And if They’re Any Good at this Game, They Won’t
I’ve seen this bandied about pretty well all week as people are talking about D&D Next on the twitter- and blogosphere: there is a set of players who would like Wizards of the Coast to release PDFs of First, Second and Third Edition material because that material is basically unavailable through any other medium. The argument goes that by putting this material on the internet, Wizards of the Coast will be making money that they would not already be making, and that it doesn’t cost the company anything to have those books available for download, so… why not?
Those players are obviously not in the games industry.
Wizards of the Coast isn’t putting out PDF versions of older modules because, as a business, they want to make money. Now, you might think that putting PDF versions of an old game wouldn’t cost them anything, and in direct costs that’s probably almost true (you still have to pay for the space to hold them, the developers to make the store, the man hours to make the file transfers, more man hours if in-house PDFs of that product don’t already exist, maintenance, quality control, customer service…). It’s not a small undertaking, for certain, but it would be worth it because of all the money they’d make, right?
Except that they’ve already got a horse in this race, and that horse ain’t First Edition.
Every dollar spent on the PDF downloads is a dollar that effectively isn’t going to the books that Wizards of the Coast is paying a lot of money to print right now. By providing that material in the form of a downloadable book, they’re competing with themselves, which is about the worst thing you can do in business, especially if you’re competing with your own flagship product. It’s the same reason that WotC could never support both D&D Fourth Edition and D&D Third. If people were contentedly buying the edition with which they were most comfortable, they would be less likely to try the new edition, the edition that had just finished costing them many, many dollars. If they decided to cater to the OSR guys and put out First Edition books online, those players would be happy with that. And having happy customers is awesome, except when it means that those players are so happy they’re not buying your other, newer, more expensive products.
Now, obviously they’re not going to get all of the OSR guys to buy into Fourth Edition D&D, but if there were a readily available source of First Edition books on the market, the number of OSR guys they managed to convert to the new system would drop dramatically, and that’s really, really bad for their hot new game. In order to ensure that the new edition is going to get as much push as it can, Wizards of the Coast needs to do it’s best to eliminate the previous edition from shelves. This usually works by taking the game out of print, reducing the quantity of new books to zero while the demand for those books eats up all of the available copies. It’s a strategy that works, because once there are no 3.5 Player’s Handbooks kicking around, when it becomes obvious that you won’t be able to find the resources you need to play the game you’re most familiar with, the chances that you will try a new game (perhaps a game with the same name?) increase in a huge way.
Pathfinder sort of gummed up the works on this, though. One of the reasons Pathfinder has done as remarkably well as it has is that it continues to put our resources for a game that people are more comfortable and familiar with. It’s a strategy that’s been used successfully by Kevin Siembieda for decades, and it seems to be doing really well by Paizo. See, when someone is looking for a 3.5 Player’s Handbook, and there’s no such thing on the market, I can say “You’re not going to find one, and if you do, you’re not going to find one cheap. Maybe you can your crew should give Fourth Edition a try.” Except that, now, if someone is looking for a 3.5 Player’s Handbook, I can point to the much more familiar system in Pathfinder.
It’s interesting to note, though, that the name still matters. I have a lot of people come in looking for 3.5 Player’s Handbooks that won’t even consider Pathfinder because “It’s not D&D.” Obviously this comes down to a lack of understanding on the part of the customer, because Pathfinder IS D&D, but without that name recognition, selling the same product in a different wrapper loses something. For those players, it is still easier to sell them on the Fourth Edition of the game.
If there were 3.5 Player’s Handbooks kicking around, I wouldn’t be able to sell Pathfinder or Fourth Edition to anyone who wanted a 3.5 Player’s Handbook. Both games would sit on my shelf for a very, very long time because people are generally hesitant to try something new without being pushed.
The same general principle applies to putting D&D First Edition books on the internet. If that material is available to you, what is going to push you to try Fifth Edition D&D? Curiosity, maybe, but if there is anything about the game that you dislike, it is much more likely you’re going to go back to downloading the version of the game you play now, and Wizards of the Coast will have just spent a lot of money printing book-shaped paperweights.
Now, this isn’t meant to convert you. It won’t. If you’re a die-hard fan of one version of D&D over all others, knowing that there’s a damned fine business reason that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t want to sell you old editions isn’t going to get you to rush out and buy the next one. But it’s important to know that what you’re asking for is the business equivalent of self cannibalism. Sure, you stop the uncomfortable feeling of hunger for a while, but only at the cost of eating your right arm…