Gamethink

Monday, June 28, 2004

[Reposted from LJ] MNPR:RPG, By the Numbers (1 month)

posted by Chad

Still sick. Gah. Can barely think, so apologies if my math's screwy below. Oh, and no Origins Award for me; many congrats to all who won!

Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the Roleplaying Game was published on May 27, 2004. The "90-day sell cycle" will end on on August 27, 2004. This period is generally regarded as really the only open window for new game products; after those 3 months, sales decrease (unless the game is a really hot- or consistent-seller -- AKA "evergreen"). At least, that's my understanding of the industry.

However, I'd like to do a quick and dirty "one month of release" look.

MNPR:RPG sales for this 30-day period were:

  • RPGNow: 15 copies.
  • Complimentary/Review Copies: 17 copies.
  • Total copies in circulation: 32 copies.


So far as I can tell, out of the 17 comp/review copies sent, there's been 1 review published here.

Currently, MNPR:RPG is #29 on the RPGNow "Best Selling Non-D20 RPG This Month" list. Also, the game has no purchaser comments at RPGNow.

I'm going to pull the curtain aside below with the money details, in a public forum. Oooh, scary!

MNPR:RPG had a development cost of less than $20 (art supplies for my incredibly detailed stick-figure drawings), and has made that back already.

Overall gross has been $90. Minus $20 for art supplies means net profit is $70.

If I had written the game for the industry standard flat rate of 3 cents a word (MNPR:RPG being 31,692 words), I would have made around $950.76. Thus far, I've only made about 7% by doing it myself than if I would have done it for someone else. On the other hand, so long as MNPR:RPG sells copies, I will continue to accrue earnings from it.

Then again, I need to sell 147 copies (at $8 retail per copy, minus the 25% RPGNow percentage for distribution, I make $6 per copy sold) to equal that flat fee payment. I need to sell more than that to make the game a better deal for me than work-for-hire.

Maybe now, with the numbers out there for all to see, it will become clear why I pimp so hard, and why I really wish folks would pony up their reviews, make mentions of my games in their LJs and to those friends that they think'd be interested, and so forth.

Every single copy sold is vitally important to the bottom line of ASMP (i.e., me). The money is not the reason that I'm in this industry. However, if the money for self-publishing is less than what I can get for doing WFH, why should I self-publish?

About the only reasons I can see are: 1) controlling my own IPs; 2) being locked into the full revenue stream, no just a flat payment or small royalty; and 3) having a need to have something out in the public eye.

But I won't be quitting my day-job anythime soon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

[Reposted from my LJ] Some Quick DI Numbers

posted by Chad

We're coming up on the 5 months worth of release of Dead Inside, so I thought I'd kick out some quicky numbers. I'll probably do a more detailed breakdown next month at the 6 month mark; feel free to comment ion this post to let me know what you'd like to see in that analysis. (I'll also probably do a one-month breakdown for Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the Roleplaying Game then, too. Note that its sales are much, much lower than DI's.)

Okay. DI has sold 88 PDF copies and 29 PoD copies, for a total of 117 copies sold. (Additionally, there are 76 complimentary, review, and traded-for-swag copies [1] out there; this brings the total number of copies in circulation up to 193.)

[1] Around 25 of those copies were for playtesters and such. DI's had about 15 to 20 reviews published in various places -- blogs, websites, review sites, the City Paper (alas, not all are linked from the webpage, still collecting them), let's say 20. So, 76-45 = 31 copies were just gifts to cool folks from me, traded-for-swag, or sent to reviewers who never ponied up. Not that bad a spread, after all, as I stuck with PDFs for the comp copies in general.)

Some guesstimations on stuff through the distributor channel, to illustrate the infinitesimal size of the game industry:


  • Higher Tier Game Publisher average sales: 3000
  • Small Press non-d20 average sales: 500
  • DI sales (to date): 117

    • DI's Percent of HTP sales: 3.9%
    • DI's Percent of SMnd20 sales: 23.4%



This means that each individual purchaser of DI has a dramatic effect on the bottom line of Atomic Sock Monkey Press.

Three Little Words...

posted by Geoff

A couple of nights ago, Bruce and I were having a conversation via email about the first of the WotC D&D Adventures for 3rd edition, The Sunless Citadel. I played it a few years ago, and found it to be just another boring dungeoncrawl (something I despise). Bruce, on the other hand, felt it was a lot of fun to GM, and both he and his players had all found it thoroughly enjoyable.

When I asked him why he enjoyed it so much, one of the things he replied with was that the NPC kobold, Meepo, was a hoot to play. I didn't even remember Meepo from when I played it, so it must have been something that my GM had glossed over. So I commented that it must have been one of those run-time, "you had to be there" kinda issues. Bruce felt that some of the potential for the fun was written up in Meepo's description, but even after I read it, I couldn't see it.

This exchange got me thinking: is there a good, easy way to describe an NPC in an adventure such that a GM can easily figure out what the writer was intending and can quickly bring the NPC to life at game time?

NPCs are a tricky thing for writers to create. They have to be complete enough for a GM to be able to run competently at game time, but also brief enough so not to drown the GM in information. Given this, how can an writer give the GM a solid idea about how to play an NPC, without having to resort to long-winded descriptions and directions which may not suit the GM?

This afternoon, I was reading through some notes for a writing course I bought a couple of months ago. One of the chapters was talking about how to create characters for stories as quickly as possible, while still making sure that you have a solid, three-dimensional character.

