Thursday, May 5, 2011

Limited edition modules for conventions

Stefan Poag of Aldeboran offers an interesting question about whether it's good for a publisher to release a limited edition module that can only be purchased at a particular convention. The convention in question is North Texas RPGCon, and the publisher is Bill Barsh of Pacesetter Games. The discussion that sparked Stefan's attention is on this page at the Acaeum.

To frame the issue, Bill (Barsh, not Webb -- I have no relation to this Bill) is putting out a limited release that was originally going to be available only to attendees at NTRPGCon and is now going to be available to people who are signed onto his mailing list or something -- I didn't understand the acronym he used.

The Underlying Arguments

Below is a post from someone not happy with the original plan:
The drawback with a publication like this is that it breaks the customer/publisher chain. Snap! Broken.
If there is an edition of a Pacesetter module only available at NTRPGCon, it automatically and permanently makes my Pacesetter collection incomplete.
As a loyal Pacesetter purchaser from the beginning, my reaction to this publication is considerable chagrin both for myself and for Pacesetter.
And Bill's response:
I am working on a fix. I have to admit that I have received more than a few emails regarding this. (thanks to everyone!).
I will be sending out "fix" directly to our CLP members. This way, those who are loyal customers and run the complete collection, will have an opportunity to purchase this module in the convention format. It will be a strict order system with a fairly tight buying deadline. This will be a very limited release.
In Stefan's blog about the matter (linked above), he doesn't attack Bill's approach, taking essentially a middle road:
I don't know what to think about books and games being produced as "special edition collector's items." On the one hand, I suppose it's good for the people who publish game books (and probably anything that can create positive cash flow ought to be tried... well, nearly anything). On the other hand, I can understand the "completeist's" frustration at the creation of artificial scarcity.

Conventions, special editions, cash flow, and artificial scarcity
So I wanted to write a bit about conventions, special editions, cash flow, and artificial scarcity. It's an important issue to me for a few reasons: I'm a big fan of Bill Barsh, I'm a big fan of NTRPGCon, I publish stuff (so I have a working relationship with cash flow issues), and I got hit with an unexpected "artificial scarcity" issue with the hardcover of the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook. So Stefan's question happened to resonate with me on several levels.

Cash Flow
The first point, I think, is that I doubt Bill's real issue here is cash flow. Granted, modules don't sell in huge quantities in the first place, and granted, that rate of sale seems to have decreased a bit over the last six months to a year. So it's entirely reasonable to see this plan as a sales gimmick, but I think it's NOT a sales gimmick that Bill is employing on his own behalf. I think it's a gimmick that he's employing on behalf of someone else, namely NTRPGCon. And that, to my mind is something entirely different.

Why? Because conventions need support. We saw Cyclopeatron addressing the internal organization of an old-school convention here in recent days, and his post highlights the issue for an old-school convention: because there aren't droves of people attending, a reasonable cover price doesn't come close to covering the costs. Cyclopeatron got blasted by a bunch of people who decided to be jacka**es and pontificate about the old-guard TSR guys being at conventions, and who thereby managed to derail the point of his post, which is the practical matter of how to fund a successful old-school gaming convention.

Except for those people who assert that they hate and boycott anything that doesn't comport to their desires on every line-item point of its minute details, NTRPGCon is basically an incredibly cool event, and it's funded almost entirely out of pocket by the organizers. As an event, it loses money, and as an event, it is awesome. Someone else is funding that awesomeness for me, out of generosity to the gaming community as a whole.

And so, I do everything I can to "give back" to the convention, whether it's donating material for them to auction off (which we're doing with some rare Necromancer Games items) or whether it's running games (which I'm doing), or whether it's bringing the convention to people's attention on net (case in point) or whether it's putting items up for sale through the convention so that they get a cut (doing that too).

Good Gimmicks and Bad Gimmicks
Bill Barsh's approach was to create a special "convention-only module" gimmick for the convention. Clearly, that's aimed at making the convention a big event for D&D collectors rather than providing a resource for the gaming population at large. D&D collectors are the "other group" at the convention. They are gamers too, obviously, but they've got that additional side hobby of collecting. It's natural to look at Bill's plan as a gamer, and object to it a bit. Why not make the module available for all time? Why let it disappear from sight if it's a good module? The answer, I think, is that it's a way of supporting that same convention which is so much fun for the gamers in other ways and areas. Yes, there's a trade-off there, and yes, it's addressed to the collectors in a way that disadvantages the gamers (and collectors who can't attend the con). But every once in a while, that's exactly the sort of thing to make a convention into a big event. Hoopla. Scarcity.

