Free RPGs Are Hurting Professional RPGs!? — A Randall Rant
Now, the community has money to spend, but due to a race-to-the-bottom in terms of pricing, and an influx of fanbois who will happily write for free (And devalue the work of everyone else while they’re at it), they’re unwilling to spend what their books are actually worth. Sure, a kickstarter will make a big number, but actual profits? Nah, not much. — from a message on theRPGSite
This has been eating away at my brain since it was posted almost two months ago. I have refrained from writing a reply to it because I know from previous experience that people who believe this get very annoyed when I argue that such beliefs are nonsense — at least in anything like a free market economy in the real world. However, even after two months the attitude this post displays annoys me, so here comes another Randall Rant.
I addressed the basic idea that games should be priced higher but aren’t because customers are too cheap to pay what game publishers need to charge to make a good living from producing games in a post way back in July 2009 (Why is the Fair Market Value of Tabletop RPG Products So Low?). Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t want to read another long post: A basic economic fact is that to sell enough product to make a profit a business has to make a product that people really want to buy and sell it at a price the consumer is willing to pay. The fair market value of a product is what consumers are willing to pay for the item — not the amount the seller needs to cover his costs and make a profit. If consumers are only willing to pay $19.95 for a product, the fair market value of the product is $19.95. The fair market value remains $19.95 whether the product costs $5.00 to produce or $500.00 to produce. RPG publishers or their advocates whining to consumers that the RPG hobby is “cheap” because it will not pay the prices the publisher want them to for whatever they choose to publish just makes the speaker look like a clueless newbie in the business world.
In this post, however, I wish address the “and an influx of fanbois who will happily write for free (And devalue the work of everyone else while they’re at it)” part of the above statement. I’ve encountered complaints about amateurs giving their product away from people who want to set up a business selling similar items for years.
The first time I remember personally encountering it was in the 1980s. I was one of many hobbyists involved in running free computer Bulletin Board Systems (a text-based forum on a computer that people dialed into with a modem). There were nearly 100 free BBSes in my area, some of them quite elaborate with multiple phone lines, primitive Internet email/Usenet access, etc. A new BBS operator moved to the area from southern California where he had ran a successful pay BBS as a business. It was failing in South Texas because a) it wasn’t any better than many of the free BBSes in the area and b) he was trying to charge Southern California prices in a much lower income area. He ranted at the local sysops on the local sysop Fidonet echo about how we were ruining his business and should all either shut down, charge at least as much as he did, or reduce the functionality of our systems to the point where they were not as good as his pay system. He was pretty much laughed at.
The idea that everyone doing X/producing X has to do it as a profit-making business is silly. There are and have been amateurs doing things as a hobby for free in just about every possible field since the dawn of time. Those wishing to make money doing the same things simply have to live with that and produce products that are “better enough” in some way that people are willing to pay them in order to obtain them. Free products from amateurs only hurt those businesses who cannot produce something better than what hobbyists are giving away for free.
In some cases, “better” may only mean “we produce basically the same thing that the hobbyists give away for free, but where a hobbyist can only produce a handful a month, we can produce a million a month.” This is why companies can make money selling clocks even through a neighbor turns out several very nice ones most years and gives them away to friends and co-workers. In other cases, mere production volume isn’t enough, one has to produce something better. For example, there are 670,000+ Harry Potter stories available for free on fanficion.net alone, but these stories do not seem to have affected the ability of J.K. Rowling and her publishers to make a lot of money from Harry Potter books. Why? Because J.K. Rowling writes far better than 99.9% of the people writing Harry Potter fan fiction. Fanfiction.net’s sister site Fictionpress.com has well over 100,000 free original short stories and novels written by amateurs available, but this does not seem to prevent book publishers and fiction authors from making money, again because fiction written by pros is better than 99.9% of the fiction written by amateurs and made available for free.
You see the same thing in other fields. For example, there are lots of free computer games available (and I mean truly free, not full of micro-transactions or pay to go past a certain point) but this does not seem to have prevented professional game designers from making a living producing and selling computer games. Why? Professional games are generally better in most of the things that matter to computer gamers: better production values, better design, better play, etc. Another example, there are lots of people in the world willing to mow their own lawn or pay a few bucks to the neighbor’s kid to have it done. That hasn’t stopped innumerable lawn care companies from making money mowing lawns professionally.
The idea that amateurs giving away product for free devalues the work of those trying to make money at it just doesn’t seem to hold up in the real world. Businesses compete successfully against amateurs providing similar products and services for free all the time. They do so by providing a better product.
Therefore, if all the free RPGs out there at hurting the sales of professional RPGs in any way (and I’m not convinced that they are), I doubt the real reason is because they are free. I suspect the real reason is because when push comes to shove, the actual rules of many professional RPGs are not that much better than the actual rules of many amateur/free RPGs. While there is no question that professional RPGs beat the average amateur/free RPG hands down in fancy production values (layout, artwork, etc.) and that fancy production values make RPG books appealing on the store shelf, they do not do anything to improve the actual game rules which are what players actually use to play the game. If professional RPGs cannot beat amateur/free RPGs hands down in actual rules the way they can in production values, then professional RPGs have failed to be a better product than their free “competition” and have no one to blame for their problem but themselves.
After all, other industries beat the free competition from amateurs by providing a product that is better (or at least more available/more convenient) than the similar free product available. If professional RPG designers and publishing companies cannot produce better rules than amateur game designers, what right to they have to expect people to choose to pay them money for their game instead of downloading a free game from an amateur designer? Simply deciding to set up a business and sell things does not entitle you to success or profit — you have to produce what consumers consider a better product than your competition. If you can’t do that, your business is unlikely to succeed whether your competition is another business selling their similar product or an amateur giving it away for free. Why should people expect the tabletop RPG business be different?
Final Note: I haven’t even mentioned the tabletop RPG businesses who succeed while providing free versions of the core rules of their product.
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