Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Coming Revolution in Card Game Design

No, I'm not talking about digitizing card games into tablet apps. That app revolution is already in full steam; it has certainly revolutionized how card games can be designed and sold, but that's already yesterday's news, isn't it? 

I'm blogging about a different revolution that has just begun in printed card games. 

I know long form reading and the internet mix like oil and water... so if you only want the meat of the matter, skip to the revolutionary part and decide for yourself if the blog post title is portentous or pretentious.

Which Card to Play?

Business is a like a game. On your turn, you contemplate dozens, maybe hundreds of possible moves and their projected outcomes; you identify what you believe to be the best one; and then you play it. Likewise, it is common to come up with 10x or 100x more ideas than your business has the resources to implement.

Culling those ideas down to just the few opportunities that you choose to pursue is a core strategic competency for any business team. Apple is lauded for its discipline to focus on just a few products. For publishers, these decisions frequently center around title selection: how many titles to publish, and which ones? 

For OneBookShelf, that new idea curation process revolves around which technical features to implement, which marketplaces to open, and what new services to offer. So why did we decide last year to start the DriveThruCards marketplace and integrate short-run card printing services with our marketplaces? What made that the best move for us in the game?

The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese 

The business idea of "first-mover advantage" is more commonly discussed than that of second-mover advantage or being a fast-follower. Despite the many advantages that accrue to first-movers into a new market segment (such as establishing a market position for your brand, as discussed in my prior post), I personally prefer to be a second-mover into many business opportunities.

For example, when starting DriveThruRPG, we were a second-mover behind James Mathe, who had already started RPGNow.

Being a second-mover means that someone else has done the risk assessment for you. Of a dozen business teams exploring new business ideas, if one business is taking off while the other eleven are failing, then joining the new market with the one that is succeeding is a way of mitigating your risk as a start-up. Think of it like this: If the first marine on this part of the coast survived long enough to form a beachhead, then it's more likely that you'll survive there, too, as the second marine to land.

Most start-ups burn out for lack of resources before they can find a viable business model. If a start-up has already found a viable business, then it has already identified an idea and a market that has merit. And it's usually not enough, as a second-mover, to just copy what the first-mover has done. The first-mover is already up and running; they're learning from their mistakes, establishing their brand and market position, and forming customer relationships.

Chances are, the first mouse isn't dead; it's still struggling to get at that cheese.

As a second-mover, if you merely intend to be a "me-too," then you're not likely to get very far unless the first-mover is failing to execute well. You have to offer something the first-mover doesn't offer. You should be able to improve the product or service in some fundamental way. Otherwise, you're not really adding much to the world.

Worse, iterating on someone else's business model degrades into the morally darker zone of merely copying someone else's business. All may be fair in love and war, but how do you feel about yourself at the end of the day?

What Does This Have to Do with Cards? 

Reset now to last year, when three things were already happening that would inform our business plan. First, there were several companies offering short-run card printing; some of them, like the Game Crafter, were making a lot of their publisher clients happy with great service. Second, OneBookShelf had already implemented our print-on-demand book service on our marketplaces, and every month more and more publishers were finding it useful. Third, at game industry trade shows, Sean Lashgiri and Christian Moore were showing off cards printed by On Demand Technologies (ODT), and the cards looked great.

Everything looked reasonably straightforward for us to partner with ODT as our print partner, re-purpose our existing code for processing on-demand books to also handle on-demand cards, and roll out card printing services to publishers. It wasn't sufficient, however, that the idea merely be doable, or even that it be a good idea. Like many businesses, we had 100 good ideas to choose from.

So what made this one our best next move in the game? What could we offer that was different or better, that wasn't just a me-too service that really added little to card gaming?

Unchaining Game Designers from Invisible Shackles 

ODT offers many advantages for printing cards. For one, they use an ink-base HP Indigo press instead of a toner-based press. For DriveThruCards, we decided early on to offer premium, black core card stocks. For a variety of reasons, we felt that we could improve the quality of short-run cards and produce a product that could be seamlessly shuffled into decks of existing card games printed by offset printers. On-demand cards could be professional retail quality, not just prototype quality.

