Free RPGs Are Hurting Professional RPGs!? — A Randall Rant

free vs Paid illo

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.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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NarmerJoe NelsonProfessorOatsmythusmageCharles Taylor (Charles Angus) Recent comment authors
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Narmer
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I agree with your assessment. I read more rule-sets than I actually play and have to say that other than better art and layout, etc., the actual rules are as good or better. Sometimes the only difference is that professional games have better fluff or more setting.

Joe Nelson
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Randall, let me tell you something. I spend upwards of $3,000 a year in gaming, if you count physical books new and used, PDFs from RPGNow, and dice (precious, precious dice). It's a lot of money. But it's my hobby. I will never begrudge a publisher their fee for a book. Work has been put into that book and they deserve to be justly compensated. That said, I would be spending exactly $0 on this wonderful hobby if, a few years ago, a friend hadn't directed me towards a game called Labyrinth Lord, which was available for free. After that,… Read more »

Narmer
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I actually got back into gaming the same way as Joe. I ran across the free GURPS light and went on to discover other free games. I then started spending money. Not as much as Joe but I do consume pay games that I think will be fun.

ProfessorOats
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What's sad is that it's not like they can even use the excuse that there's some already reached limit to how good rules can be, leaving no room for improvement on the part of professionals. Back when I played 3E, I saw WotC put out so many rules that someone else (usually KenzerCo) had already done better. There were so many nuances to 3.0 they completely ignored, leading to alot of the bloat we saw in 3.5

mythusmage
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If you want people to buy your product, give them a reason to buy your product. If they see more value in paying for something than they do in getting it for free, then they'll pay for it.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus)
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I generally agree with what you're saying, but would take issue with the idea of "fair market value", the key word being "fair". Market value, as you point out, has absolutely nothing to do with fair. To me, "fair" means that the people involved in the production of the item are appropriately compensated for their time and the rarity of or difficulty of attaining their skillset – neither being paid nothing, nor making 5000% profit. I can't be persuaded that there's anything "fair" about charging $5000 for something that cost $5 to produce just because you can get away with… Read more »

Jasper Polane
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I don't think professional businesses compete with amateurs by providing "better" product. I doubt it would be very hard to find an unpublished erotic novel that's better than 50 Shades, or an unpublished fantasy novel that's batter than Eragon (or the Dragonlance Chronicles, for that matter). The key to selling product is marketing. People who say free product devaluates their own are often people who put their book up at Lulu and expect it to sell. If they don't try to sell their product, of course it will not sell.

ProfessorOats
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Charles, the fair market value is, by definition, "the price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts." FMV refers to what the price would be if the free-market's working as it should be (from the perspective of free-market proponents like myself)

Randall
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Charles, you are correct that "Open Market Value" is the more technically correct economic term for what I'm talking about in the second paragraph of this post (and the entire post referred to in that paragraph). However, most non-economists know this as "fair market value."

Rachel Ghoul
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It seems to me that the love of good work will always win out over the motive of profit. Particularly when it comes to a creative endeavor.

Andreas Davour
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I totally agree with your ideas about free content. But, I disagree about gamers not being cheap. Far to often have I heard gamers grumble that it cost $12 when they grew up, and it should do so today. I've also far to often heard people grumble that a new games costs to much but they wont bat an eyelid at the costs of watching Avengers or Batman at the theatre. Many gamers are cheapskates, and have no idea how much it costs to produce a game. If it costs $25 to produce a game, and the gamers instead grab… Read more »

Narmer
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There's a difference between piracy and choosing a legal free game. We're not talking piracy. We're talking about legitimate free games.

Andreas Davour
Guest

Like I said, twice:

"This I claim have nothing to do with freely available games. "

jdh417
Guest

RPG's are a unique industry in that, not only can amateurs create their own games, but even those buying published games are implicitly/explicitly expected to modify the game and create their own adventures. Published adventures focus on production values, tested rules, and endless customization. The amateur production probably doesn't have all of this, but their rules and adventures may ironically be more playable and fun in-game, as opposed to the meta-game (rules lawyering and customizing your character). What published rules really offer is a lingua franca, so that RPG players from anywhere can sit down and play the same game… Read more »

Jeff
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It sounds like someone is trying to create a new equivalent replacement for the "Piracy MacGuffin". For decades the computer, TV, music, movie, book, an comics industries have, to one degree or another, claimed low level piracy as the cause of all there problems. This has been proven time and time again to be false, and neither the public, or the companies that paid out for years to industry groups to fight the non-existent threat. Now, it's "Free Games" killing the industry. Just because someone isn't getting "enough" profits. Paizo and Wizards(Hasbro) are selling products like hotcakes. Chaosium is still… Read more »

R
Guest

This is a problem or obstacle I have respecting my own involvement in the gaming hobby as a means to put food on my table. I would love to produce adventures and/or unique role-playing games but as my time is already limited I cannot justify the effort if I cannot realize at least a reasonable return on investment.