In the briefest form, it requires four things: a nickname for the character, and then three words that sum up the character's personality. With the right keywords, someone can easily get a solid idea about what the character is like.

The character's nickname is important because most of us often get labelled with nicknames by our friends (or sometimes rivals) that sum us up pretty well. Quite often they sum up what we look like, or what one of our most distinctive habits is. To give you an example, I used to be known as "Mumbles" (because it's something I happen to do a lot), while another one of my friends was known as "Lurgi", because he tended to get sick all the time.

If you saw an NPC described with a nickname of "Beanpole" or "Scarface", you'd already have a pretty good idea about what he or she looked like. If the nickname was "Bubbles", you'd could take a reasonable guess at what their personality was.

Now, characters's personalities can usually divided into five categories: Really Good, Good, Normal, Bad and Really Bad. Of these five, both Really Good and Really Bad are normally really boring, as people can't relate to them (although sometimes they can be useful as charicatures in RPGs sessions, particularly in pulpy games).

The different categories determine what sort of keywords you choose to sum up your character:

CategoryTraits
Really Good2 Positives and 1 Neutral
Good2 Positives and 1 Negative
Neutral1 Positive, 1 Neutral and 1 Negative
Bad2 Negatives and 1 Positive
Really Bad2 Negativesand 1 Neutral


A trait is basically a keyword - either a noun or adjective - that can some up a major aspect of the character's personality. Traits, as mentioned in the table above, can be divided into Positive, Neutral and Negatives.

Positive Traits are those that benefit not only the owner of the trait, but also those around them. Some examples might be "altruistic", "jovial" or "caring".

Negative Traits are ones that are normally considered to be disagreeable or not desirable (for example, "violent" or "sulky").

Neutral Traits are — as one might expect — traits that could go either way depending on the circumstances. In some cases, they might actually be an advantage, while in others, they could be a pain in the butt; often, they are considered somewhat controversial. "Impatience" is something that falls into this category, because an impatient person might not be willing to accept the status quo and would take action when needed. On the other hand, they can also stuff things up by going off half-cocked.

To give you a few examples:
Bubbles: Good Character; Happy (positive), Friendly (positive), Shallow (negative)
Stinky: Neutral Character; Hard-working (postive), Talkative (neutral), Overindulgent (negative)
Knuckles: Bad Character; Brutal (negative), Abusive (negative), Loyal (positive)

Why do good characters have negative traits and why do bad characters have positive traits? Basicalyl, it's all about character weaknesses. Nobody is good or bad all the time. Most of us have aspects to our personalities that let us down. Good people have negative aspects that manifests as character flaws that can get them into trouble. Bad people have a positive trait that can sometimes be used as a weakness by the PCs to gain some advantage over them at a crucial part of the story. Normal characters have a mixture, as one might expect.

How is this useful? Well, for a start, it's a very quick process. It doesn't take much to come up with a nickname for a character, and then three keywords to sum up their personality. If a GM had lists of traits split up into appropriate classes (something that I'll admit that I don't have right now, but think wouldn't be too hard to come up with), a GM could put together an NPC's basics in a few seconds while the players were arguing about something else.

The other real benefit for both writers and GMs is that even though the technique is brief, it provides a powerful way of describing a character in such a way that both can (hopefully) have a solid picture of how that NPC should be portrayed.

The technique is also system independant and could be used for any gaming system. Stats for the NPC could be created as needed, but this technique can also provide personalities for those NPCs that the PCs may interact with only briefly (for examples, secretaries or shop-assistants).

Sunday, June 20, 2004

posted by UrsulaV

So Bruce asked me to write about what it’s like to do art for a game—how you get selected, and how much time you get, and what sort of revisions are necessary, and so forth. And this is an interesting subject, and since I’m a freelance illustrator, one of the few elements of gaming that I can speak with relative authority with.

Caveat: This is one woman’s experience, as a freelancer. Working in-house is different, other people’s experiences are different, I work mostly with small presses, so don’t take it as set in stone.

To start at the beginning, you and the art director get in touch somehow. Sometimes I’ve sent submissions and query letters, sometimes they’ve seen my work online and think my style would fit something they’ve got. There are books written on this process, so we won’t dwell on it at the length we could. But at some point the art director sends you an e-mail (or more rarely calls) and says “Hey, got some work for you.”

And I say “Sure, send me the details.”

At this point, you may have noticed that I’ve already skipped the “how you get selected” part, and it’s largely because I don’t know. Sometimes the art director tells you that they love your stuff, or where they saw it, or that your style is just what they need, sometimes they don’t. (My favorite reason so far has been “You seem willing to draw un-politically correct things, and I’m having a hard time finding people who will do scantily clad women in fur boots.” I cannot express the joy that reason gave me.)

The time you get varies a LOT. A month seems to be the standard, but it can vary wildly, between “However many of these you can get done in six weeks,” and, on one memorable occasion, “My artist bailed, you’re the only person I know who can do this, can you get me a cover in two days?” Usually, however, you get around a month to the deadline.

I treat this deadline as if it were the commandment of my god, and I try to leave a week buffer for revisions. If they’re slow on revisions in the last week, it can occasionally straggle longer, but I do everything possible on my end to get the art in on time because most of the art directors I’ve worked with would rather have serviceable work by deadline than a masterpiece two weeks late. This is the other part of how you get selected—get a rep for making deadlines and being easy to work with and you get repeat business, and a lot of help-my-other-artist-flaked business too, which, while hectic, tends to make you a friend for life. That’s commercial art for you—less muse, more deadline.

