Please allow me a few moments to beat a long-dead horse: people pirate D&D books all the time, and WotC hates it. It’s very hard to keep it from happening because it’s easy to copy printed books. All it takes to make a pirated PDF of a D&D book is a computer, a scanner, a couple hours, and somebody patient enough to push a button about 200 times. That’ll just make an obscenely large PDF full of bitmapped images of each page. Real dedicated pirates might sit down and type in all the words on each page so the document is searchable. We’re still talking a couple hours’ time here.
I understand WotC’s apprehension about distributing digital copies of their stuff, and I understand them wanting to take steps to stop it, but they’re not really doing anything but making their paying customers crazy. DRM is a wonderful thought, but let’s face it: somebody is going to eventually figure out how to break any protection scheme, followed by copiously bittorrenting an unprotected version. All the DRM in the world isn’t going to stop it. Not offering legitimate digital copies of their books definitely isn’t going to stop it (right now there’s only one way to get a digital version of a D&D book, and it ain’t legal).
So what is going to stop the piracy of WotC’s intellectual property?
To be honest, I doubt anything will solve the problem completely, especially as long as there are print books. Ebook publishers have long used other methods to ensure books don’t get widely pirated, such as custom-generating an individual digitally watermarked copy of an ebook for a customer. I’m much less likely to distribute a copyrighted PDF I bought to random strangers with dubious intent if it has my name and email address on every page.
I’d be happy if we just got that, but I think everyone’s interests would be much better served if WotC came up with a business model where stopping piracy isn’t necessary.
Prepare To Repel Boarders
Piracy-resistant business models already exist in today’s market. What separates them is that they can offer something that you can’t get simply by copying files and data. World of Warcraft and other MMOs are an example of this. There have been cases where the WoW client and even the server software have been pirated. I hope those guys had fun questing all by themselves, because they definitely weren’t getting anywhere near all the game had to offer. Many software companies will check for a valid registration before they offer tech support, access to forums, and other online features.
See a trend there? The Internet gives us options we didn’t have 25 years ago, and WotC already has a lot of the infrastructure they’d need to leverage these options in the form of D&D Insider. The people pirating books probably aren’t going to be giving you any money anytime soon. Providing a subscription model that gives you things you can’t get anywhere else might be a way to turn these people into customers.
That, to me, is pretty powerful stuff.
The D&D Book Of The Future
Remember all that business with the server I was going on about last week where it could spit out lots of cool data? Here’s one idea where that sort of thing would really shine:
Imagine having a digital copy of a D&D book. It’s searchable. Woo hoo and all that. I know you guys are thrilled. We’re at a quality level pirates can provide to us. Now let’s make this thing epic.
All of this stuff would pull in the most recent data from DDI, effectively making each book a living document. We could start by having the book automatically update itself with the latest errata. Handy, but not earth-shattering. Now let’s throw in some tools that make the book’s content easier to use.
There are a lot of little tables in D&D books, and most of the time you’re looking in those either to figure out what you get at X level, or rolling up something random. We could not only take the work out of this, but always have the latest options to choose from in these tables courtesy the data from DDI. Imagine, instead of “Table 1.8: Random Treasure Rewards”, having something that could take in the party’s level and it tells you what they got. The DMG might come with tools that let you do simple things like rolling random encounter tables, or it could randomly generate a whole encounter for you (including a unique map), complete with options you could tweak.
I like the idea of little boxes and apps that perform useful functions, but the real magic in this is these materials could be available right there in the relevant section of the book. For instance, when you’re selecting feats, spells, and other abilities, the PHB could read your character sheet and filter its content or make suggestions based on what prerequisites your character meets. Sure, the Character Builder does some of these things already, but this would give you that kind of power while keeping things in a more human-friendly context. How awesome would it be to look through a spell list in the PHB and drag your choices to your spellbook in the Character Builder?
The magic is that you could do all these cool things, but still use your D&D books in a very similar way to what you’ve done since the late 70’s. And there’s certainly nothing that says these tools couldn’t be all indexed in one place for easy finding, or that hyperlinks couldn’t be made in various parts of the book to access relevant materials. I’d especially like to see these books able to print and export the things you create so your prep time is diminished.
I could go on for hours just coming up with random neat ideas. The possibilities are wide open.
In The Year 2000
This isn’t science fiction. The technology to make this happen already exists. The use of laptop computers and tablets these days is very widespread, even at gaming tables. PDFs can have custom code in them that allows them to access data remotely, as can proprietary ebook formats like those the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. (Though, when doing this, it will be necessary to keep cross-platform compatibility firmly in mind.)
One thing I’ve never quite understood about the D&D Compendium in its current form is that (with your subscription) you get access to information from every 4e book out there regardless of whether you own it. Sure, I like having access to it, but in a situation where you’re trying to get a decent revenue stream, it seems to me like you could mark data on the server with what source it came from and restrict content to only what a given user has purchased (and registered). A strategy like this would incentivize new purchases since all your books (and 3rd party DDI-powered applications!) would update with new material every time you got something new. I understand there are some challenges that have already been discovered about linking physical purchases to unlocking online content, but this might be worth revisiting if the benefits outweigh the problems.
Will it take lots of development work? You bet. But if a lot of the magic happens server-side and requires a DDI account to utilize, you could pirate it all day and it would be largely unusable. Are there some tradeoffs? Sure. Some people won’t like needing an Internet connection to use the books, and there are doubtless other technical considerations and pitfalls. Past those, though, you’ve now got a version of your book that keeps itself current, links itself up to all the other legit D&D products you own, and will be a lot more desirable to have than a pirated 40mb unsearchable PDF file that takes forever to load each page and crashes most tablets.
Don’t try to stop piracy. Make it irrelevant.
Pixellated Hopes For A Digital Tomorrow
I realize I have just pipe-dreamt up an enormously tall order that probably won’t come into being anytime soon. Nobody has what I’ve talked about above, and I sincerely doubt I’m the first to think of this. Whether the piracy-resistant nature of a system like this will make a tabletop gaming company invest the money and manpower into developing and maintaining it remains to be seen.
I have hopes that we’ll see something like this eventually, but I’m not holding my breath. I think effective use of DDI will be the key to WotC’s digital success, digital books or not.
Ultimately, though, I hope I’ve nudged a few minds toward the notion that a company can keep its intellectual property safe in a way that encourages business and greatly increases the user experience of their customers. I hope that’s WotC ultimately shoots for, no matter what solutions they decide to go with.