James Mishler recently devoted a long blog post (The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling) to basically berating gamers because they are not willing to pay the (higher) prices he thinks RPG materials should sell for. He seems to believe the prices are artificially low because gamers are cheap and refuse to pay what it takes to produce high quality material that is very profitable to publishers.
Of course, there is one huge problem with his argument. In a free market economy, the fair market value of a product is not the cost of production plus a sizable amount for profit for the producers and resellers. The fair market value of a product is what consumers are willing to pay for the item. If consumers are only willing to pay $19.95 for your product, the fair market value of the product is $19.95. The fair market value remains $19.95 whether the product costs you $5.00 to produce or $500.00 to produce. If the product costs you $5.00 to produce you can sell it for $19.95 and probably make a profit — even in a two or three layer distribution system. If it costs you $500 to produce and you need to price it at $1000 to make a profit after distribution costs, then your product is not going to sell. The fault is not with the consumers who are only willing to pay $19.95 for it, but with the producer for not producing a product that can be profitable at its fair market value. As much as producers may not like it, consumers, not producers, set the fair market value for a product — that is basic economics and all the whining and blaming the consumer for being “too cheap” is not going to change a thing.
Perhaps a better question than “how can we shame consumers into being willing to pay more” would be “why is the fair market value for RPG products so low”? Personally, I think the answer to this question is obvious.
From the point of view of a publisher, the problem with the RPG hobby is that hobbyists really don’t need anything other than a set of rules (and perhaps some dice) to play. And only a couple of players in a group really even need to own a copy the rules.
Once you have sold those, everything else a player might buy is completely optional. Players don’t really even need minis and battlemats for games whose rules seem to require them as one can make cardboard counters and draw a grid on a large sheet of cardboard. Adventures and supplements are nice for those who want them, but they aren’t needed and will therefore be bought by even fewer players than buy the core rules for a game.
Optional hobby items seldom regularly sell for premium prices, except in very small quantities. Worse, there are a large number of companies supplying a huge number of these optional tabletop RPG items. No matter how good these optional items are, only a relatively few hobbyists are going to buy them. Lots of product that players don’t need to buy to play means that the fair market value of these products is going to be low and even at those low prices few products are going to sell in large quantities to the player market.
Most companies producing such items therefore depend on the collector market for enough purchases to break even or make a profit. RPG collectors are really a separate (but overlapping) hobby. The RPG Collector hobby needs the product to collect far more than the RPG Player hobby needs product to play — which is probably why so many game companies seem to produce products aimed more for collectors than players. However, the collector market is smaller and needs far higher production values than the player market does. This drives up the cost of production meaning even fewer units will be sold to actual players.
Making a profit off of tabletop RPG players is hard and most companies that try to do so will fail miserably. Of course, that’s what happens to most new businesses in any field. Companies who want to survive and make a profit from the RPG hobbyist need to quickly learn to produce what the RPG hobbyist wants at the price he or she is willing to pay. If they can’t, they need to move into a different market. Publishers whining to consumers that the RPG hobby is “cheap” because it will not pay the prices the publisher want them to for whatever one publishes just makes the publisher look like a clueless newbie in the business world.