The Economics of LARP (part 2) -What Should LARP Cost?
This is the second of a series of articles about the economics of larp and the failure of market forces when applied to the hobby. You can find the first of these articles here.
I’m afraid this post in particular is numbers heavy, due to the subject matter. I apologise if it is hard going, but I can’t think how to reason my way through this topic without including the numbers. Sorry.
This series arose after I was asked to give one of the keynote lectures at Camelot UK LARP conference held in November 2019. I wanted to explore the finances of a larp event and investigate what it would have cost if we were running an event as a commercial, money making venture.
To do so, I have looked at the budget of All for One (a Larp X and Crooked House event run in May 2019) and tried to ascertain the actual market costs of each budgetary item. All for One was a massive collaborative experience and I am hugely grateful to everyone who gave up their time to help us run such an amazing event. However, I am aware that in doing so, we pulled in a vast number of favours. We couldn’t run an event like this frequently or regularly and still expect volunteers to give their time and enthusiasm with no reward.
So, if we wanted to run more regularly and start making this more commercial and perhaps pay those involved, how would that change the ticket price? Many LARP organisers fantasise about making their living from running LARPs and having toyed with the idea myself, I wondered if it was a viable idea. What would we need to charge to make this a commercial proposition?
Writing and Design
We had three core writers who worked on the event for a year. This involved the three of us in a 1–2 hour planning meeting over Skype, every Monday night, with other work during the week. This commitment averaged out about about sixteen person-hours a week or seven hundred and sixty-eight hours in total over the year.
I have used two different pricing scales in an attempt to get a feel for the costs involved. The first was the living wage of £9 per hour (rounded for convenience). The second was a level which is representative of the skills involved for an experienced event runner. Many of these individuals work in similar areas in their day jobs and I feel that if we are asking them to use career skills commercially, we should also be paying them at a commercial rate. I set this at £50 per hour. I understand that this may seem a lot to some readers, but it is a commonly charged hourly rate for experienced staff in creative and professional industries.
Our pre event time commitment from event organisers, was 768 hours. If we price those hours at a commercial rate:
- Living wage £9/hour = £6912
- Specialist wage £50/hour = £38400
The costumes for our supporting cast were hired at ‘mates rates.’ We paid £1668.96 to costume 33 NPCs/monsters (not including a few NPCs supplying their own costumes). The commercial cost for this, including the time of a wardrobe mistress would have been £3500.
Our beautiful musketeer tabards were made by Jude Reid, in return for a player space in the game, costing £325. We paid for the materials only, which cost £737.01.
If we were actually paying her for her time (approximately 55 hours(!)), it would have cost approximately £490 labour (£9/hr). This plus materials is a total cost of £1227.01.
I made the sashes that we used for messengers and servants. These cost £81.60 in materials and took 12 hours at £9/hr.This would have cost £108 in time, making a total of £189.60.
This would give a total costume budget of £4916.61, rather than the £2812.57 which we paid.
The props were made by Bill Thomas and Kiera Gould-Thomas for the cost of materials. This cost us £1182.02. If we had paid a commercial rate (of £20/hour) for those props, Bill estimated that would have cost us £4260. He provided this excellent breakdown of the costs for making those props.
We did not hire a commercial caterer; instead the kitchen was staffed by the wonderful team of Rupert Redington, Fred Crawley, Jo Pryor and Nick Turner, who gave us their time for free. As such the food cost us £1752.03. However If we had paid 3.5 kitchen staff for:
- 6 hours on Thursday
- 16 hours on Friday
- 16 hours on Saturday
- 6 hours on Sunday
This would have been a total of forty-four hours for 3.5 people. This is 154 hours in total.
If we were paying a living wage of £9/hr, this would have been labour costs of £1386 plus the materials cost of £1752.03.
So, the total food cost would have been £3138.03
I also contacted Caggles Catering to find out what a commercial LARP catering company would charge for a similar event. They were a bargain at £2660 (£38/head) but stressed that they could only keep their costs down in this way because they’re a profit share organisation, not a company with employees. This means that they don’t have to worry about the minimum wage, working time directive, pension contributions, national insurance etc. Again, this is another side of larp which is not fully commercially viable at the levels which are normally charged.
We asked our crew to pay for food: we had to, otherwise we wouldn’t have been anywhere near breaking even. We did provide free accommodation to those who slept on site, but unfortunately due to site size, this was not available to all crew. We would have loved to provide free food to crew, but we just couldn’t. This would have been at an ingredients cost of £24 per person for 38 crew. Crew food costs are included in the calculation already shown above because the same kitchen staff cooked the crew food from the same ingredients at the same time. However, if the crew hadn’t paid for their food, our budget would have been £874 smaller.
Treowen, our wonderful site cost us £3316. I don’t know how much extra they charge for film crews, but we paid a little more than standard because we wanted camping in the orchard, a “fireworks display,” and a couple of other extras. I suspect if we were renting it for a more commercial project, we might have had a higher site cost, but as I don’t know what this would be, I have entered what we actually paid in the budget calculations.
Black Powder Weapons
Tim Eagling and John Terris who run Time Capsule Education provided us with black powder weapons and their expertise. They brought equipment and insurance, gave their time to teach and joined in with the siege for the bargain rate of £750. They should have charged their usual rate of £1200. They were overjoyed to use more black powder that they had ever used in a weekend though, so perhaps we made it up to them!
The horses were supplied by a friend of mine. We made their costumes and a friend of hers come to assist on the day. I paid her £150 towards horsebox hire and petrol to get them to the site. Hire of two horses and a groom for a morning was estimated by a film industry friend to be £1500.