The actual art is simple enough. The director sends me an idea and the size. I.E. “We need X number of quarter page color illos, 4 x 5. #1 is a Cthonian Chickenslayer. We were thinking maybe an attractive woman in fur boots with a string of dead scaly chickens hanging from her arm. #2 is a Wibbling Gribble, a type of hairy monster found in canyons that looks something like a fuzzy barracuda with hooves. #3…” Very occasionally, they will just send the text description for the monster/character/whatever, but depending on the AD, you’ll get a description of the image they want, and it will be brief.

I do a set of rough composition sketches--basically glorified stick figures--and send them back. They approve them or ask for some tweaks, I tweak and refine into a sketch that has, like, faces and things. On a cover, there’s generally more back and forth, and I’ll do multiple versions, on interior illos not so much. After awhile you get a feel for the AD and you may skip various steps. In the end, I do a color, painted version, they approve or ask for tweaks, and when it’s all done, I pop it up on my server and all is right with the world.

Then, ideally, they pay me.

Now, you might have noticed that at no point in that did I read anything about the game, play the game, or have a copy of the game-so-far in my free hand. At most, I might have seen the description of the monsters, and even that’s pretty rare. Generally all I know about a game at the outset is the one line summary they send me in the first contact, which is usually “We’re doing a sourcebook on the Yakuza,” or “This is a cyberpunk game, etc.” Now and again I’ll get a chunk of flavor text suitable for back covers. Generally, however, the total amount of correspondence for any given painting is significantly less than the length of this post.

This isn’t always the case. Occasionally, people will send me chunks of sourcebook, and say “come up with some things to illustrate from here.” This does happen, but fairly rarely in my experience—three times that I can think of in seven years. It’s far more likely that I’ll know practically nothing about a game while I’m illustrating it. I may find out more in the course of illustrating by asking questions about the setting—i.e. “Hey, can I throw some of X in here, or will that not fit the setting?”—and more tends to come out in the discussion, but a fair amount of time, if it’s not a big, established company with a set milieu, the first time I’ll learn a lot about the setting will be when I get my contributor copy.

Now, it may seem like I’m complaining about the lack of info, and this is really not the case. Much of what’s written for games is not much use to an artist—I need to know what the critter looks like, and the environment to show it in, not the blow-by-blow history of how it evolved and who uses it for what religious rituals. I generally don’t need the life story of a character, and the odds are pretty good that I won’t read it—my time’s usually pretty short, and I’d rather get his hair and eye color. Stats, of course, are totally useless for my purposes—you can’t paint Con 14, Dex 12. If it cannot be directly translated into visuals, it’s just not going to do me that much good, and so a lot of art directors quite rightly don’t bother with them, and just say “Look, we want a critter that looks like this, in a scene like this,” and we go to it. But there are downsides—if I don’t know that your monster snatches bunnies out of the air, I can’t suggest or paint the interesting and dynamic painting that’d be, and you’re gonna get the critter in standard D&D portrait pose.

So, that’s the art end, at least in my experience—long and rambly though it was!--and hopefully, for all the writers out there, this may explain a few things. And if anybody has questions about things I didn’t address, or any chunk of the process that we glossed over and that you want exhaustive detail on, or visual examples of the various stages of a painting, just say the word, and I can fling the dubious benefit of my experience at it!

Character: Level-Up vs. Play-As-You-Are

posted by Chad

So, I've been thinking of what the impact of two variants in character development are on the gameplay, underlying rules, and hobby in general. I'm calling these two variants Level-Up (LU) and Play-As-You-Are (PAYA).

The majority of RPGs are LU games (starting with D&D and working up), though many -- especially superhero games -- are PAYA. A number (GURPS, some Storyteller games, etc.) fall between the two -- let's call them COMBO.

In LU, the character starts weak, but over time becomes more and more powerful.
In PAYA, the character starts powerful, and remains that way.

Now, what does this mean for gameplay?
In LU, beginning PCs are rather incompetent, with the future badassery held out as a carrot lure. Beginning characters get killed by normal rats, asthmatic kobolds, and street-sweeper droids. They fail at skills they are supposedly highly-trained at. They have limited mojo (spells, psi power, drama points, superpowers). In a word, they are lame.

In PAYA, PCs start tough and stay tough, but there's no real future joy-joy to look forward to except for minor tweaks and mild improvement. But that's cool, a PC hits the ground running, can survive small threats, kick a moderate amount of ass, and succeed at what they try most of the time.

There are always rules. . .
In LU, there's a bunch of rules that don't come into play early in a PC's career, mostly involving their special, developing mojo. This is good, as there's not a lot for the player to know starting out, and the learning curve is spread out over the life of the character: as a player learns how the rules system works, he sees how his character takes advantage of it. Additionally, LU characters don't require a high-detail concept, and the personality develops as one plays.

In PAYA, the PC is thrown into the middle of things, and must needs instantly learn everything about the rules system, at least those bits need for chargen or where his competencies come into play. This can be tough on a newbie, and cause information overload. It's also a lot of work to build a character (from a point-build standpoint) and may require the player having a character concept in mind -- which sucks for a newbie, becuase they're not sure what all this gaming stuff is about. They're put on the spot to be creative in a field they don't understand.

