Subscription is the way to go?

Recently Atlas Games has announced a subscription mode for Feng Shui.

https://www.atlas-games.com/news/post?s=2020-09-30-announcing-the-feng-shui-2-subscription-plan

I think this will be a great idea for ars magica as well. What are your thoughts?

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Death to the subscription model.

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Honestly I think the issue with Ars Magica isn't about distribution or marketing, but about a lack of ideas on where to go next, especially since players are wanting more internal compatibility than currently exists which makes the system difficult to build on, and while there are a lot of people who want new material getting a consensus on what they want is very difficult.

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I don't think the pricing model needs to change - I happily bought all of Ars Magica 5th in hardcover when available, and I consider only one of the entire line to be a bad value¹. I think that 5th needs a bit of polish - in particular, needing a compendium of rules that finally pulls all the various systems across of the line together into a coherent, consistent, and discoverable whole - but it remains an excellent and usable system worthy of reprints into the next decade.

I think the best way to breathe new life into the game is to allow third party authors to produce (and potentially profit from) pdfs in a similar to the DriveThruRPG's DMs Guild and Storytellers Vault programs. I know that starting such a program has costs associated - creating and publishing guidelines, writing all the legal text defining what may be included and what is reserved solely to the IP owners, making logos and art, &etc. - but I'm willing to support that effort through something like a Kickstarter or an increase of my support through Patreon. (You'll see the little icon on my avatar showing that I support this forum, my willing to pay isn't merely theoretical.)

A subscription model only works when the publisher has enough material to consistently and reliably produce quality new content. Ars Magica 5th is fairly rules-complete. A update of some Tribunals from before 4th edition might be welcomed - hello, Rome! - but that only gets a small number of new texts. If you signed up for a subscription, what would you be expecting to get? The folks at Sub Rosa manage to come up a quality publication full of good Ars content, but they only produce a couple of dozen pages annually. We need new ideas, something to move the folks who love the game to write more than just the bits we contribute here in the forum and places like Reddit, and I think that the best way to get is to open it up and let everyone try to make a few bucks on the way. (With a healthy cut to the company who made it all possible.) The ideas are there, but they are random, fitful, and unpredictable. Even Timothy Ferguson misses targets, and he is a machine. A subscription simply won't succeed.

It's not just about the money, because most of us will never see a single nickel out of it. It allows a single location to publish and discover persistent third-party content, without crawling through Google looking for old blogspot or tripod sites or digging into the Wayback Machine hoping that the article you saw years ago was archived. An old free or PWYW pdf will still be available on the OneBookShelf servers 10 years from now, easily found and grabbed at any time, with any updates made from the last time downloaded. A year or so ago one of the posters mentioned that they had a timeline of Hermetic dates from every publication through 4th edition, along important dates from the real world during the period. The poster was amazing enough to mail a copy to every who asked, but a location to permanently store it was never found. If you didn't ask for it, you don't have it. If that timeline was on DriveThruRPG - or any other commercial storefront, don't care - even if free, anyone interested could grab it in the next five minutes. The posters on this forum have a lot of great ideas, and a lot of them are getting lost in time. We barely saved this place, and too many old sites have fallen into Final Twilight. Allow producers the option to charge, and we can get someone else to save content for us.

¹ Lands Of The Nile - It came out near the end of the Line, and it showed. While still full of excellent content, taking a rich subject like the magics of ancient Egypt and copping out with a sidebar along the lines of "all of the other exotic magics in other books can be found in some form here" instead of giving us at least one single totally new type of magic caused me literal rage.

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I'm in agreement with bittergeek - widening the contribution platform for Ars Magica has amazing potential not only for the community to contribute to, but also just as a very powerful marketing tool. It is scary how few RP-ers (at least where I live!) even know about Ars Magica. If it is a big expense to get something like that started, could a crowdfunding project not help?

I agree with Athy and Bittergeek on this. I hate subscription based models.

What I would suggest changing is how the plot hooks/story seeds are distributed in the books. It would be nice to have a general part, and then a GM only part. I recently started a Curse of the Rhine gorge campaign, and I had to tell my players to just not read the Rhine book because some of the hooks/story seeds are sown right into the main text.

I'm also unsure if a subscription model would be sustainable for a product line like Ars, but I can see how it could work - if you look at the Feng Shui 2 subscription in detail the model seems to be aiming for a 32 page release every 2 months, or thereabouts. That's in the order of 192 pages a year. Maybe more if some larger books are planned as well. In Ars terms that's about one and a third sourcebooks a year.

