Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Games Workshops Digital Codex Review

Alright since no one else seems really able to write a review I decided to jump in here.  Now I’m not doing this to be vindictive or flame anyone I really want people to make up their minds regarding these products.
Firstly about me, I’m an avid 40k player and have been for over 2 decades. I started playing under Rogue Trader and own and have played every edition published by GW.  I’m not a fantasy player, or a tournament player so even though I’ll try I can’t totally speak to the needs of players in those fields.  Professionally I’m an academic librarian and work with reference resources on a daily basis.

What will I be looking at? As I discuss this product I’ll be evaluating it based on its Quality, Experience, and Value.  As I look at these things I’ll endeavor to point out high points and low points of the product as well as places I see GW could go forward with the product to be of the best benefit.

Let’s all admit that Games Workshop has an attention to visual detail that is rarely matched in any industry.  When you download the Digital Codex: Space Marines or the Codex: Necrons you’re confronted with the traditional stunning artwork of Games Workshop’s print codes.  Continuing inside the interior of the book is laid out with the same graphic style as the print codex only a landscape layout.  Alongside the traditional black and white boarders of 5th and earlier edition codices you’ll find a variety of full color imagery.  Most of the art is recycled, the same artwork found in the print edition.  The artwork is however repurposed, often with higher detail than the print codex and some pieces are in full color this time which adds to the ambiance of the Digital Codex.

What many people are excited about is the integration of an expanded gallery into the books.  The gallery is very well done with fantastic images of miniatures.  Again we see recycled images but by and large they are still of fantastic quality in a good layout.  Here the features of a Digital Codex really shine.  For images with a zoom it’s easy to double tap gallery images and see them larger.  And the 360 degree view of many models adds a great deal to some of the best models in the GW line up.  Even many of the pieces of art interspersed throughout the book can be viewed in zoom.  At the same time though not everything can be zoomed which means some great miniatures can’t be studied in detail.  The modeler in me would like to see more zooms and 360s but this is a double edged sword.  Most of the size of the codices is in the gallery, more of these images would mean a higher file size.  It’s a balancing act that Games Workshop has struck that I’ll discuss more when I get to value.
The layout of the design and artwork are done quite well from a reading standpoint.  We may have seen the artwork before but the landscape layout means that the artwork and text work together better than many of the printed codices.  When text and graphics share a page they each live in separate sections of that page, generally right side text and left side images or vice versa. This insures that the actual text is easier to read for the most part.  Only rarely do you have text flowing around images and this tends to be limited to the gallery pages.  This makes the text more readable when it comes to studying the rules.

The text of the book isn’t hugely different than the printed edition.  I did find a spelling error corrected in Codex: Necrons.  Over all the verbiage is essentially identical to the 5th or 6th edition codex.  Codex: Space Marines has some additional background fluff in it which some will find entertaining.  It’s not ground breaking or game changing but its added content.  People keep comparing the digital codex size to the print codex size.  Flat out the digital codex is bigger.  It has more images, and a tad more text. I feel however this is mostly a wash because the added images are mostly promotional gallery photos you can find on the Games Workshop website. 

Quality wise I’d say it maintains the high standards Games Workshop has with all their print products.   I feel it’s unfair for people to compare it to the digital editions provided by other gaming publishers.  Many digital products tend to be static PDFs. Games Workshop’s digital codices is more than that, even if most people would be satisfied with a PDF.  However, it’s important to note it doesn’t take full advantage of what iBooks can actually do as I’ll explain next under experience. 

Games Workshop’s primary goal with making a game always seems to be emersion.  The emphasis is always on the rich settings and detailed products they produce every time.  This is a huge strong point of their miniatures but a detriment to their rules creation.  In this case they have made a rich immersive product that is filled with images and text that draws the reader in.

The trouble is that like many digital products it doesn’t keep its eye on how the product is really used.  While the Digital Codices are easy to read they are hard to reference.  While black library novels would be fantastic in this format a rule book is different.  Ultimately a gaming rule book is first and foremost a reference book.  It’s like a dictionary or encyclopedia.  Rules need to be easy to reach, easy to read, and quick to reference.

