Friday, March 19, 2010

Diversification and the Marketing of the OSR

Again and again I see the OSR described as a "niche within a niche".

While I understand the philosophy behind such a sentiment, and have perhaps used it myself in the past, I have to chuckle when I consider the real truth of the situation. Fact is, the OSR is booming, and selling numbers any game company would be proud of. The difference is, there's not one game company behind it all, so it looks like a bunch a little operations not really selling all that much when viewed in individual terms.

Diversification, by definition, "seeks to increase profitability through greater sales volume obtained from new products and new markets". This is something the OSR achieves through its very nature: a bunch of guys all participating in the revival of what is at its core the same game slash gaming philosophy.

Difficult to see, perhaps, because there is no company called "OSR", but the sales advantages it has are the same most companies have to work at deliberately.

Take "GURPS" for instance. Talk about a "niche" game. How does GURPS stay in business? Well, obviously you haven't seen a row of twenty copies of the GURPS Basic Set at the local big-box store. GURPS employs the strategy of Diversification. In the last six months alone, they've released a dozen game supplements. One of those titles alone might not generate a ton of revenue, but together, they add up. If there's 300 guys out there playing sci-fi GURPS, there's a new supplement for them. 400 playing fantasy, 250 playing WW2, etc. Palladium does the same thing with Rifts, etc.

Which brings me around to Marketing. Every company involved in D&D or one of its bastard children seems to get it. WotC is running out a "Red Box" set this fall, as well as "Rules Lite" version of 4E, Paizo is diving into the old-school world of Sand-boxia with its next Pathfinder Adventure Path.

Why are those companies taking notice? An issue of Knockspell only sells a few hundred copies right? But consider what's been released in the last two years: multiple issues of Knockspell and Fight On!, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, several monster books, several variant rule supplements, campaign settings, adventure modules, etc, etc. That's thousands of books altogether.

So why is the OSR having such a hard time marketing itself? I mean, there's still a thread every other day about "what are retroclones?" on the various gaming message boards. And I'm not just talking about ENWorld and such, but even frickin' Dragonsfoot!!! If the home of 1E on the internet still doesn't understand what OSRIC is all about, then there are some problems we need to address.

Any ideas?

You'll see Erol Otus's sweet cover for Fight On! #8 splashed across a lot of blogs over the next few days. Right there on the cover it states "A fanzine for the Old School Renaissance". That's a good place to start.


  1. I've wondered about this too. I think "retro clone" and "OSR" are poor marketing terms. Why not sell the games on their own merits?

    "I play Swords and Wizardry."
    "What's that?"
    "It's a rule-light fantasy game that's easy to learn, fun to play and is simple to customize."

    "I play labyrinth Lord."
    "You'd love it. It's a fantasy game that is fast to learn, fun to play and really allows the group to focus more on fun instead of rules."

    The whole OSR and retro-clone bugs the hell out of me. I play a game, not a "simulacra."

  2. Is there some kind of coalition of independent RPG publishers, etc. that can be created to have a singular branding entity? Even just a logo with a 'seal of approval' of some kind might help... It's not that difficult to get non-profit status for such a thing, particulary as it would be practically a historical preservation society.

    It's the internal politics that inevitably chews such things to shreds, though, so secret voting might be necessary.

    This week has definitely shown that everyone has different lines that they are unwilling to cross.

    In terms of marketing, if the OSR doesn't start taking its efforts seriously, it will be drowned out by more nefarious entities seeking to be #1 on Google.

    Christian's point, above, is a good one. Is there something that can be written as a kind of 'Rosetta Stone' for the different retro-clones? Should the branding of ALL retro games be pumped up so that they don't lose their own identity?

    What about a newly written OSR introductory set? I mentioned that on another blog and it was shot down...

  3. The OSR is not more popular because, frankly, it's supposed audience doesn't support it. Talk to Old Schoolers and they'll go on and on about how they don't buy any supporting material for their games that have been going on 30 years with the same group of retreads. They are proud of the fact they don't know what a "retro clone" is and wouldn't use it if they did.

