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Us and Them/A Clash of Images

by
 

Us and Them

A Clash of Images

Does a "Gaming Business" Really Exist?

Previous soapboxes have talked about the general dearth of companies willing to approach RPGs as a bonafide business. This means using formal business plans, having a structured organization, using a division of labor, hiring people who actually are talented at the job. Given the diversity of game company types, it's worth taking a look at the general motives and methods.

RPGnet: Spawn of Satan, or Fuzzy Bunny?

Previous soapboxes have talked about the industry, but not terribly much on how the web is impacting the industry. The perspective I know best is our own, with what we stand for and how we operate. Our model is similar to that of grassroots lobbying organizations, for the most part. Here's a peek as to how people see us, versus how we really operate.

What are we in for?

There are companies that are essentially fan-operated joints. Companies that are vanity presses. A handful that are really in it only for the money. Others which serve as facilitators, letting talented gamers write good games-- so long as the bottom line is served. And finally, a rare bunch that don't care about the bottom line, only about producing excellent games.

On the web, no one knows who the hell you are

We have an clash of images here at RPG Web Services (i.e. the folks who provide RPGnet). Though there are many people handling different sections, among the noisest would probably be myself (Sandy), handling customer service, and our webmaster and company owner, Emma. We get interesting email on our perceived efforts.

Fan Evolution

The idea of being a "professional business" is more a matter of approach than fame or connections. The saying "money changes everything" does apply a bit, but the primary issue is really one of intent. If the goal is to publish a book, that is different from the goal of making money. Fans want to publish; companies want to make money. A company that doesn't want to make money is hindered in the marketplace and can't make as many games, ergo, there's some value to that idea.

Two for the show

One group thinks of us as the world's largest fan-run site. Yep, those RPGnet fans, devoting their time and money to idolize and support those great game designers around. That only goes so far, and shatters when you realize that maintaining RPGnet consumes time that we could otherwise spend producing games and game books. As freelancers, we'd rather be producing material; as a web design company, we'd rather be producing pages. RPGnet is a service and a publication that straddles this.

The Ideal

A successful roleplaying company is one that happens to publish what it likes in the process of making money; a fan company is the converse. But even this isn't quite clear-- too cold and cynical. There has to be heart to slog away in the industry day after day. "Bad enough to do the Devil's work", said Martin in Bloch's "The Hell-Bound Train", "but then to get such miserable pay on top of it!" In the gaming industry, you have to like games, plain and simple. Even if you don't have time to play them.

We are "new media"

About a quarter talk about "those two plucky gals and their start-up". We like this image. You can just picture two twenty-something women, fresh out of college, full of baking powder and vinegar and ready to take on the world! You'd expect that RPGnet to be bold, new media. That Emma is part of D.C. Webgrrls and made "Who's Who in Media and Communications" in 1997 would actually support part of this. She fits the image, but that's not the whole story.

Users, not Abusers

And indeed, at many companies, the staff just don't get time to game. When you spend your days editing material for a salary, then your nights writing sourcebooks to get by, actually gaming because tricky. So you end up in an interesting position-- top of the food chain and always hungry. Cons are no relief-- you have to man the booth, work the crowds, etc etc.

Fortunately, it's not quite a bleak as this, at least, not year round. Gamers run true to type, and many do get to game just as much as they did in college and before joining the industry, just as much as after they got married, just as much as... hmm... not much at all, now that I think about it.

Cottage Industry

Another bunch talk about "Emma & Sandy, that husband and wife team that run a web site". This is an immensely conservative image. It conveys impressions of solidness, that RPGnet is in for the long haul. Perhaps not quite cutting edge, but definitely with a hefty amount of experience behind them. A good company to bet on.

Fortunately, none of these people have commented on the fact that we actually have several partners providing content, and RPGnet is not just "Emma and Sandy". Otherwise they'd have to assume some sort of new age group marriage/sex orgy was in place, and there'd be a worldwide series of arrests. Close call, that.

The Lesser of Two Evils

So if you aren't gaming, are you just in it for the money? Is the game company some Machievellian tool for coverting ideas to cash? While it might seem that way, the game industry (even mighty WotC) is still the type of organization where the lowest employee can walk up and talk with the big boss with only a 50/50 chance of being fired. In the world of corporate America, game companies are a mid-sized industry at the top, a cottage industry as the base.

Which leads us back to the first point-- how much of being a game company is being a business, and how much is being a gamer? Like a classic D&D party, you need all types. You need the fighter to handle Sales, the mage to design games, the cleric to manage the books, the paladin or ranger to lead you, the thief to... well, we covered that in my "Scamming" column earlier. Suffice to say, a good business has a mix of staff with a mix of talents and motives.

One for the money

Another batch talk about, virtually, "RPGnet Inc." The email arrives as if to a receptionist. The comments are delivered in a polite, deferential manner. It's actually a nice stroke to our ego. Often times, they are shocked to receive a response from a single individual. But, if you're not willing to deal with gamers as people, why run a web site for them?

