The latest edition of D&D seems to be doing well in
terms of sales. Yet, I am sure there are
many people still playing AD&D that never felt the need to purchase and
play a new edition. If you have rules
that work and you already have the books, then why bother with a new
edition? That same question can be asked
of college textbooks. Is a new edition
of a college algebra textbook really needed?
Chances are, in many disciplines, there is no need for a new edition of
a textbook is the purpose is to educate students. However, the purpose of the textbook is to
make the publisher money. The same holds
true with RPG books as well.
This may be obvious to those who think about it, but in case
it isn’t, let me walk you through why the market forces textbook publishers to
put out a new edition and why those same forces make publishers put out new
editions of RPGs. Textbooks are high quality,
in terms of production value. Those
hardbacks can last decades. The
publisher only makes money by selling new
books. Further, most of the money
publisher makes come from selling to bookstores. Hence, they do not make the full MSRP. The production cost is high. Finally, the longer the book is out, the
fewer books you will sell.
The reason why new textbooks sell poorly after the first
year or two is that the high quality guarantees that most of the books will end
up in the used book market. Students
will purchase the used books, so the publishers does not make any money. The solution for textbooks is a huge increase
in price followed by new editions every 2-3 years.
Used books are only part of the issue for RPGs. Unlike college, market forces help to keep
the price of RPGs down. However, given
the high production value, players do not need to replace their books.
Moreover, in many game groups, PDFs and sharing a copy of one or two rulebooks
is enough. Thus, RPG publishers have to
put out new books to get new sales.
Publishers can put out adventures, setting supplements, and
rule (splat) books. Unlike in the Gygax
era, adventures sell poorly. Only the GM’s
will purchase it and only a few of them will bother buying it. Unless you are WotC or Pathfinder, your
market share is so small you might not even sell enough adventures to break
even. Setting supplements might appeal
to more than just the GM, but it is still going to be a small percentage of the
fan base. Hence, you have to have a
large market share for it to be profitable.
Thus, the main seller besides the core rulebook is going to
be splat books. These books add new
rules, options, equipment, spells, etc. to the game. This way, all of the players of your system
will purchase these books. This does not
work for every game system. Further,
there might be a splat limit. Finally,
not all players will purchase these splat books.
Eventually, if a publisher is going to make money from an
existing game line, they need to put out a new edition. A new edition is a massive benefit to the
publisher. First, a large portion of
your current player base will purchase the new edition. Second, game stores will stock the new
edition leading to growing your fan base.
Third, you get to recycle old material and new product. Victoriana
is a great example of this. The 2nd
edition used adventures for the first edition.
They had to convert the rules, so that justified the 2nd
edition. The 3rd edition
repackages many of the older adventures and released them as new. Sometimes with some new content.
My point is that frequent new editions and now a financial
necessity for RPG publishers. Sometimes
there are significant rule changes and sometimes there are not. Yet, it is simply the best way to make profit
as an RPG publisher. Without a fast
growing RPG industry or a dramatic drop in competition, the best way forward is
to make as much money from your existing customers as possible. The best way to do that is new edition. It is the same with textbooks. While textbook publishers can force you to
buy a new edition, RPG publishers cannot.
Hence, there is an incentive to make the new edition advantageous to
get, and sometimes the best way to do that is to alter the rules to make
backwards compatibility difficult.