Thursday, 19 April 2018

Pricing Part 3

Back in 2014, I shared some observations about pricing PDFs on OneBookShelf sites. I am told some publishers found it useful as a guideline for OBS marketplaces. Still, a number of questions arose as a result of that initial blog post, such as, how did some of the biggest, most prolific publishers skew the results? And how did those observations apply to print-on-demand pricing, as opposed to digital pricing?

I am not a statistician or a data scientist, and I won't pretend what you'll see here is any more sophisticated than my last blog on this topic. Moreover, as I noted last time, these data are correlative, not causative. Still, I hope you might find something that helps you in deciding how to price your titles more effectively.

Note: All numbers and data visualizations are based on gross sales revenue for both DriveThruRPG and RPGnow, combined, from all of 2016 and 2017. Dungeon Masters Guild data are not addressed here.

Revenue by Price Point

As in the previous pricing blog, let's take a look at what price points have done best on our marketplace in the past two years, in terms of gross revenue. After that, we can start looking at the same data sliced up a few different ways.

Fig. 1: Gross revenue by price point (in $1 increments)

In this regard, at least, things haven't changed much in the past three years or so. There are spikes at each of the $5 price increments, but those increments are also by far the most common price points for products on our site.

One improvement of the data visualizations here, over those I provided in 2014, is that now you can see digital sales separated from print sales: Print-on-demand book revenue is indicated in orange above, while digital revenue is blue.

Complication: For orders which include both digital and print titles, data are duplicated: When we sell digital + print product, for example, that order shows up as both a digital sale and a print sale in the metrics. That's why you'll notice, above, that a few print sales show up even at very low price points. Taken in aggregate, though, the visualization is still helpful for seeing trends, even if the data aren't perfectly clean.

Revenue per Title by Price Point

Now we'll take a look at the same data adjusted for the total number of titles available at each price point; looking at sales revenue relative to catalog size this way, we have a clearer sense of what have actually been the most "successful" (in the sense of lucrative) price points on our store.

Fig. 2: Adjusted revenue per available title, by price point ($1 increments)

As you can see above, the $19.01-$20 range remains the most lucrative price point on our site, just as we saw back in 2014. This is purely an observation of past buying behavior; it shouldn't be taken to mean you have to price things at $19.99 if you want to sell product. If publishers suddenly changed their pricing so that the vast majority of titles on our marketplace sold at, say, $6.95 or $22.99 (for whatever reason), you might see those specific price points gradually become more popular with customers over time.

Broader Price Bands

The histograms above only go up to prices of $60, while print prices can go somewhat higher. To take a look at print pricing specifically, we need to extend things a little further along the horizontal axis. To do that, I have grouped the values a little more tightly.

Here's the same information I've shown above, but extended upward to a $150 maximum, with prices aggregated into $5 increments, rather than $1.

Fig. 3: Gross revenue by price point (in $5 increments)
And here are those same $5 increments, again adjusted for catalog size within each increment.

Fig. 4: Adjusted revenue per available title, by price point ($5 increments)

You'll note that as the prices increase beyond $20, digital selling power drops drastically, while print power rises somewhat, up to about the $70 price range.

Looking at Figure 4, above, you might be tempted to think that digital titles selling for $10 or less aren't "worthwhile." However, in Figure 3, you can see plainly that the bulk of digital revenue actually comes from titles in those lower price ranges. There are vastly more titles priced at $10 or lower on our sites than there are more expensive ones.

Average Revenue per Print Title, by Price Point

Taking digital sales revenue out of the equation for a bit, let's focus on print-on-demand (POD) titles.

First, some basics: Just under 12% of the total revenue on our marketplace comes from print sales. However, fewer than half of the publishers on our site offer books in print, so that percentage, for those who do sell in POD, averages somewhat higher than 12%. On the flip side, print books do have a base printing cost that must be paid to the printer, so the margin on those sales is sometimes smaller than that for digital books (but not necessarily so, and publishers are always free to set their own margins!).

Offering Digital and Print: Past research indicates that publishers who launch a title in both print-on-demand and digital formats at the same time will see nearly 30% higher revenue for that title within in the first year. Print versions released within a year of the digital launch, but not at the same time, will see only about half that increase, or about 16%.

Now, how about some more graphs? First, let's compare black & white POD (print-on-demand) revenue to revenue from color books.

