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Virtually Adventurous: Exploring electronic publishing

Part the Fourth

by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake
Aug 05,2002


Part the Fourth: In which the Humble Narrator discusses why your e-published work should be "more than print" even though comparisons to print isn't, in the long run, the point at all...

In our last installment, we discussed making e-publications into more than just print products without the paper. Customers are already learning to expect more (and they should). A case in point is MicroTactix Games' own Simply Roleplaying! RPG core rules. The first edition offered both a printable version, formatted to be printable on either letter or A4 size paper, and a second PDF file formatted for screen viewing with larger type and hyperlinks. I found myself using the screen format version far more than the print version as a GM, especially during preparation of campaigns and adventures.

Even so, when we decided to release a second edition of Simply Roleplaying! as a free download recently, we eliminated the screen formatted version, in the interests of reducing download size and saving development time and money. I had thought of the screen edition as a very important addition and used it constantly, but the public didn't seem to care all that much about it. I began to think I was the only one who used it frequently, and dropped it for the new edition.

Big mistake. I started hearing moans of disappointment from fans of the screen format edition almost as soon as SR! v2.0 hit the web. I had forgotten that people rarely make their feelings known until they lose something they like. For that reason, even though spending valuable development time on enhancing a free product makes us no money, I plan to go back and do a free screen-format edition of SR! v2.0 (or, more likely a "2.1" release) as soon as our established development schedule (and the insanity known as "convention season") allows. Why? Because it enhances the value of having an electronic format product.

Not all e-books need both formats, of course, but a core rules book that is frequently referenced by a gamemaster during preparation of a campaign is certainly one that does. Everyone is still feeling their way through the possibilities of this new method of presenting and distributing adventure games and game products. That's good, because it means we haven't yet scratched the surface of what we may be able to do.

Even so, it is important that we start scratching early. One way is to create products that don't just leverage the strengths of e-books over print, but actually do things that cannot easily be done in print. Some of MicroTactix Games' products could be done well in print (and will be, under our new licensing agreement with The CaBil to bring out print editions of many of our products). But quite a few would be almost impossible to do well as print products, particularly our Dirt Cheep Scenics series. (I mentioned this in passing before, in Part Two: It's Like Lewis and Clark, Only Geeky, and in my addendum last time.) The individual sheets of something like Dirt Cheep Dungeons could be printed and sold as a package, but you'd still be limited to building using only the components provided )or photocopying, which is a lot more expensive -- especially if you add in full color components. In this case, the electronic publishing method is inherently better than any print version we could produce. In the long run, this sort of thing may be an e-publisher's strongest sort of product.

But, in the long run, comparisons to print products may be entirely beside the point. ("Huh? But you just said..." Yeah, yeah, I know. Stick with me, here...) What really drives e-publishing to acceptance may have little to do with choosing the best format and everything to do with diversity and necessity.

As e-publishers, we can make a good case for the added value of electronic formats and the convenience of instant delivery. But that probably is not the most important reason the consumer has to support e-publishers. The real point is that e-publishing allows consumers to have a wider choice of products -- products they probably would not see at all if not for the electronic distribution option.

As printing costs go up and up and the distribution/retail bottleneck gets narrower and narrower, consumers of adventure gaming materials could see themselves reduced to having a much narrower field of products to choose from. The products that do make it through the print publishing gauntlet will become increasingly more "mainstream", simply because publishers will not be able to risk anything but sure-thing releases that will do the kind of major numbers that makes a print publication worthwhile.

If the only things you want to EVER play are D20 fantasy games and collectible miniatures games, that might not bother you right now -- but it should, as even the D20 market is becoming more and more difficult to break. The shelves are full, and retailers who are willing to risk valuable space on anything less than a certain blockbuster are getting more scarce every day.

And who can blame the small retailer? He has X dollars to spend and X amount of display space. He can devote those limited resources to 100 copies of the D&D3e Epic Level Handbook and 20 cases of Marvel HeroClix and not worry about how he's going to pay the rent this month -- or he can take a chance on ordering 2 copies each of Galactic SlamDunk, the Futuristic Basketball RPG and 50 of its spiritual brethren.

