Friday, July 1, 2011

Free to Play: Why Can't Tabletop Do It Too?

You may have seen the word "free" pop up here more frequently than in the past. It's no coincidence; since Free RPG Day just a few weeks ago, free has been on my mind an awful lot. I intend to continue my Free Hump Day posts, but today's discussion of free is going in a different direction.

I've become quite smitten with the PC gaming trend of Free to Play, or F2P release of games where companies offer a completely free entry point into their game and support the game's existence through extensive advertising and/or "microtransactions" where players are able to purchase superficial upgrades, access to new, exclusive areas in which to play, or character/play options which are just funky and weird for the sake of being funky or weird. Really, any aspect of a game from additional character slots in MMO's like Champions Online to weapon options and better ammo in F2P first-person shooters like Alliance of Valiant Arms could be made into a way for the company to make a profit on the game.

Now I mention those last two games specifically because, almost completely synchronized, when we got Free RPG Day, Steam was busy launching their big F2P wave of releases. I know F2P faces some legitimacy problems among the gaming crowds, but I feel like, with the push from Steam, they're really gaining ground. Of course, if you know anything about video games in the era of facebook, you'll have heard that Farmville is currently the number one game when it comes to active players, and it's kind of the big daddy of all F2P games (which, sadly, also leads to some of the questions of legitimacy).

So what does this mean for tabletop gaming? Does it mean anything? This is what I've been thinking about lately. I believe the F2P model offers a lot of promise in the world of tabletop gaming. My vision for a F2P tabletop RPG is a comapny, we'll use White Wolf as an example since they're almost set up like this anyway, that has a core rule set that's rock solid and offers TONS of additional, optional content. I use White Wolf instead of, say, Wizards of the Coast, because White Wolf has done a better job than anyone else when it comes to giving players options in a meaningful way. They also have embraced digital release above and beyond any other company out there.

So imagine a new New World of Darkness in which the new core blue book is available right on their front page as a F2P download. Every person in the world is one click away from being able to start reading and playing this nuNWOD. The current blue book is already a cheap enough entry point, but remove all "pay walls" from the basic rules, and anyone who's even a little curious can download the game and give it a shot. Think of it as A Nightmare at Hill Manor writ large and complete. From there, White Wolf can charge for additional supplemental material on a smaller basis or with large "value packs" which would equate to a whole book's worth of material.

Want to see how this would work? Well you're in luck, White Wolf already does this with their Hunter: The Vigil pdf products! Their Compacts and Conspiracies model is exactly how I'd love to see pretty much every company go about releasing digital products in the future. Essentially, each Compact and Conspiracy is going to be something that a player will really only need to pick one of to be able to fully expand their character. You can kind of think of them as class-specific expansions if you're more familiar with D&D. However, you can but the whole lot of them at a very discounted price so, as the Story Teller or GM, you can buy them all and have access to the whole thing.

This model only really works well in digital products. Companies can't afford to flood game store shelves with a hundred little mirco products counting at 10 or 15 pages each - it's completely unfeasible and vendors are going to have a ton of left over product that lingers on their shelves for years. However, it's hard to deny that digital/paperless isn't the future of the hobby. I desperately want to get a cheap tablet to start getting into the habit of running games completely digitally. It has a ton of bonuses with quicker release schedules (we've had the pdf for Dragon Age box set 2 for months - when are we getting the physical thing?), cheaper pricing, and infinitely easier storage.

I know some games are already free to play entirely, especially Eclipse Phase which is completely free to download wherever you can find a torrent site to do so. If you love the thing, you can support future releases by buying the juicy hardcover they have to offer. Of course there is a problem with going this route. Icons, a fantastic, lite supers tabletop game, had all their supplements at a very cheap price in the so-called "app-pricing" model. Long story short, Adamant found out that they weren't actually making any more money at the cheap price even with selling lots more copies. Additionally, tons and tons of micro expansions and options may very quickly separate players within the same group with differing income levels. This last bit can be taken care of by having a solid core that offers players more than enough options, making the playing field equal, without going into the weird/more crazy options in the free product.