DriveThruCards is also able to offer more attractive costs to print cards. Being able to offer improved quality at a lower price is always a great reason to enter the market. Nevertheless, even these weren't the factors that convinced us to offer card printing services and a card marketplace.

The deciding factor was that we could create tools for card game designers that went deep into how card games can be designed and published: We could use on-demand printing technology to unchain designers from prior design restrictions and unlock a wide array of new capabilities.

Some restrictions imposed by current models of manufacturing and distribution become so ingrained that we become inured to them and they effectively become invisible to us. For example, card games - even short, on-demand print runs - have traditionally been produced on press sheets; since you can fit 18 or 20 or 90 cards on a press sheet, the economies of manufacturing have dictated that a card game ought to define its card count around the press sheet size.

With our POD card service, we have freed card game designers from that artificial design limitation. There is no longer a need for a card game to have some multiple of 18, 20, or 90 cards in its deck based on how many cards fit on a press sheet.

When you're playtesting your card game design and you realize the game could do without these 3 cards, but it could use another 7 cards added - and maybe some turn reference cards for each player - you have the flexibility to slot cards in and out of your game until the moment you want to publish it. If your game ends up with 89 cards, or some other prime number, that's fine.

And after publishing it, if you later need to change the card count up or down, whether by a few or a lot, that's fine too.


"That's cool," you say, "but Steve, that's hardly going to revolutionize card game design. What else ya got?"

Here are some examples of what will be possible with the tools we're coding right now. I'll start with the most prosaic and escalate to the more revolutionary.

1. Offer your deck-building or customizable card game as a collection of single card products, selling as singles at prices you determine. 

Customers get a web GUI to build their own deck from the singles, and then have that specific deck printed and shipped to them. Next, think iTunes playlists - the community for your game can share their deck ideas with other customers, who can browse for deck builds they want to purchase and try out.

2. Allow your fans to create their own cards and have them printed. 

Working with you and your game layout and design, we create a customer-facing web GUI page that allows customers to create their own cards for your game. It's something like this Magic card creator page, except the customer can then order the cards they create in print (optionally, after you review them for content).

And as long as customers are creating cards, what about allowing them to share their card designs with the rest of the game's community?

With publisher approvals, the customer-created card designs can go live for sale to other customers, as either official or unofficial cards. Those cards are then available to the rest of the community to rate and purchase. As the publisher, you can even elect to allow that customer-designer to get a royalty share when their design sells.

Card games in the future won't just be funded by the crowd, they can be extended and marketed virally on into the future. A card game can actually be created by a community, with constituent members having multiple incentives to spread the word about the cards they contributed.

3. Imagine a card game where no two cards ever printed for the game are the same. 

Like perfect snowflakes, every card ever printed for the game is unique from every other card ever printed. Based on algorithms for text and graphic assets a designer supplies, we will be able to create card images on the fly when ordered by a customer. Those uniquely generated cards are then printed and shipped to the customer. Forget the surprise factor of what rare card was in your Magic booster pack - now the surprise is what totally unique card combination did I get on the cards I ordered?

The foundation of the revolution lies in the ability to print just one card and put whatever content or context you want on that card, and the same for the very next card, and so on. Nearly everything that has been static about the design of card games is now going to be dynamic. The longer you think about that, the more far-reaching you'll see its impact becomes regarding the way card games can be designed and published.

When Does This All Happen? 

Basic things like having decks with a dynamic, not static, number of cards in the deck is already possible now on DriveThruCards. We are currently building out a modular tool set that will make the rest of these concepts possible. Realistically, coding it all will take some months before the first tools are ready for use, and then some years to develop the full tool set (though really the development of the tools will never stop).

Our goal, as always with our marketplaces, is to build out a lot of tools, put them in the hands of publishers and designers, and then follow where you lead. The 1,200+ creative, entrepreneurial designers who work with us consistently have great ideas for designing and marketing their titles, ideas that force us to expand the use of our marketplace tools in ways we never foresaw. I have no doubt the same will be true of the tools we build for cards.

