Piracy in the RPG Marketplace

Gau

Fun Tyrant
Hi! I'm fugaros, of "How Not to Run a Game Business" (yourbusinesssucks.wordpress.com). Recently, I did a post entitled "Piracy and Sales," in which I discuss the effects of piracy on the small press RPG industry. You can find the post here: http://yourbusinesssucks.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/piracy-and-sales/

Intellectual Property Piracy is a ridiculously divisive issue in our culture, and despite my “in your face” leanings, I’m not here to take a moral stand. Piracy is, generally, illegal in my country, and the noose is likely to get tighter before it gets looser; the looming threats of SOPA/PIPA are evidence that the money is going to try to protect the money.

What I am here to talk about, after my long absence, are the effects of piracy on the gaming industry. It’s no joke to smalls publishers; there is a distinct feeling that the proliferation of digital ‘scans’ has been a major factor in the ruining of the market. As Matthew Grau, creator of the game CthulhuTech, notes:

That doesn’t even address the issue of piracy. I remember a day when a mediocre release of a game book sold 3000-5000 copies, with healthy restock orders. Now, a successful release might sell 1000, if you are lucky, selling through the rest of your 3000 unit print run in three years – many companies print far less. Not only is the industry shrinking, but people don’t have to pay for their gaming books anymore if they don’t want to. Unfortunately, unlike the music industry, we are not made of money. It costs a surprisingly large amount of money to develop a well-written and attractive gaming book and the return is not so hot. Without those extra sales, the traditional model of core plus regular supplementation isn’t really viable.

Oh, really?

A follower of mine, Old School GM, posted an interesting article about the sales of Eclipse Phase, taken straight from the horses’ mouths: their company report. This got me thinking, much as my article and blog got him thinking. We don’t have any concrete idea just how big the industry is, but the numbers behind those links show some fantastic progress for the folks at Posthuman Studios.

What is most interesting is that Eclipse Phase is FREE. Free as in beer. You can download it, legally from torrent sites, sanctioned by the publisher. What’s more, you have free reign to remix or redo the game and publish it yourself. In the spirit of the posthuman information age, ownership is nothing. Want to pay? Sure! Thanks! Don’t want to pay? Here, you can have it, from us, for free.

Under this model, Posthuman Studios sold a tremendous 8,422 units in 2010. That’s big numbers for a small press publisher. One could crunch the numbers and reveal their probably gross, but I won’t do that to them. It’s not important. They’re moving units of a product that they’re also giving away for free. Meanwhile, the Cthulhutech guys are spending a lot of time whining about how piracy is ruining their business. A not-insignificant amount of time and effort is wasted by them (and many other small press companies) “chasing down pirates.”

So, we have two games of comparable scale. Why is one selling, when it’s available for free, and another is struggling? Well, friends and grognards, I think you already know the answer. It’s Quality.

You see, Eclipse Phase is a magnificent game. The setting is a genius take on the idea of a Posthuman world; the background and adventure work is top-notch. Players love it, because it’s an empowering, vast solar system of intrigue and information. There are nearly infinite possibilities for adventure, and new sourcebooks are being released all the time. And, despite the fact that you can have them for free, many customers are willing to pay for the books and PDFs.

Cthulhutech, on the other hand, is a mess. The system sucks, the setting is full of stereotypical, mustache-twirling demons that betray the basic principles of Lovecraft’s mythos, and the developers are fond of telling the players that they are playing the game wrong. New supplements aren’t coming out (mostly because of the aforementioned whining about sales).

It’s worse than that, though. The books and adventures are chock full of fetishistic descriptions of murder, rape, and misogynistic and/or racist portrayals of, well, just about anyone the authors can think of. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to read Ettin’s reviews of Cthulhutech and its supplements. One of the adventures ends in a narrated rape scene. (One of the writers once claimed the game was only around 2% rape.)

Yeah, I’m really wondering why one of these games is selling, and another isn’t. If you’re not convinced, though, I encourage you to look at a big player: Paizo, who literally gives their core rules away for free. Do people pirate their PDFs? Sure, almost certainly they do. However, they’ve chosen a winning business practice out of making people desire their actual products.

We see the same themes repeated throughout the industry: if a release is good, if the art is beautiful, if the rules are laid out well, if there are useful game aids and accessories, customers will want to purchase the product.
Obviously, I take a stand based on the evidence, but I am interested in expanding my viewpoint here. I am curious how piracy and the downstream economic and cultural effects of piracy have affected you, your gaming, or (if applicable) your business. How do you feel about the ubiquity of piracy? Does it have a positive or negative effect on the industry? Has the amount you spend on games gone up or down?

(Please don't admit to anything in this thread that is illegal in your country, for your own protection.)
 

Wolfgar

Registered User
Validated User
I don't think the quality of a game, or how well it's themes and motifs are received really has anything to do with the publisher's attitude towards piracy.
 

akajdrakeh

Pronounced 'akkadrakka'
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Ooo! More deep thoughts with another serving of "Games I don't like suck!", I see.
 

Oni

Registered User
Validated User
Though not directly related to the RPG industry I think this article on the effects of piracy on one small press comic has a lot to say about how free digital distribution can affect small press sales.

I've long been of the opinion that free distribution as a sales model causes the cream to rise to the top. People that do good work will make money and continue to be able to produce work because of it. People that produce sub-par work will either give up, or try harder. It's possible that large corporations who make a lot of their money just by being omnipresent might lose a little, but smaller companies whose main hurtle is obscurity can really only benefit if they're making good work. Personally I'm fine with that trade off.
 
