My take on PWYW. Take with a grain of salt but I do have some experience with it.
First, let’s dispose of capitalism participation and all that. If you want to eat you need to get paid. If you don’t need to get paid it’s because you are privileged to have another way to get paid. So let’s just talk about PWYW as a way to get paid, directly or indirectly.
If you want to make money with PWYW directly you are going to be disappointed. The vast majority of your sales will be zero dollars or, more insultingly, pennies. There will always be a better price to set if you need direct payment, at least according to my experience so far. I’m sure there are edge cases but I wouldn’t bet on being one. Not if you want to eat.
Indirectly, however, there are some interesting applications. Most of them revolve around “building community”. This is a little disingenuous so let’s bit the bullet and call it what it is: “building a market”. So the idea is that you are going to get a lot of people interested in your stuff by making something compelling available for essentially nothing. You’re still going to get a few dollars but less than you could because you want to create a market for something else. That might be more of the same, more under the brand, bits that attach to the free-ish thing, whatever. The nuts and bolts are the same: you’re building a market with free awesome stuff.
For that to work you need to also manage the market. You need to keep track of who’s in it, provide a way for them to talk to each other, and participate in those conversations. You need to keep the buzz alive until the money-makers can be delivered to that market. If that’s not work you’re interested in, don’t bother with this method. You will only succeed accidentally.
So now the question is, how is PWYW better for this task than free? How is it better than cheap? Free gets you more market. Cheap gets you more money. PWYW seems like a weak compromise. But it does let you identify investors — people in your market that are ready to drop money. That’s valuable.
If you are not taking the capitalism part of this seriously (and let me be clear that I sympathize completely — I am certainly in that privileged class that doesn’t need to make money making RPGs), it’s hard to see what PWYW does for you at all. If you are taking it seriously, PWYW implies an active strategy you will need to manage.