Monetizing Free

One of the trends in the gaming industry has been the shift toward having content be available to a wider player-base, then narrowing down the playing field with premium content for high-value users. Sometimes (semi-perjoratively/affectionately, depending on the writer) called “whales”, high-value users are the super fans of any particular game, studio, or publisher. As I work to bring Loreshaper Games into being, I’m trying to figure out ways to monetize free content in the tabletop roleplaying industry.

Before I begin, let me quickly define free for my purposes:

  • Players can join a game with all the core ruleset and at least 90% of core setting content without paying a dime.
  • Free players get an appreciably similar experience in terms of portability and mobility (e.g. being able to download rules as opposed to having them available through an exclusively online portal), except for physical goodies.
  • Derivatives can be made, including for-profit derivatives and rights-reserved content, albeit with perpetual attribution.

Obviously, unless you find a miraculously cheap way to print and ship you probably can only distribute a free game digitally, though with print-on-demand you’re starting to see a pretty large decrease of the cost of very small print runs. I’d be interested to look into the concept of micro-cost games (e.g. staple-bound black and white booklet games), but that’s for another day (and, according to what I’ve heard, still runs a non-negligible price per copy, though you could maybe distribute them at <$5 levels).

One way is to be ad-supported, but this works poorly in the industry. It is theoretically possible to do something like this with digital and print distribution, but it runs afoul of a number of issues, especially with the fact that you have a relatively small target audience compared to something like a magazine or newspaper (how many people leave a copy of D&D in their waiting room?). With digital distribution you can theoretically do this, but it conflicts with offline play, and having permanently embedded ads is difficult and less lucrative, especially if players could repackage a version with ads removed via your copyright scheme.

Syndication is interesting, but I don’t know that it’s ever really been pursued for an original tabletop game, or even really for core rules/setting content. Having a sponsor that publishes the game is something that would make it possible, but your sponsor would need to be equally willing to commit to a non-monetized system. Basically, it’s a less obnoxious form of advertising: Company X presents Game Z. It’s probably possible in a very true sense of the scheme.

A pay-what-you-want scheme is obviously possible; set the minimum price to $0 and you meet all the requirements. I tried this with Street Rats and it went really poorly, but Street Rats never saw a finished decent-budget release, it was always just a solo act and lacked a lot of polish. With the sorts of games I’m working on with Loreshaper Games, it’s likely we could see some stuff actually make a decent amount of money back. One thing I think I would find interesting is if people who would enjoy a truly-free game would be repelled by a pay-what-you-want system.

Paid platforms alongside free platforms is another alternative. Eclipse Phase, for instance, appears on store shelves at retail prices and on DriveThruRPG at a certain price point, but then is cross-posted on Rob Boyle’s blog and is free to redistribute. Barring the copyleft license, it’s an ideal example of a game that’s seen commercial success and decent recognition, but there are concerns that I have with regards to the fact that such a game is sort of half-free. If you go out of your way to tell people it’s available free, then they can get it free, but if they aren’t in the know they may be turned away because they don’t *want* to pay.

One thing to note about the paid+free method is that it’s basically how any print distribution has to work; your free game needs to be brought into a material form using resources fronted by someone, and outsourcing the printing and distribution to an expert is usually the economically sound solution.

There’s also a premium/feelie method. You can sell a cosmetically altered version of the game with special thanks to purchasers. Maybe you distribute the basic game in black-and-white, but the premium version has color (though some people prefer B&W designs, especially if they might print at home). A commercial-printing friendly version is possible.

If you move into the physical market, selling stuff like a USB drive with the game rules, branded merchandise, or copies of the rulebook can be profitable, but in this day and age I’m not sure if a company like Loreshaper Games that is just entering the market would be able to produce a quality product, quality secondary merchandise, and break even.

One of the huge pains with anything physical is supply and demand. Digital goods are nice because you have an effectively infinite supply, and you simply price where demand is at. Physical goods have a cost to production, and if the demand price is lower than the production price you lose out, and that’s assuming a perfect world where you even make a good decision, which as a small publisher is kind of important as you branch out into a larger world.

One final method that’s emerged in recent years is the crowdfunding method. Through a site like Patreon or Kickstarter you can fund premium products without having to provide the premium expense to all end users. There are some issues with this, which I could probably write a whole other article on, but there’s a short list of pros and cons that goes with it:

Pros:

  • Great way to figure out what people will pay and get as much of it as you can work for.
  • Secured funding prior to product delivery lets you make a good game.
  • Community-focused design process: following the money indicates demand, meaning you make better products without needing focus testing.
  • Invested supporters will stay on top of developments.
  • Lets you do early releases, potentially under a more restrictive scheme with a moratorium.

Cons:

  • Setup is a cost in and of itself (hopefully a minor one, but still requires time).
  • Dependent on creator output; you don’t want to seek funding for a project and then start a new one.
    • I’ve actually had people do this in Kickstarter campaigns I backed. They are not getting another dollar from me.
  • Have to be careful about using premium funders as testers.
    • For one, your early-access people may be blind to your flaws, which is why they love you (my friends still ask me why I didn’t finish Street Rats, while I consider it to be one of the worst messes I’ve put my name on).
    • You can also form an exploitative relationship (“Here’s my game, play it you pathetic minions!”), which alienates people (and, soapbox moment: not what a good game designer does, since you’re trying to make peoples’ lives brighter and explore concepts).
  • You need to either run multiple campaigns or commit to one thing (or hope your supporters like everything you do, which with the diverse design spectrum I follow is not likely)

Basically, everything’s got risks, but I think people can probably guess what my plans are.

Right now I’m self-funding external art for PROJECT HAMMER and Segira, though Segira’s art has come in and it’s now on me to put the darn thing together (bad Kyle, bad!). This is not sustainable in the long run; my operating expenses have been in the red since I got the homoeoteleuton domain back in college, and premium games are expensive. I’ve got about 25% of the art for PROJECT HAMMER’s tentative concept done, and I’ve gone over my original project budget, even with some stuff falling through.

My hope is to eventually move to a crowdfunding system. Kickstarter has one advantage: it’s easily itemized and deliverables are made clear at the end of the campaign so you know what your material costs will be. The big foreseeable flaws are that when I license stuff under the TAL, I am definitely not going to be providing a “Kickstarter discount”. Patreon is more ideal, but the main bonus I could offer is early access and credits, at least unless I start going into crazy success land at which point I’d move over to a proprietary platform that didn’t skim so much money off the top to give myself a little more overhead if I started offering something like monthly print rewards.

Of course, I could be underestimating. Maybe something like an exclusive mailing list or GM’ing sessions could provide a meaningful amount of income for a free game’s designer, but I do have a day job and those things both require a lot of investment by patrons before they would become feasible as a supplemental effort.

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