    There is only one type of marketing that would help the's called "free". Most of the old schoolers are too cheap to ante up 10 bucks for anything new. It's not a failure of marketing, but failure of the old school mindset....

  4. Christian: I understand your point, but it sounds like you are selling Amway there. I'd avoid those descriptions myself if I was looking for a game and someone sprung them on me (Or I'd ask the cheeky question "So what game is it like?"). I like the approach, but I don't think you have to bury the lead. "It's a new, easier version of the classic Dungeons & Dragons game" or "It's a streamlined version of the old D&D rules" doesn't make you seem you are trying to hide it's roots or the inspiration.

  5. Probably the main reason for the marketing issue is the result of our diversity. None of companies specifically making OSR products individually have the budget for marketing of even a 2nd or 3rd tier publisher.


    So while we could try to fix the problem. I think along with diversification the OSR publisher will also stratify. There will come a point where those on the top will be effectively a 2nd or 3rd tier publisher. We will see OSR Marketing have more of an effect with a bigger budget.


    An alternative could be a manufacturer's association that has a membership fee. Say $50 a year. The sole purpose to create and market the OSR as a whole. That may jump start this.

    The main issue with this will be politics as the diversity of the OSR often causes different ends to pull against each other.

    The more practical the purpose of the organization the better it's chances are. If it was up to me solely it would be only be about pooling ad dollars. That the fee set at level that only those with serious commercial interests would pay but low enough that it is not a barrier to entry.

  6. Free RPG Day is coming up in June...are any of the OSR publishers participating? It would seem to be an ideal format for pushing product and awareness.

    I agree with Rob that the optimum way would be to use ad dollars to the best advantage, but it gets tricky at that point, due to so many variables. Chief among them is who gets to make the decisions....

  7. @Badmike, that may be true of portions of the OSR but many of us who are serious about publishing are seeing growing sales. It may be small now but if it continues....

    Not two years ago people were writing how the retro-clones wouldn't go anywhere that people would ignore them because they already have the game and nobody new plays them.

    Well that didn't turn about to be true.

    What we are not doing is BOOMING. We are not showing spectacular growth. Instead we are growing slowly every year. And that is OK and better for the long term health of the hobby.

    I agree with Christian on collective advertising effort and will blog on some details tommorrow. It goal will to be to keep that slow and steady growth going.

  8. @Badmike, Free RPG also requires to be able to order print runs like a regular publisher which is out of reach for many at this point.

    I see it happening but no sooner than either next year or the year after.

  9. I agree 100% with Christian. OSR, Retroclone, Simulacra... blah.

  10. I agree with Stuart, agreeing with Christian. Not a fan of Amway, but you have to admit that it works.

    "Simulacra" sounds like a dietary supplement for seniors or some sort of Viagra-like medication.

  11. I think a lot of it has to do with distribution and availability, too. The previous poster's point about old-schoolers who don't buy anything is well taken, but I think this hobby attracts at least as many obsessive collectors (me) who'll buy almost anything they think is cool. But at the big box bookstore where I work we can't even order most of the OSR stuff, let alone stock/ display it. Times are tough and I'm strapped like everyone else, but if I actually saw a lot of the OSR stuff at the bookstore or my flgs, and I could flip through it and purchase it without having to shell out exhorbitant shipping fees etc. I'd probably buy every single item right then and there. As long as the ONLY outlet for a lot of this stuff is lulu (and let's face it: there's still some consumer suspicion about the quality of pod offerings), things will continue as is.

    Love your blog, by the way.

  12. Someone should get a booth at GenCon. Come on, people! (I have an excuse... I'm across the ocean...)

  13. Speaking as someone who's only just arrived, I can tell you that - in appearance, anyway - the OSR could easily be described not merely as a "niche within a niche," but as "10 or 12 different reworkings of the original Gygax/Arneson rulebooks puffed up with the inclusion of a constantly growing collection of the disparate House Rules of hundreds of enthusiastic gamers, all of which combine to give the illusion of the OSR being its own solid niche within a niche when in fact the OSR enjoys the distinction of there being one different niche for every single player of the game."

