Tuesday, May 10, 2016

For what it's worth ... (yes, I'm doing this)

It's fascinating. You look away for a few days, get back and everything is in ruins. Monkeys flinging feces, soldiers building trenches. I counted 3 (!) (minor) flame wars in our little corner of the internet since I went back online yesterday. Way to go, people, way to go. Anyway, I actually got an opinion on one of those issues (here's patient zero***) and I'd like to share my thoughts on the matter. I'm not doing this often, so I hope you can forgive me for letting the monkey on my back roam free for a second or two (not for throwing feces, though).

Please, ignore this rant if the topic isn't for you.

1. I really don't like economics ...

... but I'm forced to know my way around it. One of the first things you'll learn when dealing with this kind of stuff, is the following truth:


You might not believe me, but in that case I really don't care very much, because I'm not the one to believe here, nor has it anything to do with believing, it's a simple fact (there will be examples a plenty further below, but you could also check out TTIP or how financial interests ruined Greek or the panama papers or about geo-political strategies in war zones to rig the oil prices and look up fracking while you are at it ...). How markets work when they are free (as in "not regulated") is really scary to behold*, so please don't use that argument when talking about elfgames. It's wrong.

Same goes for the homo oeconomicus (basically a human being that is totally aware of the market and able to make the "best" decisions because of it) and very much for the same reasons. They all are very simplified tools to make calculations in economics easy and that simplification is the fatal flaw of the whole thing. You can't think in absolute terms about those things, because they are very, very complex.

So if someone tells me something along the lines of "people are just cheap and don't realize what it costs to make a role playing book", my first impulse would be to say "no, you really don't understand the economics of your market". There are, for instance, phenomena called wage gaps, predatory lending or student debts, to name only a few from the top of my head ... the point being, most people are really bled dry and have to look how they spend their money. And we are talking rich countries here. Add children, a car, a house and the fact that we will grow problematically old or get sick and most of us will most likely die in debt ...

Okay, slow down, we are talking 60 bucks for a book here, that's not really that much in the grand scheme of things, you might think. And you would be right. Somewhat. But the original point had been that people are free to decide what they buy and what not. Knowing that 70 % percent of all American students will end up in debt after their degree or all the other countless methods to end up in a bad place just for living, should give you some pause, though. And we are talking your customer base here (students) and in countries where living ain't actually that bad. Well, it's about perspective.

Take Germany, to give another example: around 20 % percent of the people living here earn less money than 60 % of the median household income here. It's one definition of being poor and it means that those people won't have the money to eat properly or go to the cinema or send their children on vacation or participate in any other meaningful way in social life. And yes, that includes 60 bucks for a book ...

But I'm only talking highlights here. I've seen guys in my circles ask for money or selling their collections because they are short or just having a streak of bad luck in general. It happens. And more often than not it happens when you are pursuing creative endeavors.

Add price dumping, sweat shops, children mining minerals in Africa to make that mobile of yours so much cheaper, a lack of education (in some cases) and you'll get an understanding how people are driven to believe that everything can be cheap. Or has to be, anyway.

2. No free market and people act irrational

Alright, this seems to be all over the place, so a little summary shouldn't hurt. Markets are not free, they are regulated. What regulates a market and who benefits from it might differ a very great deal, but there is always some sort of regulation and in most cases it isn't the customer because customers are irrational. People will play the lottery loosing money while hoping to get way more, people will keep smoking, knowing it'll kill them in the long run.

Same goes for sugar or oil or whatever. People are irrational and that is why they are (and can be) regulated about what they have to do and why. Simple as that. Sometimes it's the state, but more often than not it's those having the money, aiming to get more.

Another example is food waste. The amount of food we throw away is sickeningly high (checking this for numbers, you'll find anything ranging between 30 and 70 %). But that's not even the point. Do you really believe that the customer has anything to say about the prices of food by deciding to not buy anything and something else instead? The sad truth is that the difference is just thrown away and the rest is price rigging.

So even if people keep telling that the free market would be fair and prices would be what they should be, you will never find this realized in history. Never worked, never will work. A price is what you can get away with.

Quality? How many artists do we know that never got famous while they'd been alive? Edgar Allen Poe, Phillip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Franz Kafka, Van Gogh ... the list goes on and on (you just might add Gary Gygax here, right?). How many successful tv shows do you know that deserved a second season or continuation and never got it because it didn't bring enough money, quality or not (Firefly, Rome, Deadwood ... and so on).

How many patents for really great ideas got killed from the very beginning? Or how many really shitty movies earned millions and millions for no other reason than a highly competent marketing department? How does all of that happen and we still keep telling ourselves that quality changes anything? So don't give me this "quality will succeed"-bullshit, either.

Here is another sad truth: people will tell you what's good and what's not good, just not because of the quality of a thing (because that's very subjective to begin with) but because they think it's somehow beneficial for them. Doesn't have to be about money either, could be just to feel important enough or to get some sort of recognition or because you are a friend or colleague ... you name it.

