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How Long Before the Digital Dam Breaks?

The recent crash in pricing for digital comics provides a data point for the future of electronic versions of tabletop books, 3D-printed miniatures, and terrain. How long can retailers keep their price points for physical product before the dam breaks?

[h=3]The Line is 99 Cents[/h]Many businesses are being upended by the move to online sales, as products transform from physical to a digital format. Chris Anderson at Wired explains why Web content continues to get cheaper and cheaper:

It's now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.


This is the challenge facing the comics industry today. Comics in digital format is not new, but as the market has matured some patterns are emerging. For one, the massive back catalog of comics are plentiful, such that anyone seeking to jump into comics no longer has to worry about the significant barrier to entry of hunting for a comic. One side effect of the availability of these digital comics -- and the desire to bring fans up to speed quickly on hot properties as they are launched in films and TV series -- was deep discounting. According to ICv2 columnist Rob Salkowitz, this has had the unintended effect of normalizing consumers' perceptions of what a comic should cost:

It’s also fulfilled the prophesy that programs like Humble Bundle, which led the way in dumping piles of digital issues on the market for ridiculous prices, would eventually erode the perception of value for non-current material, permanently lowering the ceiling for profit margins on publisher back catalog in exchange for the sugar-high of short term revenue.


Role-playing games have also been sold in Humble Bundles. Salkowitz points out that there are benefits to this kind of deep discounts:

It’s a huge plus for consumers to be able to catch up on storylines or track down old favorites in digital format without breaking the bank. It’s good for publishers, who can use promotional sales to generate attention for characters poised for a big moment on screen or in a featured upcoming series. It’s good for creators, who can expose new (and old) fans to their previous work without driving them to the back issue bins.


The concern is that consumers will not buy new products at full price. After all, today's comic book is tomorrow's deep-discounted back issue. Will fans stop buying?
[h=3]Digital and Tabletop RPGs[/h]PDFs of tabletop role-playing game rules and adventures share a lot of similarities with comics. They have a finite lifespan but are still accessible later, and as future editions of RPGs are released, the back catalog loses its appeal at brick-and-mortar outlets, often ending up deep discounted to clear shelf space. The digital space is where a back catalog can thrive.

It's also where a lot of innovation takes place, unrestrained by production and distribution barriers that would normally prohibit a creator from launching a product. OneBookShelf's (OBS) consolidation of digital gaming products (DriveThruRPG absorbed its rival, RPGNow, back in 2006 and now manages DM's Guild) draws a parallel with the dominance Amazon's Comixology in digital comics. So far, DriveThruRPG has resisted deep discounting on the scale of Comixology, perhaps because the price point is set by the creator, not by OBS.

OBS' management of its channels provides a path forward for companies like Wizards of the Coast, who shifted from removing all of its PDFs online in 2009 to partnering with OBS to create a DM's Guild in which creators can leverage WOTC's own content to create new products. This shift was likely influenced by the decline of bookstores, a major channel for RPG distributors.

By all accounts, the digital market for comics (and books in general) has stabilized. Reference books in particular lend themselves to digital distribution. Given that tabletop gaming books are often purchased for reference during play, they can be even more useful in electronic format when indexed and searchable. The same can't be said for 3D models however.
[h=3]Digital and Miniatures[/h]Miniatures have slowly fallen out of favor among companies like WOTC, who once offered pre-painted randomized miniatures, only to abandon the product after the Great Recession in 2008 made the price of production and shipping unfeasible. WizKids picked up the slack, acting as a consolidator for multiple companies' plastic miniature lines, WOTC included.

WOTC has paid careful attention to 3D products on sites like Shapeways, a platform WOTC's parent company Hasbro has an existing agreement with. With a few exceptions, most D&D models are free to download and print. Games Workshop, on the other hand, went after a creator on Thingiverse for creating a Warhammer-style figure back in 2012.

Cool Mini or Not (CMON) has adopted a Minimum Advertised Pricing Policy (MAPP) for advertising of its games:

CMON believes that by unilaterally imposing restrictions on the minimum prices advertised by our distribution and retail partners, we can reduce counterfeiting and enhance our customer’s perceived value of the CMON brand, and that serves the best interests of our consumers, retailers, and distributors.​

CMON's MAPP focuses primarily on advertising vs. the actual price of the product (in CMON's case, products cannot be advertised lower than 15% of the standard retail price). A MAPP's attempt to "reduce counterfeiting" may not be comprehensive enough. Six years later, any concerns about keeping counterfeit and copycat products off digital shelves are quickly dispelled by browsing Thingiverse.