Deploying these card tools will require perhaps a closer degree of cooperation with publishers than ever before because our development team will have to take the modular tool set we develop and snap the right pieces together for a given need on a given card product line. Right now, we are letting publishers know what's coming. We're happy to talk about any existing or future card titles you have that would benefit from any of these possibilities.

It also simply takes time to realize when invisible shackles have been removed. I love the anecdotes that are metaphors for this: Things like chickens raised in enclosed chicken houses until one day a door is opened and they are allowed to "free range" outside. The chickens are too scared of that bright alien world outside the open door to venture out of their accustomed environment. Similarly, the idea of letting a game's community take over the design of new cards will seem alien to many publishers, at least until some pioneer marches boldly out into the daylight, engages their community in a viral community design and purchase loop, and reaps the rewards of doing so.

I encourage you to give us your thoughts on these plans. What could ideas like this bring to your card products? Assessing which of these tools and features should roll out first is something we're discussing internally already, but this is an opportunity for publishers with card products to give us their wishlist of features for their games.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Differentiation - How Does Your Title Stand Out from the Crowd?

Our rpg marketplaces like DriveThruRPG average 18 new releases each day. Each release then joins the thousands of titles already on the marketplace. It's not quite the Apple App store's pace of 1,000 new apps a day, but like Apple's app store it leads to a market crowded with options where discoverability - getting noticed - is a primary concern for all publishers, especially new publishers.

Many publishers focus on the marketing tactics of getting noticed (e.g. posting on social media) once their product is already conceptualized or already published. Discoverability begins further back in the process though with designing a product capable of getting noticed. As rpg designer John Wick says:

John's Game Design Secret #1: Think of the person who would love the game the most and make the game for them.

In this post I'll offer a few specifics on creating products that can get noticed via product differentiation.

Two Books

Business is more exciting than any game.
-Lord Beaverbrook (1879 – 1964)

Alas for Lord Beaverbrook that he passed away before the advent of tabletop roleplaying games and the modern explosion of board and card games, else he might have found a game he enjoyed even more than business. Despite our having better fare than checkers and monopoly these days, anyone in the business of publishing games knows that the business itself can still be a fun game.

I like to stack my team in games, so I have preferred to stand on the shoulders of giants and read avidly what other business leaders and thinkers have to say about the game of business. Two of the most valuable books  I have read were Competitive Strategy by Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter and Positioning by Ries and Trout. I'm going to pick a few ideas from each book and mash them together below, but there's other gold in those books that I won't have space touch on here.

In Competitive Strategy, Porter posits that there are three primary types of strategy for a business: focus, cost and differentiation. DriveThruRPG is an example of focus. By narrowly focusing on roleplaying games, it maintains itself as a value proposition to customers that a general, all-purpose site like Amazon does not fill as well. Costco is a cost strategy business. A few publishers on OneBookShelf marketplaces are also arguably cost-based. Perhaps a publisher's strategy is to offer the lowest price option for paper miniatures for example.

Most entertainment businesses though are based on differentiation and having ownership of (or license to) a unique intellectual property that is protected by copyright law from being imitated and is different from other products on the market. Two common problems with differentiation-based businesses are that they are not truly offering anything different or that the difference they are offering is not one that many customers value. As creators it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our creation is unique when actually it's just another d20 high-fantasy game with warriors and wizards. Or if I come to market with a fantasy game that uses a rules system based on a d1000 instead of a d20, will many customers value that difference (much less have a d1000 laying around to use)?

Let's layer on some of the thinking that Jack Trout and Al Ries did on positioning. Positioning boils down to what do customers think about when they think of your product. Trout and Ries submit that for your product to stick in a customer's head, it generally needs to be the first or the best at something. If you cannot be the first or best at something, then a good strategy is to position your product as the first or best of a new subset of the larger category.

The classic example is beer. Hmm.. wait, I'm drafting this on a Friday afternoon and I just said "beer", a moment please [pop...gurgle] Ah, better. Now I can proceed.

