Monday, March 29, 2010

Cortex System RPG and PDF Pricing

This weekend, I was encouraged by a friend to again check out the Cortex RPG System, by Margaret Weis Productions. It didn't really do much for me the first time, but I have to say, the second read's been much better. Games like Serenity and BSG aren't really up my alley (both used the Cortex system), but seeing it presented by itself, it's different somehow. Cortex sort of reads like Savage Worlds' less-gimmicky cousin, if that makes sense. I like step-dice mechanics, and I also like that Cortex keeps a more traditional damage system.

Now, I obtained my pdf of the Cortex rules through RPGNow's Gamers Helping Haiti Bundle (thanks to MWP for their generosity!). However, looking on RPGNow, I see the Cortex pdf rules are priced at $21.99!

OK, so never mind for a minute that that is about what the product costs at Amazon. I said the game bears some resemblance to Savage Worlds, yes? The pdf of Savage Worlds, ringing in at 160 pages, costs $9.99, the same as a print copy. If I'm on the fence between these two products, how is that even a contest? Another system that bears some similarities is Eden Studios' Unisystem, which doesn't have a generic ruleset product that I'm aware of, but does have the Witchcraft RPG for free. (Of course, they have the 256-page All Flesh Must Be Eaten RPG for $21, so who knows).

Pathfinder, $10, 576 pages.

Atomic Highway, $11.95, 131 pages.

Thousand Suns, $9.99, 272 pages.

In Harm's Way, $10.00, 125 pages.

The genreDiversion 3e Manual, $7.95, 126 pages.

Open Core System, $9.95, 200 pages.

Rolemaster Express, $5.00, 90 pages.

I don't pretend to know all the costs that go into making a RPG pdf like Cortex any more than I do what goes into making a Honda Civic. But I do know what I'll pay for it--what my personal marketplace in my head will bear, so to speak. And if it's over around $10-12 for a pdf (unless we're talking about something really special here) , I'm pretty quickly going the other way.

There are just too many "good" RPGs and RPG systems out there for people to invest too much into one system. You've got to do something--be it a special promotion, insane fan support, insane fans evangelizing, have a kickass blog everyone follows (clearly, this one is not it), a cult following, a special program or guarantee--if you want to jump ahead. Some publishers let their product sell itself, and I respect that. But products that people see as too expensive don't sell themselves as easily, I don't think.

I do need to point out here that I am reliably informed the print version of Cortex comes with a code for a free pdf of the same. Well done, there.

Cortex seems like a good system that I'm really just getting into, and again, Margaret Weis Productions deserves a big "thank you!" for participating in the Gamers Helping Haiti effort. I checked out the material at Signal Fire Studios, which has some cool ideas for Cortex. And I finally registered at their fan forums after lurking a bit, and it seems like a nice, constructive place (though it may not be for me after this article). But man, that pdf pricing will get me every time. Give us a gateway product that won't break the bank. Apparent cheapskate, over and out.


David Macauley said...

$10 is my top limit for a pdf and even then it has to be pretty special. Any higher and you can tell 'em they're dreaming.


You know, when I read The Cortex System I also kind of went, "hmph." But lately I have had a hankering to read it again. I guess it's one of those games that grows on you. I also think it would work well for modern and sci-fi games. I have yet to buy a PDF version of any game, though.


Rob Conley said...

I priced the Majestic Wilderlands so that it give me the same profit as Lulu print price. RPG Now takes a fixed percentage royalty so this is somewhat easy to calculate.

When I have more products done, I would be willing to take less of a profit on a printed productmeant to go into distribution. I would view it as a advertising expense to get people to buy other Bat in the Attic product on Lulu.

But Margaret Weis Productions is first a print company with, I assume, most of their profits coming from their print products. So their PDF products should be priced accordingly.

Anonymous said...

And Fuzion is free, action system is free.. why buy opencore when its nothing but a search/replace on action system... which is OGL'd fuzion...

I looked over cortex and didn't like it much, the price being amazingly high for what you get (and compared to the competition).

With so many good universal/framework/systems around, I think cortex is too late to the party and too expensive.

Chuck said...

Yeah, they are way over priced. I just feel that MWP would sell more if they lowered that PDF price and probably end up selling more hard copies too.

Stargazer said...

I doubt that most companies think that much about PDF pricing. They just upload the products to RPGNow and slap the same prize on it, they usually have on the print product. When somebody buys, good, if not, it's ok, too, since they don't see it as their main business - which is sad.

WalkerP said...

