Friday, April 14, 2017

Thoughts on the SJGames 2016 Stakeholder Report

This week, SJGames released, of their own free will, a Stakeholder Report, which is not something that they have to do, but they do so out of the kindness of their hearts.  Several people in the GURPS Blogosphere have made comments on it:
So I thought I'd toss in my own two cents, express some concerns I've had, and tackle where I suspect we, as a community, need to go from here.

What's Wrong with SJGames?

So, this year's report is pretty gloomy.  It's the first time they've posted a loss in over a decade, and the second year in a row in which they're in decline.  So what's going on?

Well, I'm a GURPS man, and so most of my attention points in the direction of that game, and I can assure you that GURPS is most likely a rounding error compared to most of the rest of their business (No GURPS product made it onto the top 20 best selling products), so it might have anything to do with decreased market interest in Munchkin, or it might have to do with overspending on other projects, like Ogre.  So I don't know.  I think to really analyze it, you'd have to be in the heart of the company, and I think they're likely on top of things, because SJGames isn't run by fools.

But if I had to guess, and this does directly pertain to GURPS, it has something to do with this line that Mook highlighted in his own post.

Our Kickstarter project to create a GURPS introductory box set has run into more troubles and derailments than we would like. A game that was meant to go to the printer before the end of 2016 is still clogging our pipeline and causing constant distractions… At the moment, barring a miracle, what would have been a profitable project is rapidly turning into a loss.
Now, the Kickstarter was a huge success that nearly doubled the requisite goal, bringing in nearly $200,000.  Now, they're saying it might be a loss.  How can that be?

What I think this highlights is that fan dollars is not necessarily enough.  We often argue that we need to support the RPG, make sure that people buy it, etc, but over 1500 people threw their money at something  We did our part (Well, you guys, I never back kickstarter things because I don't have a credit card, but certainly enough people backed it!), so why didn't it take?

The problem here isn't on the fan's side, but something that should be laid squarely at SJGames' feet.  They couldn't make it work.  But why?  We've already established they're not idiots.  Again, something for them to look at internally, but if I had to guess, it's probably a few things.

First, as highlighted by Kromm here,  there are less people working on RPG projects now than before (because, of course, nearly everything else SJGames does makes more money than GURPS), and Kromm, to me, sounds dangerously close to a burn-out, so you have less people working on a project with less energy that's as big as the early, heady days of GURPS.

The other problem noted was the failure of GURPS Discworld and GURPS Mars Attacks.  What do these have in common with the new GURPS DF?  They're all physical products.  Things seem to have changed a lot over the past 20 years when it comes to getting RPGs to print, and I suspect it's less profitable than ever.  This is not something just true of GURPS, but across the board.  We see more POD, more PDFs and more kickstarters, and less and less RPGs on bookshelves.  This is not a new phenomenon or one isolated to RPGs (I remember when I could go to a music store and buy CDs, DVDs and video games; there used to be three or four Free Record Shops in Eindhoven.  Now, there are zero, and even the big box stores have largely removed computer games and CDs, and DVDs seem harder to find).  SJGames almost certainly understands this, but what they're trying to do is find a way to navigate these choppy waters to bring a physical GURPS DF boxed product to life.  They're learning and trying to expand, and that's always a fraught adventure for a company.  They call it a loss.  Being an IT guy, I call it "learning expenses."

But there seems to be more going on here.  I can't help but notice that we've seen no new GURPS products, other than issues of Pyramid, this entire year, and a slow drop-off of cool GURPS stuff over the past few years.  We still don't have GURPS Vehicles (I'm often assured by insiders that it's "Right around the corner", but it's been "right around the corner" for over ten years now, so...), and we have no big projects on the horizon.  Is there cause, for me as a GURPS guy, for concern?

I think there is.

A World without GURPS

Alright, alright, we always have doomsayers about your favorite RPGs.  It's not that I think GURPS is going to die, but I want to look at what it might mean if GURPS stopped getting official support, either just for awhile (as it seems to have recently), or for a longer period of time.  The following is more of a worst-case hypothetical than any real prediction.

See, I've watched RPG companies go under before.  TSR died, so did White Wolf, and the guys who made Shadowrun or Traveller.  In fact, it turns out, the RPG business is pretty rotten and, if I'm honest, it's a little amazing that SJGames has held on for so long (I think they're one of the few from back in ye olden RPG days to still be kicking), and all of their RPGs survive. We still have D&D (and we even have a return of the old form of D&D with the OSR.  I mean, people still play AD&D), and Onyx Path picked up White Wolf, and you can get the latest versions of Shadowrun and Traveller over on DTRPG (you can even get the old versions).  So even if SJGames went belly up or refused to make more GURPS products (which isn't going to happen), chances are, you'd still be able to get GURPS.