This opens some interesting new angles. If we stop thinking of Ars publications in the "big 140 page book covering everything about a given topic in Mythic Europe" format and instead start thinking about smaller 30-60 page books some ideas become a lot more viable to publish and others have to be rethought to fit that model.

For example a new Rome tribunal book might be split into several smaller supplements. Maybe each supplement covers a region of the tribunal. Maybe each is focused around a single covenant and its surroundings. Maybe each is roughly equivalent to a chapter in other 5e tribunal books. There's a lot of ways you could do it.

Publishing adventures in that kind of model opens some new avenues too. Look at a book like Tales of Power where each adventure is a bit under 32 pages. In a subscription model each of those would be a single product but with slightly more material included. There's a real dearth of adventures for 5e which adds to the barrier of entry for new players.

Ideas that are too small to have published before but that don't fit well with other material can now make up these smaller supplements. A collection of magical items and treasures. A new mystery cult, or a look at existing ones in greater detail than TM:RE. A new hedge tradition. I only have a handful of ideas of what you could do for full sized books for 5e, but I have dozens that could fill a 32 page supplement.

This also allows for small supplements that re-examine things that are already covered in 5e, but only very lightly (due to the nature of Ars sourcebooks). A closer look at some key locations - Constantinople, Alexandria, and Venice come to mind for the mundane world, and a supplement about the Domus Magnae for the order. A proper grimoire (bestiary) of Daimones and/or magical spirits, which is something sorely lacking in RoP:M imo. Those are just some examples off the top of my head, there are a lot of these little gaps that would never get covered in a full sized book because the content overlaps too much with an existing one, but which could work as small supplements.

This is a very different model to what Ars has used previously and that creates some new challenges but also a lot of opportunities. Personally, I'd be right in there if Atlas announced a subscription (and like @bittergeek I already subscribe to the patreon so that's not idle talk). For entertainment I've always used the "€1 an hour" metric to tell if I'm getting good value, and I play Ars about 12-15 hours a month, and maybe spend the same again on writing and prep for it - so I could be paying €25 (~$30) a month and still be getting good value out of it as I see it. I don't think the subscription model would be that much by any means, but anything up to there I'd be on it in a heartbeat.

That said @bittergeek has a great point about third party and fan created material. With a relatively small active community there is still a slow but steady output of high quality stuff being written for Ars, though it's quite scattered. That's a resource in my opinion, but a hard one to leverage. A curated way to publish that kind of stuff with a "seal of approval" and in a central, stable, location would be fantastic.

Maybe this was just a whole lot of text to basically indicate I'll pay for any Ars product in any format...

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So, I really think "subscription or Drivethru" may be a false dichotomy. One's a presale and the other's an aftermarket. Atlas could do both.

I'm not sure how the subscription model would work, but that's only because I'm not sure what size Ars Magica's fandom is, and how stable it is. It -might- work, and the costs of trying to get it to work are minimal. Subscription can be quite an agile model. So, maybe they'll try it.

I'm assuming the subscription is "We send you X words per Y months" not a software-as-a-service model like, say Audible or Marvel Online, where you get everything at once when you sign on, and lose it all as soon as your sub lapses. In the X per Y model, the items which have gone out to subscribers are after-marketed as stand-alone products. Essentially it's like a periodical with back issue reprints.

You'd get a second layer of this with anthologies. Say you had a thing where Atlas sent you 20 000 words every 4 months...and you could sub in advance or pay aftermarket on DriveThru, you'd eventually have enough material you can recut it by theme. Issac Asimov used to do this a lot, by the way, which is why every so often I recut Games From Folktales, so you get a publication where all the monsters are together, or all the Cornish bits are together. Similarly, once Ars had some depth in the aftermarket materials it could say "Right, Bestiary 2021? Would you pay a couple of bucks for us to just put all the monsters in one file and add some art?" or "If we put some frame text around Disassociated Adventures A, B and C", would you pay a few extra dollars to see it all again We'd add some extra twists and art and stuff?" and if the subscriber base said "Sure" then that helps them target their second bite at the assets they already have.

So, as I say, subscription and Drivethru are just different parts of the product life cycle, IMO.