True, we are more than a one-person operation. But we're not a faceless corporate entity, either. Truth is, RPGnet is not a business, it's a demo product. "RPG Web Services", Emma's design and web hosting firm, is a business that also creates this site. RPGnet itself is (I'm ashamed to admit) New Media. It's the type of entity that can only exist on the web-- a permanent resource that has regular new features plus archival information as well as changing content, networking opportunities, fun stuff like contests, and interactive junk and anything else we can add.

The Game

Which almost makes it seem like a twisted game itself. In fact, business is just a game. A game where you can starve if you lose, of course, but a game in that there are rules (some hidden at the start), quests, chance encounters, random catastrophes, and (ultimately) someone completely outside of your party deciding your ultimate fate. Call this the GM, call it the will of the consumers, it's the same concept.

The Point

It's no wonder people have a hard time defining us. In fact-- please stop calling us an e-zine! A magazine is something static that gets mailed out once. If you want us to mail you a single CD Rom that'll be obsolete in 1 month, sure, we can do that. But that defeats the purpose of the web and RPGnet-- to keep up with the RPG scene and let you know what's out there.

Economy of Scale

The economics of this are interesting. Take a small company. They sell out a print run of 2,000 $20 books, that's 40K in income! They're rich! Except, they only got 40% of that, and half probably went towards printing and distribution. And then you subtract the cost of going to Conventions (say, 3K), of taking out ads (another 2K), and the total goes down to around the 3K mark or so. Given that 2,000 books is a typical small print run, that's not so much. You can't earn a living on it, but it's a nice supplement.

Freelancing runs into much the same limit, if you stick within the game industry. Say you're offered 4 cents/word (a good average rate) to do a solo book, 80 pages. You'll net just under $2000 for that book. So if you want a living wage of 16K/year, you just have to wrangle 8 book deals a year! That's writing an 80 page book every month and a half. And you notice that your pay is about the same amount that the small press publisher was making for an entire 2K print run... which means your freelancing work had best either be for larger companies, or sell a heck of a lot more copies. Or you can start writing pornography on the side to pay your bills.

Now take a large company, looking at the same cost schemes as our smaller company case. They have the added burden that they have to pay people's salaries, and pay freelancers. The same 2,000 books wouldn't even cover 1/2 of a yearly salary for one editor. So they need to sell more books, larger print runs. Looking at a big company like WotC when it had 70 employees, and you have at least 2 million dollars a year just going out as salary and benefits. You need to sell a quarter of a million booster packs just to pay them. The business game's stakes are higher.

The Net Economy

The economics of this are interesting. Web advertising is a volatile, experimental market, and many sections of RPGnet can't run ads because we are also involved in some educational grant proposals. Disk space, sys admin work, bandwidth and access to the site costs money. RPGnet doesn't pay for itself. Instead, RPG Web Services does design work to cover RPGnet expenses. The theory is that RPGnet is a good way to support the industry as a whole, which in turn will result in more design work being needed.

Now extend this to a larger site. Say you want to set up an online gaming network (like so many out there). You need programmers, sys admins, and web staff. Having many paid staffers, you suddenly have to generate a lot more revenue to stay afloat. Say you choose realtime online gaming as your niche. At, say, $20/month (maximum) per player, and if you have 8 staffers, you only need 1000 subscribers to meet your payroll. A good network game can handle 500-1,000 players per server, and you don't expect all your subscribers to be online at the same moment.

Suddenly, the business model clicks-- and a lot quicker than paper games. It's much easier to find 1,000 computer gamers than to sell 2,000 copies of a paper RPG. If you're in it for the money, that's a heck of a better avenue to try. Up the scale a factor of ten (not a stretch), and cut your price to $20/year, and you still are viable. Find some way to sell something to the subscribers (such as Ultima Online, which requires you buy the game), and you can net a tidy sum. Is it enough to recover your development costs, for the half year or year it took you to get running? Ah, that's part of the risk of the game.

The Future

So you have people who love games leaping into the grandest game of all. It makes for lots of scary stories. On one hand, a lot of the current crop are tenacious enough to make it work, through sacrifice. They sacrifice stability and regular salaries to make their dream bear fruit. Sometimes they turn into complete bastards along the way, but many stay "real". It's tough keeping the balance between gamer and businessperson-- but I think it can be fun to do so.

It is oft repeated that "RPGs are a niche hobby". WotC and others are trying to make the leap beyond such a limited viewpoint, by approaching games as a business. If you don't like their methods, at least respect their goals. Role-playing (minus the "game" label) is more than a hobby-- they're in hotel management, education, and business. RPGs are in good company-- maybe someone can make it be a company that makes money.

The Future

But as I said, we're not in it for the money, or at least RPGnet is not for the money. We'll design sites at industry rates for money, but this site is something more than that. One of our real purposes is not generally realized by, well, everyone. In history, there have been writer's circles that gave birth to batches of famous authors. There were small publications (like "Amazing Stories") that, in themselves, were merely "popular" but that started the careers of eventual bestselling authors.

We're trying to have RPGnet be a launching point. It's a place for gamers to find what they want. And, it's a place for writers to connect with each other, and with companies. A proving ground to prove their stuff. An experimental site for projects other companies dare not risk. It's a cooperative venture. It requires writers, webheads, and gamers. Content--Access--Readers. The net trio of power. Wish us well.

Cheers, Sandy

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