But I find Onyx Path particularly interesting, because as White Wolf was slowly hollowing out, a lot of the old freelancers got together and made Onyx Path, and so in a lot of ways, the old White Wolf products look the same as the Onyx Path stuff because they're written by the same people.  This highlights to me that, though fans crave "official" support, at the end of the day, RPGs are driven not by companies, but by the people who write and run those games.  Companies matter, of course, because they provide vision, direction, and a way for us to collect all of our money into a single spot and keep the product going, but if we stopped writing for GURPS, or stopped running GURPS, GURPS dies a lot faster than if SJGames stops publishing GURPS.

For example, I commented that we haven't seen any Non-Pyramid GURPS products for this entire year, but if I'm honest, I've used the hell out of Pyramid articles.  Especially when it comes to technology, Psi-Wars is more heavily built out of Pyramid articles than core works outside of, perhaps, the Action series.  Another major source of inspiration has been the world of blogs out there.  Hard Maths and GURB have both been invaluable to Psi-Wars, and Gaming Ballistic and Ravens'n'Pennies both provide loads of articles for Pyramid and their blogs, as well as going out of their way to build up community.  My own GURPS games are heavily informed by the community around GURPS.

So, we can handle ourselves if SJGames were to vanish tomorrow, thus I see no point in worrying, but let's speculate on a post-GURPS world anyway, not because I think it will happen, but because I think it might be useful to view it that way.  Here's the truth: what I see from the report is a struggle to find how to make GURPS break even in this crazy new world, and what I see in the RPG world when I look is that plenty of people make it work, even with those constraints in place.

First, it would be up to the community that exists around GURPS to keep GURPS alive.  That community certainly includes the freelancers that write for GURPS, but also the people who write for blogs, run games, and throw nearly $200,000 at the DF product. A quick look around shows that both the energy and money is there to keep GURPS alive.  But we'd have to act more like Onyx Path: open up the design process as much as possible, focus on PDFs over physical products, use Kickstarter for physical products (but only modest ones).

How is this different from how GURPS is handled now?  Well, it's not very!  GURPS products aren't on DTRPG, but SJGames has their own proprietary shop, so fine.  They have a focus on PDFs, but they still have some trouble with physical products.  The POD approach seems to have some success, but if SJgames wants to release new physical books, will that work?  I think that's something to explore, and perhaps once they have it down to a science, then open it up to kickstarters (and, it should be noted, that the "losses" over the past few years that SJGames has posted could be taken as the costs of "getting it down to a science," at least when we look at the struggles Discworld, Mars Attacks and DF have faced).  I'd probably find a way to introduce a lot of the more nervous bloggers into the GURPS fold, but Pyramid articles often act as that easy introduction.  Finally, the last problem seems to be how overworked/stressed the GURPS staff is.  One solution for this might be to let them have their leash and write things that they would like, or to pull in new editors, though that requires payments SJGames can ill afford, plus additional time to get them up to speed (see the Myth of the Man Month).

So, if I were to armchair quarterback SJGames (and I should emphasize that I know nothing about business!), I would argue that despite the gloom, it's not actually that bad.  The money and interest in GURPS is definitely there, the kickstarter proved that.  The fact that shifting back into hard copies in this current market is difficult is true for everyone, and that this is a learning experience that will take time.  Pyramid Articles make an excellent outreach for would-be writers, though I think SJGames could do more to reach out to those writers.  The trick would be that more writers need more editors, which requires more investment which might not be feasible right now. However, last year, SJGames highlighted blogs, and that might be worth doing again.

As fans, I think we can talk about giving SJGames more money, but the problem here is that there's nothing to give more money for.  I don't know about the rest of you, but I've bought all the books I really can. Those of you who are newer are likely giving as much money was you can and/or interested in.  However, a lot of you reading this are pretty good writers, whether or not you're willing to admit that, and you should practice  Check out the Pyramid Wishlist for ideas on articles they need, and push yourself to perfect your writing techniques.

Despite the naysaying GURPS eternally receives, I happen to think GURPS is in a place of unprecedented enthusiasm.  Discord, the forums and the GURPS Day project has proven how invested the GURPS Community really is.  I think we can leverage that into a new era for GURPS, but we shouldn't wait around for SJGames to "fix things."  If we bring our energy to GURPS, then SJGames can more easily tap it, and if SJGames were to somehow go under or sell off the GURPS license, that enthusiasm and skill could help bring it back from the dead.

There's a reason that SJGames writes a stakeholders report and releases it, because we are GURPS stakeholders. If you're worried, then realize there's a lot you can do.  We all build GURPS together in our own way.  So keep building GURPS and it'll endure.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...