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January 10, 2012

Yeah, So, Like There's A New Edition of Dungeons and Dragons Coming

I avoided it yesterday, but with the nerdrage over my Tolkein dis, I feel compelled to mention it now.

Some journalists were invited for a playtest, including one from Forbes and another one from the NYT. (No link; the NYT story is boring.)

What makes this sort of a story -- beyond the nerdcore element -- is that it's a business story.

See, I don't even want to admit that I know this, but-- Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was extremely... controversial. Yeah I said it. It really changed the game, and mostly not in ways that people liked. It has been accused of turning the game into "World of Warcraft, Pencil and Paper Version," or, more accurately, "Magic: The Gathering with characters." In an effort to be more like other games which are far more popular, it alienated a lot of players.

Not me. I don't play this crap.

I just... know about it. None of your business how.

In business terms, they tried to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and revolutionary isn't a great idea, necessarily, if people actually already like your product. In addition, you'd better make sure your "revolutionary" changes aren't just, what's the word, often dumb. A mix of the clever, the neat, the interesting... and the straight-up just plain dumb.

And they began to make the game for hypothetical customers, dorks who played World of Warcraft and Magic: The Gathering and could, they thought, be induced to play D&D, if D&D more resembled those games.

But hypothetical customers aren't actual customers. Many of the actual customers hated the changes. For every one actual customer, there are thousands of possible customers who like this sort of thing, and it makes sense to make a play for those people... but you can't lose your actual audience while you're chasing that theoretical audience.

Now, the third edition (the previous edition) was popular and the RPG hobby had a huge renaissance during it. Actually a huge bubble and then a huge crash, but for a time, the RPG industry, which is barely a rounding error even in the category of specialty games, actually was making money.

Partly fueling that bubble was an Open License. For the first time, ever, the game was packaged with an open license. Homebrewers and wannabe D&D writers could actually just publish their own stuff for D&D, and it was all perfectly legal. The Open License allowed everyone to use D&D rules in perpetuity. Freely -- no royalties owed.

The theory was that if you could essentially corner the market by doing this, by unleashing a thousand garage game designers to write for your product, and even if you were losing, hypothetically, sales dollars to these "competitors," they really weren't full competitors-- because at the end of the day they were supporting, and generating a need for, your main product, the actual rules.

That part of it worked like the dickens.

But -- there's a downside to granting, to everyone in the world, a super-generous royalty free open license "in perpetuity." When this was first dreamed up, people asked the head of the D&D company, Ryan Dancey, Doesn't this mean people can just publish all your rules under their own covers and charge for it?

Dancey said, "It sure does!" But he didn't think that would be a problem because D&D would always have better production values which result, naturally, from an operation of some scale (at least a much larger scale than a guy in his garage cranking out illustration-free copies of the rules). So the threat of some competitor for the actual rules was pretty minor.

Except.

What happened was that D&D 4th was such a departure from the well-liked (and yet super-clunky) 3rd edition rules that... someone did in fact go ahead and start publishing the rules under the Open License, but it wasn't some guy in his garage. It was a somewhat-established game company, using a lot of the same artists who illustrated the actual D&D products.

And further, the anger over D&D 4 was so great people flocked to support this competitor company, which was actually simply publishing D&D 3rd edition under a different (lame) name, Pathfinder. And I hear that Pathfinder is actually... outselling the actual D&D game it's knocking off. Or at least it's too close for comfort.

So this is really a Coke/New Coke story, but with the added twist that, in this analogy, Coke actually licensed its old Coke recipe to anyone who wanted to make Coke, and someone did in fact start making Coke Classic under a different name.

And that began seriously cutting into New Coke's sales.

The new edition is a difficult business proposition, because the actual goal is to unify the D&D audience again and have them all buy actual D&D rulesets, which means they have to placate several different audiences (including people who have, ahem, "gone off the grid' and began playing "retro-clones," clones of first or second edition rules). And the idea is that somehow it will all be "modular" where you can choose from a variety of different rules to make your own perfect ruleset.

That sounds kind of impossible to me. After all, if people are just picking and choosing from four different rulesets and variations thereupon, why do they need One Big Book for that? Why can't they just buy some old edition they like secondhand?

But that is the Business Challenge they have. Somehow they have to unite two very different editions (and a couple of earlier, not quite as different editions) and make it all modular, such that their lost customers (the 3rd edition grognards) will come back, but that their loyal customers -- the ones who actually like 4th edition and have continued supporting it in their Time of Great Dividing -- will also not feel burned and punked out.

See: The loyal customers have been defending these changes all along, and supporting D&D with cash money. You can't really now tell them, Yeah, you were wrong, the 3rd edition boosters were right all along. Dummies. You suck for having supported us.

Oh, and they also have to convince everyone to shell out another $150 for the basic rules, and then hundreds more for the never-ending rules expansions.

Anyway, that's your nerd-news for the day.

Corrected: Initially I had a digression about the D&D MMORPG, which I'm told is just wrong in basic respects, so I've deleted that.


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posted by Ace at 05:26 PM

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