Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My Take

By now, pretty much everyone with a presence online has weighed in on the latest news from Wizards of the Coast: the company has halted the sale of PDF versions of their products through RPGNow/Drivethrurpg and Paizo's online stores. As a general rule, I've avoided commenting much on what WotC does, primarily because I'm no longer have any interest in their products. My opinion of 4e isn't a secret, but, since I don't play the game, I rarely have anything to say about it or the company that produces it. I think this is a pretty good policy. I catch enough flak as it is just talking about old school games and the history of the hobby without inveighing against WotC's current products and I don't need that kind of grief.

I'm not at all convinced that this move has anything to do with trying to prevent piracy. They may claim that is the case and it's a convincing claim in light of its occurring on the same day as lawsuits against eight people across the world for illegal distribution of electronic copies of the Player's Handbook II. But, conspiracy monger that everyone knows I am, I suspect there's more going on here than that. Most likely, WotC wants to shore up its bottom line and thinks bringing the PDFs back in house, either through their own online storefront or, more likely, as a feature of DDI, is a way to do that. A far more outlandish scenario is that this could be connected in some way to re-organization of the company late last year, when it ceased to be Wizards of the Coast Inc. and became a LLC.

I don't give much credence to the notion that this move was intended to deal with the growing popularity of older editions of the game or to force gamers to migrate to 4e. In the first case, I don't think WotC cares much about the older editions of the game, which I suspect represent such a tiny fraction of the D&D-playing public as to be insignificant. Likewise, by all accounts, 4e is doing well -- perhaps not as well as some in WotC had hoped or expected, but well enough. I doubt that making AD&D or 3e unavailable in PDF is going to convince their buyers to suddenly adopt the new edition if they weren't interested beforehand. Even if it did, such gamers aren't numerous enough to make up the difference between 4e's current level of sales and the hoped for Second Coming of the 80s. That's why I suspect the move is most likely motivated by a desire to squeeze every last ounce of profit out of "legacy D&D" as they can and that necessitates cutting out the middle men and, quite possibly, using these older products as a carrot to entice their fans into giving DDI a whirl.

That said, I think this could, potentially, prove a boon for the old school renaissance. I think there are people out there now who might be more inclined to give Swords & Wizardry or OSRIC a look-see than they were before this announcement. Again, I don't expect there to be sudden deluge of newcomers to our little corner of the hobby, but I'm sure we'll see an uptick in sales and interest, at least in the short term. It'd be terrific if it was a lasting surge in our numbers, but I'm not naive enough to believe, let alone hope, that it will be.

And that's about all I have to say on this subject.

18 comments:

  1. Agreed. As I stated elsewhere, I think it's a control issue.

    Insofar as this does not adversely affect RPGNow, etc., this might be a good thing for us smaller publishers, the retro-clone movement in particular.

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  2. From my side, I'm not happy about it - the retro-clones themselves are targeted mainly at publishing, introduction to free-form gaming for returning or new gamers, and use as reference books for those who, for whatever reason, choose to use them at the gaming table. In other words, they aren't by any means the full scope of the OS Renaissance, and WotC has just clipped the ready availability of pdfs to that part of the OSR that doesn't use retro-clones. Which is the vast majority. Something like this may increase the use of retro-clones, but I wanted the retro-clones (in their capacity as a used thing) to grow by assimilating new gamers into the fold, not by attracting the older gamers out of a sense of lack of choice.

    And I went on a somewhat inebriated ramble across the net on that topic last night, for which I don't apologize, but about which I am somewhat embarrassed.

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  3. Am I the only one who thinks it's only the first step before WotC opens their own webpage where they sell their stuff in PDF-format? I think that's really everything that is behind this news.

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  4. Well said my friend. Hell, if anything this is making things easier for other publishers in that they can now go after the share WotC is leaving behind. It also allowed me to post our pledge.

    The whole thing smells like GW all over again.

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  5. ...it's only the first step before WotC opens their own webpage where they sell their stuff in PDF-format
    Probably, but given how long and difficult a road it's been to get any kind of online capability from WotC (Gleemax, DDI, etc), it'll be a long old time before we see their own pdf store.

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  6. Am I the only one who thinks it's only the first step before WotC opens their own webpage where they sell their stuff in PDF-format?

    No you aren't.

