The Devil’s in the Details

September 8, 2009

For the tabletop publisher, 4 measurements of success, beyond personal:

1. Number of games sold
2. Number of people playing
3. Profit
4. Longevity of play networks

Folks in the indie game movement are doing the usual bi-annual self assessment of scale, though at least this time they’re doing a better job of comparing apples to apples.

Probably the simplest context that gets overlooked in these discussions is that if your target audience is existing roleplayers, then you’re dealing with a target audience who has probably already invested a lot of time, money, and emotional investment (identity) into other games, and in part, is maintaining play networks for those games. This actually makes it an incredibly hard market to bust into in terms of gaining raw numbers.

You’ll notice that the mainstream rpg publishers which have survived generally continue to leverage the customer base they’ve already built (or, for Hasbro/WOTC, inherited) by releasing new editions or games which differ slightly with a core system (such as White Wolf). The indie publishers who tried to follow that model and jump on the supplement/edition treadmill usually fall hard, if only because you need to have an initial consumer base for that to work.

Where indie have been effective is hitting small scale profit. Which, sadly, is the easiest part of this, especially given PDF and print on demand options these days- can you do better than break even? Compared to mainstream offers for freelancers, etc. of pennies per word, the bar is so low, yeah, that got passed years ago.

The next question is how to increase the number of folks playing (and buying, I would assume) and the longevity of play.

Well, there’s always trying to break into the existing market. There’s been small victories in that, but little in huge breakout. Part of that is that generally the existing base of roleplayers form a small group or cell with a few extra folks and play either sporadically or regularly over the long term- either way, there usually isn’t a ton of cross pollination which you’d need for maximum word of mouth.

The traditional way is through retail, though the question for the small publisher is where is the magic breakpoint of cost- if one online sale gives you 10 times the profit of a retail sale, is it worth doing? Will you get 10 more players and will it lead to more sales or a stronger network, or will you just saturate your market for less profit?

The “traditional” indie way, is now primarily online through networks of gamers who are into indie games. This, too, has it’s limitations, and aside from more local conventions, has stabilized mostly into small groups with sporadic/long term play and little cross pollination outside of that.

I think we’ve reached the limit of how far that’s going to go, short of some kind of fad or trend causing the smaller game conventions to explode with numbers.

What’s next? Some folks are reaching out to other geek related cons- videogames, anime, etc. and this is something I’m surprised the indie crowd -hasn’t- been doing.

I expect this will probably be the next direction of growth for a while, though it’ll probably be awhile before we see the equivalent of a Forge Booth style operation -well staffed, well organized, with an intense level of play being pushed. Maybe if you had something like 5 people running short games at a con, you could see a spread effect- you need to hit a critical mass in an area to generate buzz that lasts after you leave. If 5 people who never heard of rpgs or barely touched them had a good time, that’s one thing. If 30 people have, then they can start looking at forming their own networks and you have something growing from that.

That’s what I’d like to see- taking the same mentality for the gaming cons to other situations.

We’ll see what happens though.



  1. “…trend causing the smaller game conventions to explode with numbers.”

    Isn’t this already happening? JiffyCon booked a hotel for the last meeting. GoPlayNW is already at 70+ people. Those aren’t big cons for sales, but it certainly seems to indicate that the market for indie games is still expanding.

    • Hi Jonathan,
      …certainly seems to indicate that the market for indie games is still expanding.

      I don’t know- the numbers seem consistent with what I’d imagine we’d get from word of mouth through existing gamer networks- At small levels, it’s really easy to get “explosive” growth rates that cannot hold under larger scales.

      I’d also be interested to see how many attendees are taking the indie games and running/playing them outside of conventions. It’s really easy to set aside 3-5 days a year to do gaming cons, it’s not so easy to get regular (once a month, even) play groups, and networks together.

      I imagine, yeah, these things might be great for longevity to play networks (see: AmberCon, Tentacles), but I don’t know how well they are at growing networks or sales in the long run.

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