pbm game fees

Keith Langley (keith.langley@mdcs.com)
Mon, 28 Aug 1995 09:50:59 GMT

As someone who runs what some would consider a "large fee" game ($10 per
turn flat), I'd like to respond. First, an analysis of the GM's costs
per turn processed:
$1.35 postage, manila envelope, recycled computer paper and cost of ink
cartridge replacement. That's the physical cost of the materials used.
We won't consider other costs like taxes, licensing, the cost of the
computer used (depreciation and eventual repair/replacement), social
security for self-employed people, mileage to office supply store, some
percentage of rent and utilities (assuming operations from home, one
could have a house with one room fewer if not running a business), long
distance calls (sometimes one needs to contact a customer, and calling
collect would be tacky and unprofessional), and of course advertising.
All of this, as well as the GM's time, comes out of the $8.65
remaining. So if it takes me an hour to do your turn, I'm making almost
as much as a convenience store clerk. Now all I have to do is bust my
butt drumming up enough business to keep me busy for 40 hours per week
(let's see, assuming a turn every 3 weeks per player on average, I need
120 players) and I have a job that could sort of pay the bills - if no
players ever run negative balances and then disappear, or write bad
checks, and the hard drive never crashes, and.... What's that you say?
Too much processing time? Sure, just make the game 100% computer
moderated and you can cut prices? OK, sure. I just need to find (or to
BE) someone whose skills are worth $40K+ on the open market, and invest
a few hundred hours of that expensive time writing the code, and then a
few hundred more playtesting and fixing the bugs. Now I can take the
entry time down to maybe 15 minutes per turn (from opening the envelope
to printing the results). Now my wages per hour for data entry are up
over $15 per hour - and in a few short years the programming costs will
be paid for.

The preceding paragraph was a response to the indignant "why do those
pirates charge so much; Killer Accountants from Saturn costs only $2 per
turn" sort of comments. The other half of the PBM cost discussion is
"what do you get for your money?" There are a couple of ways to answer
1) Physically, you get the aforementioned 5 pages or so of recycled
computer paper in the aforementioned manila envelope. Maybe it's laser
printed, maybe it even has a spiffy map (not in my game). But compared
to the amount of paper and information you get in a TV GUIDE for 89
cents, this is obviously not what you're paying for.
2) I prefer to define return for money spent on entertainment in terms
of how much you enjoyed yourself for how long. A bunjee jump costs
about $20 per second, a movie costs about $2 per hour not counting
popcorn. A $30 boardgame that you play once and then leave on the shelf
is a bad value; one that you get out and play every Saturday with 5
friends is a heck of a deal. It seems that in the best PBM games (and I
modestly include mine), the fun starts when you open the return envelope
to see what has happened during the turn. You should CARE about the
result; if the outcome doesn't matter, why are you playing? You should
have the sense that good results are because you were clever, and bad
results are either because you made a tactical error, or someone else
outplayed you - not because of random chance or because you didn't
understand the rules. You should know that your destiny is yours to
guide, not controlled by a dice toss.

Having looked over your turn results, your mind should be swimming with
new ideas. The hours you spend exploring options are part of the value
for money; if there is a single best path to victory the game gets
boring. You should always have more that you would like to do than you
have resources available to do it - but not so much more that the game
frostrates or overwhelms. You should be rushing to the phone or modem
(or the writing desk, you unreformed Luddite) to negotiate with your
comrades. Is your neighbor trustworthy? Has she left herself too weak
for you to resist the backstab? Or is it a ruse designed to draw you
into a disastrous two front conflict? All of this negotiating time is
also part of the value received for your $10. When I see five of my
players at a game convention (about 25% of my players are local; this
gives me a unique perspective and constant feedback) ignoring scheduled
events to dicker for hours over ONE TRUE FAITH, I know I'm doing my job

In the final analysis, each of us has to decide how much a game is
worth. Some games return a very high value per dollar in terms of
enjoyment; these include both cheap and expensive games. Other games
seem designed to get you "hooked" and then steadily escalate the amount
you must spend to keep playing. Many game companies charge too much for
their games, but I believe many others charge far too little. When a
new game designer puts their game on the market at an incredibly low
price, it can force other prices down. When that new designer goes out
of business a few months later, his effect on the market remains. The
failure rate in the PBM industry is enormous. I'm not suggesting price
fixing or minimum pricing, but I will continue to charge what I need to,
and trust that some players will continue to find it a good value.
I urge other responsible GMs, designers and companies to do the same.

Keith Langley
1614 Donovam Pl, Longmont CO 80501
(303)776-7987 noon-midnight MST
GM and author, ONE TRUE FAITH