Untapped Potential of Technology

Interactive Game Table
Interactive Game Table

Yesterday I posted an article for this month’s RPG blog carnival, The Future of Roleplaying, and I mentioned that I had more to say on the integration of technology and roleplaying games.  I think there has been some great ideas emerge in the last five or six years about taking advantage of technology to improve gameplay at the table (real or virtual).

Some of these ideas have produced fantastic software while other ideas have failed miserably.  I am going to talk about how some technologies could (or should) be implemented to extend the resources for roleplaying games as well as some tactics game publishers could use to help combat piracy (or at least turn the tables).

Maximizing PDF Potential 

The PDF is a venerable piece of technology whose execution hasn’t changed much over the years.  However, Adobe has been sneaking in support for some really cool media types since about Adobe Acrobat 7 (currently at version 9).

Acrobat now handles Flash content natively, which is awesome.  Besides Flash, you can also embed audio and 3D into PDFs.  Acrobat markets this fusion of technologies as PDF Portfolios.  Imagine reading the core book for a new system and being able to watch a video of actual gameplay, or having an animation play that visualizes miniature tactics.  Better yet, make it interactive and allow readers to test the tactics by moving virtual game pieces on a battlemat.

The potential of the PDF has yet to be fully harnessed.  I think this is because the PDF is merely considered as the digital mirror of its analog counterpart, the printed book.  Thinking within the confines of print limits the possibilities that can be achieved with a PDF.  Of course, adding an animated panel of each race would significantly increase product costs, but it would be revolutionary.

 Deploying Digital Tools

I think Wizards critically fumbled DDI, right from the very concept.  Imagine a platform that would allow a gamer to use your suite of tools offline, without a browser, and dynamically update when connected to the internet.  That technology is already available with Adobe AIR.

Formerly call Adobe Apollo, AIR allows developers to create rich internet applications that run outside of a browser and on multiple platforms.  Similar things can be accomplished using other enterprise level development platforms like Microsoft .NET or Java.

Of course, this method doesn’t really jive with the whole subscription model, which I am not overly fond of anyways.  However, it could work with an ala carte sales model, where you purchase the components (or upgrades) separately.

Integrating Technology at the Table

Shane Deseranno, a Microsoft software developer currently working with the Zune, has built an amazing interactive gaming table.  The table utilizes a Wiimote, IR pens, a projector, and a mirror to create a game table that allows players to physically interact with RP Tools’ MapTool.

This is probably the epitome of my vision of the integration of technology and roleplaying games.  The Wiimote can be configured to run on a PC using Bluetooth and has the ability to track four separate IR points.  This allows the players to move the virtual game pieces on the virtual table top which is projected onto the surface of the table (from below).  This table is awesome and Shane has been kind enough to show you how he built it (there is also video of the table in action):

Pirates or Privateers? 

Recently, Wizards of the Coast yanked all their PDFs from the market and pointed their fingers at piracy as the cause for their impetuous actions.  I think most people with cognitive skills can agree that while piracy is wrong, it doesn’t have the impact on sales that company executives seem to believe it has.  Ninety percent of those downloading the contraband would have never bought the product in the first place.

Using a technology like AIR, publishers have the capability to stream secured content from servers, which require the user to be logged in.  Content would be determined by the user’s subscriptions and purchases and would be volatile and encrypted.  This could be a huge determent for piracy.

I have also been thinking about methods to turn pirates into an asset, thus taking a privateer designation.  If a company can truly track the amount of illegal downloads of their product, as Wizards of the Coast has claimed, then perhaps you could use that as a marketing bullet point.

I think it would be interesting to provide advertisement space within the confines of the PDF.  You could use the piracy circulation numbers when pitching ad space to potential advertisers.  “Our e-books are downloaded by two hundred thousand users” could be a powerful sales fact.  Sure, the ads could be stripped by energetic pirates, but if you turn the ads into a feature by utilizing Flash (interactive video/games) then it might even increase PDF sales (and illegal downloads).

Then who cares if it was illegally downloaded, you just made more off of advertising than you would ever have done if every single pirated copy had been purchased (assuming you price reasonably).  Hell, you could just give the damned things away for free, which would make everybody happy!

However, there is no fool proof protection against piracy.  The best actions a publisher can take are encouraging and satisfying legitimate customers by providing the material they want in the formats they desire.  Turn potential pirate into loyal patrons by creating the best damned product you can.

