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I love that sites like DriveThruRPG house all sorts of indie RPGs, and sells them for affordable prices. Don't let me question fool you into thinking I am against this practice, in fact PDF versions have turned me on to all sorts of amazing RPGs I never would have known existed!

My question has more to do with how the revenue affects the creators. Is there any evidence that our migration to digital RPGs is hurting (or helping) the RPG industry? For instance, does it actually allow for sustainable businesses for fledgling game companies? (Or perhaps it only hurts the companies with large overhead like WOTC)

A couple of things I take into consideration

  • Digital copies are sometimes discounted up to 90% off name-brand publication. If the low production costs of digital can allow for such discounter prices will this hurt physical production of books?
  • More publishers creates more competiton which MAY equate to less sales. Can digital distribution over-saturate the market and "hurt it" the way the cell phone business has gone?
  • Digital disbursement can create more exposure for indie devs. Does this increased exposure lead to a increased sales for indie RPGs? (enough so to make it possible to fund further series or create a small business)

EDIT: I am counting the retailer distribution. My guess is that easier access to digital formats hurts retail greatly (IE: Borders)?

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closed as not a real question by F. Randall Farmer, LitheOhm, wraith808, Phil, doppelgreener May 3 '13 at 23:13

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I don't understand what you mean by "hurt". The publication world has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s - fundamentally changing the business and revenue models of "traditional" publishers. Most of those who hold to the old ways (only publish on paper in ink and sell in retail bookstores) are suffering, those who adapt are doing better. This has happened before - when paperbacks became popular, and before that when mass-printing became cheap (and put the scribes out of business/power.) –  F. Randall Farmer May 3 '13 at 18:08
I still don't know what question you are asking - everything is still too vague. Are you saying "is PDF sales decreasing/increasing print sales for the same content (i.e. D&D source books)?" or something else? Even the question I formulate here is vague in that it assumes a print-based business model (which many independents don't use at all.) Also - are you including pirate PDFs in the question? –  F. Randall Farmer May 3 '13 at 20:12
Who do you mean by "the industry"? Do you mean writers, publishers, or retailers? I don't think this question can be answered for all of them at once. –  Joe May 3 '13 at 20:30
It seems to me the question here is actually 'is electronic distribution changing the industry?', as the term 'hurt' would be subjective depending on which publisher we're talking about. Publishers that otherwise couldnt afford to print hard copies are clearly not 'hurt'. –  GrandmasterB May 3 '13 at 21:36
This feels more to me like a discussion than anything we are going to get a full, 'correct' answer for. Voting to close –  Phil May 3 '13 at 23:07

4 Answers 4

No, we don't have evidence about the whole industry, let alone specific data on revenue that would give us the ability to extrapolate to the effects on the whole industry, because too few companies share the kinds of sales information necessary to do such a wide-scale analysis. There are anecdotes aplenty about how digital effects individual companies, but the plural of "anecdote" isn't "data".

  • On the bottom end of the industry, observation indicates that digital distribution (and print-on-demand) has allowed hobbyist creators to publish products on smaller budgets, but whether this translates to "fledgling game companies" being sustainable depends on how you define the line between hobbyist and "company". After you've got a good definition, it's still anyone's guess as to how digital distribution plays into their overall success and revenue.

  • At the top of the industry, nobody is offering hard data on what digital is doing to them. And, based on the decades of repeated faceplants the music recording industry has done in their own analyses of how every new (i.e. unknown) distribution technology affects their industry, it just may be that it's impossible for any large industry player to truly know how digital affects them in the end. The response of Wizards of the Coast to the pirating of their official PDFs (halting PDF sales, leaving only pirates able to get the PDFs) supports this: either the business reality is too complicated to be meaningful outside of each company, or big publishers are as much in the dark as we are about what digital is doing to them.

Digital distribution is an example of a disruptive technology. Past examples of distruptive technologies indicate that we won't have a clue about the real implications on current players until it becomes moot, and falls into the realm of historians instead of market analysts.

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I want to give an extra +1 just for "but the plural of "anecdote" isn't "data"." –  TimothyAWiseman May 3 '13 at 18:18
-1 for factual errors - "nobody is talking about what PDF is doing to them." - Pathfinder has discussed it, SJG has discussed it, and Palladium has discussed it. In all three cases, it's changed their business model to include PDF as a primary consideration, rather than an after-the-fact. Hell, FFG has mentioned it, as well, in that they consider PDF to be a primary sales route, when the license arises, and have moved a major game line over to POD & PDF only (WFRP3). –  aramis May 3 '13 at 19:41
@pblock Steve Jackson's 2005 stakeholders report is a good place to start, as it's the year they started PDF sales. The rest of the years' reports are linked at the bottom of that page. It's interesting reading and gives some insight into the industry from one perspective, and often a brutally honest perspective. –  SevenSidedDie May 5 '13 at 0:47

Disclaimer: I am a featured reviewer at DriveThruRPG.