    Glad to be here, though. Don't think I'm hatin' on the OSR or anything. It's my kind of place.

  14. Oh, and John, don't waste time with the brick and mortars. I've been working in one (Barnes & noble) for the last five years and their future is in E-readers and electronic downloads. That's the basket in which they have placed their eggs. Don't waste your time messing with dead-tree publishing on that scale. Keep it to POD for interested buyers.

  15. RE: Cameron's thoughts. I say make it a combination. There is still a large segment of your core OSR audience that won't have anything to do with electronic media. There's a reason the S&W White box sold out, and a reason why Raggi's box will also when it is released. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact electronic downloads are perhaps the future of this medium. Keep a finger in both pies I say.

  16. Agree with badmike. I also work for B&N (15 years now) and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that there will always be a healthy demand for physical books. Ereaders are the big new thing right now and they will take a share of the market, but after the hype dies down I think it'll be clear that physical books are going to be around for a long time.

  17. Badmike:

    (In terms of where my sympathies are at, I prefer dead-tree. I'll be buying a White Box set in the next print run.)

    It seems to me that the S&W White Box was almost (but not quite) an example of POD. To make it work with a big box bookstore they'd have had to have a few thousand units ready to go to get them out on the floor. Are there enough buyers for that kind of committment? Can a small publisher afford to gamble and eat the returns?

    Here's a look at how the commercial publishers do it and what independants are competing against: it all comes to how best brick and mortars can make the square footage pay off.

  18. Nextautumn:

    Oh, books aren't completely going away. Children's picture books, the luscious art books, the snooty cookbooks that only get used in-store by lazy bastards who refuse to actually buy them - things like that will be around for a long time yet.

    Where I see ebooks really changing things is in what is currently the mass-market ppb side of this business. But, as with music and downloads, the change to digital for the majority of what we currently sell is inevitable.

  19. LL and the AEC are doing just fine, at RPGNOW. AEC is back up to #1

    @Scottsz - Are you seriously suggesting that a group of people take it upon themselves, to create a "Seal of Approval," and set themselves up as an authority to pass judgement upon what is or isn't "Worthy of being considered OSR material?" That would be a slap in the face to the whole idea, of this thing being in the hands of the hobbyists. I can think of no quicker way, to destroy something beautiful.

  20. @James: That's not what I meant. Upon further thought, I don't think my idea would fly anyway.

    I was thinking of something like a 'compatible with...' kind of brand/logo/thing tied to a nonprofit that operated mostly online, but could perhaps expedite sales and distribution to people who aren't internet connected.

  21. A part of me, being that I'm unemployed with piles of free fantasy time, wishes I could find some way to get my grubby hands on some capital and start a little gaming shop focused on old school games A store for the greybeards which gives them a place to go that isn't marketing to the Poke-kids. True, the reason that the big game stores don't cater to Graybeards is because they will never make the kinda money they can make selling minis to kids, but I think that if I could dig up enough of them, and give the place a feeling of community, they'd open their hearts/wallets.

  22. I’m amused when I read that people don’t like the term “niche of a niche” as if it’s a negative thing, just as I am amused when people don’t like “old school” or “OSR” when they are in fact accurate descriptions.

    @Al – you talk about the “real truth of the situation” and go on to give examples of why “the OSR is booming” – and I agree with you, relatively speaking it IS booming. But start looking at the numbers and the real truth becomes apparent. Any OSR publisher who manages to sell 200+ units of an individual title has achieved something extraordinary, but this is a rare thing. Michael Curtis’ The Dungeon Alphabet is one such example, having apparently sold 500+ units (and probably much higher), but this is hardly a typical example and Michael didn’t publish this himself, as most OSR publishers/authors do, but rather a larger established company with a distribution deal not only did it for him, but organised the astounding volume of artwork in the book. In fact if an OSR publisher sells 50 units, it is still a great success. If you want to look at an example that is probably more true to the experience of many OSR publishers, just read James Mishlers post as to why he is shutting down his “company”: Adventure Games Publishing is Closed. Have a look at the numbers he quotes. While this is perhaps an extreme example, it is also closer to the reality than The Dungeon Alphabet example.

