I heard somewhere—and I’m inclined to believe it—that YouTube, everyone’s favorite video-sharing site, home of endless webcam-humiliation pranks and I-can’t-believe-they-did-that stunts, is burning through something like US$1 million in cash a month. The annual bandwidth bills for that site alone are probably enough to feed a few third-world nations. And since YouTube doesn’t seem to be making money except in the sense that it is a juicy target for someone to buy out and turn into a moneymaking venture, its future looks questionable at best.
This was something I had to face early on when I built IMC: Did I want to create something that would become massively popular, so much so that there might come a time when I couldn’t even afford to host it without shelling out the gross domestic product of a small country? It turned out that I wasn’t alone in thinking about this. There have been more than a few such sites which became victims of their own success. Hit on something simple, watch it become popular, and then cringe in horror as what was a $100-a-month hobby turns into a $10,000-a-month monster.
It’s a pretty bleak picture.
It seemed all the more uncomfortably close when I printed up ad flyers to distribute at various conventions to get word out about the site. Yes, I wanted IMC to be a “success”, but with its chosen audience: role-playing gamers. That meant the focus of the site would remain small, relatively undiluted, and it would be possible to offer them great things without having to suddenly cater to a user base that was two orders of magnitude larger than it used to be.
That also meant not doing certain things that might look like a good thing in the short run. Every now and then I get hassled by someone (and usually only in an offhand, not-very-serious way) about the source handle policy, one of the many things that was instituted as a way of keeping focus. If I did away with that, it wouldn’t just be a thorn in the side of the people who benefited directly from it—the hosts who use canon handles constantly, for one—but it would make it all the easier for the site as a whole to be diluted.
Another thing I had to steel myself out of was the idea of conscious competition. I’ve made a personal rule about other sites that offer roughly similar services: Don’t worry about them. They do their own things, and we do ours. Just doing the best I can with what I have is hard enough without suddenly bringing in the element of conscious competition. It would make sense if they were stealing business, but … well, again, I made a decision a long time ago that if I was going to make money, IMC would be one of the least-efficient ways to do it. I had all the more reason to keep it free.
The last and in a way the most important thing about IMC is the fact that it caters to a very small group of people that, by all odds, will remain small. Role-playing games are a relatively niche hobby, and sometimes it’s hard for people inside the gaming mindset to realize that. Granted, there’s more awareness of what “we” do now than there has been in the decade before, but it’s still not very big. It’s also not the sort of thing you can make money on very easily. As I sat down to write this, Canadian game publishing company Guardians of Order informed everyone on their mailing lists that they were bankrupt and liquidating not only their existing stock of books but seeking out partners to transfer their intellectual properties to. Very few people can make any money at all doing this, and the few that do usually scrape by year to year—or become an arm of an existing behemoth that doesn’t use RPGs as its main source of income.
The only way to really make money in RPGs is to sell goods or services. The former is usually your local game store, which is probably not a dedicated game store anymore (has it ever been?) but a comic / manga / hobby shop. The latter is probably better exemplified by something like World of Warcraft, where RP does indeed take place but (from what I’ve been told) not really of the same flavor that you’d get in an environment which is either not for-pay or doesn’t already have other attractions built into it.
All this made me realize: IMC is small by definition. The nature of what we do, and the way we try to do it, will guarantee that. The only way to change that, I suspect, would be to scrap it and build something entirely new—and why would I want to do that?