Whither the PDA (or iPhone) D&D?
January 28, 2009 | 1:45 pm
The following essay was written in August, 2002 for Jeff Kirvin’s "Writing on Your Palm" blog (which has since shed its non-Jeff bloggers and become Jeff’s personal blog instead).
A LiveJournal post from Bruce Baugh on the subject of adapting RPG matter to an iPhone-readable format caused me to think about it again—and then I noticed as I was trying to google it so I could link to it that the WoYP archives seem to have gone away. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve this piece from the blogger.com "edit your blog posts" menu.
I was tempted to go through and update it, but as I was rereading it I realized that it is largely as true today as it was in 2002. People may now be reading on iPhones instead of Palms and Cliés, but there has still been no major effort to bring out small-screen-compatible roleplaying game e-books.
The only major differences are that "Palm Digital Media" is now eReader and owned by Fictionwise (with its reader available for the iPhone as well), and that ePub has emerged as the biggest contender for universal e-book format (and even eReader will be adopting it soon). (Also, my thinking on DRM has changed slightly—though even so, I recommend its use within the essay only as a necessary evil.)
With that in mind, I have decided to present the essay here just as it was written in 2002.
Amid the explosion of fiction, nonfiction, reference, religious, and textbook e-books that have been appearing on palmtops over the last few years, one category of books seems to be conspicuously absent: the roleplaying game. I don’t mean the computer roleplaying games like Neverwinter Nights or Diablo, but the books that preceded them: games of social interaction that are played with pencil and paper and dice and, most importantly, imagination.
Although some companies have been releasing electronic versions of their roleplaying game books, none of these have been what I think of as "e-books" in the fullest sense of the word. Either they are desktop applications with the text of a book inside (as with the recent Vampire: Revised CD-ROM), or else they are Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files: suitable for printing but not really for reading on-screen—or for putting on a PDA.
At first look, roleplaying games might not even seem ideally suited to palmtop use. Number-intensive games such as Dungeons & Dragons often contain wide or tall charts, which could not be displayed on most PDAs’ screens without scrolling or panning. Moreover, gamemasters often flip back and forth through their paper books faster than they could jump to sections on even the handiest PDA.
However, a roleplaying game e-book would not have to replace its paper version to be useful. Gamers are accustomed to using roleplaying aids, such as quick reference cards or screens, in addition to their physical books. An e-book, with its search feature, could serve as a sort of "ultimate reference card". For instance, if a gamer needs to know how many hit points a Gelatinous Cube has, entering "gelat" in a search box will probably find the information at least as quickly as thumbing through the Monster Manual to the "G" section—especially when it turns out that Gelatinous Cubes are actually filed under "O" for "Ooze".
Players who game at someone else’s house might find an e-book a useful pocket reference, trading less convenience in flipping pages for more convenience in not having to carry full-sized books around. Likewise, people who play in LARP (Live Action Roleplaying) games usually have to do without any reference books at all—just imagine trying to run around in the character of a vampire or werewolf while carrying several pounds of paper! But an e-book takes up very little extra weight or space, especially if one is already carrying a PDA for use in task resolution.
And, of course, a poor substitute for a paper book still is a substitute, and better than no book at all. With game books and a die-rolling program on his PDA, a few pieces of paper, and willing players, a talented gamemaster could run a game literally anywhere, at any time.
A roleplaying game PDA e-book would share with the Acrobat e-book the lower fixed costs of production—no setting up and running printing presses necessary, but just creating a formatted electronic file and setting it up for download. The price could be set a few bucks lower than the physical book, to reflect that cost decrease and lure more people into buying it.
So why hasn’t anybody tried a more portable roleplaying e-book yet?
The reasons are a little complicated.
To begin with, roleplaying is no longer the fad market it was in the early to mid 1980s. There are still a few publishers (such as Wizards of the Coast, Palladium, and White Wolf) who can move vast quantities, but for most presses, a book is considered quite successful if it sells even 1,000-2,000 copies.