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@bittergeek is right that I miss targets, but I think Atlas would have some advantages I don't. First, I assume they will have a team of writers, even on 32 page pieces. That smooths things out incredibly. I don't have that safety net, but they would have.

The other thing they'd have is that it wouldn't be a hobby. GFF is a thing I do recreationally. It makes enough money in Patreonage that it covers its costs provided my time/writing is considered to be of no monetary value, and when it makes a little more money some months, I increase the amount of material I prepare until it, once again, costs out at zero. That's fine, because its a hobby, but it does mean it gets put aside when I have real things to do. Atlas won't do that - it'll naturally be higher on their priority list, so they'll miss (self-imposed) targets less.

Thank you, though, for the complement about my machine-like productivity. 8)

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Considering the writing on the existing Ars Magica products I find your assumption that Atlas would have a team of writers to be rather optimistic. I'm not saying it would be a bad idea for someone to do this, just that I find it unlikely that Atlas will. Personally I am of the opinion that further development of Ars Magica will have to wait until Atlas decides it is of greater benefit to them to sell the rights than to hold them.

Can someone explain the dislike of subscriptions? If we know there's a certain number of direct buyers, we can confidently budget to produce a book, and then the book can be released into the usual channels so folks who are not subscribers will be able to pick it up from their FLGS, or Amazon, or mail order from us. We're not charging anyone in advance, and even subscribing does not obligate you to actually buy the books when the time comes if a particular title doesn't interest you. For someone who does not want to subscribe, what's the downside of having new books in the future that you'll have the option of buying (in print or digital) if you are so inclined?

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Fundamentally it's the same deal as book clubs or music clubs from the 1980's and 90's. People are gun shy after having been stuck in too many subscriptions in the past.

Quality requires quantity. If the number of subscribers whittle down too far, you don't get your money's worth.

There's also the "once bitten twice shy" of trust, but I think that's not an issue here.

I think it applies to a lot of people, in regard to the plan structure not the vendor.

Mainly - for me - it's the Quality vs. Quantity element mentioned by @Tugdual.
I love Ars Magica, but I'd prefer for the product quality to remain high, even if it means a book being delayed for a fairly long time. Likewise, I'd happily pre-order Ars Magica books, pretty much just knowing their title - if I can remain certain of the level of quality.

However, what I've seen of subscription formats from other companies was not encouraging.
Quality has been variable but generally dropping. Consistency has usually been an early victim and power creep all but guaranteed.

I'm not proud of this, but I do own a few Pathfinder supplements. But I stopped caring even about the ones with topics that might have caught my interest, as the signal-to-noise ration simply dropped below acceptable levels

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Fundamentally, whether you are talking book clubs, music clubs, magazine subscriptions, roleplaying subscriptions, Netflix, or any other similar contract service once a source of income is guaranteed there is no functional motivation to provide quality in exchange for that income, as long as you fulfill the contract. At that point lawyers become more significant than authors.

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Perhaps the term "subscription" has baggage and is a turn-off for some folks. Would "standing pre-order" be better? The idea is an arrangement where we have a pool of people who have told us that they are willing to buy new content we produce for an RPG (and they can change their mind) directly from us. That would give us a clear number around which to build budgets and invest in projects (how well can we afford to pay writers and artist? can we print books in full color?), without having to assume the massive overhead of a Kickstarter campaign or the discounts to third parties involved in traditional distribution. It's a kind of like crowdfunding, but without collecting pledges until close to delivery...? Something more than just "sign up for the free newsletter," but not all the way to "deposit cash today."

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This is true of traditional RPG publishing as well, but the feedback cycle is much longer. If we can see that we only have 100 people interested in another book in a line, we don't have to go all the way through production to learn that (and then have a bunch of unsold books to pulp). Perhaps losses can be cut sooner by cutting a project in development, or changing its scope (maybe a digital only release or print on demand release of a book that is already far along in development).

Considering that Atlas has already said they are not publishing any more books for Ars Magica I don't think needing to lower expenses is the current issue.

FWIW, I would personally LIKE to publish more for Ars Magica. I would be just tickled to do something like 2-3 smallish books, maybe 32 to 96 pages each, in a year. Probably adventures, maybe some offbeat source material or alternative saga ideas. But I don't believe we could break even selling such things through the traditional distribution model that Ars Magica has relied on for 30+ years. If there is an audience interested in such a thing, there is a very big budgetary difference if that is an audience of 200 or 800.

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