April 10, 2012

Tailoring RPGs to Smartphones

If you want to imagine the process of laying out an RPG, imagine hitting yourself in the nutsack (if you possess one) with a ball-peen hammer for several hours until you’re numb to the pain, then coming back to do it again six months later just as everything’s healed because you love it when your testicles swell to the size of cricket balls.1

Ed Healy mentioned on Twitter this morning that 80% of Americans will have smartphones by the end of 20132. In his own inimitable style, he also asked of those of us who create games: Will you create content for them?”3

Game pubs, @TheTimHayden mentioned at #IMS12 that 80% of Americans will have smart phones by EOY 2013. Will you create content for them?

— Ed Healy (@ephealy) April 10, 2012

This sparked off some discussion between myself, Ed, and David A. Hill Jr. on the best way to cater RPG books to smartphones. Naturally, it happened on Twitter, which is a horrible place to have a discussion involving long, thought-out points, so I’m dragging my side of it to my blog.

The smartass answer4 to Ed’s question is that people with smartphones can read books just the same as people without them. That’s avoiding the issue. If you’ve got a smart device, you want to use it for things. Why wouldn’t you want to use it when gaming?

As I see it, we-as-game-publishers have a few avenues we can explore:

  1. Publish in PDF
  2. Publish in ePub
  3. Publish as an app
  4. Publish as a web app

I should point out that these are just the first four things that sprang to mind, other options exist that I’d quite like to hear about.

Publish in PDF

PDF has become the default standard of the electronic-format roleplaying game. In effect, it’s a way of creating a fixed-layout page so that the electronic artefact can match up precisely with a printed artefact. Even though the printed RPG book is quickly becoming a luxury item,5 we’re still tied to a strict electronic representation of those books as our default file format.

Only problem is, PDFs are a horrible format for representing actual electronic documents. Making a usable Table of Contents, list of bookmarks, and hyperlinks is beyond the capabilities of the basic software. Most RPG books still go for the 11“x8.5” format that people recognise as a gaming book. Thing is, people use font sizes that look good on paper, which end up far too small to read on many screens.6

Yes, we can zoom in. Thing is, if the reader has to zoom in then one has to overload scrolling to not just move within the document but to move the viewport around the page. Which is a really hard problem. This is doubly a pain in the genitals if the PDF has columns—a good idea in print, but a real headache on screen as it encourages yet more fucking scrolling.

An 8.5“x11” PDF also doesn’t work for pretty much any mobile device. It’s readable on the iPad with its 4:3 screen if one has perfect eyesight or decent glasses or doesn’t mind scrolling like a bastard, but nothing else does.

One fairly recent trend is to put out books in 6“x9” format, often single-column and sometimes landscape format. All these things help with screen-reading: landscape is nicer to read than portrait, single-column avoids the scrolling issue on small displays or when zoomed, and the smaller page size fits better on many displays. A 6“x9” book displays just fine on many of the 7” tablets on the market7

Thing is, these PDFs do fuck-all for smartphone users because smartphone screens are small compared to just about any page of text

As an experiment, I put together a couple of PDFs of BLACK SEVEN earlier. One was sized to the screen of an iPhone 4, another for the HTC Wildfire. Body text was dropped to 5pt, pages sized precisely for the screen with tiny margins, everything tuned for a phone display

On a high-resolution device like more modern iPhones and the Galaxy Nexus, these mini-PDFs looked fine. On most phones8, the display doesn’t have enough pixels for the pages to be comfortable to read. Once the font’s increased to a comfortable size, tables and graphic elements become unreadable.

This is a natural consequence to using a format that tries to replicate pages” of fixed text. After banging my head against the layout problem for a while, I realised9 that the problem was fundamental in static layout.

I have in the past argued against the use of PDF for gaming books. In trying to make them usable, I was hitting a whole bunch of problems that I’ve already called out as being pretty intractable.

Based on experimentation, PDFs just don’t work at the small screen-size available on most smartphones. High-end phones have the ppi to drive PDFs, but the majority of people don’t have high-ppi devices.

Smartphone-sized PDFs are thus a no-go.

Publish in ePub

Here, I can legitimately claim to be ahead of the game. Both BLACK SEVEN and Touched by Darkness come in ePub as well as PDF, which is still a rare thing for RPG publishers to do.

ePub has massive advantages over PDF: the text flow is dynamic, so the reader can control what size and orientation looks right. Reader software can allow the reader to change the font-face, colors, and size to find the perfect reading style for their device. Readers are freely available on anything with more computing power than a digital watch. ePub is a form of HTML and CSS, which means that formatting tricks are possible, in theory.

In practice, each reader has its own host of bugs. Many RPGs, especially small-press games, use layout and typography to make up for a relative lack of art, and that’s lost in ePub. In theory, the format allows for embedded fonts and CSS layout tricks. In practice, creating ePub files is a bit like writing a standards-compatbile website that looks identical in both Firefox, Internet Explorer 610, and Lynx.

Writing ePubs is possible, but the current suite of authoring software is shit. Calibre and Sigil both assume that one is intimately familiar with ePubs and create files that look great if one only uses Calibre or Sigil to read them. Pages will export ePub, but don’t expect embedded fonts, tables, or any bits of layout trickery to work. iBooks is a whole other pile of worms that doesn’t work in any other reader. Half the readers out there won’t even render a bastard table correctly. Forget typography or layout elements. If you want anything beyond basic Markdown, you’re buggered.

For smartphones, ePub is a fantastic format. For layout people—especially, like me, part-time layout people who are also writers, editors, developers, and have a day job—ePub is a total fucker to work with.11 But if you’re willing to fight it a bit to get the necessary information legible, then a publisher really should be including ePub. It’s just good manners to allow people to read your work on as many devices as possible.

ePub is a brilliant format for the reader—but the limtations of the format (no embedded fonts, no character sheets, very limited set of reliable layout elements) mean that publishers don’t want to release in ePub alone.

