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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kevin Crawford responded to Frank Mentzer's Commentary on the Viability of the OSR Market


As the original post with Frank's commentary is 5 days old and hasn't had a comment in 48 hours before +Kevin Crawford 's this afternoon, I'm breaking Kevin's comment into a post of its own. It deserves to be read and commented upon.

I'll be reserving my thoughts to the comments section of this post...

Here's Kevin's comment in text format:
"Speaking purely for myself, the OSR has been a very good market segment to me. In the past two years, I've had gross sales of about a half million dollars worth of Sine Nomine books. That's not mansion money on the post-tax net, but it is an extremely comfortable location-independent living for a single creator. 
And that, I think, is the key. The OSR as a market segment can absolutely provide a comfortable living to more creators than it does now, but those creators have to be able to take a project from inception to print with minimal outside involvement. My per-book profits are huge compared to the royalties I'd get from a publisher. They have to be, because in the last year I've sold 12,000 copies of one title or another, and if I were with a conventional fiction publisher they'd burn my rolodex card if I moved less than 20,000 on one title in a year. I can make a very comfortable living on 12,000 copies sold, but that living gets a whole lot less comfortable if I have to pay authors and layout designers on every product I issue. 
And by the same token, those creators have to _produce_. One swallow does not make a summer and one hit product does not make a living. They have to be able to hit their project deadlines and constantly create new, compelling products that draw new buyers and keep existing fans coming back for more. They can move tremendous amounts of back catalog this way, but only if they _have_ a back catalog. You know what a hit OSR product means? It means the customers are willing to see what else you've got."

35 comments:

  1. Pretty much any OSR product is easy to upconvert to the newer 5e as well. So when you publish an OSR adventure or setting, your main market is the people running old school games, but if it is good enough it spills over.

    I think the point on the market is that if you handle it properly, you can make money via OSR products, but if you can write a great adventure, you can hit a much larger market by aiming for 5e or Pathfinder. You will have more competition, but a OGL version of Stars Without Number in the 5e wrapper would be an even bigger hit.

    I backed Stars without Number's latest Kickstarter and I am looking forward to it, but I will upconvert to 5e for a thing I use.

    The one general comment I will make that as someone that mainly plays via VTT (Fantasy Grounds), OSR products tend to have maps in "old style" which look very uninteresting when displayed. I played 0 edition and AD&D and I do not miss DMing while the players made their own maps.

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    1. The reason I don't think that a 5e-ized version of SWN would necessarily be a huge seller is that I'm in no way convinced that people buy my games for the mechanics. I hear far too much from people who are exactly like you- they buy my games and then promptly use the tools and resources in them for their own favorite system, be it 5e or Savage Worlds or Exalted or Fate or B/X D&D. My default customer tends to be a GM who loves the sandbox-focused toolset and is much less focused on the rule system attached to it.

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    2. I'm sort of wondering how much OSR material ever gets used with the intended system :)

      Not that this is a bad thing, feature not bug, but somewhat funny.

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    3. OSR products are a stripped down, no rules in the way so the ideas are all in obvious view product. More modern products tend to have the formatting and rules get in the way, so you can't grasp the good parts are quickly.

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    4. @Ivan, assume the default is to kitbash whatever to make the campaign that group wants to run and play. I doubt there is more than a handful that uses the Majestic Wilderlands or Blackmarsh as RAW.

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    5. I've said before that the OSR is a language, with words such as "Hit Dice" and "Armour Class". It's nearly a universal language among experienced gamers. To me an OSR product is one which speaks in that language.

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    6. Well, "hit dice" and "AC" are only "universal" if all you speak is D&D. That's admittedly the English language of the RPG market, but it's far from even being _that_ universal, if anything.

      While in that particular "language" you get the ascending or descending AC sub-arguments, in other languages the respective sentence does not even translate. A certain amount of RPGs like AGE may be so similar that they can be classified as another Germanic language (as English is) but you don't automatically know AGE because you know D&D. Same for Monte Cook's cipher.

      Other large language trees are for example Basic Role-Playing/D100/OpenQuest/Legend/Call of Cthulhu/RuneQuest/Mithras. That would be the RPG equivalent of Spanish... I guess this analogy devolves quickly, though.

      Makes me wonder which RPG is Chinese - real lots of players but "less recognized" and hard to get into from the outside...

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    7. DerKastellan: "Makes me wonder which RPG is Chinese - real lots of players but "less recognized" and hard to get into from the outside..."

      Traveller, perhaps? It has its own taxonomy of languages, too, ranging from Classic Traveller - which has its own set of variants, such as the 77 and 81 editions - through the various editions (with a little side trip to Traveller: The New Era) up to Mongoose Traveller (with its own first and second editions) and Traveller5.