What technologies are you waiting for?  Can you think of any effective methods of turning pirates into assets?  If you have answers to these questions or general comments about what I have mentioned, be sure to post your comment.

Other Technology Focused Articles:

Listening to: Mastodon – Crack the Skye – Divinations

24 thoughts on “Untapped Potential of Technology

  1. I’ve seen the interactive table technology and I think it is fantastic. I can’t wait for when they can mass produce it at a reasonable price. Last I knew, it was still largely in a developmental stage.

    As for PDFs, you pose some interesting responses to what we could do. I think many people are at a loss as to deal with PDF piracy in all indsustries, not just roleplaying. Right now though, I do believe that it doesn’t hurt the companies as bad as they say. Like you said, most of the people stealing these PDFs wouldn’t have bought them anyway. It will be interesting to see what the industries come up with as a whole for the PDF issues.

  2. @Samuel: I think you are probably referring the Microsoft Surface and iTable technologies, which are bad-ass. The table I referenced is a DIY project using a Wiimote and projector (could be done for less than $300).

    I doubt we’ll see any huge response from the industries regarding PDFs… it’s too expensive to invest in creating the additional media I spoke of they’re afraid to diverge from the norm.

  3. As someone who published gaming PDFs and has interviewed quite extensively on the subject, I can well nigh confirm that expanded functionality in a PDF gaming product will only come from someone with a lot of money out to make a point. Sales are just not there to make evolutionary changes feasible, especially for the smaller publishers driving e-publishing. It’s a very sad reality, but it is the reality (at least right now) nonetheless.

    Who knows tomorrow, though.

    Daniel M. Perez, The Gamer Traveler’s last blog post..Dhani Jones, Gamer Traveler

  4. 1. Personally, I think that ethically and morally piracy is completely justified. It just happens to be illegal, which is very unfortunate and something people are working on. (Like stealing it is not.)

    2. Interactive gaming tables? Online subscriptions? PDFs filled with featuritis? I’m not seeing the useful parts here. For me, roleplaying is a game of imagination and doing it yourself; hand-scribbled maps on the backs of character sheets is as much mapping as I want around the gaming table. I can’t see what digital tools could provide, at least in terms of value.

  5. @Daniel: I am in complete agreement with you there, but perhaps some enterprising company with the appropriate resources might try it (looking at you White Wolf).

    @Tommi: Hmmm, interesting take on piracy, that it is ethically and morally justified. I would definitely like to hear more of your thoughts on that (and I might be inclined to agree, as I have some questions about how someone can sctually own an idea).

    Digital interactivity isn’t something I advocate that everyone must use, but being a technology-orientated geek, I love to look at the possibilities. Combine that with my love of the tactical (born from my time in the Corps as infantry and my love for wargames), and interactive gaming tables gain plenty of value.

    Can you not see the value of an interactive tutorial embedded in a rulebook? Or an embedded character generator? Perhaps not. There is something to be said about the joy of actually unplugging yourself and your friends and playing around a worn wooden table with no other distractions. I can dig that too. But I like to explore the digital front too.

    I hope to hear more of your thoughts about piracy.

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. MadBrew:

    Tactics: I can see why tactics are interesting and occasionally enjoy such pursuits myself. I can accept that some people want squares or hexes and miniatures in their roleplaying. I can’t understand them.

    Interactive tutorials: No, not really. Write it down and it will be easier to follow and digest, at least for me. Reading happens at the pace I want it to happen and allows me to effortlessly jump back and forth.

    Piracy: When given a normal item, I have the right to use it, make copies of it, sell them, or make a better version and sell it (trademarks and attribution must change, of course). This is good, because it in the long run means that items improve and can their price goes down and so on. With books, music etc. when I have a piece of media, I can’t reproduce it or improve it. I can only consume it. This is not an asset for a culture. The intellectual monopolies are harmful for development of culture and creation of cultural items. Further, they are not a major incentive for creating those works, either. This applies to patents and so on, too; they are mostly used to slow down development by competitors so that one does not need to keep up with it.

    Further, copyright takes away the right of everyone but one person to make those copies. If one subscribes to ideas suggested by Adam Smith et all, this is hard to justify. This is especially true in modern times, when making electronic copies is trivial. An Orwellian state would be required to uphold the intellectual monopolies. An Orwellian state is undesirable state of affairs.

