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Ahead of the Curve: What RPG publishers have to teach the mainstream

This weekend saw one of Britain’s largest annual meetings of leisure games enthusiasts at the 2015 UK Games Expo in Birmingham. Amongst the 14,000 attendees (up 20% from last year) were some were some of the most successful Roleplaying Game (RPG) publishers in the industry, showing that this niche, with its many curious quirks, has a lot to teach the mainstream about publishing in the digital age.

What are RPGs?

There are many different kinds of RPG, but the ones which concern us here are tabletop and live action RPGs. In these games, players get together and take on characters, acting them out within a narrative lead by the Game Master (GM), who guides the party on adventures through their chosen setting. Games take place in sessions and can be one-offs or ongoing sagas. These games can be acted out more or less elaborately, but each one operates under its own set of rules, dictated by the game’s rulebook. These systems of rules help decide what actions the characters can and cannot take, how they progress and develop over time, and how the setting responds to them. RPG rulebooks also usually describe the universe of the game, providing a sandbox for the players to create their own stories in. Though market for RPGs is growing, it at least for now it remains niche. That, combined with some of the unique characteristics of the gaming community, has kept RPG publishers ahead of curve in several ways.

Early adoption

As most of RPG’s best publishers come from within its fan-base, they tend to be tech-savvy and imaginative. This is no less the case in business than in-game! When book PDF pirating first became a problem, for instance, RPG publishers made the early decision to start selling PDFs themselves. What’s more, many RPG publishers never applied any DRM to their products, in some cases because of cost issues, in others because the publisher assumed their fan-base would find a way around the technological wall anyhow. Despite this, PDF sales in this genre remain incredibly popular. This attitude of try-it-and-see has meant that RPG publishers are often early adopters of new technology, helping them to cut costs and broaden distribution possibilities. And the possibilities are huge.

Business without boundaries

The RPG fan-base is very global and very connected. If your customers are online, they’re everywhere. This, combined with ease of business and a plethora of self-publishers and smaller publishing houses, means that many RPG publishers don’t deal with territory rights. This opens up possibilities for new, quick, international printing and distribution methods: print on demand allows a UK-based publisher to next-day deliver their product to a customer anywhere in the world. When your market is global, and globally connected as it is for RPG publishing, distribution methods such as these become crucial.

Books should be beautiful – even rulebooks!

And when RPG publishers go to print, they really go to print. One of the reasons RPG publishers continue to sell print books isn’t just because they make for easier gaming but also because RPG rulebooks tend to be beautiful products. The best RPG books are wonderfully illustrated, well laid-out, with gorgeous covers and spin-off merchandise. RPG Publishers understand the need for printed books to be works of art. Design is everything, and even the smallest house will put a lot of time and energy into making their books beautiful.

Stepping out of the garden shed

This has been a pit-stop tour of RPG publishing. I would have loved to go into greater depth: how the RPG market handles the integration of traditionally- and self-published material; the business tricks used by UK RPG publishers in the ‘90s to stay afloat in a broadly US market; the iterations between RPGs, fiction books, board games, film and video games. This is a fascinating area of the industry and often overlooked. Perhaps this is partly because RPG publishing somehow often feels like it’s coming out of a garden shed. There’s such a blurred line between publishers and fans, such an open, friendly atmosphere at the conventions, that it’s sometimes hard to believe industry can be so much fun. Nevertheless, you should keep an eye out: RPGs publishers are on the rise, they’re coming out of the garden shed and they’ve got a lot to teach us.

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