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The Economics of LARP: or The Failure of Market Forces (Part 1)

This is a series of blog posts based on my Keynote presentation at Camelot UK LARP Conference held in Birmingham on 23rd September 2019.

  • The second in the series, about What LARP Should Cost, can be found here.
  • The third in this blog series, discussing What do Other Similar Pastimes Charge? can be found here.
  • The fourth post discussing What are we Charging? can be found here.

I’ve recently ‘come out’ as a larper to my work mates after many years of “going camping with friends.” Thanks mainly to Game of Thrones and some excellent event photography, I frequently get an initial reaction which goes,“That sounds (or looks) really cool!”

After I explain what is involved, another comment which quickly follows is, “I bet you can make loads of money out of that!” At this point I sigh, either audibly or internally and quickly move the conversation onto other aspects of the hobby. Occasionally someone catches me in the wrong frame of mind and gets the rant.

It’s a common dream: The Holy Grail of LARP. Students and young people with more energy than I have left, spend hours planning how to turn our hobby into a job. Some of us who (should be older and wiser) have reached a senior positions within our chosen fields, realise we have loads of transferable skills and start wondering how we might turn this into a career with a better work-life balance. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, but could it be more…?

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The College of Wizardry

The larp market is not stable or forgiving. Dziobak, the company who ran blockbuster, sold-out events such as College of Wizardry and Fairweather Manor have ceased trading with significant financial problems. Some of their games continue to run, but have been sold to other larp companies. The three runs of College of Wizardry planned for this autumn were combined into a single event, due to low booking numbers. Has the public lost its interest in adolescent wizards at school? I would suggest not, when The Cursed Child is selling out in London virtually every show, even with a tricky two-part, two-night schedule.

Turbolarp had to pull at least one of their headline events this year due to lack of player interest, even though it should have appealed to the same guaranteed audience as the highly successful Fairweather Manor.

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And yet, despite these every weekend, somewhere in the UK, somewhere in Europe, somewhere in the world, volunteers are running larp events big and small for both friends and people they don’t yet know and thousands of people are enjoying this hobby.

International events have become more accessible and well known to UK players, although currently only a small section of the larp player-base in this country actually travels. International players are coming to UK larps in greater numbers too. Such exchange of cultures and ideas can only be a good thing for all of us and the hobby we love.

So why can’t we make it pay? And should we worry that we can’t?

To explore this topic I have looked at my personal experience of running and playing events and conducted original research into the topic.

To start I looked at the two events of which I have the most intimate financial knowledge, those that I have run under the Crooked House banner.

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Annette, one of the ghosts at God Rest Ye Merry

GRYM — how we made a loss

Early in 2015, Crooked House LRP ran God Rest Ye Merry, a high concept ghost story at Northmoor House on the edge of Dartmoor. We had twenty-five players each playing £250.

How did we come up with that figure? I blogged about this at the time and if you want to know the full details please have a look at post. However, to summarise our thought process…

“When we decided to run this God Rest Ye Merry (GRYM), we knew it was going to cost a lot to run. Traditionally, LARP weekend events have been pretty cheap — £35-£50, but with people bringing tents and doing their own catering. We looked at similar events to ours, which seemed to be about £180 for a weekend. We asked people how much they would be willing to pay; we licked a finger and stuck it in the air… and guessed.”

We came to the conclusion that if we priced the event at £250 there would be a sharp intake of breath and people would shocked. We would probably get enough bookings to make it happen, but we might not.

We had a contingency plan — if we didn’t get the bookings, we would just offer the house to friends to stay for a weekend to cover the cost. They could each pay for the room and do their own thing, so we wouldn’t lose the deposit.

As it was, the event booked up within 24 hours…

Even charging the maximum that we thought the market could stand, we made a loss. Total subsidised by the organisers £2565.69!

So, we went away. We got over the burnout. We thought about it for a bit. We started to talk about next time…

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Jack and Mowgli, the horses at All for One

And then we ran All for One with LarpX productions, featuring Harry Harrold.

We had a proper budget and kept a better eye on spending and charged what we thought was a reasonable price for a ticket. The standard residential, catered ticket was £325.

And we still made a loss. A much smaller loss of approximately £210, but still a loss. You can read more details of the economics of All for One in a future blog post in this series.

Now, the take home message from this might be that we’re really bad at budgeting. I’d argue that point. I have successful run a very profitable business, I am financially savvy in everyday life. We actually had a very comprehensive budget worked out for All for One and and reasonable comprehensive one for GRYM. However with both of them, we decided that it was more important to us to run a successful, memorable and enjoyable even for our players than it was for us to break even. Luckily we were personally in a position where we could afford to do this.

It turns out that we’re not the only ones to think like this. In my survey of LARP organisers and players (which I will discuss in more detail later in this blog series), 42% of event organisers are spending their own money to subsidise the events that they run.

I wrote about this online and a friend got in touch. They work for a company which is involved in geek culture and they organise a yearly promotional event which gets approximately 2000 attendees, each paying £150 for a ticket. This event costs them more than £750,000 to run and as those of you who are good with numbers might have noticed, only raises £300,000 from ticket sales.

Even with traders and advertising revenue, this leaves a big gap, which they write off against marketing. They have KPIs for media outreach, minutes streamed etc and they smash them! It gives them the coverage they need. They run this event as a loss leader.

I also spoke to a friend who runs street games for the public. Their games are very successful and well reviewed, but they were also about £2000 in the red on the first public game that they ran. But it made their name and after that they were able to access art council grants to support the work they were doing.

So, is that’s what we’ve been doing? Not budgeting badly, but running loss leaders to make our name?

Perhaps. If we reframe All for One and GRYM as events to ‘make our name’ what have we been working towards? Loss leader marketing only works if you then cash in on the name you’ve made to sell a commercially viable and profitable product. But will the LARP market support events which can stand financially on their own and even allow some event runners to make a living out of doing this? I wanted to find out.

Keep reading to find out more. This is the first of a series of posts. In the series I’ll look at what is charged for other interactive experiences, how much All for One should have cost per ticket if those involved had been paid and the results of surveys of event runners and players about the events they organise and play.

  • The first blog of this series, about LARP and the Failure of Market Forces, can be found here.
  • The second in the series, about What LARP Should Cost, can be found here.
  • The third in this blog series, discussing What do Other Similar Pastimes Charge? can be found here.
  • The fourth post discussing What are we Charging? can be found here.

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Written by

Vet, likes all things animal. Roleplayer, LARP & Crooked House LRP. Plays and organises interactive narrative fiction. Travels as Vetvoyages.

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