How Wizards of the Coast Almost Killed Their Company . . . and How They’re Saving It

The Search for More Money

I’ve been sitting on this thought for many months, and today I am finally inspired to put fingers to keyboard.

I am an old school gamer; I think those of you who have been following my blog for some time are aware of this.  I was ten when someone bought me the Big Red Box; I was sixteen when I started DMing for 2nd edition.  I fell in love with Spelljammer and I and first my boyfriend, then my husband, created a well-developed campaign world with a history that has become deep and complex over more than twenty years worth of gaming.  To this day, gaming is still my primary social activity – I do this instead of watching TV, spending money at the bar, or even playing most video games – and I love it.

There was all kind of resistance to 3rd edition when it came out, and I was no exception, especially since my favourite character at the time, one Spelljamming elf by the name of Shaundar Sunfall, did not convert at all easily or well from a 2nd edition fighter/mage/thief (my choice was lose all kinds of fighting ability or lose spells and SR, very annoying.)  But over time I grew to love it.  The d20 System (3.5, technically) is intelligently designed and a lot less clunky than the 2nd edition rules.  It is intelligent and easily customizable.  It lends itself to as little or as much roleplay as you want.  Eventually I became quite an enthusiastic supporter of 3rd edition, especially when the Open Game License came out and other people began producing intelligent and useful third-party publications, such as the Book of Erotic Fantasy (which, of course, had its own controversy, as for some reason the Wizards guys didn’t want to be associated with anything that might have sex in it I guess, but for us mature gamers who have been at this for a long time, it was invaluable.  Sooner or later, the heroes are going to want to have sex; it’s what grown-ups do.  But each to their own I guess.)  Some gamers never did convert and never will, and I can see their point, but I liked it ultimately.

Not so 4th edition.

As Wizards had absorbed what was then TSR, the original Dungeons & Dragons publisher, so Hasbro absorbed Wizards.  And motivated by economics (since sales traditionally are boosted when a new edition is released,) they produced a new edition.  Why not?  It had worked for Wizards.

I’ll tell you why not.  Because unlike Wizards, Hasbro’s direction lost complete touch with their primary demographic.

Some wit in the marketing department was looking at the trends around MMORPGs, I think.  The biggest video game on the market was World of Warcraft, and lots of people were starting to spend their time questing with the keyboard instead of fighting monsters by rolling dice.  Said wit presented an idea.  He (I mean this in general terms, could have just as easily been “she”) thought that since tabletop RPG fans were being lured by the MMORPG, he figured that if they made a system that was basically identical to the MMORPG systems out there, they would lure fans the other way as well.  He probably made a pretty Power Point presentation, showing graphs of market trends and consumer surveys.  He impressed his bosses, who are entirely businessmen at the top of the Hasbro pyramid and probably have no idea at all about what actually goes on aside from what their marketing consultants tell them.  It even sounds sensible when you present it as a theory.

Here’s the problem: why on earth would you play a tabletop system that imitates the limited, strictly combat-based system of MMORPGs, when you can play the same system on your PC or console and have the immediate gratification of flashing lights and the screams of dying bad guys?  When you can have prettier gear to fight bigger monsters to get prettier gear, and impress your friends with the size of your shoulders in real time?

I was appalled when 4th edition came out.  In my opinion, it makes it impossible to engage in the deep, story-telling style roleplay elements that are staples to my twenty-year running D&D game.  And I was not alone.  The problem is that most D&D fans – at least the ones who invest heavily in the product line – do not run simple one-off scenarios that are completed in a night.  They tell ongoing sagas about the history of great heroes who suffer many travails and dedicate their lives to righting wrongs.  Some are more complex than others, but that’s the essentials of it.  How can you a run a long-term magical infiltration campaign when polymorph, which used to be effective for hours, is now only usable for brief combat turns?  How can you describe the long, arduous process of your character painstakingly constructing a magical sword when you can only have a handful of skills?  Long term D&D fans were reduced to arguing “it’s not so bad” when people like me went off on a rant.

As if that weren’t bad enough, they stopped supporting the good roleplaying system that worked entirely.  (Thankfully, though, Pathfinder bought the rights and they’re a good company with a good game, worth checking out!)  And as if THAT weren’t bad enough, they totally screwed their most popular setting, the Forgotten Realms.  I mean, I recognize their thought-process.  FR had become very static, and was so full of powerful characters that it became impossible to do anything epic without either running afoul of or working with those characters.  But why transform it so completely that it is no longer recognizable?  The best developed culture and history of the Realms was that of the elves.  They screwed with that so utterly that they even changed the essential nature of what it is to be an elf, making them and their culture completely unrecognizable.  Also like every edition, once again they shortened elven lifespan, making their history entirely inconsistent.  Why not just make a whole new world and retire the Realms with dignity and grace?  (Ed Greenwood is why, I’m sure; and I would also like to say for the record, Ed – not fair killing off Mystra and all the Sisters and Khelben Blackstaff, and then not wasting Elminster as well.  It stretches whatever was left of the Realms’ credibility to the point of complete bullshit.  Sorry to tell you this.)

