Pricing for Niche Electronic Titles

A disclaimer: I wrote most of this post before Adamant Entertainment announced they were re-pricing all of their PDFs at $1, or what Gareth dubbed the "app-pricing" model. I think the approach is interesting, but this post is not a "response" to his decision ... although I am incredibly curious as to how it turns out, of course!

If you are publishing a niche RPG—material not compatible with Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder—you should maximize your profits by not underpricing your exclusive electronic releases. An "exclusive electronic release" is material not available in print (not including true Print on Demand, but including short run printing) or that don't have costs subsidized in a substantial way.

So, by way of example:

A PDF or other electronic title sold on OneBookShelf (DriveThruRPG/RPGNow) gives the publisher 70% of sale price (65% if the publisher is not an exclusive vendor). This means a five dollar title leaves the publisher with $3.50; a two dollar title $1.40.

I think that Eclipse Phase has proved that low price points on electronic core rulebooks can lead to a raise in the number of sales—enough to make up for the difference in per-unit profit. Customers are interested in saving 10 bucks (typical RPG electronic core rulebooks are 20-25 or even more, while Eclipse Phase is 15) and much more willing to try a new game if it's inexpensive—but supplements are most often sold to existing customers, people who already like your game. They already perceive themselves as invested* (time, money, emotion) in your game, and so a difference of a few dollars is less likely to make a negative impact in your sales. However, it can make a big difference in how much money you have to invest in the projects ... And the amount of profit you end up making.

An Eclipse Phase PDF project like Continuity has a total budget of $800. It breaks down like this:

Writing: 200 (5000 words at four cents a word)
Editing: 200 (this covers a copy-edit and dev-edit pass from Rob Boyle. He deserves a raise on this.)
Layout: 100 (I do all the layout and maps in-house.)
Art: 300 (2 to 3 pieces, playing the same as we pay for artwork destined for print.)

There is no budget for "other stuff" yet ... so for example, in Continuity, the audio files we included came out of the art budget.

This means that we need to sell 229 copies of a $5 exclusive electronic release to break even. Priced at $2, we would have to sell 572 copies just to break even. What if we sold 572 copies at 5 bucks? Profit of $2002—enough to fund two and a half more releases. Now, our exclusive electronic releases aren't making huge profits yet, but we are breaking even relatively quickly—and we have a formula for, at the least, supplying the fanbase with a steady flow of material!

* I try not to use the words "invest" or "invested" when talking about my hobbies. I feel that it's too loaded. But that's a personal thing.

Not All Gamers are Plugged In

One of the common misconceptions about gamers is that they're all plugged in—they're all on the internet, they all read forums and keep up with publisher's blogs, they subscribe to podcasts and know what's being released when.

This is hogwash. There are many gamers that don't get news from anyplace except their local gaming store, and are largely or entirely insulated from trends in the gaming industry. Their hobby is one or two games that they buy and/or play. They come into the store once every few months, pick up anything new for their game of choice, and go home. They may see other games on the shelf, but they don't know what's in them and they don't have the time or inclination to learn. They don't participate in public/organized games at the store, they don't go to conventions -- they have friends that they game with, and that's that.

Last fall I was in my FLGS and another customer saw me picking up a wide variety of new releases. He asked if I was a "game collector" and I said no, I just try to keep up-to-date on what other companies are doing, as I work in the game industry. He then asked me what superhero games were good these days, and I pointed him to Mutants and Masterminds on the shelf (I also mentioned HERO, but said local store doesn't stock it). He asked how you make characters, and I said "Well, it's a point-based system" -- his reply was "What's a point-based system?"

I briefly explained what a point-based system was, and he found it incredibly difficult to understand that you could make a character in this game without picking some sort of archetype/class/template first: "So how do I make a speedster?" "Well, you build up the right stats and buy powers to make him faster." "But how do you know he's a speedster?!"

