Let’s break down the value of a game, from an end-user perspective. We want to take a look at the cost of your entertainment value per player, per hour. Time spent reading the book, character creation, and preparing the game don’t factor in here. These are strictly tabletop economics based on time spent playing.
Say you spend $50 on a core rulebook. If you have four players, that breaks down to $12.50 per player. We’re not saying that the players are chipping in, but that’s the base cost to entertain each person. More than the average cost of a movie ticket these days, depending on where you live. If you play one session of roughly 4 hours, that drops to around $3.13 per player per hour. A second 4-hour session drops the cost of entertainment down to $1.56 per player per hour.
Roleplaying literally gets cheaper the more you play. If you do count the hours spent reading the book, making characters, and putting together stories and adventures, it becomes cheaper still. It’s an incredible bargain in terms of entertainment options.
Perception of Value
Note that this value is the same whether or not the game has full-color art, a few scattered black-and-white illustrations, or no art at all. Assuming, of course, that all of these core books have the same price point. It’s the same value whether the designer was famous or unknown. There’s no difference whether the game won a ton of awards, was nominated for a couple, or was never considered for anything. The breakdown of cost per player per hour is the same.
Your perception of value might be skewed by those factors. It’s easy to feel that you’re getting more bang for your buck if the book has high production value, name recognition, and a lot of buzz behind it in the community. What really matters most, though, is whether you’re having fun. A game with a lot of spectacle and hype that isn’t to your tastes isn’t really worth more than the little indie game they you love to death. You cannot measure fun.
But that’s what people do. They conflate money with enjoyment somehow. It needs to stop.
We remain unconvinced that the $100 hardcover on Kickstarter is objectively more fun to play than the $5 indie PDF downloaded from the website of some person you’d never heard of before. If the game sounds fun to play, it might be fun to play. The tabletop economics for a single session says that bang for your buck goes to the indie game – 31 cents per player per hour, versus $6.25 for the hardcover (which is still a bargain, we’re not disputing that).
Barriers to Entry
Where it begins to matter is when the price point is a barrier to entry. Even if the intention is to play the hell out of a game with your friends, making the cost per entertainment hour per person practically nil, you still have to have that $50 up front. Not everyone can do that. What’s wrong with having more affordable games, if it gets more people around the table and into the hobby?
There’s also the barrier to entry for creators. Not everyone has the wherewithal to run a Kickstarter campaign, and take on the responsibilities of traditional publishing that go with that. We, for example, don’t want to be in the physical product business beyond print-on-demand. It’s not cost effective for us to do a large print run, warehouse the books, pack and ship orders, and so on. If we had to do that, we wouldn’t be in business. Thinking that there is only one way to do things, the way of the big beautiful book, shuts out a lot of creators and small businesses.
What we’re trying do here is change your perspective when assessing the relative value of a game. You can’t dismiss a game with high production value as too expensive if you actually plan to play it a lot. If you’re a collector and just stick books on a shelf and never play them, that’s a whole other situation. At the same time, you also can’t write off games with a more simple presentation as not worth it because they’re not objet d’art or good spectacle. We need variety not just in genre and play styles, but in the types of game products being produced. Having something for every budget is as important as having something for every taste.