Can a free RPG product be too good? Can it's production values overshadow other free products to the point that it becomes the "standard-bearer" of the OSR, for good or ill?
This topic came up in the comments to my previous post, and it is a valid question.
Swords & Wizardry Complete is a full art product formerly offered at a $10 price point that is now offered for free. It became free because the cost of production was recouped (the final piece of the puzzle was 400+ backers on the Frog God's latest Kickstarter).
S&W Complete is not a new product. It's just newly free in PDF.
From my perspective, I always treated full art versions of OSR releases otherwise available as free without art as "donation-ware". If I paid for the full art PDF, I was kicking a few coins to the publisher because I enjoyed the "no-art" version, but not enough to buy a hardcopy. Which, to be honest, wasn't often.
PDF copies of OSR rulesets are, in many ways, a marketing tool to sell dead tree copies of the same product (this doesn't apply to all OSR rulesets - for example, dead tree copies of BFRPG are sold at cost).
There is a strange juxtaposition in our hobby, where some work is produced for free or at cost, and other work is produced with the idea of making a profit.
LL and WF can be found in game store on occasion as they are in the distribution channels. I haven't seen S&W in a game store yet, but the Frog God Games market presence and web store has a major presence online, and many of their products are available at the Paizo online store.
So yes, they are all looking to get a piece of your "Old School" dollars. These rules are out there to drive sales and help someone make a living.
Would seeing / owning the full art version of Swords & Wizardry Complete make me more likely to search it out in dead tree format then if it were an "art free" version? Probably, but I'll be disappointed when I can't find it in the game store. Actually, there are good odds I wont find any of the OSR rulesets in a game store for purchase.
Does S&W Complete raise the bar and expectations of what one would expect in an OSR ruleset? Probably.
Could Labyrinth Lord or LotFP Weird Fantasy meet or beat (especially in the case of WF) that bar when it comes to art? Sure. They would just need to offer their full art PDF's for free. They've been available for years now anyway and I doubt they make much in actual sales at this point compared to their dead tree versions. They could be used as an advertisement of sorts to sell their matching print products.
Does any of this apply to the more "hobbyist" rulesets, such as Delving Deeper, Dark Dungeons. Adventures Dark & Deep, Arrows of Indria and the rest? I don't think so. There are different expectations built into these.
Will Swords & Wizardry Complete become the standard bearer of the OSR? I've heard it argued that Labyrinth Lord has held or currently holds that position, but I never put much weight on that. The OSR has many standard bearers, both large and small that appeal to different members of our hobby for different reason.
If Swords & Wizardry Complete DID become the defacto standard bearer of the OSR, it's because Goblinoid Games and LotFP and all the rest allow it to. Well, that and a lot of luck. The OSR may be a small pond in the hobby of RPGs, but it's a crowded pond of compatible products that stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. All rely on the others in some manner for support.