Role-playing publishers face significant hurdles to making money. Role-playing games are niche market in the best of times and within that niche gamer dollars
flow to literally hundreds of game publishers. This makes for a very competitive market with relatively few dollars available for the plethora of publishers. In an attempt to garner market share, publishers take very different approaches to their intellectual property and relations with its customers.
I doubt that many gamers put much thought into the business model of their favorite game company, but this is a mistake. A deeper understanding of a publisher’s business model grants some insight into how a publisher handles its fans, intellectual property, editions and third party publishers. All of which contributes to the success or failure of a given game.
For this post, imagine the game publishing community as a city with three key areas; the citadel, the beer garden and the bazaar. These represent the three most common publisher business models. I want to discuss each one in turn, both its benefits and drawbacks. I am not interested in advocating any model over the others, but rather how the models impact consumers in the short and long-term.
Standing in the city’s heart is the mighty citadel. A fortress surrounded by barricades, guards and a very deep crocodile-filled moat. It is a beacon of organization and quality throughout the city. It’s high walls conceal mighty works within and the citadel’s products are of such quality that only the most skilled independent artisan hopes to approach their glory. Every month the gate opens and another fine product spews forth onto the city’s excited inhabitants. In fact, hundreds wait at the front gate. Each gamer eagerly tossing coins into the citadel’s coffers that they might receive that month’s publication. Other subscribe to a digital library of gaming content rather than buy conventional books. None dispute the citadel’s skill or pre-eminent place within the city. In either case, every penny goes to the citadel’s coffers.
The citadel jealously guards its secrets. Decisions made within are totally opaque to outsiders. Gamers occasionally petition to sell their thoughts and ideas using some of the citadel’s intellectual property. The citadel allows this, but only after exacting an ironclad oath of fealty. Once sworn to the citadel, these supplicants may hawk their wares at the front gate, but they are not allowed to add their ideas to the official canon. Although the citadel offers this oath of fealty, one receives the impression they would not mind if no one ever took the oath again.
The citadel also has squads of lethal lawyers that sally forth occasionally to protect their intellectual property with legal force. None may stand before their might and woe be unto the fool that earns their wrath. The citadel produces quality games like a precision machine, but no one save the citadel may contribute.
For all of its success, the citadel has its detractors. They rightly claim that the citadel relies too much on sameness. They produce endless product that all seems strangely familiar. Others complain that they have an arrogant, almost paternal relationship with its consumers. “We know what is good for you.” A few gamers worry that the lack of external input may encourage an unsustainable creative monoculture, vulnerable to self-delusion and cowardice. “We dare not try something new, it might fail. Let us keep producing what worked the last time.”
The most disturbing aspect of the citadel is its age. The current citadel is merely the latest in a long line of citadels. Each torn down and replaced in turn as their products become stale and unpopular. Some gamers fear their investment might go to waste when the citadel stops publishing the current edition and moves on, taking many gamers with them. Even worse, what happens to those gamers who chose a digital subscription instead of physical books when the digital initiative shuts down? It is theoretically possible to simply eradicate an old edition by deleting the online access and moving to the new edition.
Some gamers choose a less restrictive lifestyle over in the beer garden. The beer garden has a wall and gatekeepers, but they are a very relaxed bunch. The beer garden owners reserve the right to refuse entry to any aspiring brewers. The gate-keeper checks their ideas, skills and drive to succeed against some reasonable standards. If the supplicant qualifies, they enter the garden and begin selling their own brew. Although the products are of good quality, mostly due to the efforts of the gate-keeper, the beer garden rarely produces with the quality or frequency of the citadel. That said, the products are still fun to play, just rough around the edges.
For those gamers unwilling to bow to anyone at the citadel or the beer garden, there is the bazaar. The ultimate expression of chaos and free thought, the bazaar is home to hundreds of smaller producers. Some little more than a man in the street hawking his wares. A few vendors have stalls with a small following of devoted gamers. Others mine the abandoned ruins of old citadels for game rules and products. Endless variations, remixes and strangeness permeate the bazaar. Small games appear and disappear overnight. A rare few rise to the top of this morass and migrate to the beer garden or establish permanent buildings in the bazaar and gain large followings. The fans drive development of products with no oversight and are free to sell anything they come up with.
Sadly, though cheap and plentiful, quality in the bazaar varies wildly. Low quality garbage mixes freely with fun and original games and it is hard to spot the difference before purchasing. Caveat emptor.
In rereading this post, I finally understand that at its heart it is about control. Citadel business models use high control/low community input to guarantee high quality and professionalism. Whereas a bazaar relies on an uncontrolled community to drive development and encourages wild creativity, often with unpredictable results. All of the models offer some benefits and drawbacks and all are far from perfect. The ultimate decision lies with the individual consumer. If you buy the occasional book and do no participate in the games greater community or plan on publishing your own materials, then the citadel is an excellent model. If you seek a thriving publishing community with few intellectual property restrictions demands you go to the beer garden or the bazaar.
This post is not about telling anyone that one model is better than another, but rather the hope that it causes you to think. Think about the nature of RPG publishers going forward into the 21st century and what you personally would like to see from your game company. Because demand is the ultimate arbiter of success, we decide how the game publishers of tomorrow will function.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer
With regards to Eric S. Raymond for the inspiration.