The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Recently I talked about the Dungeon Masters Guild, a way that anyone can self-publish D&D material. The site has been loaded with offerings from gamers and seems to be doing very well. As with 5E itself, it seems to be exceeding WotC’s expectations.
My first offering was Howling Void, published on the Guild’s opening day through the Adventurers League. My second offering was the adventure Adamantine Chef: Supreme Challenge, which I published to try and learn what the Guild could do for me as an author. I want to share how the Guild has worked for me. I also want to share the thinking I have gone through as I spoke to authors and customers about these numbers and what it says about the RPG market.
Note: You can find my updated DMs Guild sales further in this article. I update on the 15th of each month.
Here were my initial sales for Howling Void. It had a $2.50 list price (strangely lower than other 4-hour AL adventures – this was later corrected to $3.99). It is also in a bundle, which provides a discounted price of $1.50 – later corrected to $2.39):
|Date||Total Units||Total Royalties (50% of total)|
|1/12/2016||13||$10.25 (opening day for Guild)|
My sales for Adamantine Chef (List price $4.99):
|Date||Total Units||Total Royalties (50% of total)|
|1/21/2016||3||$7.49 (first day of sale)|
(More recent numbers are shared later in this blog post. These are running totals.)
I’m particularly interested in Adamantine Chef, because I have a number of potential non-AL adventures and other creative products I could offer on the Guild. Are those good numbers?
I asked folks on Twitter what they thought of the sales.
20 days since launched, Adamantine Chef has 33 sales, for royalty of $82. Does that sound: (poll)
— Alphastream (@Alphastream) February 9, 2016
That’s interesting. More than half feel the sales level is pretty solid. Is it? It depends on the payout vs the effort, right? While this hobby is often said to be a labor of love (because it pays poorly), we still all want to be efficient in what we choose to do. There are different ways to approach the market – the Guild is just one of them. More than half of people see 33 sales and royalties of $82 as good for a 4-hour adventure… what drives that perception, and is that perception valid?
As an organized play admin I saw it time and time again – volunteers underestimated the effort required to write a 4-hour adventure. One out of every seven Ashes of Athas authors quit early in the process without delivering a complete adventure and several others weren’t willing to make the changes we recommended – the effort wore them out and they asked us to finish the work.
The skills are many and diverse, from creativity, to grammar, to understanding the game’s math. But as fellow authors shared in talent vs experience, the biggest “skill” may be the willingness to put in the effort to create a great adventure. How long does it take?
I asked what gamers thought it takes me to write a 4-hour adventure.
New poll: How long do you think it takes me to write a 4-hour adventure?
— Alphastream (@Alphastream) February 10, 2016
The answer: it took me significantly more than 40 hours to write Adamantine Chef. Nearly one in ten gamers think I could write Adamantine Chef in under 10 hours. A full third thought I could do it in less than 25 hours. And a total of 71% of gamers thought I could do it in 40 hours or less.
I had a few authors send me tweets that they couldn’t believe the poll results (seeing them as low). At the same time, I think of myself as an inefficient author. I’m wordy, tend to overthink things, and spend a lot of time refining and perfecting. What is the level of effort for other authors who have done professional work?
New poll: If you have written a 4-hr professional-quality adventure for AL or similar, how long did it take you?
— Alphastream (@Alphastream) February 12, 2016
More than half of the authors are, like me, spending more than 40 hours writing a 4-hour adventure. And 78% are above 26 hours.
I can spend 5 hours on an outline on some projects. For example, my current project went past the outline stage and into writing before I learned that my location appears in an upcoming product… so I had to go back and revise my writing to this new reality. Here is how I would calculate I spend my time, at a minimum, on a typical 4-hour adventure:
|Formal outline||2-3 hours|
|Combat encounter planning||5-10 hours|
|Write document shell/skeleton||2 hours|
|Write first draft||10-25 hours|
|second draft||3-8 hours|
|final touches||2-4 hours|
For example, with Five Deadly Shadows I spent about two hours writing just the tea ceremony encounter, including researching how a tea ceremony works. For several adventures I’ve had 3-10 books open around my desk as I write. Before I wrote Howling Void I read or skimmed nearly every relevant adventure (such as Temple of Elemental Evil and Return to ToEE), in addition to reading the previous two adventures in the trilogy. For the Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure Scout’s Honor I rewrote an encounter three times and worked with the map for hours to get the distances between PCs and different monsters just right so the tactical challenge would really work well.
I’ve updated this article over time. The key takeaway is that it is a struggle to make money with your own product. On the other hand, if you can land a writing assignment for the D&D Adventurers League, that can pay well. Overall, the actual profit is very low if we consider the cost of our time (and we should).
Writing for the AL works nicely due to visibility and sustained demand. A legion of fans will buy your adventure. Game stores, conventions, home play… all of that drives initial sales. The newer seasons do really well. They can hit Electrum (200 sales) within days or weeks and are practically guaranteed to hit Gold (500). Time is also on your side. Fans will seek out older seasons, including DMs running the hardback adventures who may want additional content. Nearly every season 2 AL adventure has become Platinum. Bundle sales help ensure it will happen eventually, so you have a continued revenue source.