I'm a book seller by trade and here is another telling observation: people will buy and support books they don't understand (or even don't want) just because a book is popular (or they think it's popular, for that matter). And they will be totally save talking about it with others, because it's so easy to find others that also didn't understand it and/or don't want it (or are just as able to quote the general opinions they read somewhere). Usually they'll keep praising it, too, spreading it even further.

What does this tell us? People are irrational in their choices and their decisions. They will believe a lot and buy even more. And if you are lucky, you get to sell something, because luck is the market entry in most cases and nothing more.

Intermissions ... and just because I thought it's funny [source]
3. Web 2.0 and the DIY movement at large

The incident that spurned a lot of discussion on the internet in the last few days is not about the big players of the industry, it's about small businesses trying to make a living from selling role playing books. It is a collectors market, at best. Only a very small percentage of those sold books is actually read or even used for any bigger amount of time for it's purpose. The rest is collecting dust and dreams.

I mean, that's the main problem of the whole industry of rpg publishers, right? The answers to the questions how many role playing games a consumer really needs and how many they could sell him anyway ... Revisions, Editions, only parts of a game (levels 1 to 3, for instance) and collector values like special editions, famous artists ... you name it, they've tried it.

But the real secret here is that you sell a complete or perfect game (if such a thing could exist**) only once per customer and if it's really, really good, he won't need anything else like that ever again. So role playing games need to be faulty and incomplete or worth collecting if they are to work as a product ... right?

Right. You want your adventures to work with your system, so it's incomplete. You don't give a DM the tools he needs to do it himself, so it is incomplete. The rules are for the use with miniatures, so it's incomplete ... the list of tricks goes on and on and it has nothing to do with the game. Same goes for the aspects that make it worth collecting. It's all about the product.

And this is finally where things get interesting. The internet changed a lot about how we communicate and produce role playing games and is still changing as I write this. Publishers unable to react to those changes will be left behind and others will get a chance to make something out of it. And that's a good thing.

4. And yet there is hope?

The whole DIY movement manages on a regular basis to put a lot of "professional" products to shame. Check out the Threshold zine, for example. This is free. There are many, many other examples like it (check here for more examples and anywhere else before that). Kickstarters produce huge amounts of material right now, showing that asking the customer beforehand has merit (if they deliver to fulfill that demand and only as market entry ... product might still be bad, though). And all the finest OSR/Indie products to buy are also worth collecting (I own several LotFP books like that).

But it's not only about new market strategies, like offering a pdf as PWYW and earn with the print product or having a kickstarter or whatever (which are all necessary, by the way), it's more about getting the hobby directly where it should have been to begin with: to those playing it. People often don't believe the amount of free and complete games available nowadays. If you'd want to, you could play your whole life without ever paying more than the regional internet fee.

Imagine the dimension of that! There'd never been a lower entry point into our beloved hobby. Here's a pdf, go and be happy. Just like that. It's not a product anymore. Of course that makes a lot of people nervous right now. But honestly, there never was much to earn with publishing to begin with, especially with role playing games. And if you are not able to adapt, well, whining about it won't help either ...


Okay. Again a long one and I know it might ruffle some feathers. Please hold your horses. I'm able to argue and substantiate every claim I make here. That being said, I'm aware that some of it is opinion. There are no bad feelings from my side if we aren't on the same page here. But many of the arguments about this issue felt very, well, wrong, inconsequential or incomplete and I thought I might be able to add some perspective to all of that.

We are at the spear tip of some very new developments here. Most of that is about getting value beyond economic principles and marketing strategies: creating and sharing and talking about it. At least that is how I like to see it and why I'm very skeptical when someone tries to sell me something I could get just as well for free.

Maybe that's the thing here. Not the neo-liberal myths of how everything worth doing is worth getting paid for and the delusions that come with that, nor the idea that the "market" (see how the word alone excludes the individual?) somehow magically does what is "right". No, we have something good here with our hobby, but to get anywhere near to a complete understanding of what the first developers started only four decades ago, we need to stop thinking about earning money every step of the way (there are places for that, too, though ... see above).

And if you think about all the pioneers in arts or science or whatever, you will find one common trait in all of them: a need to explore that goes beyond the safety of economic thinking. There. This is what it's worth. Put a price on that.

One last thing: I totally forgot about how the arts need support to be possible. Support like, for instance, the fixed book price agreement we have here in Germany (among other countries). There are ways to finance even role playing games if they are recognized as an art form and a cultural gain instead of a product ... Just some food for thought.

Next I'll write about funny elfgames again. I promise.

* I'll use the excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver show to illustrate some of my points (they really do their home work). They are very focused on the USA, but it gives some good examples how things work and other places aren't that much better. If you haven't seen the show yet, have fun seeing all of it now :)

** If I were to name one such product, it'd be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. One book to rule them all ... (sorry)

*** +Timothy Brannan wrote a (IMO) very good piece about it here and links to all other entries but the one by the Trollsmyth here.


  1. Nice post. I for one love reading your rants.

    1. Thanks, man! You know, it's funny how that goes. Your blog was among the first I encountered before stumbling head first into this whole blogging affair ... I'm glad I was able to return the favor and give you a good read or two back for those you gave me ;)