One of my earliest long articles, written for Jeff Kirvin’s “Writing On Your Palm” before I ever came to TeleRead, was a piece called “Whither the PDA D&D?” in which I looked at the emergence of role-playing game books in digital form, largely as PDFs. I wondered if we might ever see RPG books rendered into a format where people could use them more easily on small-form-factor devices, rather than being tied to a full-sized laptop screen the way PDFs were.
The bad news is, with the occasional odd exception such as Nobilis 3rd Edition, that hasn’t really happened. The good news is, as laptops have gotten lighter and tablets have gotten large enough to display PDFs reasonably well on a portrait-orientation screen, the format has become less of a handicap than it had been.
Effectively, PDFs are now the format that RPG e-books come in, and that’s that. They’re great for printing out the bits you need to, and good enough for screen reading. Nobody’s really had the urge to innovate something better, unless you’re talking about simply creating a system for running and playing D&D as a full-fledged computer game.
The one thing people don’t talk about as much is how you buy those RPGs. Even though DRM isn’t really a factor, at the moment there’s basically just one major store for it, DriveThruRPG, which merged with its chief competitor RPGNow in 2006. In a series of tweets, veteran game designer Fred Hicks of Evil Hat explains that, since that merger, DriveThruRPG has effectively become “our hobby’s Amazon. Not a monopoly, necessarily, but damned close, for the RPG PDF market.” They effectively own over 80% of the RPG PDF market, as Amazon does for on-line book sales, making it “Incredibly difficult to step away from it unless you want to become invisible.”
Since they’re DRM-free, you can sell PDFs from pretty much any site, but most places don’t simply because most gamers are going to shop on DriveThru. You pretty much have to be a big company in your own right, like Paizo or Steve Jackson Games, to be able to drive customers to your own PDF store. That’s pretty much just how it is with Amazon. Baen sold its own e-books DRM-free for well over a decade, but once e-books were no longer an early-adopter market, they discovered they effectively had to be on Amazon to reach the majority of customers.
Another similarity to Amazon is that it’s really easy to publish to DriveThru. There isn’t a real curation or approval process, Hicks explains, because DriveThru doesn’t have the staff for that. Instead, companies can simply push the button and publish, and suddenly anything and everything is right out there in the public eye—including offensive content.
Hicks makes the explanation in the context of another game company’s product which just blew up on DriveThru. Paizo project manager Jessica L. Price discusses it on her Tumblr blog. (Trigger warning: it concerns a game product entitled “Tournament of Rapists.” Enough said about that.) Effectively, Price explains, when called on the fact that they were hosting an offensive game, DriveThru’s CEO Steve Wieck responded with “classic derailing tactics,” which she quotes in detail.
Finally, the game’s publisher chose to pull the title from sale; as recounted at the end of the Fred Hicks Storify, DriveThru’s official Twitter account explained that “If they choose to republish it we have asked but not demanded that they consider some changes to the [product].” It’s hard to imagine what kind of changes would make the idea any less offensive, but there you go.
It’s interesting how similar this debacle is to the time Amazon allowed a self-published manual for pedophiles to remain for sale for some time before finally pulling it. Amazon’s first response was that “Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable.” Then, hours later, the book was yanked.
The difference is that Amazon’s defensive response probably came from some low-level support peon toeing the corporate line because he didn’t have the authority to do anything else. It must have been someone higher in the chain of command who pulled it. DriveThru’s defensive response, on the other hand, came from its CEO, and the game was only pulled by its publisher, presumably because things were getting too hot for them.
RPGs are in a weird space when it comes to gender and race issues. In general, when it comes to representation, I think the industry’s ahead on gender of where they are on race–we’re making significant progress on the portrayal of women, whereas people of color are still largely invisible. On the other hand, the industry and game communities still tolerate the sort of language and discussion about women that, if it were about racial minorities, would send 99% of community managers/moderators lunging for the ban button (e.g. gendered slurs are tolerated when racial ones are not, discussions of what female players/characters should be allowed to do/be/wear happen with regularity, and so on).
Wieck’s defense of a game of this nature in some ways puts me in mind of the Gamergate movement, even though this is a different game medium than most of those the ‘gaters were concerned with. But ironically, DriveThruRPG actually did ban a game that had GamerGate as the subject matter.
I expect we’ll know more in a day or so; Wieck has promised to make a more lengthy blog post on the matter giving his side of things once DriveThru’s staff is back from the weekend.