An EL 20 Conversation with Joseph Goodman
Like many gamers, I first “met” Joseph Goodman, the owner of Goodman Games, through a Dungeon Crawl Classics module. For me, it was DCC #17: Legacy of the Savage Kings by Harley Stroh, which like all DDCs, begins with:
Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don’t waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.
Though I didn’t know it until recently, there is a whole lot of Joseph Goodman in this paragraph.
A couple of weeks ago, Goodman did something he doesn’t usually do—he directly addressed the business side of Goodman Games in a Goodman Games forum post.
“I really like gaming, game stores, and playing games,” said Goodman on June 19th, “and it is for these reasons that I traditionally do not discuss the business side of the industry in public forums.”
It was his love of games that prompted him to talk openly about the business, but it was his talk about the business that garnered a strong—often volatile—response from thousands of gamers across the internet. Responses to the content and style of Goodman’s post ranged from “thanks, Joe!” to “who does this guy think he is?”
Joseph Goodman is a businessman. By day he works in management for a Fortune 50 company.
He is also a long-time gamer.
“I wrote my first RPG at the age of 10, self-published my first work at 17, had my first professional contract at 18, had my first staff writer job at 21, and have been involved professionally in the gaming industry ever since,” said Goodman.
Seven years ago Goodman started Goodman Games, and he did using the same skills and strategies that he uses every day in his other job.
It was a joy chatting with the guy whose product line brought me back to D&D after many years away. And, just as it is a delight to discover that the most exciting encounters are more about thinking that hacking and slashing, it was a pleasure to hear that it is the love of a good challenge—in gaming and in business—that drives Joseph Goodman and Goodman Games.
Jones: First, I have to ask whether, as an experienced player of RPGs, you like the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons?
Goodman: Yes, it’s a fun game, but I personally prefer earlier editions of D&D. I’m not really the target market for 4E. I also recognize that my personal preferences are not the way to run a business. Goodman Games will always publish old-school products because that’s the most fun for me, but it’s 4E that pays the bills. Take the market for 1E and add a couple zeroes to get to the people who still play 3E, then add several more zeroes and you’re up to the 4E market.
When I changed the look of the Dungeon Crawl Classics brand, I was surprised at the intensity of the reaction. A number of the grognards seemed to take it as a personal betrayal. I am still honored and astounded at how attached they became to the original DCC look. There were many good reasons for changing the DCC look, most importantly that retailers needed a clear differentiation from the 3E DCC modules on their shelves and the 4E DCC modules on their shelves.
By now we’ve announced the Dungeon Alphabet, which includes art from Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, Jim Holloway, and Jeff Easley, with an introduction by Zeb Cook, and the licensing of 1E Dungeon Crawl Classics modules. There are more fun products like that on the way.
Jones: Can you outline the main points of your post in the Goodman Games forum for folks who haven’t read it yet or who might need as reminder?
Goodman: My post generated several thousand responses throughout the various message boards and blogs, so I hope this interview serves to address some of the concerns raised in them.
The main thrust of my post concerned sales of D&D 4E product. Speaking as a 4E licensee, I’m satisfied with the sales of my 4E products, and I wanted to share that fact. That’s the main point.
Jones: What buttons did your post push? Why such a spirited response from so many?
Goodman: Remember when the camera industry switched from film to digital a couple years ago? That seemed to push similar buttons to the 4E switch. Fans dislike it when you change their favorite hobby. This is a perfectly understandable reaction. I don’t fault anyone for disliking the change; that’s totally normal. But it’s important to distinguish one’s personal dislike from the macro issue of whether the new edition is selling well.
Jones: You are outlining your argument as a business man, do you suppose some of the heated responses are coming, in part, from a sort of language gap?
Goodman: That’s an interesting question, and I think it could be true. That’s part of the reason why I have avoided this kind of conversation for eight years. Discussing the business side of things definitely takes some of the gloss off the fun part of the hobby.
Jones: Why speak directly and publicly about the business now?
Goodman: Well, I’ve been tempted to do something like this repeatedly over the last year. The 4E launch certainly could have gone more smoothly from a couple perspectives, and the bumps on the road to 4E caused disappointment and heartache to a number of groups. Some of them have been very vocal about that fact. I generally consider my business dealings to be private affairs between me and my business partners, and I think it’s poor form to “kiss and tell” – whether results are positive or negative, I don’t expect my business partners to publicly discuss my arrangements with them, and I expect the same in return.
Unfortunately, some of the business partners to the 4E license have been very vocal in their disappointment with the affair. In contrast to that, my own personal experience has been a productive, positive, rewarding relationship with the same people and same company that others have publicly criticized. After hearing so much negativity, much of it very different from my own experience, I decided it was time to tell the other side of the story. I’m breaking my own rule by “kissing and telling,” but I think the situation warrants it.