I hope somebody high up at Margaret Weis reads this because it is a giant, flashing red X that is telling them "YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG." I suspect this is purely a case of them as an organization not having the resources or expertise to really find the best strategy for PDF pricing. They probably just picked the number based on a rough guess on numbers for them, rather than a true understanding of how the PDF market works and interacts with the print market.

If they were smart, they would put one person on the job of doing some research (look at Pinnacle, Evil Hat, the companies you mentioned above, talk with the dudes at RPG.NOW and so on) as well as running the numbers internally. Then come up with a new pricing scheme, make a big announcement about it, apologizing in a nice way and give discount certificates for future MWP products to people who already paid the full price for the pdf. This creates news and awareness about their products, generates goodwill amongst existing and potential fans and the general audience of gamers who are pro digital format.

Swordgleam said...

It's hard to scale .pdf prices. If a 200 page pdf is $10, what should a 50 page pdf cost? If someone makes a pdf that's only 20 pages, but is full of cool stuff for your game, should they only charge $1 for all their hours of work, because a big company is only charging that much per page? Then what about those one or two page pdfs that people are charging $.50 for?

Admittedly, as someone whose business is pdf-only, I am biased. I can't make a print run and then throw up a pdf as an afterthought and count all those profits as gravy. But even looking at the products at RPGNow, including how high-priced some of the best-sellers are, it's nearly impossible to deduce any kind of sane pricing strategy.

HinterWelt said...

The fundamental problem most folks run into is they just do not know how pricing in a business is done. This is compounded by there being no "standard" for how it is done. That said, often the factors are:
1. What the market will bear
2. Costs in production, distribution
3. Retaining value to the property
4. The wildcard that is marketing strategy

Print publishers get a lot of pressure to keep the price of PDFs high on our in print lines. Also, a lot of times higher prices will actually sell more books. I know, seems counter intuitive but it has to do with perceived value.

Now, I am not saying high prices are the way to go but often, unfortunately, there are pressures and considerations outside "The customer wants cheap PDFs".

That said, Zach has some good points.

Zachary The First said...

@David: Think we’re in the same boat there.

@Stuffer: It isn’t a bad ruleset, at all. Some rulesets just take a few reads to “get”.

@Rob: I think pdf pricing is interesting—I mean, I assume there’s a justification for the prices set. Though sometimes I wonder…

For the record, Majestic Wilderlands is a great value for what you get!

@Anon: I was just using Open Core as an example of pdf pricing. No endorsement of the system, commentary on Action/Fuzion, etc., implied. ;)

@Stargazer: I do think the pdf market is secondary still to many more mainstream RPG publishers, which is a shame. I don’t think it will always be secondary, but time will tell.

@Walkerp: It’d be cool to see them do a unique promotion or discount, that’s for sure.

@Swordgleam: It is hard to place—I don’t think there’s a uniform pricing strategy out there. All I can do is go off of what I personally will pay for a gaming pdf.

@HinterWelt: You know, pressure from the FLGS is something to consider as well, I suppose. There is something to the perception of value and prices—I’ve heard it’s why some people charge $1 for something instead of making it free—people will be more likely to check something out they’ve invested in. I can’t say as how I’m that way, but I can see it.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

It's an interesting strategic situation. You have a bunch of publishers who stand to make money by selling PDFs. The higher the price, the more money they make (I'm going to assume a very low base cost for production, seeing as it's electronic media, and thus a very high profit). The moment, though, that one business cuts prices, they all start to cut prices if they know what they're doing.

Some businesses do, others don't.

@HinterWelt, that's a very valid point on pricing, but I'm wondering how true it rings in digital media. There's a vast difference between the traditional consumer and the digital consumer, and a high price can often drive out a large share of the digital consumer culture. It's my personal hypothesis that digital consumers value not based on price but on accessibility and recommendation. That's why community is so important.

Reputation is more important than price tag, here, I think. I think also that many companies overestimate their reputation, because there's a LOT of producers in the RPG game right now. There's precious few with a big reputation.

Richard Iorio II said...

Good topic, and this one I thought I about long and hard on when James and I started Rogue Games.

For us, we sell our PDFs at 40% to 50% off. $24.99 print book, $9.99 for the PDF.

For the $1.00 PDFs we sell, a $1.00 seemed fair. This will be dropping to $.99 in a few weeks when the iPad comes out. Yeah, you read that right, our books will be up on the iPad, and due to their pricing, we have to have our prices end in $.99. Since I refuse to sell the $1.00s at $1.09, I am dropping the prices on these to $.99.

