The Alphastream Game Design Blog
In February 2016 I wrote What is an Adventure Worth, one of my most well-received and often-discussed articles. I’m thankful for that, because the economics of RPGs is a fascinating subject and an important one. Now that I have self-published Jungle Treks (co-authored with Eric Menge), I want to revisit the subject.
As you likely know from my Tomb of Annihilation article series, I’m running the latest D&D campaign adventure. Tomb is a fantastic experience and has become one of my favorite adventures ever. We just wrapped up our twelfth session of play. I found myself looking at the back cover and that sticker price of $49.95. What is this adventure worth?
I can compare these costs to other things we can do together, but D&D is a lot more fun than going to the movies or an amusement park. Why is it so much cheaper to play D&D? Here’s another thought. I don’t go overboard on snacks, but we likely spend $2 per person each session on snacks – 10 times as much as we spend on the adventure. Are we snack fans, or D&D fans?
I used a Twitter poll to ask a few questions.
Question 1: Tomb of Annihilation has a US $49.95 sticker price. Do you consider that to be:
Now, surely some people aren’t running the campaign. They’re engaging in reading for pleasure as you would a novel, or reading for inspiration to perhaps use the ideas at a later time. But Tomb is clearly an adventure many are running or intending to run. And yet, only 2% find that $49.95 price to be too low. While a majority think the price is okay, a strong 36% find it too high.
What drives our perception? I think as fans we can misunderstand the business. We see Tomb of Annihilation heavily promoted. It’s in every gaming store. Even movie and TV stars are playing it! At $50 a book, Surely, Wizards of the Coast must be sitting on a pile of cash!
The RPG book business is fairly arcane, so I set up a second Twitter poll.
Question 2: On a book such as Tomb of Annihilation, what percentage of the sticker price would you expect Wizards of the Coast to retain?
It is a very confusing topic. Merric Blackman wrote on Twitter, “My understanding of distribution is that each stage doubles the prices of the book. So, if Wizards offer it to the distributor at $12.50 each, the retailer buys them at $25 each and the D&D player buys them at $50 each.” That’s the typical model. Wizards would receive about $12.5o for the Tomb of Annihilation you purchased. That means that in the calculation I ran at the start of this article, I must quarter everything to see what I actually paid WotC! (I’ve paid WotC $1.04 for each of the 12 sessions I ran, and if I divide that by the players and me, we gave WotC 15 cents per session! And yeah, if we look at money spent, you would think I’m a huge fan of drinks and snacks and not much of an RPG fan!)
I don’t know whether WotC negotiates any better prices, but I doubt it is substantially different than the standard model. And these days we have a lot of sales through Amazon. I don’t know much about how it works for WotC, but major RPG companies such as Pelgrane Press have said they sell through Amazon as a way to support and promote their product lines, but that at the end of the day they don’t usually make any money at all on Amazon sales. Yikes!
Wizards is the RPG company with the largest sales. Move a lot of units and you can still make good money… but so far we’ve just been talking about revenue. Wizards is a fantastic company that provides health care and other excellent services to its staff, along with pay that substantially exceeds that of most of the industry. They have industry-best staff, they use amazing (expensive) art and layout, and they hire the best developers and editors they can find. All of that costs money and some of those costs have to be allocated to every book project. Then, they have to physically print the books as well. And, in the book business, if books don’t sell they get sent back to you or they have to be stored until they slowly sell or are liquidated. All of those costs add up, and we only have something like $12.50 to work with! Think back on all those 2E supplements and boxed sets. Some of those superfluous Complete series of 3E books? Martial Power 2 for 4E? I bet a lot of those lost a lot of money. A lot of great books likely also lost money, including some of our favorites.
The 5E books have sold at record levels, but it says something that the latest book, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, is already being reprinted. That caution comes from knowing the perils of the business.
If you remember the first article in this series, the poll responses for Tomb echo what we saw for Adamantine Chef – people perceived my sales as doing well, when it was actually doing very poorly financially. (The first question shared that after 20 days, the adventure had 33 sales and $82 in royalties. 59% said that sounded About Right.)
My latest adventure, Jungle Treks, is co-written with Eric Menge. He works on the online and print comic Snow by Night. (In fact, he has a Kickstarter for volume 3. It’s an excellent series. Please consider supporting it!) With his love of art, he wanted to commission some art, instead of using free art the way I did for Adamantine Chef.
I thought I would see how perceptions have changed regarding DMs Guild adventures.
Question 3: On a typical 35-page DMs Guild adventure with professional layout and some new art, is a $4.99 price:
Most feel $4.99 is a good price. When I released Adamantine Chef I often heard it might be priced too high. Maybe it’s the idea of art/layout, or maybe perceptions have improved somewhat? A good 29% thought the price should be higher. Only a few found $4.99 expensive. That’s great progress!
Question 4: A DMs Guild author releases a $5 adventure with a commissioned color cover and several interior b&w art pieces. How many sales do they need to cover art costs?
This question was an attempt to gauge how well costs are understood, and 67% recognized that covering art is tough. Cover art such as we have for Jungle Treks runs more than $200 and black & white interior art and cartography can be expensive when it is commissioned. If a Guild author spends $250 on art (Jungle Treks was above that), and the $5 adventure has 50% royalties, the author needs to sell just over 100 copies to break even on the cost of the art.