The swipe interface Games Workshop has built is quite good but it doesn’t really encourage referencing the rules.  It jumps between chapters easy enough but finding rules is more time consuming than using a physical codex.  Most gamers will actually live in the glossary of the book which lists most of the rules in detail.  But glossaries are only of value if you already know the proper name or term you’re looking for.  And the glossary doesn’t include unit profiles which can be problematic for those unfamiliar with unit specifics. For that you need to jump to the Army List chapter and page through just like you would the physical book but slower since you have to do it page by page and it takes time for them to load.  A newer iPad would shine here since my first gen device has half the processing power of the new model.

At least on the unit entries page you tap key words and get their glossary entry.  However this proved to be problematic for me.  It seemed that some keywords took forever to load and sometimes you’d have weird errors.  Someone in another discussion pointed out they occasionally got the wrong entries for a unit. This happened to me, but more baffling was on two occasions in Codex: Necrons where tapping a keyword (armorbane) caused the book to load the 360 view of the Doom Scythe.  Oddities like this will put some people off but seemed to iron themselves out over time.  As far as I could tell these errors occur mostly when I hadn’t loaded the glossary before loading the army list.

Of course as with all iBook products you can do full text searching through the library bar.  This is fairly handy but again takes longer than using the glossary.  If only the glossary included everything you wanted, not just keywords and special rules but unit names as well.  Of course the glossary also requires you to know what you’re looking for which is a common problem with reference materials not just these products.  If you’re new to Warhammer 40k you’ll find a lot of problems navigating the book via full text searching and the glossary since you won’t know all the proper terms to search for.  However, again like all iBook products, you can bookmark important information.  This will let you make your own quick references to jump between unit profiles, special rules, keywords, and anything else you need.

Unfortunately navigating uses the iBooks menu at the top to enter the Index and the Glossary, do searching, or book marking.  This detracts from the interface Games Workshop has built making it far less immersive than they intended.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the iBooks interface is clunky.  While it works as intended, it tends to be slow and often unresponsive when you are in a hurry.  What’s more it functions much differently than the digital Codex’ normal interface.  It takes time to get used to and the sudden jump will put some people off.  Heavy iPad users will likely be indifferent to the change but someone who isn’t used to it will not find it pleasant.  And more importantly it will slow you down.

And then of course there is all the functionality Games Workshop didn’t implement.  In theory every inch of every page should be zoom able.  The PDFs I have on my iPad can do it, zoom in anywhere on a page to make text bigger or see the detail in images, but that’s disabled by GW in their products.  If you try to zoom in it snaps back to full screen when you let up. I find this particularly ironic because they let you zoom certain images but not the text itself.  There of course is another problem; you don’t have the option to zoom every image.  Some images are locked at their given size with no option to zoom them.  This will make it hard to study the detail on many of those pretty gallery images.  Since the main advantage of having the gallery is to help teach and inspire mini painters this might be particularly annoying to them.  I suspect this is why they released separate painting products.  The lack of zooming over all will be a problem for those that don’t particularly like reading on an LCD screen and some will be greatly annoyed with this since they’ll experience more eye strain.  Personally I have an iPad 1 so I can’t comment on the crispness or clarity of a retina display.  I understand those displays cause less eye strain regardless of what you’re viewing.  Perhaps the detail level on a retina display is good enough that zooming is not necessary but I doubt it.

Then of course there is the locked landscape view.  My PDF biology textbook reflows text when I rotate the screen.  But the Digital Codices don’t reflow text, they are instead stuck perpetually in landscape mode. This forces a certain perspective on the reader.  I’m not sure why Games Workshop locked the view except to control how you experience the book.  For many this won’t seem like a big deal but it bothers me.  Books have been designed in portrait view for several thousand years.  It’s easier to hold and work with one handed which is something that gamers will likely be doing a lot.  Instead you have to hold it awkwardly with one hand on the short edge which makes me feel I’m risking my device. Still they’ve chosen to make it as legible and developed as possible for landscape which means my desire for a portrait version more of a pet peeve than a real fault.

