The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying game (DFRPG) was a nifty experiment, which aimed to deliver something that games based on GURPS sorely needed: an entry point to the game that was ready-to-run as-is.
Not telling anyone anything they don’t know, but games Powered by GURPS are subtractive. Much like the cliche about making a sculpture being removing everything but the subject matter, playing in a campaign is a matter of deciding what flavor of game you want to play, and then subtracting out all of the core and supplements that aren’t the game you want to play.
I’m going to refer to the whittled down versions of the rules as Powered by GURPS, so that I can distinguish between the entire GURPS line, the Dungeon Fantasy sub-line, and the altered and updated Dungeon Fantasy RPG rules that take the approach I mentioned. Take the core of GURPS, throw out what you don’t want, tweak the rest, and then play. So when I say that you’re playing Powered by GURPS (PbG) you’re using 3d6 roll low, four attributes, roll high for effect, all d6s of nearly any flavor. That’s the engine, while the DFRPG or any particular campaign is the game. Perhaps this will be a distinction without a difference, but for my own sake and for clarity, I will make it for this post.
The DFRPG went through Kickstarter, and the campaign went well, raising over $175,000 from over 1,500 backers. It suffered some delays in production. It was promised in May 2017, went to the printers at the end of April 2017, and started shipping to US backers in September (I actually got my copy in August, as a top-tier backer that went to GenCon to play with the ever-delightful Sean Punch). So the entire thing was about 4-5 months behind schedule, and the planned development time was 8 months, and a total of about a year was realized.
A lot was riding on this experiment, as “we’ll see how the DFRPG sales go” was the answer to the oft-repeated question to inquiries of “what about [this other genre]?!”
The game that was produced is gorgeous, exceeding the usual production values for GURPS books and PDFs in its use of interior color printing, and shipped with five books, the largest of which was 128 pages. It also came with dice and a few full-color printed maps for the included adventure. While it was available bare-bones in the Kickstarter for $50, the retail game hit the stores at MSRP of $60.
So . . . how did it go? It went well and not well. The game sold through its initial (reduced) print run, but was declared a failure in the 2017 Report to the Stakeholders, which SJG publishes each year to let the gaming customers know what’s going on.
There were bright spots and dark spots in the report for the DFRPG and the reports that followed, and I just want to muse on them a bit.
It must be noted: I am speculating ruthlessly in the following post, and I have no special knowledge that I’ve included in the post that would lead me to believe my numbers are accurate. I’m guessing. But a game that relatively quickly sells out its first print run apparently will not be reprinted, despite being #6 on the revenue charts . . . that means a cost/revenue imbalance on the cost side of things, and in the game industry, that’s not that hard a place to arrive at.
There are several mentions in the Report to the Stakeholders around the DFRPG and production of games in general. Some important highlights (all are direct quotes)
- We changed our structure in 2016, hoping to pull distractions from our creative team so that we could accomplish Job One: Make games. The organizational changes did not give our creative team more time to work on games, so we are exploring new ideas. With hard work, our staff will be better directed, focused, and completing tasks on schedule by the end of this year.
- Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – We have now sold the majority of what we printed. This should instantly slide the game into the “highlights” category . . . and it would be there if not for being so very late, costing more to produce than is healthy, and requiring so much of our upper management team’s time and sleep. As it is, the game will likely be sold out at our primary warehouse before the end of the first quarter and will not be reprinted. The current market doesn’t leave room for a game like this to succeed, and it’s a great thing that we cut our planned print run by 30% or we would be stuck with copies for years to come.
- The flood of games continues to overwhelm distributors, retailers, and shelves, leading to an accelerated release schedule for many publishers as games get less time as a “new release” and get dumped online as fast as they leave the “hot and new” category.
- Christian Petersen and Steve Horvath were interviewed at ICV2 and offered great insight into the cluttered market. You must read the interview — in two parts — if you’re at all interested in the state of the industry.
- “Complete the commitments we have made through three different Kickstarters. That means wrapping up Dungeon Fantasy (no matter what it takes)…” Done, done, and done! The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game shipped late, yes, but the final package was a successful GURPSintroductory boxed set loaded with lots of great gaming potential.
