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Virtually Adventurous: Exploring electronic publishing

Part Two

by Guy McLimore and Matt Drake
June 3, 2002

With the debut of mall.rpg.net (a shop for virtual products), we recruited several e-publishers to report on the trials of tribulations of selling... nothing.  

Part Two: It's Like Lewis and Clark, Only Geeky

In our last installment, Guy McLimore and I (Matt Drake) started a discussion of electronic publishing as it relates to adventure gaming. Since we're both fairly rabid fans of the electronic format, and since we both own web publishing game companies, it felt pretty natural to talk about the pros and cons, traps and treasures of electronic gaming.

Since about 1998, I had wanted to make games. I love gaming, and I love making the games even more. So when my association with RPGAction ended, I decided to examine possibilities for following up on my desire to take an active part in my favorite hobby.

My first reason for web publishing was probably fairly predictable - money. While starting a traditional game company involves daunting expense, I was able to start Spectre Press with a little less than a thousand dollars US. I had to pay freelancers, I had to register and design a site, and I had to buy some software, and those things weren't cheap. But I did not have to pay a printer two grand for binding and printing, and I didn't have to pay a distributor to handle my book. The freelancers I used to develop my initial products were all friends who were willing to help out, so I saved a tremendous amount of money by trading work or offering royalties.

My second reason for choosing web publishing was actually more important than financial considerations. While I did not have the money to make a book, I wouldn't have done print publishing even if I could have. The fact is, electronic publishing offers the ability to do so much more than print publishing. If you buy a book, there is exactly one thing you can do with it - read it. If you buy an electronic book, you can still print it and read it. But in the electronic format, the possibilities are fascinating.

One of the earliest pioneers of electronic publishing was S. John Ross of Cumberland Games. One of Cumberland's most innovative product lines is SPARKS!, paper miniatures sold as fonts. For a nominal fee, you can download a small font, install it on your computer, and simply 'type' new minis. Need 100 zombies? Type them, print them, and assemble. If you spill your Mountain Dew all over a handful, who cares? Print some more!

I'm sure Guy will agree that MicroTactix Games also has some innovative products. Microtactix sells a huge variety of paper models, in addition to their other games and supplements. You can construct entire medieval villages, ghost towns, city streets or space ports. And since you print and build them yourself, you can make the settlements as large as you want. You can use the sturdy buildings, vehicles and terrain with games like Warhammer or Mage Knights, or you can use Microtactix's own Budget Battlefield. The construction sets are also useful for regular ol' role-playing games.

Grinning Goblin has added innovative elements to the standard RPG adventure as well. Their adventures, which are as little as four bucks a pop, have something no printed adventure could ever contain - sound effects. The modules are full of links, to let you find what you need in a hurry, and the sound effects are a click away. Now THAT'S immersive gaming.

Board games are also emerging as electronic products. Companies such as Green Goblin Games, Mythrole Games and Battleplay produce board and card games that are ridiculously affordable as PDF downloads. Boards, cards, rules and counters can all be made as electronic downloads, though they require assembly on the part of the customer.

Another advantage of downloadable games is the ability to offer large amounts of material for very little cost. As long as you're willing to print the work yourself, you can save hundreds of dollars and get incredibly good setting material and adventures. JAGS is a fine example of this - professionally made games and supplements in such a magnificent quantity that you may never play another game. OK, you'll probably play another game, but a HUGE amount of gaming stuff is available in electronic format, and the low cost associated with producing the work means that you can get a lot more bang for your buck - and game designers can make a lot more for a lot less.

The opportunities for electronic gaming are just beginning to be realized. Spectre Press (small vanity plug!) is producing a setting book with 14 full-page maps, and since it's electronic, you can click through them from the world map down to villages. You can also rename all the location names using the 'Form' function in a PDF.

My last category of electronic opportunity is probably the one getting the least amount of press, and developing the slowest - freestanding software. The best-known gaming software is Campaign Cartographer, which lets you create your own maps for any setting. Faenworks makes software that generates weather patterns. Irony Games has map generators, die rollers, and other applications that run directly off their site. Other companies are also involved in software development, but the possibilities have only just begun to be tapped. Programs like Flash and Director allow game designers with a little programming knowledge to integrate tabletop gaming and computers in ways that have never been explored.

In summary, there are huge possibilities for electronic gaming. Fonts, PDFs, web pages, and software all provide options that weren't available before computers became part of our daily lives. If you ask why I make electronic products, I'll tell you that making games my way is more like exploring than building - and I always was a curious guy.

A NOTE FROM GUY: Matt's review of innovative gaming e-publishers brings up an interesting point. One of the biggest obstacles to e-publishing in our industry seems to be the impression that all electronic-format publications are no more or less than a paper product that you have to print yourself. This impression vastly underestimates the power of e-publication, and causes both consumers and publishers to think too narrowly about e-published game materials.

Are there times when an e-book can or should be no more than a printable image of a product designed for print? Yes, particularly when the main aim of an e-book is to be a simple preview of what a future or simultaneous print edition will be like. But when you can do more (and there is so much more than can be done, as Matt has shown) you probably should do more -- especially when you begin to think beyone e-publishing as a marketing tool for promoting print releases and more about the possibilities of e-publishing for its own sake.

Moreover, the electronic format offers opportunities for products that are superior to any print-format version that would be possible, by leveraging the strengths of electronic formats. Our own Dirt Cheep Dungeons product -- 3D cardstock dungeon walls, floors and scenics -- could be done in print. But providing pre-printed sheets that the user could cut out (or even photocopy) would not offer nearly as much utility and value to the consumer.

Once you step outside the "box" of "thinking print", you can gradually expand a concept. Including a blank character sheet in an e-book RPG release is good. You can print all the sheets you need. Providing the sheet as a form that can be filled out on screen, then printed, is even better. You get a cleaner and easier-to-read form that way. An online form, accessible to everyone, that takes the info and formats it into a nice sheet is better still, as players can work on sheets at home and then send them to gamemasters for approval before a game session begins. (We've done that with the latest release of Simply Roleplaying!).

What's next? How about providing a multi-format stand-alone dedicated database application that tracks PCs and NPCs, and incidently will print out several types of character sheet from the data entered? Add GM/player character design collaboration ability through processing scripts online, while you are at it. That leads to the possibility of web-based software that allows creation and tracking of character data (and other data as well) for GMs and players, supporting a number of different game systems. Now the ubiquitous and indispensible character sheet is no longer an an afterthought -- it is an end in itself. A product, or perhaps an entire company -- and a very useful one, too.

As we all feel our way through the opening of this expanded method of providing adventure game products, we're finding all-new ways of thinking about the form products should take, and the features they should offer. The electronic format offers a lot of extra value when done right. Slowly, customers are recognizing this extra value -- and they'll soon learn to expect it. I'll talk more about that next time...

Matt Drake is sole proprietor of Spectre Press, and couldn't produce a wooden nickel without all the incredible freelancers who prop him up and make him look good.

Guy McLimore is Executive Editor and CEO of MicroTactix Inc., which is a fancy way of saying he's the Face Man for a coalition of adventure game designers, writers and artists who are too busy cranking out great products to keep him from stealing the spotlight.

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What do you think?

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