Here, you can see the gross revenue by price, again adjusted for the number of titles offered at each aggregate price point, for black & white print RPG books.

Fig. 5: Adjusted revenue per B&W title, by price point ($5 increments)

And here is the same view, but for color books in print rather than B&W:

Fig. 6: Adjusted revenue per color title, by price point ($5 increments)

Comparing the two, you'll see that customers tend to purchase black & white books more readily in the $15 to $40 range, whereas color books tend to sell strongly in a couple of ranges: from $20 to $50 (standard color), and then from $55 to $70 (premium color).

In Figure 6, you'll also note tall bars for color books around $100 and again around $120; these last two price points correspond directly with big hardcover color books on major game lines from top publishers, such as core World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness books from White Wolf and Onyx Path Publishing, or something like the massive Ptolus hardbound book from Malhavoc Press.

Softcover vs. Hardcover

Another important distinction among print books is softcover versus hardcover, so let's look also at those numbers.

Fig. 7: Adjusted revenue per softcover title ($5 increments)

Fig. 8: Adjusted revenue per hardcover title ($5 increments)

You may have noticed that Figures 6 and 8 look very similar, with larger bars at consistent price points: Again, as you'd expect, big premium color hardcover books can sell well at much higher prices than other types of books, and those are the more popular formats on our sites.

Pricing print books is a deep rabbit hole. Let's move away from this, for a moment, and consider a new complication while we let things sink in.

Publisher Revenue by Tier

One big question people had after the last blog had to do with publisher size and popularity. If major game publishers sell PDF books at $19.99, does that mean a small, one-person enterprise should price books at lower prices?

Again, let's start with some basic information. Back in 2014, I stated that the top 17 publishers on OBS sites accounted for about 50% of revenue. That fact is still more or less true, although the numbers have changed slightly since then. In the past two years, the 25 most active publishers on our sites generate 50% of the revenue (which is a good thing, indicating that several new publishers have pushed their way up into the bestselling range since 2014). The remaining 4,100 or so active publishers on our RPG marketplaces ("active," in this sense, meaning those who have at least one public title) account for the other 50% of revenue.

One final point of interest: The least active (i.e., lowest-selling) 70% of publishers account for just 1% of the total revenue generated on our sites. Framed the other way, the top 30% of publishers generate 99% of the revenue.

Publisher "Tiers" 

For the purpose of this analysis, I have split all RPG publishers into four "tiers," each of which accounts for roughly 25% of revenue on OBS, as indicated below.

Publisher Tiers and gross revenue per tier

Gross Revenue by Tier

Now, how do those publisher tiers break down in terms of revenue by price point? The visualization below shows the gross revenue for all digital product orders in 2016-17, broken out into the four publisher tiers described above.

Fig. 9: Gross digital revenue by price point, per publisher tier

Here is a similar view, but this one focusing on just print revenue as opposed to digital.

Fig. 10: Gross print revenue by price point, per publisher tier

In Figure 10, note that Tier B (comprising the lower 20 of the top 25 publishers on our marketplace) earns considerably less from print sales than any other tier of publishers, even though they generate 25% of site revenue overall. What does this signify? A number of those publishers don't offer their books in POD at all.

Title Performance by Price Point, per Publisher Tier

As we've done before, let's now look at revenue relative to the number of titles offered within a given price range, rather than just gross revenue by price point.

Fig. 11: Adjusted revenue per digital title by publisher tier

And here is the same analysis for print revenue.

Fig. 12: Adjusted revenue per POD title by publisher tier

The data might be a bit hard to see with all four publisher tiers together in two stacked bar graphs, so below, I've also split them out into four separate bar graphs, one for each tier. In these graphs, as in those earlier, the orange section represents print revenue, while blue represents digital revenue.

Fig. 13: Adjusted revenue per title (Tier A)

Fig. 14: Adjusted revenue per title (Tier B)

Fig. 15: Adjusted revenue per title (Tier C)

Fig. 16: Adjusted revenue per title (Tier D)

Revenue over Time - Area Graphs 

One type of visualization I've found particularly useful in helping various individual publishers understand how to price their titles is to use an area graph to show their past revenue over time, with colored areas representing sales within designated price ranges.