What does this mean?
Here's hypothesis A: The LU concept keeps a large number of newbies from getting into gaming because the beginning character sucks. Those that do, however, really sync up with the "get stronger as you go" concept, and enjoy the LU process.

Here's hypothesis B: The PAYA concept keeps a large number of newbies from getting into gaming because there's too much for the beginning player to keep track of. However, those that manage it, enjoy the ability to be cool.

Here's hypothesis C: Most COMBO games that split the difference between LU focus on the wrong combination of stuff: the concept and info-heavy aspects of PAYA chargen, and the elimination of cool power-ups later in a character's career.

And finally, hypothesis D: To maximize newbie interest in gaming, the fusion of LU and PAYA games should be the reverse of COMBO games; let's call this mixture COMBO-2. A COMBO-2 game would include:
1. Minimal amount of basic rules to know to play; advanced rules are spread over the future life of the character. This will reduce the number of newbies getting turned off.

2. Minimal amount of character concept to pre-exist before chargen; possibly including a "roll randomly" or "select a" from a limited but evocative list of character classes/packages. This will speed the start of play, and reduce the number of newbies quitting before they start.

3. PC should be competent -- if not greatly more competent than an average person under the system, at least slightly more competent -- from the get-go. This will improve the numbers of newbies who come back to the table for another go.

4. PCs should have the ability to constantly revist chargen to show developments in personality, if desired. This empowers the player and GM to adjust the character to fit what's important in play and in the campaign; the ability to refine may be able to stand in for a constant, slow improvement via levlling. The character gets better in mild ways as the character gets more defined. This is the build-point for stunts and tweaks.

5. PCs should have the ability to "power-up" substantially -- not simply tweaks and stunts off of their existing powers, but a noticeable jump. (Compare Luke Skywalker from SW to ESB to RotJ.) This will give players something to look forward to, which will help them come back to the game regularly.

What say you?

CU

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Behaviour Maps

posted by Geoff

One of the common misconceptions about roleplaying games is that it is possible for a gamemaster to develop a storyline for a game session a priori. People often think this because they are used to seeing stories told to them in books and films and thinking that the sequence of events that the characters experience – the story – can be mapped out. Unfortunately in an RPG session, the players have a choice over the direction the plot follows and it is remarkably easy to move beyond the series of events that the GM has planned. This forces the GM to try to make the players stick to the unseen script or to throw the whole pre-planned storyline out completely. So if the storyline of the game isn't something that appears until after the game has been played, what tools can the GM use to help guide selection of events that the characters will experience and still the flow of events coherent?

In his book Fuzzy Thinking, Bart Kosko presents the idea of a fuzzy cognitive map. It's a directed graph, where the nodes in the graph represent conditions within a system and the directed lines between the nodes represent a causality link. The node at the source end of the line is said to directly cause a change in the node at the target end of the line. Normally, each of these lines is annotated with either a "+" or a "-" sign, denoting whether the source node causes either an increase or a decrease in the target node.

Fuzzy Cognitive map from
Figure 1: Fuzzy Cognitive map from Fuzzy Thinking by Bart Kosko


One of the examples Kosko provides in Fuzzy Thinking deals with cocaine sales and its flow on-effects (see Figure 1). Kosko and one of his colleagues wanted to test whether the political policy being put forward at the time would have any effect on the war on drugs. They developed this fuzzy cognitive map and ran it through a computer program that would calculate the rise and fall of each node's value over time, given the changes in the rest of the system. In the book, Kosko starts by increasing demand for cocaine, simulated by increasing the value in the "Drug Usage" node. Because of the directed links between nodes – which represent causality links between the concepts the nodes represent – this causes an increase in the "Cocaine Price" node, which in turn increases the values in the "Cartels" node and the "Street Gangs" node, while actually decreasing the value in the "Drug Usage" node. The increase in the "Cartels" and "Street Gangs" nodes increases the "Drug Availability", which in turn increases "Drug Usage" and "American Police Interdiction" (amongst other things).

Around the time I was working on the early ideas for the communities chapter of the Gamma World Player's Handbook, James Maliszewski posted an entry on the late Rock Scissors Blog, dealing with the need for rules governing melodrama in games. For some reason, this got me thinking about Kosko's fuzzy cognitive maps and ways they could be used in gaming as a GM tool. I found the idea of one concept creating a causal increase or decrease in another to potentially have useful ramifications for a GM running a free-flowing game. This led to the development of the Community Behaviour Map, which first appeared in the Gamma World Player's Handbook and later in the Advanced Player's Guide, both from Sword and Sorcery Studios.

Put simply, a Behaviour Map tries to encapsulate likely responses to a given event by having nodes which represent specific conditions or behaviours. The causal links to other nodes, which – as in the fuzzy cognitive map – can either be causal increase or causal decrease depending on the situation. It's important to realise that a "+" sign on a link means that if the effect in the source node increases, then the effect in the target node will likewise increase. Similarly, if the effect in the source node decreases, then the effect in the target node will also decrease. Conversely, if the link has a "-", an increase in the source node effect will cause a decrease in the target node effect, while a decrease in the source node will result in an increase in the target.

To use the behaviour map, a GM would determine which node a particular event is related to. She would then follow the causal links and think up ideas that match either the increase or decrease in the node at the other end of the link, depending on the link's sign. These events would then be presented to the player(s) as the consequences of their actions. For those who subscribe to the use of "bangs" (as first presented in Ron Edward's Sorcerer RPG), the subsequent events be used to provide the bangs for the character or characters involved. Once the character responds to the secondary event, subsequent events will flow on from there as described by the behaviour map.