- The DFRPG was #6 for top-selling products by dollar volume in 2017
There are some absolutely vital additional insights in the Report to the Stakeholders comment thread on SJGames’s forums. The key takeaways there, if you will permit me to sum up, are
- The costs to produce the game were higher than anticipated
- The sales velocity required to make up for those higher costs was extremely unlikely to have materialized with a market in which the traditional “long tail” has completely disappeared, and is more akin to magazine sales: you might get a few months out of it, but then you’re history.
How can a game that raised over $175,000 and sold out a print run (albeit 70% of the original plan) be not worth reprinting?!
Pretty easy, actually. There are hints at it in the quoted section of the report, but ultimately, there are, to me, a few key bits to ensure we understand.
SJG likes to sell into the distribution model, and a rough estimate of that means that they get paid about 40% of the on-the-box price of the games, which go to distributors, and then the retail folks buy from those distributors. Maybe they have other things going on, maybe they don’t. I wouldn’t know. But if they planned their sales based on a distribution model, that means the $50-60 game will lose money on every sale if the cost of components is more than $20-24.
Since you want a reprint of a game to pay for itself and have money left over (that thing called profit), an evergreen product needs to make money, print the product again, and cover overhead. If the gross margin is 30% for stuff, out of which you pay salaries, physical plant, etc, then you need to stack up: first printing cost (and overhead), second printing cost (and overhead), plus profit. That probably means that the cost to produce a single game and keep it evergreen needs to be less than about 1/3 of the revenue, or about $5.50 to $6.50 for every component in the box!
That might be off. But the typical rule of thumb is that your cost of materials should be less than 1/5 of retail price. You can see that in this case, an evergreen title needs to be more like 1/9 of retail price. All the glorious stuff you see in the DFRPG box for something like $6. Even the old 1/5 rule sets an upper bound on this in the $10-12 range, and that’s probably not enough to make money, just continually break even on reprints and not cover the cost of keeping your part of the overhead afloat. That’s how you go out of business as a victim of success.
I tend to use PrintNinja for my price quote estimates. They’re not as competitive as one would think for things – you can easily do better in Korea for a better quality book – but they’re available and have a spiffy quote generator. The DFRPG had five books in it, with the following page counts: 128, 112, 80, 64, 24. Let’s assume SJG was going to order 2-3x the Kickstarter backer counts, so anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 games.
- Prices at 3000 copies each are estimated at $2.60, 2.32, 1.80, 1.52, 0.79 = $9.03
- Prices at 5000 copies each are estimated at $2.10, 1.88, 1.47, 1.24, 0.63 = $7.32
Well, well. We don’t even have two maps, a box, and dice yet. The box seems to be in the $1.50-3.00 range (harder to find this), dice are probably less than $0.50 for a high-quality 3d6 set, maybe a lot less. Still, that’s suddenly another $2-3 bucks. So unless SJG found ways to take the prices above and do a LOT better (and as I noted, PrintNinja isn’t the lowest cost out there, so it’s possible), the components are going to run you on the order of $10-12.
And that’s just the components. That’s not including any time or money to make the game.
The Kickstarter funded in September 2016. It went to the printer April 2017. That’s seven months of development time, and staff and physical plant and warehousing costs money just by sitting there. My estimates from my own games are that a high-quality production costs around $150 per page when all is said and done. That’s with just me working on it, but includes paying myself for many functions (but not marketing, so it might even be higher). Let’s use the 150 per page number and see that SJG produced 408 pages of material, plus two full-size maps (call that about 8 pages of extra stuff, maybe 16 since they’re printed on both sides). That makes it about 425 pages of stuff, estimated cost (for Gaming Ballistic) to make all that would be $64,000.
So let’s look at what we have so far:
- Cost to develop the game: $64,000
- Cost to print 3,000 copies once: $36,000
- Cost to print 5,000 copies once: $50,000
If we mark up development costs 30-50% for all the overhead I don’t have to pay myself, you’re looking at $83-96,000 in development costs all-in, plus $35-50,000 for a single print run. $100,000 to $125,000 to make 3,000 to 5,000 copies of the game. Once.
