Why digital distribution is a good thing for roleplayers, but may be a challenge to creators.

Recently, I went onto the DrivethruRPG to look for some books. Here, I discovered that a good chunk of the White Wolf back catalogue had been put up for sale as pdf downloads, or as print-on-demand. Glee was me as I saw loads of titles I remembered from way back when, and which I had never had the money or the reason to acquire, but had been quite interested in perusing, put up for sale at a more than reasonable price. It quite stoked my interest in running a game of the old school variety, like Mage: the Ascension or maybe some of the original Changeling – or maybe the new Changeling, which in many ways is superior to the old version of that game. Here were more pages of role-playing books put up for sale a relatively low prices, not least because they were just sitting around in White Wolfs harddrive anyway, not earning them any money. These books have been out of print for years and years, and the systems made to replace them is already growing old. I guess White Wolf figured that it was time to try for a wave of retro-WoD, and for dusting off their old titles, something fitting perfectly with the release of the anniversary Vampire: the Masquerade book.

This is all well and good. White Wolf gets more titles out there to generate income, and the players get more choice. Everybody wins, right?

Well, not quite. The FLGS around the globe will not be generating any income at all on this, making them decline more than they already have, potentially closing some of them and making it more difficult for new people to enter the hobby. On the other hand, I doubt many people start role-playing by walking into a games store and picking up a role-playing book. Surely more people are introduced to the game by someone they know who already plays roleplaying games – and those people will have access to more games to chose from.

But this kind of digital distribution may fundamentally change the way the role-playing distribution circle works (it might already have changed – I have been a little out of the loop the last few years, focusing my interest on a decidedly nice grouping of games since I started playing indie games five or so years ago).

Back when I was a wee geekie, internet rpg-stores was still a glint in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Roleplaying didn’t really enter my world until somebody opened a games store in my itty bitty town on the outskirts of Denmark. Going to visit Jan at the store (Goblin Gate) in the big city was like going to rpg heaven: a whole wall full of every conceivable role-playing book – “conceivable” as in “every book I could conceive of. He had all the good stuff: sourcebooks for D&D, for all the World of Darkness books, for Call, Earthdawn, Gurps, Rift, WFRP.
And his stock was dynamic, of course. I remember once asking a friend to go acquire the Vampire book for me – and he came home with a great offer, or so he thought. Problem was, the book he’d bought for me was the old Vampire 2nd edition book, which was going out of print, being replaced with a new version of the system. In other words, he got me an obsolete book. The stores had what the companies was putting out, and when a new system or a new version came out, they could make space for the new materials by withdrawing old systems that weren’t selling any more. And just like Games Workshop has kept up generating sales by bringing out new rules and superior army lists that meant you had to buy new books and new figures to be able to compete, the role-playing companies would make a new system, meaning you had to get a new set of rulebooks and source books to experience all the hot stuff in your favourite games. The companies could cut off your supply of materials for the old system, meaning both that they could make (mental as well as physical) room for new ones, and that you couldn’t necessarily wait to buy them, cause they might go out of print.

This game may be changing. When I can easily buy 15 or 20 year old games online, new games put out by a publisher will not only have to compete with the books currently being produced by rival game producers – they also have to compete by the collective back catalogue of the entire role-playing publishing world, including the earlier versions of the same game; the versions people are playing in, and which they know as their own back pocket. In other words, publishers can’t rely on merely rehashing the same old game and forcing players to buy it by cutting off access to the old system. Or at least, that’s how it might be. Am I right? Or am I missing something essential here?

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