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Virtually Adventurous: Exploring electronic publishing

Part the Sixth: In which the Humble Narrator hears the voice of

by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake
Oct 07,2002

 

Part the Sixth: In which the Humble Narrator hears the voice of a respected industry insider

In this column, we've discussed some of the objections people put forth about buying e-published adventure game material. But when those objections come from a much-respected source, it's time to really analyze the objections and see what is behind them.

For this reason, I was very interested (and more than a little concerned) when a fellow member of the Digital Publisher's Group posted the following message on the group's mailing list.

Here's a winner for you from the RPGnet forums:

"Well said. Fuck the whole PDF concept. I refuse to supply the paper, ink
and printer for any company too fucking lazy, cheap or greedy to produce a
hardcopy product."

The quote is certainly an unequivocal rejection of the whole e-publishing movement. But what bothered me most was that the quote was attributed to Robert "Doc" Cross, an industry insider I personally admire and whose work and opinions I greatly respect.

I decided to write Doc (presuming upon a slight acquaintance from his many game convention appearances and some exchanges of messages on the PYRAMID message boards) and ask him about it. The exchange of messages is revealing, both about why some people feel as they do about e-publishing and about the realities behind the attitudes. With Doc's kind permission (Thanks, Doc!), I'd like to share that exchange of email with the readers of this column.


Doc:

Recently a colleague of mine turned up a quote from a posting on RPGnet's forums that they attributed to you, as follows:

"Well said. Fuck the whole PDF concept. I refuse to supply the paper, ink and printer for any company too fucking lazy, cheap or greedy to produce a hardcopy product."

Is that attribution correct? If so, does the statement reflect your true feelings about all electronicly-published adventure game products? Could you elaborate on your objections to them?

I ask (being an e-publisher myself) because, frankly, I've always thought of you as one of the most intelligent and savvy game professionals around. If *YOU* feel this way, my end of the industry has a LONG way to go in the public relations department. I'd like to know what (if anything) companies like mine can do to improve the way you think of our kind of products.

Personally, I don't look at e-publishing as a lazy or cheap substitute for hardcopy publishing. I look at it as an alternative way to distribute a product which either offers additional value as an electronic product, or would not find widespread availability in distribution as a hardcopy product. I don't think very many serious e-publishers I know qualify as lazy, cheap or greedy. (It certainly doesn't describe me. Especially "greedy". If I were greedy, I'd be doing something else, I assure you!) If these ARE the adjectives you feel describe e-publishers, would you mind taking some time to share your thoughts with me?

This isn't a diss, or a put-down of any type. (I think you know me well enough from my various postings around PYRAMID to know that, if nothing else.) I'm sincerely interested in learning what my company (and e-publishers in general) need to do to win over someone like you. I *expect* resistance to new ideas, but you are not someone whose antipathy to what we do I can pass off as being merely provincial, ill-considered or foolish. I tend to listen when you talk. I'm listening now.

Guy McLimore / guymc@microtactix.com


Yes, the quote is mine and I do feel that strongly about it, altho my use of the term "greedy" was a bit excessive since, as you pointed out, it is doubtful that anyone is making any real money by electronic publishing.

I'm flattered that you think so highly of my opinion, so here goes. The fact is, I and MANY other gamers that I've spoken to, feel that buying a PDF product is not worth the time and trouble of then printing it out/binding it/etc. (I'll not touch on the FREE PDF downloads of adventures/rules/etc that many people put up on the web, since most of them are crap) The fact is, that for most people, it is just WAY easier and probably even cheaper to go to a game store and buy Cardboard Heroes from SJG than it is to download/buy the cardstock/print an equivelant amopunt of your Dirt Cheap products. Note that I'm NOT discussing the quality of your products (which are very good), just the time/money/hassle involved.

While e-publishers may NOT be lazy, cheap or greedy, that is to some degree how the gaming populace sees them. After all, they think, if the many small publishers out there who DO put their stuff out on dead trees can do it, why don't you? It is like a car dealer saying "Hey, I've got a great deal on this car...but it is only 75% put together and you need to paint it...and you need to supply the tools" It just strikes most folks as tho e-publishers are not willing to go the last mile of the journey and have their stuff printed.

On another note, e-publishing leaves you open to the whole file sharing thing (or at least someone printing out your stuff many times and selling it to their friends or selling them as "used" at game con flea markets. While there MAY be someone counterfeiting D&D books, I have never heard of it, mostly because I'm sure it would be too hard for the average Joe to do. Not so with a printable PDF.