  7. First off, let me say this article is made of win.

    PDFs – I knew you could do some stuff with PDFs but I didn’t know how much. I may need to upgrade my copy of Acrobat Pro. As tempting as it is to slug stuff into the PDF, you’ll still have people wanting to print out relevant sections or hitting a local printer. Sound files print badly 🙂

    Love the DIY surface computer. Seems a bit sensitive but given advances in flexible screens, the combination battlemat/surface PC is only a matter of time – plus it has so many other applications that it’s likely going to appear in Japan before someone does it here. Maybe five years before we get one with a USB port?

    WotC have *always* been slow on the uptake with digital gaming; despite working in the games industry. I am astounded they didn’t come up with a downloadable starter kit until now. I am amazed they blew it with a captive audience. And the customers remember less-than-successful initiatives like E-Tools. Ironic considering they used to do so well with things like Map-A-Week and Fight Club.

    Pirates/Privateers – I’m not entirely convinced of the morality argument (while corporations are doing some dodgy things, playing Steal This Book! isn’t going to change things. The try before you buy approach intrigues me. The moment you put a PDF into public domain, it will get edited by those who use such things. Paizo have got this so very right with the Pathfinder Beta. It’s free, it’s downloadable and there are torrents for it out there anyway.

  8. @Tommi: First, let me say that I am not a copyright proponent, and I admire Thomas Jefferson’s statement about owning ideas and inventions:

    Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

    Second, I am not an economists (nor want to be), but I like to think I have a strong understanding of the fundamentals.

    That being said, we live in a capitalist world, and in order to survive in said world with a modicum of comfort, we need to achieve a steady supply of monetary funds. In the United States, we are suffering from a dramatic increase in the workforce leading to a smaller percentage of the population being employed in the primary [raw materials] & secondary [manufacturing] economy sectors. We now are becoming dependent on the tertiary [services] sector (see Three Sector Theory).

    Entertainment is a service, and probably one of the United States’ largest exports. Games, software, music, movies, and books are all forms of entertainment, and people make a living from producing the Intellectual Property used in those mediums. While I honestly believe piracy only has an insignificant impact on the profit margin of those mediums, it does have some impact.

    Therefore, I believe that piracy, because it can have impact on someone’s income (no matter how slight), is morally and ethically wrong. If you like what you’re getting, shouldn’t you compensate the person who created it? If you don’t like like/want it, why bother downloading/pirating it?

    I do agree with your argument that monopolies are bad, and everyone wins when an invention/idea can be improved and there is competition to keep the prices reasonable, but piracy doesn’t improve anything. Pirates are not creative people trying to use an IP in their works.

    I do believe we should afford some protection and exclusive rights to the authors of IP, because we do find IP to be of value, and creators should be allowed to take advantage of that value. I don’t believe the extended periods of time we give corporations (and even individuals) help promote the arts. And I don’t believe we should prosecute all the leechers out there, only the source providers (of course with swarmming tech like bit torrent that line becomes fuzzy).

    I also firmly believe in fair use, and the right of a person to freely copy & modify the instance of an IP that he or she has purchased for personal use only.

  9. @Satyre: Thanks! And as for the printing issues of PDFs with extra content, put them on a layer that can be turned off for printing.

    I think we’ll definitely see a surface PC well within five years, but I have doubts on affordability.

  10. I’m no economist either, though I’ve read a bit about the subject and know something about game theory and philosophy (as it relates to society and ethics).

    There are 17 studies that I know that are about the effects of piracy on sales of related media. Of them, six found that pirates buy less than others; six found no reliable connection either way (or correlations both ways in roughly equal measures, or some other inconclusive result), five found that piracy includes sales. All in all, I feel uncomfortable voicing any conclusions like “piracy decreases sales” or “pirates buy less stuff” or “pirating something stops one from buying it”. (I’m not comfortable voicing that piracy is beneficial in those ways, either.) I think some study suggested that piracy helps small names (free publicity and advertisement) while hurting large, well-known, names. That is plausible, and, IMO, beneficial. It may even be true.

    Those studies are about music or movies or maybe electronic games, however. So, let us talk roleplaying games. Personally, I have so much free quality material to read that I see little point in pirating even more stuff that would stay unread for however long. If I were about to buy something I might still check it out, unless reading the myriads of reviews or playing the game myself were sufficient. I have, in fact, done this once thus far and found the product not useful enough to pay for. I haven’t played it, either.