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Gau

Fun Tyrant
Though not directly related to the RPG industry I think this article on the effects of piracy on one small press comic has a lot to say about how free digital distribution can affect small press sales.

I've long been of the opinion that free distribution as a sales model causes the cream to rise to the top. People that do good work will make money and continue to be able to produce work because of it. People that produce sub-par work will either give up, or try harder. It's possible that large corporations who make a lot of their money just by being omnipresent might lose a little, but smaller companies whose main hurtle is obscurity can really only benefit if they're making good work. Personally I'm fine with that trade off.
This is a really fantastic article. To quote:

"I just participated in a genuinely fascinating discussion, and I think it's old dog, new tricks time," said Lieber. But after the promotion on 4chan and deciding to give away Underground for free digitally, an amazing thing happened to Lieber: He made money.

Since the exposure on 4chan, Lieber's sales through his studio's Etsy site have exploded, along with a massive traffic bump that dwarfed even a Boing Boing plug. While the Lieber-drawn chart above represents site traffic, not sales, Lieber told ComicsAlliance that "the sales spike, I think, would be a lot sharper, actually, but we don't have any way to track that as precisely... After the Boing Boing article ran, I sat down to do the free sketches for our Etsy buyers, and got them all done while eating a sandwich. After this, I'll be sketching for DAYS."
Exposure = sales. End of line.
 

Wields-Rulebook-Heavily

Registered User
Validated User
Ooo! More deep thoughts with another serving of "Games I don't like suck!", I see.
A stunning rebuttal to the sources cited.

On-topic, I actually distribute my game (Sub Rosa in my sig) for free precisely because it's a good way to get it out there. I've had reports from people buying my game who bought it precisely because of the model I'm following, which is kind of like allowing people to pirate my game by cutting the pirate out of the equation. I'm not even going to pretend that it has as good production values as Eclipse Phase (though the game will be improved on in the near future), but so far it's worked out rather well for me. Certainly far better than a print model might have.
 

akajdrakeh

Pronounced 'akkadrakka'
RPGnet Member
Validated User
A stunning rebuttal to the sources cited.
What sources? The only objective source he cited that may possibly be independently verified is the one for Eclipse Phase publication numbers. He lists exactly zero other objective, verifiable, sources for the rest of his theory. As usual he appears to be making up things wholecloth to support his own pre-existing opinions. As ever, his blog screams two things:

1: Read my eloquently worded confirmation bias.
2: X game sucks because I say so.

This time he goes on a lengthy, entirely subjective, screed about how Cthulhutech is a crap game, not because of sales numbers, but because of such empirical evidence as "the system sucks". Naturally, he can't provide any facts to support that kind of assertion (not that he'd bother doing so, if his previous screeds are any indicator).This latest outing is just more of the same tripe from a guy with nothing better to do than attack publishers who he doesn't personally care for.
 
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wheloc

He's trying real hard to be one of the good guys.
RPGnet Member
Validated User
I must humbly disagree.

Judging them only by their initial core books (which is easy for me because they're the only one's I've read), I would say that Eclipse Phase and CthulhuTech are of a similar quality. They're both very pretty books with a high production value. They're both interesting settings that have some great ideas. They both have some mechanics that I'm not fond of.

So I think that Eclipse Phase is doing better because of their business model, not in-spite of it. Their quirky distribution model got people talking about their game (and threads like this mean that people are still talking). Certainly this wouldn't have helped if they didn't offer a quality product, but it also helps a bunch that the company's presence on the web is polite and courteous. More importantly, if you do hear something bad about the game, you can download the thing yourself and make up your own mind. Their good reputation, devoted core fan base, and fluid distribution model means that they could switch publishers fairly easily.

The CthulhuTech folks chose a more traditional distribution model, which meant they suffered when their publisher had problems. They try to maintain a good web presence, but some of them come across as jerks sometimes, which has alienated some of their fanbase. Some aspects of their game get blown out of proportion in online discussions, so people come away with the impression that the game is all about rape or that the system is unworkable. Neither of these are especially true, but people aren't going to spend $15 on the core book to find out.
 

Gau

Fun Tyrant
What sources? The only objective source he cited that may possibly be independently verified is the one for Eclipse Phase publication numbers. He lists exactly zero other objective, verifiable, sources for the rest of his theory. As usual he appears to be making up things wholecloth to support his own pre-existing opinions. As ever, his blog screams two things:

1: Read my eloquently worded confirmation bias.
2: X game sucks because I say so.

This time he goes on a lengthy, entirely subjective, screed about how Cthulhutech is a crap game, not because of sales numbers, but because of such empirical evidence as "the system sucks". Naturally, he can't provide any facts to support that kind of assertion (not that he'd bother doing so, if his previous screeds are any indicator).This latest outing is just more of the same tripe from a guy with nothing better to do than attack publishers who he doesn't personally care for.
It's easy to dismiss what I'm saying if you don't read the article. I never said Cthulhutech's system sucks. I linked to a series of reviews on the game's content (http://tradwiki.foxxtrot.net/index.php/FATAL_&_Friends#CthulhuTech_.28by_Ettin.29), a post from the CT forums by a designer (http://cthulhutech.10.forumer.com/viewtopic.php?t=3188), the Posthuman Games 2010 Year in Review (http://eclipsephase.com/posthuman-2010-year-end-review), and a post on these forums by one of the writers (http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?612140-I-am-a-writer-for-CthulhuTech-Ask-me-anything!&p=14966413#post14966413). To be fair, I might be biased; I run a small-press RPG company who has chosen alternative pricing models for the products we offer.
 
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