Sunday, June 13, 2004

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,'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.


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.


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.