Drug Usage Behaviour Map Example
Figure 2: Drug Usage Behaviour Map example


For example, Figure 2 describes a very simple behaviour map dealing with the results of a character taking drugs (to follow on from Kosko's example in Figrue 1). Let's say that when the game begins, the character in question is a lawyer, who is happily married, has good relationships with his friends and employer and is reasonably well off financially.

Now, as an opening event, the character is at a party and is convinced to take a few hits of cocaine by a friend. This event plays into the "Drug Usage" node. After the party, this guy goes home to his wife, and as he comes down off the hit, he starts getting paranoid. He acts strange around his wife, who gets upset with him. (Drug Usage decreases Good Relationships). His wife may continue to hound him for a couple of days, putting more pressure on him, so he decides to get another hit of cocaine, so he can feel good (a decrease in "Good Relationships" increases "Drug Usage"). But the second hit starts to make this guy addicted to cocaine, which increases his involvement with crime ("Drug Usage" increases "Crime Involvement" and "Addiction") but it also costs money (increased "Drug Usage" decreases "Finances"). The additional spending and evidence of drug use both continue to put more pressure on this marriage. And the game can continue to play out from there.

Choosing the nodes in the Behaviour Map takes some trial and error. I've discovered that it's best to have the nodes represent something "concrete", such as "Drug Usage" or "Good Relationships" rather than describing an action on those concepts. In my original draft of Figure 2, I had "Pressure on Relationships" rather than "Good Relationships". However, I replaced the node description when I realised that I couldn't model, for example, a friend taking the character aside and trying to get him to give up the drugs; an increase in the "Good Relationships" node should result in a decrease in drug usage.

Some nodes should also work in opposition to others. There should always be a mixture of "+" and "-" signs on the causal links. If you start to find that when you're creating a Behaviour Map and all your links have one sign, that's usually an indicator that you may have at least one of your node concepts wrong. You should revise it so that you can get the conflict back into the map. After all, it's conflict that drives a good story along.

Behaviour Maps are not intended to be used to the exclusion of all other GMing tools. They do not, for example, provide any indication of where a particular character – either player character or GM character – fits into the storyline. Instead, they can be used in conjunction with other GMing tools such as relationship maps or Coterie diagrams to assist the GM in coming up with events at game time. They are merely a guide to help provide inspiration, rather than being something to constrain the free-flowing nature of the story as it develops in play.


Drive Thru RPG, Part 2: Drive Thru RPG in Particular

posted by Bruce Baugh

In my previous post, I tried to lay some general groundwork. Obviously there's disagreement about the theoretical issues, and I knew I wasn't going win over all hearts and minds. So I'm going to move on now and write about my experiences buying and using some products from Drive Thru RPG.

The Drive Thru RPG Website



"Unappealing" seems a good summary of my reaction. It's got the sort of background that you used to see a lot on web pages, against which text would be completely illegible and which makes anti-aliased graphics like drop shadows in logos look bad. Text is all in cells with yellow backgrounds and thin black tops containing text in white. The front page won't display in my preferred browser width of about 700-800 pixels (preferred because it lets me see other things going on behind it); many but not all interior pages do fit. The brick background isn't present in pages listing information for a single product, and they're much more legible (and faster-scrolling) because of it. The whole site is fairly sluggish; how much of that is because of unexpectedly heavy load, I couldn't say, but it has the general ambience of less than optimized design.

It's also remarkably like the Chaosium site. A friend tells me a standard e-commerce package makes it easy to produce that look. Pity. I would much prefer something like that of Shadowrun (for a fancy style) or Holistic Design (for a simple one).

Fortunately, a lot of information is available on the front page, including the most recent additions and a list of the contributing publishers, so it's not hard to get to any particular product.

In Praise of Customer Service



I'm not sure I've ever gotten better customer service from the tech support at a website. Wow. I ran into a big problem early on, and the guy who took my mail went far beyond the call of duty in the speed and thoroughness of his answer. Just amazing, fully solving a problem that he could have dismissed and been entirely within his rights. From everything I've read online, too, the folks there have remained gracious and prompt even in the face of sometimes ghastly provocation. this is the sort of service you can't really buy - it takes people with a whole lot of clues and good attitude, and I sure hope they get properly appreciated. Just amazing.

Buying and Using



This is the nitty gritty. What's it like to buy and use something from Drive Thru?

Buying from Drive Thru is a lot like buying from just about any online vendor. They take enough information to bill you and (presumably) to contact you if there's a problem. You can pay either by credit card or PayPal; I've done both without problem. They allow multiple credit cards and billing info to be associated with a single account. When you complete a purchase, you get a page with download links for each product.

Now, I set up Acrobat 6 before doing my first downloads. Within Acrobat 6 there's a menu command to activate it as a reader for products with DRM restrictions. I have an existing account with Adobe, since I buy from their website from time to time, but on a whim I set up a new account for this purpose. It has only my e-mail address and a password - no personal contact info, no billing info, no nothing else. The activation process involves going to their web site to set up the account, then downloading some little stub of data that does something in the background and generates a "you've been activated" message when it's done. You need to do this once for each machine you propose to use Drive Thru products on. I am, to put it mildly, not a computer guru, but I followed instructions about tracking incoming and outgoing packets on my computer, and I established that there's no contact made with Adobe upon opening or using Drive Thru files once they're downloaded - the activation info is stored on the machine itself.

