So Wizards of the Coast, in the midst of their epic battle vs. piracy (30d12 hit dice), has decided to kill off PDF sales entirely, ordering online rpg outlets Paizo and DriveThruRPG (among others) to immediately suspend the availability of their books, suddenly, and without much notice. Both players and the retailers are understandably upset with the decision: see the massive thread on the Paizo forums for a whole lot of teeth gnashing.
What a poorly though out decision. I imagine on Tuesday, the night before the announcement, a high level WotC executive happened upon the concept of torrents (maybe from his kids, maybe from the news), gingerly typed the words dungeons and dragons into The Pirate Bay, and subsequently sprayed coffee all over his keyboard upon seeing the results.
Look guys, your files are out there… that gate’s been open for a long time. Haven’t you learned a thing from the music industry debacle over the last decade?
Is there anyone that honestly believes that by removing the only legal methods of procuring Dungeons & Dragons books in digital form, piracy of said materials is going to go down?
Real life example time.
As part of a larger general group of thirty-somethings rediscovering the joy of pen and paper gaming, I play in a roughly monthly AD&D 2nd edition campaign. Our GM purchased an MSI netbook and $150 worth of back-catalog PDF manuals, just to make the game-running process go smoother and save him the need to lug around a large stack of books every gameday. Had he made that decision this week rather than last month, his only recourse would’ve been a scanner and some long nights, or piracy.
I play a cleric. This is my first true AD&D campaign, as I grew up with different systems, most notably ICE’s Rolemaster. I don’t own any of the old 2nd Edition books, but now that I’m playing it, there are a handful I’d like to refer to. A Player’s Manual. A Skills & Powers book. After seeing our game master’s setup on Sunday, I’d planned to purchase PDFs of the three Priest Compendiums, pull out the spells usable by my character, and build my own PDF prayer book. I’ll still get the books, but it’ll be via the used market, a sales avenue from which Wizards of the Coast sees no profit. As far as the prayer book thing… well, I’m sure I’ll find a way for those too.
Okay, so let’s say we’re in agreement that Wizards made a poor decision. How do they resolve this? Wizards of the Coast, I’d like to offer some (free, really) professional community relations advice.
1) Backtrack a bit on the press release, state that you’ve heard the lamenting of your fans, apologize for the knee jerk reaction, and then promise that you’re going to take advantage of a bad situation and make things better. Next, rebuild new PDFs. The majority of the TSR/Wizards content available in digital format was scanned in, which meant that each PDF was basically a series of images, the same thing you or I would end up with if we scanned our own books. Assuming that original TSR assets are still available (Quark files, Pagemaker, whatever was used once they moved to a computer), bring someone on to create an entirely new series of digital documents, based on those. This would result in better consistency, superior readability, and interactive and searchable content (a boon to your players and DMs).
Once that’s done, sell them! Control the channel if you’d like, hell, you’ve already broken relationships with your digital retailers, but sell them. Focus on the service, the ability to track collections, re-download files, anything to make your offerings more attractive than a torrent. Yes, piracy will happen, but you’ll also bring in honest customers, customers that you’ll be able to profit on and market to down the road.
2) Next, and this one is really a no-brainer for you guys, use the above content and release Kindle formatted versions of the TSR back catalog. Strong DRM, limited piracy concerns, control of the marketplace, what isn’t there to like? While you’re at it, take a serious look at some of the other controlled ebook formats, as well.
3) Build an iPhone app. I’m not familiar with the product data, so I know nothing about numbers like active use percentage estimates for the various AD&D SKUs, how much you want to focus solely on the new Dungeons & Dragons versus legacy content, and so on, but my gut feeling is that AD&D in general is experiencing a minor resurgence across the board (after all, it is cheap entertainment), and that press and marketing for 4e results in a positive trickle-down effect on 2nd and 3rd edition use. Take advantage of this and release new product. It doesn’t even have to be new product, simply wrap a Dungeon Master’s Guide into an iPhone-friendly format, with easy access to charts, tables, and other bits of oft-referenced data that a DM could pull up on the fly. If that’s successful, build a Players Guide app, or even apps for individual classes. Allow the user to switch between AD&D editions, or confine an app to a single edition, whatever… you’ve got a treasure trove of old IP, do something with it.
Okay, there may be a worry that having multiple editions simultaneously available could muddy and confuse the marketplace, but give your fans the benefit of the doubt, and most importantly, clearly delineate your product offerings. They’ll figure it out.
Yes, there’s always the chance that digital releases of old content will eat into sales of the new editions, but honestly, the new D&D is its own beast, and I expect most players will have already made up their minds regarding which is their preferred edition. For those that haven’t, you’ll be re-establishing ties that could potentially be converted to sales of the new material, and for brand new players, legacy content could serve as a low cost introduction to the AD&D mythos as a whole.