Writing for yourself is far harder. You can see a sharp drop-off in sales, and it is easy to fall off of any “Hot” or “Most Popular” product lists on the Guild. Even with a good reputation and periodic promotion, it can be hard to sustain sales.
Is it great money? After a year, here is what I had earned:
|Adventure||Units sold in 12 months||Royalties in 12 months||Hourly wage|
|The Howling Void (AL)||563||$458.15||$7.64|
|The Artifact (AL)||617||$1,146.71||$19.11|
The hourly wage is based on an estimate of 60 hours for each adventure (it was likely higher). None of the adventures had art or layout costs.
We can see that AL adventures do far better than self-published adventures, and the above disparity becomes greater over time.
The hourly return we get is below minimum wage ($7.25 in the US, $11 in WA) for self-published work. It becomes better for Howling Void and exceeds the Washington State minimum wage with The Artifact. Later AL seasons tend to do better, as the popularity and also acceptance of paying is climbing.
Adamantine Chef was well below my sales expectations after one year. I thought there would be greater interest in a well-crafted adventure providing a unique (or at least different) experience for the DM and players. It takes me many hours to create a unique adventure like this. $326 is not much to show for my time, and the hourly wage is unrewarding.
I have a sound reputation as an adventure writer. Adamantine Chef was one of two Guild products Mike Mearls recommended when asked on Reddit. It has been recommended on Twitter and even on the Dragon Talk official podcast by WotC staff, who have run it several times! James Introcaso recommended it on his podcasts, it has been recommended on the Tome Show, and it has had an actual play recording. Promotion could really not be much better. And yet, sales were not high in the first year… or the second.
I could try different models. Yes, AL adventures do make a $4.99 adventure look expensive. A quick scan of the Guild shows that most of the top-selling products are Pay What You Want or $1.00 or less. It would take a lot of sales to make up for a lower price. And, fundamentally, I object to the idea that gamers place such a low value on their entertainment when it comes from RPGs. Gamers that love RPGs want to pay .20 for an adventure, yet they spend far more on movies/Netflix/video games/board games… despite professing to like RPGs far more. At $5, a 4-hour adventure provides an insane value, and for up to 7 people!
What about Pay-What-You-Want? Fred Hicks reminded me of this excellent article where he explains Evil Hat’s PWYW strategy and why it works for them. Providing the perspective of a more typical Guild author, Derick Lawson writes about how little PWYW has returned for his efforts: just $1.03 on 184 sales! PWYW is great as a strategy for an entity wanting to draw attention to more profitable offerings. It isn’t a good strategy for the typical Guild author.
Sales may increase over time, while the effort is already done. But, there is also a danger that the product will be lost in the sea of offerings and sales may really weaken over time. That doesn’t mean I regret doing the work or placing it on the Guild. It was a lot of fun to write and playtest. It has been nice to see the reviews. Here are some very awesome quotes:
I can’t properly explain how much each of those quotes means to me. This encouragement is why I keep writing. However, current sales also have an effect on me. Writing more for the Guild will be low on my priority list, beyond something I already have begun writing and will therefore finish.
Let me end on an important note. I’m okay. I don’t require these sales to make ends meet. At worst, it just means I can’t reduce my normal work to do more creative RPG work. There are many talented hard-working authors who could really use a great source of supplemental income. If you can, please support them. They deserve us being willing to pay more for the products they make. Similarly, many companies are really a group of people who work second jobs to create RPGs. And, even at the “big” companies, their future is never secure. All of these companies could benefit from a change in how we view the work involved to create our games and the true value of RPG products.
The first year is depressing. How do sales look after the first year?
In this section I will update my sales over time. I track both the number of sales I get (individual pdf “units”) and the revenue (royalties, which are 50% of the sale price for self-published products and slightly higher for AL adventures). I will update these images shortly after the 15th of each month and update my conclusions periodically.
A couple of things to note. You can click on the images to see them full-size.
My first Adventurers League adventure, from season 2. Released January, 2016.
My second and most recent AL adventure, from season 4. Released June, 2016.
My second self-published product! I talk about Jungle Treks here, and you can buy Jungle Treks here. A collection of six short adventures written with Eric Menge, I keep half of the revenue, so one quarter of the cover price of $4.99. We released the product October of 2017.
One last note. Getting paid by OneBookShelf isn’t that easy. It can take 60 days for payments to clear, so you never have the full amount available to you. And, you pay $2 each time you request a payment. There is a max of $1,000 you can withdraw at a time, so you may have multiple $2 fees.
Jungle Treks was my first time experimenting with art. We were fortunate to have amazing art and Eric was kind to cover most of the costs because he believed in art so strongly. I believe in it too… I just can’t afford it.
It is very easy to spend $300 on art for the cover. I’ve received a quote of $615 for a cover before and had to turn it down. Honestly, cover artists deserve that and more. I wish I could pay artists what they are worth! The easiest way to do that is Kickstarter, but if you use the Guild you are prohibited from distributing the product in any other way (including Kickstarter). I don’t know how to pay off the art.