Jones: Anything you’d change or rephrase about your post after having read the responses?
Goodman: Yes, definitely. In order to establish that my opinion on 4E sales was qualified, I listed my credentials. Some readers interpreted that as a sign of arrogance. If I were to rewrite the post I would have been a little less forceful about the credentials, and more clear that I was listing them simply to establish the basis for my opinion.
That said, credentials do matter. There really is an information gap between the general public and industry professionals, whether it’s related to sales numbers or things like Dave Trampier’s real location. That’s the point of credentials: to establish that I have access to information. Some readers may choose not to believe my claims, which is their prerogative.
As a side note, there are many other people in the industry who have more or different or better information than I do. I’m not the only one with credentials. As many readers noted, it is possible for my claims to be simultaneously true with other contrary claims from other publishers – each of our experiences is different.
Jones: Some people have said that you are merely trying to protect your company’s decision to convert to 4e.
Goodman: The internet audience that read my post is meaningful in a number of ways. I consider the message boards and blogs to be something like the think tanks and academic institutions that influence American politics. They are engaged in ongoing national debates about certain key issues which influence understanding of policy at the highest levels. But the average voter has an opinion that’s already formed from other sources, and is largely unaware of these debates. To that extent, I’m interested in the ongoing debate on 4E, and I myself follow a lot of the agenda items covered because they do sometimes reveal percolating trends or new perspectives.
But as far as influencing sales numbers, or in some way affecting my decision to convert to 4E, the online segment is not the channel I would be most focused on. There’s a reason I spend more time marketing my products in game stores than online.
So if I were desperate to protect my company’s decision to convert to 4E, online posts would be low on my list of strategies to drive more sales.
Jones: Why is 4e doing well? What is it about 4e itself that is selling well?
Goodman: Good question. You can answer this question in a thousand different ways, depending on your perspective as an active fan, a grognard, a retailer, a publisher, a creator, or someone else entirely. I can relate something of my own experience as well as that of many retailers I’ve spoken to, which is that 4E truly seems to be reaching a new audience.
Maps are more important. Stats are a totally different ballgame. You have to consider the digital side more. There are new graphics, new game play, and new support structures that are all intended to connect to a generation whose sense of mythology is influenced not by reading J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, but by viewing movies and playing video games several steps removed from that original source material.
I see that in the fact that Goodman Games has new customers who didn’t previously play D&D – which is exactly what 4E is supposed to be accomplishing.
Jones: A number of folks have suggested that sales figures are skewed by the fact that a good many people are buying 4e product but not playing them.
Goodman: People are definitely buying 4E and not playing it, just like they did in 3E. Readers of the Acaeum and my own forums will know I have voiced my concerns about this for years, well into the 3.0 and later 3.5 eras. This is nothing new.
Jones: How unique is Goodman Games’ experience compared to other companies who are perhaps having less success with 4e products?
Goodman: When asking this question it’s important to keep in mind the frame of reference for the speaker. The best sales period for 3E was August 2000 through roughly mid-2001. This was the time when most of the current third party publishers were established, and for many of them their frame of reference is colored by the staggering sales numbers of that period.
Goodman Games released its first product in November 2001, and that was a weird dinosaur game; it was not until September 2002 that Goodman Games released a core fantasy product. By then the 3.0 era was half over. Being a late entry to the scene, I missed the early sales boom, I didn’t get the retail penetration that came from the time when retailers had standing orders for “anything with a d20 logo,” and I missed out on a lot of the early relationships that forged between d20 publishers and other institutions (whether it was Wizards staff, the early third-party RPGA living campaigns, or distribution deals). For me, it was a long, slow climb.
I am not unique in this latecomer position, but when discussing perspectives on sales numbers, it’s important to understand the frame of reference of other companies. Most of the remaining d20 publishers released their first products in 2000 or early 2001. Their point of comparison is the single best sales period for D&D products in nearly 20 years.
My point of comparison is very different.
For a very long time, I’ve seen 4E as a chance to hit the “restart” button on the timing advantage possessed by companies founded in 2000. This seems to have happened. That is why Goodman Games was extremely aggressive about having product available at the very launch of 4E. Many d20 publishers credited their 3E success to great product or excellent game design or outstanding art or their own good business plans. Some of that is definitely true in every case – there’s a reason they still exist while other first movers have vanished – but an equally significant factor is simple timing.
