Unsurprisingly, I went ahead and coughed up the $42 for the Codex: Space Marines just to see how Games Workshop managed the iBooks format. My willingness to do so is entirely inexplicable, by the way; I don’t play 40K, and I don’t have a Space Marines army. I did enjoy the fluff in the book, though, and if I ever get around to running Rogue Trader, I suppose it will come in handy. Also, it’s almost my birthday, so why not? It’s not my intention to critique the book’s content; instead, I’d like to say a few words about Games Workshop’s use of the format itself.

If you go to iTunes and look up this book, you’ll see more than a hundred reviews that give the book one star. Many of these thoughtful, honest, ethical reviewers haven’t even bought the book–they’re just complaining about the price point. Apparently they feel as though an electronic version of a book shouldn’t cost the same as a print copy, and that’s enough for them to give the book one star. What we’ve learned here is that iTunes shouldn’t allow you to review a book you haven’t bought from them. After having spent some time with the text, I think GW’s implementation of the Codex is a wee bit flawed, but very promising as a whole; it’s not yet five stars, but it’s certainly not one star, either. Many complaints say that much of what the iBooks version accomplishes, a PDF also accomplishes, and that might be true. Still, as far as I can tell, the only PDF versions of the book available are illegal copies, so I’m not wholly swayed by comparing the functionality of a legal copy of an item to the functionality of an illegal copy.

Here’s the scoop on the details of the iBooks implementation:

Players will likely find the iBooks copy very useful during actual play, and the interactive visuals make it a delight to sit and read.

  • The hot-linked sections of the book will make it easy to find the information you need with a click. For instance, long fluff descriptions of individual units in the “Forces of the Space Marines” chapter link to the crunchy details in the “Army List” at the back of the book and vice versa, so you can get from fluff to crunch easily.
  • Standard iBooks navigation features allows for you to move from chapter to chapter easily, and GW has made the solid design choice to make each new chapter start with a visually distinctive page so you can quickly navigate to the section you need.
  • The searchable glossary has all the game terms you need. If you don’t play a particular army or unit all of the time, you might easily forget how to use a specific skill you’re seeking. It’s faster to do a search for it in a digital glossary than to look it up in a paper copy. I’ve found that it’s also much faster to search the iBooks glossary than to do a search in a whole PDF, but perhaps that’s just me. You can also click on individual special rules within an Army List entry and have the glossary entry for the rule pulled up automatically.
  • The iBooks built-in notes feature allows you to include house rules, refinements, and tactical information near the units and/or rules they modify right in your text without ruining the look of the book.
  • The high-resolution graphics and pictures of miniatures look great on a Retina screen. For once, I could actually get close enough to see that not every ‘Eavy Metal painter is flawless. That gave me a +15 bonus to my Self Confidence.
  • The Citadel 360 (or 360 Citadel?) models are kind of neat, and let you see how the painter has managed all of the details of a particular mini.
  • You can re-use the graphics. Games Workshop probably won’t be thrilled that I point this out, but of course, you can take a screen shot of anything you see in iBooks. That means that you can grab included graphics, put them in your own graphics program, and use them for your own scenarios, RPGs, etc. For a GM like me, this may be one of the most valuable things about the Codex.
  • You can’t lose or damage this book, since you can always re-download it once you’ve purchased it. Your iPad is also significantly smaller and lighter than an actual hardcover GW Codex.

GW has made a handful funky, bad, or just weird decisions that detract from the overall experience. I suspect that eventually these things will get ironed out as companies like GW come up with standards for publishing iBooks documents, but I was surprised that a company with such a solid design team would make some of these mistakes, even on their first try.

  • The designers use the slideshow function inconsistently throughout the book. It’s not a big problem–or a problem at all from a useability standpoint–but it’s rather offputting. Some galleries have thumbnails of included images at the bottom, while others simply have dots that indicate how many images are in the current slideshow. I found the differences distracting, as I ended up trying to figure out if the logic behind the choices.
  • Similarly inconsistent is GW’s use of the Citadel 360 feature; I couldn’t always figure out why they’d decided to allow me to see some of the models in 3D and not others. If, say, they’d done 360 models of every commander and flat images of lesser units, I’d get it, but their choices didn’t seem so straightforward.
  • While you can go to full-screen for some of the graphics, allowing you to see an individual item on a plain black background, you can’t zoom in to get a better look at the details of the images in the book. For a company that prides itself on detailed miniatures, I thought this was a weird decision. Some of that may be limited by iBooks; when I’ve played with it, I haven’t had many images that needed zoom functionality, so I’m not sure whether or not it’s possible within the iBooks structure itself.
  • GW didn’t use the change page-orientation feature. I realized when creating my own iBooks that it’s kind of a pain in the arse; the engine doesn’t let you look at certain page elements when you have your iPad in portrait orientation that you can see in landscape orientation. Still, it’s often more pleasant to read long blocks of text in portrait orientation, so it would be nice if GW had given readers the choice. On the other hand, perhaps they were thinking that you would primarily use your iPad propped up on its SmartCover in landscape orientation as you played the game itself.

Here are some things I’d like to see in future Codices and other RPG/miniatures rulebooks. I realize that these high-tech details can add quite a bit to the digital file size; perhaps companies could release both a bare-bones and a digital Collector’s Edition of their books.

  • Sound. I’m a sucker for gimmicks, so I’d like to hear some sound. Have one of the Black Library voice actors read us some of that fluff at the beginnings of chapters.
  • More color. Companies cut back on color when printing because it costs so darn much, but it doesn’t cost in a digital copy. Go ahead and color in those little details at the top of the pages. Make it look more like a Fantasy Flight or an old-school White Wolf book.
  • Video. Gameplay tactics, miniature painting tips, or fluff delivered as video would take digital manuals a significant step ahead of paper copies.

Quite honestly, I’d repurchase most of my RPG/miniatures manuals if they were re-released in this format. I think the search, glossary, and notes functions alone would make them far more useful at the table than a printed copy of the book, and being able to yoink graphics from rulebooks for my own personal use fills me with joy. Further, I’d much rather carry one iPad to my local gaming store or to my friend’s house than a whole stack of hardbacks, especially if I’ve also got to carry a box filled with minis. Let’s face it; I’m probably going to take the iPad anyway, so why not cut back on other stuff I have to carry?

I will give all of the one-star reviewers the fact that there’s some sticker shock; it made my heart skip a beat to push the PURCHASE button on my iPad, since I’ve never bought any single item that expensive before. Yet I think we have to move beyond automatically valuing paper copies over digital copies. When I pay for a digital copy, I consider the unlimited downloads and the green factor, both of which are worth money to me; YMMV. In fact, if GW included video and sound not included in the paper copy, I’d highly support its costing the same as the paper book. At the moment, though, the former isn’t where we are in our cultural assessment of the value of etexts, and the latter isn’t where GW is in its iBooks production values, so they should probably offer a modest discount over the hardcover copy until digital copies become more commonplace.

I can’t tell you if you should purchase this item. If you’re a tech junkie who’s attached at the hip to your iPad like I am, then it’s a no-brainer. If you already own the paper copy of the Codex and happily lug it everywhere, then it might not make sense for you. I can say, though, that I hope other gaming companies leap on the bandwagon and use this technology, since I think it could really take gaming books to a whole new level of useful interactivity.

…and if that doesn’t prove my loyalty to Games Workshop the Emperor, I don’t know what will.