That done, I downloaded from Drive Thru. Each transfer is a two-step deal: another small stub of data comes down, and it fires up Acrobat and does the transfer of the actual product from within it. Drive Thru's system is not 100% reliable at detecting the presence of a suitable reader application, but gives you the option of downloading anyway. The downloading happens as a single multi-part action; I don't know if you could save the stub and get the file later, and haven't actually been motivated to try.

Reading and printing go exactly as with any other PDF. I'm having some trouble setting new bookmarks, but then at the moment I'm using my Frankenstein backup machine; I'll check that on the new one once it's back from the shop. I don't have any problem setting or searching for text in notes. Highlighting also works fine.

I've mentioned this before, I think, but Acrobat 6's search options are wonderful. If I were developing an active line with a lot of releases to refer to, I would try to insist that the line be released in this format so that I could let Acrobat find all the necessary references for me. It's just a wonderful convenience. It'd be really handy for some kinds of GMing, too.

Copying and pasting worked pretty well. I didn't realize that the line breaks would be hard ones, so that I needed to do some manual reformatting on chunks to share with friends. (I was doing this to explain why Spellslinger is so cool that they must go buy it and that I must run it. Circumstances interfered with yesterday's planned game, but run it I will! End of plug.) I also pinned down precisely what the copying restrictions mean, and will cover those in the round-up after this section.

Backing up the files is easy. You can do it in Acrobat or outside it, and stick stuff on external hard drives, mac.com's iDisks, CD-ROMs, etc etc. You can nuke a file off the computer and restore it from backup and you will not have to reauthenticate it. I haven't tried nuking all of the Acrobat reader and reinstalling it; I'm assuming that would call for re-validation (more on that in a moment, too). You can also take CD-ROMs and such over to other machines and load them up. If there's a validated reader on that machine, up they come. If not, you get a prompt to go do something about it. It is not necessary to be online while reading, or indeed at all once the file's downloaded to any of your validated machines.

So in practical terms it's pretty much like having any other PDF once you've gone through the hoop once per machine.

Restrictions



But what does this scheme keep you from doing? Well, here's what I've found. I vouch for all of this from my own experience except the bit about Windows, which I'm not in a position to test myself, but it comes from a source that gave me information I could and did verify in part.


  • Number of Machines: There is indeed a limit of six machines. I don't have six computers, so I enlisted the help of trusted friends and gave them the log-in information. (The e-mail address at Adobe needs to match what you give Drive Thru RPG, apparently, but otherwise you're at liberty to tell Adobe something or nothing at all else.) Sure enough, after six machines have been validated, you get cryptic error messages.

  • Un-Validating Machines: Adobe's own FAQ says you can't. A post at Drive Thru says you can, by calling an Adobe customer service line. Drive Thru is correct. I did it. I gave my name, e-mail address, and password to a guy there, indicated which machine I wanted deactivated, and it was deactivated in a few minutes. This ought to be automated.

  • Copying Text: I'm told that some companies have already turned off this restriction, but it's present in the files I have, and apparently in most of what's for sale at Drive Thru. The language of the FAQ and other advice is very unclear, I think, but I've tested it enough to feel confident in saying the following. You can copy up to 10 pages' worth of material in a 10-day period. Any fraction of a page counts as a page for this purpose. So you could copy 10 snippets of a page or less each, or 2 snippets of 1.01-2 pages each, and so forth and so on. Yes, the timer does accurately reset at the end of ten days; no, I haven't tried fooling with the system clock to see if that works. Oh, and the text tool naturally copies just text (with basic formatting), but screen shots work for those times you might want to show art, maps, etc. to players.

  • Printing: On local machines, no restrictions at all. If you want to take it to a print bureau or something, you'll want to see Jeff Mackintosh's explanation for Windows and OSX machines. I got as far as verifying that I could indeed make the PostScript dump. Beyond that? Dunno. I don't buy PDFs to print out at print bureaus, so I can't say.



Thoughts and Comments



There are some - a lot of - questions to which there's no universally right answer. What matters is that you know what you want and do what's satisfying for you, while allowing a little bit of room for experimenting from time to time.

One of those questions is how much longevity of entertainment goods matters to you. Among my own close friends, I know that attitudes span the gamut from "if I ever enjoyed it or think I ever might, it must be preserved as close to intact as possible" to "once I've enjoyed it or realized I won't, out it goes right away", with all kinds of shades, changes of emphasis depending on the kind of good, and so on. Nor do I think any of my friends are being nimrods about it - each one has good reasons for acting the way they do and seems to be enjoying the results of their preferences. So that's all good.

There are certainly risks to e-books, particularly with this sort of DRM scheme, that there aren't to print books. You may lose print books to fire, flood, and many other disasters, but the collapse of the publisher won't affect you. Adobe has been around a good long while in software terms, but they could go out of business, and even if they stay around they could decide not to support the e-book venture anymore. That would leave you with your existing registered machines fine until you upgrade the OS, lose a hard drive, whatever. For that matter, you can have happen what I did: make a purchase, and then have the computer die that night before your regular backup. It's important to back up purchases promptly if you're at all accident-prone like I seem to be this year.