All game designers know what “first mover advantage” is, and it’s true in the business world as well. Why has Goodman Games done well in the 4E era? For the exact same reason many other publishers did well in the 3E era: great product, excellent game design, outstanding art, good business plans – and first mover advantage. First mover advantage established a host of companies in 2000, and it has helped Goodman Games in 2008-2009.
Over the past several years, as many of the d20 publishers with brand recognition from the 2000-2001 period slowly went extinct, I offered to buy their companies and/or brands, solely because those brands would have value again when 4E relaunched. Without “kissing and telling,” I can tell you that there were several such deals under negotiation, and in every case the owners valued their companies based on their 2000-2001 sales figures, not a more reasonable time period. As a result, I considered the asking prices too high, and none of these deals went through. One of the companies simply disappeared, another transferred its IP then faded away, and a third still “exists” but hasn’t released a product in years. In every case, I believe that what the owners considered “insufficient” at the time now looks like a pretty good offer in retrospect. In these deals I encountered what I believe is still a pervasive opinion, which is that the sales figures of the 3E era are a reasonable predictor of future sales. They never were and never will be.
Jones: Did the handling of the GSL cause significant problems for third-party publishers who want (or would’ve wanted) to produce 4e products?
Goodman: Apparently. I’d been planning for a new edition of some kind for many years, so I had already worked out a general plan for whenever it happened. Some of the specifics and timing of 4E weren’t what I expected, but in general I was able to do most of the things I’d planned to. Based on what I’ve heard from other publishers, I had a better experience than most. The GSL rollout definitely wasn’t a smooth process, and even though I had a “better experience” it still caused a lot of problems. We had to make decisions on very short timelines, and the back-and-forth of the license required a lot of rework internally. I’m kind of a “glass half full” kind of guy, though, so I saw a way out of the maze.
I’m not the only one to find a silver lining. Pathfinder is a perfect example of “making lemonade out of lemons.” Paizo has also turned a potentially negative GSL experience into a very positive situation. When 3.5 launched, I remember publisher lamentations similar to what happened later with the GSL.
Matt Sprange of Mongoose Publishing commented at the time that he saw 3.5 as a gigantic opportunity. I would agree with him, and with Paizo’s attitude in response to the GSL situation. I respect businessmen who see the opportunities that come with any changing of the game rules.
I definitely wish the transition to 4E had gone smoother, but I was never concerned with 4E failing. This is, after all, a huge marketing push from a division of Hasbro on a brand with 95% recognition.
Jones: Yet there still seems to be a good bit of negativity surrounding 4e out there?
Goodman: What’s interesting is that the “negativity” exists on the internet, but not in stores. I visit a lot of game stores, and while there are definitely some for whom 4E isn’t moving, the vast majority of them are selling 4E. Between D&D delve nights, Worldwide D&D Game Day, RPGA nights, and Free RPG Day, my visits to game stores are consistently filled with conversations with store owners who are satisfied with 4E and lots of happy gamers who are enjoying the game. I grant that there is definitely a storm of negativity on many of the internet forums. But that’s not a reflection on the true market for D&D 4E.
My biggest challenge in marketing 4E right now is the exact opposite scenario – dealing with the excessively positive response to the RPGA under 4E. The RPGA is so strong now, with so many gamers playing RPGA events, that it’s limiting my ability to sell “unofficial” third party supplements. Endgame and Black Diamond Games are two high-volume game stores in California which should be selling a lot of my product. Instead they sell my 4E titles at a much lower ratio to their core book sales than smaller retailers. Why? Because they have enormous RPGA contingents who are gobbling up all the official 4E material. I’m currently strategizing product and marketing offers to deal with this unintended side effect of 4E success.
Jones: Earlier today my daughter and I went out to buy D&D minis. Our local game store has them for the suggested retail price and the local chain bookstore has them at 10% member discount. The bookstore also has a bigger selection… Aren’t I being silly if I go first to the game store, buy one box of minis, then to the bookstore and buy another… which is, I might add, exactly what I did! I guess that’s not really a question.
Goodman: The question in your example is, why did you go to the game store in the first place if you knew they charged more? You just explained why game stores will always prosper. They are fun.
I love visiting game stores. There is a sea of product that interests me. When I’m bored I go to a game store and browse. I invariably find something I’d overlooked before and want to try out. So, no, you’re not being silly. You’re doing what we all do with our favorite hobbies!
Jones: What if I don’t have a local game store? Is there anything wrong with shopping online?
Goodman: When I was a kid, I went on a family trip to visit my uncle in Florida. I wanted to buy the new Battlesystem supplement for D&D (their mass combat rules at the time) so my parents took me shopping in this small Florida town. The only place that sold D&D books was a craft store. I distinctly remember buying Battlesystem and Ral Partha miniatures in the same aisle as the knitting needles and yarn. D&D was shelved next to the yarn!