Yes and No

Yes, digital sales hurt print vendors, such as bookshops. On the other hand, however, they're not hurting the industry of gaming. Admittedly, one could argue that some of the practices are perhaps a little sketchy (Catalyst putting out fifteen guns or drones or vehicles for Shadowrun every other week, for instance, and selling them for a decent chunk) but that's a publisher's prerogative.

Positive impacts:

The PDF market lowers the entry gap for publishing, and also the materials cost. Printing a book and shipping it around can be prohibitively expensive, and places like DriveThruRPG offer 35% of royalties, something you couldn't get print without a really high price.

While you don't necessarily see a ton of games published by large companies, and some of those are doing worse, some of this is not a sign of the market growing weaker, or the industry as a whole growing smaller. Yes, individual companies may be getting less market share, but the market itself is far from shrinking.

Exposure. Eclipse Phase is perhaps one of the best examples of this, and perhaps as a reviewer I got a lot more of this than the average person did, but being able ot look around on a website and see huge lists of games from a variety of genres let me find a lot of things easily.

Historical Editions. I love Shadowrun's Third Edition. I don't hate Fourth Edition, but I got started on Third and I am excited for Fifth because it sounds like the good stuff from Third and the good stuff from Fourth had a baby. You can argue that people going back and buying classic doesn't help progress, but I think that the ability to go and buy a PDF of Year of the Comet is not going to tell Catalyst that they should just sit on Fourth Edition forever, which they didn't do anyway. Heck, WOTC released their back catalog on DriveThruRPG, though I haven't checked it out.

Negative Impacts:

Piracy. I'm not sure how good an argument this is, but I'll be honest-I know a lot of people who pirate their PDFs. Now, this isn't to say that you couldn't have found pirate versions before, but without any knowledge of the methods used I can say that it probably helps the quality of day one piracy (though, again, this would probably be an issue even without PDFs.

Antisocial exposure. Tabletop roleplaying is social. You don't get that online so much, though I've run fun online games. That said, usually when I get something that I really play, I've got the group in mind already. With a PDF I don't necessarily do that, especially if I'm just checking it out to see what the hype is.

Free games. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not these hurt the industry, but hobbyist games sites are pretty much everywhere; I'm working on a free game now (and I have in the past several times, but they're either unfinished or small scale), and I've played some really good free games. My introduction to tabletop gaming may have come from Shadowrun, but most of my early gaming was on free games from 1km1kt. Say what you will, I wasn't putting much money into the industry then (and I still don't put terribly much in now), but I definitely was introduced to the market from that.

My general conclusion:

No, digital isn't hurting the industry. Changing it, maybe. Large individual publishers may feel the hurt, but a lot of the things that people are saying are huge negative factors from PDF publishing are really the result of the information age-people sending a digital copy to their buddies instead of everyone owning their own hardcover, but the truth is that you can't change piracy. The modern consumer can handily justify stealing a digital copy of something. However, offering a digital copy for sale recoups losses from piracy, instead of aiding it (at least in the long term), and it also promotes small press and niche products.

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My first encounter with piracy was someone having put a retyped version of Moldvay D&D up on WWIVnet in the early 1990's... Piracy has been out there since before the internet went public. Before that, it was photocopies of out of print books. –  aramis May 4 '13 at 19:41
Yep, that's why I don't list it as a major factor-selling a high-quality PDF with all the features may mean that the pirates get one sooner too, but it gives an option for people seeking legitimate high-quality digital copies. I love the Find feature. –  Kyle Willey May 4 '13 at 19:46

As others have indicated, there really are no solid industry-wide figures. While Wizards of the Coast seems to have a conflicted relationship with PDFs, smaller players have embraced them. You can mine these reports for information:

  • Posthuman Studios: Their 2010 Year End Review goes through their numbers, which I've summarized in this blog post. Not only did they embrace PDFs from the beginning, their materials are released under a Creative Commons license. Even though people can find their PDFs online for free, and Posthuman encourages this, they are still managing to sell PDFs.

  • Lumpley Games: The lumpley games 10-year retrospective does not distinguish between a print sale (which includes PDFs) and a PDF-only sale, but it does show that total sales have gone up consistently over the last ten years, with a big spike in 2010.

  • Steve Jackson Games: The 2013 Report to Stakeholders covers a lot of ground. Munchkin, the company's smash hit, is not an RPG, but there is still information about their PDF unit, e23. Sales of PDFs were down 15%, but they figure this is because they weren't releasing enough PDFs for sale.

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Lumpley's big spike would be the publication of Apocalypse World, which has outsold everything he's done taken together. –  SevenSidedDie May 3 '13 at 19:31

The best information you can get about this is from publishers themselves. Many of them run both print and PDF product lines. I recall, but cannot now find a publisher discussing the cost-analysis of when to have a product go from print to PDF and when to release a niche product directly to PDF. It is by no means simple and of course entirely up to the publishers not RPGNow etc. who of just shop-fronts.

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Are you thinking of Fred Hicks of Evil Hat? He's written quite a bit about how they use and think about PDF, and where his personal breakpoints are for "this is worth it" and "this isn't worth it", but it was less an analysis and more an expression of business philosophy. –  SevenSidedDie May 3 '13 at 17:57

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