Budweiser is the "King of Beers". It used to be the #1 beer brand in the US (Bud Light has overtaken it - what that says for American beer connoisseurship I leave for others to comment). If you are Heineken looking to import into the US market for the first time, you cannot position your beer as the first or best beer in the US market, but you can claim to be the "#1 import beer". Suddenly the beer market is subdivided into domestic beer and imports. A consumer who wants an import thinks of Heineken. Or you position your new beer as the #1 light beer, or the oxymoronic #1 microbrew beer. By creating a new subcategory in the minds of the audience you establish why your offering is different from the others and the best at being different in that way.

Do you have to be #1? Not always. #2 is ok. Being Pepsi to Coke or being Burger King to McDonalds can still be a good business. At Gen Con in 1994, I asked then CEO of FASA Sam Lewis how he expected FASA's new fantasy rpg Earthdawn to compete with D&D. Why would anyone play Earthdawn instead of D&D? Sam replied that he didn't so much care about being different. He knew that being the #2 fantasy rpg on the market, something that FASA could conceivably expect to muscle Earthdawn into becoming, would be a fine business.

The problem these days is that in a long tail based market, trying to be a #2 and still get noticed is harder. There may only be room for Home Depot and Lowes in most towns, but on ebook shelves there's room for 1,000 competitors. Better to focus on what makes you different.

As a publisher, you should critically analyze your core titles to determine:
How is my title different from others already available?
Is that difference something that customers might get excited about?
How can I present that difference to customers as something they can hook their mind around (e.g. position it as a new subcategory)?

SteamCraft Case Study

Let's get concrete with a case study of sorts. I was speaking with Jamie Hardy of Perilous Journeys, the publisher of the roleplaying game SteamCraft, about some things related to the last blog post, and knowing this topic would be next, I ambushed Jamie into becoming a case study for differentiation. Jamie's SteamCraft title released and sold tolerably well, but now the sales rate seemed to be languishing a bit as SteamCraft became another steampunk roleplaying game amid many steampunk rpg options on the market.

Looking at SteamCraft's product description on DriveThruRPG from the perspective of an rpg fan, nothing on the page leapt out at me as a big differentiator between SteamCraft and other steampunk games. So I asked the hard question of Jamie:

Whether you are on a forum somewhere or talking to a potential customer in person at a convention table, what is your elevator pitch about why SteamCraft is unique not just among other rpgs, but among steampunk rpgs?

To paraphrase Jamie's reply, he came back with:

  • Unique percentile rule system
  • Includes fantasy elements (dwarves and elves)
  • Uses a non-Earth setting to free players from Earth history
  • Puts the punk back into steampunk being truly dystopian/punk and not steampulp
Put those to the test. Which of those are true differences, which are differences customers may value and which are differences that customers may value that you can position a product around?

Unique rule systems are rarely a differentiation that customers value. Customers may even view it as a hindrance to purchase - having to learn a new system to play. Unless you are Amber diceless roleplaying or Fiasco GM-less play, relying on your rule system as a differentiator that customers will value is a dicey proposition.

Fantasy elements in a steampunk rpg is not a new differentiation. The steampunk rpg Victoriana preceded SteamCraft to market and included those elements already. It is important in positioning strategy however that you don't have to be factually the first the market with a product differentiation, you only have to be perceived as first to market by most customers. IndieGoGo was first, but far more people now know about KickStarter and mentally position KickStarter as "the crowd-funding site". SteamCraft would not necessarily have to be the first steampunk rpg to include fantasy elements, so long as it could have most customers think it was the first (to be clear, I'm not suggesting that Perilous Journeys embark upon deceitful advertising, this is accomplished simply by being first and best to build awareness around a point of differentiation).

Similar to a unique rule system, a unique setting can often be over-rated as a product differentiator. Creators can be super enthused about their original, homebrew setting and want to publish it. Customers are rarely so enthused to purchase it. In this case with SteamCraft though, Jamie's insight is that departing from Earth's history frees a Game Master from having to be an expert on Victorian era history before feeling comfortable enough to run a steampunk game. That's a difference that customers might value.

Finally, drawing a distinction between steampunk and steampulp creates an opportunity to subdivide the steampunk rpg market in a reverse method. Much like creating a "Lite" beer subdivides the beer market into light beers and regular beers, a tagline like "Putting the punk back into steampunk" seeks to divide the steampunk rpg category between steampunk and steampulp with the implication being that SteamCraft holds the high ground of being true steampunk while the other wanna-be games are really steampulp trying to masquerade as the real thing.

