This GameWyrd interview first appeared in the RPGNow’s Downloader Monthly This month the free ezine looks at the Nuts and Bolts of the Active Exploits system, has a round up of the latest PDF releases, V Shane’s “Whack it Good!” comic, top ten PDF RPG charts and some other stuff. It’s well worth taking a look.
GameWyrd’s questions appear in strange blue, Monte’s answers are in typical black.
1) We’re going back in time to 1990. Mobile phones dealt 1d3 bludgeoning damage and you were writing Creatures and Treasures II for ICE. If we ask you to pick the most likely possibility for 2003 would you go for “Dungeons and Dragons is owned by a multi-national toy company” or a “thriving community of roleplaying authors publishing their work electronically on the Internet”?
Honestly, I’d go for the latter (publishing on the Internet). I’d just heard of the Internet in 1990 and thought it was amazingly cool. Plus, back then, it seemed inconceivable that TSR would ever have financial troubles and sell D&D.
2) Do you think the PDF RPG industry is thriving? What’s your gut feeling on this?
I’ve seen people say things like “the pdf industry is not doing well” or “the pdf industry is unhealthy” and am amazed. The “industry” just started a bit over two years ago and it’s done nothing but grow. If it’s unhealthy it’s always been unhealthy, I guess.
See, when I wanted to put out a pdf product, I scoured the Internet looking for others so I could see how they were doing it. With a very, very few exceptions, there was nothing out there. Today, there’s something like 2,000 products on RPGNow, and that’s not even all of them for sale. Three years ago, most Internet savvy gamers didn’t know what a pdf was, and the only ones who’d even consider buying an electronic game product were the few buying WotC ESDs of old 1st and 2nd Edition products. Now, while some like them and others don’t, most of them are aware of pdf products.
So, thriving? I can’t think of how you could say anything but yes.
3) To me it seems as if the companion products The Book of Eldritch Might and Demon God’s Fane came out ages ago, back when the PDF side of the industry was in its infancy (ages ago turns out merely to be the latter half of 2001). Where did the idea to produce the two supplements as PDFs come from? How nervous where you?
Well, really, Book of Eldritch Might was the first product. Demon God’s Fane didn’t come into the picture until BoEM was already a huge success.
When I was leaving WotC to start freelancing (and probably get into other kinds of writing) it occurred to me that there was perhaps a way for me to create products where I could write exactly what I wanted? That¹s every designer’s dream, I suppose. I didn’t want to start my own full-fledged publishing company (print-buying, warehousing, selling, and so on were not something I wanted to do), but maybe there was a way I could get my stuff directly into gamers’ hands without going through a lot of channels. Wizards was selling ESDs of their old, scanned-in products online. Wouldn’t it be possible, I thought, to do the same thing with my new stuff?
I figured maybe a hundred people might be interested in seeing what I wrote.That was my goal. It did a bit better than that, and so here I am today with Malhavoc Press.
4) Arcana Unearthed breaks the mould. Okay, it probably breaks lots of moulds but the mould I have in mind for this question is your PDF to paper release pattern. Traditionally we’ve seen the PDF come out first followed by the paperback a few months later. We saw Arcana Unearthed out first in paper and then in the set of three PDFs. Why was it different this time?
A number of reasons. First, to do something different. Seriously, I see a lot of what Malhavoc Press does as an experiment. (For example, we sold Book of Eldritch Might for $5 at first. The price was really not based on anything other than my gut feeling and it was the minimum order the ecommerce service I was using at the time would take. Suddenly, for at least a year after that–and to some extent still today–$5 was just the price of pdfs. So we deliberately began experimenting with other prices, sales, and so on.)
Second, because of the size of the product. I can look at my sales figures and see pretty conclusively that people don’t like large pdfs that much. The download time and the printing hassles (for those that print out the whole thing) are too much.
And third, because of the nature of the product. Arcana Unearthed, being a large, hardbound Player’s Handbook-like rulebook really lends itself to a print product more than pdf.
These last two reasons, in fact, made me originally think that there would be no pdfs for AU at all. It wasn’t until pdf fans cried out in large numbers that we realized we needed to put something together, and so created three pdfs that gather most of the new material in the book. It’s still not the whole book, but it’s most of the best stuff.
5) Arcana Unearthed looks like a PDF. I mean it has the sidebar decoration, side comments, and similar appearance to your PDF layout. Was that a hard decision to make or was it just part of the natural flow?
It was just part of the natural flow. All of our products have that layout (since Banewarrens). It’s the Malhavoc Press style. We had someone create that layout to be both easy to print and use as a pdf, and yet still be attractive as a book.