There are miniatures for just about every game imaginable on Thingiverse and Shapeways. Warhammer-compatible models are ubiquitous on Thingiverse (over 1,700 models). Don't like the Robotech miniatures from Palladium's recent Kickstarter? You can print them yourself. Missing a ship for X-Wing? Print it yourself. Fans who have a 3D printer can even make their own terrain with OpenLock, a rival to DwavenForge's terrain.

The hobby market will likely shift its strategy from providing printed products to providing high-quality digital files (indexed PDFs, high-quality 3D models) that can't be purchased for free online. One thing's for sure: if Thingiverse's catalog is any indication, the price of digital products in the 3D space have already been socialized well below digital comics' $0.99.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Cergorach

The Laughing One
[MENTION=3285]talien[/MENTION]:
Do you have any experience printing HIPS?

Marvel Unlimited is awesome!
Services like Humble Bundle and Bundle of Holding are great, for a small fee you get introduced to a small selection of 'new' material. The intention of course is to get you interested and buying the rest of the material.

Computer games are far more advanced in this market then comics, rpg pdfs, ebooks, etc. Things like Steam have been around for ages, GOG is also wel established, Blizzard of course with Battlenet 2.0, even EA Origins is a good service these days (they also have a game subscription service). Consoles also have such services, but I'm not a console player, so my knowledge of those is only anecdotal.
 

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Matchstick

Explorer
I'll echo the sentiment that Marvel Unlimited is an amazing bargain. There's a staggering number of comics up there, with a lot being added monthly. If you don't mind running behind six months on "new" comics (and I sure don't) it's incredibly worth the price.

I've tended toward patience with RPG PDF's. A very large percentage of what I've gotten I've gotten at more than reasonable prices by waiting for bundles on HumbleBundle and Bundle of Holding. If I like the PDF's I've even gone out and purchased the physical books.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I've spent about 60 dollars on two PDF lately, the S&W version of Rappan Athuk and the Tome of Horrors complete, simply because it was 200 for both in HC and I didn't want to just DL a copy when they are a small company that probably needs the money. Don't think I'll do that again but who knows. In general I much prefer a physical product.
 

Advilaar

Explorer
I think it depends on the product

Comics? Dead since the comics crash of the 90s. People got sick of reboots, poor storylines, over speculation, foil cover collectors gimmicks, storage space, and having boxes of wothless comics they thought would be a down payment on a house. You have movies now.

RPGs? You can get pdfs, sure. But, the pdfs are not as easy to flip through to find what you need. Not to mention, that android tablet, kindle, cell phone or whatever needs to be fully charged. Hard to have an epic 8 hour long game session when your device shuts down because of battery.

Minis and such? Those things have always been overpriced. You have things like WarHammer where you can spend hundreds on an army. You have Whiz Kid packs that give you random stuff you do not need when you are really looking for just a band of orcs. You have ebay, but the shipping nickels and dimes you. Plus, it's really a deep rabbit hole. Not many people can pull out 10 Frost Giant minis for when the party runs into a tribe of them, but they can use coins, stones, dice, whatever. 3D printers may help here, but a lot I have talked to say the printers are not cheap, they are prone to issues, and the ink is not cheap either.

My thing?

WHY DOES WotC SHUT DOWN INDY CHARACTER GENERATORS????
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
The Tragedy of the Commons often kicks in with digital products (e.g. video games, especially mobile games). Individual publishers drop prices soon after release to make a short-term profit, but collectively the lower prices for digital cause consumers to be less willing to pay full price, or not pay at all, for new material.


Libraries often stock graphic novels. Anyone can read them for free. Hasn't this been influencing the industry for quite some time, regardless of digital pricing?


No, I don't collect comics, don't buy comics, only read the occasional "graphic novel" from the library's large collection.
 

Wading into this contentious subject .... but no. Your user data is incredibly valuable for non-criminal (commercial) uses.

People can value it differently, but one estimate is than an average (US) consumer could get $240/year monetizing their data.

Our data is big business- that's why facebook, et al, are "free." They are selling our data. Which, hey, if you're cool with that, more power to you.

But they are definitely getting the better of the bargain.

Whenever you get to use a service or product that is ostensibly free* just remember a handy little rule of thumb:

If you are not paying anything and are getting value in return then YOU are the product.
 

Vanveen

Explorer
Around 24 years ago I bought a nice little cheap B/W laser printer from Texas Instruments, that thing was near indestructible! After years of fateful service the fuser was damaged and due to TI no longer producing printers, a replacement part was unfindable. At the time I went looking for a replacement printer of the same size, functionality, pricing, etc. Nothing! Even now, I'm hard pressed to find something in that price range (after inflation) and that form factor. In the last 25 years Laser print technology hasn't gotten any better and is essentially still the same.

