Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What do you want in a PDF gaming product?

If you needed some sort of evidence that PDF product for role-playing games are a force in the industry, consider this: there are currently nearly 18,000 products available on the web's largest friendly local gaming shop, DriveThruRPG.com. Over 1,000 of them are absolutely free to download. Characters, adventures, maps, out of print items, errata... the list goes on and on. Their catalog grows every day, and last time I checked, my neighborhood wasn't booming with gaming shops, friendly or otherwise. Then again, I live in Dallas, which is a gaming wasteland, so maybe my perspective is skewed.

The conversation over the benefits and pitfalls is a long and tedious one. How many gamers really roll dice with a computer in front of them? Will people buy something that they can download illegally for free? Are gaming companies better off going high end with glossy pages and hard covers? I have my own opinions on where digital downloads play in all of this, as I'm sure you do as well.

Let's discuss some of the high and low points.
Bite-sized books

To me, the prime market for PDFs is in the arena of small, bite-sized bits of gaming material. I don't think that we'll ever see old-fashioned books replaced by electronic copies, but how often have you flipped through a 200-page tome and thought, "I might use half of this." A book like that, unless I'm buying used, I'm likely to pass on altogether and make due without what good I saw in it. My cash and, frankly, my shelf space is just too limited to pick up anything that half-interests me.

The PDF market provides publishers with an interesting alternative. Why not offer a wide variety of very small products and allow the buyer to purchase only what he or she finds interesting? Rather than stringing together 20 ten-page sections within a sourcebook, why not offer ten different articles for sale through a digital distributor? In this sort of arrangement, the publisher isn't looking to cut good material or add in extra fluff to meet specific page counts. Each can be produced as its own compact product, and consumers get to cut down on the buyer's remorse that comes with getting a sourcebook home and realizing that this $40 book isn't going to be of much help in the current campaign.

Lost in the flood

The biggest pitfall, I think, is that while there is a vast amount of PDF material out there, and it's great that self-publication allows anyone to see put their work on the market, there is a lot of not-so-great stuff out there that dilutes the overall quality of the pool. It's only natural. With self-publication, a lot of material that might have been screened out by professional editors or more discerning publishers is available right there alongside the real gems. I think that this has created the perception amongst many gamers that digital products are generally of lower quality than what they can find on a shelf. While I don't think that's true, it's easy to see how one might come to that conclusion.

The solution to this, in my mind, is that self-publishers must hold themselves to high standards if they are going to ask money for their work. Documents need to be laid out in a professional-looking manner and stick to existing publishing conventions for formatting, font size, document white space, and old-fashioned grammar and spelling. This includes sticking with the presentation that gamers expect, such as illustrations, maps, charts, and tables. Electronic publishers can't allow a different standard for their products than do traditional publishers. In fact, given how easy it is to fix errors in an ebook or other PDF, digital publishers should be held to a higher standard.

What do you think?

So, I'd be curious to know what everyone else thinks on the matter. What do you look for in a PDF product? Where do you buy them? Do you print them out or read them on your computer screen? Is illustration important? What sort of price point do you look for? Do I have it all wrong, above?

Let's hear it!


Zachary The First said...

I do purchase RPG products from RPGNow/DriveThruRPG and the like, as my use of my laptop as a gaming tool increases. However, I really do my best to research before I buy, through previews, reviews, articles, etc. My gaming budget is pretty tiny, so I need to make every dollar count.

I usually print off shorter pdfs, especially if they’re going in my GM’s notebook.

Tyler said...

My ideal PDF is in landscape format with all page and section references hyperlinked.

Since that never happens with the PDFs I want, those I do break down and buy get printed out and bound straightaway, in which case I'm looking for something sufficiently lengthy and meaty to merit printing and binding.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Agreed with Tyler, although I can still use PDFs without that. I can't quite afford to print it all out. Still, I can work with PDFs in the standard format.

There is that other benefit of technology, that you can have hyperlinks and bookmarks in a PDF, that it's easier to put media into it. Did you know that you can embed a Flash movie into a PDF? I would love to see a company that made a PDF with an embedded character creator, or maybe a plot generator for DM use. That would be a cool use of technology.

On the market saturation...a great tool that the RPG industry has to combat this is the RPG community. When the RPG community is proactive in examining and reviewing games, there'll very quickly develop a system whereby good and interesting games get publicized by the gamers. It's the idea of trust reviews. You have those people who you trust to know a good game, and they recommend games to you. So the bad games find no community, and drown.

The trick being, the publishers need to know how to get word out to the community for the good games. What we, on our end, as consumers, can do is to be proactive, seek out quickstart rules and existing reviews, and try out new stuff.

Mike said...

I tend to use PDFs as a reference at a table. It's ridiculously handy for looking up obscure rules in a hurry, particularly in a book that's not indexed or organized well. As mentioned earlier, having all page and section references hyperlinked.

My gaming group used to be the grognard group that scoffed at having computers at the gaming table; at the last game we played, everyone had a laptop sitting on it. It's proven to be too good a tool not to use.

-Mark said...

The first thing is good internal bookmarks. Hyperlinked (as in the excellent www.d20srd.org site) would be AWESOME, but it's a lot of work to set out. If you have good internal bookmarks, though, I can navigate it quickly to points of interest.

I also want a good layout. For PDFs, that means single-column text, of a decent size... two-column is a PITA on a screen, especially when you reach the end of a column and have to scroll up and down to follow things. I also tend to hate text that's wrapped around a picture... if it's blocked around the picture, that's one thing, but WotC's 3e habit of having lines of text get longer as a picture diminished was annoying in print, and worse in PDF.

From there, it depends on what I want it for. For actual use, make it either short or easy to break apart. Things should be quickly referenceable within the document, and relatively easy to print and use when computers aren't feasible... which means no textured backgrounds, no parchment-colored paper, and pictures that won't suffer too much if rendered in black and white; Kevin Long's interior artwork is actually PERFECT for this, as it's evocative yet not going to strain a laserjet.

However, if I want it simply for archival and reference purposes (i.e. I may need to look up facts from it, but won't need it in actual play), then people can get a bit more artistic. Use that parchment-colored background, or those color pictures.

Jason Richards said...

Good thoughts, everyone, especially on layouts. I've been looking at two-column setup for a number of reasons, largely because it mirrors traditional print as well as the fact that it allows me to fit more content into a couple of pages. Is this an issue on short documents, like my Complete Characters?

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