Category Archives: Business

That which cannot be removed

Dungeons and Dragons has endured a number iterations over the years, and yet there are things which have remained exactly the same. With 5th edition now looming I am left wondering if there are any parts which will be able to survive the changes this time.

The one big thing which hasn’t changed is the stat stack. The big six are known for the comprehensive and familiar description. Likewise, the range of those numbers and the fact that 1  or 0 is the bad end of the spectrum and 18 and over is the good end. Classic base character archetypes — Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard. Levels, experience points, hit points, Vancian magic, and saving throws.

So what if WotC were to mess with that list? What if the big six were replaced with something else? Or if you suddenly had stats measuring from 1 to 10 on each of those? Would it still be D&D?

Don’t misunderstand. D&D is as much a brand as it is a system but which built which?

I am almost willing to argue that the system made the brand what it is. When one says D&D you get a certain image in your mind that encompasses a specific experience which includes some of those things I mentioned before. They may vary slightly — anyone else remember the saving throws of “Bend Bars / Lift Gates” or that strength could have a percentage rider if you rolled up a 18 at character creation?

It certainly wasn’t the same D&D from before, but it was still D&D. The big six were still present, hit points and movement still mattered.

But the twist is this. Even without the big six or hit points or Vancian magic, you could make a decent dungeon crawl based game. With the D&D brand, it suddenly becomes a D&D game. WotC has already done this to a certain extent with both some of their D&D board games, but also with Gamma World.

The brand in those cases is more important than the actual system that it’s been applied to. It’s not that something new has been made with the old, but that the old system was dumped all together.

So I think that nothing is going to be off limits for the designers. Everything, including the old sacred cows mentioned above, is up for the metaphorical slaughter. With this Legend & Lore column by Monte, I think it indicates with the “you play what you want to play” line there are a number of changes in stock for us old timers. We are going to be surprised, very surprised, to see what has been done with D&D when 5th edition gets published.

Enhanced by Zemanta

How Wizards can get this Geek back

Wizard of the Coast announced they wanted to hear from the gaming community while designing 5th Ed. Which is great, but seems to miss the point. As far as many are concerned, WotC’s slip-ups and bungling of 4th Ed is reason enough to never look again. While it is tempting to be that sort of grognard, I think the company and designers deserve to know what it would take to get me to come back around.

First, the things that WotC did wrong

The PDF debacle

The digital world is here and now. Pretending otherwise isn’t helping anyone. Taking away the ebooks and pdfs did absolutely nothing to deter or prevent people from having a digital copy. All it did was take away legit sales. All it did was alienate people. All it did was create a PR nightmare that continues to this day.

Bad communication and inconsistent messages

What was the plan with 4th and why did it get changed so frequently? What was supposed to be the core books and which were optional? What was the difference between Essentials and the Red Box? And how were those different from the core? And what was the bloody point to it all?

If something changes this needs to communicated. If something advertised is impacted, this needs to be communicated. If something gets cancelled, this needs to be communicated. And the reason needed to be communicated, too. Hiding behind press releases and allowing rumors to get started never helps maintain a brand, let alone the goodwill of the gaming community.

Lack of support

It’s great that they went back and converted many of their settings but what else was done with them? Nothing! Where was Dungeon with the latest installment of an ongoing campaign? Where was the weekly “encounter” example? Where was free intro adventure to said setting? Where was Dragon with the interesting twist on play or class?

And in conjunction with my previous point of communication, it seems to me like there should have been a greater effort to make players aware of some of these things (if they existed, which I’m not sure that they did).

Subpar products

How much errata did they release? How many times did they forget to include necessary mechanics in their books? Nothing is as frustrating as finding that the part you’ve just spent three days searching for never made it into the final product.

Cards, minis, tokens, decks. AKA: Extras

These are distractions even when they’re the central mechanic of play. Remember that all of this started with pencil and notebook paper. Add some standard dice and that is all you should ever need to play. Anything less and you have broken RPGs. Substitutions do not apply. Additions, maybe, but they have to be optional and cheap enough to buy for everybody.

Even Fantasy Flight had to relent and give players straight up books with the card info in them in order to keep selling their version of WFRP. The point being we of the RPG world don’t like being forced into buying extras to keep playing. If we wanted to do that, we’d be playing Magic (and some of us still are). Keep with making the books the sole point of information to play.

What they need to do

Convince me there’s a vision

A D&D that’s all things to all players already exists. It’s called GURPS. If I want to play that, I know how to find it. And while I am fan of Monte Cook’s work, I already have the most recent revision of his best. There needs to be something new, something different, something cool about this next version of D&D.

The thing is, no company gets customers automatically. The execs of many may think they do, going so far as to see these people as an inevitability. But that’s not how it works. You have to earn your customers and their loyalty. Nothing stands out more in this line of thought than Gabe Newel’s recent comments about Steam and his business.

He is spot on about how the media companies are killing themselves by worrying over control instead of delivering the goods to people for a price they want to pay.

The same has to happen to the culture of Hasbro and WotC. They have to let go of the control ideology and embrace an more open paradigm.

Which translates into support, support, support

They need to step up the support of digital world. That means pdfs, ebooks, and the web. Yes, people will send these to their friends. Yes, they will be on torrents. And guess what? This will happen anyways. If Hasbro/WotC wants any chance to stay relevant, they must ignore the inevitable and provide a product that people will pay for.

Also, web tools. The character generator should be out front and ready to be used by any passing browser. Don’t make the gateway to your system sit behind a paywall or a log-in. Let players make thousands of characters for the hell of it. One or two might get turned into a sale. And that’s what the goal should be.