6) The layout used for your PDF products is excellent for quick printing and easy access on the screen. I know Malhavoc took in a lot of reader feedback to perfect this effect. Would you expect to readers to have such an impact on the formatting decisions of a paper product?
Well, as I said, our products, whether print or pdf, have the same layout. It’s meant to be a compromise that will at least moderately satisfy everyone’s needs. In the future, we may play around with the idea of varying layouts. In retrospect, we probably should have given AU it’s own layout treatment since we originally weren’t going to make it a pdf (and the pdfs that resulted had to be re-layed out anyway).
7) Do you get the same satisfaction from uploading a finished PDF as you do from holding a fresh off the press paper product?
They’re different feelings, but they’re both great. What I really get a kick out of the pdf releases is the fact that we can put up a pdf at 10 AM and by noon we’ve got lots of feedback from people who’ve already bought and read it. The print version’s nice because I can put it on my shelf.
8) Do you loose any sleep over people illegally copying their PDF purchases? Is it a concern? What about people scanning paper edition games and trading the electronic copy
Not really. I mean, I wish people wouldn’t do it, but I can’t stop them. Occasionally I try to get the concept out there that we’re not some big, faceless company. It’s literally Sue and I. If you illegally copy one of our pdfs, you’re stealing from us as sure as if you snuck into our house and took money out of Sue’s purse. Now, I’m not saying that it’s OK to steal from big, faceless companies, but you can’t use that Napster excuse when it comes to us. It’s also a matter of simple logic. If people don’t pay us for our work, soon we’ll stop doing the work. If you like what we do, please pay us for our work. If you don’t like what we do, why are you stealing from us?
But really, I go by the concept that most people are honest. I know a lot of people out there know that they could steal from us, but they don’t, and that’s cool. And if you’re a pdf publisher but you’re not as optomistic about human nature as I am, you can always tell yourself that people are lazy. It’s almost always easier, when you read about a product on a website, to just order it right then and there, and pay the five or six bucks then waste your time searching through Kazaa for it when you get around to it.
9) If you could see any one new feature added to the average gamer’s average PDF reader what would it be?
I don’t know. A die roller? A tool to make it easier to write in your own house rule or correct an error?
10) Is there anything in the industry that you find particularly exciting right now? What should we be looking forward to?
I don’t know of anything specific, but I can tell you that I’m generally excited about the gaming industry right now. I’m excited by the d20 industry because it seems that all the obvious books are out of the way–the fighter book, the dwarf book, etc. We’re done with that now, I think (hope). This forces designers (I hope) to get more creative, which can only lead to cooler products. I’m excited about rpgs beyond d20 right now because I think d20 has been around long enough for someone to swoop in with some really special, innovative non-d20 game that will make a big splash.
11) Are there any mainly electronic RPG publishers that you find particularly good?
Yes. I think Phil Reed’s doing some cool stuff, although I’m nowhere near familiar with all of it. Many of the products from EN Publishing/Natural 20 Press have been quite good. I like the Darwin’s World stuff from RPGObjects. Expeditious Retreat Press’ A Magic Medieval Society is one of my favorite d20 products, pdf or print. Some of the map products (like from Darkfuries) and fold-up paper diorama products (like from Worldworks) look great, but honestly I’ve not really seen most of them. Both are product types that lend themselves to electronic publishing wonderfully, though.
12) Are there any bad habits shared by the PDF publishing roleplaying companies that you find particularly annoying?
Poor (or no) editing. You can often tell a lot just by looking at the ad text people put up on RPGNow or a product’s web page if a company is using an editor or not. If a company can’t afford to pay an editor a small sum to edit a product, how can they expect people to pay money for the product.
13) What can we expect to see hitting the electronic shelves from Malhavoc in the near future?
Well, as I write this, we just released the Diamond Throne. In about three weeks, Anger of Angels by Sean Reynolds goes on sale. This is a big sourcebook on angels, demons, heaven and hell, angels as PCs, angels as allies, angels as foes, etc. It’s great. In December, we’ll release Chaositech. This is another good-sized pdf with all sorts of weird devices that aren’t quite technology and not quite magic, and it’s all powered by chaos. Plus it’s got a bunch of source material on chaos cults, chaotic spells, chaos lords, and so on.
14) We’re time travelling again. It’s the year 2016, mobile phones now do 1d3 electrical damage but it’s a puss button defence against muggers. What do you think we’re more likely to find? “A thriving community of artist-programmers who can create the most exotic weapons, spells and characters for the Virtual Reality roleplayers” or “A multi-national toy company owns Dungeons and Dragons”?
I guess the former, because that sounds very plausible (and cool). And I think we’ll see changes in D&D ownership, maybe changing hands more than once, by then.
Copyright 2003, Monte J. Cook