Execution to the Plan

Identifying your elements of customer-valued differentiation is just the beginning. You then have to craft your product strategy and marketing message around that. For example, Jamie and I re-drafted the product description page for SteamCraft on DriveThruRPG with these differentiators in mind. The new description brings these elements more clearly to the fore to help SteamCraft stand out from other steampunk games.

Ideally this identification process starts early in the product's life cycle and informs all of the decisions around that product: the graphic design, the illustration/art direction, marketing messaging, product title and of course the writing itself. The product has to authentically embrace the points of differentiation.

In my days with White Wolf, when the creative staff was first designing the Exalted rpg we knew that any fantasy game that White Wolf published needed a clear differentiation to D&D. One of the differentiators that the team chose was to go with an anime-like look and feel  to the game. That was decided early in the project's life before outlines went out to writers for a rough draft. At that time Rich Thomas, then VP of Production and Art Direction, presciently said something like "If we do anime, it means we have to bring in different artists. A few exceptions aside, the artists we work with for World of Darkness games won't be as ideal for this style." Rich and the White Wolf art directors got new artists for the book and succeeded in giving Exalted that anime fantasy look.

Similarly, in developing and editing Exalted, when manuscript drafts came in with combat powers named things like Sucker Punch and Parry, developer Geoff Grabowski and editor John Chambers reshaped that text into Ox-Stunning Blow and Heavenly Guardian Defense.

Now you might be thinking, "Hold on Steve, that's just good design. If you make an anime game of course it needs anime art and anime flavor to its names." I agree; there's no particular magic here. The only difference here is that Exalted set out to be the #1 anime fantasy rpg. It did not set out to be the #2 fantasy rpg, nor the #1 anime rpg, nor to appeal to D&D players specifically. From inception its market position was explicitly clear and that position informed those design decisions. It gave a business "why" to the design "what".

If we return to SteamCraft for a moment, I would respectfully suggest that the game's cover image and design:

could stand to be darker and more punk. While most products would kill to have a cover this nice, the cover does not fit the title's position in the market. As beautiful as it is, a cover showing an aerial naval battle on parchment texture with a "Get your Goggle On" tagline conveys "high adventure" and does not match a game that seeks the market position of being more steampunk than steampulp.

Concept = Easy, Application = Hard

Discoverability starts at product creation. Like most bits of business wisdom , it boils down to common sense: If your product isn't different then it can't stand out from the crowd. The rigorous thinking comes in applying the wisdom. It comes with the discipline to resist deluding yourself that your title is different when it's not. It comes through being sure your title is different in a way that customers will value. And then the rigorous execution comes in applying those differentiation points through every stage of the product's creation and marketing.

Try to apply this thinking to your own titles. Don't shy from the truth even if it hurts. How are your titles different? Do customers value the difference? Is the difference clearly communicated to potential customers?

Or take some titles that are emerging in the market right now and analyze them. What makes Monte Cook's Numenera stand out as different? Which of those differences do customer's value?

I look forward to your thoughts.


(Feel free to enter your email up at the right and subscribe. The posts are infrequent.)

Monday, 29 April 2013

OneBookShelf Technology Roadmap

As I mentioned in my first blog post about product pricing experiments, my posts will sometimes be generally about sales and marketing business practices and sometimes about OneBookShelf things specifically. This is the latter. I wanted to provide some outlook on what we are planning technologically in the months ahead for the OneBookShelf marketplaces.

Discussion on Product Pages

A feature in testing right now adds discussion threads to product pages - a more conversational way for fans to discuss your products.

Threaded discussion coming soon to your product pages

We will be adding an option under your publisher settings tool page where you can elect to receive an email whenever customers post a new discussion topic on one of your products (similar to the current email notices when you make a sale or receive a new review). We will announce when this is released and ready for you to opt-in to those emails (or not).

