Publishers are constantly on the lookout for the next strategy to attract new customers as well as maintain the loyalty of their existing fans every day. It’s a back and forth struggle built on the sacrifices and risks undertaken by the wise, the clever, and the lucky alike. Not everything works out, but when it does, the tidal wave of change can be massive. Without dutiful research and pondering, publishers entering into the latest craze can flood their ship by jumping on board too quickly or simply find themselves surrounded by a platoon of competitors eagerly trying to set sail at the same time. Timing is everything.
It seems the latest craze is the Pay What You Want model and there’s a reason why it falls within this column’s compass – it provides consumers like us a chance to not only try something at a flexible price, but to obtain it at no cost whatsoever. As our choice. Many indie publishers have jumped on board this prospect and the number crunching has begun (such as Tuesday’s post on this very blog), offering other publishers ample resources and opportunity to evaluate their competitors’ numbers and gauge the concept for themselves.
But today’s post is not about the struggles of publishers juggling with this model (nor is it an excuse to use a lot of nautical terms, even though they seem to have come storming over the seas – OK, that’s the last one). There’s a serious side of this coin we have to consider if this model is going to be successful and carry on into the future and that’s the responsibility of the consumer and the Pay What You Want model.
Yep, that’s right. Abusing this system can backfire severely and potentially be taken away from us altogether. Then again, not taking advantage of it will cause the experiment to fail and then we’re back in the same… car. As it is with everything else in a free market economy, there are delicate factors to consider and the role of the consumer is one of them. Too many free downloads and the publisher might as well reset their product(s) to free and save themselves the trouble or ditch the effort entirely and revert back to setting a price tag on everything. Not enough money and the publisher risks losing money, hence leading to the same outcome. If we offer too much money, the consumers are losing the battle and the endeavour is almost pointless. And let’s face it, is that even a possibility? It may be safe to say publishers will not be making additional money by going PWYW and so these types of products are this industry’s version of loss leaders, similar to the Free RPG Day products released once a year. Publishers are already risking financial hits by offering their products in this fashion and even loss leaders are budgeted to lose a certain amount from the overall bottom line. Too much loss and the costs versus sales ratio because too large for anyone to bother using it in the long term.
However, this model is not about providing publishers with new means to reach existing customers or providing traditional print-only consumers with an incentive to try out their PDF products. It’s about giving up-and-coming designers an opportunity to not only have their creations provided to the role-playing public, but to make a little green out of the effort too. Before last month’s introduction of the PWYW model on all OneBookShelf sites, a game designer self-releasing their new game had two options: release it for free or charge a set amount. Releasing it for free allowed the designer a greater window of opportunity for reaching an audience, but typically meant the product would not look as stellar as something with money invested in it. Charging a set amount seriously reduces the impact of the product’s release and severs the range of new fans the designer could otherwise reach by going free. This new model allows them to have their cake and eat it too and that, for me, is why this model needs a place in sites like DriveThruRPG and RPGNow (or e23 and any other online PDF marketplace for that matter).
If the PWYW model had been introduced as new policy, chances are I wouldn’t bother to write this post today, but it’s because everything’s in beta that we should all consider the merits of simply taking something for free. Let’s be honest with each other. Does a publisher like Evil Hat need this model to further their reach? No, not need, but it is an effective tool to help demonstrate their loyalty to their customers (and act as a means of providing incentive for supplement sales, as Fred Hicks has clearly stated on his blog). The ones who need this tool are the struggling game designers/publishers eager to become the next Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, or Gareth Skarka and are in the same boat as those of us who look at the PWYW model and proclaim “Finally!” before clicking the purchase button. Having your new game downloaded is awesome; having someone give you money for it is a scoop of ice cream on the side.
That means we, as responsible consumers, must remember that just because something can be obtained for free doesn’t mean we should always make it free. For this model to remain an option for aspiring designers and publishers the world over for years to come, it is our role to not just consider our responsibilities, but to act on them. Post a review, share a link, and anything else that requires no more than a few seconds of our lives. Because everyone loves ice cream (even if they’re lactose intolerant).