Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Offensive Content Policy: A Follow Up

For those that do not know me, my name is Meredith Gerber and I am the RPG Publisher Relations Representative for DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. I volunteered to write this blog as a follow up from last week.

The feedback we have received from both customers and publishers has been appreciated and has helped us shape our new policy. We want to thank you for the time and energy you have taken to reach out to us. Those that have spoken with us in the past know we are always happy to talk to customers, publishers, and partners to have a professional dialogue about concerns.

When having discussions about these types of situations, it’s always important to remember that being professional and kind in feedback will create better dialogue. It’s very difficult to continue a conversation and figure out the message when hateful words are said out of anger and spite. If you do not agree with someone, take a moment to step back and breathe before stating your opinion. There is also nothing wrong with walking away from a conversation if it's going around in circles with no conclusion in sight. 

Of course, we are all humans and will engage in miscommunication and misunderstanding. I have spoken without thinking a few times in my life (and will do so in the future because I am only human) and all I can do is apologize for my words and actions and try to be better next time. Whether you agree or disagree with someone, remember that there is a human on the other side of that conversation that does have emotions and feelings like you do.

In this industry, we should all try to continue to speak to one another with respect and try to gain understanding of someone's words and ideas. While we might not all agree, it’s vital for members of the gaming industry to remember we’re all here to make and play games together.

I believe that going forward, we all should follow the words of Bill S. Preston, Esq. who simply reminds us to “Be excellent to each other”.

With that said, I wanted to take a moment to go over a few frequently asked questions we have received since last week's blog post from my C.E.O., Steve Wieck.

What is the process for flagging offensive titles?
Step 1: Customer reports a product.
Step 2: A human being at OneBookShelf does a cursory review to determine if the title should be temporarily suspended from sale or not. Either way the product is put in queue for review.
Step 3: A more thorough review of the product in completed. If deemed not offensive the product is whitelisted. If deemed potentially offensive then...
Step 4: We have expanded internal review and discussion with publisher possibly resulting in publisher retraction of the title or banning of the title.

Will a title be turned off automatically if it is flagged?
No, just because a title is flagged as offensive, it will not be automatically turned off. Only the administrators of the site can toggle the title to private. This process will send alerts to our staff for quick review. If our staff sees a product that is problematic, they will temporarily suspend it for further review.

Will you be giving scrutiny to certain topics?
We're going to give extra scrutiny to products that include rape, real world racial violence, torture, sexism, homophobia, and crimes against children. However, we will also be reviewing products reported for other reasons as needed.

How will you conduct this process with old titles on your site?
If a product is flagged as offensive with this new policy, we will be treating it no differently than a brand new title.

Who will review the offensive titles list?
Steve Wieck, C.E.O., who has the final say on titles marked as offensive.
Scott Holden, Marketing and Development
Matt McElroy, Director of Publishing and Marketing
Meredith Gerber, RPG Publisher Relations
Other OneBookShelf staff as deemed helpful for particular products.

Thank you,
Meredith Gerber
RPG Publisher Relations Representative

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Offensive Content Policy

At DriveThruRPG, we see a huge variety of content published and sold on our marketplaces. Something not broadly known to visitors on DriveThru is that we entrust most publishers to upload their new releases and activate them for sale without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the title before it goes public.

Over fourteen years of operations, with tens of thousands of roleplaying titles activated, thousands of RPG creators have demonstrated that this trust-based system works quite well; the vast majority of publishers will not upload offensive content and make it public on DriveThruRPG. Ours is a wonderful hobby.

Because this system has worked so well for so long, over a huge volume of products, we have had no need to create a content guideline for what we will not sell on DriveThruRPG due to its offensive nature.

Further, in the case of roleplaying games, especially new games put out by independent creators or new companies, our marketplaces are a key distribution channel. If we were to ban an RPG product, the de facto result is very much like censorship. That fact causes me grave concern, for if we were to create a content guideline that all publishers on our store must follow, and then ban titles that do not meet those guidelines, then we would be playing dictator with the RPG art form, and that is a role I am acutely uncomfortable playing.

