Jim Crocker has been around the gaming industry for decades, and I wanted to ask him some questions since I think he has a unique perspective on business -- retail and wholesale -- side of gaming, as well as being involved in the indie gaming scene. He was kind enough to answer my questions. You can find Jim here.
Question: I try and interview a wide range of industry voices, and one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to ask you questions was because of your experience with selling products. You currently are a sales affiliate with Indie Press Revolution, an online store that sells both pdf and print products to both retailers and the general public. Can you talk about how you think the retail side of the rpg industry has changed in the time you've been involved, specifically with the rise of crowdfunding? IPR certainly has carved out a niche for itself in the indie sphere, and caters to a different customer base, I think, than Drivethrurpg does.
Answer. I've been engaged with RPG retail since the release of D&D 3e, so that's a lot of change in nearly three decades. In that time, the first major disruptor was of course online retail and specifically Amazon. When I started, there were certainly mail order retailers, but the advent of online retail including eBay meant that game stores were no longer the only place to buy RPGs. The proliferation of online deep discounters significantly changed the way stores could make money on RPGs.
Power buyers, folks who purchased everything, mostly migrated to discounters, and it quickly became apparent that if we wanted to keep selling RPGs, then the key was to market to NEW Players who we'd teach, sell the first, introductory batch of product to, and expect to eventually lose to online sales if they became lifestyle gamers. Publishers like Paizo also recognized this and aggressively undercut their retail partners with discounts, subscription programs, and PDF incentives that retailers had no access to. We eventually dropped all but the couple of core books from that line, and those sold only very occasionally. Wizards of the Coast was an exception to this, at least for a while, offering protected pre-release sales of new D&D material to stores who ran organized play for them. D&D has always been the backbone of retail sales of RPGs, and when the vast majority of retailers talk about their RPG sales, they're talking explicitly about D&D, as they don't carry anything else with maybe a handful of exceptions (maybe Star Wars, Avatar, a few other licensed games).
For the niche minority that carries more robust RPG selections, yeah, crowdfunding has had a huge impact. It's proved to be very much a double-edged sword: the gamers most likely to purchase in your shop have already got it by the time you see it, but the decoupling from the pre-order distribution cycle has resulted in a genuine renaissance, with art, design, and subject matter that would have been inconceivable from anyone but the big publishers pre-Kickstarter. IPR has been part of connecting those creators, the vast majority of whom don't have the infrastructure of a publishing house behind them, to a modest distribution network that allows them to put their physical games in the hands of stores and convention attendees. I don't know that it's the case that DTRPG and IPR have "different audiences" so much as simply different mission statements. IPR at heart is a book distributor: they want to put physical books in people's hands. They support PDF distribution, but it's principally as an incentive or add-on to those sales of paper-and-ink books. The vast majority of creators whose work goes through IPR almost certainly ALSO use Drive-Thru, because THEIR principal mission is to connect gamers to electronic versions of those works, some of which may also be available as print products, but many of which aren't. Now, you may be able to order 'print-on-demand' physical copies of some of what they sell, but they do that as an incentive or add-on to those sales of electronic works. I honestly see them as occupying sufficiently different niches in the ecosystem that they're not really in competition.
Q: Can you talk about your views and experience with itch? It's really growing as a place to find indie games, even though the searchability of the platform leaves a lot to be desired.
A. Now, itch is definitely in direct competition with DTRPG. They do a much better job of being a 'platform for creators' than DTRPG, whose model is much more 'traditional distribution-but-online'. I guess I just don't see the 'Searchability' as a huge problem for them because 90% of the time when I go there it's because I've been pointed there by someone from a Discord post or other outside link. In the very limited and modest contact with them I've had as a rookie creator, they're much easier to deal with than DTRPG, and the fact that I keep a LOT More of my money selling through them makes that a pretty easy calculation about where I'm going to expend effort.
Q: I'd like to hear about the stuff you've written and worked on in the past. Can you share some of the stuff you're most proud of having done -- both as a writer and entrepreneur? Finally, tell us about any upcoming projects you've got in the works.
A. I started my career as a retailer working as a Manager for a shop in Ann Arbor, MI called The Underworld. While there, I spearheaded the opening of a second location in East Lansing, MI that actually ended up lasting quite a bit longer than the flagship store long after I left. It was a difficult and exhausting gig but taught me what I needed to do it myself. When I opened my own shops, I was determined not to be just another Magic shop, so we worked hard to make sure that RPGs, especially including small press and indie titles (this was in the late Forge period, where stuff like Dogs in the Vineyard and Dread were just starting to come out), and that led to my professional relationship with IPR that carried over to working more directly for them once I retired from the retail grind and closed my stores down. I chafe at the term "entrepreneur". That's someone who takes a flyer hoping to make a huge score. I was a shopkeeper, a bookseller. I enjoyed, and still do, the quotidian tasks and many small rewards of connecting people to entertainment. If the economics of owning a shop in my part of the country (the NY metro area) in my circumstances (not owning the building) made it possible, I'd still be doing it, but it... isn't, and there's not really anything productive I can do about that. Mostly, I am deeply grateful I somehow knew to close down before COVID arrived, because that would have been an unmitigated disaster. Certainly shutting down my convention sales business wasn;'t fun, but it was just me, so the impact wasn't anything like it would have been to have to crash-land an entire business with staff and investors. Ultimately, I'm most proud of the work I've done with IPR and Games on Demand. At least, that's where my heart is. Helping independent creators put their games into as many hands as I can, and introducing new players to that world, will always be the thing that draws me back to shows and communities in person and online.
But the upside to leaving daily retail work behind is that I've been able to do some game writing. I've contributed to several Gauntlet Publishing products, including Trophy Dark, Trophy Gold, and Brindlewood Bay. I've got a supplement for The Between up on Itch and should have a similar supplement for The Between: Ghosts of El Paso up there soon. I'm writing a stretch goal Mystery for Paranormal Inc that'll drop next year, and I'm currently working on my own hack of The Between about middle-aged retired superheroes who get dragged back into crime-fighting called Ex-Capes. It's my first full-length project, and I'll be learning how the publishing side of things works as I complete it. It's in a playable Alpha state right now, we're playing it and really having fun, so hopefully that'll see an ashcan release in 2023, after which, maybe a Kickstarter? We'll see how it's received, I guess.