Any way, for us, I see no reason to treat eBooks/PDFs the same way as print books. Hence, the lower prices, the bundling, and the attitude toward them.

clash bowley said...

I agree with Bill's and Richard's points. I generally price my core games at $10-12, depending on the amount of work I put into them. It doesn't really matter about page size. It's really about what you think it's worth. Flying Mice is primarily a pdf company, and we need to price our pdfs properly. This allows me to make approximately the same profit from POD sales as from pdfs.


Richard Iorio II said...


Yeah, for us, we are print first, and the cost for that is known. When it comes to the eBook/PDF, there is no extra cost for us. To print a book, you need a PDF, and the PDF exists, so we sell it.

I think some make this issue harder than it needs to be. I agree with you on your pricing Clash.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks to all the publishers showing up and contributing their opinions to the matter!

clash bowley said...

Just got an email from MWP noting they are dropping the price on their Cortex System book to 9.99, and sending along three cool coupons, including one for a free Supernatural pdf!

Looks like they read WalkerP's comment! :D


clash bowley said...

To comment to my own comment, THAT ROCKS!


Chip said...

Of course, if you purchase a dead-tree copy of Cortex, you get a FREE copy of the PDF -- even if you purchase from your FLGS. Why don't more companies do this? I don't know, but they should.

Christi - Margaret Weis Productions said...

We’re listening. We appreciate this blog and the comments associated with it. As a company, Margaret Weis Productions, knows we have to be responsive to you – the people that support, use, and buy the games we create. We want to hear from you and create an environment where you feel comfortable letting us know when we hit it out of the park as well as when we should change up batters.

PDF pricing is both challenging and evolving based on today’s media. It’s true – we are primarily a print publisher, but we also want to be accessible and are paying closer attention to electronic publishing as a whole. And guess what? You’re right. It’s definitely time to lower the price on the PDF of our CORTEX RPG SYSTEM. As of today, right now, the PDF is officially priced at $9.99 ... in great part due to this blog. To those out there that purchased CORTEX through RPGNow/DriveThruRPG at the higher price within the last 90 days, we're taking care of you.

As a company, Margaret Weis Productions wants to thank you for continuing to provide us with input and feedback. We hope you continue to do so through great blogs like this one, our own website -- and by staying in touch with us both on Facebook and Twitter.

Keep talking to us - we welcome it!

Herb said...

I wrote about this a while back, although in the out of print market.

@Hinterwelt: I understand the pricing pressures beyond some math. I also get that free or too cheap creates a perceived value issue (see the Apple Mac for the classic version). That said, at some point a PDF just becomes too expensive. You seem to have found the sweet spot because I have bought several of yours.

What's even dumber, though, is what happens when books go out of print with no intent to return them to print. At that point you're not competing with physical books you're selling (not having them to sell being the definition of out of print). Your PDFs only compete with pirates and used books. Given used books tend to run roughly 50% on eBay (certain highly value items excepted) a PDF at that price is probably topping out. It has two related advantages over the used product: you can find it now and you can have it now. However, those at best are equalizer to the "I don't have to print it out" problem.

As tablets like the iPad spread the print out issue may start dying off, but it won't die permanently for a long time.

Zachary The First said...

@Christi: Thank you for listening! Wow--that's just about too awesome for words!

HinterWelt said...

To everyone who responded to my comment, let me be clear, I agree with Zach's original point. That is why I price my books the way I do. Sure, I might be able to go cheaper but then I loose out in terms of my expenses to print. Currently, I make (roughly) the same amount I do through distribution for my print products.

As to community being important, definitely, and I am sorry if it sounded like I was saying pricing a digital book is the same as pricing a print book. Two different but related markets.

However, it is important to note that a lot of the expenses carry over to both mediums.

Regardless, it is good to hear that a publisher is listening to fans where pricing can be adjusted. Just remember, sometimes it cannot be adjusted.

Alex3 said...

Their books are somewhat expensive too, but I've only bought WotC books so I'm spoiled. One of their books is $35 plus $10 for shipping, the pdf is $22. I bought the book, but would have loved to get it on and save that $10.. and if they'd been less I might've picked up both. But there's no way I'm spending $22 on something I already own just for convenience, especially when I already paid $45. (For a 160 page paperback nonetheless.)

And as far as I know none of the SPN books I've bought from them have a code for the PDF. If anyone knows if there is one, let me know? :O

Zachary The First said...

