Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Economics of the Box Set

Brave Halfling Publishing's John Adams talked about why his Swords and Wizardry White Box box isn't going through distribution. He originally had the explanation on BHP's site, but that seems to be taken down, and now just present in the comments of one of Grognardia's posts about the project, here. What's in that box?

  • 6" x 9" Game Box (This is an actual game box manufactured for just this purpose)
  • Four Rule Booklets (Characters, Spells, Monsters, & Treasures)
  • A digest-sized copy of Matt Finch's, "Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming"
  • Ten of Marv Breig's 3" x 5" Index Card Character Sheets
  • Set of Polyhedral Dice
  • Pad of digest-sized Graph Paper
  • Pencil

The Primer is a 13 pages, the new version of White Box 111 pages... in full-size format. I don't know how they're formatting the booklets, but let's assume you're getting the same format, so double the pages.

So 28 pages for the Primer, and 4 56-page bookets. Plus the other stuff. Plus artwork.

(edit: Got the actual figures from the comments:

Book I is 28 pages, Book 2 is 25 pages, Book 3 is 36 pages, and Book 4 is 26 pages. Throw in a few more pages for the OGL and a few more for the blank spell/monster/notes templates. And really, 4 of these digest pages equal one US Letter sheet. So you're looking at between 29-35 actual US Letter sheets per each WB booklet set.)

I'm going to make some wild guesses concerning the box in my commentary here. For example, I have no clue about how much of a profit margin BHP have allowed themselves with this thing, but since John says, "And even if the publisher takes the base cost of all the parts of a boxed set and then sets the retail price by doubling it," let's pretend that's what happened. The original price was to be $29.95, so let's say his costs per box are a cool $15. Going by his 40% figure for the percentage of retail price that a publisher gets (which is cut even further if using other services as well, not to mention the publisher eats the cost of shipping to the distributor)... this box, with the above contents, with the assumptions listed here, would have a retail price of $75 if you bought it in your local store. That's more than Arkham Horror, a game that comes with a board and a billion cards and pieces and a big glossy rulebook, all in color.

That's not anybody, not the printer, BHP, the distributor, or your local store price-gouging, that's just the reality of short-run printing.
Especially with boxes.

Every single thing you buy in a store has had these markups made.

$29.95, an amount that seems large to those of us that remember the days of $12 hardcover AD&D books, $12 Mentzer box sets, and $6 modules (all of these retail prices that have gone through the channels listed above, not direct-order only prices), and them printing tens of thousands of copies of each item at a time). I've been a price complainer as much as anyone in past years, but reality is reality. THAT WAS OVER A QUARTER OF A CENTURY AGO.

$29.95, an amount that is so obviously not overpriced if you've looked into these things. And that's with black and white artwork on the box (which, looking at the artwork, I'd guess to be about 1.25" thick), and just headings colored on the booklets. That's with a 6 piece unmatched dice set. That price would have been higher (maybe much higher) with a 7-piece matched dice set, and if the cover of the box looked like the cover of the PDF.

As it is, John took a huge risk. Maybe this last 50 that sold out wasn't such a big risk since the high demand was already established, but let's just say that the 75 that was announced as added to the print run was a doubling of the original print run. $15 x 75 = $1125 risk.

These are exciting and scary times.

One thing I hope that comes out of this is that the businesspeople that control access to the stores look at this and get the stick out of their asses about "digest size" and "black and white." John wasn't kidding about that. I had some discussions where I was told black and white art wouldn't cut it for retail. Death Frost Doom's cover is black and white, and will stay black and white. I've sold over 300 copies with just a handful of vendors, very limited availability and accessibility for it. You'd think that shows that if it were available from your local game store in print with no shipping fee, it might move a few copies.

Maybe they don't sell as well as colorfulwowiezowie full-sized books, but the option of low-price booklets should be there, in retail. Maybe nothing so slipshod as my original Creature Generator or Fantasy Fucking Vietnam, but certainly something like Rients' Miscellaneum of Cinder (those would be dirt cheap to print in bulk) or McKinney's Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer should be impulse-buy RPG items in stores.

But you need to "product-ize" a book to get it that far, and it's really impossible to make a few-dollars item in RPGs these days. Not to mention when you realize that spending money can allow you to manufacture something really really cool, with hope that the market will bear it.

(of course, I have no idea how Goodman Games is making a single penny off of the Dungeon Alphabet, with it being hardcover and full of name artists... or how Maliszewski and Rogue Games are making any money off of The Cursed Chateau at their prices either, but hey, more for us. Both of those are available at Noble Knight right now, by the way)

My interest in all this should be obvious, and I'm watching the events with a keen eye. I'm going after expensive art talent, going to have a full-color box cover, full color booklets inside, a matched 7-piece set of dice, and a ton more handouts. And I want to push it into retail. I hope my risk pays off just as well as John's...


