State of the Rodeo - Let's Talk about Subscriptions
In this State of the Rodeo I want to talk a little about our reasoning behind the switch to a subscription service for 2.0.
This will be a long one (sorry about that) but we wanted to be fully transparent on our reasoning for the change.
Going back to when I started on Owlbear Rodeo in March 2020 my goal was to create a site that me and my friends could use to continue our D&D sessions online without the hassle of setting up any big VTT.
I put almost zero thought into making money or starting a business, I just wanted to make a cool piece of software for my friends and if other people found it useful then that was just a bonus.
I posted my progress on Reddit and started getting feedback and suggestions, people liked the site and slowly a community began to form.
For the first year of development I was fueled by the positive feedback loop of getting feature requests, developing and releasing the feature then getting more feedback about new things we could add.
I was still working full time and spending my nights and weekends on Owlbear Rodeo. The joy was in the process, the problem solving and the learning. It didn't matter that we didn't make any money. We did have a donation button and we're making around $100-200 dollars a month which covered our server costs but the money didn't go beyond that.
In January 2021, almost a year after I started working on the site, we started gaining more and more steam. By this time we we're using around 3TB of bandwidth per month in network traffic and had grown the community a tone. At this time I had also convinced my girlfriend Nicola to help me with running the server aspect of the site as well as managing half of the socials.
At this point we were getting emails with feature suggestions and support requests multiple times a day. The biggest issue we were facing was how we would scale the site, we had more users then ever and the peer-to-peer networking infrastructure we chose for how cheap it would be was beginning to fail.
We came up with a hybrid approach: we would launch a traditional realtime server for reliability and use a peer-to-peer model for large files like images.
This would almost double our server costs but it would create a more stable site and (we hoped) would reduce our support requests.
At this time we were both still full time software engineers at regular day jobs. Owlbear Rodeo was still something we did nights, weekends and now mornings before we would head to work.
To offset this increase in cost we launched a Patreon, before this point we were hesitant to use Patreon as we didn't think we'd have a lot to offer as rewards but we needed to cover the server costs so we went ahead with it.
As rewards we would offer insights into the development process and early access to features as we built them.
The Turning Point
We continued with this model for 8 months, releasing previews and creating content like tips and tricks videos. The site continued to grow and about this time we would spend 40 hours a week at our jobs and another 40 hours on Owlbear Rodeo; programming new features, creating content, responding to emails and participating in the community.
It was at this point that I realized that the original thing that had been pushing me to work on Owlbear (the joy of solving problems) was beginning to wane and it was turning more into a second full-time job.
I still really enjoyed the work, enjoyed the community and all the positive feedback but we were getting burned out.
I started working on other projects to keep things fresh (one of these turned into Kenku FM) but ultimately something needed to give. We absolutely love working on this site and wouldn't give it up for anything so we decided to leave our jobs (Nicola first and me a while later).
But then we needed to really think about money. Our Patreon was growing but at a rate that meant we wouldn't have a livable wage until at least a few years and our runway wouldn't last that long.
How to Make Money
We needed to grow our Patreon, at this time I was working on Owlbear Rodeo 2.0 (another project I started to keep things fresh). This meant that our Patreon posts were 100% focused on developer blog posts and insights.
So we needed to grow and our only way to make money was by offering better, more frequent blog posts.
It's at this point that Nicola and I were talking with some friends and they reminded us that people love Owlbear Rodeo for our product, not for the blog posts. The posts are nice and I like writing them but ultimately our focus should be on making the best product possible.
This is when we realized that Patreon would not work for us, if our monetization strategy was to make better Patreon posts then we would spend all our time making the best posts we could and the product would suffer.
Instead if we can charge for the thing that people love about our site (the product itself) then we can spend all our time making a better product. It will be a win for us as we can focus on what we're really good at (designing and building a kickass VTT) and it will be a win for our users because we'll be 100% focused on delivering the best experience possible.
Subscription Vs. Single Payments
So we want to charge money for Owlbear Rodeo now the question is how much and what payment model?
First we needed to decide if it should be a single time fee (a-la Foundry) or a subscription (Roll20, Astral, Forge, etc).
Foundry is a single time purchase, there are a few things that make this a good fit for them. The first is that the service is self hosted so they have limited ongoing server costs. We want Owlbear Rodeo to be as simple as possible so we don't want users to have to mess with port forwarding or any other of the complicated things you need to do to self host a service.
The second thing that makes a single time fee work for them is a little nuanced. Paying a single time for Foundry means that they only make money on new users. This means that in order to continue to make money they need to either increase marketing to reach more users or add more features to the product to accommodate users who wouldn't use their product before.
This means a big way that Foundry makes money is by adding more features, this however is the antithesis of our design philosophy. We want to offer a VTT that is 100% focused on polish and ease of use. This means that instead of adding new features we want to optimize and continue to work on the features we already have until they're absolutely perfect.
With these two in mind if we were to offer a single time purchase Owlbear Rodeo would either have to change it into a service that is more complicated because it would be harder to set up or a service that is more complicated because we would need to continually add new features.
If we look at subscriptions then we can make sure that we have a steady stream of income and that our users are paying us for the features that already exist. This means that we can focus our energy on making these features the best they can possibly be.
So subscriptions seem to fit our design goals but we have a few stipulations that we need to meet if we want to move to it.
The first thing we really want to maintain for 2.0 is to have a way that you can use all the features of the site for free.
A lot of our user base is from lower income areas or in varying economical situations and we want to make sure that you'll 100% be able to run a game with us without paying anything.
This is in contrast to something like Forge (a cloud hosted Foundry service) that needs a paid tier in order to host a game.
So we want a free tier but what do we offer in the free tier?
We don't want to remove any features because we want to offer the best experience possible no matter your economical status.
With this in mind we decided that we would only change for features that cost us monthly to host.
This is both cloud storage and custom rooms.
For cloud storage we need to pay both for the hard drive space we use on our servers and for the bandwidth of sending the data to your players.
For custom rooms we need to pay for the server capacity to host a room that can be accessed at any time.
All features required to play a game are available in all tiers, we think this is the best approach and a fairer approach then something like Roll20 which locks big features behind paywalls.
Another thing to mention is we do not host any advertising, even for free users. This is because we really care about the privacy of our users and we believe that if we were to add a platform like Google AdSense we would break this trust.
This does have the downside though that our paid users need to cover all the costs of our free users.
Now let's talk numbers, our free tier offers 100MB of storage. This is a little low but it is the number that we were able to afford after doing some cost analysis on how much the service will cost to run. If we are able to save costs by reducing our hosting fees then I see this number as something that could increase in the future.
How much would it increase?
If we look at something like Astral Tabletop then their free tier offers 1GB of storage.
At the moment we think that this would be too much for our free tier, not just on the cost front but also we need to ensure that a percentage of our users pay for the site so that we can continue to work on it.
We can see the result of offering an almost limitless free tier in the fact that all development on Astral Tabletop has been stopped because they couldn't afford to continue to work on it.
We don't want that to happen to us as we genuinely love working on the site and want to continue development for the foreseeable future.
This has been a long one but hopefully you have some more context on the move. We definitely know that no matter what the reasoning, subscriptions don't suit everyone and a change like this can be jarring.
To help with this we are committed to making Owlbear Rodeo 1.0 open source. This means that, while we will be 100% focused on 2.0 going forward, if the community wants to pick up the old version we will release a version that can be run on a more individual basis.
Both Nicola and I are extremely excited for the future of Owlbear Rodeo. We have so many ideas to make the site better and now that we have the time and hopefully financial security to work on it once 2.0 comes out.
Thanks for reading and happy gaming.