There is also no internal linking or pre-built bookmarks.  Truthfully the Glossary provides the equivalent to a set of PDF bookmarks.  However in text linking is limited.  It mostly centers around linking the unit description to the unit entries and back again.  The beautiful galleries don’t link to the appropriate units pictured for instance. .  It would be great if the wargear list linked to lists of units that can equip certain options.  Likewise it would be nice to cross reference keywords in text rather than in the glossary.  Again this is technology PDFs do quite well which Games Workshop didn’t implement in the more interactive iBooks system. 

Personally I’d also like to have seen actual interactive options in the codex.  360 degree views are great but what about rules quizzes, training videos, external links to newsletter content, historical model references, and so on.  The iBooks platform can do impressive things integrating not just text and images with the occasional video but strait up social networking.  What about linking online unit ratings on there site. Or how about tournament advice?  Games Workshop could have integrated simple in iBooks apps to do points calculations or build custom unit load outs for quick reference.  Instead I suspect they are moving these types of features to some kind of army builder app that will use the full text glossary form these codices.  So basically another product for us to buy.  But what about cross referencing codices?  The glossary text references the big rule book but it would be so much better to cross reference between products.  Imagine if tapping the “eternal warrior” USR in your glossary listed every model that had that rule and then you could just tap the name to see open its profile in that codex (Assuming you’ve purchased it). Imagine what that would do for game preparations.

All in all the experience is fine if a bit disjointed.  There are a lot of options Games Workshop actively chose to not use and some which I think they are saving for later.  At present it’s a new product and I expect they will improve the experience down the road.  I particularly believe when they release either the big rule book or an army builder app we’ll see a lot of new features appear in the codices.  Until then it’s not the type of experience tournament players would really like but will have to do.  It’s far more suitable for casual players who have all the time in the world to reference rules and those who want to take the time to study the rules in detail.

Value is one of those hard to pin down topics that are a hot button for hobbyists.  Everyone wants to know they are getting their money’s worth.  No one wants to be over charged or discover they could have gotten something better in the long run.  Personally I am not a fan of Games Workshop’s prices but I’ll do my best to keep my personal bias out of this area.

The Codex: Space Marines digital book and the Codex: Necrons digital book have different prices.  This is odd because all of the print Codex have a single unified price. I’m guessing this price difference is due to the amount of content that had to be updated in the Space Marines codex.  It could also be that they felt the demand for the product was lower than expected and so reduced the cost of the Necrons Codex in response.  I’m not sure, time will tell regarding the effectiveness of their pricing scheme.

The market for electronic products has historically been different than that of physical ones.  Apple and other online venders have endorsed the idea that electronic products tend to cost less than physical products.  This is mostly an illusion.  Add up the cost of a group of song in iTunes and it will be about the same as buying a CD.  Those who have bought an ebook will point out that an electronic book is often bundled with a physical book or priced much lower.  Often these ebooks are nothing more than a scan of the physical book or the typeset document output as PDF, in both cases not exactly the same as GW’s product here. 

What Games Workshop has produced is a completely different layout with some new content added in so it’s not fair to compare them.  They probably had to put as much work into Codex: Space Marines as they did typesetting the new rule book. Unfortunately due to the limitations they’ve placed on it the digital codices also have the hefty price tag of an iPad stacked onto the book as well.  So really it’s less of an issue of “if I should buy” than an issue of “if I’ve bought an iPad, should I spend my money to buy digital codices?”  The fact that they are locked only to the iPad format makes them useless to the majority of gamers.  Couple that with the fact that even the people with other apple devices can’t use them and they have severely limited their market.

I believe this is reflected in their price.  They have to charge 30 dollars for the digital codex because they won’t make their investment back if they don’t.  Down the road Games Workshop will most likely release them for other devices either by rescaling the pages for iPhones/touches or by stripping out graphics.  I also foresee them integrating all the glossary entries into an army builder app which will most likely be available to other Apple products.  Sadly with Games Workshop’s history I very much doubt an Android or Windows Mobile version will appear during 6th edition.  And more importantly I severely doubt a Mac or PC version will ever appear due to the fear of piracy.