Site Redesign

Our site has changed a lot over the years.
Last year was no different. We rolled out a new header/footer/left column and search bar look to our marketplaces. Late last year we released redesigned cart and wishlist pages.
Already this year we have rolled out all new checkout pages. User testing is indicating the new checkout pages are doing their job of making it easier for customers to buy your titles.
Later this year we will be circling back to the main sections of the homepages. These sections have not really been overhauled for many years.

Our basic plan for the homepage is to do away with the current center and right columns and replace them with horizontal cover thumbnail strips similar to what you see on sites like Netflix.

An early RPG mock-up we did - so crude that our web dev folks will curse me for posting it.

We will make this change incrementally to the home page and to other category browsing pages, testing the changes with customers as we go along.
This approach to the homepage will allow greater opportunity to showcase the covers of all of the hottest selling titles, titles exclusive to our marketplaces, and titles curated to each customer’s tastes. We can for example run a strip of Hottest Small Press titles and show the covers of all such titles vs. the vertical list of title names we now use in the left column of the site. We can show customer A and customer B different mixes of titles based on their prior history.

We know the user interface on many of the publisher tool pages leaves much to be desired. In ten years of coding tool pages to give you maximum control and visibility over your titles and connection to customers, we’ve organically grown the publisher menu into a rather daunting array of options that are highly functional but not always easy to use. Most of the publisher tool pages weren’t designed with the best modern day user interface practices in mind. We will be overhauling them.

Our focus right now, though, remains completing the redesign of our customer-facing pages. We hope to finish the bulk of that redesign work by the end of this year or the end of the 1st quarter 2014. We can then increasingly turn our attention to making your publisher tool pages friendlier for you to use.

Product Activation

We are making some changes to how products are activated for sale.
Last week we rolled out the first code changes that are part of a multi-step rollout that will give you more control over how your titles are delivered to customers.

Previously, if you wanted to sell a title through our print program, you also needed to have a digital download option available for the title. This week’s changes allow you to activate a title for print sale without requiring a digital option. For example, you can now offer printed cards without also offering a print-and-play version of the cards.

For those of you only offering digital titles not much has changed. Continue to activate titles as normal where you upload the files that customers will download.

Until we finish the rest of the coding on this project, there is an interim period here where a few site functions are suspended (e.g. using Batch Edit tool to make lots of products active or inactive at once) until we update those functions. Please bear with us.

There are a few other related changes coming in the next few months.

Soon our on-site tools will change from the “active/inactive” word pairing to a “public/private” dichotomy. We think public or private is a clearer way to communicate what we mean when we say a product is active or inactive.

Different Files for Different Formats
You will soon be able to upload several digital files and then determine which of those files get delivered when a customer purchases different product options: download, print, etc.

For example, you might want to sell a card game as both a downloadable print-and-play file and as a printed card deck. You will be able to upload the print-and-play PDF file and also rulebook PDF file to the product. You could then select for both of these files to be delivered to customers who purchase the digital download option and select only the rulebook file to be delivered to customers who buy the printed card deck option.

To be clear, the “Add-On” option to purchase a digital download + printed book combination will remain, as it exists on site now. The new function will just give you the flexibility to choose which files are delivered to customers based on which product option(s) they choose to purchase.

Mandatory Download Test
We currently require that a publisher order a single proof copy for all print products before we will activate the title for sale. Similarly, publishers will soon be required to perform a “test download” of a title’s file(s) before you can enable that product for sale via digital download.

Our #1 customer complaint occurs because publishers enter a new product but do not test the file download themselves before activating the title for sale. Customers then find out the new release does not download properly.

Usually this problem occurs because the publisher has not followed our recommended PDF specifications, so the PDF does not play nicely with our watermarking process. We will also be making changes to our watermarking process to minimize these problems, but the ultimate safeguard to keeping your customers happy is to test the download yourself before making it public. 


