Economizing on RPG Development Costs

Earlier I went through and took a stab at what it costs to develop an RPG book. One can consider these, in somewhat imprecise terms, economic costs, rather than an accounting or cash-flow cost, in that it’s not required to write checks for all of them. Further, the costs presented represent doing everything on a contracting basis, and everything bespoke, meaning created for your game from scratch.

This is not remotely the only way to do it. It’s probably not even necessarily the best way to do it.

So I’m going to muse here on ways to reduce both the economic cost as well as the cash cost of RPG development.

Writing: Clearly, do it yourself. This doesn’t change the economic value of your work, but it does cut out a check you have to write. It’s not even crazy talk to lower these out-of-pocket costs this way, and hope/plan to recover it in profits once your game starts selling. I’ve seen folks talk about earning 0.12 to 0.15 per word on post-cost profit, or even more. So deferring this to later is a good plan.

Editing: Honestly, this isn’t a great place to economize. A solid playtest crew that is also composed of game writers and other folks that know grammar, syntax, and pithy writing is one way to get feedback here, but it’s hard to bypass the value of quality editing. The only way that I might vacillate on this is if you as an author/game designer are also a good editor (not all are), and can do a quid-pro-quo with another designer who is also an editor.

Indexing: It is possible to do this yourself. There’s a skill to it, though, so it’s wise to share this around a bit. Identifying key terminology that the reader may wish to look up sometimes requires a fresh eye. One might be tempted to skip it in a digital-only product, given the existence of excellent search functions, as well as putting in bookmarks, which are a nice interactive flavor of index-like thing. Some books don’t really need an index, but I’d be very cautious about economizing here.

Layout: If you have reasonable InDesign skills, but lack graphic design capability, you can ask a Layout Pro if they will create for you a template which you as writer/author/publisher/slave can then populate. If you’re publishing on the DM’s Guild or something like it, they provide a template for you, and it’s (a) free, and (b) common, and (c) very simple, with no requirements for art and other things.

Speaking of Templates, if you have paid for an existing layout and are doing repeated publications of the same style, you can re-use the layout form, making only the changes required to differentiate your product to the right degree. I did that a bit with Lost Hall of Tyr, giving Todd the Dungeon Grappling template, which we then went and altered. In fact, we rebuilt it (one of the reasons he got that 100% bonus), but the look of the two books is unmistakably similar, and deliberately so.

Art: The first thing you can do, of course, is skip art. That’s inexpensive, but there you go.

The next-best option there is to leverage the relatively vast collection of public domain art that also has the “suitable for commercial use” tags. Look carefully at this. I found an image once that I loved, which seemed to be free for use. Except that site had scrubbed the artist attribution, and the original picture was NOT public domain. Just double-check. There are many products and many pieces of art that will go together like butter and bread. If you’re doig a WW2 game, the vast stockpile of war photos available probably means you can fill up all the art you need on the interior for free.

Next on the list is probably licencing existing art. Much of the work I have commissioned for Dungeon Grappling, Lost Hall of Tyr, and pre-work for Dragon Heresy is on a non-exclusive basis. So the artists can resell it. Some RPG designers (I want to say Crawford has done this, but there are others) have made very large libraries of their art available for low-cost or even no-cost commercial use. I’ve backed a few kickstarters whose reward tier included a commercial-licence art pack. This is, for example, pretty much the #1 reason I backed the 100 Dungeons project.

Licencing existing art also goes for “filler” type art that you might put in place to make something interesting on a page that’s not “white space.” Nothing wrong with the right kind of use of white space! But if you want something on a page, vector graphics with the right theme or look, or a pack of small pieces of art that can be used to break up said white space are another way to go here.

Finally, black and white art is almost universally cheaper than color art. Going B/W will also save you a ton of money in printing, but that’s not “cost of PDF,” but it is “cost of a physical book that can go into distribution,” so will likely improve the potential profitability of any project.

For the cover . . . there are packages of pre-made covers on DriveThruRPG and other places that provide InDesign and Photoshop templates and starting material. Making the cover look like, well, the cover of a book is a timeless tradition. Heck, my initial Dungeon Grappling cover was precisely that – a parchment-looking book cover, with a title, and a piece of public domain art from Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch. The cover I got is infinitely more awesome. But it wasn’t free.

Art Direction: This is another place where you can avoid writing checks by doing it yourself.

Crowdfunding Fees: This is basically a service fee that comes off the top of your take from a campaign. You can still save money here, though! If you collect print-and-ship fees through Kickstarter, you get charged for them. At-cost coupons for DriveThruRPG or another site will push both of those costs to your customers, and allow them to get the kind of book they want: B/W, Standard Color, or Premium Color, hardcover or softcover or digital. Some folks don’t like that, some don’t mind. But it’s becoming a standard way to lower cash requirements for a product.

The other big thing to do is to not collect shipping in Kickstarter. Do it in Backerkit or something like it. The fee structure for this is different enough that it can definitely be worthwhile to separate them.

Project Lead: Yeah. This is you again.

Parting Shot

So even though I put the economic cost of making an RPG book at close to $150 per page on the average, you can do it for a lot less if you’re willing to put in the work yourself, use public domain art assets, and a few other tricks. The one place I would urge folks don’t economize is in editing, because game books need to be readable as well as fun and well-organized and inspiring.

Paying for editing and indexing not much else will take costs down to as low as 0.04 per word for both if you shop around, or about $25 per page. You can probably cut this in half if you really look around or have qualified friends. If you make heavy use of existing templates (re-usable templates at that), your marginal cost of production may well be a few hundred bucks flat-fee (acquiring the needed templates and art packs, and you’ll use existing free-for-commercial-use fonts and graphic items) plus the per-word cost of editing and indexing. A small price to pay for clarity.

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