I, and many others like me, refused to have anything to do with “D&D for Dummies” or “D&D 4th Edition: the Search for More Money,” or “D&D of Warcraft.”  And Wizards saw this.  And they said, “Oh.  Oops.”

So what did they do?  They stopped producing more than a small, steady line of 4th edition products (just enough to keep the newbies interested.)  They asked, “Where did we go wrong?”

And they figured it out.  Someone realized that they had failed because they had not been listening to their primary demographic.  So you know what?  They did a very clever thing.  They crowdsourced.

They came up with an idea for a 5th edition.  They called it “D&D Next.”  They released it to their fans, who could sign up to playtest it (I’m a playtester.)  They talked to people at conventions and in forums.  They asked, “What do you want to see?”  If you watch some of the stuff Wizards has been producing on their YouTube channel over the past couple of years, I think you’ll see their answer.  Old school people want the stuff back that we joined the game for in the first place.  We want deeds of heroism that we direct and enact.  We want great quests.  We want roleplay around characters that we’ve come to give a damn about, not a series of min-maxed stats on a sheet of paper.  We can do that shit in WoW (and a lot of other great, newer MMORPGs too.)  We don’t really want to be bogged down in systems (good riddance to THAC0s!) but we want characters to be versatile and customizable.

D&D Next just released its last playtest module.  There’s elements of the system I don’t like, but mostly it seems like a good compromise between ease of play and storytelling.  I am a little more leery about their new series of Forgotten Realms novels, “The Sundering,” which is somehow going to explain what happens to undo some of the horrid damage to the setting’s nature caused by the Spellplague, through the eyes of some of the Realm’s most iconic characters, but the writers are tried and true so I’m willing to give them a go.  Though I suspect the Realms may have lost all their luster for me and I might be sticking with my home brewed world, Draconia.  And Spelljammer, of course.  Speaking of which, that same crowdsourcing mentality has produced a promise that Spelljammer would return eventually, which makes me happy.

So in summary: Wizards just about killed D&D by failing to listen to their customers.  They are saving it by asking them what it is that they want and listening to the answer.  And good on them!

13 thoughts on “How Wizards of the Coast Almost Killed Their Company . . . and How They’re Saving It

  1. Pingback: Red Ragged Fiend

    • A well-thought out and intelligent argument! Excellent, thank you! A few points to counter your points (a good debate can be fun!)

      1. Okay, you don’t like Spelljammer. Fair enough. I do. It’s just my thing, and I say it is from the get-go. Actually, I point out that focusing on one setting and not all of these other side trips is probably a good idea at first. But because I am a Spelljammer fan, I have lots of other SJ fans who read my blog, and I’m passing on info.

      2. You’re right; if you don’t grow, you don’t survive. But 4th edition *isn’t* growth, that’s my point. It’s imitating a system from a medium that is not compatible. It’s giving people half of the experience. Like I said, why would you want to use the MMORPG system without the immediate feedback of video (showing cool gear and powers, and the immediate feedback of the death of your foes) and lots of other people to game with and show off to?

      3. I knew somebody was going to bring this up to try to mess with my catchy title, but: Magic the Gathering is declining in popularity too. Everyone I know has gotten rid of their cards except for a handful of original decks, and all the gaming stores within 100 miles have stopped running official Magic tournaments. The mistake they made there? Too many new decks and new rules, too fast. People ran out of money and became disillusioned. And if I’m wrong, why the sudden backpedal from Wizards? Seriously; watch their YouTube channel, you can see it all over the place. Nobody does that without a good impetus. Potential financial ruin is a good impetus.

      4. Okay, I have to agree with you; the grappling system of 3rd and 3.5 is obtuse! But clearly-defined party roles are limiting. Being the ranged DPS is fine in combat. So what do you do outside of combat? Tabletop games are declining in popularity because people grow up with computers and flashing lights are pretty. I just don’t believe that “dumbing it down” is the answer. The “roleplay” aspect of gaming has always been difficult for people to grasp at first; I don’t think they have any trouble with the “roll-play” aspect of gaming and the system for that isn’t nearly as important as the system for the first, as long as it’s consistent.

      5. I edited out a paragraph that I guess I should have left in because I didn’t feel it was necessary to state outright. But since it was, here goes: “Naturally, Wizards is a business, and a business needs to make money. But 4th edition crossed a line in a way that eliminated any doubt that it was a money-grab. For one thing, it came far too quickly after 3rd edition and the 3.5 update. For another thing, the attempt to “dumb it down” to aim it at the MMORPG audience was frankly insulting to the veterans.”