It takes a retailer with a good sense of history and a lot of smarts to realize that, once Big Company X is doing ALL the numbers and all the small publishers have died or started making Big Game X supplements under license -- well, Big Company X really doesn't need his little store any more. Some retailers (alas) will take the quick buck today, and worry about tomorrow only when it comes to huff and puff and blow the house down.

E-publishing opens the door to products with a narrower focus and makes them viable. It also makes it possible for a new publisher's work to be seen and enjoyed, even if the publisher does not have the heavy capitalization to compete for limited shelf space with 200 different D20 hardbacks from a handful of publishers. Variety keeps more people in the hobby. Also, the e-publisher can afford to take a risk or two now and again on something that isn't the same as Big Game X with more orange spots painted on the dragons. And risk often creates innovations that will benefit the entire hobby.

E-publishers will help keep the variety flowing at a time when print publishers just can't take the chance on anything truly new and different. That isn't to say that good stuff isn't coming out of print publishers. In fact, this is the best time to be a gamer, because there is so much to choose from. But the innovators in print are taking big risks, and many deserving ones die for reasons having little to do with whether or not the public wants to buy what they are selling. I don't know many small press publishers who are more than one or two mistakes away from nonexistence.

In the end, e-publishing isn't just a way to do print without paper. It may be the best hope for the survival of diversity in publishing at all.

The traditional game retailer may not see e-publishing as a white knight, however, since e-publishing as it is today tends to bypass him. This is necessary and inevitable at first, but in the long view the local retailer is much too important to our industry to ignore. As e-publishing in this essentially hobby-oriented industry develops, there will need to be ways for e-publishers to work hand-in-hand with retailers to the benefit of both. I'll be discussing that topic in an upcoming column...

Rather than expound on Guy's worthy points, I think I'll show you what we're talking about. To illustrate Guy's point that e-publishing breeds diversity, here are some links to games that wouldn't exist without e-publishing.

Spectrum Games. Take a look at Cartoon Action Hour. No other game serves as well to let you reenact the Saturday morning cartoons of the 80s. If you're in your 30s, you might want to buy this for sheer nostalgia. This game is innovative, fun to read, and fascinating in its diversity. And without the benefit of e-publishing, with lower costs that allow for lower sales, this game would not exist.

Deep7. These guys crank out some great games. Their fantasy game, Arrowflight, is available in print, but my personal favorite on the site is Mean Streets. Games that recreate film noir are few and far between. And thanks to the format, Mean Streets is quite affordable, and well-supported. While you're at the Deep7 site, be sure to take a gander at the 1PGs - the most compact RPG you'll ever see.

Tor Mythir. Much of what you'll see on this site is humor. Boogeymen and Feng Sushi are two games that are entirely satirical. In the high-stakes field of printed games, purely satirical games tend to fall to the wayside (Hackmasker excepted). Just the description of Boogeymen will make you laugh out loud.

Contested Ground Studios. Where else but e-publishing can you get a 60+ page complete game for nothing, just as a freebie to promote the upcoming paid version? These guys make a/state, a super-freaky post-apocalyptic game that will either make you drop it and run away or howl for more. Me, I was howling.

Lightspeed. When Christian Conkle's contract fell through to develop this sci-fi game, he didn't throw in the towel. He published it himself, much to the benefit of us all. If Christian hadn't e-published Lightspeed, it would never have been published at all.

So there you go. A small assortment of games that would not be available if they weren't online. There are lots more games and supplements out there - check out the RPG.net Web Mall or RPG Now for a whole lot more. Expand your horizons, think outside the box, open your mind, and other cliches that mean have fun.

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. He and his compatriots at MicroTactix invite you to visit them at the RPGnet Mall booth at GenCon Game Fair 2002, August 8-11, in Milwaukee, WI.

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.

Links to previous installments of Virtually Adventurous
Part the First: In which the Humble Narrator gets,
if not the Last Laugh, at least a sigh of relief...

Part the Second: It's like Lewis and Clark, only geeky...

Part the Third: Everybody's got one...

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