Why don’t we have an iPad app?
For the past many years there’s been a debate about the future of apps vs. HTML5 webpages.
We’ve been squarely in the HTML5 camp, believing that the functionality coming to webpages will allow phones and tablets to do everything we would want an app to do.
An HTML5 approach allows us to create and maintain one website that can be optimized for different screen form factors, but not have to code and maintain apps for iOS, Android or other operating systems.
This year we will be looking at how far we can push the code on our download pages and library pages to see if we can now make the experience rich enough for customers that an app seems moot.
If we don’t feel we can push the experience far enough then we will finally give in and look at doing some apps using the emerging hybrid approach of wrapping HTML5 into an app package. Services like offer this sort of approach.


Our card print program has been functional for a couple months now. We have been improving many aspects of it – nuts and bolts stuff like getting ship confirmation emails flowing between our print partner (ODT) and ourselves. With more of that now in place we are beginning to market the DriveThruCards site this week with a Grand Opening event.

Being able to print high-quality cards as single decks (or single cards!) to meet a customer’s order in real-time is just the beginning of what we intend to offer through our cards platform. In the months and years ahead we plan to offer a range of tools to publisher which you can use to publish card games in ways never before possible. Some of what we will offer will only be usable by publishers who create games with these capabilities in mind, so this is a long term project for us and for the publishers who choose to use the tools we build out.

One example is building a tool which will allow your fans to create their own cards compatible with your game. A fan creates the expansion card online, agrees to a click-thru and submits the card design for approval. Once you approve the card, it then goes up for sale as a single (perhaps as an “unofficial” card). Now your game is getting crowd-created.
Perhaps the fan gets an auto-pay royalty when their card design sells? Now your fans have several reasons to virally market their cards to each other. Those types of features are some time away for us yet, but we’ll get there with your input along the way.

Your Turn

Comments, suggestions, and questions are welcomed below.


Wednesday, 3 April 2013


Blog Intro
As this is my first real blog post here, a quick word of introduction.
Who: I'm Steve Wieck, CEO of OneBookShelf which operates DriveThru, RPGNow, WargameVault, etc. After working on these marketplaces for over eight years, I notice some things that might be useful to the creators and publishers who allow us to sell their content on our marketplaces. This is a blog intended for those creators and publishers.
What: I'll mostly blog about business and marketing stuff. Sometimes it will be things rather broadly useful like the post coming below about pricing. Sometimes I'll let you know what we're thinking and where we're going with deep dives into things more specific to our marketplaces (and hopefully get your feedback and comments).
I will only blog sporadically when I have something potentially useful to say, feel free to subscribe; the posts will be infrequent.

Pricing for Reach
A common question we get from publishers is "How should I price my title?" to which we reply with a most unhelpful "that depends".

Pricing makes a huge difference in the success of your title, but it depends on what success you're looking for. Usually it's either maximizing reach or maximizing income.

Maximizing reach is the easy one. The price is zero, free. Simply making your title free though does not by itself guarantee enormous reach. You still need to market the title. It helps to contact our marketing folks like Matt and Steve Smith and ask them to feature your freebie in a newsletter. They can't feature every free title, but they can feature some. Releasing a free rpg title on Wednesday evening or Thursday early morning also helps you get your free title automatically listed in the bottom portion of our rpg newsletter (for comics try Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning).
You might also look for opportunities to include titles for free in certain bundle promotions. Charity bundles can see 10,000+ downloads.

Then what do you with that reach? Using the email customer tool to contact everyone who got your free title with an incentive to purchase another title in your line is a straightforward approach.
Kevin at Sine Nomine Publishing has success with offering a PDF version free leading to high sales of the printed version of Stars Without Number.
Top Cow makes all issue #1's free to introduce readers to a series.

Finally, there is certainly a case for using non-free prices to drive reach. Some publishers like EN Publishing and Adamant Entertainment have run 99 cent sales across their entire product range. The sale of items normally valued much higher than 99 cents drives a level of excitement that leads to word of mouth referrals and more "what the hell, I'll try it" purchases. The sale drives interest in a way that a free product could not. Free occupies a different mental space for consumers.

Pricing for Income
Maximizing income through pricing is the trickier part. Though much of what I discuss below works as well or even better on print titles as on digital download titles, I will largely be speaking to digital titles here.

