October 20th, 2013

JC Denton

[PUBLIC] The Economics of LARP (or, Are We Willing To Pay What LARP costs?)

This morning I am preparing to go to To Be Continued..., a theatre-style LARP campaign I participate in. Recently, one of the GMs (staystrong62805) has been commenting on social media and in conversation about the sheer amount of effort preparing each session is. There are 45 player characters, each of whom need around 1,250-2,500 words of character sheet each game. In addition, forums must be managed, background must be researched and integrated, NPC's wrangled, space reserved, and so on. 3-4 times a year, I get to take advantage of all this work for about $5 to help cover snacks.

In the New England theatre LARPing community, the burden of games, creative, logistical, and financial, lies squarely on the GM. None of the major conventions (Intercon, Festival, SLAW, or *Bubble) finance the games that run there; if a GM bids a game, they are expected to develop, build, deploy, run, strike, and evaluate their games all on their own time and budget. The reward for all this investment of time, money, and energy is watching players play your game (when you have time to observe.)

The sheer amount of work got me thinking about the real costs of running a game like TBC. Reportedly, for at least several weeks before each session, staystrong62805 is spending at least 1 Full-Time Equivalent each week on prep. Supposing that she alone was carrying the weight of this entire time's development, and was working full-time between sessions to get each one ready, how much is the real cost of the game?

People consistently undervalue their time when putting together business proposals, so in keeping with that tradition, I'll start my estimate off at Massachusetts' Minimum Wage ($8.00/hour.) For a 2,000 hour work year, that comes to $16,000. Splitting that across four sessions a year, that's about $4,000/session. The game I'm in runs about 45 players, which comes out to about $88.89 per player per session. That doesn't even start to count the GM's, NPC's, and other staff present at each session.

So the cost of having a person paid minimum wage to full-time write and run a LARP campaign for 45 players is about $356/player/year. Whether or not you consider minimum wage to be a living wage in the Boston area is beyond the scope of this essay.

I don't know of anybody for whom LARP writing is their livelihood, but I can see in the dim distance of the future a time where campaign LARPs may start employing full-time staff. I've had numerous conversations with many people in both the theatre and boffer LARPing style about the future of LARPing, what players are willing to pay for a game, what GMs are willing to absorb to see their own games run, and if those restrictions are limiting LARP as an art form in New England. I don't think LARP, especially theatre LARP, should be a proverbial Rich Man's Game, but I don't think the current distribution of cost in our community is fair at all, and I think we need to start establishing a culture of spreading at least the financial load of these games out over our player bases, and acknowledging that the time that our writers and GMs put in is worth more than just our hearty thanks at game wrap.

Cultural changes don't happen overnight, but I believe for our community to continue to develop and thrive, we have to start reimbursing our staff for their efforts. I know it isn't practical for a lot of people who LARP these days to pay a hundred dollars a game, and it is important that the theatre LARPing community maintain its low barrier to entry. That said, I think it is also important for those of us who can afford to pay what a game is worth to start doing so -- to voluntarily start paying the costs of our characters, because until a culture of distributed costs is created, I fear we are in danger of plateauing as an art form.

So when I get to gamespace today, and the staff asks me for my $5 admission, I'm going to hand them $100 and be confident that I'm still getting a deal on my afternoon's entertainment.