Saturday, September 12, 2009

On the marketing of OSR products

There seems to be a disconnect between the people producing the products as a result of the OSR, and the gamers they are trying to sell to.  The producers of new product have a desire to produce stuff for older game systems.  I think the fundamental assumption they make, that there is actually a demand for those products in any great quantity, may be flawed. A desire to produce does not necessarily equal a desire to buy.  I know people will point to LULU sales, and Knockspell and Fight on! as examples of demand, but as a whole I don't think the target demographic of "people who would buy stuff for older games and RC's" is currently that big.  How to grow that group and make more sales is the big question.

Though I don't play any OSR or older edition games anymore, I am hopeful that the retroclones bring new gamers into the hobby.  In that regard, I support it and am glad that it seems to have grown.  That being said, a post by James Raggi at LotFP got me thinking about a few things regarding the marketing of older edition products.

The basic question he asks is "How come no one is buying stuff for retroclones or older games produced for retroclones if the product doesn't say D&D on it?"  I don't think the problem is the lack of D&D on the label.

Just because someone plays, or still plays, an older game or retroclone doesn't mean they are looking for anything new to buy.  Between Torrents and other file-sharing downloads, and the fact that there is already a ton of material out there that can be converted to any edition of D&D someone wants to play, you have to wonder that even if you have a large pool of potential purchasers, are their needs already being satisfied? Also, given the fact that most players of older versions or their clones are likely older players, they have probably developed the skills need to make up whatever they need anyhow.  After 30+ years of gaming products, OGL and otherwise, can there really be anything produced today that is not already out there in some form or another?  Plus, we are in the worst economic depression since the 1930's.  People are buckling down on their spending. Also, it seems that the most valuable IP in terms of the stuff that might sell well is being given away for free--namely, the games themselves.  Labyrinth Lord, S&W, etc. can all be downloaded for free.  I downloaded them, checked them all out, enjoyed them, and never spent a penny. 

As to the demographic of the potential purchasers, what is it?  Who are you shooting for?  

Let's use this as an example of a breakdown of the demographic:

  • People who played older games and still do.
  • People who used to play older games and got back into them recently.
  • People who used to play older games and haven't gotten back into it.
  • People who never played the older games but played more recent ones.
  • People who never played RPG's

Once you get those categories, you go to the next question:  Are they playing a game that would make them interested in a product I am producing for that game system?  Though playing a game system is not necessarily a requirement for purchasing a product for that system, it definitely helps.  If playing a game is a necessary requirement for that potential purchaser to buy a product for that game, then a producer of that product has to find a way to get that person to play that game so that he can then sell his product to him.  That's a big hurdle for a guy who just wants to sell a module.

Next question: Do the potential purchaser even know of the product I am producing?  Most people don't, because knowledge of the OSR seems to be an Internet thing mostly, limited to a small subset of the D&D online gaming community, which is itself a small subset of D&D gamers.  A subset of that knowledge, knowledge of the products produced for older games and clones other than the rulesets, seems to be a very specialized bit of knowledge.  I wouldn't even know where to go for a good listing of all products in the OSR and I'm pretty well connected to the on-line gaming community.

Once you get past those threshold issues, you have to ask: Is there a need in the potential purchaser's mind for my products?

If there is not a need, then you ask: How can I create that need so that they buy my products?

Lastly:  Is my product good enough to satisfy that need so that I make a sale with that purchaser, he tells his friends and I make sales with them as well, and also make future sales?

It seems that the potential purchasers of RC products can be drawn from every demographic.  I have no idea which one would be the best to target your time and resources at.  It seems that most of the people who are into older games either never left, or used to play them and are playing them again since the recent 3.5/4.0 schism and Gygax's death. 

I think the biggest problem that people who develop products for the RC's face is the limited audience.  I remember an episode of Beavis and Butthead, where they each got a box of candy bars to sell for a school fundraiser.  Beavis had a dollar, and gave it to Butthead for a candy bar.  Butthead then used the same dollar and bought one from Beavis. That happened over and over until they ate all the candy, and ended up with one dollar to turn in to the school.  I wonder if we are seeing the same sort of thing here.  If you look at all the blogs associated with the OSR, its mostly the same people talking to each other and commenting.  Is it an echo chamber?

One thing that would bust the OSR wide open would be if one of the clones was sold in regular stores. LULU doesn't count. All LULU does is give us a chance to print out a book and bind it because we don't want to get caught doing it at work.  By stores I mean Borders and Barnes & Noble type places. If the clones were sold in stores, then you overcome a big hurdle upfront:  awareness of the game and people actually playing it.  This assumes of course that there is in fact a wider potential market for games of that sort in the first place.  They would be sold mostly to younger people, who grew up with MMORPG's, a shitty education system that dumbed them down and also stifled their imaginations, and who read far less than our generation did. 

The good thing for producers of clone related products is that kids today have been indoctrinated into believing that buying stuff and being a mindless consumer is the ultimate way to affirm anything and everything good about themselves. If they aren't spending money and don't own the latest and greatest thing, they feel worthless.  So if they play a clone, they will buy for it.  It's just a matter of getting them to play the system in the first place.  The only way to do that is to make the games seem cool, sexy, and make the kids think they will somehow get laid, get rich, or somehow affirm something they believe or want to believe about themselves to be true if they play the game, with absolutely no hard work or effort required.  Associate the game with something the kids want to be associated with.

That being said, it seems the largest potential group of consumers of older games and clones will not buy the clones in any great level like the heyday of TSR when it was associated with devil worship.  Still, having S&W or LL in the Barnes and Noble will definitely help sales of clone-related products. 

Barring that happening, the clone product producers have to ask themselves if there is enough need or desire out there for their products to support the sales they hope for?  Maybe there just isn't, for all of the reasons I mentioned above.  Just because you have a desire to produce something doesn't mean there is a desire to buy that thing.  It seems that with the OSR we have a supply being produced before there was a demand. Or, perhaps more accurately, the true demand/desire was of the guy who wanted to make a buck off of making an old school D&D module.