Having grown up in the U.S. Bible Belt, where attempts to ban books from school and public libraries were common, and given my various experiences with distribution channels as a publisher at White Wolf in the early 90s, I have had a lot of firsthand encounters with attempts to ban content.

There is, however, a growing problem we face as a marketplace. A few RPG creators have designed content in the recent past that people have viewed as disturbing, distasteful, or depraved. For example, we recently and understandably received a lot of criticism for selling an RPG supplement entitled "Tournament of Rapists."

I'll say a few words about that product and then move on to the broader topic of how we will handle offensive content on DriveThruRPG.

Hearing the title “Tournament of Rapists,” one is naturally repulsed. Sometimes the purpose of art is to make us feel revulsion, though, so we shouldn't judge a book by its title alone. In this case, though, reading the brief cover copy or product description the author entered on DriveThruRPG to explain the contents of the book does nothing but amplify that revulsion and call into question if the subject matter is being treated at all appropriately. So, naturally, people asked us various versions of the question, "How on earth can you have that for sale on your marketplace for even one minute?"

The answer is this:

1. As I mentioned above, this product was uploaded and activated by the author. No one at DriveThru pre-screened the book.

2. When we were first alerted to the offensive nature of the book, I used administrator privileges to download and skim through a copy of the book. At its core, the book was an adventure supplement where the goal of characters was to stop demonic entities who were perpetrating sexual violence and murder. The rapists were clearly the villains to be stopped, something that I believe many critics of the book could not have known from the book's title and vague description.

Still, other aspects of the book, such as its title and description and some of its content, were written in a way that were not well-considered treatments of the subject of sexual violence. I personally found the book offensive, but as I’ve noted, I am not comfortable letting my viewpoint serve as the gate-keeping standard.

Again, 1) rapists were villains in the book and 2) I chose to accept offensive content over becoming a de facto censor. In doing so, I made the mistake of not suspending the title from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher.

3. Another factor that weighed on my decision was the fact that, when uploading and activating the title, the author flagged the title as adult content. Books with the adult flag do not show up on our marketplace to visitors. A user must be logged in to a customer account on our site and have changed the default "no" adult filter to "yes" before she can see adult flagged titles anywhere on site. And for the record, "adult" in this context refers to more than just sexual content; it means any kind of content with material that requires adult discernment.

My philosophy has been individual choice, not my choice. My expectation has been that gamers who choose deliberately to see adult titles have the mental faculties to decide if a title they see is appropriate or not.

Therefore, I let the title remain active for sale while I reached out to the publisher to discuss the title.

4. The publisher was on vacation, so we did not catch up with one another by phone until near the end of the weekend. We had a professional dialogue about the book, the type of dialogue where people listen to each other and try to understand where each other is coming from and work toward constructive outcomes. The publisher then discussed the book with the author, and they decided to withdraw the book from sale. In my opinion, having real dialogue and expecting the best, not the worst, in other people leads to better outcomes. Unrelenting anger and the desire to punish divides and polarizes people, as can be seen from some social media discourse on games today.

To the broader issue of the content we will sell on DriveThruRPG going forward, it is time we change the approach we have used for the past fourteen years. This most recent incident has shown me that our previous approach worked only because publishers in the past simply hadn’t  uploaded such offensive content. However, that approach carried us too far in the wrong direction.

It's time for us to have a policy on rejecting offensive content. I understand that many feel this is too long in coming, that our prior non-policy of “censorship is unacceptable" was tantamount to shirking our responsibility to help keep the RPG hobby inclusive. I am solely responsible for the prior policy, not the other staff at OneBookShelf. I accept that criticism and apologize for not being a better steward.

What should our new content policy be?

Some people believe there are bright line rules that, when crossed, make a title something our RPG hobby is better without. As I recently and profoundly failed to explain on Twitter, I do not agree there are such bright line rules, or at least not nearly enough bright line rules to serve as a guide.

In first drafting this blog post, I made a fuller explanation with examples of why I don’t think bright line rules work for deciding what content is offensive or not. I removed all of that because I don’t want my intentions in doing so to be misinterpreted again. Suffice to say that the U.S. Supreme Court could not create bright line rules for what constituted pornography (leading to the famous statement, "I'll know it when I see it."), and similarly I don’t think we can create such rules for offensive content.

