To D20 or Not to D20….

Recently, there’s been some movement on a proposal (put forth here, among other places) for someone to put together a Wiki-based website, where all of the Open Content from hundreds of D20 products would be available online for free. Sure, it’s legal, and within the terms of the Open Game License…but I suspect that it would have a massively negative impact on those of us who sell this stuff, especially PDF publishers who make much of their money on backlist sales that would essentially be immediately cut off, with the Open Content posted for free. The topic is being actively discussed, with no small amount of vitriol, in many quarters—notably here. The problem is that most of the folks in the “for” column are designers who think it would be a great resource to find existing Open Content for projects they’re working on, or gamers who think that everything should be free. Publishers, especially those for whom this represents a living rather than a hobby, are noticably less enthused.

The thing is, the D20 market isn’t the most stable market in the world. People CAN post Open Content freely, under the terms of the license. Wizards of the Coast CAN, at any moment, publish a rules revision that cuts the legs out from the market, or they can simply decide that the new version will not be covered by the license at all. This is why electronic publishing is able to make a fairly successful go of it. We PDF publishers can react to changes much more quickly than our print-publishing brethren.

However….

I’ve been wondering, even before this whole thing surfaced, if it’s not worth my while to start putting out more non-D20 material. Get a market base firmly established in the event that the bottom does drop out. I’ve got a number of projects in various stages of pre-production. Perhaps it’s time to dust them off.

(For those who are interested, the projects in question are:

  • Black Powder, Black Magic: A “twisted history” game—the Napoleonic age with behind-the-scenes dark magical happenings and monsters. Sharpe’s Rifles Meets Hammer Horror.
  • Gloriana: Originally conceived as a D20 game, easily ported over to a non-D20 rules system– Elizabethan Fantasy game.
  • Heroes of the New Wave: My goofiest concept: Neo-pulp adventures of the 1980s. Duran Duran Meets Doc Savage.

No shortage of ideas. The question is whether the sales that I’ve seen with Adamant producing D20 material would carry over, just on the strength of our brand. Probably not, since there are more D20 players…so a drop is inevitable. How large of a drop, though?

22 Replies to “To D20 or Not to D20….”

  1. Honestly, I’d be more interested in all three if they WEREN’T d20. But I’m not the biggest d20 fan on the planet.

    HotNW really needs to be something more system light. Maybe John Nephew would let you do something with Feng Shui for it. I could see it as a weird alt-juncture.

  2. HotNW really needs to be something more system light. Maybe John Nephew would let you do something with Feng Shui for it. I could see it as a weird alt-juncture.

    *cough*

    PDQ licensing fees are crazy-reasonable. And negotiable.

    CU

  3. I also agree that I’d be more likely to look at the projects if they are non-d20. We’ve seen d20 sales plummet over the last couple of years whereas our non-d20 ranges have stayed very consistent or have actually gained in sales.

    There is a sizable market sector that shuns anything d20 (but then they pretty much did from the start) but what we’re now seeing is many of the d20 players also shunning the vast majority of d20 products. Very few d20 companies have maintained good sales (in the print sector anyway – I know next to nothing about the PDF market).

    Certainly if you were to sell print copies of any of the above three titles we’d be very interested if they were non-d20 as we’d have guaranteed sales at a certain level. If they were d20 we’d struggle to sell more than a handful through the store.

  4. Very few d20 companies have maintained good sales (in the print sector anyway – I know next to nothing about the PDF market).

    The PDF market is pretty much exactly the opposite. According to the most recent data in Comics and Games Retailer, the print RPG business has seen a 78% drop in sales from October 2004 through June 2005. On the other hand, the PDF market has been breaking sales records on a regular basis. (RPGNow, the largest site and market leader, has total sales every month which are larger than the previous month’s and it’s been that way for going on 3 years now.) 70-odd percent of sales in PDF are D20.

    Certainly if you were to sell print copies of any of the above three titles we’d be very interested

    The problem there is that I’d have to get into distribution….which means I’m only drawing 40% of retail, and dealing with distributors who regularly rob Peter to pay Paul.

    I plan on doing print, but only direct-to-consumer….although I might also be convinced to do direct to stores run by people I know and trust. :)

  5. According to the most recent data in Comics and Games Retailer, the print RPG business has seen a 78% drop in sales from October 2004 through June 2005.

    Holy assfuck!

  6. Yup….of course, C&GR is not exactly bullet-proof. It’s a self-selecting sample, but it’s the only public sales figures we have.

    According to the recent issue, the total average per-store unit shares of RPGs sold in any given month in the reporting stores fell from 119 units in October (which was high…most of 2004 languished in the 70-unit range) to 32 units in June (the most recent reporting period).