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  2. I remember a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Her band had a respectable fan folloiwng. When they released an album, it "bombed" because it sold about 25,000 copies. The studio said "bye."

    So they Kickstarted their next album. If I remember correctly, they got $1 million. And had about 25000 backers.

    The audience is there, but producers cannot simply rely on their good idea. They have to do more. A lot more.

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    1. I think that's an excellent point and dovetails nicely with what Kevin is saying. These days, in many different forms of mass media, you see an explosion of content and a lot more niche markets. There's a lot less room for superstars, period. You see this in music, film, video games...why should role-playing games be any different? It's a small market to begin with, so you have WotC...and everyone else.

      But Kevin's point is really important here. You can still be quite profitable if you can cut out the middle man. And the whole reason that there is a flood of content is because it's so easy to self-publish these days (relatively speaking). So...get rid of the middle man and make some money doing what you want for a (relatively) small but discerning fanbase.

      I think Mentzer's original point was pretty dumb, anyway. You can reasonably argue that the OSR market is small, but I'd like to see the data that shows we won't open our wallets. The nice thing about OSR is that the relative uniformity of the system means that someone interested in OSR stuff could jump into almost any OSR product. There's a lot of potential, there.

      As always, I have tremendous respect for Kevin. High-quality products delivered on-time with amazing consistency...Sine Nomine is such a class act. And so is Kevin; he stays mature and on-topic, and he's right.

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    2. "I think Mentzer's original point was pretty dumb, anyway."

      Honestly, I don't think Mr. Mentzer was even really trying to make a sensible point. He was trying to create a smokescreen, to make it sound like he had been banned from Dragonsfoot because of an abstract disagreement over a point of principle - rather than because, as we subsequently learned, he apparently sent a profane and threatening PM to another member. If that's true (and I believe it is), his "thesis" probably wasn't intended to bear much scrutiny.

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    3. Agreed; I am not buying this hacking business, either.

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    4. I think he raised a valid argument, but calling somebody's opinion "pretty dumb" because it does not align with your preconceived notions is... questionable.

      No, let's all pretend the OSR market is viable because a person like Kevin Crawford who is - besides art - a one person publishing machine of exceptional talents makes money of it. That's the extreme case. Every publisher who actually hires people like Goodman Games has at least one foot in either 5e or Pathfinder or both.

      So, in other words: The OSR is great... if you don't mind doing everything yourself... or don't mind selling to more popular markets to make sure you actually hit a profit.

      And that means: Mentzer has a point. Regardless of the DF stuff.

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    5. PS - I once interviewed Crawford... I think it was before doing his Godbound KS... and he also said that he had to build his market by first giving away free stuff for years to build brand recognition... So, it took years of "affording to lose" to actually win the needed marketshare.

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    6. In truth, I _still_ give away free stuff to build brand recognition. But the point is to give away free stuff in a way that actually makes you money. Sine Nomine has never had a year in the red- it's always operated at a profit, even if that profit was only eight thousand in its first year. The critical factor in that was ensuring that there was always some way for a pleased reader to give me money. Sure, you could get SWN free, but there was also a POD print version waiting there to throw money at, and a growing stack of supplements to buy in PDF and POD formats if the initial core entry point suited the reader.

      Way too many OSR authors make it hard to pay them. The PDF needs to have a POD, they need to be released at the same time, and there needs to be enough of a back catalog that a satisfied whale can go in and scoop up a hundred bucks of stuff with a few clicks if they like your free entry product enough.

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    7. I'm... Kinda picturing RPG consumers scooping up huge amounts of RPG supplements like krill.

      That kinda makes me happy.

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  3. If the OSR is going to remain a viable thing, it is going to be because of creators like Kevin Crawford. if one is using name-recognition from era past and has to assemble a team to produce a viable product, a living wage is going to be a challenge.

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  4. There's more than one person proving the viability of the OSR every day, but if there was only one person doing it, it'd be Kevin. One thing I find very telling about being viable in the OSR is his idea that people buy his products for sandbox content rather than a specific rules system. I think Franks freakout (I'm going to have make a real effort not to call it The Frankout from now on) was an overreaction to a lackluster response to yet another campaign setting when he was expecting the entire OSR to sit up and cheer Gygax's endorsement.

    I bought SWN in dead tree because I'd gotten so much use from the free pdf and, though I didn't back Kevin's latest kickstarter, I am planning on buying the book once it's published. My point is, there's more to market viability than successful kickstarters. Not that anyone was arguing that point.

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    1. The point (and it seems clear to me, but maybe because I have a peculiar POV) is not if OSR is viable or if it isn't: it is.
      The same way food trucks are viable, still they are irrelevant to McDonald's, Burger King, Nando's and all the rest of the market.