I also think the more exacting we make the guidelines, the more fine points we include on content treatment, the more the guideline risks becoming shackles for the rpg art form and the more bad actors will attempt to game the fine points of the policy.

Amazon's policy on offensive content is incredibly short:

“Offensive Content: What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”

The problem here is that such a statement gives little guidance to publishers and authors, and thus Amazon's rulings on banning books seem rather arbitrary. Publishers who offer content on our marketplaces will understandably say to us, "We can't invest in creating RPG titles only to have DriveThru arbitrarily ban them, so if you're now banning titles for offensive content, give us guidelines for what titles you will and will not ban."

To which, I have to say, "I hear you, but I don't know any better way." A work often has to be considered as a gestalt to know if it is offensive or not.

So, going forward, our offensive content policy is simply going to be this:

Offensive Content: We'll know it when we see it.

I will be the final arbiter of what OneBookShelf deems offensive. I will tend to err toward including content, even when it challenges readers and deals with sensitive issues, so long as it does so maturely and not gratuitously.

Any title in which racial violence, rape, torture, or a similar subject is treated as a central feature will naturally be subjected to increased scrutiny.

Everyone draws their own line on what is offensive differently, so I understand that any judgment OneBookShelf makes will always have someone who disagrees with it.

A few final topics:

1. We will continue to be reactive, not proactive, on judging new title releases. Historically, 99.99% of publishers' content has been inoffensive. Being able to activate their own titles for sale with our marketplace tools gives publishers additional control over their release marketing timing and generally gets RPG products to market more quickly. We will not constrain those 99.99% by introducing a required step where OneBookShelf staff reviews every title before it goes public just so that we can catch the .01%.

Such a review process would also add a large expense to our operations, which translates eventually to higher prices for customers.

What we will do, though, is code more customer-facing options to allow customers to report potentially offensive content to us. That way, customers can help us identify the offensive .01% of titles that much faster. If a reported title looks questionable, then we will suspend it from sale while we review its content internally, and we will speak with its publisher to determine the fate of the title on our marketplace. Our default will be to suspend titles rather than our prior default of letting titles stay public.

To be clear, we need to code, test, and deploy this new reporting feature. It is not live now.

2. Once the reporting feature is live, we will review titles already on the marketplace that are reported by customers. There will be no "grandfathering in" of past content. Where we find offensive content on site, even if we have permitted it in the past under our prior policy, we will remove it. We are no longer a wide-open marketplace, and some publishers may need to find a different place to sell some of their content (or all of it, if they decide to leave DriveThru entirely).

3. I doubt the industry will see the “Tournament of Rapists” title again, but if the publisher decides to make changes to the product and wishes to sell it on DriveThru again, it will then be subject to this new offensive content policy.

4. We will be reviewing the use of our adult flag, including what content we expect to carry that flag and how we communicate the use of that flag to publishers and customers.

I appreciate all of our customers and publishers who were patient while we sorted these issues out and who gave us the benefit of the doubt as human beings trying to do the best thing. Like everyone, we sometimes make mistakes along the way.

Steve Wieck
OneBookShelf / DriveThruRPG

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Digital Printing Quality for Playing Cards

Game publishers are frequently shocked at the high quality that short-run digital printing can achieve these days. The reason the quality gap between short-run, digital printing and high-volume printing has closed (assuming you're printing with the right digital printing equipment) is that the actual print process used is not all that different.

If you'll spare a few moments, we can level up your expertise on how this digital printing stuff works.

Digital vs. Offset?

Before OneBookShelf started providing print services for books and cards, I misused terms like "offset printing" and "digital printing." I was among the number of people in the game industry who didn't always get these terms quite right. So let's first make sure we have some terminology straight.

Nearly all digital printing is done by offset printing. The term "offset printing" simply refers to any printing method where the image is applied from an imaging surface to an intermediate surface and then to the paper. For most high-volume, commercial print presses, this means that water and ink are placed onto an image cylinder (or plate cylinder) which then transfers the ink and water to a rubber "blanket" (or offset cylinder) which then makes the impression onto the paper itself.

