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April 14, 2009 / jadettman

The Gaming Industry: SNAFU

Last week, Wizards of the Coast pulled all of their files from Drivethru/RPGnow stating piracy as the determining factor. This was done without any warning given to customers and, quite frankly, some people have reacted poorly to the situation.

Of particular note, some retailers have made some rather ridiculous statements in response to the “holy crap, let’s remind the customers that we’re smarter than WotC” PDF sales that other game publishers initiated as a damage control effort. In turn, there was some response from the industry but nothing that could really be called productive.

What’s really going on here? I can’t provide any concrete answers but, like everyone else, I can speculate.

The first thing that you need to realize when looking at any situation involving sales in the Hobby Gaming Industry is that information, I’m talking solid data here, is hard to come by. Most, if not all, participants in the industry do not share useful information with anyone else in the industry. It’s just not done.

You can look at it as inside (i.e. proprietary) information, needless secrecy, or no one else’s business but the specific participant. Regardless of the view you take, in my own (admittedly limited) experience, the information just isn’t available. Honestly, in most cases, does it really matter? Do you actually want to know the sales data that I have accrued for the five years that I’ve been running Cracked Mirror Publishing?

Answer: probably not.

When it comes to the big boys like WotC, though, it would be very interesting and useful to know how many books, miniatures, and other products they sell, what size their various print runs are, and their rate of return in the book trade versus dedicated gaming stores. Information like that would provide serious insight into the current size of the gaming market and that would be useful to a lot of people.

The thing is, WotC considers itself better off by keeping that information private. Information is expensive, after all. The cost to Wizards to get that information was not zero, so it is completely reasonable that they don’t want to give it away to their competitors.

Now, extend that same system across the whole industry to all publishers, distributors, and retailers. None of these participants want to share their little pieces of information because doing so would [1] provide their competitors with useful information that those competitors might be able to do something with and [2] no one else is sharing so why should they (being the first person to share information is a sucker’s bet if you can’t be certain that others will do the same).

You may be asking yourself: What does this have to do with the PDF thing?

Well, WotC has all that information that we don’t have access to. If anyone should know what they effects of piracy are on their business is, it’s them. Here’s the problem, though: they don’t.

Sure, sales are probably down. They’re down for many reasons which likely include the economy, a new edition without the overwhelming support of the last one, and, maybe, some illegal downloading. Is it the downloading that is really hurting them? I seriously doubt it.

My guess is that WotC is looking for excuses for why profits are down (because a crippled economy apparently isn’t a good excuse) and file-sharing was a convenient goat.

– – – – – – –

References

Gareth-Michael Skarka’s reaction to the WotC announcement.

Marcus King’s article at ICv2 in response to several announcements from publishers that they would discount some PDFs for a limited time.

Nicole Lindroos’s open letter reply to Marcus King’s article on her LiveJournal.

Gareth-Michael Skarka’s reaction to Markus King’s ICv2 article and Nicole Lindroos’s response.

The RPGnet reaction thread to WotC’s decision to suspend PDF sales.

In case you aren’t clear on what SNAFU means, here’s the handy Wikipedia page.

Gareth-Michael Skarka says some useful things about piracy.

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