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    2. That's a very good analogy. I'm just not sure that food trucks actually are irrelevant to corporate chains. RPGPundit and Zak S. are credited for consultation in the PHB; I don't think the OSR is going to drive WotC in bankruptcy, but that's not irrelevance.

      Then again, I'm willing to buy PF and 5e products, but as a food service professional I avoid MacDonald's etc. like the plague, so maybe I'm just overworking the metaphor.

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    3. Ask yourself this:
      "RPGPundit and Zak S. are credited for consultation in the PHB. What if they weren't? Would 5E lose market?"
      I think the answer's no - although I am sure that, thanks to their names, 5E *shifted* a fraction of its market (don't forget that there's people out there who actively dislike those two, so they probably DIDN'T buy the PHB because of their names...)

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    4. I'm not saying you're wrong, but it's important to remember that when the PHB was published, WotC was trying to regain marketshare with a new edition rather than avoid losing established marketshare. I mean, you don't have to ask that question in the hypothetical, neither of them is credited in the MM or the DMG, and I'd be completely unsurprised to learn that the PHB outsold both. However, I'd suspect that drop has to do with other factors.

      I think their Pundit and Zak being credited by name is less indicative of the relevancy of the OSR than the fact that WotC felt a need to account for the preferences of OSR customers in the design of 5e.

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    5. Well, it's no secret that a sizeable part of the failure of 4th edition was due to its departure to the usual D&D structure (so much that it can be said 4E is the "less D&D" edition). So, a couple of steps back were due.
      As for the PHB selling more that DMG and MM - well that's quite normal, it happens in every edition. I don't remember the exact numbers, but the PHB for 3.x sold far more than both DMG and MM together. Simply put, everybody needs the PHB, while only one person out of 4 (and that includes both DMs and curious players) needs the other books.

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  5. I missed the Stars without Number kick starter because I had too many irons in the fire.I know I will be buying it when it comes out because his stuff is that good.

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    1. His stuff is, without doubt, absolutely brillant. Not so keen on scifi, but Scarlet Heroes and Silent Legions are personal favorites.

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  6. Hmm. Is the OSR the "Uber" of the RPG industry? Using new technologies (on demand printing, digital distribution, layout software usable by amateurs, VTT even) to make the old models of publishing obsolete and non-profitable?

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    1. I stand by my food truck example: artisans serving handmade food to a selected, local audience who prefers not to eat at Mac's. And yes, using a different method of distribution.
      Also, spices on demand :)

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    2. That is a decent analogy except the RPG industry was never McDonald's. It was maybe, at one time, the local family restaurant in town. Those places might not go out of business because of the food trucks but they are going to lose some money for sure. They might not even notice it at first because those customers are still going to eat at both, much like many gamers buy both OSR and 'mainstream' games. They are also likely to be influenced by their customers new demand for farm-to-table and organic sourcing, etc., and so they will change up to meet that demand. Kind of like 5e clearly changed the direction of D&D as a result of the OSR influence.
      Is that 'relevance'? I guess that depends on your definition of relevance. It meets mine. Clearly there has been an impact on the whole. I think the quote that got all this going was from FM was "Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

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    3. But I suppose the OSR is not quite "uber".. yet anyway! :)

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    4. Analogies have their limits :)
      (but Uber doesn't work, as an analogy, as it is a big, centralized company, not a scattering of independent drivers)

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    5. (also... Food better than cars. Any day :P )

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    6. "Is that 'relevance'? I guess that depends on your definition of relevance. It meets mine. Clearly there has been an impact on the whole. I think the quote that got all this going was from FM was "Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market.""

      Perhaps it's because what a lot of folks strove for in the 'early' years of the 'OSR' was simply to have new material, new ideas, new energy. That was achieved by 2009/2010.

      With 5e incorporating lessons from our niche of a niche, I can see why some might think we're moving back to irrelevance, in terms of market influence. We've already influenced the top dog, where to go, aside from continuing to be a boutique influence and interest? It's not by choice, but simply by time and culture moving away from what appeals to those of us who stay in this niche.

      I think FM's words are a little bombastic, geared towards controversy (and any news/attention is good news/attention, I suppose) but yes, there could be a kernel of truth there.

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    7. Art history teaches us that "fringe movements" never become mainstream, they just get absorbed by the mainstream, after all...

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  7. my opinion is that the OSR is fickle and creates a single "super star" for the other 20 creators it kicks to the curb, refuses, to review, and generally ignores.

    I can understand why some would grow to hate it ... Mentzer was not one of the those I figured would have a negative opinion.

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