    Something that wouldn’t be apparent to outsiders, and that perhaps some old school types who should know better overlook because of the stars in their eyes from this “booming” success, is that pretty much every OSR publisher is a one man show. Bursting the image of the successful “company” is perhaps not the best way to go here, but I think it’s important to know the reality of the situation in the face of criticisms as to why the OSR isn’t doing a better job marketing itself, getting stock into bricks and mortar shops, etc. These one man shows, usually with the help of a team of volunteers, have done an incredible job, as the last couple of years have shown, and are growing in slow and steady steps as Rob Conley points out. Most of these guys fund any print runs out of their own pockets with money earned from their day jobs. Go read James Raggi’s blog entries of his struggle to pay for artwork for his ventures and you’ll get a good understanding of how it is. And while we can say that the OSR is selling books by the “thousands”, total units of each individual item still averages out at just a couple of hundred customers for the market – a perspective that makes “niche of a niche” look like an apt term.

    However, being a niche of a niche is nothing to be ashamed of, rather, these guys should be lauded and praised for the incredible job they’re doing. The fact that our tiny niche of a niche – the OSR – is having such an impact outside of its own sphere of influence is an incredible and wonderful thing. Personally I think the label is a badge of pride that in no way diminishes the growing success of the OSR, especially as we grow in numbers and popularity.

  23. Is there something that can be written as a kind of 'Rosetta Stone' for the different retro-clones?

    What about a newly written OSR introductory set? I mentioned that on another blog and it was shot down...

    @scottsz - The Rosetta Stone idea has been discussed before and seen as unnecessary. If anything, the clones already have one, it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, made available through the OGL and SRD.

    As for the introductory set idea, I’m sad to hear you copped negative responses to that. It’s a great idea and one that John Adams of BHP is tackling with the S&W: White Box set and James Raggi with his upcoming LotFP: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing game. But see my post above to understand the difficulties these men face at getting such a set out in any large numbers, let alone the problems of getting them into bricks and mortar stores – and the short version of that is such shops aren’t interested in digest sized box sets, but the costs to the publisher of producing a regular sized box set is incredibly prohibitive.

    The OSR is not more popular because, frankly, it's supposed audience doesn't support it. Talk to Old Schoolers and they'll go on and on about how they don't buy any supporting material for their games that have been going on 30 years with the same group of retreads. They are proud of the fact they don't know what a "retro clone" is and wouldn't use it if they did.

    @Badmike –Bull Crap! Who do you think is buying the stuff at the moment? Sure there is a tiny clutch of anti-change, anti-everything diehards who spew forth misery and moaning on a couple of forums, but they’re hardly representative of the OSR crowd nor typical of the OSR publisher’s customers.

  24. Speaking as someone who's only just arrived, I can tell you that - in appearance, anyway - the OSR could easily be described ... as "10 or 12 different reworkings of the original Gygax/Arneson rulebooks puffed up with the inclusion of a constantly growing collection of the disparate House Rules...

    @ Cameron – This comes down to the problem of image and marketing and is probably not easy to fix. In reality there are three main clones that cover the three different types of TSR D&D: Swords & Wizardry for 0e, Labyrinth Lord for Basic, and OSRIC for 1e – and that’s that. Anything else is just variations and house rules. Of course Dan Proctor has recently done something special with LL, publishing his Original Edition Characters and Advanced Edition Companion turning LL into a clone that covers all three types of TSR D&D, a one stop clone shop. But the bottom line is, and this too probably needs to be communicated a bit better, just as the original TSR D&D games were all easily compatible, so too are the clones, effectively making them just one game if you look at it in that way. And this is no different than the way we older types played D&D back in the “old days”, almost never by the book and usually with a liberal dose of house rules.

