Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Supply and demand of games

Jeff Vogel recently claimed that the indie bubble was popping because there were simply too many games chasing the same, barely growing, pool of gamer money. That is simply a matter of supply and demand. While casual and mobile games have increased the number of gamers a lot over the last decade, the new gamers spend a lot less on games than the core gamers.

That is going to make it difficult for games that are, or are perceived to be, expensive. And for once I don't want to talk about MMORPGs here. Instead I am somewhat worried about the future of Dungeons & Dragons. The core books of the 5th edition just have been announced, and there are (as usual) three books you need to play: The Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual. And they cost $50 per book, for a whopping total of $150. And then you don't have any of the $30 adventures yet, or dice. There are six dice in the $20 starter set, so if you buy that and one adventure, you are at $200.

Now somebody is going to remark that the D&D books were never very cheap. But as I said in the beginning, times have changed. When I started playing D&D over three decades ago, there weren't many alternatives if you wanted to pretend to be an elvish wizard. Now a fantasy game on your mobile phone can be had for less than the price of a cup of coffee. $200 buys you a LOT of games in Humble Bundles and Steam sales. In the long run D&D isn't so bad, because your initial investment can last you and your friends for a very long time. But that initial cost might put a lot of people off.

It is good that the first 5th edition product is the $20 starter set, which at least gets new players a basic pen & paper experience for not much money. But from there to the real thing is a huge step. And the pricing strategy to me looks like a step backwards from how 4E Essentials were priced. I am sure a lot of D&D veterans, grown up and having money, will buy the 5E books. But as a product to attract new players to the hobby it seems less than ideal.

Perhaps this is WoTC reacting to the cost of producing a modern RPG, production values have had to increase over the old 1980s manuals (with mostly B&W drawings etc). Also, at least in the UK, it feels like we actually have a different currency to what we had back then since inflation has increased the price of things so much.

It could also be WoTC being pragmatic and targetting the whales (and lesser whales who just are adults with disposable income & nostalgia for the franchise). D&D never was that mass-market - there's been no World of Warcraft style moment of breaking out of a niche market among paper RPGs (at least that I can think of).
1) There is an option of electronic books which can be priced lower;
2) The starter player only needs Player's Handbook, two other books are for DM only, and a single set of dice can be used by whole group (inconvenient but still viable).
Back when I was an impovershed student in a playgroup of others like me, we just pooled our money or bought the set of corebooks collectively. After all, we were going to use them as a group, so why not buy them as a group?
Well, it is pretty expensive but there's also no reason you actually need all that stuff. A copy of the players handbook should be entirely sufficient. You can use your imagination for the monsters, and probably the internet as well. As long as you aren't playing with a bunch of rules lawyers, the basic rules should be sufficient.

But then I think we played a much for rules free way. We thought World of Darkness had too many rules.
Something that amuses me is that as I've gained income and been more willing to spend money on games, I've become a completely useless signal for quality games in the genres I care about.

I genres I don't prefer, like shooters or platformers, I'll only buy the ones that most appeal to me, sending a strong signal of my preferences. But in my favorite genres, like grand strategy games, economic sims, city/world builders, that kind of thing, I'll pretty much just buy everything, good or bad, which offers no clue at all as to what types/mechanics in those games I most enjoy.

Games are just too cheap to bother being discerning if they're at all in an area you enjoy.
Well, inflation aside, it could be that pen and paper games are moving to niche pricing, like poetry and classical music (or hardcore grognard computer wargames).

Leisure products that can't rely on mass sales to support themselves go to higher niche pricing. This means they can be financially viable while selling fewer copies.

It helps, of course, that these are usually products for a more "discerning" audience (smarter, richer, more motivated etc. however you want to define it).
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I've known two people who have written D&D modules (and yes, both of them were published). This isn't something that either person did for profit and they were paid very poorly for the work.

My point is that the development costs are low for Pen & Paper games. The real costs are in the print runs and editing. If you can't sell enough books to cover the print run + make a reasonable profit, it's not worth publishing.

Or at least... that used to be the case. The book world is vastly different today because of On Demand Printing services such as Lulu. Consumers pay a higher premium for the books, but publishing this way doesn't require a massive outlay in inventory.

My uber point is that I wouldn't worry about Pen & Paper RPGs. Worst case scenario, you'll pay a higher premium and have to buy them through online retailers rather than the local comic book or gaming store.
Yeah, but IIRC $50 a book is about normal based on the prices I was paying in the late 90s (adjusted a bit for inflation). I think I was paying $40 for the main World of Darkness rules books at the time.

At this point I have to doubt how many total virgins are just showing up at the game shop and saying "Give me D&D." You know a guy who gets you into it, lets you borrow his books, and if you get more into it you buy your own.

If you aren't a habitual collector like me (I spent the summer of 2002 living off of selling my RPG collection on Amazon) it has to be one of the cheapest possible things you can do with a group of human beings, somewhat stiff entry costs aside.
I really feel like WotC are just being stubborn with their pricing structure. What they are trying to control is something that I don't think can realistically be kept to only paying customers in the era of the Internet. It seems obvious to me they should be looking more at Free2Play systems, where the core D&D system is free, and they make money off of selling adventures, convenience tools (like the character builder), and other accessories.

They could even still sell the books, and honestly I don't think they would sell that many fewer. Do they honestly think in a 5 player game, that all 5 players are buying a player's handbook? I would guess in most games, the players all share one. And it would still be rational for most serious games to buy one to share.

Of course, I also don't see what D&D Next offers that isn't already covered by 3.5, pathfinder and 4E. Who are they selling this to? It seems likely to me it's going to be a pretty big flop regardless.
In a world where I literally sat down and gave a list – an actual, manifest list – of rpgs that one could buy, all of which come with their own setting, all of which come with interesting and different mechanics, all of which bring extraordinary gaming experiences, and all of which TOGETHER add up to the sum total of cost of just the Players Handbook… The smart money is that the smart money is not going down on the future of D&D.

Note that they have an advantage that most pen and paper role-playing game production houses don't – they are quite comfortable being a loss leader or tax shelter for Hasbro, which makes enough money globally that the crappy little amount that even ridiculous, overproduced, overpriced D&D books will burn them for is almost noise in the system. If they lose a few million dollars on slow product sitting in a couple of their warehouses way back in the dark corner, what do they care? They've got the space, they've got the time, and they have more than enough of the money to be as indulgent as they like.

D&D Next (or whatever they're calling it this week) will sell a chunk to the core collectors and to current groups who have finally been browbeaten enough by their local gaming community to stop playing the game they have been enjoying, 4th Edition, and moved to the new one which is supposed to be "a throwback to a better time." Beyond that…? I don't think they care. I don't think it matters to them at all that there is a market that they could compete in, because they don't need to compete in it.

That's terrible for people who care about the RPG industry as an industry, or about RPG game development as a field unto itself, and it's really terrible for people who feel compelled despite good sense to buy into the new edition of D&D at that price point. But it's not terrible for Hasbro. And it probably won't be terrible for Pathfinder, because I believe that that provides them an excellent argument to undercut the amount Hasbro is charging for what is truly a similar product.

D&D is the Tommy Hilfiger of RPGs. Overpriced, sold mainly for the bold branding, and wherever you go to buy it the place smells really strange.
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The pricing is such because it is expected that the group will share the books.

For a group of DM+4 players, that's something like 30-35$ per person, for the whole package, which is not unreasonable, considering a campaign can last for years.
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