    More generally: Assume a person who will not buy a PDF version of some rpg book. Is it wrong for that person to pirate it? I’d say that certainly not. If the person reads to PDF, he can recommend it to others and show it to others, hence providing free advertising. He might get an idea or two from the product and use them in his own games. From my perspective, the problem becomes: How many pirates would actually buy the products if they could not pirate them? How much less indirect benefits would be recieved by the community if there was no pirating? How do these balance out? I have no definitive answer here.

    On authors etc. getting rewards: Right now the business models (if any) that are actually hurt by piracy are on shaky ground as is. There is an essentially free way of copying and distributing their content, yet they are demanding money for it. I see their trade collapsing as a matter of time. Now, people are smart animals when it comes to getting money from each other. They can sell physical products, live performances, accessories, and so on, depending a bit on their media of choice. Further, people want to support other people who provide them entertainment. Donations happen, as does buying overprices t-shirts. Entertainment industry might (and I think will) change shape, but it certainly won’t disappear.

    I am not terribly concerned about the economics of USA. It is the most politically powerful country and will take care of itself. The poor countries, on the other hand, suffer from copyrights and patents which slow down their technological and cultural development. (EU is as much at fault on these subjects as is USA.)

    Pirates are not creative people trying to use an IP in their works.

    I find this to be unlikely. Consider the vast number of fan videos that mix and match songs from different artist and video from games or movies; much of it can be found on Youtube, say. (The record companies have some of them removed for copyright violations; very smart.) Further, people make music videos of their gameplay of random first person shooters. All of that material likely circulates P2P networks (I have no idea; I don’t actually have any client for accessing them, nor much need to do so.) and it is at least plausible that some of the original music or video has been downloaded from those very sites.

  11. @Tommi: There is an essentially free way of copying and distributing their content, yet they are demanding money for it.

    So, if I am following you’re underlying logic, you are saying that piracy is morally and ethically justified because there is a means to do so?

    I think there are huge flaws in your argument; let me see if I can take it one step further and improve upon it. I could almost buy into the following argument:

    The duplication and distribution of digital content without the owner’s permission is ethical because nothing has been physically removed from said owner’s possession. Digital content is stored as an algorithm of positive and negative magnetic charges. Since users provide their own storage devices to reproduce the said algorithms, nothing has been taken away from the original creation, which would still reside on the owner’s storage device.

    Consider the following possibilities: If your garage had automation and materials that could replicate cars, would it be unethical or illegal to make copies of the car and give them to people? Or if you had an oven that could replicate food, would it be unethical or illegal to duplicate and distribute it to people who are hungry? What if you brought the garage to the car dealer or the oven to the grocery? Is it unethical or illegal to sing a song you’ve heard on the radio? What if you sound just like the artist? What if you recorded your voice?

    Some intriguing concepts there… does that fall in line with your mindset?

  12. So, if I am following you’re underlying logic, you are saying that piracy is morally and ethically justified because there is a means to do so?

    No, not really.

    Piracy is in my opinion justified because (1) it benefits the society as a whole by spreading ideas, culture and knowledge, hence being beneficial and (2) there is no conclusive proof of piracy having negative effects, in and of itself. (The record companies responding to piracy have, again IMO, negative effects on the society as a whole, but that is not directly relevant.)

    That piracy is essentially free only means that it is a significant competitor when it comes to distributing media and that strictly worse services are likely to not fare well in that competition. This contributes to factor (2) above when considering what future might look like.

    If your garage had automation and materials that could replicate cars, would it be unethical or illegal to make copies of the car and give them to people?

    As long as attribution was handled properly, yes, I’d say it would be ethical. Attribution meaning that a message like “original car design by blah, this is a copy” should be clear to buyers and probably casual onlookers, in this context; this is to give credit to the original designers and to give you responsibility for your creations, if they happen to, say, be malfunctional. The way attribution happens depends on the product, of course, but I’m sure you can come up with relevant ways for most products sold.

    Off-topic: Have you got any theory posts brewing?

  13. @Tommi: Gotcha. For the record, I’m not being judgmental (I don’t think I’ve come off that way), I’m just exploring the concepts, and I don’t have the answers to the questions I posed, though I am leaning that all those instances would be considered legal & ethical. I have really enjoyed the dialog.

