Thoughts on Digital Hobby Products

At GenCon a few days ago Wizards of the Coast indicated they would again be making the back-catalog of older edition products available in "electronic format".  This doesn't indicate what that digital format will be - i.e. will it be pdf, epub, mobi, require a live internet connection, etc. This got me thinking about the nature of digital gaming products in general.

First, a little about my gaming library. I've been gaming since the early 1980s. That's an opportunity for a lot of gaming products. Prior to having kids expanding shelf space wasn't that big an issue but with these little people in the house I began putting rarely used gaming products into basement storage crates. With the advent of tablets I've begun preferring digital products over physical ones. I still buy the occasional gaming book, particularly for core books of games that I play or plan to play. I initially tried using a Kindle DX to read gaming pdfs but the performance of the Kindle DX just wasn't adequate for this purpose. I later switched to using an iPad and then later moved onto Android. My main tablet currently is a Google Nexus 7 (I'm a techie who makes frequent use of trade-in opportunities and eBay to help support the habit). Though the iPad gives a larger screen I've found I tend to prefer the 7-inch tablet size as being more comfortable to hold for a longer period of time. It's not just my gaming products that I prefer digitally I also prefer ebooks over regular books and have been making extensive use of Comixology and the Nook App for comic books - for the first time in years I know what comics are coming out on any given Wednesday...

With regards to pricing... There's a pretty strong contingent in the gaming community that believes that gaming pdfs should be free with a physical book - or even free in general as an incentive to buy the physical book. As someone who considers the physical book to be optional that is a bad business model for someone like me. As someone who makes a living in the software industry I'm dependent on people paying real money for something that is purely digital. Therefore I have absolutely no objection to paying a reasonable cost for a digital gaming product. Should a company price a gaming product as high as a physical book? In all honesty, that's a choice for the gaming company. Though I don't think anyone is out to get filthy rich in the gaming industry, one of the goals is still to make money, if for no other reason than to have enough money to make more gaming products. I've read arguments that the cost should be drastically reduced as there is no physical product involved and thereby no printing costs. This is certainly true though one must keep in mind that it certainly costs money to store a digital product - I don't know how sites like RPGnow charges vendors but I imagine it is either a percentage or a fee based on storage used - or some combination of the two. Plus the best pdf products are well bookmarked and linked within, something you'd not need to worry about in a physical-only product - at least not as much. Moreover I want the people making a product to make a decent amount of money - if they can have a higher profit margin on a digital product, more power to them.

This isn't to say I dislike companies providing a pdf for free with the purchase of a physical product. It's a nice deal and for me it often will get me to consider getting a physical copy of the book as well, especially for a core book. But I think it would be incredibly unwise for a company to offer a digital product for free unless they are doing so to drive the sales of other products of their line.

Some companies have gone the opposite way, something that I myself consider regrettable. For one reason or another they provide only physical books. I think this is a missed opportunity. Some do it out of fear of piracy - that seems to be what spurred Wizards of the Coast to remove al their D&D pdfs several years ago. There is speculation that this is the reason that Cubicle 7 has stopped providing pdfs for their One Ring game. It also appears that sometimes licensing restrictions prevent this - this is apparently the reason that even when Wizards of the Coast sold D&D pdfs, they never sold any for their Star Wars RPGs. Apparently doing so would interfere with the rights of some other company as it would apparently be considered akin to a video game (if my memory serve correctly).

I've mentioned pdfs a lot above but truth be told, the pdf is not really the best format for a gaming product. It's a great way to show just what the printed product looks like but given different screen dimensions for tablets and computer screens it is not always ideal. Of course if you are also producing a physical book it is a lot easier than also formatting your book for a common ebook format such as epub or mobi - especially if you want to do your product justice - I have seen a number of gaming products put into an ebook format that look terrible - bad formatting, unreadable tables, lost illustrations.

I do think that any format needs to be as platform-independent as possible - in other words, not designed to work best with a specific kind of tablet. iPads have the best tablet penetration clearly, but they are not the only tablet and it is always uncertain how long the dominant player in any industry will persist. Two years from now the Microsoft Surface might pull off a coup and become the dominant tablet player. So I'd hate to see any digital solution be focused on any one platform.

My last thoughts are on digital rights. The first thing this brings to mind is DRM. This is designed to provide companies with protection from piracy. While it may provide some protection, in all honesty DRM only prevents casual piracy. A quick web search will reveal that you can easily get programs which will allow you to take pretty much DRM-ed media and remove the DRM from it - this includes ebooks, pdfs, password protection on docs, hidden watermarks, etc.

It also means to me that you should greater rights as a purchaser of digital content. Often you only have the right to use the digital content and that right can often be taken away without giving you any recourse. For example, with my copy of X-Men: First Class blu-ray I was able to get credit to also get a copy on Amazon Instant Video. Today however if I try to play the movie I get the message "Video currently unavailable." This is a restriction put on Amazon by the movie studios, one I consider to be extremely short-sighted - of course this is the same industry that fought the rights of individuals to record movies and tv shows with their VCRs.

Similarly, it is unclear what will happen, for example, if Marvel ends it agreement with Comixology. What happens to a person's library of Marvel Comics? Ideally you'd still be able to access it but not purchase anything new.

The technology is still new but I do believe that owners of digital content need to respect purchasers of their content. You'd not accept a DVD that stopped playing once premium cable got the rights to a movie. Similarly a company's attempt to protect itself from piracy should not turn reasonable tasks into a chore.

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