The ideal of running a commercial LARP would be to pay everyone involved in creating the LARP for their time. We had 35 monsters for 40 hours. This is calculated by averaging out long days, with some monsters only there for part of the time). At £9 per hour this should have cost £12,600.
How Does This Add Up?
In the table below, I have itemised all the costs for All for One, showing what we actually paid and what we would have paid, had we been paying commercial rates. As you can see, there is a huge difference between our total event cost of £12,000 approx and an event cost of £72,000 if everyone were being paid.
Our standard ticket price for All for One was £325. This included on site accomodation and food. We had 35 players, although not all of them chose to stay on site. For those staying offsite, the price was £175. Some very kind players chose Patron tickets, which cost £400 and subsidised others who could not afford the full price. This allowed us to offer reduce price tickets to anyone who could not afford the full price. These had a reduction of £75, meaning that you could have an onsite ticket for £250 or stay off-site for £100. In this way we tried to make the LARP as affordable as possible for as many players as we could.
With the ticket prices above, we just about broke even on this event with the three writers each paying £70 to run the event. Event runners paying to subsidise LARP events is not uncommon, as I will discuss later. However, looking at our theoretical numbers with different payment schemes we would have had to charge our players much more to break even, let alone make a profit.
So the actual cost of the event we ran purely using volunteers and paying no one was £12379.67, which with thirty-five players was a base ticket price of £353.70. (In each of these examples, the ticket price included both food and accomodation).
If we paid the writers for their time (pre event) at a living wage, whilst running the event on volunteers the total budget would be £26307.89, meaning a ticket price of £751.65.
If we paid the skilled employees a commercial rate for their time (pre event) but again ran the event itself using unpaid volunteers, it would be a budget of £60016.89, with a ticket price of £1714.77.
Paying specialists for their time pre game, with everyone being paid the living wage whilst on-site would lead to a total budget of £72616.89 and the ticket price rises to £2074.77.
A final calculation, which is not it the table above (which was used in the original presentation) is to pay both writers and on site staff the living wage. This would give a total budget of £38907.89, with a ticket price of £1111.65.
Once you start paying any staff, staff wages costs immediately become the largest individual item of the budget. This is not really surprising when the experience is interactive and individually tailors and therefore requires other characters and the pregenerated plot to make the game work. It also demonstrates quite how much work is put into any LARP event.
Is this a fair rate?
Price is a very sensitive topic when associated with larp games. I have regularly heard conversations or seen discussions on Facebook where larpers mention events and say,
“I can’t believe they are charging that for a game. How on earth can they justify the prices?” or
“I’m not paying more that £100 for any event. It can’t possibly be worth it!” or
“You can’t charge that, you’ll price some players out of the market,”
Obviously within a hobby like ours, there are people at different stages of their lives, people with different levels of disposable income and people who have different ‘price sensitivity points.” However this is true of virtually every hobby. There are always participants who can afford more than others and will have the newest kit, the most snazzy trainers or an accessory to die for.
There are regularly complaints that events are too expensive. I disagree. I don’t believe some events are expensive enough.
My contentious point is this — not all games have to be financially accessible for every player. The rest of life isn’t. Not everyone can afford to stay in a five star hotel or jet to the Maldives on holiday. We don’t try to close down Mr and Mrs Smith just because everyone can’t afford to stay in their hotels. However I do believe that there should be different LARPs available for different budgets.The same resort can have two star and five star hotels and I think most people would consider that reasonable.
I’m also not saying that we should be charging more than we need, but we all have to understand that it costs money to run events. It costs more money to run some events than others. If you have a really high concept event, it is likely to cost a lot of money to run. As event runners, you then have to decide whether you charge what it will cost to have a great, high spec event or whether you dial back on the expensive parts of your budget to make the event more affordable. If you are going to construct an entire spaceship to play your game in, the event is bound to cost more to run than if you set your game on a wooded planet with scout huts phys-repping primitive settlements, and the players spaceships invisibly orbiting in the outer atmosphere.
I’m not saying that cheap events are bad events. One of my most enjoyable LARP events was where a group of us played The Cardinal’s Guards at an LT Gathering. A set of tabards and some accents were inexpensive, but we had a ball. There is nothing wrong with cheap events, but there is also nothing wrong with running an expensive event either, if it lets you create the story you want.
I conducted a survey of larp event runners, which had 91 respondents. In this population, 40% of events made a profit. Now that doesn’t mean that the other 60% made a loss; maybe everyone else is working very exactly to budget. However, the my research showed that 40% of event runners are paying to run their event, so the price they are charging does not cover all the costs.
If games runners are subsidising events out of their own pocket, it creates its own problems. If events can only be run by the affluent, because that price-point is all that players will pay, then there is a danger that you are only going to get a certain type of event. Those who are not as financially secure or others with edgy, marginalised existences, will not be able to run events because they cannot afford it. Therefore you exclude poorer, wannabe LARP runners from sharing their experiences and in doing so lose interesting games and different perspectives.
LARP for most is a recreational activity and therefore there is a choice to be made about whether we all spend our hard earned cash doing this, or something else. We chose how we want to spend our disposable income and which hobbies and activities we wish to do. So how does LARP compare with other activities?
I think we have to look at how much LARP events could and should charge in the context of the much wider recreational industry, especially when ‘narrative’ and ‘interactive’ are such buzz words at present.
This made me wonder what was being charged for similar experiences. How much do other interactive events charge their players? I started researching other things which sounded similar and fun to do.
You can read more about the alternatives to larp in the next blog in this series as I examine how the costs compare.
Photo credits for All for One are by Tom Garnett. He was also unpaid and deserves a column on the spreadsheet all to himself for the wonderful pictures he took. Thanks Tom.