Pay as you leave: The troubles with PWYW

I was an early adopter of PDFs but a latecomer to integrating their use, fully into my gaming experience. As both a reviewer and a consumer, I am forever looking at sites where digital books can be purchased. As a result, I regularly see Pay What You Want titles on DriveThruRPG. A simple search of their catalog is all it took to see that there is a very large number of titles available for what amounts to be free. 

There are three sales models available to creators at DriveThruRPG (DTRPG): fixed price, free, and Pay What You Want (PWYW). It’s the latter I’m concerned with. From a consumer standpoint, it’s not good for the industry. Yes, that is a bold statement to make from someone who is not a content creator, but please keep reading and let me walk you through my logic. 

For those not familiar with the PWYW model, it is where a customer has the option to pay the creator whatever they feel a product is worth to them at the moment of purchase. In theory, this model is a noble one, but it makes false assumptions. First, it assumes that a customer will voluntarily pay for a product they can otherwise get for free. Second, it assumes they will return to “re-purchase” it for the recommended amount or possibly a higher amount. In reality, the PWYW model is just a creator’s creativity, time, energy, hopes and dreams being pilfered for free. One only needs to look at oneself. How many times have you downloaded a PWYW title and never returned to pay a creator?

At the time of writing this article, there were 8,284 items listed as PWYW on the main DriveThruRPG site, Unfortunately, I am unable to breakdown that number into specific categories, to separate those titles that I feel could legitimately be PWYW from titles that would be better suited under a different pricing model. However, I can visually categorize the list into the following:

  • Full rules sets/games
  • Quickstart rules
  • Character sheets
  • Scenarios
  • Game supplements
  • Virtual tabletop resources
  • Physical tabletop resources
  • Stock art
  • 3D print files
  • Miscellaneous

With all 8,284 titles falling into one of those broad categories, we now begin to break things down even further. Let’s first filter out the products that can legitimately be sold under the PWYW model. For example, Quickstart rules and character sheets are two of the things that stand out to me. Yes, they both take creative effort, but they are support products and are generally free. If a publisher can generate even a little income, though not very likely, from an appreciative customer, then it’s worth it to them to use this model. 

The vast majority of the products that remain are products that are generally non-promotional or support products. These are rules, supplements, physical and digital assets to enhance games; all of which took time and energy to create. Let’s not forget the hours of research, writing, editing, playtesting, re-writing, more playtesting, paying artists, etc. that goes into the creative process. So, why would a creator who has spent all this time and in all likelihood their own money, want to risk giving away their product for free?

In an attempt to answer that question, I canvased several social media communities that I am a member of (as an industry professional). I asked creators to share their data with me. While several did, the data is by no means empirical. The limited sales data shared with me showed approximately 87% of products that were downloaded under the PWYW model from these creators were sold for $0. The remaining 13% were either paid for at the initial point of purchase or customers returned at a later time to re-purchase at some dollar amount. As an outsider looking in, that return on investment isn’t good. What wasn’t all that clear from the data shared with me was what categories each and every product fell into. I surmise that most of the products were written; meaning they were rules, supplements, scenarios, etc.  

As a consumer, when I see products that are PWYW, several thoughts cross my mind:

  • The product sucks and the creator “hopes” people pay 
  • The creator undervalues their work and/or their contribution’s worth
  • The creator doesn’t believe customers will pay a fair price for it

Over the years I have downloaded (some paid and some unpaid [remember that point I made earlier?]) a number of PWYW titles and I have personally seen all three of those thoughts play out in reality. Some titles were so poorly written that they should have never seen the light of day. The overwhelming majority, however, were decent products in my opinion. Creators undervalued themselves in terms of placing value on their creativity, time, and energy. When that happens, the third situation really comes into play; they don’t know how to establish a fair market price for their product. Many times a second-order effect comes into play, they don’t feel customers will be willing to pay fair market value. This last point gets more muddied by the fact that there are tens of thousands of digital products available at DTRPG and most creators’ products get lost in the mix. Those that are out there self-advocating and promoting their products are the ones that know their worth. They tend to rise to the top, have higher sales numbers, better front page visibility, and popularity.

Sometimes there are situations and specific reasons why a creator would list a product as PWYW. At the time of researching and writing this article, the COVID-19 pandemic is rampant. Many creators are using this model to provide customers with something to read to combat the boredom and hopefully generate a little income from those that might have some disposable income still. Sometimes a publisher may want to “test the waters” as part of their market research to see how well a new product is received; returning payers help determine the market value. There are definitely times when this is a good model to use. 

It is my honest opinion, as a consumer, the PWYW model under normal circumstances is neither good for the consumer nor for the creator. The consumer, can admittedly get the product for free and evaluate it prior to committing any money. But how many products do you have time to evaluate? I don’t have that kind of time and suspect most customers don’t either. When the product is a good one, the consumer is under no obligation to return and pay for it and therein lies the problem for the creator.