But if a publisher’s not at least releasing the text of their game as an ePub with a full-featured PDF or similar then they’re missing out on the gamers-with-smartphones sector.

Publish as an app

Publishing a game that’s a smartphone app is the sort of thing that seems like a really great idea. I’ve thought about it several times, from appified versions of rulebooks right the way to proper high-crunch games with player and GM modes that communicate and adjudicate a lot of the rules without the GM needing to intervene, thus opening rules-heavy games up to people who can’t normally be bothered with tracking lots of variables but want the verisimilitude that said tracking would provide.

Sorry, tangent. I’ve thought about this a lot.

Naturally, for a smartphone-using gamer, this is the sweet-spot. The game can go on sale through the various app stores, it’s optimized for the screen size and capabilities of the game, it can include things like a database of characters and a dice roller. The presentation of the rules and the like take what’s good about ePub and turn it up to eleven.


App development isn’t the sort of skill that people just pick up. Expecting someone who already does everything as an indie publisher12 to take the time necessary to learn to write apps—not just once but twice—is unreasonable.

For most publishers, programming is a whole skillset that they’ve no idea about. Even for people like me, who can write code already, it still takes a couple of months to pick up something new at least. Then it’s up to writing, developing, and testing.

Once you get to the point of pressuring publishers to release a smartphone app, you’re raising the bar of entry to the publishing space to people who can a) write apps and b) write RPGs. And while I could inhabit that space if I had a couple of months off work, for people not coming from an IT-heavy background it’s not a sensible requirement.

Naturally, people who write apps will say just hire an app developer”, which misses the main point of small publishers: we’re really fucking small. I was able to trade off my own time as a resource when publishing BLACK SEVEN. App developers are expensive, and most of us do not have the money.

The ideal way forwards would be for an enterprising person to publish an app-creator-kit, an equivalent to DTP software that instead created an app for both iOS and Android. While it’s a nice idea, I honestly don’t see it happening any time soon.

While game-as-app is the perfect artefact for smartphone users, it’s not a space that’s available to most small publishers. It’d be nice for that to change, but the change would have to be publisher driven or it’d cost people out of producing RPGs.

At present, it’s a luxury that most publishers cannot afford to produce.

Publish as a web app

A web app, leveraging HTML, CSS, and Javascript, is a handy way of creating something that’s significantly more feature-rich than an ePub file, because it’s able to use Javascript. It can also use things like bits of HTML5 to add yet more features.

While HTML, CSS, and Javascript require more skills than hitting export to ePub”, they’re a mature skillset. Better, web apps can be made with intro-level software, creating apps that work in browsers, with tablets, and with smartphones without much knowledge of the underlying code. As with smartphone apps, web apps require a set of programming skills that most small publishers don’t have. Unlike smartphone apps, these skills aren’t as onerous to pick up.

The main problem for creating RPGs that work as web apps is of delivery. If you aim to get them out via the various platforms’ app stores, then you’ve got to code up a wrapper—though that wrapper’s going to be easier to write once and use for a range of games than if each were made as an app. Otherwise, you’re left with the problem of getting the files to a smartphone user.

Delivering the various messy bits of files that incorporate a web app directly to a phone or similar isn’t necessarily easy, especially with the way that some devices lock down browser access to the filesystem. A publisher may instead host the web app, but that opens a whole new can of worms around guarantees of access, and ensuring that unauthorised users can’t access the web app.

As you can probably tell, this is the space I’ve thought about least. It’s easier to do than to create an app, but harder than making PDFs or ePubs. The problem shifts from can people who buy my game use this” to how do I get this to people who have bought my game”.


To get people who came with tablets and smartphones at the table, the best thing to do at the moment is to make a 6“x9” PDF and an ePub version of your books. While other options are there, they’re currently too high a hurdle to require from publishers.

I’ve played around with smartphone-sized PDFs and they’ve proved to be distinctly not worth it. I’m going to work on getting BLACK SEVEN available as a web app, and will report back.

  1. If you haven’t guessed, this is in my normal voice rather than the professional voice I normally use here. If swearing turns you off, leave now.

  2. Normally, I’d take umbrage with only focusing on a foreign country, but from my own unscientific polling, the USA is lagging behind the rest of the world in smartphone usage anyway, so fuck it, let’s use the USA figures as a baseline.

  3. Oh fuck, I’ve turned into one of those horrible people that blog about what happened on twitter. Kill me now.

  4. David came up with it rather than me, since I’m not a luddite.

  5. Which is a problem for the current LGS distribution model, which is outwith my scope at present. It’s also a problem for whiny fucks who refuse to buy games that don’t come in print, and yet somehow are able to connect to the internet, but hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  6. As a rough guide, if you’re using 8- or 9-point serif fonts, you need a display putting out at least 120 pixels per inch for it to be legible without zooming. The prevalence of widescreen displays at the behest of the movie and television industries has done a great deal to retard the utility of displays for reading, where 4:3 is a sensible aspect ratio.

  7. My reference device for these things is a rooted Nook Color, which displays 6“x9” PDFs like a fucking charm.

  8. Of a sample size consisting of people who answered me on twitter”.

  9. Pronounced Tef told me, and was right”.

  10. Without hacks to normalise the box model.

  11. The pithy answer is so hire a layout bod”. At this point I’ll note that small publishers can’t afford a layout bod. When I can afford one, I will. Until then, I want as many people as possible to read and play my games, so that I can afford one.

  12. I’m just using indie” in a colloquial fashion to mean small and primarily electronic”, and terminology purists can go swivel.

gaming pipe dream self-publishing for stoats

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