Artificial Scarcity
Which brings us to scarcity. In general, I think scarcity isn't a good thing. Promoting someone else's convention by using artificial scarcity in a good cause isn't something that would bother me. I already know that there are plenty of gaming things I can't afford to buy, and plenty that I might be able to afford but won't get the opportunity to buy (e.g., bargains on ebay have so long eluded me that I no longer waste the time searching for them). In fact, I would bet that virtually none of us really object to scarcity, artificial or otherwise -- it's the REASON why something was made scarce. That reason tells us something about the person who created it. In the case of Bill Barsh, I think the reasoning was to help someone else's cool convention achieve a higher level of hoopla and publicity, and probably to put some cash in the convention's pocket (he wouldn't be getting all the profit from that module - the convention would get a cut). That's a good reason, and a generous one.

The Collector is Indirectly Your Friend (Other than tax collectors)
But the thing to keep in mind about collectors is that they actually subsidize the production of most modules and other resources if you're in a position to have collectors focus on you. For example, there are several people who collect Frog God Games material (not so many for Mythmere Games, sadly :) ). Anyway, these guys create a certain quantity of guaranteed sales. What's maybe not obvious to someone who doesn't publish is that since we're not really in this to make a bundle of money, the pricing of modules is heavily weighted toward thinking about avoiding risk, not maximizing profit. Knowing that you'll have a certain number of sales as a minimum allows you to offer the module at lower prices. This is clear from the fact that Frog God games can sell modules in the $9 range instead of the $12 range. The risk is lower, because Bill knows he can pretty much expect to recoup the cost of the print run, and doesn't have to add in extra profit to offset the potential risk of unsold modules. The value of the certainty that collectors give to a publisher is returned, in many ways and to varying degrees, to the entire set of purchasers. Their hobby subsidizes regular gamers.

So while it might look up front like Bill's original plan (and possibly still his existing plan depending on how limited that edition is) caters unfairly to collectors and convention attendees, it's worth keeping in mind that (a) conventions are a huge benefit that need some gimmicks to be successful, and (b) collectors indirectly help the general gaming community, at least in terms of general pricing and for some publishers -- true, they might slightly raise prices on OOP materials, and they only affect the larger publishers in terms of a guaranteed sales base, but on balance, collectors are a boon to the hobby. One could certainly disagree, but from the publisher standpoint -- and I don't mean the profit side of it, I mean the ability to keep prices lower or to fund a print run that you couldn't otherwise afford -- their presence supports the non-collector gamers.

So, while Stefan's on the fence about how to think about the issues he raised -- cash flow versus scarcity -- I come down with the opinion that Bill's approach, even though it's not the way I would have pursued the same goal, is totally valid. Helping to create zing and hoopla for a cash flow negative gaming convention is a laudable goal. And even though it does so by creating artificial scarcity for happy collectors, that's an acceptable price, now and then, for the corresponding benefits it gives to the rest of the old-school gaming world, albeit indirectly.

Hearts, Minds, and Lawns
In our little world, sometimes it's more important than anything else to notice when someone's heart is in the right place, and Bill Barsh's heart is definitely in the right place on this, regardless of whether it was a bit of a public relations stumble. As bloggers, publishers, gamers, convention goers, convention organizers, whatever --- nobody's perfect all the time in every way. Unlike the world of big business, this is just a hobby, and the measure of us all is in the heart, not the sanity of what we do. We're hobbyists: we have a right to be eccentric, we have a right to make some mistakes, and we have a right to flip off anyone who bitches about our hobby. And tell them to get off the lawn while they're at it.


  1. Your prologue there was a funny one. Not particularly "nice", but one that I pretty much agree with.

    Bottom-line, no one is being greedy.

  2. Weird. For me, the fun of collecting is the effort it takes. Which includes the decision about whether the effort for a particular item is worthwhile or not. And the problem solving in trying to get an item I otherwise might not. If it is just a matter of ordering every item directly from the producer, I wouldn’t call that collecting.

    And, yes, we owe a big debt Mike and Doug for their gift of the NorTex con to us.

  3. This issue came up in the CCG I work with. I guess I just can't understand the mindset of the completist collector, let alone the dog-in-manger kind who objects to very rare things being made because they make his/her quest more difficult.

  4. I feel like there is 'no skin off of my nose' as far as special editions and collectors go, and, as you say, although I may not "get" collecting, the collectors and their dollars probably help subsidize my part in the OSR so I won't complain too much.
    "Collectors Editions" are nothing new, either. I saw pictures of one of the old 'white box' editions of OD&D from the mid/late 1970s on the net, and, right there on the box, it says "Special Collector's Edition!"

  5. I guess I want to add that I would think it would behoove publishers to recognize that 'limited edition' is a gimmick, and, if employed too often, might make loyal customers to turn on you. I remember that Goodman Games had a similar problem with a convention only module in, I think, 2009 (it might have been one of the first AD&D modules that Goodman published). There were a limited number and a few collectors showed up early and bought multiple copies, then turned around and marked them up for online sale. I think a lot of collectors bent Goodman's ear over that one and he promised not to do it again.
    It seems no matter what you do, you will upset someone.

  6. Very interesting post. Thanks, Matt.

  7. You nailed it Matt, much better than I ever could. Thanks.

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