Area Graphs (Digital Revenue)

Here, I've created area graphs for each of the four publisher tiers, with digital product prices broken down in $10 increments and color-coded as follows:

Fig. 17: Gross digital revenue by price over time (Tier A)
Fig. 18: Gross digital revenue by price over time (Tier B)
Fig. 19: Gross digital revenue by price over time (Tier C)
Fig. 20: Gross digital revenue by price over time (Tier D)

Area Graphs (Print Revenue)

This time, for print products, the prices are arranged in $15 color bands. I've also grouped Tiers A and B together, comprising the 25 most active publishers who account for 50% of revenue. Then, Tiers C and D, those remaining 4,100 or so publishers who generate the other 50% of revenue, are also grouped together.

Fig. 21: POD revenue by price over time (Tiers A+B)
Fig. 22: POD revenue by price over time (Tiers C+D)

Comparing Figures 23 and 24, you can see that Tiers A and B tend to sell comparatively more books in the $45+ range, while Tier C and D publishers sell nearly all of their print books at $30 or below.

So How Does All This Help Me?

Again, I must stress, the data here are simply showing trends for 2016-17. They don't necessarily tell us what we should do in the future. I find the information interesting, and I expect some of you will too. But how does it help us?

I think it's fairly reasonable to assume that customers in the next year will buy more or less the same kinds of things they did last year, at more or less the same prices. If that holds true, then we can use the data to inform us about what kinds of prices might work well again.

There are a couple more ways of looking at the data that might help you in setting your own print prices going forward.

Print Margin

First, people often ask us what is a reasonable margin on print books? The print cost is always deducted from each sale before the remainder (the margin) is divided up into royalties. What is the optimal size of margin compared to a book's base print cost?

I can't tell you what "optimal" might be, but what I can do is show you what the relative margin size is of bestselling books from publishers in each of the four tiers I've used above. That way, you can judge for yourself what might be a good margin for your books.

Let's take a look at what sort of margins other publishers have applied to their own bestselling print books, by tier. In the graphs below, each bar represents one specific print title; the red area indicates that book's base printing cost, while the blue area is the margin. The size of the bar indicates the total revenue of the book in 2017.

Fig. 23: Print cost and margin (Tier A)

As you can see, print books show the same kind of Pareto, or "long tail," distribution as do digital titles (and most other things, really). Here, the relative amount of margin to print cost is pretty consistent down the curve. Taken as a whole, bestselling Tier A print books have a margin that comprises 55.2% of the book's final price. Tier C and Tier D top sellers are quite similar, with average margins making up 58.6% and 57.4% of their final prices, respectively.

Here, Tier B publishers are the outliers, with their margin accounting for 68.7% of a bestselling book's final price on average. However, recall that Tier B publishers are also the ones with the fewest POD books for sale as a group. In fact, so sparse are these titles that their graph does not resemble that of the Tier A group above; only thirteen titles from this tier qualify as print "bestsellers."

Fig. 24: Print cost and margin (Tier B)

Pricing by Format and Page Count

All of this is helpful, but again, it doesn't really get at how much a book should sell for. Well, let's not say "should." Instead, let's look at how much the most successful books in each print format have sold for historically, and then we can let the data lead us to our own conclusions.

Here, I have limited my analysis to those books that earned the greatest margin relative to their page count and number of orders, omitting the bottom 50%. Taking these "most lucrative by page count" books and then plotting them on a scatter graph, with selling price on one margin and page count on the other, we can see the distribution of those books.

Fig. 25: Price by pagecount, top 50% bestselling hardcover books (all formats)

Now, by slicing the data away for each book format and type (soft and hardcover, and black-and-white vs. standard color vs. premium color), we can start to see what prices have sold best on our marketplaces.

For example, here is a look at the selling prices for the top 50% of softcover books in black-and-white format during 2017.

Fig. 26: Price by pagecount, bestselling black-and-white softcover

Now, using the median line or "line of best fit" visible on the graph above, we can find the equation that produces that line, giving a sort of "formula" that represents the median price for such books. Again, I cannot stress enough that this approach is not predictive, but simply provides a mathematical abstraction that represents what prices, in aggregate, sold best for books of various sizes and types last year.

However, if you are in need of some sort of guideline, in the absence of any other, you could do worse than to use this data to provide a starting point, or at least a discussion point, when considering how to price your titles in print.

Here, as another example, is the plot for premium (full-color) hardcover bestsellers.

