Sunday 17 October 2021

A Full-Time RPG Income

What does it take to earn a full-time income from RPGs? This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation to illustrate one way of looking at this.

The RPG market is growing (rapidly, apparently!) Every year, more and more RPG gamer dollars are spent on new and classic products.

At the same time, the barrier to entry to make RPG products has never been lower. There are countless free SRDs to use as the spine of the game, the tools to produce are cheaper than ever, the publishing routes (e.g. POD) are wide open, and the knowledge to use all of this stuff is splattered all over the internet.

What was once a sheaf of hand-typed homegrown rules can now become a 'product', and tens of thousands do every year. The money brought in by the growing RPG audience is spread across more and more products all the time.

So, for a designer to go full time, they need to capture enough of that audience to support them. This brings me to the key point of this little model:

How many RPG fans does it take to support one designer?

Let's say, for you, a full-time income in RPGs means $50,000 annually. (Like all the other numbers in this model, we can tweak this to be whatever we want.)

Now, how many RPG buyers does this money come from?

Let's say the typical RPG buyers spend $100 on RPG-related products each year. This means it takes the combined purchases of 500 buyers to produce the $50,000/yr income. That's fine, except for a few assumptions that we can adjust for:

  • Those buyers don't only buy your stuff
  • You probably need help making the products, so the revenue is shared among a group of designers, illustrators, and so on
  • You certainly need help printing and shipping the products to people

Adjusting for these assumptions increases the number of RPG buyers required to make up that income. Let's assume that:

  • Each buyer buys 6 products from different indie publishers annually, dividing that $100 among six indie publishers
  • Half the retail price goes to printing, shipping, logistics, and processing fees that have nothing to do with the creative team, dividing the creative team's share in half
  • You're doing a fifth of the work of the product team (design, writing, illustration, editing, layout, marketing), so you get a fifth of the remaining proceeds
This means it actually takes 60 buyers (6 x 2 x 5) to make up each $100 that makes it into your pocket, or 30,000 buyers overall.

So, there's your target: you need to get a 20% profit share* of one or more RPG products that collectively reach 30,000 buyers every year.

* * *

For perspective, the Trilemma Compendium had 2,248 backers on Kickstarter, and is on track to become a Mithral-selling product (2501+ sales) on DriveThruRPG by the end of this year, about 1400 sales/year. In isolation, that sounds great, but it's not even remotely close to the target this model requires.

Going by this model, for a full-time income in RPGs, I'd need to:

  • Make several such books every year 
  • Vastly increase the audience that each one reaches
This still doesn't get me anywhere near the target in year 1, but in a few years, the majority of sales are actually out of the back catalog.

* * *

I don't have any special wisdom about this, but a few observations:

More buyers means higher $/hr. This might be obvious, but the more people that benefit from the time you put in, the easier it is to make some money at it. Making something for a hundred people isn't remotely as useful as making something for a thousand if they both take you the same time.

Having said that, more buyers is only better if the rest of the factors hold up. Projects that do truly vast numbers (e.g. WOTC hard covers) may be the big leagues, but they might not be the sweet spot. The product revenue is shared among a big team, and I think a lot of it is work for hire. My unsubstantiated hunch is that Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine is doing better than the typical WOTC hardcover contributor: very small team, majority profit share, substantial back catalog sales.

Getting a share of profits looks even more important now. Most of a product's sales are in years 2+. Kickstarters are flashy and great, but by year three, the compendium will have sold more on DTRPG than it did during its Kickstarter. The only way to benefit from those sales is to have a share of the ongoing profits.