Badass Larp Talk #29: Business or Pleasure?
So, larp has a little bit of a business problem.
Don’t get me wrong – on the whole I love how our medium is growing and evolving. When I started larping back in 1993, I don’t think in my wildest fantasies I conceived of events on the scale of the many blockbuster games that take place on a regular basis around the world these days. The idea of a larp – a larp! – being able to rent a castle or a battleship or acres of campground and put on a spectacle was something to daydream about, a full-on Barenaked Ladies “If I Had a Million Dollars” lottery win sort of fantasy, not a practical reality. And yes, I know even back then there were some games that were already putting on big events like those I’m talking about, but what can I say, the internet was still young and the community was not nearly as global and interconnected as it is now. My apologies to those who were breaking that ground and I just didn’t know it back then.
Hell, I remember when my local boffer game hit 100 attendees for the first time back in 2001 and we all went crazy with how huge that was; now I think 100 attendees is the figure many games have for hurricane weekends (“Cat 4? Pah! Fetch me my wind pants, papa needs his XP!”). It’s kind of amazing how quickly the exceptional becomes mundane, when you think about it. But I digress – this isn’t a post about being a (in this case literal) graybeard larper. That’s coming soon, but not quite yet. No, this post is about the problematic phase many larps find themselves in these days, specifically, the nebulous realm of “more than a hobby, not quite a profession” and the problems it poses.
Make no mistake about it – there are people who make a living running larps these days, particularly in Europe and North America. And while these professional larp runners may not be making golden cocaine money – yet* – they’re also not the quasi full-timers the field used to have either. By which I mean those who could do it “full-time” only because they had trust funds and/or still lived at home and didn’t pay for rent or groceries. I’m not disrespecting such individuals, just to be clear, but also pointing out that they weren’t self-sustaining as far as business models go – they didn’t pay enough for their owners to live on them without outside help. Now, though, we have a list of people who do exactly that, and the list is growing all the time.
Likewise, with a few notable exceptions the standards of larp production have been steadily climbing over the years. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – even smaller games regularly use makeup, props, and other stagecraft on ordinary scenes and mods that would have been considered the pinnacle of the art form years ago. Even humble games often have budgets dedicated to such things these days, as opposed to the catch-as-catch-can approach of years past where spectacle was pretty limited and usually reserved for Major Plot Moments a couple of times per year. It’s a pretty amazing evolution and I love watching it continue.
However, there is a down side to all this as well, and one big part of it is the fact that while many larps have gone from enthusiastic hobbies and passion projects to full-fledged businesses, the compensation for those involved in making these events possible has not always kept up with what would be expected of a similar business of the same size in a different industry. Or to put it another way, it’s still too common in this industry to see games call themselves “businesses” when it suits them or sounds impressive but then hide behind “it’s just a hobby” when it comes time to compensate their staff.
Before I get too into this, I’m not saying that the monthly Vampire game you run in your friend Jessica’s creepy basement needs to provide comprehensive dental for all loyal Camarilla members**, or that the Backyardia boffer larp that you run at your stepdad’s place has to make matching contributions to your goblins’ 401k plan. I’m going to call games like that “non-profits” for a few reasons: one, they don’t make money; two, I doodled in business class and didn’t learn proper uses for terms; three, I can’t hear tax lawyers vomiting blood through a computer screen anyway. Anyway, games like that aren’t the problem – though they can become one if they get bigger but never change their attitude.
To put it bluntly, relying on unpaid volunteers to staff vital operating positions when you’re running a for-profit business is dubiously ethical at best and possibly illegal besides – no, really – and yet that’s still the model for many ongoing games across America and in parts of Europe. (And no, paying people in experience points or other game perks doesn’t count.) It might be a fine model when you’re all just having fun together and nobody’s turning a profit, but as soon as you start making money on a level beyond the game simply sustaining itself, the right thing to do is compensate the people who make it possible to run that business. Because that’s what you are at that point, after all – a business.