So, three things that a five minute conversation with this guy revealed:

  1. Even though he likes supers, he's never read or even flipped through Mutants & Masterminds, one of the two most popular superhero RPGs of the last decade, despite the title being in regular stock at the local store we both shop at.
  2. He didn't know what a point-based system was and had never (knowingly) played a game that used them.
  3. He had never (knowingly) played a game that didn't involve archetypes/classes/templates of some sort.

None of those things are bad -- if he's having fun gaming, that's great. But it does show that until someone actually stepped in and directly gave him that information, he had never learned or experienced three things that I suspect the average "tabletop gamer on the internet" would consider common knowledge.

How to Ask Smart Questions about Games

Eric S. Raymond of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame also maintains a FAQ/guide on How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. I find it a useful document and have read it several times over the years, but it's steeped in Open Source and code-hacking culture. Even though it's aimed at non-technical users seeking answers for technical questions, it isn't a document I would point people to regularly, if for nothing but the length.

Questions about roleplaying, board, or card games are often very technical and deep, whether they are about mechanics or an elaborate setting. Good questions get good answers—but recently I've been seeing more and more questions that are either ill-formed or lacking necessary information. Dare I say it, I've been seeing questions that are "twitter length" when they don't need to be.

Before I move forward, I am going to issue two standard disclaimers:

  1. Don't interrupt a game to look up a rule online, phone a friend, etc. Make a ruling that is satisfactory to all players and agree to play by that ruling until the end of the game, then work on a solution for future games or play sessions. Take some quick notes or a photograph of the game state so you can remember the exact problem. I almost always have my laptop nearby, so I just record an audio explanation of the issue so I can fully remember it later—any easy recording device will do!
  2. In a non-competitive game like most roleplaying games, what "the company" or "other gaming groups" think or do is not relevant to your gaming group. Any solution that pleases everyone in your gaming group is the correct solution [if not the most correct solution] to a rules or setting problem. This is true in competitive games within your group, as well.

Now, onto asking questions!

Before You Ask

  • Do your research: first, re-read the relevant sections of the rules. Memory or oral renditions of the rules may not be accurate. The first person I played Magic: The Gathering with told me that if you had zero cards in your hand when it was your draw, you drew seven cards instead of the normal single card!
  • If the rules don't answer your questions, do a web search, check for an official FAQ or errata, discuss the question with your gaming group, and ask a local expert in the game.

Ask the Question

  • Start by listing the edition/version of the game you are playing, and then ask your question in the simplest and most compact terms. You want readers to quickly figure out if they can help you and move on if they can't.

Explain What You Know

  • List out the rules/books you have so far used to research the problem, and the other books/expansions to which you have access.
  • List out any other things that may be relevant, such as house rules you are using that may interact with the canon rules.
  • List the page references for what is confusing you: if you have looked for specific rules on p. 191 and there are additional rules on p. 256 that you have not found, a reference to p. 191 only will give someone a good clue where to lead you next. If you're talking about a board or card game, explain the relevant things that are on the playing field. Remember that in some board or card games, the rules change slightly depending on the number of players, so list that, also.

Provide an Example

  • If it's a rules question, a specific implementation example from your game will help the readers understand your question and will give an answer more context when it comes to back to you. If it's a board or card game giving you trouble, take a digital picture of the playfield if you think that will help.

Provide Options

  • If you have researched the question to the point where you have multiple possible answers, present the options and your logic behind them as if they were answers to a multiple-choice test.


  • Go back and proofread your question; make sure that any numbers are correct and that you start with the basics and work to the more complicated parts of the problem. If your question is broken, getting an accurate answer will be even more difficult!
  • Use the standard terms that the game uses—even if your local gaming group has its own slang, the more your question hews to the game-as-published, the easier it will be for people to answer.

Thank Yous

  • Thank people in advance for reading and thinking about your post, and after you receive answers, thank them.
  • Point out the answer that you plan on using.
  • Include any additional notes you may have from other research or reading you've done.

Similarly, many of these hints can help you when answering questions, too: include book and page references, quick examples as necessary, and don't devolve into too much slang, shorthand, or netspeak.