For Arc Dream, first there was “Wild Talents,” our most famous case. Then there was the “Godlike” Game Moderator’s Screen. There were two Delta Green books, developed and published in an arrangement with Pagan Publishing. Now we have the “Reign Enchiridion,” and we’ll be using the same system for most of our upcoming projects.
With our games it’s not strictly speaking a ransom, of course. In a classic ransom, seen most often with Greg’s “Reign” supplements and “Meatbot Massacre,” if you collect enough money from contributors you release the project as a free download for anyone and everyone. That works well for a downloadable PDF. It doesn’t work as well for a physical book with its more extensive costs.
With Arc Dream’s version, we ask prospective customers to “pledge” to pre-order the game. If we get enough pledges, we collect the money and use it to finish and manufacture the book. Each person who contributed to the pledge drive gets a copy. The rest that we manufacture are then available for sale.
If we don’t get enough pledges to cover the costs, then we don’t release the book. We pay the writer for his or her work, but we don’t sink any more money into the project. At best it might show up later as a simple PDF in “ashcan” format, with no art, available for sale to help recoup the investment that we made in the writing. But no book.
One question comes up pretty often: Why do it this way?
The Bills, and How to Pay Them
First, a ransom scheme is a quick and dirty market study. Arc Dream and its writers are pretty well established with a core audience of regular players. If we can’t get a couple hundred of those gamers to buy into a project that we at Arc Dream really love, then what chance do we have of selling it to the rest of the gaming world? For a cash-poor company like ours—yes, after all these years we remain cash poor and probably always will—that’s the best kind of market research that we can get.
Second, did I mention how we’re cash poor? Manufacturing a book, shipping it on very heavy pallets across the country or around the world, storing it safely in a warehouse, maintaining inventory controls and packaging it safely for shipment to consumers—all those things cost money. And then there’s the work that’s involved beforehand, all the man-hours that go into writing, editing, art, and page design. If Arc Dream had deep pockets, we’d pay for all that stuff out of hand and count on annual sales to cover the expenses, just like a real grown-up publisher. But we aren’t, and we don’t.
The fact is, Arc Dream exists pretty much just so that Dennis Detwiller and I can make the games that we love the way that we want to see them made. Using a ransom to verify that there’s a minimum baseline level of interest in a product is about our only nod to market forces.
The up side? If you share our sensibilities, you get to enjoy the resulting products just like we do. The down side? We have rather specific sensibilities and no marketing budget to expand our customer base, so we don’t often sell very many books. And that’s OK—as long as a project doesn’t leave us poorer than when we started.
The ransom guarantees that a new game will sell at least enough copies to pay for itself.
Now, How Can We Sweeten the Pot?
The ransom model—for lack of a better term—has worked out pretty well for us so far. But there’s one issue where we need some feedback: What can we do to reward contributors who pledge to make the book happen rather than waiting to buy it after its release? Those folks show us a lot of trust by putting up cash for a product based only on a few previews and our word that it’ll be good. They deserve something special.
One possibility is releasing the initial version with a unique cover. If you pledge for the book, you get a copy that has different cover art than the version that we print for sale to the rest of the world.
(EDIT BY SHANE: A unique cover is something we'll do for future projects, but it's probably not feasible for the Reign Enchiridion. The Enchiridion has such a low price point that multiple short printings will make it lose money.)
In addition, you get listed by name in the book’s masthead—the page with all the copyright information at the beginning of the book—as a contributor who helped make the book a reality.
Is that enough? What else could we do to reward contributors?
And before you mention it, autographed copies aren’t feasible. I’m in Alabama, Dennis is in Vancouver, Greg is in Chicago, Benjamin Baugh is in Georgia, Todd Shearer is in Maryland—you get the idea. We use several different printers, but they’re usually in the Midwest unless they’re in Hong Kong, and the warehouse that takes delivery of the books is in Nevada. The wonders of modern communications make autographs a little tricky.
So, autographs aside, please send us your suggestions. Post comments here, to the Cult of ORE group, or send an email. Thanks!