Fig. 27: Price by pagecount, bestselling premium color hardcover

In case you find any of this useful, or if you'd just like to see what the relative prices of bestsellers have been in 2017, I put together an interactive Excel spreadsheet I'm happy to share. It contains equations for each book type, along with a low-, mid-, and high-range value, all calculated using the kinds of data I've shown above. With it, you can enter a page count for a book of any format, and the sheet will spit out what the historically best-earning (by page count) low, medium, and high prices have been, typically, for books of that size.

You can download the spreadsheet by clicking here:

(And remember, the worksheet is simply showing you typical prices that have sold well in the past, not telling you how you *should* price your book!)


The relationship of pricing to revenue is not necessarily causative. We can't tell from the data, for instance, whether Tier A and B publishers might generate more revenue simply because their prices are higher, or if they are able to price things higher (and therefore make more money) because they are well-regarded.

However, there are a few fairly safe observations to be made, even if we can't say explicitly "this is how it should be" or "here's what you should do":

  1. Selling digital titles at $20 or less remains wise, unless you have a large, premium, full-color title with lots of art. Even in that case, the upper limit should be $30 at most. (See Figures 1-4.) Customer just don't normally spend more than that on digital titles. 
  2. Print-on-demand book prices can vary greatly (but if you want a hint as to what kind of prices other publishers might have used for top-earning books similar to yours in the past, see the embedded spreadsheet above). 
As I stated in my previous pricing blog a few years ago, price ranges are very likely affected by the (perceived) quality or value of a given publisher or product line. As seen pretty consistently in Figures 9 through 22, higher-selling publishers tend to sell more products at higher price ranges.
Further, we do know that regular release cadence and catalog size are very important factors in establishing higher revenue. Publishers who release more titles more often draw more attention to themselves, thus driving more sales, and they also have more titles on the "shelves" for casual browsers to find, increasing the odds of an impulse buy.

So, maybe in another two or three years (but sooner than that, I hope), we'll get around to taking a close look at some of those other factors that can affect pricing and sales.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Offensive Content Policy: A Follow Up

For those that do not know me, my name is Meredith Gerber and I am the RPG Publisher Relations Representative for DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. I volunteered to write this blog as a follow up from last week.

The feedback we have received from both customers and publishers has been appreciated and has helped us shape our new policy. We want to thank you for the time and energy you have taken to reach out to us. Those that have spoken with us in the past know we are always happy to talk to customers, publishers, and partners to have a professional dialogue about concerns.

When having discussions about these types of situations, it’s always important to remember that being professional and kind in feedback will create better dialogue. It’s very difficult to continue a conversation and figure out the message when hateful words are said out of anger and spite. If you do not agree with someone, take a moment to step back and breathe before stating your opinion. There is also nothing wrong with walking away from a conversation if it's going around in circles with no conclusion in sight. 

Of course, we are all humans and will engage in miscommunication and misunderstanding. I have spoken without thinking a few times in my life (and will do so in the future because I am only human) and all I can do is apologize for my words and actions and try to be better next time. Whether you agree or disagree with someone, remember that there is a human on the other side of that conversation that does have emotions and feelings like you do.

In this industry, we should all try to continue to speak to one another with respect and try to gain understanding of someone's words and ideas. While we might not all agree, it’s vital for members of the gaming industry to remember we’re all here to make and play games together.

I believe that going forward, we all should follow the words of Bill S. Preston, Esq. who simply reminds us to “Be excellent to each other”.

With that said, I wanted to take a moment to go over a few frequently asked questions we have received since last week's blog post from my C.E.O., Steve Wieck.

What is the process for flagging offensive titles?
Step 1: Customer reports a product.
Step 2: A human being at OneBookShelf does a cursory review to determine if the title should be temporarily suspended from sale or not. Either way the product is put in queue for review.
Step 3: A more thorough review of the product in completed. If deemed not offensive the product is whitelisted. If deemed potentially offensive then...
Step 4: We have expanded internal review and discussion with publisher possibly resulting in publisher retraction of the title or banning of the title.

Will a title be turned off automatically if it is flagged?
No, just because a title is flagged as offensive, it will not be automatically turned off. Only the administrators of the site can toggle the title to private. This process will send alerts to our staff for quick review. If our staff sees a product that is problematic, they will temporarily suspend it for further review.

