Is gaming too expensive? Are the prices charged for RPG products too high?
Five or six years ago, I might have answered "yes" to both of those questions. It didn't stop me from buying books and other gaming products, though. I've always found ways to keep my costs down, to look for the best bargain I could find.
There was a time, many years ago, when I worked at a local game shop for $5.75 an hour. As an employee, I had a 20% discount on anything I bought from the store. Needless to say, I sunk about half of my income into the store, and came away with a stack of books over the course of my 13 month stint in retail. The fact that I still lived at home in those days, without rent or a plethora of bills and expenses hanging over my head, was partly to blame.
After leaving the game store for a more profitable position with a company in the manufacuring industry, I was no longer privy to that employee discount. In fact, after spending 5 days a week for over a year in the store, I rarely paid my old employer a visit. I suppose I could've gone down and begged my old co-workers to ring me up with their discount, but that seemed ill-mannered.
Instead, I started to patronize a store down in Clairemont called Dwarf Mountain. Dwarf Mountain discounted everything, even CCGs and miniatures, at 20% off. It was like a built-in employee discount, except I didn't have to work there. Their selection of products was good, too. I also patronized a comic shop in Escondido that had a frequent buyer program, wherein you'd pay $10 per year for a 20% break on certain comics and all gaming books.
I don't know how long I profited from these discounts, but eventually Dwarf Mountain went out of business. I don't know why, though it seemed that the other game stores in the area felt that whatever had happened had been well-deserved. Though the comic shop remained in business, the frequent buyer program was eventually revised. Instead of the membership fee and built-in discounts, it turned into a "buy $100 and get a $5 gift certificate" sort of program with stamps and cards used to track purchases.
The only other alternatives left to me was buying products online, or finding them used. Amazon.com offered substantial discounts for everything from CDs to books and movies, while another game store in San Diego (Game Empire) had a pretty hefty selection of used products. Between the two, I kept my collection growing despite the fact that my financial obligations had continued to grow year after year.
These days, I still buy the lion's share of my products online. I don't buy all of them online; I do patronize a FLGS, but I usually only buy card and board games there since the RPG selection isn't very good: they only stock the RPGs that sell well, which means D&D and NWoD. I buy all my D&D books on Amazon, and I don't play NWoD. I've asked about other titles, but they're not willing to stock them.
I'm not averse to paying full price for products at local game shops, but the discounts I get online, combined with the lack of incentives and poor customer service I've experienced at the larger stores, guarantee that Amazon will continue to get my money for years to come. There's also the question of travel: outside of the smallish store nearby with its limited stock of RPGs, the rest of the stores are thirty (or more) minutes away by car. The price of gasoline and the time it takes to drive there and back definitely add into the equation.
So, back to the question of expense. Are RPGs too pricey? Let's reckon that the typical hard cover book with 220 full-color pages runs $30. Individually, this doesn't seem like a lot when you consider that the book might contribute to hours of entertainment for you and your friends for years to come.
Compare this to a computer or console game title, which routinely runs $40 to $60. Unless the game has a lot of replay value, it's more than likely that I'll play through it and put it away once I've completed it (or been defeated by it). Say I spend 30 hours to beat a $40 game. That comes out to about $1.30 per hour, just for my own entertainment.
If I use a given $30 RPG book in a campaign that lasts for five six-hour sessions with a group of five players (myself included), that comes out to $1.00 per hour (or $0.20 per player per hour). Given that I will continue to use the book for years to come, so long as I'm still playing the RPG in question, it will probably end up paying for itself. Compared to the console game that I will only play once, or maybe twice, before I shelve it, I think that's a pretty good deal.
It's not that simple, I know. Role-playing games aren't designed with the one-time purchase in mind. Each product line must grow and evolve in order to maintain some measure of profitability. I choose to buy a good deal of these books, especially those that pertain to the games and settings that I enjoy, as well as the ones that I do freelance work for.
Other players who don't have the professional interest that I do will obviously have a different outlook. To them, the $30 per book benchmark might seem like a lot of money to spend. Casual players, especially, might only ever buy one book (core rules for a system, perhaps). In that case, I think the value per dollar of RPG books is a matter of opinion. My opinion is that the prices of books, taken together as a whole, can be quite intimidating. If, like me, you try to maintain an up-to-date collection of 2 to 3 titles/product lines, it will entail a significant investment for anyone.
In my experience, virtually any hobby requires a significant investment of money and time. Anything from riding dirt bikes, to collecting stamps, fishing, reading books, or going to the movies will end up costing you a hefty sum in the long term. I know people who don't bat an eye when they pay $50 for a pair of shoes, a purse, or a meal in a fine restaurant, but will look at me like I'm crazy if I mention the cover price of my Player's Handbook...