First, a fascinating read. Scott Holden here at OneBookShelf referred me to an excellent summary article on various ways pricing tactics can influence consumer behavior. These are nicely summarized in a post by Peep Laja (no, I don't know if that's his real name or a gamer tag) at Conversion XL. If you're a fan of psychology or of making money, it's a good read and so well summarized there, I won't repeat it here.

Second, an experiment. Recently we worked with Monte Cook and deeply discounted his Ptolus book from $60 to $19.99 during our promotion of Geek & Sundry's International TableTop Day. I have been reading with interest some results and data that PC game download service Steam has reported about how a promoted deep discount of "75% off" drove total revenue, not units, total sales dollars, 40 times higher. I wondered if we could reproduce a similar result to what Steam has found.

We did. The one week that Ptolus was on sale generated 44 times more revenue than its prior monthly average. We got to send Monte the largest royalty payment we've ever sent him in eight years of selling Malhavoc titles - including more than when Ptolus first released.

Why did this work so well? We can theorize.
First, Ptolus is worth $60. Anyone who ever purchased Ptolus for $60 got more than their money's worth. This promotion was not some shoddy way of taking a title that has a market worth of $25, claiming it's worth $60 and then "marking it down" to $20. Ptolus is one of the best roleplaying books ever created and customers know it. It was a steep discount from the legitimate value of the product.
Second, Monte's profile hasn't exactly diminished or deteriorated in the past several months and he maintains his social media connection with fans. However, Monte admits that he didn't do a lot of promoting of this sale himself.
Third, the sale was promoted. We had good traffic to our TableTop Day landing page and the free bundle offered during the promotion.
Fourth, the pricing was presented correctly. It was clear that customers were paying $19.99 (rule of 9's), that they were saving $40, getting 66% off the normal $60 price. These things mean a lot.

There's a general rule in ecommerce web display and user interface that when in doubt about something, see how Amazon does it. I'm specifically not talking about Amazon's business practices - only their web displays and UI. You can be sure though that most every aspect of their site has been ruthlessly A/B tested, user tested, and optimized seven ways to Sunday. We're going to circle back after the success of the Ptolus sale to look again at how we display prices on our marketplaces vs. how Amazon displays them. We're going to work with publishers to identify titles which could work for deep discounts run during promotion events as Steam does. We won't see such enormous sales gains on every title, but it's definitely an experiment worth repeating.

Matthew at Mongoose has spurred us in the past to do more research on price points and pricing behavior on our sites. Certainly Matthew's price experiment of selling the Legend core book for $1 was wildly successful in maximizing the reach of that title (and even the income wasn't too bad!).
When we analyzed several years' worth of sales at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow and sliced the data several different ways, we found something a bit curious.
Sales rates of products didn't matter quite so much on their actual price - books priced at $15 generally sold as well as books priced at $12 for example. What did affect sales rates was the discount amount from the original MSRP of the title. So a book priced on site at 40% off its MSRP sold much better than a book priced 20% off its MSRP, even if both books ended up priced at $15.
If you already read the Conversion XL article linked above you'll have some ideas why - the power of "sale price markers (with the old price mentioned)".

What can you do?
1. When you enter prices on our marketplace, you have the opportunity to enter the original MSRP of the title. When you do we then display the price of the title on site like this:
$9.99 $4.99
instead of like this:
Entering that MSRP ends up making a big difference in the effectiveness of how your prices are displayed to customers. If you haven't entered your MSRP's, edit your products and do so (just make sure the MSRP's are legit - there are rules about false advertising).

2. Experiment! I know it can be scary, but many publishers like those I've mentioned above are trying different experiments with pricing and finding success. Say "Yes!" to experiments.
We did ask a few other publishers to also try the deep discount during our TableTop Day promotion and the rest refused to discount or went halfway there and saw little lift in their sales rates. I wish they had said "yes" like Monte did with Ptolus.

3. Consider price anchoring with print options. We'd love to see experimentation with price anchoring effects using different print options. Books like Vampire 20th anniversary edition that are available in digital format and several different print formats are ideal for price anchoring experiments. Setting a premium color price high (it legitimately needs to be high anyway due to the print cost) may help sell more standard color books at a lower price point. If you are only offering one print format option, consider adding another format at a much higher or lower price point.