What’s strange to me is that if you put this idea in the context of almost any other business, people agree without reservation. For instance, if your friend started a little farm stand you might not mind helping him haul produce and put up signs for free, but if he started making a full-time living out of it and still expected you to work for nothing, you’d probably be pissed, and rightly so. Yet if you mention this notion in the context of larp, well, I’ll just put it politely and say it doesn’t go over well. Western culture already has a problem with paying artists – see the trope of the starving artist, or how many books and movies tout the message that making any money on your art is “selling out” and how “real” artists do it for the sheer love of creating – and larp is no exception. The way some people come down on the merest notion of compensation you’d think that asking games to pay creative or logistical staff was the same as killing happy young couples just to see if their kids turn out to be Batmen.***
Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that the second you start making some real money on a larp you need to start paying everyone on staff $30k/year with benefits. Nor that doing a four hour shift as a series of hapless peasants and repeatedly murdered orcs should mean that you take home a fat roll of cash at the end of the weekend. That said, though, pretending there’s no intermediate step between unpaid volunteer and full-time salary is horseshit. I know several ongoing games that pay their writers for every scene or module they write, for example, or give a stipend to their logistics staff every weekend, or both. A few games I know of actually do pay regular salaries to their staff members, and I’m happy to say the trend is becoming more common. But it needs to continue, and perhaps more importantly, it needs to be encouraged.
Update: As noted by the inimitable Shoshana Kessock – go ahead, try and nimit her – another difficulty faced by larp runners that factors into the compensation scenario is larp pricing, which traditionally has been very low for the amount of entertainment delivered. This stems from the fact that many larps began as hobbies and passion projects and thus charged only what they needed to keep going, but then face a sticky problem as they grow. If they charge more, they face accusations of greed and possibly losing players due to higher pricing. If they don’t raise prices, however, they eventually run into the problem where the expense of entertaining larger numbers of players outstrips the money coming in, and the game either folds or the staff is forced to pay for the shortfall, neither of which is desirable or tenable. So along with deciding what sort of compensation is fair, it is important to note that the price of games may need to increase as well, or players begin scaling back the sort of perks and production values they expect for their dollars if it doesn’t.
It might seem that I’m really picking on larp runners so far, and there’s some truth to that since they’re the ones holding the purse strings in this situation, but let’s also be frank – this is still brand new territory for everyone involved. So while it’s OK to ask for-profit games and full-time larp runners to compensate their staff, please bear in mind and cut them some slack if they’re making an effort. We don’t exactly have decades of business models and comparisons to fall back on here, so even the folks trying hard to be fair and compensate their people are still very much figuring it out by trial and error. Mistakes will be made, even by the well-intentioned, so please don’t whip out your pitchforks just because the writing staff at your favorite game is currently making $50/mod and you think they should be making $65. This is new territory, so rather than attacking, we should be working together to come up with fair pay scales and compensation models. That’s what ultimately will be best for everyone.
Some of you out there, if anyone’s actually reading this – and if so, hi mom, hi dad, I’m so glad you both could make it – are probably also wondering about what all this means for larp influencers too. Quick explainer: if you’re not familiar with the term, larp influencers are famous bloggers, YouTube hosts, and other well-known personalities in the community that larp companies increasingly rely on to build audience and spread word of mouth about their games. Influencers are especially key when it comes to the world of big budget blockbuster larps, where anything less than nearly full attendance and/or glowing reviews can potentially represent a serious financial disaster for the company, and so securing a high profile endorsement can mean the difference between starting a franchise or folding in failure.
I could write a whole article about the problems surrounding how larps treat larp influencers, and I probably will later on, rest assured. For now though I’m going to stick close to the points I’ve been making, if any, and say simply asking a larp influencer to hype your game is no different than another business hiring an advertising agency to raise customer awareness or signing a celebrity to promote its products, and by that I mean you pay them for doing it. Especially if you want them to really go all-in and do things like make larp trailers, sizzle reels, or other marketing tools for you. You wouldn’t expect Don Draper to light cigarette one without offering him a paycheck first; you shouldn’t ask anyone to spend time and money promoting your larp for free either. Especially if you’re coming to them because of their fame and expertise.
In the end, I totally get that even many “for profit” games don’t net a whole lot of cash, especially after you consider their overhead in terms of renting locations, buying props and costuming, etc. But if you’re making more than petty cash amounts of money from your game, and especially if it’s enough for you to live on full-time, it’s time to acknowledge that you are a business and structure it accordingly, including compensating your employees. It’s not just the legal thing to do, but the right one too. Yes, it can be messy and tedious and complicated, and you might need to hire a business planner and/or tax attorney and do other sorts of less fun “adult” stuff, but guess what? If you want to call yourself a business, if you want to put your name and/or the name of your game out there in the larp world as one to watch, this is the price of admission.
Or rather, it should be.
* By “yet” I just mean that nobody’s making Bezos money for larp quite at this point, not that I assume all larp runners will buy cocaine plated in gold when they do.
** The Sabbat “dental plan” is, unsurprisingly, to randomly murder humans and wear their teeth on necklaces, so we’re not counting them for this example.
*** I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but no, not it doesn’t. Quit it.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!