If you do two such printings, that cost becomes $70-100,000, add in the development cost, and you get to $150-200,000.
Total take from the Kickstarter would have been about $155,000 once you figure in fees from KS themselves. If we assume that 1500 copies went to KS backers and another 1500 sold through distribution at $24 each to SJG, that’s still only an incremental $36,000 in revenue. So $191,000 in revenue vs $150-200,000 in costs.
And that’s assuming everything goes right the first time, and I didn’t miss anything. Which I’m sure I did.
The DFRPG is a great game, and the SJG execs did say that! The problem here is that the game cost too much to develop and the market is favoring a “one and done” model that kills the usual long tail sales that might drive reprints. That is in no small part due to the lion’s share of RPG sales still being Dungeons and Dragons of one flavor or another (I’d still peg it at 75-85% of all sales), as well as something like 80 new games of all stripes coming out per month, and the DFRPG as a boxed set literally has to compete for shelf space every month with all that flashy new stuff.
Making the game was a non-trivial task. Every rule seemed to get a once-over, all the spells were examined and tweaked, and the core was ruthlessly sculpted to be all about dungeon adventuring, with even much-loved concepts like spending fatigue for heroic cinematic feats getting the axe. And talking to folks, one kind of gets the feeling that they’d have liked the total page count to be less, perhaps even much less than it came in at.
And my cost-structure estimates could easily be off by a factor of two or more. I have a spreadsheet I use for my own games budgeting, and do you know what you don’t find on it? Eight to twelve months salary for 3-5 staff people. Even if they make half the US Median salary (half is $30K per year) for a houshold, that’s still $60,000-150,000 just for paying for bodies and the Stakeholder’s report notes that there was a lot of executive time and lack of sleep involved. That might push costs up even more, so hitting $300+ per page of content might not be crazy talk . . . and all of a sudden you can see why Steve’s comment that they still might have been OK if there were riots in the streets for “More DFRPG! More DFRPG!”
But that didn’t happen.
What could be different?
The short answer is lower costs to produce. The frequent mention of trips to China/Hong Kong for production supervision (and note that such a trip costs thousands of dollars even in coach, and that’s not in my cost estimates either) means that they’re already likely doing fairly well in the production cost department. The internal structural and efficiency issues that are alluded to in the report are going to be the real killers. Missing deadlines costs time AND money. Executive oversight even in a flat-paid corporation is a staff expense that ripples through everything. Every bit that you thought would be easy (oh, we’ve laid out stuff before! Oh, not in this style, with an 8×10 format, which needs a new InDesign template, crap!) and wasn’t . . . bites hard.
And when you’re in the distribution model rather than direct to customer or direct to retail, that hurts a lot. And my volumes could easily fit into my basement if I needed them to, and SJG owns a warehouse, so storing excess and absorbing that carrying cost isn’t in my estimates either.
Making some money on a one-and-done kickstarter is much more forgiving than creating a self-sustaining evergreen title. And the market just isn’t playing that game these days, it would seem.
The distress on the SJGames forums, blogs, and Discord channel is fairly palpable. Post velocity seemed to drop off quite a bit, and folks immediately started talking about what the next steps were. The biggest two seemed to be requests to blend the DFRPG into the DF subline, and the ever-popular request to allow third party publishers (3PP) to have a crack at it. We’ll see what develops over time.
As much as folks were dreaming about a GURPS Renaissance, myself included, it probably won’t come in the form of high production value boxed sets. It still might come in the form of PDF sales or POD, though – the recent forays into POD at DriveThruRPG and Amazon would allow that fairly easily, though the costs are much higher, they’re born directly by the retailer, distributor, or (in most cases) the customer. The 128-page 8×10 Adventurers book would cost about $16 to print by DriveThruRPG; all five books would run $50-60 in Premium Color, and less than half of that in Standard Color.
Errors and Improvements . . . discuss!
As noted in the opening crawl, this is me speculating. Some of it I feel pretty good about. Some is much more questionable. I’d love any additional insights folks would have, as every bit of additional knowledge will help me try and make my own business efforts more successful, and perhaps even provide nuggets for pros as well.
After all, the biggest thing I learned when I got my PhD is how much I still have to learn. Today is no different.