Thursday, March 22, 2012

Business of LARP

Money is one of the largest causes of argument in any relationship. Everyone wants more of it, and everyone has different ideas of how to get it. From a LARP perspective, it's been a lot on my mind lately. With the NERO potential issue of buying magic items, I've been wondering more and more: Should a LARP operate like other for-profit businesses?

Let me just say first off that I've never owned a for-profit LARP, and I don't know the specifics of how any of the local games do things. So I am not trying to call anyone out or point fingers or say what anyone is doing wrong. I don't know what goes on, so my thoughts are just based on general observations and curiosity. There's a disclaimer for you :)

If you're running a LARP as a business, then obviously a goal, if not THE goal, is to make money. You should create a product that people want - which means running a game at consistent quality (rules, mechanics, plot, phys reps, all that). It should follow all the laws and guidelines of the business - whether that means acting ethically or not is probably a philosophical issue that's too big for this post :) However, if you're not creating an environment where your customers are treated well and fairly, you're likely to go out of business.

So on the thought of "LARP as money-maker" - is there a problem with offering in-game items for out of game money? Well, in the world, if you have more money, you get better stuff. From that perspective, then it makes sense. Heck, look at the free to play mmo's that are everywhere - that's how they make their money. It seems things are shifting in that direction.

But a LARP, to many people, is more than just a business out to make a buck. First, they don't often make much money, so operating like they're Apple might seem silly. :) Second, the community becomes very close-knit, and is small enough that it's hard to say "it's not personal, it's business." It becomes very personal to the people who play, and they become very invested in the game and the society that grows around it. Making decisions based just off of the "it's a business" aspect can be tough if they're unpopular - especially at smaller games.

In the end, most people run games for the same reason they play them. They enjoy a story where they can act out an adventure, they like the role-play, and they enjoy the people. They want a good game. Most people aren't thinking of making money off of it. And those that are, I think they eventually want to share the profit with their "employees" - after all, it's the staff who make the game what it is! But I think that most games can't get that far.

The game should make enough money to break even, pay for upgrades, and maybe even pay out to the people running it (gas money? prop budget? Ahh, I can dream!). But is there enough capital, and is it worth it, to make it for-profit in the very business sense of the idea? Or is it enough to run the game, since the people running it are doing it for-the-love anyway in most cases, give people a good time, and put any profit right back into the pot rather than worrying about who's getting paid? Do you think that kind of game is successful?

As I said, I don't know how for-profit games do it. I'd be interested to hear how the LARP business works for them!


  1. I think some of the principles of running a LARP for profit are really positive. For instance, if you're running a business, with paying customers, they expect a consistent, reliable, and high-quality experience. For games that need the extra encouragement to plan ahead of time, develop a working game schedule, and budget, profit can be a good incentive. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that; while many games can run like clockwork for the sheer joy of it, some teams may really benefit from the added pressure of a business. LARP-as-business gets complicated. If people aren't satisfied, or have a really negative experience, then you need to go beyond PELs/summary letters to rectify the situation. It's kind of lame to say, "Well, maybe this isn't the game for you/We'll change it next time" in a for-profit situation. To complicate matters, you bring in NPCs. In a for-profit situation, they're kind of like waiters and waitresses: they have a minimal amount of responsibility, but are essential to making the game flow. How do you compensate them? If a decent amount of profit is being made by GMs, CP/goblin points or small monetary sums seems kind of unequal. Moreover, if a regular player has a personal problem (OoG) with a regular NPC, then there's a major conflict of interest: the customer is almost always right.

    While, ultimately, I think there are principle of LARP-as-business that are positive, there are a lot of complications that change the fundamental dynamics of LARP (or at least the ones I play).

    1. I should add to my above comment, that, when I talk about "for profit" LARP, I mean LARPs that make a significant profit-- not ones that essentially pay for themselves. I do think there is a difference.

  2. Ultimately, if a LARP is a club or a business doesn't concern the average person very much.

    What does concern them is if it is a Well Run Club or a Well Run Business.

    Businesses have well thought out business models. Businesses have concise policies. Businesses have people who understand rule and law both in and out of the company, and what implications changes will make to the business model. Businesses have clear chain of commands, where employee's can go, "That guy there is the boss, and that guy there is my supervisor". Businesses have to have the trust of their consumers.

    Now... think of your current larp. Think of those whom are slated as "in charge". Do you trust that they can and will handle such organization?

    If so... a for profit business might work. If not... well...

  3. I've consistently had better experiences at for-profit games than at hobby-games. The idea of "customer satisfaction" drives people to run games that are fun and inclusive. If your game isn't good enough to pay for, the for-profit model focuses on what needs to be improved.

    I used to play a lot of LARPs in the woods of my town, or on college campuses - non-profit games. I found that very often, the directors wanted everybody to have a good time, but it was easy for them to get hung up thinking about plot or rules instead of player retention. They felt comfortable larping with the same 15 people every month and had no desire to change or grow.

    The for-profit model has some really strong parts. A for-profit game generally has a larger operating budget, resulting in better costumes, props, and campsites. If the owners are making money, they tend to pour more effort into the game, and it gets better for everybody.

    The downside of the for-profit model, IMO, is that it creates a division between entertainment producer and consumer. As a paying customer, you expect to be entertained, and this may discourage you from providing entertainment for others. The healthiest games are the ones where the players take an active role in the game, producing content and helping out behind the scenes. If your expectation is that your event fee is something like a concert ticket, you're not going to be running modules or taking NPC shifts.

    People don't volunteer that kind of labor if they feel like unpaid employees, so for-profit games need to focus on sustaining a vibrant community. The community creates the incentive for producing content (read: labor) in the form of feedback, reputation, credibility, authority, etc.

  4. I think there's also a bit of a philosophical conflict between "for-profit" and "operates mostly on volunteer labor."

    Most successful games I have seen require many, many hours of work and preparation by dedicated volunteer staff. Who wants to wear themselves out working so that someone else can pocket all the profits of their effort? I think the best run games combine the "we're all in this together-ness" of a non-profit org and the "we should provide people a good experience for their money" aspect of a business. That means making sure that volunteers and players both receive value in exchange for their contributions.

    Unfortunately, in the hands of poor game-runners, the club mentality can lead to cliquishness, as Dan mentioned, and the business mentality can lead to abuse and petty tyranny (you can tell things are going badly when people start throwing out defenses like "well, big companies do X all the time!").

  5. It might be easier to run a LARP venue for profit than the LARP itself. At the venue, you could rent out period tents, people could pay to reserve the space, you could have vendor booths where people could sell food, weapons, props, clothing, etc. to participants in the LARP. If you could get a couple groups that do regular games, you could potentially make some money.

  6. @ Jyn - I think that's how I feel as well. I do think that a LARP that's for-profit could certainly work and be good. But the problem is that, at least in most games I've seen, LARPs don't make enough money to do that well. Many run off volunteers who don't see any profit that does come in. People can be okay being paid in whatever imaginary build points or items the game uses as reward, so that might be enough for some, but I think it's hard to attract talent. They have to take whoever they can get who is altruistic or foolish enough to volunteer :) For-profit businesses have the advantage of being able to afford to pay people to devote a good chunk of time to that business, and can therefore theoretically attract talent.

    So I think I am just pondering over whether the for-profit model really works for most LARPs. I think at least I'd like to see any profit get shared amongst the people running it, but as Zeddy said, that gets super complicated. So I don't know!

    Probably the answer is that it depends on the people running it. :) We run our game as a break-even game and I'd like to think that we try to grow and change and provide a good experience - but of course I would think that :)