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  7. Both Paizo and RPGNow/Driverthru's storefronts are tweaked implementations of osCommerce, an open-source (i.e., free) e-commerce platform. It would next to no effort for WotC to similarly implement a PDF store. Ergo, I don't think a WotC PDF store would be as far away as some may think.

    I would not be surprised at all if that's the real reason behind today's announcement. It honestly makes perfect business sense, just like bringing the magazines in-house. I just hope we see the PDFs back sooner rather than later.

    I wasn't aware of the lawsuit, though. I certainly hope we're not waiting on the resolution of that.

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  8. This press release talks about the lawsuits:

    http://ww2.wizards.com/Company/Press/?doc=20090406

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  9. Very curious move. I wonder, if your theory about folding these pdfs into the DDI system is true, does this mean that DDI subscriptions have been disappointing? And such an abrupt maneuver perhaps indicates some desperation. I wonder how dependent their projected profitability was on healthy numbers of DDI subscription sales.

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  10. My take: who cares? Most people interested in the older stuff can find it easily enough on eBay anyway, and it's be supremely foolish of WotC to keep the material permanently unavailable. If anything, this may open up the opportunity to provide more downloadable product on WotC's own site. I agree with James that this'll probably be a feature of DDI.

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  11. does this mean that DDI subscriptions have been disappointing?

    My gut feeling was always that we'd know within a year whether DDI had proven as successful as WotC hoped it would be. If it didn't meet expectations, they'd do something to try and make it more attractive. I'd always assumed we'd see a greater connection between the print books and DDI, with essential material to use the books fully available only through a subscription service. I never expected this possibility.

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  12. It would next to no effort for WotC to similarly implement a PDF store.
    It's less the effort involved, and more that they can't seem to get their digital stuff to work. Gleemax was, I suspect, not written from scratch, and look what a cock-up they made of what should have been easy. The 4e online character builder is a bloated monstrosity in comparison to the (free) Javascript versions available on some sites, and really only differs in that it will allow you to print out power cards, often with incorrect information.

    So yeah, in theory, putting together an online store should be easy, but they can't seem to do easy.

    Also, as some have pointed out, setting all this up is likely to cost them more than simply keeping the pdfs on sale on other sites, letting those sites do the heavy lifting in terms of server costs, Paypal/card transactions, etc, and simply collecting their cut at the end of the process.

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  13. More theorizing, because, well, it's kind of fun- Another indication that this might be DDI related is the vaporware status of the virtual tabletop, which was supposed to be one of DDI's cornerstones. If WotC was counting on an imminent vtt release to make DDI profitable, and it. just. isn't. happening. then they would need something to take its place as quickly and cheaply as possible. A ready supply of already pdfed IP could be just the thing. Think how great a bullet point proclaiming "access to our exclusive archive of classic Dungeons and Dragons material, from the original 1974 pamphlets to the core 3.5 books!" would look on their DDI feature description.

    Just one small catch, of course.

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  14. I believe that this makes it even more important that we come up a ready-to-play boxed set for toy- and bookstores.

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  15. I'll just say this: My prediction for some time has been that WOTC would have to start filing lawsuits. Originally my prediction was that there would be lawsuits by the end of 2008, targetting improper d20 System mark and OGL usage. We'll see if they're starting to ramp up the legal arm for future purposes (next up: classic PDFs, OGL works).

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  16. Once again Wotc takes something that could be an ok, forgivable transition, and F'ks it up.

    Much like the handling of Dungeon and Dragon magazine's transition to online, the had NOTHING in place to take over. The gave the PDF customers NO time to make sure they had their downloads and backups.

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  17. Reading the press release, this seems pretty straight forward. They're protecting their copyright by going after file sharers and removing the channels that they sourced the file from so it doesn't happen again. I agree with others here that they may then sell them on their own site with some DRM in there to prevent them from being copied or redistributed in future. Note that its the Players Handbook 2 (4E) that was pirated and they seem to be reacting to.

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  18. I too have no interest in what Wizards does, as they don't make anything remotely interesting to me. However, I've read that WotC products make up 20% of all RPG PDF sales, and I'd hate to see places like RPGNow bleed to death as a consequence of this. So far as D&D PDFs, the only loss is access to earlier editions, but we have the retro-clones to bail us out there.

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