The Economics of the Madhouse…

Are we running megagames for fun or profit?

It has been a while since my last blog post (life getting in the way of blogging) and following a recent conversation with a friend, I thought it time to write something about the economics of running megagames… at least from my perspective of being involved in designing and running games in the UK.

There are a number of key costs involved in designing and putting on a megagame.

Venue

This is often the big one. When we run a megagame there are a lot of factors in choosing a venue above its suitability for the game itself, including availability, location, access to public transport, accessibility, parking, comfort, catering space, facilities and the helpfulness of the facilities staff.

All of these have an impact on the price.

A basic hall with minimum facilities in a suburb with limited access to transport links might be as little as £500 for a day, a run-down church hall miles from anywhere, £50. A venue with catering, full accessibility and in the centre of a city will cost anything from £2,000 upwards (I was quoted £8,000 for a central London venue a little while ago).

The other critical factor with venues is the up-front cost. The organiser (whether the designer herself, or the supporting group organising the game) will have put a substantial deposit up for a venue, especially the expensive ones, often long before any revenue from player fees has come in.

This is a big financial risk.

Administration

Running a megagame is more than just rocking up on the day with a box of components and running a game.

Someone needs to:

  • design the game.

  • produce, gather and collate the components, including printing of maps.

  • print off and /or email background and briefing notes.

  • buy tea, coffee, milk, sugar, other refeshment ….

  • promote the event.

  • to recruit and manage participant enrolments.

  • manage refunds, cancellations and role casting.

  • check and book the venue.

Using booking systems such as Eventbrite may save time but these have a fee charging regime. And someone needs to make sure Eventbrite has the correct information.

Most of us take payment via PayPal, which also charges for the service (2.9% at time of writing).

This all takes time and effort.

Administration is a non-trivial task.

People’s time is a cost whether they are being paid in money or not. Even if they are doing it themselves (or have a willing friend or friends), the organiser is using enthusiasm and energy and, in the case of their friend or friends, the goodwill of others.

Personally, I think the person doing this should be acknowledged and recompensed in some way for their time, even if this is just a token sum.

Time

For most designers the megagame is not their day job, and they don’t expect to be paid for the time spent on the labour of love that is a megagame. However, it is worthwhile considering the time cost of the design effort. Based on some timekeeping I did a little while ago, I find that a new megagame might take a minimum of between 150 and 250 hours of designer time, not counting playtesting and administration. Many designers I know take a lot longer.

And to understand the value of this time is important – game designing is not just a simple manual task, but challenging creative work. Consider what you would be paying for, say an artist or a writer for that sort of effort. Even at minimum wage (currently a derisory £8.72 in the UK) the 150 – 200 designer hours comes to over £2000 worth of effort. And this is generally for a one-off game; repeats are relatively few.

Materials

We all love beautiful game components, whether they are paper, card, plastic or wood. Creating and printing components is a significant cost. Ink is expensive – a colour printer ink cartridges costing £12 a shot and soon mounts up when printing large full-colour maps. Even outsourcing map printing is not necessarily cheap. AND once again its the many hours of printing, assembling, cutting, laminating etc. This all mounts up.

Recently we costed the production of ‘Watch The Skies’ in terms of time and effort. It takes around 40-50 hours of effort and around £250 in materials.

The Game Fee

So how does the costs of a stereotypical 40-player megagame break down compared to what is typically charged for a megagame (as at 2020 anyway):

What megagamers often think the costs are

What it costs if we were being realistic.

Venue Hire

£500.00

£500.00

Materials cost

Nil

(“you only have to print up some stuff, right?”)

£250.00

Production time (40 hours)

Nil (its just a hobby after all)

£350.00

Designer time

Nil

(“Yeah, but you love doing it – so why pay you?”)

£2,000.00

(at minimum wage rate)

Administration (including PayPal fees)

£40.00

(“PayPal / Eventbrite does all the work”)

£100.00

Total

£540.00

£3,200.00

Cost per player

£13.50

£80.00

Normal Game Fee

£30.00

£30.00

Player’s reaction?

These megagames are too expensive!

Oh my, what a bargain

And if you substitute a more expensive venue in the table above, it shows that even in the first column the game fee is barely covering the cost of the venue alone.

It quickly becomes obvious that running megagames isn’t something that easily generates massive profit, which probably explains why many megagames are being designed and developed by hobbyists in their free/spare time. Repeat games make the whole thing more financially bearable, but it is still a very fine line between turning an actual profit and subsidising the game. Even very popular games can need subsidy due to unforeseen circumstances, especially when there are significant numbers of no-shows or drop-outs at the last minute – the margins can be tight, especially for smaller games. And where the venue is an expensive one the decision to press on might mean that even if there is a financial loss, it is less than the loss involved in cancellation.

Risks of Cancellation

When the designer or organiser decide to cancel and return the game fees, once again, the administration costs are all lost. PayPal for example no longer waive the fees on refunds, so designers are in the invidious position of either not refunding the whole amount, or taking on the chin the lost fees. A cancellation will also mean losing a deposit on the venue.

How to run a ‘profitable’ megagame:

There is a way to run a megagame that doesn’t make a loss, and that is to run it multiple times. Some of the costs remain, but they can be minimised as well as spread across multiple games, for example more durable and therefore reusable game components.

Of course, no megagame designers I know design and run megagames primarily for profit – they do it for the laughs, for the joy of seeing their creation in action, for the kudos of having put together something as magnificent and exciting as a megagame.

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