Most Guild authors do their own layout, but paying for layout would further raise costs. Eric spent a week doing the layout for Jungle Treks. My mother is an English teacher with a sharp eye and I’m a passable editor, but we had four others proofread and edit Jungle Treks. Some authors need to or should pay for that as well.
In a conversation on Twitter, M.T. Black (one of the Guild’s top independent publishers) mentioned 10 cents a page as a base cost. If a work has 30 pages, then the price point should be roughly $3. Mike Shea (Sly Flourish, who has used Kickstarter instead of the Guild and employs people for layout, editing, art, and cartography on his awesome work) wrote, “that’s tough. It costs about $1000 min to make a 32 page adventure with cover, art, editing, and design. You’d need 1k sales.” M.T. Black shared that his “costs for Bastion of the Frost Lord were roughly $350. Sales so far are 202 at $2.95. Break even at about 235 sales.” He used free stock art, so he had art costs of $0 and did the layout himself, but he did pay for cartography.
The conversation underscores how tough it is on the Guild. Needing 235 sales to break even with no art or layout costs is a challenge for most authors. Only 1.43% of the products on the Guild reach the 200 sales mark of an Electrum best-seller! (And only 3.9% reach 100 sales and Silver status.)
Question 5: A DMs Guild author releases a $5 adventure with no art. They want to earn US minimum wage. How many sales might you guess they need to earn minimum wage, on average? Don’t overthink this – gut answer!
With this question I wanted to touch on one of the unheralded but important costs for an independent publisher: time. Even top Guild publishers often discount time completely, but it is a precious resource. We don’t go to our day jobs and work for free, but most fans don’t think about the opportunity cost an author faces. US minimum wage is $7.25, though it is a higher $10.50 in California and $11 in Washington, where Wizards of the Coast has its office.
Respondents seemed to understand that it takes a lot of sales to cover that time, which is awesome. A $5 product similar to Jungle Treks easily takes 60 hours of work. It would take 174 sales to have $435 in royalties, which would yield $7.25/hour.
Jared Espley shared his experience. To create a 35-page adventure, he estimates 120 hours to write/develop, 15 to playtest, 40 to revise = 175 hours total. At $7/hour = $1200 / $2.5 author-payment per copy, around 500 copies to break even at minimum wage, without any art/layout/editing costs!
Adding our time and our actual costs together is very rough. If we need at least 174 sales to cover our minimum wage, and we need more than 100 sales to cover art costs, we need 274 sales at a minimum! That’s a lot of sales! Adamantine Chef has been on the Guild for 23 months, and it has 220 sales. While Jungle Treks is doing really well, it is not yet at 200 sales.
Our last question.
With Jungle Treks I’ve noticed the value of being on the front page of the Guild under the coveted “Most Popular DMs Guild Titles” list.
Question 6: A product in the top 10 “Most Popular DMs Guild Titles” gains great visibility on the front page of the DMs Guild. How many sales per day would a product need to be in the top 10?
This is a case where respondents overestimated the amount. Most probably think the Guild is seeing far larger traffic (and sales) than it does. 100 sales a day? I would like to meet the product that does that! Even 25 a day is not realistic for most of the top 10. If most top 10 products did that we would have thousands of Gold best-sellers. Instead, over nearly 2 years the Guild has just 141 – and most are Adventurers League adventures, which are not placed in the “Most Popular” category!
Jungle Treks made it up to number 2, and for more than two weeks we were in the top ten. A few days ago we dropped off. It surprised me to learn that while it is hard to make it onto the list for most products, it doesn’t take that many sales to get there. Price helps. The driver is total revenue. M.T. Black’s Elminster’s Guide to Magic is both a fantastic product and has a $14.95 price (it is a 178-page product). M.T. shared that he is maintaining his #1 spot with about 80 copies/week. He only spent about $50 on art and did the layout himself. They have just surpassed 1,000 in sales (Platinum), which means $7,475 in royalties split between the four authors. Success, though they worked hard for it!
However, the overall volume of most top sellers is not staggering. November is a slow month on the Guild, but even when our sales dropped to 3-6 sales a day we stayed at #9 for a few days until several exciting products knocked us off.
The more we understand the industry, the more we can be good fans and stewards of our hobby. That $49.95 book seems really expensive, but it costs us very little per gaming session and only a small portion of that goes to the company that made the product. We can easily spend more on drinks and snacks than on the game we love so much.
Independent authors have it tough as well. Making a good Guild product can require high costs for art, layout, and editing, plus all of our time. I used minimum wage in our calculation, but shouldn’t we want a lot higher than minimum wage for the authors that give us such incredible work? If we apply the Tomb logic and divide a $4.99 Guild adventure by the hours of fun it can give us… we are again paying very little for our entertainment. Most Guild authors won’t reach the hundreds of sales needed to cover their costs and time.
Yes, there are success stories. However, even the top 10 lists are filled with products that won’t reach the levels needed for an author to break even.
I didn’t provide any path forward here. What do you think? What do you make of this? How should our hobby change to account for this? What should Guild authors do? What should fans do? How do we build a healthier hobby?