posted Wednesday, April 8th 2009 by
News, Reviews & Culture
You may have heard by now that Wizards of the Coast has removed all its PDF products from sale, including both current edition and legacy AD&D products. Sites including Paizo and RPGNow have been asked to remove around 900 Wizards of the Coast products from sale, taking the company from the biggest supplier on RPGNow to a conspicuous zero.
Customers of PDF retailers have also found that Wizards of the Coast has revoked their right to download or re-download PDFs they’ve already purchased. I’m particularly annoyed with this, as I’ve lost three PDFs on Paizo.com and one on RPGNow. Several well-known industry figures have also voiced their dissatisfaction, including Stan!, JD Wiker, Eric Haddock, Sean K Reynolds.
So why are they doing it? Here’s a round-up of the conspiracy theories.
1. It’s in response to PDF piracy
This appears to be the official company response. According to an announcement posted on ENWorld:
Unfortunately, due to recent findings of illegal copying and online distribution (piracy) of our products, Wizards of the Coast has decided to cease the sales of online PDFs. We are exploring other options for digitial distribution of our content and as soon as we have any more information I’ll get it to you.
This tactic may be less successful than Wizards hopes. Customers locked out of their existing PDFs may turn to filesharing sources to recover them, and this in turn may act as a gateway to heavier filesharing. There has also been significant PR backlash on internet forums painting Wizards of the Coast as the bad guy, and D&D players more than anyone might believe that it’s okay to steal treasure from a villain.
2. It’s part of Wizards’ new Internet Sales Policy
On the same day that all PDFs were cancelled, Wizards of the Coast enacted a new Internet Sales Policy restricting how products are sold online. In particular, the new policy forbids retailers from selling online unless they have a physical presence.
However, this contract only seems to cover Magic: the Gathering products. RPGNow never sold Magic cards, and Paizo continues to sell Magic cards and D&D print books. There’s also nothing forcing websites to sign the agreement.
3. Wizards is trying to cripple third edition / OGL retailers
One theory doing the forum rounds is that Wizards are withdrawing their products to kill off support for third edtion. By removing third edition books from sale, the theory goes, 3E players are forced to update to 4E by a lack of official WotC PDFs, while the diminished traffic hurts PDF resellers and other publishers.
However, it’s doubtful that Wizards third edition PDFs sold especially well. None appeared on RPGNow’s Top 100 Products list last week, according to a Google cached version of the site. Of twelve WotC products that made the list, eleven were fourth edition products, including two in the top ten.
If this is their plan, it’s backfiring: several major publishers are using the opportunity to offer PDF customers their thanks and appreciation. Malhavoc has made an announcement, Green Ronin is offering a 40% discount on True20, White Wolf is offering a free copy of Exalted Second Edition and a 10% discount, and Paizo is offering a 35% discount on all Pathfinder products.
4. It has something to do with Dave Arneson
Speculation has arisen that the PDF issue relates to rights that recently lapsed after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson passed away recently.
However, there are two problems with this theory. The first is that Arneson is still alive, if not “alive and well”. The second is that it’s likely Arneson signed away all rights to D&D long ago, except for a credit in every D&D sourcebook.
5. It’s an RIAA-style tactic to provoke PDF piracy
The Recording Industry Association of America has taken a lot of bad PR over the past few years for an infamous anti-piracy tactic: wait until until someone downloads an album, then sue them for $150,000 per song. With Wizards’ recent lawsuit against eight filesharers, some have suggested that they’re picking up on the RIAA strategy of monetizing piracy at the cost of consumer goodwill.
Wizards’ critics wouldn’t rule this out, but it’s a little far-fetched.
6. Wizards are going to sell D&D PDFs themselves
PDF sites like RPGNow charge a commission on sales. That cuts into WotC’s profit margin, when they could be selling on their own site for free. This would conveniently take sales away from competitors while allowing finer control of anti-piracy features such as watermarking and DRM.
This is a reasonably likely outcome. There’s a clear demand for PDF versions of D&D products, and keeping PDFs from sale won’t stop piracy as long as pirates have flatbed scanners and filesharing software. What does counter piracy is for customers to trust that publishers take great efforts to treat their fans as people and not revenue streams.
According to a post by RPGNow’s Steve Wieck, it seems likely that WotC will restore downloads for customers who had already purchased WotC products. This would makes a good step toward restoring consumer trust in Wizards of the Coast.
Importantly, it would also let me finish my download of The Great Modron March.