It’s been almost three years since Wizards of the Coast pulled all ebook versions of their RPG products from virtual shelves, and there’s no sign that they’re coming back. In the meantime, they’ve developed the Virtual Table, a way to play 4E D&D online. They’re heading in the wrong direction. Here’s why.
Predicting the Future
In a recent issue of Scientific American, columnist David Pogue outline the perils of trying to predict the success or failure of future technologies. He included some interesting guidelines: black and white technologies always move to color, and analog technologies always move to digital. It’s hard to argue with that logic with so many examples (movies, television, telephones, even books and ebooks) to support the claim.
If we look at RPGs, we might be tempted to say that they follow the same pattern. The massive success of MMORPGs and the decline in sales of paper RPGs could be a sign that the “technology” of playing RPGs has moved to a digital format. The production of the Virtual Table (or, indeed, the design goals of Fourth Edition and its mimickry of an MMORPG’s point-and-click powers) could be seen as Wizards trying desperately to catch up.
The problem is, Pogue’s assertion isn’t entirely correct. I would say, instead, that “technology always moves to the most convenient format available that still preserves the core experience.” It’s why ebooks are becoming popular now that tablets and ereaders are cheap and robust. The core experience of reading a book is the story, the words, not the physical object of the book. If it was, people would buy blank books, curl up in an armchair and turn some pages.* It’s why movie theater attendance is down — our HD TVs and surround sound systems preserve enough of that core experience, and are vastly more convenient, especially now with streaming movies available literally at the push of a button.
The Core Experience
This begs the question, what is the core experience of a pen & paper RPG? It’s an important question, because finding that core is one of the stated design goals of the next edition of D&D. It’s obviously not the pile of books. But neither is it strictly the material within the books. The mechanics are important, but it’s not the core of the experience. The core is the social experience of gathering with your gaming friends every week to tell a story (and drink some drinks, make hilarious comments, and debate editions). Online games do not preserve that core experience, and most MMORPGs offer an entirely different core experience, one that traditional pen & paper RPGs can’t (and shouldn’t) hope to match.
By many accounts, the virtual table is a decent product, and I understand that lots of gamers live away from their friends or in places without easy access to a face-to-face gaming group. I’m not saying it’s bad or that there’s no place in the world for such a thing. But it isn’t the core experience of D&D, and Wizards expending resources on it makes as much sense as if they built and sold actual, physical gaming tables (besides, someone has that pretty much covered).
Contrast this with digital versions of D&D books. They preserve the core experience of those books (providing the rules and worlds described therein), and they’ve migrated to the most convenient format. Note that that migration occurred, and continues to occur, despite Wizards’ ban on PDF sales. A cursory scan of your average torrent site shows that the short-sighted ban hasn’t even remotely stemmed the tide of illicit PDFs. The only difference it’s made is the loss of sales from the many gamers who desire digital rulebooks, would gladly pay for them, but weren’t given the option (this in no way justifies the theft, but that’s what happens).
How to Fix What’s Broken
Wizards could probably build a successful strategy based on giving away PDF versions of their rule books for free. That’s essentially what they’re doing now. Paizo practically does this as well, only on purpose — their online System Reference Document is thorough, complete and incredibly well-organized (a stark contrast to D&D’s online compendium). It doesn’t seem to have harmed their business any.
It’s strange what a terrible history Wizards of the Coast has with digital products. The timeline is littered with ill-conceived, half-finished projects, late updates, unwanted revisions and clunky, outdated interfaces. It’s just blunder after blunder, which is why I’m frankly surprised the Virtual Table seems so well-received. I wish I had a good solution to the problem, such as, “License that stuff out to companies that know how to do digital products,” but WotC’s been burned on that front numerous times. It might just be a matter of hiring someone with the vision to turn their disjointed digital efforts into a cohesive strategy that actually works for their unique niche product.
In the meantime, they could gain a lot of ground by just letting players buy some freaking PDFs.
*I know that for some people, myself included, the core experience of reading a book does include the feel and smell of pages, etc., and so they eschew ereaders.