Anything else (GM tools, maps, etc) can sit behind a log-in. Freemium at the very least with a dollar or two for 48/72 hours of unlock of extra tools. Make the tools good enough, you can start selling week/month/year subscriptions as the word spreads. These need to be available at launch. No later unless you want to hear how this is just like the 4th Ed tools that never existed.

Support also means more than settings. It means having campaigns in those settings. Sourcebooks and gazetteers are nice, but nothing beats being able to point a player to a single source of everything needed for their game night. Getting set up is a chore and one that 4th attempted to solve. But that was solving for the wrong variable. The right one is having the story ready to go.

Even better would be to match what Paizo has done with Pathfinder and have a continuing, living, open campaign to draw the players. Pick one of your many properties. Start writing and have fun with it.

Acknowledging the past

I have no idea about the actual costs, but with the rise of the retroclones, it is obvious that there are players craving something of the old-school. And since there’s this gigantic back catalog there is absolutely no sense in not tapping it. In keeping with my first point, this also means digitizing it. Make it available and make it cheap. Suck it up, figure out the maze of royalties, and give your customers what they so obviously want.

Enhanced by Zemanta

D&D thoughts

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast announced something which surprised almost nobody. That in 2013 we’re getting 5th Edition. What was interesting about the announcement was their seeking out input from players and fans of the ground breaking game series.

The question of the moment is will they actually listen to feedback on the playtest? And if they do, what will become of it?

I am doubtful that this will turn out the way most people expect it to. Not because the people behind the next edition are in any way closed minded about receiving feedback from the Internet. But because at the very least, the channel of information from the players in the wider Internet is going to be controlled to a degree befitting a corporation of Hasbro’s size and scope.

Because, and let us be honest here, the elephant in the room is Paizo. It is very hard to argue against the idea that we would not be looking at this announcement if it weren’t for the plucky upstart’s enormous and well earned success of the past couple of years. That WotC has announced that they are going to be following in their footsteps should have come as no surprise to anyone. It is smart of WotC to attempt to regain both the market and the hearts of players by doing exactly what Paizo did to gain them.

The fact that I think is being overlooked by this plan is that Paizo’s success came from two things which WotC does not have going for them. The first is the time at which Pathfinder was introduced. With the dissent of 4th edition in full swing and few retroclones to compete against, Paizo was incredibly well positioned to pull off a major coup. Which, as we can now see, it did. The second is Paizo’s size. Being as small as it is, Paizo is able to be dynamic and responsive to both the market and to the players.

The time for WotC to have struck is long since past. Market fragmentation, driven in part by a baffling series of confusing messages from the company in the last few years and in part by the removal of all previous versions of D&D from sales channels, is set. WotC is now in the unenviable position of being a owner of a brand which has inspired such loyalty as to actively drive more causal gamers away. Short of going back in time to prevent Paizo and the OGL from ever existing, they are now stuck with their subset of hardcore supporters and a harder sell to everyone else.

As for the dynamic and responsive presence, I don’t know. I feel like they don’t have it in themselves to win that fight. They can do whatever Hasbro let’s them get away with, but ultimately WotC and the designers don’t have the editorial or financial independence Paizo does. And they certainly don’t have the same trust of the gaming community they once held.

In some respects this pledge of openness reminds me of Blizzard and World of Warcraft. If you have ever spent time delving into their forums, specifically the beta forums, you will find any number of issues with the game brought up. Some big and many small. They have also gone out of their way to ask their community for feedback on classes several times now. And yet with all of this feedback, very little has ever made it through to the actual coders and designers to fix.

As explained more than a few times now by their community managers and CSRs who tend the forum, there isn’t a direct line to the devs. Nor was there ever intended to be one. At best the CSRs will gather up the biggest issues and most interesting posts to pass along to their superiors who, we guess, send them along to the appropriate triage teams and eventually to the devs.

That is a textbook case of how you manage a number of players the size of which WotC is aiming to have. Why anyone would think that Hasbro and WotC would do their forums and feedback any different is…perhaps naive or possibly fooling themselves.

Do not misunderstand me. I think it would be wonderful to have Monte Cook hip deep in their forums and responding, personally, to every well thought out and worded post. Or to see a change or three initiated by some player’s insightful suggestion. I think that this and the other announcements we got yesterday are part of their overall marketing strategy.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Investing and RPGs — A philosophic journey

Something occurred to me after listening to my employer’s quarterly meeting. What triggered this thought was the way the CEO went on about the investors and what he believes they’re looking to get from companies.

The thought was this: The RPG market has two separate sets of investors. The first group are those who spend money to get get games printed. Let’s call this group the Publishers. In most cases, this group does the work of publishing in the hopes of getting some return for their money. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, and smartly, this group will see potential in lots of games and will spread the risk of their investment throughout all of them and hope that a good return on any one of them will cover the losses on all the others.

The second group invest their time to take the RPG and make it fun for others. Let’s call them the Makers. We can’t use the common economic framework of risk and reward to understand this group. Their investment is to create adventures, to host events, and to promote it among their friends and family. This makes many of the Makers fickle and loyal. They can see any one aspect of an RPG as the thing which draws them to it. Remove this one thing and you will risk losing their investment in your system.

Without the Makers’ investment, your system sits on store shelves, languishing.

Without the Publishers’ investment, your system may never see print.

What are these investors goals?

Obviously, Publishers want to have a monetary return. Although they may have secondary goals that led them into that business, their primary is to make money. To do this, your RPG has to sell.

Which leads us to the Maker’s goals. To have fun. To make something interesting to play. To tell stories. To entertain and engage with friends or strangers through drama and dice. To do this, your RPG must have a certain level of accessibility.

Boiling it down we end up in a situation where access has to be balanced against profit. Is there a good way to maintain this in the digital landscape? Does one trump the other?

Enhanced by Zemanta