Here's a list of games...
1960: The Making of the President
10 Days in the USA
Kill Doctor Lucky
Settlers of Catan
So what is the significance of that list? If you answered, a list of mostly mediocre Euro style games, well... I wouldn't necessarily disagree. Some of those games I don't really play much anymore or have as high opinion of as I once did when I bought them, and a few I have since traded away. But the point is that I bought them... and more importantly, I bought them after having played a version of them on my computer, either online or via software or with Vassal or some other electronic means.
I'm a game hobbyist with some disposable cash and so I'm going to buy new games now and then, but I've always tried to be discriminating and so the concept of "try before you buy" is one I try to follow. But the bottom line is, if I try and I like, there's a good chance I'll buy. Being that I travel a lot and can't really get out to many game gatherings or conventions, my computer can provide great access for the "trying". And thankfully there are many sites online where you can play games, including BSW and yucata.de and others, and platforms like Vassal that allow you to play games in full as long as you are willing to move the pieces and enforce the rules yourself.
But looking at that list again, I think it's notable that those are mostly Euro-ish games... Missing are AT titles from my collection like Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica and Last Night on Earth and Summoner Wars. But actually, one of those titles belongs on that list, because I bought it only after first playing a Vassal module of the game that someone had privately shared with me (and I had to promise them not to pass it on to anyone else, so please don't ask). So that's another great example of what I'm talking about, and perhaps the best example, because those kind of AT games are often supported with continual expansions, which means more and more purchases that stem from the original interest that was generated by having played the game on my computer. Also, missing from my collection are many well-regarded AT games like Chaos in the Old World, Descent, Nexus Ops and others that I'd love to try at some point and would probably buy, but my local game group friends don't have a lot of AT titles and so I don't know when I'd have the chance to try them. If only there were electronic versions available to play somewhere...
Licenses for games are the property of their designers and publishers and I absolutely understand and support their rights to do or not do whatever they want with them. But given the list above, I think they are sometimes doing themselves and their sales and the fans of their games a disservice if they are specifically not allowing electronic versions of their games, or not producing their own electronic versions of their games if they have the means to do so. I can't speak for every company, but I know that Fantasy Flight Games in particular does not allow any electronic versions of their games to be produced, or at least to be shared publically. In some cases, they have allowed versions to exist where no card text is visible on the cards, or they have allowed play-by-forum games of Battlestar Galactica where the event card text is not posted to the forums; the thinking being that with those versions all players must already own a copy of the game to be able to play. Again, it's their license and they can do what they want, but I think that in many cases that is unnecessary and could actually prevent additional sales, as opposed to costing them sales, which may be the worry.
I'll use Arkham Horror as an example... With the upcoming Lurker at the Threshold expansion, Arkham Horror will have seven expansions, and three of those are big box expansions that each cost as much as the base game does at this point. If FFG were to produce a PC or console version of the base game, or allow a Vassal version of the base game, it could be that first hit of gaming crack for potential AH junkies. And many of them will surely love the game and want to have their own "hard copy", especially if they want to be able to experience more with the expansions. So in that case, not only would FFG end up selling the base game which was provided for free electronically, but they would also sell several of the game's expansions. They could even limit the content of the base game and only provide or allow half of the investigators and GOOs to be included. It would still give you the full game experience but then you'd have to buy the base game to get everything. Another big plus is it would allow fans of the game, who already own it, to be able to play once in a while on their laptops on an airplane, for example, or when the time and space required to set up all of the pieces is prohibitive (which can certainly be the case with Arkham Horror). Heck, I'd gladly pay for a decent PC version of the game, even just the base game. But I really think that providing a limited content version for free on Vassal or perhaps via Flash on the FFG website would be a great boon for sales and not a hindrance to them.
By contrast, Z-Man Games has often allowed full PC or Vassal versions of their games to be made freely available, including Agricola, Pandemic, 1960: The Making of the President, Endeavor and others. It may be hard to quantify the exact effect those versions have had on sales, positively or negatively, but two of those titles (Pandemic and Agricola) made this recent list of the Top 10 best-selling hobby board games: ICV2. Would they be doing really well despite electronic versions being available? I'm sure, but the point is that I don't suspect they are doing any worse because of them. Looking at that list, only three of the titles (Munchkin, Mystery Express, Bang!) do not have electronic versions available (and I understand a software version of Bang! is being released soon).
The truth is that I can count every game in my collection as stemming from an electronic version of a game, as I only got back into the hobby in earnest after having played Settlers of Catan. And it wasn't the board game version, though several friends of mine had tried to encourage me about what a great game it was when I saw copies at their houses... I'll admit that it sounded boring and kind of lame when they described it to me (hmm, you build roads and trade brick for ore... yawn), so I wasn't eager to give it a chance. But one day while surfing online I came across a time-limited trial version of Catan for the PC and figured, eh, I've got nothing to lose. Well, as it turns out, I've spent a lot of time and money on games ever since and I'm sure I'll spend a lot more. But the odds are that in most cases, I'm not going to buy until I can try. So game publishers, give me a taste of your product in a way that's convenient for me, via my computer (I mean, this is 2010, after all), and if it's good, guess what, you're probably going to get my money after all for your game, and for the expansion, and for the next expansion, and the next expansion...