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In my recent theme of thinking about the RPG industry I’ve started to consider what makes a success. How much money does an RPG have to make to be a real viable growable business?

Some disclaimers up front: first off, while I have Wizards of the Coast and D&D in mind here, this isn’t an idea for how D&D should be run. Which might make you assume it’s an idea for how Dungeon World should look, but that’s not the case either—Adam and I are very happy to not rely on our game for our income.

Second, I don’t have hard data on this. In fact my entire approach is more of a reverse engineering than a data-up plan.

Basically: file this under “crazy daydreaming,” though I hope the logic makes sense.

With that all out of the way here’s my starting point: what does it take to make an RPG a business on par with Magic?

I’m using Magic as a bar because it’s one of the biggest money makers in hobby gaming. While the RPG market is certainly stronger than it had been, it’s still small compared to the big three collectible card games. Taking Magic as a bar for what a major success in hobby gaming looks like, how can an RPG be in a similar domain?

The thing that Magic does really well (as a business) is drive month-to-month purchases. If you’re a magic player you probably draft at least once or twice a month, plus a few packs whenever a new set comes out. The rest of your money might go to dealers of single cards, but even that has some path back to Wizards (the cards were bought from them at some point).

This doesn’t account for number of players, of course. Having one person give you $20 every month won’t power a business. This isn’t how to start a business, but if you already have something that people want how do you make it enough to run a business on, not just a one-time Kickstarter?

This isn’t anything new. Paizo and WotC are obviously thinking the same way. Pathfinder has Adventure Paths coming out each month for just about $20. Wizards sells D&D Insider access for $10 a month. It appears that the people who actually try to make money off of this know that getting monthly income is the way to go as opposed to one-off big releases.

Think about the difference between D&D Insider and the Player’s Handbook II from Wotc’s point of view. Selling someone the PHBII gets them a one time payment of $30 or so, before you take into account the cost of getting it to the buyer, printing, etc. Even that purchase doesn’t give them much reason to come back next month for the MMII, or whatever comes next. With Insider on the other hand the buyer has a clear reason to keep giving money each month: services and content.

Solved problem, right? Not quite. A Magic player will keep on paying for new content indefinitely. As new sets come out they’ll pay to play with those new sets. For Pathfinder and D&D though the rate at which players can consume content is much slower. What evidence I can find online suggests at least three sessions to play through one adventure path adventure, but more likely around 9. That means that an average play group playing maybe 3 weeks a month will in the best case scenario barely keep up with the new content until they miss a session or two, then they start falling behind.

Likewise D&D supplements (and Insider) have the same problem: a new supplement that gives a new class has given me material for hundreds of sessions. New powers for an existing class take even longer to exhaust.

Fundamentally this is a strength of RPGs. With some basic rules and your friends you can have endless adventures and make endless stuff, so paying for new content on a regular basis is not a built-in proposition. A Magic player will keep buying Magic cards if for no other reason than to play in the most accessible format: limited (draft and sealed). A D&D player doesn’t have the same need.

One way around this is offering services, not content. This is a part of D&D Insider, with its character builder. This has the side effect though of making the monthly investment a near-requirement. If every Magic player felt they had to pay $20 a month to play it would be considerably different than paying $20 optionally to have a certain experience. Being able to say “I could stop any time I want” is a powerful thing.

Are RPGs then locked out of a reliable monthly revenue stream? I don’t think so. If I were Wizards, working on D&D Next, my top priority would be to make it easier to move through content. And by “content” I mean not just the stuff WotC publishes, but anything, from what the DM makes to third party publishers. Creating your own stuff is maybe the best part of RPGs, so part of the challenge would be to create supplements that are as useful for making your own stuff as for playing published content.

Right now if I’m playing D&D Next and WotC releases a new feat, monster, or encounter it’ll be most likely weeks before I even have a chance to play it in context. The same goes for stuff I make up: if I map out a dungeon complex it’ll last me for a few weeks easily. The same goes even moreso for 4E. My need for new stuff (no matter who makes it) is minimal.

Fundamentally most RPG product is hard to use. If I’m excited about my game tonight and decide to swing by a game store to pick up a new book over lunch the likelihood that I’ll be able to use anything from that book that evening is nil. Short articles and blog posts are somewhat more useful, but not by much.

Making RPG products easy to use means making the game easier and faster to play. Buying a currently published adventure for 4E or Pathfinder gives me months of play (at typical rates) and hours of reading. The time before I need a new product is high, on the order of months or more.

This makes the challenge for Next and other future RPGs to make the amount of content that seems fair for a price easier to use.

D&D Next is already moving this way, as Mike has blogged about, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. RPGs are competing with movies and videogames, among other things. A one hour adventure should be as satisfying as an episode of Lost or Fringe. A two hour adventure should be as satisfying as a movie. Boardgames are another comparison, so a session should be as good as a game of Eclipse or Seasons. The way in which they’re good will be different, of course, but assuming someone who enjoys both RPGs and movies they should offer comparable value.

How do you actually make RPG content easier to use?

Find ways to talk to the GM directly. Fronts (from Apocalypse World) are one great take on this, but I’m sure there are more. Instead of trying to describe the detail of the world to the GM, communicate the important bits to the GM and let them fill in the rest. Worry less about giving the GM specifics and more about giving the GM inspiration.

Make the text more fun to read. Most RPG texts read like code to me. That’s no a problem per se—I read and write code for a living—it’s just not the most enjoyable of reads. It’s descriptive and imperative, dense and complex. A large part of the audience for adventure paths probably spends more time reading them than playing already, so embrace that and make game texts lucid and enjoyable to read.

Watch the dependencies. Speaking of software, there’s a whole part of design that deals with the dependencies between things—how do you deal with complex systems where the ability to use one book depends on another. The simple answer is to get rid of these dependencies. Instead of making a product line a scaffold growing out from the center, make it a stream of current ideas. The adventure paths already do this to a degree, since each adventure path is it’s own thing. Don’t number anything like sequels unless they truly are.

Nothing here is particularly new. In fact, most of these ideas call back to high points within the RPG industry. Classic D&D adventures are a good starting point, but there’s been years of play and development since, which I’m sure has provided some new ideas on how to do this.

Some of this isn’t even new to my posts. I’ve been dealing a lot with ways to make a stable RPG product that doesn’t rely on replacing itself every few years, and this is one more piece of that. Especially since the d20 explosion the amount of RPG product available has rapidly outpaced the ability of the market to consume it. This isn’t a problem with the consumers or the market—you can’t just tell everybody to stop publishing so you can have your shot. The only real problem is that RPG product is hard to consume. If I was trying to make a living in RPGs that would be my top priority: make RPG content easy to consume.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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