Saturday, January 22, 2011

The PDF Revolution

I am told by no less august a publication as The New York Post that Natalie Portman is now pregnant. The father is a French ballet dancer. Had I been told in high school that there was a chance to impregnate Natalie Portman, I would have become a ballet dancer. Hey, the chances are clearly better than being a waiter. I imagine Mr. French Ballet Dude had some serious modifiers to his Charisma roll. Since it is now unseemly to lust after Ms. Portman's navel, I'll have to choose someone else for my Mai Tai sipping future. I'm taking suggestions. None of this, of course, has to do with our topic of the day, the .pdf revolution.

I have been intentionally harsh on the RPG industry; I was hoping to get a bunch of responses to refute my assertions. I was being provocative in order to start a conversation. Several friends pointed out that RPGs aren't "dead" because they've migrated over to the internet in the form of .pdfs. Mark Carroll has been a particularly vocal supporter, and he makes a good case.

As many of you know, I am a fan of Apocalypse Now. I watch that movie like people eat mashed potatoes; it's comfort food. I also like the smell of napalm in the morning. In his documentary on the filming of the movie, Coppola ruminates that he'd like to see everyone with a camera making movies. He wanted to see an end to the tyranny of Hollywood, with its slavish demand for the banal. He wanted to see the collapse of the barriers to entry for budding film-makers. I admire that about the man. (I wonder what he thinks of YouTube, but that's another story). And that is what we in the gaming industry have with the .pdf format. A way to lower the barriers to entry. I get that.

What are those barriers? Aside from having to have, and actually write, a good game setting, if you want to publish a print version of your RPG, you've got some hurdles to jump. First, you need someone to lay out your game. I've used Quark to flow text; it's about the only thing Decipher let me do in layout. Because Quark is a serious program. So you need someone who understands it (or similar programs), to design your border, and pop in your art, and flow your text, and make sure the page numbers are all in the same place, and yadda, yadda, yadda. The first hurdle is getting a graphic designer. Second, you've got to find a printer. Transcon and Quebecor are the two big ones. You schedule press time, tell them page count, paper stock, binding, and cover stock. What's that? You don't know paper stock? What do you mean "binding?" Ah, you've got to learn the language of book publishing... Oh, and you've got to pay for the printing; they expect at least a third up front, before they even hit the "print" button on their giant printing presses (the rest when the book is printed). These are the second and third hurdles. Next, you've got to get your game in stores. Avoiding the difficulties in getting carried by Barnes & Noble, you're still going to have to deal with distributors. Go outside, fire up your snowblower, and stick your hand in -- that's about what it feels like dealing with distributors. See, they want your product to sell as quickly as Magic: the Gathering or YuGiOh, and that's what their business largely focuses on these days. Oh, they'll carry your game, and promptly ignore it. When their sales reps aren't playing World of Warcraft on their computers, they'll call game stores... to see how much Magic they want this week. They don't actually push your game. Hurdle four: the distribution chain. I haven't even gotten into warehousing and shipping and returns.

Nowadays, however, you can write your game, get a decent, simple layout program, .pdf-iffy your game, and upload it to RPGnow. As an added plus, in addition to lowering the barriers to entry (which I maintain is a good thing), it also makes games cheaper (and thus more accessible). I have a Nook, and I like buying $24.99 hardcover books for only $12.99, just like any other red-blooded American. As Mark points out, all this leads to the democratization of the marketplace. Anyone can do it. And apparently does. I'm told there are all kinds of terrific games out there, in .pdf format, just begging to be downloaded. That's terrific, but I'd never know. Because I dislike the .pdf format.

I've seen two games as .pdfs: Dresden Files and the old Fasa Star Trek rules. I found both to be difficult to read and unwieldy. It would be nice if someone would turn them into Nook or Kindle formats, to fascilitate the page turning, font changing, and bookmarking -- those functionalities that make e-readers appealing. Bonus points if someone enabled hot-linking their rules, so I could read about saving throws on page 12, then hit the hot link that ports me over to the rules on making saving throws on page 64, which would make the book easier to use during game play.... Yes, I'm aware I just increased the work and cost of the virtual book. Some of you out there are going to respond to this criticism by saying "but you can print it out at Kinkos." So, then why don't you, the game company, print it out and sell it as a book? Why do you have to shift the work over to me?

Moreover, my prejudice against the format stems from its greatest strength --  its lowering of barriers. If you can't publish your book, why do I want to read it? You really haven't put any effort into it; you're not "invested." Mark Carroll says: "It takes just as much effort to create a PDF - look at Eclipse Phase, again, or Dresden Files - as it does a book for paper publication." Then create a book for paper publication. In fact, you can get Dresden Files in game stores in hardcopy. I respect that. And I guess that's where my prejudice lies -- respect. If it's not hard for someone sitting in a basement to produce their homebrew D&D campaign ("now, with dragon player characters; it totally roolz!"), then how good can it be? Those barriers to entry are there for a reason: to discourage the dilettante. You may have an awesome idea for a Barsoomian RPG; if so, then publish it. Otherwise, the hobby games industry is just a hobby to you.

(Which brings me to print-on-demand. I'm in favor of this alternative. It seems a great middle ground for game designers. Print only what you need, no warehousing necessary. I'm told, however, about some of these smaller publishers braging at GenCon of "being on their third print run." Dude, printing 25 copies at a time is not a "print run." It's functionally the same as photocopying something 25 times. Talk to me when your print runs are 5,000 copies per. Don't get all uppity.)

Thus, I'm of two minds on the .pdf revolution. I like that it's lowered the batrriers to entry, and made games more available. I just hate using the format, and think companies that use this format should plow any money they make into publishing an actual book.


  1. First off, you need to look at my game PDFs. They are not internally hyperlinked and bookmarked yet because they are in beta status still, but that will be fixed soon enough. They are laid out to be read on a screen, unlike the PDFs which you cite that are laid out to be read on printed material. I have not placed border art or background art because they make it harder to read on the screen as well as harder to print on your own dime if you wanted to.

    Second, your comment about investment is total bullshit. Who is more invested? The guy who works at a gaming company as his real job or the guy who works a real job and uses his valuable free time to write game materials? Who is more dedicated? Who is more passionate? Really?

  2. The latter is an excellent point. It seems as though you've got your head on straight; this is the logical retort. Now I must go to RPGnow and look up your game.

    I believe my critique is valid, however. It's one of perception. I'm not talking about investment in terms of time or passion. I'm talking about financial investment. But this brings me to the question: is a hardcopy book purchased in a store more intrinsically valuable than something downloaded off the net?

    Who is more invested, more dedicated, more passionate? I don't doubt your passion, or your creative investment. I freely admit I have a prejudice against the format, and I have my reasons. What you describe for your product, however, makes me interested in seeing it, as it addresses my problems with the format itself. And that may address my issues with "investment".

  3. My games are available on my blogs as public betas, not final versions yet, so they are not on rpgnow yet.

    The answer to your question is no. The willingness to invest money in putting a product in stores reflects a desire to make money off it, not passion about the content. Just check out the autobiography of "The Situation" for proof of this.

  4. Just click on my google profile to find the blogs, btw