Given routine attrition and happenstance, I think it's reasonable to expect that files from Drive Thru RPG will only last as usable data for a few years, before something corrupts the data or keeps you from getting at it. The question is, is this a problem? And the answer is, it depends.

For me, it's not a problem. I've been selling, giving away, and throwing out old game books that I have no sensible expectation of ever using because I value an uncluttered apartment more than I used to, along with the removal of occasions for disappointment and regret. I'm quite happy to buy some of them as e-books, which I can read when I want to but can store in ways that don't add clutter. The CD-ROM backups go into the same carry cases as my other CD-ROMs, and I have a goodly quantity of hard drive space for active use.

Likewise with the DRM restrictions. I don't have six computers, and I'm not primarily interested in PDFs as things to print out, so I have no interest in whether it's economical to print them out. I want them to read and mark up on my computer, since I'm comfortable reading on-screen. I like OSX's anti-aliasing and I spend a lot of time at my computer, and at this point all my gaming is online, so having my books right on my machine lets me play more tidily. Any of those things could be different for you, and you'd be perfectly justified in deciding that Drive Thru's offerings are less valuable to you as a result.

In the midst of a generally unproductive forum argument, someone whose post I can't now find offered up the idea that Drive Thru's offerings may make more sense when thought of as software than as books. I like that. If I buy a utility program for $5-20, I'm usually not heartbroken if it stops working a major system update or few down the road. There are apps I try out, like, buy, and then end up not using much, and I'm not heartbroken about that, either - the ones I use a lot make up the difference in my sense of satisfaction. One Weatherpop covers several DragThings, to grab some examples from my own experiences.

Well, same deal here. I'm paying 50-70% of cover price for something that lacks books' independence and durability, but is more searchable and portable. It's not a full replacement for a print book; it's a digital artifact with its own strengths and weaknesses. If you're out to get something that will act just like a book, you're better off buying the book, just as it's not making best use of a word processor to confine yourself to perfect emulation of a physical typewriter. I think that e-book advocates pushing the "it's just like a print book" line are missing the point, which is precisely that e-books are not like print books.

Summary



For me at this point, it's a good deal. I wish that the Drive Thru site looked better and loaded faster, and I would like to see a simple comprehensive FAQ with no blivets or lacunae, but even so, I'm a happy customer and I have no problem recommending the site to people interested in e-book versions of rolegaming books.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Drive Thru RPG, Part 1: Digital Rights Management in General

posted by Bruce Baugh

Drive Thru RPG is a new service in the roleplaying game world, with several publishers selling past and present books in PDF form. Participants include currently prominent companies like White Wolf and Eden down to obscure and nearly-dead ventures like Fantasy Games Unlimited. There has been, to put it mildly, some controversy about it. I am a happy customer, and wish to offer my assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the operation. This was originally going to be one very long post, but I came to my senses and realized that it made more sense as two separate posts. this one is about the general concept of copy protection, and the next one will be about my experiences with Drive Thru.

Digital Rights Management and Piracy: Some Basics



It's very easy to copy electronic works, and to move them around. Bits are pliable that way. The problem for would-be sellers of electronic works is that this applies just as much to copying and distribution that may cost them sales as to the transactions they want to support.

The word "may" in the previous sentence is crucial. The most important thing to know about possibly illegitimate copying and distribution is that we collectively don't know much about it. A great many claims and counter-claims fill the ether, and gradually there's some accumulating actual data, but even so, there's a lot more speculation than anything else. I'm going to get anecdotal here.

In college I knew some guys who are very active in the BBS-connected computer game pirating scene of the time. That was for games running on the Apple II and Commodore, of course. The thing that struck me early on was that the hard-core guys had far more games than they could ever possibly play, and indeed they didn't even really know much about a lot of the games they had. They actively disliked many of the ones they did know something about. Low-level pirates would seek out copies of games they wanted to play, but for the high-level guys, I realized in conversations with them, the size and timeliness of the collection itself was the point. The games were the units of currency in their transactions, rather than the objects of pursuit in themselves.

Over the years, I've crossed paths with other pirate communities, most recently some of the traders in illicit copies of roleplaying games, and I see the same dynamic at work. They're not collecting games to play, they're collecting games for the sake of their collections. It's very much the same dynamic as any collecting community, really, except that there's the added frisson of doing something that the original supplier of the goods doesn't want you to do. That's the major distinguishing factor, really: an e-book (or computer game, or whatever) trader who tries adding significant quantities of authorized freebies to their stock comes in for substantial scorn. The goods must come with the frisson to count for scoring.

Obviously there's no real way to stop people who have that attitude and any degree of determination. They interpret any fresh barrier as a challenge. They define themselves by an adversarial relationship, and nothing the designated adversary can do can resolve it. Offer more stuff for free? That'd be a surrender. Sell stuff that can be easily swiped? Then they'll swipe, after purchases with (in many cases) fraudulent credit card information. Develop protection schemes harder to break? They'll get to work on new tools.

The thing is that these hard-core folks are few. They generate a whole lot of traffic, but...well, think about how much volume a few folks ranting on street corners can generate compared to all the surrounding conversations, but how unrepresentative they're likely to be. You may need to plan a community to take the fact of the ranters into account, but you musn't think that they're significant or indicative except as a nuisance.