Image from Wikipedia

Large presses do their offset printing using a method called offset lithography which works because water and ink don't mix, and the image plate that is wrapped around the image cylinder can be photographically treated to make only parts of the image plate receptive to holding ink.

And as you may already know, color offset presses normally work by having a set of rollers for each of the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK (CMYK) colors which can combine to form any color on the final printed paper. This CMYK process differs from the Red, Green, Blue (RGB) process used on monitors and televisions to mix and form colors.

The difference for digital presses vs lithographic presses is not the offset process; both types of presses are technically offset presses. The difference is that digital presses use different processes for both 1) placing the image on the image cylinder and 2) placing ink (or toner) on the image cylinder and then to the offset cylinder and to the paper.

Instead of the lithographic process, digital presses use some variation of electrophotographic printing. The image cylinder is electrically charged, and then a laser writes the image negative onto the cylinder changing the electrical charge where the image will go. As the plate then passes through toner, the toner is electrically attracted to stick to the plate based on the charged or uncharged areas of the plate. It's like one big Etch a Sketch using electrostatics/magnetism to decide where the ink goes.

You can see this process at work in this video of a Kodak digital press:

In lithographic printing, the image plate is burned in once photographically and then mounted on press and the same image is rolled out thousands of times. With digital presses, the image is written to the image cylinder by laser or LED anew with every roll which means each sheet of paper passing through the press can get a different image.

Toner vs Ink

So why do some digitally printed items look like photocopies and some look indistinguishable from lithographic press work? Not all digital presses are the same.

Many lower-end digital presses use dry toner and xerography (Greek language nerds will know that "xero" means dry and "graph" refers to writing). The problems with dry toner presses are many:

  • Dry toner can clump causing banding or lines in areas of heavy, solid color.
  • Dry toner is fused after being applied to paper rather than going into the paper through pressure. Dry toner sits on top of the paper, unlike liquid ink that saturates into the paper and allows properties of the paper to come through. This is why dry toner has a high-gloss sheen even when printed on matte paper stocks.
  • Dry toner does not reproduce true color tones as well in CMYK color combination.
  • Dry toner is more prone to color fading.

While digital printing on machines using dry toner is getting better, it still does not match the quality of lithographic press work.

The exception for digital printing are presses like the HP Indigo which use liquid toner instead of dry toner. This liquid toner still adheres to the image cylinder by electrical charge, but the Indigo press then uses a rubberized blanket (offset cylinder) more like a lithographic press. When the liquid toner hits paper, it sinks into the paper instead of sitting on top of the paper as a baked-on layer of fused, dry toner. This allows a more faithful reproduction of matte finishes like you see on most lithographically-printed cards.

Final Quality

Of course in any printing process there are many factors that determine the final quality of the output: the print files, the pre-press processing, the card stock selected, press work, coating, cutting, etc.

At DriveThru, all of our cards are printed on HP Indigo presses, and we use card stocks like Arjo Wiggins Matte. These are two of the larger quality factors which allow us to produce cards that customers can shuffle right into their collection of cards printed on large lithographic web press runs. This is especially important as we do community card creators for games like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, where customers will need their custom-created cards to shuffle seamlessly into their existing deck collection so they cannot tell the difference between cards printed digitally vs lithographically during play.

When we get publisher feedback like this:

I shuffled a few of the your newest cards into a pile with some Carta Mundi cards, and asked a couple of people to divide them into DriveThru and Carta Mundi piles, and nobody did it correctly. Good job.

Then we know we're at the quality level publishers need to see before they include digital printing in their publishing toolbox.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Community Created Content for Tabletop Games

Over a year ago, I posted about the coming revolution in card games (and board games) based upon the ability to print any content on any single card. I laid out some possible ways that OneBookShelf through our site hoped to aid that revolution. One of those ways was by empowering a game's community to create content for their favorite game.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Community Card Creator

Today we release the first iteration of our community card creator. We've partnered with Paizo Publishing to give Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG) fans the ability to create, print, and share their own cards for PACG. You can check it out here:

PACG fans can:
  • create their own cards;
  • purchase their created cards in print for $0.50/card;
  • choose to keep their card private (it's truly a one-of-a-kind card!);
  • choose to list their card publicly on DriveThruCards allowing other fans to see the card, comment on it, and purchase it.