@Alex3: I'm very happy with their response on the pdf pricing! I don't know on the pdf code--perhaps you could contact their customer service or DM them on Twitter?


JakeThunder said...


I recently talked to MargaretWeis about the amazon vs their site price issue. (was on the phone with customer service). I was told they are in process of getting setup to sell through amazon. I think it may be done because all of the Serenity books are now available on amazon with free shipping

Cam_Banks said...

@Alex3: The only book we've had PDF codes in before now has been the Cortex System RPG. As part of our reduction in pricing today, anybody who paid for the Cortex System PDF (as opposed to buying the book and getting the code from the book itself) was sent some discount codes for Supernatural products.

Going forward, any preorders we take for books on our website at will include a free PDF of the book, as well. This doesn't presently include older books, but we're working on creating a Print + PDF bundle option for all titles.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks for the update, Cam! This just keeps getting better!

Brett M. Bernstein said...

A little late to the party, as I've been away all day, but I think all print orders direct from the publisher should be accompanied by a PDF at no extra charge. Precis Intermedia has done this from day one and I plan to continue doing this. It's one thing to sell a print book by itself due to logistics issues (as was the case with MWP), but I can't abide publishers who sell a print + PDF combo at a higher cost than just the print version. So, kudos for excellent customer support by MWP.

Zachary The First said...

@Brett: I know that's been a practice of Precis Intermedia for awhile. Since Precis Intermedia sets a pretty high bar for customer service, I'm glad to see other publishers do it as well.

Affordable pdfs, print+pdf deals, solid support and solid products=happy customers!

Alex3 said...


Is there a way to sign up to be notified when the preorders are available? I was waiting for 'guide to the hunted' since it was announced, but I never saw any posts about preorders or its release. I had the RSS set up and checked the site regularly, but when I went to the site last week there it was ready for purchase. Kind of bummed if I missed out on the free PDF. (Same with SPN Adventures, which had preorders but no actual release date so I just waited and had my FLGS call when it was available)

HinterWelt said...

As with Brett, same here with HinterWelt. All our print books include the PDF. Also, we provide a free HTML version. Still, different pressures and situations will motivate different companies in different ways.

Also, are companies that do not do this nowadays? I mean, if you are selling through your own storefront it really seems a no-brainer to include the PDF with the print book so I wonder how uncommon that really is nowadays?

Cam_Banks said...

@Alex3: Place an order within the next 24 hours and we'll take care of you.

Our website's been going through a massive overhaul, so expect much better information and notices there as well as on our Facebook page and via Twitter in future. Thanks all!

Zachary The First said...

@HinterWelt: I think it's definitely still not the practice of most gaming companies, really.

Brett M. Bernstein said...

HinterWelt, not all publishers are set up to sell PDFs or bundles of print/PDF. That's what I meant by logistics issues. Totally different from charging extra for the PDF, of course, which some still do.

Alex3 said...


I just ordered the book a week ago, so no dice. :) I'll be ordering the next SPN book from your shop when it comes out, unless it's available on amazon (free shipping is worth more than a free PDF)

BTW your facebook page is a group, it should be a fan page.

Laurence MacNaughton, Author said...

I've tried out a lot of RPG systems (and I mean a LOT), from Savage Worlds to MURPG to Nicotine Girls, and for long-term robustness and creative versatility, Cortex wins. There's a reason people started stripping the system out of Serenity and using it for their own games long before the official universal Cortex version came out: because it works well, it's intuitive, and it's very customizable. Those are all aspects that I personally value, being a time-crunched writer by trade who wants maximum creative input and minimal rulebook study, while retaining enough crunchiness to reign in my more gamist players. Depending on your preferences, your mileage may vary. But Cortex is only ten bucks now. So if you like creative control over your game, my advice is try the free samples at

Jack Harker said...

Has anyone tried the products from Arcanum Syndicate? A new, small company. The Chaos 6010 A.D. Rulebook is an awesome dark future RPG. It has everything in it that makes me happy. If you check out the featured reviewers post on drivethrurpg he is really dead on with the review. The writer and artist created a 300 page RPG by himself and the writing had me laughing instead of falling asleep over mechanics and modifiers. It kind of reminds me of the Army of Darkness of roleplaying games. As well if you get a chance pick up the Pray for Dawn module by them as well. It's got a mature rating and its a 130 page campaign where the adventurers have to survive a night trapped in this necropolis. If you like survival horror its pretty twisted. The artwork in that one is great too. Happy gaming all.