Will you be giving scrutiny to certain topics?
We're going to give extra scrutiny to products that include rape, real world racial violence, torture, sexism, homophobia, and crimes against children. However, we will also be reviewing products reported for other reasons as needed.

How will you conduct this process with old titles on your site?
If a product is flagged as offensive with this new policy, we will be treating it no differently than a brand new title.

Who will review the offensive titles list?
Steve Wieck, C.E.O., who has the final say on titles marked as offensive.
Scott Holden, Marketing and Development
Matt McElroy, Director of Publishing and Marketing
Meredith Gerber, RPG Publisher Relations
Other OneBookShelf staff as deemed helpful for particular products.

Thank you,
Meredith Gerber
RPG Publisher Relations Representative

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Offensive Content Policy

At DriveThruRPG, we see a huge variety of content published and sold on our marketplaces. Something not broadly known to visitors on DriveThru is that we entrust most publishers to upload their new releases and activate them for sale without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the title before it goes public.

Over fourteen years of operations, with tens of thousands of roleplaying titles activated, thousands of RPG creators have demonstrated that this trust-based system works quite well; the vast majority of publishers will not upload offensive content and make it public on DriveThruRPG. Ours is a wonderful hobby.

Because this system has worked so well for so long, over a huge volume of products, we have had no need to create a content guideline for what we will not sell on DriveThruRPG due to its offensive nature.

Further, in the case of roleplaying games, especially new games put out by independent creators or new companies, our marketplaces are a key distribution channel. If we were to ban an RPG product, the de facto result is very much like censorship. That fact causes me grave concern, for if we were to create a content guideline that all publishers on our store must follow, and then ban titles that do not meet those guidelines, then we would be playing dictator with the RPG art form, and that is a role I am acutely uncomfortable playing.

Having grown up in the U.S. Bible Belt, where attempts to ban books from school and public libraries were common, and given my various experiences with distribution channels as a publisher at White Wolf in the early 90s, I have had a lot of firsthand encounters with attempts to ban content.

There is, however, a growing problem we face as a marketplace. A few RPG creators have designed content in the recent past that people have viewed as disturbing, distasteful, or depraved. For example, we recently and understandably received a lot of criticism for selling an RPG supplement entitled "Tournament of Rapists."

I'll say a few words about that product and then move on to the broader topic of how we will handle offensive content on DriveThruRPG.

Hearing the title “Tournament of Rapists,” one is naturally repulsed. Sometimes the purpose of art is to make us feel revulsion, though, so we shouldn't judge a book by its title alone. In this case, though, reading the brief cover copy or product description the author entered on DriveThruRPG to explain the contents of the book does nothing but amplify that revulsion and call into question if the subject matter is being treated at all appropriately. So, naturally, people asked us various versions of the question, "How on earth can you have that for sale on your marketplace for even one minute?"

The answer is this:

1. As I mentioned above, this product was uploaded and activated by the author. No one at DriveThru pre-screened the book.

2. When we were first alerted to the offensive nature of the book, I used administrator privileges to download and skim through a copy of the book. At its core, the book was an adventure supplement where the goal of characters was to stop demonic entities who were perpetrating sexual violence and murder. The rapists were clearly the villains to be stopped, something that I believe many critics of the book could not have known from the book's title and vague description.

Still, other aspects of the book, such as its title and description and some of its content, were written in a way that were not well-considered treatments of the subject of sexual violence. I personally found the book offensive, but as I’ve noted, I am not comfortable letting my viewpoint serve as the gate-keeping standard.

Again, 1) rapists were villains in the book and 2) I chose to accept offensive content over becoming a de facto censor. In doing so, I made the mistake of not suspending the title from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher.

3. Another factor that weighed on my decision was the fact that, when uploading and activating the title, the author flagged the title as adult content. Books with the adult flag do not show up on our marketplace to visitors. A user must be logged in to a customer account on our site and have changed the default "no" adult filter to "yes" before she can see adult flagged titles anywhere on site. And for the record, "adult" in this context refers to more than just sexual content; it means any kind of content with material that requires adult discernment.

My philosophy has been individual choice, not my choice. My expectation has been that gamers who choose deliberately to see adult titles have the mental faculties to decide if a title they see is appropriate or not.

Therefore, I let the title remain active for sale while I reached out to the publisher to discuss the title.

