detail. It needs to discuss the reported downturns in Magic the Gathering attendance, the skyrocketing price of participation in Mtg, the politicization of the Mtg environment (And LGS environment), WOTC's recent shift from supporting game stores to supporting Amazon and the extremely odd rationale being given for it, and do some investigation into whether or not WOTC is hiding customer attrition by increasing the per customer spend rate to make it look like they're flat or growing.

"No other industry than books has so many new product introductions"
This paragraph needs much better research. Video games have an order of magnitude more releases, only a very small percentage are free to play, and those are almost exclusively limited to mobile platforms which a fair portion of the Industry and Hobby don't count as video gaming. Look at the backlash to Diablo Immortal, pretty much the whole hobby looked at it and declared it wasn't a game.

"A never-ending state of turmoil"
This is true, but we need to put the blame where it belongs. The root cause of all of this is WOTC and the behaviors I've listed above, the secondary cause is the politicization of the Hobby and the LGS. You cannot turn many of the product lines, the gathering places, the online forums, the conventions, and most other facets of the Hobby into political war zones and then wonder why the Industry is toppling. That's the kind of dividing the customer base that killed 4th edition D&D and it's ramping up quickly now throughout tabletop gaming.
 
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Koloth

Villager
Several of the points sound very familiar to the state of the industry just before the great D20 collapse.

When your subject matter has moved from a book on Elves to a book on The Southern Mountain Spotted Elf, your audience will be somewhat smaller.
 

TheFool1972

Explorer
As a game designer and consultant, I have news for you:

Computer game companies are having the same exact issue.

Aside from the media, the causation and result is the same: More games being published, less chance of being purchased outside a small community, Companies cannibalizing each other as they merge and shut down unprofitable lines. This is the result of the new golden age of gaming: The market can't adjust to the simple truth that anyone CAN try to make a game. Even if you cut out the pure trash made by people who have no real business being in game design, you still have a massive number of playable, GOOD games.

Great for the customers, poisonous to the market itself. It'll balance out as time goes on, probably after a hard crash to help reset things.
 

Mercador

Explorer
It's the same in the videogame industry. More content but the amount of money available isn't going up as fast as the content, so the piece of pie is smaller and smaller. It can costs up to 100+ millions to produce a AAA game nowadays, some make billions in profit, other don't. Writing books isn't a career only for a few, writing rpg books can't be better, it's more a niche than novels.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip
This is true, but we need to put the blame where it belongs. The root cause of all of this is WOTC and the behaviors I've listed above, the secondary cause is the politicization of the Hobby and the LGS. You cannot turn many of the product lines, the gathering places, the online forums, the conventions, and most other facets of the Hobby into political war zones and then wonder why the Industry is toppling. That's the kind of dividing the customer base that killed 4th edition D&D and it's ramping up quickly now throughout tabletop gaming.
Huh? Considering that market for tabletop RPG's has QUADRUPLED in the years since the release of 5e, I'm kinda baffled how you can see it as dividing the industry?

What political war zone? Politicization of the Hobby and the LGS? Dude, you don't think that might be just a trifle overblown?
 

Dr. Bull

Explorer
Friends:

I think this is a great thread, but I would encourage everyone to maintain decorum regarding this issue.

First of all, no one (and I mean no one on this earth) has all of the facts regarding the cultural, artistic, financial, economic, and/or political factors that have caused changes in the rpg market. Determining causality is exceedingly difficult. Even if a hypothetical expert had a MBA and a PhD in this singular topic (plus 20 years in the field), this hypothetical expert would still have trouble explaining all the trends in rpg publishing.

In academia, it's the same situation. College textbooks cost $300 and no one is buying them. At Barnes & Noble, fewer and fewer customers are reading books. Amazon has diversified. Books are less popular than they used to be... No one is surprised.

The publishing industry is in decline. Everyone involved in publishing saw this coming from a mile away. I've been watching its slow, inevitable approach for about 3 decades. Newspapers are dead. Magazine sales have withered.

Does anyone here remember the movie "Ghostbusters"? In 1984, Harold Ramis (Egon) warned us that "Print is Dead". The terms "going paperless" and "dead tree" have been circulating for a long time now. The technology known as print is reaching its final phase.

I think that it is a shame. I love books. I love the smell of books. I admire the finality of print. I own a lot of books. I am going to collect more books (simply because they contain knowledge that cannot be redacted or erased). For me, an ebook is a poor replacement for the printed page (but, then again, I'm also an old fart).

Thanks for reading this...

- Dr. Bull
 
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Hussar

Legend
Heh. On the flipside [MENTION=6693776]Dr. Bull[/MENTION], I haven't bought a dead tree product in years. Heck, the core books for 5e are the last print books that I've bought. Ebook is definitely the way I want to go.
 

MichaelSomething

Adventurer
Well clearly the solution is to erect giant barriers to RPG making so that only a small select group of people can make RPGs, ensuring that each one gets a big enough piece of the pie...
 

DM Howard

Explorer
Rygar said:
" A book (RPG) has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in average bookstore"
What bookstores? The U.S. has only one left, Barnes and Noble. Everyone else is gone.
Books A Million is still here.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Not so sure these are truths as much as consequences.

How about we just go with two thoughts on what might be the ground state of the RPG market:

1. The market is, at best, growing nicely. It is is not exploding.
2. It is exceptionally easy, nowadays, for anyone to publish in this market. And people do.

I would argue that we have plenty of figures to prove #1 is true, and that numerous on-line sales channels support #2. Then:

The number of book (or RPG) titles published has increased immensely.
- a consequence of #2

Book industry overall sales are stagnant despite the explosion of titles published
- a re-statement of #1

Average individual book (RPG) sales are shockingly small and falling fast
- Given many titles and non-explosive growth, this is a tautology. If you divide a number by a faster-growing number, the average falls

A book (RPG) has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in average bookstore
- Assuming book stores also are not increasing shelf space explosively, this is a straight consequence of #1 and #2

It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books
- No, it's not. When I published a book a decade ago it took 3 years of writing and a lot of layout, editing and so on. I can sell an ebook in a few days now. What I think you mean is it's harder to make money selling books. That I do not know about, but certainly the average books sells less, because #1 and #2.

Most books (RPGs?) today are selling only to the author’s and publisher’s communities. Discoverability is a big problem.
- a consequence of #2

Most book (RPG) marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers
- a consequence of #2

No other industry than books has so many new product introductions
- Well, quite a few do. Music would be an obvious choice for way more new products per day.

So really, this kind of boils down to: Lots of people are producing RPG material, and the market hasn't grown massively, so there is less money per product. I guess ... yes.
 

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