While the rest of this post is about Community Card Creators in general, I will beg your pardon while I do a quick shout-out to Vic, Sonja, Mike, Tanis, Jeff, Lisa, Erik, and Brian at Paizo who were super-supportive of this project. They were also bold enough and trusted their community enough to put a design tool like this in the hands of their community.

Concerns about Community Card Creation

"If you let players help design the game it's likely to be a worse game than it was before" [Lewis Pulsipher, BoardGameGeek].

A year ago, my post received comments similar to Mr. Pulsipher's. Collectively, game designer comments expressed concerns about unbalanced cards, quantity-over-quality, and copyright-violating (or offensive) content. The seeming consensus: community created cards would be a wreck.

I'm obviously optimistic about the possibilities of these card creators, but it would be foolish to ignore the possible validity of these concerns.

With the release of the PACG card creator, Pandora has opened her box and we'll see which of these evils emerge. I know that we are in the early stages of this process. Like any web-based service, what we've released today with the PACG card creator is an initial, minimally-viable-product kind of launch. We have work ahead of us to refine the process of creating, commenting, browsing, and buying cards.

Much of that work will get prioritized based upon which of the evils soars (or roars) out of Pandora's box. However, we have planned for mitigating some of these concerns:

Copyrighted Images Concerns: We knew the importance of providing players with easy access to artwork they can legally use on their created cards. Without easy access to legal art, many players would default to copying images off the web regardless of copyright, or get stumped by the lack of legal art and not create cards at all.

We assembled a collection of stock art images from Fiery Dragon and Fat Goblin that players can purchase for $0.40 an image and get the rights to use the image on cards they create. The hope is that this begins to create a viable marketplace where community members who have artistic talent might also submit art to be used on cards and get some amount of royalties as other community members use the art.

Unbalanced or Poor Quality Cards Concerns: Two things will keep these from being major issues. First, all community created cards are clearly marked as such. Like most ongoing card games, PACG cards include expansion icons, and in the case of community cards that icon is replaced with a Community Created Card logo.

This clearly segregates for players the official cards designed by Mike Selinker and team from the unofficial cards designed by the community.

Second, our hope is that fans will take an active role in discussing and rating cards created by other community members. These ratings will allow us to automatically curate the better community cards, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Onward Revolutionaries!

For Players: I see a gaming landscape where players have the ability to design their own add-ons to any popular board or card game. I'm playing Flash Point or Pandemic and want to create my own custom role card? I'm playing Guillotine and want a prank card to put in the game and watch my friend lose his head? I've got a cool idea for variant draw card for Settlers or Ascension or Dominion. Done, done, and done.

For Game Publishers: The benefits are numerous.

  • Community created cards increase and prolong your community's involvement with your game.
  • Community created cards provide more "Wow!" fun moments playing your game. Already Matt Kimmel, one of the testers for the Pathfinder Card Creator, surprised his fiancee Sandra with an engagement card he created:

Matt's custom card pays homage to Richard Garfield's Magic card proposal
  • Community created cards could become a reasonable source of extra revenue.
  • Community created cards could produce game design contributions that deserve to become official extensions of the game.

We've begun to have conversations with a few publishers about producing community card creators for their games, and several of those publishers (Atlas Games, Cheapass Games and Stone Blade Entertainment among them) have agreed. We invite other publishers to work with us to foment this revolution.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Steve Wieck

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Cost of printing cards on demand

I wanted to compare the costs among the leading printers of print-on-demand, short run cards for the tabletop game community. The leading printers seem to be: The GameCrafter, Printer Studio, Bicycle Personalized, MPC (makeplayingcards), and DriveThruCards.

In the table below, I compare single deck printing costs (as a game designer in prototyping might print) and also a higher volume run as might be used for convention sales or KickStarter fulfillment of a card game.

