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PDFs: The future of wargaming?

13/01/2012

Of late, Games Workshop seems to have reverted to an old tactic for Warhammer: the limited-run niche book. Not an army book, but something that every player can use to enhance their games. The first of these new waves of books was Storm of Magic; basically a set of rules that allowed you to turn the magical aspect of Warhammer up to 11, as well as introduce a new way to bring more big monsters into the game. Just last month they released a second limited-run book, Blood in the Badlands. This book covers campaigns, as well as including rules for siege warfare.

Both of these books contain with great content, but there’s just one problem. Once they’re gone, that’s it. If you miss out, you’ll be forced to trawl eBay or TradeMe looking for a second-hand copy. This wouldn’t be so bad if Games Workshop had not also released miniatures specifically tied to each the book. Want to include a Cockatrice or Truthsayer in your army but don’t have Storm of Magic? Looks like you’re out of luck.

If only there were a way that Games Workshop could keep selling these books, but without the added cost of actually printing them…

Luckily we live in the future, where things like digital books are common place and easily purchased. Anyone can pay a few dollars and download a digital copy of a book to the device of their choosing; be it a laptop, a tablet, or even a cellphone (for those with exceptionally good eyesight). Unless, that is, you play either of Games Workshop’s big two games. Here’s where things get odd. If you go to Games Workshop’s site, you can download free PDF copies of the rules for many of the titles in their Specialist Games line. This is a great way of keeping these out of print games alive, especially when GW partners with outside groups who help keep the rules up to date, as is the case with the Living Blood Bowl rules.

However, if you’re looking for a Warhammer Fantasy Army Book and your local store is out of stock, your only options are to either wait for them to restock or order one online. Not exactly the best way to get people into the game. To be fair, this isn’t a problem for most game stores. They know how much to order to make sure that there’s almost always stock on their shelves. Of course, that still doesn’t help someone who wants to purchase a limited-run book that is no longer available.

Games Workshop aren’t the only ones with an aversion to releasing digital copies of the books either. Privateer Press only release their books in printed form, though some digital copies of their bimonthly hobby magazine are available online. It seems that they are using Wargames Vault to distribute copies of No Quarter that have sold out in printed form, which is an excellent way of selling books. Imagine if such a service were available for back issues of White Dwarf. There is a lot of nostalgia to be had there.

I still have fond memories of my first White Dwarf

So why don’t these companies fully embrace digital sales? It’s hard to know for sure without asking the companies directly, and even then they’re not likely to give a straight answer. Chances are it comes down to one or more of the following reasons:

  • Decrease of physical sales: Digital copies might increase sales, but at a cost to sales of printed books. Sure, there will be a few people who want to own both a digital copy as well as a physical one, but there will be a few who only want one or the other.
  • Piracy concerns: There’s no doubt that supplying content in PDF form makes it more likely to end up on the internet as an illegal download. Wizards of the Coast found this out the hard way when they released Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.
  • Version control: While releasing books on PDF makes releasing errata and updates easier, it would also make it harder for players to know if their opponent is using an up to date version of their army book or not.
  • Lack of price control: If Games Workshop were to use a third-party site like Wargames Vault, it will be harder to control the prices for international customers. Most of these sites use current exchange rates to work out these costs, not prices set by the publishing company.

There are ways around each of these concerns, of course. If digital sales do lead to a decrease in the number of physical books purchased, it means that they need to print fewer books in the future. PDF files can be secured through watermarks and other methods that make it easy to determine the person(s) responsible for sharing the files, a line could be added to the book’s content page stating the date it was last updated, and companies could simply sell the PDFs through their own sites in the same way they currently do with their other products.

There is one other thing standing in the way of these companies making the switch: money. It would cost these companies money to set up these new systems and processes, and with the current economic climate, they’re unlikely to be willing to risk even a small amount of it trying this. If we see anything, it’s likely to be in the vein of the periodical back issues that I mentioned above. This is the easiest way to keep these magazines available, especially the more popular issues.

Case in point: White Dwarf recently featured a mini-codex for the Sisters of Battle. This is a good way to get some updated rules out to the players while they wait for an official Codex to be released. But what happens, when those issues are no longer available? Unless they can get hold of the rules from someone else, they’re stuck either waiting for the Codex (which could still be a year or two away) or using the previous rules. They could also illegally download the issues – a quick Google search gave me a few places where this could be done – but we’re trying to build the hobby here, and illegal downloading is not going to do that. Especially once players realise how easy it is to get any of the other books online.

As is the case with TV shows and movies, if you don’t give people a legal option for attaining the content there will be a segment who will just download it illegally. This can be a surprisingly large segment in some cases. But, once people have a legal option, including one where they would have to pay, they’re more than happy to do so. I suspect there would be a few people out there who would happily pay a few dollars for the White Dwarf Sisters of Battle content. Sure, it’s a relatively small income stream when compared to other products, but it’s one that has a fast setup and is easy to support.

Ultimately, I don’t think we’re likely to see any big changes any time soon. I guess Privateer Press will keep adding out of print issues of No Quarter to Wargames Vault, but that’s probably about it. Hopefully, they will see the value of PDF releases once their new version of the Iron Kingdoms RPG releases later this year. As for Games Workshop, who knows. Perhaps the best thing we can do is walk into our local store and ask, particularly in the context of Blood on the Badlands. Let them know that we want to give them money, they just need to provide us with a way to do so.

MyJanWriMo Update
This post’s word count: 1299
Total word count: 5734

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