Unfortunately I don’t feel the Digital Codices products will have any effect on piracy of GW’s products.  If anything I suspect their digital products are going to be seen as a challenge by pirates who up until now have just been scanning their books into PDF.  Unfortunately this may mean that the price of digital products might rise faster than metal miniatures as a result.  Maybe I’m just being fearful but the internet has a way of backlashing against companies that try to produce digital content without being in touch with the consumers of that content.

Of course even as they are now, digital codices offer the same advantages as any ebook.  You can store them in one device in order to carry the equivalent of a mountain of books in your carryon luggage.  You have full text searching and digital book marking to help you along finding rules.  And they really make you feel like you’re on the cutting edge of technology.   They are better than a scanned eBook and way better than not having a codex at all.

There is a lot of potential for growth in this product.  Far more than in the print product it is derived from.  We can already guess the 6th edition books will be full color hard cover books.  After that there is no improvements they can stick in the books to justify the value of the printed work.  The Digital editions have far more potential to integrate added items. As I said earlier they could integrate rules reviews, training videos, social networking, ratings, and newsletters. The sky is the limit with the digital product.  The question really becomes if I adopt now will I get those things later. With Games Workshop’s past track record I have to guess the answer is no but I can hope.

Presently the value of individual digital products is limited. Their real value won’t become apparent until we know how Games Workshop supports them.  One of the things that peaks my curiosity is what Games Workshops means by “updates will be free.” I’m wondering if that will mean edition changes will be free. If their release schedule continues it’s very likely we’ll see all the 5th edition codices digital by the end of the year.  Will that mean when an already digital codex is updated later in 6th edition will the buyers automatically get the 6th edition codex at that point? Again the answer is probably no, or more accurately nothing that will be updated in 6th edition will get a digital edition until it is updated.

Ultimately if you don’t own an iPad the digital codices aren’t the killer app you are looking for to justify buying one.  The cost itself, before the codices, is as much as a new 40k army and you’ll be more fulfilled buying and painting that.  After that you still have to purchase the book and most likely the 30 to 40 dollar price tag won’t feel good on the wallet when you could buy a new unit for one of your armies.

The value of the Digital Codices really boils down to the convergence of several factors. If you have an iPad and don’t have the codex I can guarantee you’ll find it as useful as buying the print book.  If you own the codex already chances are the digital edition is not going to give you that “money well spent” feeling you want.  And if you don’t have an iPad, skip this generation of digital codices and pick up down the road when support for a cheaper device is implemented. Honestly if you have an iPad and you need a codex the digital versions are reasonably priced.  They are priced close enough to the print books and have all the same materials to make them a good buy.  Unfortunately I don’t think many people will replace their print books with digital codices until they have more value added to them.  Especially individuals like me that buy every codex and let’s be honest many of us do.

The Codices have a slick iPad user friendly interface with lots of pictures and some videos that will look great on an iPad.  But it doesn’t use the full potential of the technology and that interface doesn’t do what a lot of consumers will expect it to do.  It does however offer a fairly immersive experience that will be appealing to some even though the few clunky and limiting options you find will turn off others.  Expect 6th edition to be the teething period for digital codices but with positive feedback Games Workshop will keep them around.  This really feels like the first stepping stone not the destination gamers are expecting which means the value of the product will fall short for individuals who have invested in the print books already.  In the end the product is as valuable as the print books but tends to trade some of the familiar ease of use of books for the sparkly cutting edge of shiny technology.

Personal Aside
I bought the digital books specifically to review them.  As such I blew my miniatures budget doing so.  Afterwards I won’t say I felt disappointed but I didn’t feel happy.  I honestly feel this is because I already own the physical books more than any fault with the codices.  I’m holding off on buying the 6th edition big rule book for the next month to see if they will release a digital version of it.  Till then my wargaming group is practicing 6th and learning the rules by sharing a copy of the book and playing step by step as one.  The release of 6th edition has so much potential just like the addition of digital products.  It’s an interesting time we live in and I only hope that Games Workshop continues experimenting with their products to the benefit of the hobby.

1 comment:

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