    I do in fact have some theory posts brewing, though the thunder has been stolen for them. The first was the use of dice (methods of implementing them, probability, statistics, and history) in games, which was touched on by The Core Mechanic. The other was Gaming Styles, which is eerily similar to Adventures in Gaming’s fantastic diagram, though I had different names for some things and didn’t reference designers.

    I think I’ll still post them, but now I have those excellent posts to motivate me to dig deeper. I also plan on taking a look at Feat/Merit/Trait mechanics, which I am still gathering information about.

  14. You did not come off as judgmental but you did come off as someone constructing a rhetorical trap. I have clarified my own thinking on the subject as a result of this discussion, so thank you.

  15. Excellent article! The marriage of technology and roleplaying is not very far off. Actually it could have happened years ago had anyone actually had the gonads to do it right and invest. I believe the market is there for the old school pen-and-paper roleplaying on the web.

    While you wait for iTable or Microsoft Surface and the ultimate roleplaying app, you may want to check out RPGWorkbench (http://rpgworkbench.blogspot.com) which treads where no other RPG tool has gone to date, user friendly, game system agnostic, online/offline experience.

    In regards to pirating, your points are extremely valid. Who has not pirated software in the past, especially Windows users who are also the most numerous. Recognizing this, an application must provide enough value for users to want to purchase it. I take from the book of open source and the Linux community of whom I chose to be a member. Applications should be free, and you pay for additional functionality when you need it. A well designed application will give you the basics free, and still be useful without being crippled. It will also provide advanced functionality which if properly thought out will entice you to pay for a full license. This is the model I am taking with RPGWorkbench in order to 1) Draw users and entice them to buy and 2) Deal with piracy at the most fundamental level.

    The try before you buy model is what works in reality and is already supported as a “demo” for many applications. I chose the other direction, you can use RPGWorkbench free for personal use (i.e. offline at your gaming table) but to allow others to connect over the web for a virtual session, you need a subscription license (i.e. each player will need a modest yearly subscription license to connect). Without a license RPGWorkbench will be still useful to help you manage your table-top games.

    It is still in development, but close to a first beta milestone release once the character generator builder is completed.

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  17. Way after the starting gun, but figured I’d throw in a note on the interactive table.
    I’ve got a table setup, but not quite to this level. I took the old kitchen table in my game room, sanded it down and painted it with dry erase board paint. This way we can keep track of hit points, conditions, etc with dry erase markers right on the table.
    I build my dungeons, etc, using maptools, do some covering in photoshop so that I can reveal a little at a time and project it down onto the white table. It works out pretty well, my players all love it. Plus, with the layers in photoshop I can hide traps and such until a player springs one, revealing the previously hidden layer to update the map as it changes to the players.
    I’ve got plans for the wiimote setup but have yet to be successful with it. Not sure if the surface of the table isn’t reflective enough, my angle is wrong, etc.
    -D

  18. @ RevDerrick : Yeah, I bet getting the WiiMote to work is tricky business. I have some MDF sitting in my garage just begging me to create one of these, but I have to many other projects around the house to complete before I get to it.

  19. The first thing that came to mind when you suggested advertisements in .pdfs to counter potential lost sales of piracy is this:

    How many businesses will want to market their products to people who they may (rightly or not) perceive as thieves?

    If I’m marketing .pdf content, I’d think twice about advertising with someone who’s sales pitch consisted of “and a lot of people illegally download our content, so your ad will be seen by hundreds of thousands (of pirates).”

    I don’t think you’d have much luck with that sales pitch. There’d certainly be some potential advertisers who’d buy ads solely for the exposure, but I think you’d have a very limited pool of potential advertisers.
    .-= Stu´s last blog ..Happy Jacks RPG Podcast 000 =-.

  20. @Stu: You’re missing the point. Placing ads in PDFs is not to “counter” piracy, it’s to effectively use piracy to your benefit. I wouldn’t pitch it like “20,000 copies of my documents are pirated” it would be marketed like this: “my PDFs have a circulation of 50,000” or break it up on weekly downloads or what-have-you.

    If you could leverage the distribution of your product (as in how many people are downloading it, not just pirates) and sell that adspace, then maybe you just might be able give the product away for free (then there is no piracy at all and you’ve effectively turned piracy & torrent distribution into a strength).

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