Thursday, 30 July 2009

Out of the Hat: What's your opinion of PDFs vs printed games and rulebooks?

Over the last 20 years I've seen a lot of changes in the tabletop gaming industry, one of which is the emergence of tabletop games and rulebooks being available in digital form, namely as a PDF. The dramatic changes in publishing technologies coupled with the growth of the internet and home PC ownership has made the once, quite difficult job of publishing games so much easier.

The days of needing specialist typesetting machines and 'camera ready' artwork have given way to professional standard publishing being within reach of anyone with access to a computer (along with a bit of creative flair) and an internet connection.

Back in the 1980's (in my early teens) when I started collecting miniatures and playing tabletop games most of the games and miniatures I bought were via the local games shop or via mail order, responding to adverts I'd seen in White Dwarf magazine. This was in the days when Games Workshop's monthly mag ran adverts and articles about non-GW games and systems, including book reviews and other odd bits and pieces in and around the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

A monthly gamer ritual was pouring over the adverts and reviews in the latest White Dwarf looking for cool new things to try out, then watching the postbox everyday waiting for that padded envelope to arrive. When not playing football at school break time we were discussing games and miniatures. There were professional looking products from Games Workshop and imports from the US as well as small UK based indie products. Very often the indie games were published as A5 booklets of photocopied pages with a coloured card cover and a stapled binding.

I'm not sure what it was like in the rest of the world all those years ago but in my part of the UK this was how we found and played different games and systems (local games shop, White Dwarf adverts and mail order). I hadn't really discovered the games shows and events that ran back then - and to be honest I wasn't interested in historicals so didn't care to check any out as the fantasy and sci-fi genre hadn't really hit the wargaming tabletop with any impact (at least to my knowledge at the time).

Turning the Page (or should that be clicking the mouse?)

Fast forward to present day and the internet gives those with an internet connection instant access to games and publications from all over the world.

A5 stapled rulebooks still exist but now they are, in the most part, well-designed and full-colour glossy digitally printed documents. Advertising within the pages of White Dwarf may be long gone and the other magazines within the field don't to my knowledge have the reach into the playground for the younger audiences yet that GW has but, for gamers with an internet connection, is the vast world wide web in it's place.

Nowadays anyone with a bit of technical know-how can publish their creations to the world. By the wonders of the web they can give near-instant access to their rules and games as PDF files and, slowly but surely, the developments in print on demand services are allowing reasonable standard physical products to be bought without large print runs.

So, it's free right?

This ease of publication and easy access has thrown a lot of questions into the mix for both established game publishers and small indie creators alike.

Do you give the game/rulebook away for free as a PDF?
Should it be the full game/rulebook?
Should we charge for the PDF at a reduced cost vs our physical publication?
Should we even bother with a physical publication?
Is it worth doing PDF products at all?

These are just a small handful of questions that publishers may have to ask themselves when developing their games and systems. I've got a huge list of such questions but for the sake of brevity I'll save the full list and that particular discussion for another time (I could devote a whole 'Out of the Hat' to that subject).

Should we as gamers and customers really expect the creativity and development time that has gone into producing the game or rulebook for free? I think a lot depends on what the role that a particular PDF has within the publishers business.

A casual surf around the various game company web sites will throw up a huge variety of approaches to the idea of PDF publishing. There are freebies, low cost options and some publications that are priced not too far off the mark of a printed book. Some creators only publish in PDF format, indeed there is a whole range of product lines that PDF publishing has made possible - low cost terrain sets, floor plans even whole board and card games.

On my own machine I have a large collection of PDFs, both free and paid for and I'm happy with all of them.

And if I take a moment to think about how I'd like to get a few of my own projects to market I think PDF publishing has to be a big factor in the initial stages as much as I'd dearly love to have a physical product to sell.

However, despite the fact that I love the freedom and ease to market that the PDF publishing model allows and indeed think the PDF products I have paid for are great, I much prefer printed games and rulebooks.

There is something much more appealing to me as a customer in holding a rulebook that has been professionally printed, whether it's black and white or colour. Flicking through a printed rulebook is a big part of the hobby for me, looking at the illustrations, reading any short stories (an element prevalent in fantasy and sci-fi books), admiring any photos of miniatures or games in progress and yes... even reading the rules so that I can play the game. Rulebooks today seem to have become, in the sci-fi and fantasy genre in particular, more than just a set of rules - they are a way to immerse yourself in the setting of the game you are interested in.

Sure, I can get all of this information from a PDF but holding a bound book, laying it on the table or having it on a book shelf to pull out for a quick flick through gives a totally different experience in my opinion to leafing through a document printed from my laser printer.

PDFs are a boon to games publishers aren't they?

For a small start-up company or even for a mid-range company with tight budgets (especially in the economic climate at time of writing) the investment required to do even a modest print run is potentially detrimental to the health of the business.

The PDF shines in these circumstances and really helps to get a product to market - but it doesn't get you into the window of a physical store which may be an issue depending on your target audience.

