How to get into the RPG industry

At GenCon, I sat on a panel. My first one, on how to get into the games design industry. I’d included this in my write-up/summary for that day, but the title didn’t give away the summary of the panel. So:

It was me, Andreas Walters (Baby Bestiary), a graphic design guy whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, and a real heavy hitter who was a big-dog project manager with a huge resume. I joked that I should just go sit in the audience.

In truth, though, he was talking mostly about how to manage a staff. Multiple writers, artists, a full time editing or layout staff (or at least many of them on contract), and running a big project by the scrum method.

For most of the folks there, I was a better model. I am currently doing what they want to do. So I added value.

Some things covered?

  • Yes, you need a professional editor. Yes, you. Always.
  • If you are looking to work with a game company, the first thing they will do is check you out on social media and see if you’re an ass-hat who picks fights. Several names were mentioned as folks not to emulate, including some fairly well-known names. But if you’re online picking fights, trolling, and generally being disagreeable, it is (in my mind correctly) assumed you will be a prima dona who is more trouble than they are worth, and your proposal and idea will be rejected (in truth, your proposal will be rejected anyway, by and large). If you want to be a game industry professional, the key words there are professional first, industry second, and game third.
  • Don’t pitch your new cool game to established companies. They don’t want it. WotC or Paizo or SJG have their own in-house things to do. This is probably true of most established companies. Want your game done your way? You’re going to need to do it yourself or find a company like Andreas’ or mine who is actually trying to build a portfolio of games and act as a rent-a-skill house for project management, art direction, etc.
  • When talking to a company about terms, rights, IP, etc., don’t expect there to be a One True Way of contracting and rights and IP assignment. Most of these contracts are ad hoc at the smaller guys, and negotiable at most of them. The folks that do have a One True Way probably don’t want your idea anyway. See a theme here?
  • No one is going to steal your Cool Game Idea. No one. Of the four folks on the panel, we probably had 20 or more ideas in the hopper. There are more ideas than time to work them. So we don’t much care about yours enough to steal it. That’s not an insult: you’re more likely to get helpful advice, and best wishes.
  • Much like in a roleplaying game, the key to happiness is to set expectations and meet them. Are you thinking you might be late? Say so early. Most companies can react to a well-timed and early note that things aren’t going well, that your computer or dog died, your wife left you, and your pickup truck broke down. They can’t react to “we needed this to be ready for GenCon, and your last minute note of panic means it won’t be.” You will simply never be employed by that company again.

Those were some remembered highlights from the panel. There was a lot covered, and it was a good time. I left my battle-mat in the meeting room, though. Alas, it was a casualty: missing, presumed lost.

I’ll add on a bit, thinking about it more.

Creativity and rules design are good skills to have for a writer and designer. For a publisher, someone that wants to bring games to market, you will need a whole lot of project and people management. You’ll need a suitably-sized rolodex (or digital equivalent) of contacts for artists, editors, layout pros, and printers. You’ll need to know more than just the basics of print specs, and what kinds of binding and production values are worth paying for. You’ll want to know the break-even points between POD and offset, and how to limit your risk. You need to know critical path theory, and what that implies for deadlines and parallel processing of work. You’ll need to know how to soothe ruffled feathers, give direction without giving offense, and work with folks you might not have at your dinner table, and to give hard negative feedback even to those you’d eat with, party with, or do adult things with. You’re a professional, and that has certain connotations. They can be a bit different for each person and company, which is why corporate culture matters. You’ll need to know the sticking points for artists, writers, and others. When to let folks keep their work as their own copyright, and when to insist it belongs to you.

Business is business, even when it’s the business of fun.

A Note on Book Pricing

This is an edit after the fact, because I know I mentioned this, but it’s buried somewhere else in a G+ or blog post.

I sat down for lunch with a pair of strangers on Friday, after my game. In discussing books and game design, I mentioned I’d come up with an algorithm which estimated pricing for a book as proportional to the square root of page count. A black and white softcover with descent illustration might wind up being 1.5-2x sqrt (Page Count), while hardcover, color, sewn binding (top production values) seems to fall around 3 x sqrt (page count).

One asked me how the heck I could come to that conclusion. I told him I’d gotten page counts and production values for the games and books on my shelf and others, and done a regression analysis. In short, I built a model that fit the observations. The other gentleman told me that I’d successfully re-created an old print industry rule of thumb: he’d been in the business a long time.

That’s not the only way to price books – you can use the “realtor” method and find a similarly-niched product of similar quality and type. In real estate, that’s called “comparables,” and is how houses seem to be priced. But since those books seem to follow the rule of thumb too, well, either will get you in the ballpark.

Let’s look at a few games.

  • My own Dungeon Grappling. 51 pages of content. Softcover. Color, nicely illustrated, but perfect bound. Print book for $18.99. Multiple is 2.66, and about 1.33 for the PDF. Truthfully, that might be a bit high. Not a ton: it’s still a nice book. But with softcover perfect bound from POD, the production values are good but not spectacular.
  • ACKS. Hardcover, black and white interior. 105# paper and a sewn binding. Retails for $40, and is 270 pages. Multiple is 2.43, which suggests about a 1.2 for the PDF. Color adds a LOT to the price of art buying (2-4x depending on the artist).
  • Shadows of Esteren. A4 size. Hardcover, gloriously illustrated. Sewn binding. 290 pages and $50. Multiple is 2.93, and is an archetype for what “high production values” means. I’d have pegged it as a 3.0, gotten a $51.09 price point, and then said “yah, $50, then” myself.
  • Pathfinder Core book. Letter, hardcover, 576 pages. Sewn. Thinner paper than ACKS, maybe 70-85# at a guess. Only $50, so a multiple of barely more than 2.0. With a multiple of $2.75 it would be a $66 price point, and fair for the cost of the book. I suspect they can do optimal 9,000-unit type print runs, and so the cost of the book is probably less than $8, which means that at $50 they’re still getting more than 6x their cost, allowing for good profits to be made even through wholesale (40-45% of cover).
  • GURPS Spaceships. 70 pages. POD. Black and white interior. Sparse art of mediocre inspiration value. $16 softcover through CreateSpace. That’s a 1.91 multiple, and that’s about right, I think.

My conclusion here is that DG is probably priced a bit high. That might help explain why it moves very well on sale but not as much regularly. I may wind up adjusting this by a buck or two.

So maybe start at 3.0 for full-on awesome. Drop -0.45 to -0.55 for losing color and about -0.25 for perfect bound vs sewn, and another -0.25 for softcover. Also consider your cost to manufacture and make sure you can make money, but realize diminishing returns. Fred Hicks has suggested PDF pricing should be about half of the physical copy, but one can see alternate philosophies. SJG has the PDF at about 70% of physical copy cost, but that might be as much that they priced their PDF at a 1.31 multiple, so could have/should have gone for a 2.66 physical copy cost, but instead did not. Through CreateSpace, the books are $2.15 each to print, I think; $4.11 through DriveThruRPG. If the PDF price was long-standing set at $11, then a $15-16 price would basically give them a tetch more profit than PDF . . . but of course CreateSpace takes their chunk of flesh.

Pricing is an art, not a science – but it’s informed by science and apparently an industry rule-of-thumb that I mathed my way into reproducing. It’s a decent guideline, though.

3 thoughts on “How to get into the RPG industry

    1. Concur. Planning, patience, and professionalism will take you a long way. Also a solid willingness to network and ask questions.

      You know . . . just like life.

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