To be honest, I think that until computers really DO replace books (which will not happen in our lifetimes, nor our childrens lifetimes) or until online gaming really does acheive the feel/pleasure of tabletop gaming (within the next 5 years, I'd say), e-publishers will have a very hard (and not exceptionally profitable) uphill battle. In my mind, you'd be FAR better off bundling up your Dirt Cheap products into related groups (fantasy, sci fi, modern) and printing them up in a book like Cardboard Heroes. You might even consider doing half the book with full color versions, then the other half in black and white for custom coloring. Just a thought.

Anyway, the point is that with gamer $$$ being tight and buying printed products being percieved as much less hassle, I (and a whole bunch of other gamers) just don't see PDF products as being worth out time or effort.

Doc


Doc:

It may be true at this point that few are making lots of money from e-publishing. You and I have both been around this business long enough to remember when almost no one in it was making any significant money at all. Everything starts small. We're starting small, but I do not expect we will always be so small.

I agree that there are people who would rather buy Cardboard Heroes than a similar e-published product. But for a long time there WERE no Cardboard Heroes. Why? Because it wasn't economical to publish them. (Believe me, I had THAT discussion with Steve Jackson on LOTS of occasions.) They didn't come back until it became economical, and to do it he had to find a different way to bring them out.

That's really what we are doing with e-publishing at this point -- bringing out things in a different way that, at present, are not economical to publish in a more conventional manner. The DEMAND for Cardboard Heroes never went away. It just became too expensive to publish them. E-publishers are exploring other alternatives to fill demands.

E-publishing is also a way to expose a hard-core of fans (those who will take a bit of extra trouble to get things they want) to new ideas (or perhaps old ones approached in different ways). In some cases, this may create enough demand for an item that economy of scale will kick in and make "traditional" publishing possible.

And some products are BETTER in e-published form. Our own cardstock figures have some advantages over Steve's Cardboard Heroes, in that you can print as many as you want. For some people, printing it yourself is not a handicap -- it is an advantage.

Quoting your previous letter:

"While e-publishers may NOT be lazy, cheap or greedy, that is to some degree how the gaming populace sees them. After all, they think, if the many small publishers out there who DO put their stuff out on dead trees can do it, why don't you? It is like a car dealer saying "Hey, I've got a great deal on this car...but it is only 75% put together and you need to paint it...and you need to supply the tools" It just strikes most folks as tho e-publishers are not willing to go the last mile of the journey and have their stuff printed."

With all due respect, I think those who make that argument are ignorant of the realities of publishing. There are e-publishers for the same reason there ARE kit cars, which you build yourself from parts. It's part hobby, and part the fact that the realities of economy of scale mean that such "little" cars would not exist if they had to be made and sold in the quantities that GM makes cars. Still, there is a market for such things, and they are considered valuable. Kit cars don't exist because the sellers are lazy. They exist because the sellers are filling a market the big manufacturers can't afford to bother with at present.

Sometimes such small markets become accepted enough to become mainstream,. It happened in our own industry with Dungeons and Dragons at one point, and again with collectible card games. It will happen again. I believe e-publishing will become much bigger than it is today, and that it is worth the effort to expore the boundaries of that marjet today to prepare for the future.

As to e-publishing being vulnerable to piracy, many people in traditional publishing still believe this (Steve Jackson among them), but my own experience has been that traditional publishers are just as vulnerable to piracy as e-publishers. It only takes one look at the alt.binaries.e-book.rpg newsgroups to know how widespread piracy of hardcopy adventure game materials has become. A lot of the stuff on there is new games that hit the newsgroup almost as fast as people can scan it in. On the other hand, I have seen MicroTactix Games' unsecured PDFs offered online by pirates exactly twice. And both times, the unauthorized distributor was told most sternly to buzz off by the other frequenters of the boards in question.

I'm not naive enough to believe there is NO piracy of MicroTactix stuff. There will always be people who unthinkingly (or uncaringly) take what does not belong to them. But the amount is miniscule -- far less by proportion than the amount of "shrinkage" experienced by game retailers at the hands of shoplifters. The difference is that publishers rarely think about shoplifting when they talk about how "secure" their format is because it happens out of their sight at the point of purchase. Shrinkage happens to MicroTactix, to SJG, to WizKids and to Wizards of the Coast. It is part of business and always will be -- and if you can't absorb it, you've picked the wrong distribution method or are producing the wrong products.

I don't think computers WILL replace books, nor online gaming replace face-to-face gaming. I hope not, at any rate. I DO believe that computer-based distribution and online gaming will have a growing place in the marketplace. LIke it or not, these methods of bringing entertainment to the public fill perceived needs, and that is the only criteria that matters.

As to publishing our stuff in print, we've formed a recent partnership with an existing print publisher to do that for some of our products that make sense in that medium (such as our Origins-Award-nominated miniatures rules and some of our unique building kits. That partnership would not have happened if we had not CREATED the demand for such products by reaching opinion leaders with our online sales of downloadable products.