So what do you think?



  1. I would argue that D&D 3.x is also released under exactly that model. The core rules are free. WotC didn't go with the micro-publication model, because too much of their market was still bound to the physical text at the time. However, DDI for 4e is arguably an implementation of the micro-publication model, just using subscriptions for smoother cash flow rather than micro-payments.

    There are a ton of arguments against this model, many of which are already being made against microtransactions in video games. First, players don't want to be arsed to pull out their wallet over and over again for the same game, even if the total cost is actually lower. Second, it creates an impression that you can buy your way to excellence in the game, or that those with less discretionary income are locked out of the advanced features.

    There is also the reality of business in the RPG world. Historically, core rulebooks are the money makers, and sourcebooks and adventures are gravy that are mostly churned out to keep the marketing machine in motion. The basic goal of a sourcebook is to break even on its own costs. Managing to cover its share of overhead is considered pretty impressive. Actual profit on a sourcebook is rare. That is the frequent driver, from the business end, for new editions. If you are giving away your core book for free, you are going to have a hard time making money.

    Now, an alternative approach is to leverage the patronage model or the Kickstarter model. Get early adopters/investors to cover the raw costs of developing and producing the core rulebook in return for bennies. Then, you can make the core rules available to everyone for free. You'll never get rich with that method, but you can build one hell of a fan community.

  2. Fantastic input Marshall! I totally get the complaints leveraged at microtransactions in the PC world, but as a regular PC gamer who buys almost exclusively off Steam, and trusts Steam to protect my information, I think if we could get a reliably safe online vendor (rpgnow/drivethru rpg may already fill this role), you don't really need to dig your CC out every time you want to buy something.

    I understand the concern about "buying your way to the top" and one danger you didn't mention - the Magic: The Gathering effect. People hate the idea of randomized, collectible aspects in their RPG's (even wizards doesn't push this too hard), but I think to make it work, you have to have the most powerful options available on the core book and then each subsequent, for-cash release just gives the players more options, not power. This is kind of the holy grail of game design however, so I'm under no delusions that this is simple to accomplish.

    I agree, and as we've seen, the later a book is released in the life cycle of a game, the less profit it makes, but that is the traditional model of core products + supplements. I'd argue that the F2P model of sales doesn't correlate directly to the old print model and it would be difficult to see how it work without seeing it would work. I'm really interested in how the Compacts and Conspiracies products have sold for White Wolf.

    I dig your final suggestion about Kickstarting and building a fanbase to an ultimate free core product. I think you'd end up making more money in the long run if you then adopted the F2P model for the general audience that couldn't or wouldn't get in on the Kickstarter. You get the huge bonus of having a loyal fanbase through the Kickstarter that's invested in your product and will evangelize the good work of your good work.

  3. Back when DriveThruRPG did a "free product of the week," the WOD Rulebook actually showed up there fairly regularly. While it never went officially free to play, they certainly gave it away often enough to help them out considerably.

  4. The model is different for TRPG than online games. The micro-payment item is yours and yours alone. You can't just copy it out to any number of people or upload that new sword or armor to a torrent and share a .99c item with 10000 people.

    I believe to succeed you must build a following but you have to keep in mind that the no/low cost 'test drive' is the general entry point for TRPG and the kickstarter/ransom/pre-order model will most likely come to dominate.

    I also firmly believe in a solid web presence offering not only pay but free material and interactive activities all the time. Community is everything. You want to be their 'home' page.

    Help your customers to satisfy their gaming needs even if there isn't a penny of profit in it for you. They will remember who helped them out. For instance, even if you don't sell a VTT package point them in the direction of what is available. Then when you can be begin to support that area you can notify happy customers that they can get everything in one place for their game experience.

    There are many ways to approach all this and it makes it another reason why I believe we are in the 'golden' age of gaming now :)

    It's fun again :)

  5. Free RPG Day, and other RPG quick starts are exactly this model. 4e released H1-Keep on the Shadowfell, CoC's Quickstart, etc. etc...


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