First of all I feel it would dramatically increase Games Workshop’s sales for a few reasons. If you’re just starting 40K (I’m rolling with 40K here but applies to any of their games in principle), then you’re faced with having to pick up the big rule book at a current cost of $57.75, assuming you don’t buy Assault on Black Reach. Now you need to figure out what army you want to play but what material do you have to make that decision? Well, you can flip through the rule book and see what armies visually appeal to you, which I feel is crucial since you have to enjoy the aesthetics of an army to spend all that time modeling and painting, but that’s about all you have to go by initially. There are countless resources on the internet to get information on a particular army but many of those resources tend to be geared towards the veteran player and much of that information would be lost on a new player. Games Workshop’s site has some information you can gleam from it regarding their armies but you really aren’t going to get all the information you need to make an informed decision. So, eventually you buy a codex and spend another $30. Now you’re into the hobby for $87.75 before you’ve even bought a single miniature to use. I don’t know about you but I feel that’s a reasonable investment, let’s call it $90, and you can’t even play the game yet.
So now you go out and buy a battle force or various box sets to assemble your army and spend a few hundred more. A lot of players don’t stick with their first army because they bought it being uninformed and found it’s not really their style. Now you have to buy another codex, more models and do it all over again and hope your second army really fits you. Maybe this is Games Workshop’s diabolical plan all along, keep their customers in the dark so they spend more cash when they become more informed to correct their previous uninformed decisions.
Here’s how I see it. If you’re initial investment into the hobby is minimal then you’ll see more people try it out, no brainer right? If you can get the rules online and the the codices free then you know what you’re getting into before you’ve spent a dime and there’s your draw. Right now new players get into 40K typically because a friend plays, or maybe Dawn of War (PC game), sparked their interest. I really don’t see people stumbling into 40K and saying, “I just thought I’d drop $90 to see if the game was worth me putting more money into”, do you? By making rules and codices free you in turn draw interest to the game from people who have been put off by the price tag of the initial investment as well as people actually stumbling upon the game. Friends can tell their buddies about the game and point them to the site to check it out and everything they need to know is right there. So, minimal up front investment equals more potential players.
Secondly, the money “lost” by not having people purchase rule books and codices will be gained through miniature sales. That $90 you didn’t have to spend on reading materials is $90 you’ll likely pump into your army of choice. Now for $90 you can have a battle force set and a playable army instead of two books. Of course if you find you enjoy the game then you’ll put more money into it. When you have more people trying out the game because it’s cheap to get started then you’re going to gain a larger player base and a larger player base means more people spending money. These are people spending money that otherwise would not have. Now, veteran players often have multiple armies, I have three and you know what? I’d have more than three armies if I didn’t have to spend $30 just to read up on it. Of course the more armies I own the more money I’m going to spend.
I propose that Games Workshop takes the mini-rulebook and make that a free download and continues to sell the big rule book, and also sell the mini one. If I want the fluff, the pictures and stuff then I’ll buy the big rule book, and as a fan of 40K I will do just that even with a free version of the rule book. The free one would be rules only, no fluff, no cool images, just the nitty-gritty, what the mini-rulebook is you get in Assault on Black Reach. I’ll also buy the mini one so I have a physical rulebook to carry around with me easier than the large one. Not everyone would go this route but I’m positive that people are still going to buy physical copies of the rules to carry around rather than spending $70 on printer ink to print it out. The same for codices, take the army listing area with units and costs and make that the free version online, though they’d have to include the special rules too that are generally found in the fluffy parts of the codex. Continue to sell the full version of the codex and people will buy it even with it being free for the same reasons as the rulebook.
There will of course be exceptions to all this, the people who only buy models and never spend a cent on a rulebook or a codex, but there will also be the influx of new players who are trying the game for the first time and get hooked. The latter I feel would far outweigh the former.