Beyond the folks who define themselves as adversaries, there are a lot of folks who have nothing against buying things and are quite happy to support the creators and publishers of work they like, but who nonetheless share some things around in ways that sellers might not prefer. There are some sellers who feel that any such sharing that doesn't result in some income for them is a lost sale, but I think that's ridiculous. I do a fair amount of sharing around myself, and what I find is that people do in fact tend to buy what they end up using. One of the major roles for the unauthorized share is the opportunity to thoroughly preview a work, in more detail than online snippets or in-store browsing can provide. If the work proves neat, it gets bought. If not, it generally ends up tossed. A sharing that doesn't lead to a sale is often the remote equivalent of having a friend in your living room borrow a book, read it, and decide not to buy.

I'm sure that some sharing does in fact take the place of sales. But then some sharing leads to the discovery that, hey, this is cooler than the recipient thought, and generates unexpected sales. At least some data suggests that this is true for music, that file sharing ends up not mattering at all most of the time and occasionally boosts sales. I suspect but cannot prove that it's true for e-books as well, and I'm not asking readers to trust my intuitions just 'coz I'm a cool guy.

Whether I'm right or not, as I understand it, the goal of most copy-protection schemes is to deter casual sharing. The principle is a familiar one: law enforcement, personal security, and a lot of things are all aimed not so much at making hard-core violators go away as at not providing tempting targets. Motivate the would-be violator go somewhere else. The tricky part for the designers of such a scheme is to make it do that without being too much of a nuisance to actual paying customers, and people likely to be customers if not turned off.

Is Digital Rights Management Immoral or Anti-Capitalist?



I've seen both these charges made in the last week, and I'd like to answer both very simply: No.

But while one-word answers are fun, they often need more context.

First, let me lay out the terms of sale I prefer. I'm in favor of simple outright sale whenever possible: you buy it, and it's yours to sell to someone else, give away, recycle, destroy, whatever. Once the transaction is concluded, the good becomes basically invisible to the seller, gone out into the world and not to be seen again except under exceptional circumstances like recalls. I like my stuff to be, well, mine.

On the other hand, the rhetoric I usually espouse about the merits of free markets boil down to the idea that if the participants are satisfied and it doesn't impose harm on others, then it's okay (again, except under really strange conditions). My wanting to buy a thing a certain way does not create an entitlement that anyone else sell it to me that way or indeed at all. That means that your engaging in a purchase I wish you wouldn't, because it encourages more sales on terms I disapprove of, is not harm of the sort the law should step in and put a stop to. It's just part of living in a society in which we are not guaranteed the fulfillment of our desires.

I don't see any conceptual necessity that all sales be the sort of simple purchase I prefer. Rental is of course a well-known conceptual category, and related categories like checking out books (and other stuff) from lending libraries. In principle, the idea of sale with conditions is not terribly remarkable. The terms may be undesirable, but there is nothing innately antithetical to morality or the functioning of a healthy free market in the existence of terms beyond simple sale. Insisting otherwise is giving too much authority to a set of preferences simply because they are our own. But part of the primary point of marketplaces is that more than one designated set of preferences can be catered to.

For me it's a practical issue: are these terms reasonable? Do they interfere with my using the goods the way I want to? Do they give more power to the seller than I feel comfortable with? What are the risks of failure on the seller's end complicating things for me? I'll address these in part 2, when I describe just what Drive Thru actually does.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Sounding off

posted by Geoff

In a comment at the bottom of my last post, Meeks asked if the contributors could post up a brief description of where we sit in relation the gaming world.

Well, speaking for myself, my name's Geoff Skellams, and I'm an Australian freelance RPG author. I've had stuff published by (the deceased) Dynasty Presentations, Polyhedron, Microsoft, Fast Forward, Sword and Sorcery and White Wolf. I guess you could say my main claim to fame recently is being the author of the community system that appears in the Gamma World Player's Handbook and the Advanced Player's Guide.

I'm also one of the founding editors of the DEMONGROUND modern horror/conspiracy ezine.

Whether all of that makes my ramblings worth paying attention to I leave as an exercise for the reader :)

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

In search of consistently good gaming

posted by Geoff

One thing that I have been searching for over the past few years is a set of tools to provide me with consistently good gaming. I've found a few bits here and there that have helped, particularly things such as Chris Kubasik's excellent Interactive Toolkit series.

But despite the appearance of things like Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, I haven't really come across a good reference for helping someone like me, with a preference to gaming that is more like interactive fiction writing.

I have attempted, in the past, to look at place like the Forge, which apparently has some discussion about such things. However (at the risk of inciting another anti-Forge riot, which I assure you is not my intention), I have trouble with the language used (as in, it confuses the hell out of me) and find that if the information that I am looking for is on the site, it's so buried in the threads on the board that I cannot find what I want (especially if I don't know the words used to describe the concepts).

Having seen some of the recent threads on RPGnet about kickers and bangs, I believe that some of the ideas I'm looking for may be contained in some of the games that Forge members have produced. Unfortunately, this doesn't help me, mainly because such games are difficult to find in Australia, and I'm not particularly inclined to buy a game simply because of what may only amount to a couple of paragraphs of GM advice.

So, what I would like to do is find a website that has a collection of essays on how to improve your gaming, written in simple English, and preferably with examples. Alternatively, if there isn't one, then help create one, so that others who are in the same boat as me may perhaps find answers to some of the questions they have.

Does such a site exist anywhere? If it doesn't, is it worthwhile investing time to write up some simple-to-understand pieces that may help gamers-at-large have more fulfilling gaming experiences?