In an ideal world I'd like to see games publishers offer the PDF option alongside a printed option. In most circumstances I think I'd buy the physical publication but if the full PDF was on offer too at a discounted price I'm sure there would be some takers. With regards freebies I think they have a place in the overall marketing of a title, as a consumer having a cut-down version for free to give me a taste of the product would be fine. Yes - I like getting complete freebies too but I wouldn't feel bad if publishers charged for their work.

(In fact I've been surprised recently by a number of titles being released completely free - it's not a criticism, it's genuine surprise as the products are worthy of having some fee attached to them even as a PDF.)

An interesting by-product of having digital versions of rulebooks is that the publishers can actually change the content to correct anything that they feel needs changing. This is fantastic when typos and mistakes are discovered and this is a real advantage over printed books. (Although a good editor should stop it being too much of an issue).

A potentially hazardous aspect of this ability to change and update PDFs is the concept of 'living' rulebooks. In my opinion this is a very sharp, double-edged sword.

When a publisher commits to publishing a physical rulebook they are essentially setting the rules down in stone until an updated reprint (if they ever need to produce one). Sure, they can (and often do) issue errata and Frequently Asked Questions as PDFs but for the main rules a customer buys the book and plays the same game as the other guy who has it. If two strangers meet at a club or store they can quite literally 'play by the book'.

If the only rules available are a 'living' rulebook you can't guarantee you'll be playing by the same set of rules from one year to the next. For hardcore fans of a game this probably isn't much of an issue as they are always up-to-date with the latest tweaks and rewrites but for a casual gamer or someone just getting into a game the idea of a living rulebook strikes me as being a potential hindrance to development of a fan base. When I play a game I just want the rules not a document that is okay 'for now' or until 'next year'.

There's a whole raft of other issues I can see with 'living' rulebooks but for now I'll just say they're to be approached with caution in my humble opinion.

So what do you think?

Well, I've rambled on for quite enough on this first 'Out of the Hat'. If you've read through to this point then 'well done and thank you!' - let me know what you think about the publishing of PDFs versus/alongside physical games and rulebooks.

Before I sign off I'd like to mention that I realise that the topic is much broader than I have covered but in the interests of writing something short enough to read without falling asleep I've kept it as brief as possible.

What do you prefer? Do you think PDFs should be free no matter what, or do you have an upper limit to what you'd pay? I'm very interested to know both as a fellow gamer and consumer of PDFs and physical games and as a potential product developer. Thanks for reading.

NOTE: I've not linked to any games or publishers as I wasn't sure whether pointing to specific companies was a good thing or not, if you're a PDF publisher then let me know and I'll compile a list of PDF games and link it to this post. Equally as a reader if you feel I should link to companies in future 'Out of the Hat' articles let me know in the comments below.

Out of the Hat is an irregular series of posts about topics within the tabletop gaming industry that catch my attention with enough force to push me into gathering my thoughts into some semblance of order and writing them down. I encourage your feedback as this really is simply one gamers opinion and we all come at this hobby from different angles. Thanks again for reading. a_thousand_hats


  1. For me there will always be a spot for full hardbound rulebooks - there is nothing like sitting back with something like Catalyst's Battletech hardback and skimming fluff or letting some of the more obscure rules suggest scenarios.

    That said Im beginning an experiment with my new blackberry, running an RPG purely from PDFs on my phone. I still need to track down a die roller for the phone, but the goal is to have a self contained setup for my gaming. If this works for RPGs I may look into it for tabletop gaming - but that may require redoing some of the pdfs to be more readable on the phone.

  2. Ah yes - I can see PDFs or some sort of digital format working for RPGs very nicely. That's a great point.

    For miniature games/board games I much prefer the feeling of a good book/game in a box. Aside from anything else I work on a computer pretty much all day so I don't like to read from a screen if I can help it during my hobby time.

    But saying that I think the fact that PDFs make it possible for all the 'little guys' to get their creations to market I like the diversity that is made available by PDFs.

    I wonder how many PDF versions of printed books are in circulation in comparison to the actual printed copies of any given title? That would be an interesting statistic, completely impossible to guess but it would interesting to see how the two measure up.

  3. If you have a rulebook worth reading... well. Then its going to be scanned and made available for anyone with primitive web searching skills.

    So does that mean, you should offer the full blown printed version for free? Avatars of war offers their rulebook for free along with the option of purchasing the hard cover version of it.

    Despite my feelings that this is a bit of a waste and they are losing money on potential book sales... I think this really might be the best way to go about it for a small company. Maybe even for a large company too.

    Games workshop is the biggest offender here, considering they charge quite a bit for books that very quickly fall apart. Leaving i think most people to have both a physical and a digital back up!

    Maybe there is a happy middle ground? Offer the basic rules sans fluff for free? Maybe print the extended FAQ in the hard copy?

    I agree its actually quite hard to wrap your head around!

