What Publishers Can Learn From Netflix/Qwikster
After hearing about the ending of Qwikster before it even began, and watching my Twitter feed on it, I had some thoughts. Gareth-Michael Skarka said it first, in a tweet:
“Clever” cynics snarking about Netflix/Qwikster — Ability to change direction to course-correct quickly is an ASSET in a company, dumbass.
He’s totally right. Being a publisher in a fast-moving world (thank you, Internet, for that) means having to experiment and adapt. Business models that worked ten years ago suffer today, due to shifting prices, consumer habits, changing technology, and a thousand little things. Prices from ten years ago don’t hold up today, not if you want to keep the same margin to help your growth. So we have to play around with ideas, experiment with new models and methods.
I’m sure you know the story, but if you don’t, you can google for the news. In short:
- Netflix increased its prices, causing a backlash as they rarely do this and the hike was felt as a considerable amount.
- Along with that, Netflix changed its billing scheme, causing confusion.
- People were loud about their displeasure and many vocally considered canceling the service.
- Reed Hastings offered a (rather awkward) apology, and introduced Qwikster.
- Then in response to customers, they killed Qwikster before it even started.
Which is to say, by introducing Qwikster, Netflix decided to experiment rather than accept the situation. That is, in general, a good thing. Companies that don’t experiment & try to adapt will be overtaken by those that do. To bring this back around to RPG Publishing land, we can look at some examples of experimenting:
- Wizards of the Coast doing the Open Gaming License for D&D 3/e & d20.
- Posthuman Studios releasing Eclipse Phase as Creative Commons and supporting torrenting their books.
- The early indie publishers doing things purely digitally, notably Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer (back before PDFs were even a thing).
- Fred Hicks’ dedication to transparency with what Evil Hat Productions is doing.
- Greg Stolze‘s Ransom model, the godfather of microfunding in RPGland.
- Folks that put out free versions of their games, from Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Lite to John Harper’s Lady Blackbird.
- The Bits & Mortar initiative, where publishers offer their PDFs alongside their physical books, and allow participating retailers to provide those PDFs when they sell the physical books.
- And on and on…
Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they don’t. Some experiments will work for certain people or companies and fail for others. Many have shorter lifespans than initially hoped. Here’s the thing: when you see that an experiment isn’t working, you need to pull out. The Sunk Cost Fallacy will fuck you. And that’s what happened with Netflix. It got so much backlash from the Qwikster thing that it responded by killing the experiment.
The market is the ultimate Darwinian model. If you don’t adapt, you don’t survive. That’s what Netflix is trying. Will they succeed? I don’t know; there are many doomsayers who talk about Netflix because it’s so visible. But you can’t succeed if you don’t try, and you can’t succeed if you hold on to bad business ideas.
The other thing we can learn from this debacle? How not to do PR. Adapting to survive only works if you can convince people that you should survive. It helps if you can bring people into the conversation than just make seemingly arbitrary decisions. But that’s easier to do on our small scale than it is with a large company like Netflix.
 Which is a topic for design at some point.
 This isn’t to say you’ll entirely die off, but you’ll only be supported by diehards. I see this from the publishers who do extremely shitty jobs of self-fulfillment and generate enmity against them by customers they keep disservicing. If that’s “success” to you, well, meh. (And something else that can be learned from Netflix: how to promptly fucking ship.)