  7. “‘ve been wondering, even before this whole thing surfaced, if it’s not worth my while to start putting out more non-D20 material.”
    The problem, of course, is that saying half the RPG players only play d20 and half won’t touch d20 suggests there are two camps. There aren’t. At best there are three:
    1. Those who play d20 and nothing else
    2. Those who play some other system and nothing else
    3. Those who will play any game they think interesting, regardless of system
    If you’re going to start doing some non-d20 stuff you need to know if you’re aiming for 2. or 3. because you won’t get both. 2. is a larger market but broken down into smaller groups than 3.–more people play Storytelling AND GURPS AND FUDGE AND Rifts than play independent games, but more people play independent games than play just GURPS (maybe). So the question is whether you pick a different existing system to use or create a new system for your games. You know perfectly well that, from a design standpoint, I advocate unique systems for each game as necessary, but I’m not sure that’s the best method from a business standpoint.

    * Black Powder, Black Magic: sadly, this may be too close to Rippers now.
    * Gloriana: Fun, though bordering on several other games (including Age of Empire)
    * Heroes of the New Wave: Adventure! meets Wyrd is Bond or Last Exodus?

    “No shortage of ideas.”
    No, and I know those are just the most recent ones.

    “The question is whether the sales that I’ve seen with Adamant producing D20 material would carry over, just on the strength of our brand.”
    Unfortunately, your brand is entirely d20 right now, so it’s a good bet most non-d20 players don’t know Adamant at all.
    Have you thought about dual-statting? Do a few supplements as both d20 and something else (FUDGE? Tri-Stat? Action? Something you can get for free or for cheap) so non-d20 players start to see your books.

  8. We’ve certainly seen sales figures fall on the RPG front but I’d estimate our fall is around 15-20%. This has come at a time where Boardgame sales have risen by about 10%.

    We’re still seeing figures smaller than the last couple of years (and 2004/5 was lower than 2003/4) but nothing as drastic as some it seems.

    The other thing is that we’ve seen some products have much better than anticipated initial sales. We sold 150 Vampire: The Requiems in the first 10 days of launch, 60 Ars Magica 5th Ed and over 100 Warhammer FRPG’s in the first week. This proves, to me at least, that if you actually publish books that people want then you’ll get the sales to match.

  9. We buy direct from POD publishers so would be happy to sort something out that bypasses the distribution system if needs be. Also happy to help promote the games through our convention stalls and demos over here in Europa but that’s the subject for an email I’ll send early next week. I think you know my general geist from earlier mails though :p

    I’ll chat off-journal with you thought about ideas though!

  10. Who Cares?

    DDL* is over, and you shouldn’t spend more time on it than is absolutely neccesary. Not to be a jackass (I wouldn’t want you to be upstaged) but I really think that the product needs to be much better than a non d20 product to even be saleable. I think your original work is much better and I look forward to reading your next original game.

    *D&D, D&D Licensed, OGL, etc.

  11. I understand the consternation, Gareth.

    I’ve been specifically writing non-d20 books lately. The first is AssassinX (currently free, until I fix it up), and the latest is Junk Dreams, which I expect to have finished in time for next year’s GenCon.

    The market -is- rough these days, but regardless, I am still releasing my non-d20 products under the terms of the Open Game License because I believe in the license.

  12. I’d vote for Black Powder, Black Magic — is that the same project as “Apolyon Noir” from a few years back? It’s an underdeveloped period for fantasy RPing. One of my own pet projects is a Regency-era game that combines Jane Austen teacup drama with powerful, dangerous fey magic — it will be called Pride and Extreme Prejudice.
    Gloriana is basically the same fantasy analogue of England that Northern Crown presents as Albion. Could you do it as a Northern Crown expansion?
    Heroes of the New Wave? Great idea, if you think there’s really enough to that milieu to sustain a RPG campaign. I also would add Buckaroo Banzai to your font of inspirational material for that one.

    I have no idea how non-d20 products would go over from Adamant. It seems that you’re known as a d20 shop, so there might be some initial trouble finding your market for non-d20 products. That’s not a very brilliant insight, sorry.

  13. Ah. Not sure if I’d call it too close. Rippers is stated as Victorian, BPBM is Napoleonic/Regency…a good 40-50 years earlier. Rippers looks like it’s more pulpy than I’m doing as well.

  14. Not precisely the same, no, but you know that’s not the point. You mentioned Sharpe’s Rifles meets Hammer Horror, and Rippers seems close enough to that.It’ll muddy the waters, and that’s the only real concern.

  15. Re: Who Cares?

    I’d disagree on the first two counts, Ross (I’ll agree on Gareth doing original work). DDL isn’t over, though it’s hurting–people are still putting out books left and right, and they’re still selling (esp. in PDF, according to the numbers Gareth mentioned). And saying a d20 product has to be much better than a comparable non-d20 product to be saleable isn’t true, IMHO, particularly if you’re talking about a non-d20 book that isn’t tied to another major system. New d20 books need to find the gaps, since so much has already been covered, but if you can fill one of those spaces you’ll still have a built-in market. Standalone products don’t have a built-in market so they’ve got to stand out more to get picked up.

  16. Re: Who Cares?

    I think a fairly strong case can be made that the DDL PDF market will gradualy become a smaller and smaller self selecting set. I see Gareth has a titan who chooses to play in a smaller pond. If gaming is an art form, and I think it may be, then we need people like him working in broader markets. Much like Asylum was heady arty stuff, I think much of Gareths work is like that. I think the DDL work now, as good as it may be, could also be the danceband on the Titanic.

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