4. The publisher was on vacation, so we did not catch up with one another by phone until near the end of the weekend. We had a professional dialogue about the book, the type of dialogue where people listen to each other and try to understand where each other is coming from and work toward constructive outcomes. The publisher then discussed the book with the author, and they decided to withdraw the book from sale. In my opinion, having real dialogue and expecting the best, not the worst, in other people leads to better outcomes. Unrelenting anger and the desire to punish divides and polarizes people, as can be seen from some social media discourse on games today.

To the broader issue of the content we will sell on DriveThruRPG going forward, it is time we change the approach we have used for the past fourteen years. This most recent incident has shown me that our previous approach worked only because publishers in the past simply hadn’t  uploaded such offensive content. However, that approach carried us too far in the wrong direction.

It's time for us to have a policy on rejecting offensive content. I understand that many feel this is too long in coming, that our prior non-policy of “censorship is unacceptable" was tantamount to shirking our responsibility to help keep the RPG hobby inclusive. I am solely responsible for the prior policy, not the other staff at OneBookShelf. I accept that criticism and apologize for not being a better steward.

What should our new content policy be?

Some people believe there are bright line rules that, when crossed, make a title something our RPG hobby is better without. As I recently and profoundly failed to explain on Twitter, I do not agree there are such bright line rules, or at least not nearly enough bright line rules to serve as a guide.

In first drafting this blog post, I made a fuller explanation with examples of why I don’t think bright line rules work for deciding what content is offensive or not. I removed all of that because I don’t want my intentions in doing so to be misinterpreted again. Suffice to say that the U.S. Supreme Court could not create bright line rules for what constituted pornography (leading to the famous statement, "I'll know it when I see it."), and similarly I don’t think we can create such rules for offensive content.

I also think the more exacting we make the guidelines, the more fine points we include on content treatment, the more the guideline risks becoming shackles for the rpg art form and the more bad actors will attempt to game the fine points of the policy.

Amazon's policy on offensive content is incredibly short:

“Offensive Content: What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”

The problem here is that such a statement gives little guidance to publishers and authors, and thus Amazon's rulings on banning books seem rather arbitrary. Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."

To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.

So, going forward, our offensive content policy is simply going to be this:

Offensive Content: We'll know it when we see it.

I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. I will tend to err toward including content, even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously.

Any title in which racial violence, rape, torture, or a similar subject is treated as a central feature will naturally be subjected to increased scrutiny.

Everyone draws their own line on what is offensive differently, so I understand that any judgment OneBookShelf makes will always have someone who disagrees with it.

A few final topics:

1. We will continue to be reactive, not proactive, on judging new title releases. Historically, 99.99% of publishers' content has been inoffensive. Being able to activate their own titles for sale with our marketplace tools gives publishers additional control over their release marketing timing and generally gets RPG products to market more quickly. We will not constrain those 99.99% by introducing a required step where OneBookShelf staff reviews every title before it goes public just so that we can catch the .01%.

Such a review process would also add a large expense to our operations, which translates eventually to higher prices for customers.

What we will do, though, is code more customer-facing options to allow customers to report potentially offensive content to us. That way, customers can help us identify the offensive .01% of titles that much faster. If a reported title looks questionable, then we will suspend it from sale while we review its content internally, and we will speak with its publisher to determine the fate of the title on our marketplace. Our default will be to suspend titles rather than our prior default of letting titles stay public.

To be clear, we need to code, test, and deploy this new reporting feature. It is not live now.

2. Once the reporting feature is live, we will review titles already on the marketplace that are reported by customers. There will be no "grandfathering in" of past content. Where we find offensive content on site, even if we have permitted it in the past under our prior policy, we will remove it. We are no longer a wide-open marketplace, and some publishers may need to find a different place to sell some of their content (or all of it, if they decide to leave DriveThru entirely).

3. I doubt the industry will see the “Tournament of Rapists” title again, but if the publisher decides to make changes to the product and wishes to sell it on DriveThru again, it will then be subject to this new offensive content policy.

4. We will be reviewing the use of our adult flag, including what content we expect to carry that flag and how we communicate the use of that flag to publishers and customers.

I appreciate all of our customers and publishers who were patient while we sorted these issues out and who gave us the benefit of the doubt as human beings trying to do the best thing. Like everyone, we sometimes make mistakes along the way.