  4. I like printed rulebooks. Flicking through a book is so much more absorbing than clicking through pages of a pdf. This is possibly influenced by the fact that I spend my working days in front of a computer!

    When I released Twilight I really wanted to do a rulebook. I realised that I wasn't going to be able to do the full book I wanted to do for the initial release, so I did a smaller book and got it printed locally. I'll be very surprised if I ever cover the printing costs, but the satisfaction of seeing Twilight in print was certainly worth it!

    I put a pdf copy of the rules (sans fluff) online for free so people could have a look at my odd little creation. I've no idea if this prompted any purchases, but I had some positive feedback from people who read the rules online and went on to buy the game. Maybe the pdfs work as a marketing tool, but it is very hard to be sure!

    I'll do my next release in a similar manner - I could just release the rules online, but the idea of other people flicking through the books I've created is just too appealing! Some day I'll release a fully bound book (This Quar's War is a great example of the sort of thing that can be achieved now), but I know how much work that will take...

  5. Ummm... I am 32 years old, and I've had a computer since I was 8. That means that I've used computers for 75% of my life. Yet... maybe I'm old fashioned, because I much prefer a physical book. Moreover, I think that only a book made of paper is properly a book, with pdfs being... pdfs. It's not the same. For me, rummaging through the pages of a book is a pleasure in itself.

    Yet, pdfs are very useful. In my opinion, there are two main ways in which a pdf can be used.

    Established companies, i.e. the ones that can release printed books, should consider them as their main media, and charge according to their needs and goals. But they can offer for download free pdfs that are a "lite" version of the printed book. For example, it could be black and white, with no backgrounds for the pages, and removing all fluff (except for a taster); but keeping anything rules-wise, and also adding errata and faqs. That way, potential customers could download the pdfs, have a look at the game and even test it; and if they like it, I'm certain they would buy the full printed version.

    New and small companies, i.e. the ones that can't afford the financial risk of printing books, should have pdfs as their main product. And now I'm talking of beautifully crafted pdfs that could attract the interest of people. The good thing is that you don't need much money to create one; but the bad thing is that pdfs are much more subject to piracy than printed books (you don't even have to scan it!). Also, if print-by-demand services become as much widespread as I think they may do, those small publishers may order small runs and begin selling them, so stepping into a "higher" niche of the market.

    Finally, I'd like to point out the special nature of the games we're talking about. Because we're not talking about novels or the like, but about rules for games that need at least two players (wargames), or even a whole group of four-five players (rpgs). That means that multiple copies are needed, or at least recommended. The best way to solve that is having a printed book (the "official source"), and then a printer-friendly pdf from which the most useful pages can be printed for daily tear and wear use.

  6. Hello Carl, and thanks for pointing me at your blog following your comments about the View from the Veranda podcast.

    Your article is very cogent and, as far as I'm concerned, apposite.

    Before I launched Battlegames (see for any of your readers who aren't familiar with my bi-monthly wargaming magazine), many people frequenting online chatrooms told me I was mad to even consider producing a 'real', printed magazine. PDF is the way to go, I was told in no uncertain terms.

    Three years on, I can tell you that PDF sales of early issues of the magazine account for less than one percent of total sales. For example, we printed and sold out of 2,500 copies of issue 1; we have sold around 240 PDF copies of that issue, even though I'm selling it at only half the price of the printed original.

    So, if I'd gone PDF only, my business would never have got off the ground!

    In terms of pricing, it's true that if you give something away for free, you will see untold thousands being downloaded. But what kind of a business model is that? It's fine -- as I have done -- to produce freebie 'specials' that give people a taste of what your product is about, or as you mentioned, as an FAQ/update/announcement. But when you pay a decent rate to your contributors, and you're running a proper business, the effort and creativity that has gone into that production is the same, and should be rewarded. The only difference is that with PDF-only, you don't have the same (colossal, I can tell you) overhead of printing costs.

    Recently, I have become very interested in the potential offered by companies such as Lulu and Blurb for online print-on-demand, making it possible to create print runs as small as a single copy. For historical miniatures gaming, which must certainly be classified as 'niche', this makes it possible to produce professional-quality product in very small quantities, though of course the margins are still small if the cover price is to be kept at a reasonable level.

    Like you and, it seems, most of your readers, I'm a print and paper man. I spend all day in front of this darn computer, but there's nothing quite like the feel of a properly produced book or magazine. Oh, and it doesn't need recharging and you can read it in the bath without fear of electrocution!


  7. I think this probably has something to do with the fact that I was a theology major in both undergraduate and graduate school.

    I love books. I want books in my hands. Old ones, new ones, just books. My wife tries to keep on a leash about collecting books.

    Anyway, I'll take a real big hardback rulebook full of fluff, stories, battle, reports, photos, scenarios, and whatever else you can put in it.

    I still have my rulebooks from 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition rules and books.

    Although, I am not against PDF's.


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