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