Steve Wieck
OneBookShelf / DriveThruRPG

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Digital Printing Quality for Playing Cards

Game publishers are frequently shocked at the high quality that short-run digital printing can achieve these days. The reason the quality gap between short-run, digital printing and high-volume printing has closed (assuming you're printing with the right digital printing equipment) is that the actual print process used is not all that different.

If you'll spare a few moments, we can level up your expertise on how this digital printing stuff works.

Digital vs. Offset?

Before OneBookShelf started providing print services for books and cards, I misused terms like "offset printing" and "digital printing." I was among the number of people in the game industry who didn't always get these terms quite right. So let's first make sure we have some terminology straight.

Nearly all digital printing is done by offset printing. The term "offset printing" simply refers to any printing method where the image is applied from an imaging surface to an intermediate surface and then to the paper. For most high-volume, commercial print presses, this means that water and ink are placed onto an image cylinder (or plate cylinder) which then transfers the ink and water to a rubber "blanket" (or offset cylinder) which then makes the impression onto the paper itself.

Image from Wikipedia

Large presses do their offset printing using a method called offset lithography which works because water and ink don't mix, and the image plate that is wrapped around the image cylinder can be photographically treated to make only parts of the image plate receptive to holding ink.

And as you may already know, color offset presses normally work by having a set of rollers for each of the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK (CMYK) colors which can combine to form any color on the final printed paper. This CMYK process differs from the Red, Green, Blue (RGB) process used on monitors and televisions to mix and form colors.

The difference for digital presses vs lithographic presses is not the offset process; both types of presses are technically offset presses. The difference is that digital presses use different processes for both 1) placing the image on the image cylinder and 2) placing ink (or toner) on the image cylinder and then to the offset cylinder and to the paper.

Instead of the lithographic process, digital presses use some variation of electrophotographic printing. The image cylinder is electrically charged, and then a laser writes the image negative onto the cylinder changing the electrical charge where the image will go. As the plate then passes through toner, the toner is electrically attracted to stick to the plate based on the charged or uncharged areas of the plate. It's like one big Etch a Sketch using electrostatics/magnetism to decide where the ink goes.

You can see this process at work in this video of a Kodak digital press:

In lithographic printing, the image plate is burned in once photographically and then mounted on press and the same image is rolled out thousands of times. With digital presses, the image is written to the image cylinder by laser or LED anew with every roll which means each sheet of paper passing through the press can get a different image.

Toner vs Ink

So why do some digitally printed items look like photocopies and some look indistinguishable from lithographic press work? Not all digital presses are the same.

Many lower-end digital presses use dry toner and xerography (Greek language nerds will know that "xero" means dry and "graph" refers to writing). The problems with dry toner presses are many:

  • Dry toner can clump causing banding or lines in areas of heavy, solid color.
  • Dry toner is fused after being applied to paper rather than going into the paper through pressure. Dry toner sits on top of the paper, unlike liquid ink that saturates into the paper and allows properties of the paper to come through. This is why dry toner has a high-gloss sheen even when printed on matte paper stocks.
  • Dry toner does not reproduce true color tones as well in CMYK color combination.
  • Dry toner is more prone to color fading.

While digital printing on machines using dry toner is getting better, it still does not match the quality of lithographic press work.

The exception for digital printing are presses like the HP Indigo which use liquid toner instead of dry toner. This liquid toner still adheres to the image cylinder by electrical charge, but the Indigo press then uses a rubberized blanket (offset cylinder) more like a lithographic press. When the liquid toner hits paper, it sinks into the paper instead of sitting on top of the paper as a baked-on layer of fused, dry toner. This allows a more faithful reproduction of matte finishes like you see on most lithographically-printed cards.

Final Quality

Of course in any printing process there are many factors that determine the final quality of the output: the print files, the pre-press processing, the card stock selected, press work, coating, cutting, etc.

At DriveThru, all of our cards are printed on HP Indigo presses, and we use card stocks like Arjo Wiggins Matte. These are two of the larger quality factors which allow us to produce cards that customers can shuffle right into their collection of cards printed on large lithographic web press runs. This is especially important as we do community card creators for games like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, where customers will need their custom-created cards to shuffle seamlessly into their existing deck collection so they cannot tell the difference between cards printed digitally vs lithographically during play.