But some of our products (like the Dirt Cheep lines you mention) make no sense as hardcopy products. The Dirt Cheep line depends on building lots of dungeon walls or modular caverns. The cost of buying so much stuff in pre-printed cardstock would be perceived by the user as very high, especially since -- no matter HOW you put together the mix -- he would always find there was not enough of one piece he wanted and too many of another. We'll be bringing these products to the traditional wholesale/retail market soon -- but in the form of CD-ROMs.

But neither of those projects will replace our online sales. They will merely broaden our market. We fully expect that many people who try our products in hardcopy and on CD-ROM will visit our website to see other things. Economy of scale will bring some products to other media, but there will always be smaller projects that are uneconomical in print or even on mass-distributed CD. Rarher that have those sorts of products never exist at all, we will be able to continue to market them -- profitably -- to the people who want to buy them.
It is inevitable that people will find some methods of distribution more to their taste than others. I usually assume that those not to my taste are serving other markets than my own. I think most e-publishers who have put some thought into it are aware that what they do isn't for everyone, at present. In fact, I don't think ANYTHING is really for EVERYONE. But I believe the market is significant, the value offered is genuine, and the need is growing. Look at things again a few years down the road. You may be surprised.

I thank you VERY sincerely for your answers to my questions. It is very important for me to understand all sides of my market, including those who aren't PART of that market as yet. As always, there is a lot to think about in your comments. I hope you found my own reasons for what I do interesting as well.

Thanks for your time! Though we are of different minds on this issue, I respect your opinions and admire your work in the field. It is great to hear from you, any time.

Guy McLimore / guymc@microtactix.com


My conclusions? First, I doubt Doc and I have done much to change each other's minds. But I believe we aren't as far apart as the original quote from RPGnet would lead one to believe.

Second, I believe that as e-publishers we would be foolish to dismiss objectors out of hand -- even those who are less well-respected than Doc Cross. We are still learning about these new roads we are walking. Any input is good input. Input from sources like this one are especially useful.

Third, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the role of e-publishing, even among those who are experienced in the adventure gaming field. If someone like Doc Cross still believes e-publishers are "lazy, cheap or greedy", or that we want to replace hardcopy publishing altogether, or that every product for which there is a demand can easily reach the market in the cuirrent print distribution environment -- well, we still have a lot of work to do.

Let's go do it.

Guy McLimore / guymc@microtactix.com

P.S.: Visit The Dociverse, the excellent Doc Cross website, at http://www.thedociverse.com .


This is a hard topic to follow up. Guy's right, PDF gaming is tough to sell. We work hard to change the perception of e-publishing, but we can't win all the people all the time. However, I would like to draw a parallel to a similar topic - gaming in general.

It's no secret that adventure gamers have a somewhat dubious reputation with the public at large. Most people have almost no idea what we do, and those that do often think we are socially maludjusted. We're often seen as strange, with odd habits and unorthodox opinions. We play games that are seen as little more than a child's make-believe, and we generally do so unapologetically. We may seem lazy, because we play games that emphasize imagination over physical skill. We are off the beaten path, with crazy ideas and strange means of implementing them. We don't follow the rules for established behavior, and we are often frowned on by those who don't understand what we do.

Ring a bell? Most traditional pen and paper gamers don't realize the huge diversity available in e-published games. Those that do are often derisive, with comments that e-published games are produced by people who are lazy, cheap and greedy. E-publishing is often viewed as unorthodox, strange and too far off the beaten path.

I don't mean to belabor this point too far. I will simply point out the irony of being condemned by adventure gamers. I will say this - open your mind, give it a whirl, see what's out there. You don't have to buy Spectre Press stuff, and you don't have to buy Microtactix stuff, but there are a Hell of a lot of great products out there, and if you insist that e-publishers are lazy, cheap and greedy, then you are missing out.

OK, after that big finale, I am sorry to have to kill it with this announcement. This is my last installment of Virtually Adventurous, though Guy will be continuing, at least for a while. In another ironic twist, I need to devote more time to Spectre Press and freelance jobs that will finance bigger and better things. All that while being called cheap and lazy.




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...

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

Part the Fifth: Bigfoot, Crop Circles and Electronic Gaming - Myths Debunked
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What do you think?

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  • Part the Sixth: In which the Humble Narrator hears the voice of by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake, 07oct02
  • Bigfoot, Crop Circles and Electronic Gaming - Myths Debunked by Matt Drake & Guy McLimore, 03sep02
  • Part the Fourth by Guy McLimore & Matt Drake, 05aug02
  • Part Three: Everybody's Got One by Guy McLimore and Matt Drake , 15jul02
  • Other columns at RPGnet

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