Creators, you need to value your work and time! If you value your creativity and your work, your customers will too! Have you thought about doing some research into what potential customers think about the PWYW model? What price point they would expect to pay for a particular type of product? Have you asked other creators what they think about the PWYW model? You’d be surprised by what these different groups of people say and their reasons for their opinions. 

As a consumer, I want to know the product is good, has value, and is worth my time and money. Show me a preview, tell me, in-depth, why I need your product, and sell it to me at a fair price. Is that too much to ask?

~ Modoc

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. I decided to make the first issue of the Arkham Gazette (#0) PWYW because most of it had previously been released, albeit in much rougher form, for free previously. I think creators can offer some sample of work as PWYW but I wholeheartedly agree that too many people in our industry undervalue its products.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Senshi (Carlos) says:

    Well, I don’t agree totally with this. It’s true that a lot of products fall into those categories, but there’s also a lot of creators that just want to share their work with people that may be can’t afford the normal price for a rpg. If something is only made digital, I normally pay for it, maybe no the real value, but something at least symbolic. If it has both options, I try the digital rulebook for free and if I liked, I buy a physical copy. And we are also collectors, not only customers, and that’s something to have in mind.
    Here in Spain, Espada Negra made something that was indeed unusual. We sold physical copies in PWYW, and normally our regular customers paid the recommended price, even more. I think is also a matter of awareness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. modoc31 says:

      You have a valid about some creators wanting to just share their work and I don’t necessarily disagree with that idea. Though I generally think it’s flawed when if that creator is a) a business and b) not clearly stating the purpose of why it’s a PWYW title. Occasionally, I have seen publishers change products to PWYW (this pandemic is a good example) to share with folks or to raise funds for charity, but their aim is usually very clearly stated.

      More times than not, I think a lot of products end up as PWYW for the reasons I listed in the article.

      ~ Modoc

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t have a strong opinion on PWYW. I’m not a big user of PDFs; I don’t “read” them. But I do use them as a valuable RPG resource alongside a physical copy (for printouts and screen snips).

    I don’t recall downloading more that a few PWYW. Some, whose utility was obvious at the outset, I paid for.

    However, speaking for myself, the most likely fate of “Free” PDFs is to be forgotten in a folder on my drive. If I pay for something, I’m more likely to value it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. modoc31 says:

      Excellent point about the fate of free PDFs. That comment prompted me to think about my own collection of PDFs and those I acquired for at no cost; most of which seem to have been deleted from my hard drive or languish as unread and obviously underutilized.

      ~ Modoc

      Liked by 2 people

  4. bblackmoor says:

    You have overlooked one of the reasons for a publisher pricing their product as “pay what you want”: wanting everyone who wants the game to be able to have it, regardless of whether they can afford it — because the people who can afford it, and who actually want it, will generally pay for it.

    Case in point: we (Kalos Comics) recently released the third edition of Bulletproof Blues. Everyone who purchased any previous version was sent a coupon for it, for free, and we priced it as “pay what you want”, with a “suggested price” of $15. Since then, 33 people have downloaded it. Of those, four paid $10 or more — three of them paid the full “suggested price”.

    We made $36 (after DTRPG took their cut), and 33 people got the opportunity to play our game. In my opinion, that’s a win-win.

    I think it’s terribly disappointing that after all this time, and after all we have learned, that there are still people who want to control every download: people who would literally rather that fewer people have access to their game, in the mistaken impression that it somehow costs them something.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. modoc31 says:

      I’m glad to hear your customers paid what you feel was a fair value, but my research showed that is far from the case a lot of the time. With regards to controlling downloads, no lone is controlling anything, but rather content creators who feel that their creations are worth a modicum of value, want to earn something from their work. That is only fair.

      There are strategic ways to use the model, but it seems like most that are using don’t use it in any strategic fashion. They just slap PWYW on it and hope that people will pay for it; some do and most don’t.

      Obviously, your mileage may vary and I hope you continue to use it successfully.

      ~ Modoc


  5. You have to ask yourself this question – is PWYW a part of an overall strategy? If the answer is no, then you have no metric to use from which to judge it, no goals, no destination. Really, you don’t even have a question.

    PWYW if a part of a strategy is an enticement model. If not part of a strategy, it isn’t much more than putting your old furniture on the sidewalk with a free sign.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:

      Fair question and point. As part of a grand strategy, if employed well, I can see it be useful, but it doesn’t seem like that is the plan for most. Far too many creators seem to have no idea how to value their work or undervalue their work, use the model as a dumping ground in the hopes that consumers will/might pay something. That’s obviously not a well thought out strategy.

      ~ Modoc


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