When we get publisher feedback like this:

I shuffled a few of the your newest cards into a pile with some Carta Mundi cards, and asked a couple of people to divide them into DriveThru and Carta Mundi piles, and nobody did it correctly. Good job.

Then we know we're at the quality level publishers need to see before they include digital printing in their publishing toolbox.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Community Created Content for Tabletop Games

Over a year ago, I posted about the coming revolution in card games (and board games) based upon the ability to print any content on any single card. I laid out some possible ways that OneBookShelf through our site hoped to aid that revolution. One of those ways was by empowering a game's community to create content for their favorite game.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Community Card Creator

Today we release the first iteration of our community card creator. We've partnered with Paizo Publishing to give Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG) fans the ability to create, print, and share their own cards for PACG. You can check it out here:

PACG fans can:
  • create their own cards;
  • purchase their created cards in print for $0.50/card;
  • choose to keep their card private (it's truly a one-of-a-kind card!);
  • choose to list their card publicly on DriveThruCards allowing other fans to see the card, comment on it, and purchase it.

While the rest of this post is about Community Card Creators in general, I will beg your pardon while I do a quick shout-out to Vic, Sonja, Mike, Tanis, Jeff, Lisa, Erik, and Brian at Paizo who were super-supportive of this project. They were also bold enough and trusted their community enough to put a design tool like this in the hands of their community.

Concerns about Community Card Creation

"If you let players help design the game it's likely to be a worse game than it was before" [Lewis Pulsipher, BoardGameGeek].

A year ago, my post received comments similar to Mr. Pulsipher's. Collectively, game designer comments expressed concerns about unbalanced cards, quantity-over-quality, and copyright-violating (or offensive) content. The seeming consensus: community created cards would be a wreck.

I'm obviously optimistic about the possibilities of these card creators, but it would be foolish to ignore the possible validity of these concerns.

With the release of the PACG card creator, Pandora has opened her box and we'll see which of these evils emerge. I know that we are in the early stages of this process. Like any web-based service, what we've released today with the PACG card creator is an initial, minimally-viable-product kind of launch. We have work ahead of us to refine the process of creating, commenting, browsing, and buying cards.

Much of that work will get prioritized based upon which of the evils soars (or roars) out of Pandora's box. However, we have planned for mitigating some of these concerns:

Copyrighted Images Concerns: We knew the importance of providing players with easy access to artwork they can legally use on their created cards. Without easy access to legal art, many players would default to copying images off the web regardless of copyright, or get stumped by the lack of legal art and not create cards at all.

We assembled a collection of stock art images from Fiery Dragon and Fat Goblin that players can purchase for $0.40 an image and get the rights to use the image on cards they create. The hope is that this begins to create a viable marketplace where community members who have artistic talent might also submit art to be used on cards and get some amount of royalties as other community members use the art.

Unbalanced or Poor Quality Cards Concerns: Two things will keep these from being major issues. First, all community created cards are clearly marked as such. Like most ongoing card games, PACG cards include expansion icons, and in the case of community cards that icon is replaced with a Community Created Card logo.

This clearly segregates for players the official cards designed by Mike Selinker and team from the unofficial cards designed by the community.

Second, our hope is that fans will take an active role in discussing and rating cards created by other community members. These ratings will allow us to automatically curate the better community cards, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Onward Revolutionaries!

For Players: I see a gaming landscape where players have the ability to design their own add-ons to any popular board or card game. I'm playing Flash Point or Pandemic and want to create my own custom role card? I'm playing Guillotine and want a prank card to put in the game and watch my friend lose his head? I've got a cool idea for variant draw card for Settlers or Ascension or Dominion. Done, done, and done.

For Game Publishers: The benefits are numerous.

  • Community created cards increase and prolong your community's involvement with your game.
  • Community created cards provide more "Wow!" fun moments playing your game. Already Matt Kimmel, one of the testers for the Pathfinder Card Creator, surprised his fiancee Sandra with an engagement card he created:

Matt's custom card pays homage to Richard Garfield's Magic card proposal
  • Community created cards could become a reasonable source of extra revenue.
  • Community created cards could produce game design contributions that deserve to become official extensions of the game.

We've begun to have conversations with a few publishers about producing community card creators for their games, and several of those publishers (Atlas Games, Cheapass Games and Stone Blade Entertainment among them) have agreed. We invite other publishers to work with us to foment this revolution.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Steve Wieck