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
- Game supplements
- Virtual tabletop resources
- Physical tabletop resources
- Stock art
- 3D print files
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?
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