This problem alone has me considering Kickstarter and using other sales platforms (DriveThru and others) instead of the Guild. I want to support artists!
I also want to support the amazing editors and developers. I’m fortunate to have a mother who is an English teacher and I’ve taken many writing courses. But I would love to use the talent our industry has and reward and thank them for all they do for our hobby. The Guild doesn’t let me afford employing people!
Over the summer of 2016, Adventurers League admin Greg Marks shared the old pay rates WotC used to pay to AL adventure writers: $250 per 2 hrs of play. An author would receive $500 for a 4-hour adventure (somewhere around .05 per word).
It took 13 months for Howling Void to exceed $500 in royalties. I know that those who write key adventures (the first one, the major plot points) saw far larger sales.
Now, hold on! Two months in, The Artifact reached $500. Season 4 has ended, but it does seem that for new seasons the royalties can quickly exceed the old freelancer payment. It still isn’t big money, but new AL content beats the old system hands down. I do note that sales go through cycles, with some really slow months and other faster months. Not surprisingly, the spooky Ravenloft season does well in October! November and December have otherwise been very slow for other products.
Some other writers have shared information. For a season 2 AL adventure, they had royalties of $319.93 through June ’16. For a season 4 adventure (same season as The Artifact), they had June total royalties of $558.58. This seems consistent with what I have seen. The very first adventures (and major plot points) continue to do well. Shawn Merwin reported on Twitter that Defiance in Phlan (the very first AL adventure) had more than 3,000 sales in the first 2 years!
In the comments below several authors share their experiences. Jean Lorber shares his experiences, including how having a Pay What You Want title helped sales of his other offerings. You can find his cool products here. I’ve had a chance to see these adventures and they are really cool!
If we look at the Guild, we can see a lot of authors who launch something and then see fairly weak results. However, we also see some obvious success stories. In particular, the success of M.T. Black. He began by writing great adventures at a low cost, then bundling them and offering those bundles at discounted prices. That bundling was very popular. He used free art in most cases, sometimes finding low-priced art. He became one of the first well-recognized names. Over the last year he has refined his approach, now offering higher-priced products such as his Player’s Companion and Elminster’s Guide to Magic, where a lot of the content is written by others and he oversees it (sort of a bundle within a bundle). Elminster’s hit 1,000 sales within 2 months of release, showing the strength of both his model and his hard work. Make no mistake about it, M.T. Black works hard for this success!
Another huge success area is becoming a Guild Adept. WotC selects a team of 10 or so authors based on various factors (one of which is publishing on the Guild, though several authors were very new to the Guild and none of the top success stories on the Guild have been chosen). You can see their products here, which are tied by WotC to the current season. All of the products have done really well, including the $20 Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else, which hit platinum shortly after launch. When the program was launched it was said that the team would be reformed with every new release. It isn’t clear if that is still the plan. Still, I hope that some of the Guild’s best will see a chance to join the team. M.T. Black, Jeff Stevens, Tony Petrecca, and others have really done well on the Guild.
Is it better for board games? One friend shares that on their board game print run of about 1,500 copies, they received royalties of about $650. They would estimate they spent about 120 hours on that game. The hourly rate comes to $5.83. There was a second expansion, taking about 50 hours of work and providing $550 in royalties, for an hourly rate of $11.00.
These are a few of the products I recommended in the first months of the Guild!
Shawn Merwin has written amazing adventures for every AL organized play season and for every organized play D&D campaign over the past 2 decades! Along with organized play author Chris Sniezak, he records the Down With D&D Podcast covering D&D. They have written The Five Temples of the Earth Mother, which clearly is an experiment to see whether they should publish more on the guild. They invested in art, layout, and more with several team members.
Robert Adducci frequented Dark Sun forums ages ago, and together we volunteered on many old projects. He created the Athas.org Dark Sun site, which may have been the key reason why WotC saw continued support for the setting and decided to bring it back for 4E! Now he lends an incredible amount of time and passion to Adventurers League as an admin. He is responsible for most of the communications efforts and spends a lot of time helping DMs and players. He has published Monster Codex: Underdark Enemies.
James Introcaso has helped revitalize the Tome Show podcast and with a team of knowledgeable regulars and great guests he covers D&D from many different thought-provoking angles. He has published several Pay-What-You-Want items, including 20 New Traps.
Kobold Press has a short adventure, Frozen Castle, expanding on Tyranny of Dragons (which they wrote with WotC) with an adventure about the Cult of the Dragon retaking a fallen cloud castle.
David Gibson (The Jester) has made some great contributions to D&D across several forums. I wrote about using his cool 4E tavern brawl ideas. He has several absurdly cheap supplements, including traps, diseases and poisons, and feats.
Derick Larson (@wookieedaddiee) has been one of my favorite Gen Con DMs. He has published several low cost products (including cool Cleric domains) and has written about how PWYW is not working for him.
Merric Blackman has an awesome blog and has reviewed an insane number of 5E adventures. So, of course I purchased his short Ravenloft side trek, Death in the Cornfields!