The only reason that 3D printing has changed so much is due to the expiration of patents in 2006 and Open Source projects running wild with it and a few pioneers in the field driving hobbyist prices down. Kickstarter and Alibaba also have a huge impact. But honestly, I know how the average joe is with 2D printers (morons), that's not really going to change with 3D printers. I think that 25 years you mentioned is more like "We'll surely have flying cars and rocket packs!" and less then reality. ...

[/dreaming]
;-)

I do user experience consulting. Last week I spoke with a startup who have perfected a $30,000 injection printer. Yep, it's a slightly inferior version of the injection molder used to make, say, those 3.5" Batman action figures. Except the mold for Batman costs $50,000 and the old Batman machine is the size of a small trailer.
The market is enormous for this--so big, in fact, that it was the company's main problem. (Where to start?) I told them about boardgames, good nerd that I am, and their eyes lit up.

I am in a city that is not in the forefront of manufacturing technology. 3d printing tech is going to get DRAMATICALLY better, much faster than people think. The problem with your laser printer analogy is that it's not about tech, but the printer business. The tech is essentially perfect...so perfect that it's stupid to try to enter the market, as the margins are horrible. Instead you need to make a bare-bones inkjet and charge a fortune for the ink...
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Whenever you get to use a service or product that is ostensibly free* just remember a handy little rule of thumb:

If you are not paying anything and are getting value in return then YOU are the product.

Yep. I never thought of it that way until the hosts of the No Agenda podcast were talking about how free TV really works a few years ago.
 

der_kluge

Adventurer
What is the deal with miniatures anyway? This article struck a nerve with me, since I've recently been frustrated with all my FLGS's in my area since none of them seem to want to bother stocking miniatures. More specifically, while they seem to be OK stocking "Bones" and the other plastic minis, which I deem to be inferior to the old school pewter figures, which are just far more detailed and easier to paint - I can't find those anywhere. I even asked a guy at a store today, and he said they had no plans to stock them, and said no one bought them. Really?? Is everyone 3D printing their miniatures these days? The quality just isn't there.

I also can't find shops selling the Wizards minis out of the box. I don't like buying these things sight unseen, only to get crap I'll never use. I guess I'm just forced to shop online for that stuff. Seems tragic to me.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
3d printing tech is going to get DRAMATICALLY better, much faster than people think.

Lee Cronin, a researcher in Scotland has- with some big money funding- had some successes with using 3D printing technology to “print” some simpler pharmaceuticals from generic recipes. They’re not quite to the point where said products would pass FDA muster for human consumption, but they’re getting close. Veterinary pharmaceutical standards are not quite as rigorous, though. Even if that’s as far as he gets, “print on demand” veterinary meds could radically drop the costs of pet ownership, farming, animal husbandry and the like.

(Might do bad things for the illicit horse tranq market, too, but there are ALWAYS unintended consequences...)


https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jul/21/chemputer-that-prints-out-drugs
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018...nufacturing-your-own-drugs-thanks-3d-printing
 

EthanSental

Adventurer
What is the deal with miniatures anyway? This article struck a nerve with me, since I've recently been frustrated with all my FLGS's in my area since none of them seem to want to bother stocking miniatures. More specifically, while they seem to be OK stocking "Bones" and the other plastic minis, which I deem to be inferior to the old school pewter figures, which are just far more detailed and easier to paint - I can't find those anywhere. I even asked a guy at a store today, and he said they had no plans to stock them, and said no one bought them. Really?? Is everyone 3D printing their miniatures these days? The quality just isn't there.

I also can't find shops selling the Wizards minis out of the box. I don't like buying these things sight unseen, only to get crap I'll never use. I guess I'm just forced to shop online for that stuff. Seems tragic to me.

I feel your pain, having seen a great mini/game store close in Georgia! Even my always great comic gaming store carries little in metal minis, no reaper bones but do now carry the Wizkids Nolzur and Deep cuts plastic primered minis. Much better quality than bones. For metal, still shop at iron wind, otherworld and dark sword for new additions to the collection, even eBay if it's an out of print mini from ral partha that iron wind doesn't have anymore.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
3d printing tech is going to get DRAMATICALLY better, much faster than people think.
The problem isn't technological development, it's pricing and patents. The only reason we've gotten reasonably affordable hobby printers and semi pro printers in the sub $5000 range is due to patents expiring. Everything still under patents is horribly expensive $50k-$1+ million... I suspect it's more about people waiting out the patents (until they expire) then anything else. Of course development on current cheap printers won't stop, but there are many avenues they can't pursue due to patents. Prusa had an article about why their printers don't come standard with enclosures, two reasons: costs and patents.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Patent expiration has something to do with it, no doubt, but a bigger factor is just the economics involved: lowering costs of production, a broadening of the market in general, etc.
 

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