All data here is current as of this post in January 2015.

Comparing Print-on-Demand Card Costs

The GameCrafterPrinter StudioBicycleMPCDriveThruCards
54-card Poker (Standard Stock)
1 Deck$5.57not offered$9.95$11.60$4.32
100 Decks$475.00not offered$746.00$410.00$317.00
54-card Poker (Premium Stock)
1 Decknot offered$7.99$20.95$12.00$4.59
100 Decksnot offered$450.00$1,676.00$450.00$344.00

The fine print:
The Game Crafter's price includes an 89-cent fee that tGC adds to each game they print.
All prices are for the deck of cards only, except Printer Studio prices include a soft plastic case and Bicycle prices include a generic (not custom-printed) cardboard tuckbox. To compare, if you included the deluxe, plastic deckbox in DriveThruCards prices, the DriveThruCards premium stock prices would be $5.59 for one deck, and $424 for 100 decks.

So DriveThruCards offers the best pricing on print-on-demand cards, in many cases by a significant margin.

As I work at DriveThruCards it's not surprising that I'm posting this, but before you dismiss my credibility, know that this price information is available on each printer's site. There's no bias to the information; I'm just collating the pricing information for your convenience.

Beyond Pricing

With the factual cost data now stated, let me get subjective and say a few kind words about the competition including why you might choose them over DriveThruCards despite our superior pricing.

The Game Crafter - Has a good reputation for service. While they do not offer premium card stock their card quality is generally rated well. They offer a marketplace to help you sell more copies of your game. Their biggest benefit is that they also offer a host of other components should your card game be more than just cards.

Printer Studio - Their website is easy-to-use. They offer a range of premium stocks including linen.

Bicycle - I guess you get the Bicycle brand name which some people value adding into their KickStarter marketing?

MPC - I don't know enough about them to offer feedback. They tend to have better pricing on higher volume runs.

DriveThruCards - I'll also try to be self-critical of our own operation here and point out what's good and not so good about DriveThruCards.

     The Good
  • Our quality has been rated quite high; we use HP Indigo presses with actual ink instead of toner printing.
  • We have over a thousand publisher clients and have earned a good reputation for personal service.
  • You can print any number of cards in your deck; there's no sheet multiple you need to meet.
  • We offer a marketplace where you can list your card game and generate more sales (who doesn't like more sales?). Once your deck is set up for printing you can choose to toggle a setting in your account and start selling the deck to DriveThru customers. We pay millions in earnings to publishers every year.
     The Not So Good
  • We have a very powerful publisher interface which gives you a lot of capabilities on site, especially if you choose to sell on our marketplace. The by-product of that power is that there is more to learn, and new publishers face a bit more of a learning curve when first interfacing with our site.
  • To get the best results printing with us, you need to use a professional designer who can use Adobe software and create a PDF file to our print specifications. We do have a fancy, easy-to-use online deck builder which will take plain image uploads, but this is currently in beta mode right now. Of course the advantage to using a professional designer is that you also get cards that look ... professionally designed.
  • We have custom tuckboxes coming, but do not offer them yet.

Too Big for Short Run?

Finally, some publishers like to know when print-on-demand stops making sense as the best option for printing a short run of cards. Generally the answer seems to be around 700 decks. If you're printing more than 700 decks and have the time, you'll be better served using a printer who focuses on larger runs.

Even though such printers might have a minimum print run of 1,500 decks, you'll still end up better served getting 1,500 decks from them than 700 decks through a short-run printer like those mentioned here.

Just don't go crazy. Many first-time game publishers get wildly optimistic about how many copies they will sell over and above their KickStarter amount or over and above their initial orders from channels and they mistakenly print far too many of their game. Hobby game channels get so many new games offered to them every week that few new games get ordered at all and fewer still get restocked. With print-on-demand it's quick and easy to restock as needed and you don't end up with half your garage filled with extra games you printed in China.

If you'd like a run down of larger-scale printers to use, I recommend James Mathe's post.

If you are interested to learn more about printing with DriveThruCards, you can get more information here.

As always your comments (and any corrections!) are welcome.

Steve Wieck