Due to economies of scale, books produced at this lower volume cost more to print, and have to be more expensive to buy, than equivalent-sized mass-market books. These books often have a very thin margin of profit, shaved as close as the publisher can make it and still hope to stay in business. (This is also why some RPG books are published only as PDFs—they cost much less and are less risky to publish than a paper book that might not even sell out its first print run. It is largely assumed that the buyer will be printing it out and binding it himself; thus a PDF is not so much an e-book as it is the "ghost" of a printed book that the purchaser will then provide with a body.)
However, among some gamers there is a perception that these high prices are gouging on the part of greedy publishers. Some of these even proclaim loudly via newsgroups and bulletin boards that if games are going to cost so much, they’d rather download them from KaZaa or get copies from their friends than pay for them.
In a market as small as roleplaying games’, losing even a handful of sales to unauthorized copying can make the difference between black or red ink, and there is a fear that some of the complainers will be hostile enough to start passing around copies simply for the heck of it. The game publishers with whom I have spoken recognize that printed pages can be illicitly scanned whether the book is also published electronically or not, but at the same time do not want to make it any easier for malfeasants by publishing in HTML or some other unencrypted form. With the market for full-fledged gaming e-books as yet untested, it seems like too much of a risk to release them without adequate protection.
An outside observer might look at the success Baen has had boosting print sales with its unencrypted Free Library and Webscriptions e-books, and prognosticate that gaming companies could do the same thing and reap the same benefits. Yet, the RPG publishing industry is very different from the mass-market publishing industry.
As mentioned before, individual sales are very important in keeping RPG publishers afloat, and they cannot risk anything that might jeopardize even a few. In contrast, the much-larger fiction publishing companies can afford to chance losing some here and there. Heck, most large publishing companies can actually afford to recall and destroy copies of their books that did not sell! You’d never see a gaming publisher do that.
Furthermore, novelists—and especially the kind of science-fiction/fantasy novelists who write for Baen—have many enthusiastic fans, most of whom would never dream of doing anything to hurt the objects of their affection. (Quite a few Baen fans will conscientiously buy print copies of anything they get free, and some will even buy extra e-copies when the free e-books are sold for money elsewhere, such as through Fictionwise!) But gaming companies enjoy a strange kind of love-hate relationship with their customers, some of whom will openly declare their love for the game yet turn right around and Gnutella it because they think the price is too high.
One gaming company actually did try an open-format release. The now-defunct FASA bundled its first-edition Earthdawn game onto an HTML CD-ROM, and gave it away free in collectible-card-game magazines. (And, thanks to iSilo, I have it on my Clié’s memory card even now.) It was hoped that this release would spark more interest in Earthdawn, which was not selling as well as FASA’s other lines. Although Earthdawn did experience a spike in sales, the effect was only temporary. FASA later sold the line to another company.
Is it likely we will ever see roleplaying game e-books on our Palms or PocketPCs? Perhaps. As more and more people in the main gaming demographic (college students and older) acquire PDAs and start using them for other things related to roleplaying, perhaps the demand will make itself known. There is a way that publishers could provide PDA-compatible e-books and not risk their content falling into the wrong hands: by using a secured PDA format, with Digital Rights Management (DRM) built in.
There are several secure PDA e-book formats, but I feel the best is Palm Digital Media (formerly Peanut Press)’s Palm Reader. PDM’s markup language provides emphasis (such as italics or bold), formatting, odd ASCII characters, tables of contents, and limited image display—and also includes unobtrusive yet effective DRM. Each Palm book is locked to its purchaser’s credit card number—a key he will probably not want to give out to other people.
Palm Reader has versions for PalmOS and Windows CE PDAs, as well as Windows and Macintosh desktops. There is no limit on the number of copies a user can have active; the e-book could serve as his desktop reference at home, and be used remotely on his PDA or tablet PC.
It seems possible that a PDA roleplaying game e-book might lead to more sales of both the e-book and the "tree-book": people who already have the paper book might want a convenient reference version for the Palm, and people who try a less expensive e-copy on the Palm might decide they like it enough to buy the paper version, too. It might also bring in e-book site customers who have never been exposed to roleplaying games before.
Of course, it is also possible I might have my head in the clouds and there would be almost no demand at all. I don’t think so, but it is possible. But even so, it does not seem like much of a risk to try—it would still be more economical to format an e-book that doesn’t sell than to print a book that doesn’t sell.