  1. I was told black and white art wouldn't cut it for retail.

    *cough* Cheap-Ass Games *cough*

    Their simple black-and-white covers really draw the eye when set against the explosion-in-a-paint-factory of elaborate coloured artwork that makes up a typical game store display. Sometimes simplicity is the answer.

  2. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. My local stores stock several items with black and white covers, but not boxed sets, I suppose.

  3. $12 in 1980 is about $30 dollars today.

  4. Book I is 28 pages, Book 2 is 25 pages, Book 3 is 36 pages, and Book 4 is 26 pages. Throw in a few more pages for the OGL and a few more for the blank spell/monster/notes templates. And really, 4 of these digest pages equal one US Letter sheet. So you're looking at between 29-35 actual US Letter sheets per each WB booklet set.

  5. >>$12 in 1980 is about $30 dollars today.

    ... and they printed TONS of those things.

    I wonder if the OD&D 1974 box set ($10 in 1974) and Empire of the Petal Throne set ($25 in 1975?) wouldn't be better comparisons, actually.

    $43.88 and $100.53 respectively in today's dollars.

  6. IMO, those may be better comparisons.

  7. The idea that these books need to be in colour makes me sad. While WFRP 2e (for example) was indeed a very pretty book, at the end of the day, it's a set of instructions for playing a game, and black and white throughout would have been just fine. It makes it easier to see the additions and amendments you've made with pencil too, although I suppose you're not supposed to do that any more. :(

  8. Two things:

    1. I think that part of the reason retailers are avoiding digest-sized material is that there was a glut of little or smaller-sized 3rd party products for 3rd ed. and they didn't sell. I remember seeing them languish on the shelves until 4th ed. came out, and then they went into the bargain-basement bin. People saw them on the shelves, saw they were cheaply made, assumed some enterprising nobody had made them in his garage, assumed the internal quality matched the external and moved on. But remember, these weren't retro-products; they were modern products for a modern game. I don't think that BHPs White Box (or your box-set) would suffer the same fate for a variety of reasons.

    2. In the final analysis, as the original LBBs prove, it doesn't really matter what it looks like or how cheap it is - if it is awesome, they will buy it. So..just make sure what your offering is awesome, and not just another S&W with a few rules tweaks (as if you needed me to tell you that).

  9. Another good strategy might be to assume they will throw them in the bargain bin until safer sales methods prove you wrong. I'm thinking sales through Amazon or something. When you start selling too many to keep up with the shipping personally, then you can outsource sales to a bookstore or something.

    It would be a pleasant surprise if you don't plan on selling many anyway.

  10. I wonder if the OD&D 1974 box set ($10 in 1974) and Empire of the Petal Throne set ($25 in 1975?) wouldn't be better comparisons, actually.

    They are in some ways better and in some ways worse comparisons.

    The big down check is they include the double digit inflation of the late 70s. Because of the huge increases in scale of TSR publishing they were able to hold prices relatively constant over that period. By comparison war games from SPI doubled over that period.

    However, the smaller scale of publishing makes them a better comparison.

    A factor no one mentions is the ruthless supply chain optimization in retail that has occurred with the growth of large chain stores in formerly niche markets. As Toys'R'Us killed off most local toy stores and regional toy chains the ability to push through higher retail prices has dropped. While hobby chains are regional the local stores are still being killed by the internet.

    I'm not sure retail sales for RPGs are realistic anymore. That said, I think boxed sets are the way to go but they can't be mostly books. Jerk bait of some form is required. The more it looks like a game and gives the perceived value (based on the amount of stuff) of a game the more likely those not already in the hobby will pick it up.

  11. An OSR newbie here, and not in any way involved in publishing or design, but I fail to see why $30 or even $80 is unreasonable for these games.

    Forget the history - $30 or even $80 for a game is a steal. Certain modern games require 3 books - in rich technicolor - at $40 a pop. Total cost, roughly $120 (no box). A game like Mutant Future in hardback with some color is only $40 or so for the complete game. Still some room for boxed set goodies here, if the author were so inclined.

    I'm no publisher or designer, so maybe I've missed the boat. But my bottom line is whether the game is fun. The corporate games have set an exceedingly high price point just begging to be undercut. Boxed sets may be expensive, but there seems to be room at that price point for solid, if not luxuriously designed, products.

    Are we buying antique glass artwork or an entertaining game?