    How to tackle the image problem? The most effective way I can think of would be to have a website that explains it all nice and clearly and without prejudice, rather than rely on the forums to do it, since the personalities, egos and misguided loyalties that mar some forums make it a poor medium for learning and teaching.

  25. @Scottsz - Ah, sorry! I think the "secret voting" comment, threw me.

  26. Like I've been saying since I've discovered this whole scene for myself. D&D is D&D. fuck school and game on.

  27. @James: No problem. I wasn't clear. I just happened to be thinking of how to come to agreement without prejudices getting involved. I just figured there would need to be something codified in the sense of 'definition', not necessarily a 'standards body'... sometimes just having standard definitions of language terms can prevent misunderstandings, etc.

    @David: You're right regarding a 'Rosetta' idea... stupid oversight on my part (I didn't realize it had been explored in forums to that extent). Also, I wasn't aware that Raggi's set was 'introductory', but I'm thrilled that it is (as of the latest Working Draft). Very cool.

  28. @Cameron:

    I absolutely agree that mass market paperbacks will take the biggest hit, but I disagree with the "everything inevitably" argument - unless you're talking about a seriously long time-line. The music industry and the publishing/book-selling industry are similar in many ways but quite dissimilar in others.

    I know I'm in the minority on this one, and that you have many compelling reasons for believing the way you do - I just personally don't buy it. Only time will tell, I suppose.

    What I know for sure is that, right now, ereaders, while perfect for mass market fiction, are an incredibly lousy tool for accessing reference books of any stripe - including rpg books.

  29. Have you seen my OSR's Been Kickin Ass post?

    btw GURPS is not a company and as a product, esp print product, it's suckin hard. SJG is the company and it makes it's money on Munchin.

  30. @David Macauley

    I can't really add anything to your comments to Al. I think you nailed it.

    I'd add one caveat, though. You brought up Michael Curtis's The Dungeon Alphabet as an exception to the sales/marketing rule. My addition here is that Curtis's book is that much more popular than other publications in part because it is system-nuetral.

    Which is why I'm inclined to disagree with your comments to Scott about not needing a Rosetta Stone. The way I see it, we've got a lot of gamers speaking the same tongue, but the dialect changes just enough from clone to clone to make translation a little iffy.

    One of the first documents I read when I discovered the OSR was Matthew Finche's "Old School Primer." I'm glad I discovered it before downloading trial copies of S&W and LL because in reading through that short, generic guide to old school gaming I was able to slough off a couple of decades' worth of accumulated RPG baggage and look at things fresh. It was immensely helpful.

    Again, the "Old School Primer" is excellent because it eschews any discussion of a specific system.

    So, while it can be argued that the OSR doesn't need a Rosetta Stone, it seems to me, and here I'm thinking about the commercial marketing of OSR-related products, that

    [1] While the OSR currently enjoys a more or less generic vocabulary,

    [2] It is that same generic vocabulary that should be used in packaging modules and campaign settings (if anyone's feeling super ambitious).

    For my money, step two would be covered by everyone including Finche's "Old School Primer" as an attachment to his module and/or setting, while every Gygax/Arneson-based rules system should include an attachment of Jason Cone's packaging of Philotomey's Musings as an example of how to "do" house rules and make the system one's own.

    In fact, hell, now that I think about it, everyone who blogs should have a visible link to generic information like this as a way to ease the uninitiated into the wonderful mess.

    Well, now I'm just free-associating and riffing, so I'd better stop commenting and start messing with my blog template.

  31. "Old School" as an aesthetic and style of gaming doesn't need any help with marketing. Look at what Goodman, Paizo and WotC have recently announced. People are aware of "Old School" style RPGing and it's popular enough for the bigger companies to be putting out products.

    "OSR" as a collection of bloggers and small press publishers who either self-identify with that term, or otherwise get associated with it by others… that's something else entirely. :)

  32. I called James Mishler's City State C&C materials "a niche of a niche" on Grognardia. But the OSR itself is a niche in its own right. :)



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