This is the legacy of D&D retailing: it’s an unusual product line that has been sold over the years at a very eclectic assortment of retail outlets. Use the Wizards of the Coast retail locator for many Midwestern cities and you’ll find coin stores and newsstands listed. In the last couple months, I’ve personally visited three sports collectibles stores that also sell D&D. One of the stores that participated in my recent DCC sale was a movie rental store.
If online sales have any impact on game sales, I see it in these marginal, low-volume accessory outlets. A local craft store that formerly sold a trickle of D&D product may find itself selling none because the six local gamers and the kid who occasionally visits his uncle are now buying online. In this case, shopping online probably offers a better assortment, better stock levels, and a better price, so it’s probably the better solution for that customer.
Many full line game stores offer products that aren’t available online, and this is where the selection difference comes into play. Frankly, I’m amazed how often I find collectible D&D products in stores or at cons which were never listed online. People online will pay up to triple the retail price for a mint copy of DCC #35: Gazetteer of the Known Realms, but just in the last couple weeks I’ve found three copies selling for regular retail price at game stores. I saw a copy of DCC #17.5: War of the Witch Queen, one of our rarest convention modules, at a store last week. I’ve answered probably 100 emails from collectors trying to find that module online, but there it was sitting on the shelf at a game store!
This isn’t to say that retail is better than online, but there genuinely is a different experience, and the selection in a good full-line game store really is astounding. It’s not always better organized, but it is often broader and deeper.
I wish we were all lucky enough to live near such stores.
Jones: Do you think PDF or electronic texts will ever replace actual, hold-them-in-your-hands paper products?
Goodman: Wasn’t the paperless office supposed to arrive by 1990? For many individual customers, electronic products will definitely replace physical books; everyone has a “laptop gamer” in their group. But for every laptop gamer there are a couple others who prefer hard copy. Electronic text definitely impacts print, but I don’t see a complete replacement ever happening.
The PDF argument is one of the reasons some online nay-sayers claim that “game stores are doomed.” Not quite. RPG’s typically make up 10% of a full line game store’s volume. In specialty shops (such as comic or collectibles stores), it’s even less. Even if the PDF market caused a 20% reduction in RPG sales for the typical game store (and, trust me, that is an extreme scenario – my PDF sales are much, much less than 20% of my print sales), the game store’s sales volume would drop 2%. That’s far from a doomsday scenario.
The other negative claim I hear bandied about concerning game stores is “poor management.” Have you ever been to my local Office Depot? The place is terrible – the copiers are always broken, the staff knows nothing about any of the product, and their UPS shipments mysteriously disappear. I had to rent a U-haul recently and the place was excruciatingly inefficient. Did you ever wonder why Taco Bell has that 1-800 customer service number posted outside the drive-through window? It’s not because they can rely on all their locations to be perfectly managed.
Game stores are no better or worse managed than any other retail institution. I don’t believe all Office Depot locations are terrible because my local branch is, but for some reason there are gamers who believe all game stores are terrible because their local one is. Frankly, I’ve been to a lot of phenomenal game stores, and that’s why I recently announced that I’ll donate $1,000 in RPG’s to America’s Favorite Game Store, as decided by online voting. There’s a thread on my forums where gamers are extolling the virtues of their favorite game store.
In my initial post I talked a little bit about my experience outside the gaming industry. To cite a specific example, I was in the luggage business when the FAA changed the maximum dimensions for carry-on baggage. As another example, I was in the cosmetics business when a major new competitor began rapidly opening new stores. And as yet another example, I was in the suit separates/dress clothing apparel business as casual Fridays (and later “business casual”) became the norm. Business has challenges. That’s what makes it fun.
Some people are scared of the challenges, or see only the risks. I’m not one of those people.
At the luggage company, we organized a huge sale on the “old-dimension” bags. At the cosmetics company, we re-launched our core brands with new packaging and new fixtures, and in doing so we drove a 40% sales increase despite the competition. At the apparel company, we made dress clothing our #1 category for two years in a row, by focusing on eco-friendly dress clothing, the basic “marry and bury” suits, and a few other strategies.
The 3E launch was an EL 1 encounter. That’s why you had first-level publishers releasing product. The 4E launch, on the other hand, was an EL 20 encounter. Not all publishers made it through that challenge. Goodman Games had a good adventuring party and some good die rolls, and we made it through and earned some good XP. Whatever challenge the future brings, I’m now one level higher thanks to 4E, and looking forward to some more interesting encounters.
Got a designer, publisher, or artist you’d like interviewed by our Kobold Diplomats? Let us know in comments.