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).
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.