      I checked out some of the rest of your blog; it is clear that you are a 4E fan and I am not. To each their own, certainly. I think at one point you accused me of trying to win over fans of one edition to fans of another and calling it “edition wars.” That’s not my purpose, here. If you like it, all the power to you! I believe I pointed out that I know people who still prefer the 1st and 2nd editions; that’s fine too. I suppose it’s my own fault for writing how I think, so I guess I ramble a little, but the purpose of my article was three-fold; the first was to point out what a bad decision this was for the company to alienate an already existing audience that, over the years, has probably spent more money on D&D books than they have on their own vehicles; second, why the attempt to grab a new audience was not going to be worth the sacrifice of their old one; and third, how D&D Next might be the glue that mends the rift, if they handle it right.

      Thanks for your comment and I look forward to any replies you might choose to make. 🙂

      • 1. A cumbersome attempt for advice on posting style on my part rather than a commentary on Spelljammer.

        2. Bypassing the basic and encompassing idea of RPGs is their attempt to imitate/simulate something else, it’s because I’ve played with many video game enthusiasts, especially speaking with those who come from MMO backgrounds. By sheer necessity of design MMOs have very poor story, plot, and devices of agency for their players. It matters not what they do, when they do it, or if they do it at all as no single player can impact the setting or its plot. Video games in general are a great medium of entertainment and diversion, but because every action must be scripted rather than interpreted by a human behind a DM/GM screen there are tangible and limited do’s/do nots. Fourth edition created a familiar cockpit of player tools, a system to run from behind the screen that is an absolute breeze, and gave this audience the agency and plot they always dreamed they could create for their digital avatars.

        3. You may not know people personally who still play Magic, I don’t either. But the two of us combined probably cannot provide a valid cross-section of gamers indicative of a larger trend; it’s simple statistics. Simply because I have no personal point of evidence does not mean it exists. I do however find contradictory evidence when I make an unscheduled stop to my local FLGS to find it packed because they are running a MTG tournament with a record high 300+ participants. Magic has also been moderately successful in transitioning their brand to digital media, including real-time online matches. As a general observation card-flippers seem to have a prevalent demographic age group, into which neither of us falls.

        4. The same thing rangers, warlocks, barbarians, two-hand fighters, rogues, sorcerers, etc. have always done out of combat? Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker are not party roles, only combat roles. They have no bearing outside of combat, this idea is stamped plainly in black and white text in 4e’s PHB explaining the roles and their function. As for ‘roll-play’, 3.X/PF has a significant and steep learning curve. Whether a disappointing sign of the times or not but many people just will not put in the effort required to learn the system to then have fun. This is doubly so if it’s the person’s first experience with table top RPGs and the D20 System. There are willing and able rule systems in competition with a lower entrance point. I am personally playing in a PF campaign with someone new to table top RPGs and it is difficult for him. He is a perfectly able and functioning adult but months in he still has difficulty finding information on his character sheet and determining what he can and cannot do in certain situations. That is a problem, especially then there is a table full of veterans players helping regularly. Pathfinder/3.X is a crunchy but complicated system and I would not recommend it for someone who has not previously cut his/her teeth on another rules system. I would be afraid of frustrating them to the point they abandon the hobby entirely before giving it a chance.

        5. Fourth editions lifespan is on par with the previous editions. From that standpoint D&D Next is as much a money grab as 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, and 4th were. Each in its own time was met with unnecessary venom and considered a move for more money. The system has a limited audience and has been notoriously difficult to market with success. The simple reality is the ‘veterans’ have not kept the brand’s revenue in the black. D&D is never going to conquer the world, it’s not that sort of product. It is however a brand with good recognition. That’s why you see D&D passing over into board games, movies, video games, novels, and its own MMO. As long as WoTC/Hasbro can break even with the actual products they will continue to create them. And they must continue to make new products, which by necessity means new editions. Why? Well, when was the last time you purchased a new 3.X product? Not an OGL compliant product, a PF product, or a used D&D official product?

        I think you would be hard-pressed to find any RPG hobbyist who does not agree the owners of D&D since its creation have mishandled their audience. Though that could generally be said of any brand/line of products. Eschewing faithful of 3.X for 4e and a new audience was a risky decision but a necessary one. At the time Pathfinder was being developed (ironically probably why we will never see OGL again) and it was going to carve the market up anyways. This mixed with people who already strayed because of the advancement of 3.0 and then the debacle of 3.5’s revision pushing away even more purchasers. New players were needed, still are. Someone new to table top RPGs attempting to learn 3.x rules without a veteran player at his elbow I can only imagine being an ordeal; an exercise in futility. On the other hand I taught myself how to play 4e without assistance and able not only to play but witness others with no experience walk away from their first session with a capable grasp of the system.

        Though the sentiment was presented more coarsely elsewhere I have never personally, or known anyone who was unable to have a fulfilling role play experience in any rules system, explicitly due to the rules system. They are RPGs, if they created barriers to role playing they would not exist.

      • I believe I’ve mostly already said my piece about much of this, so I see no point in reiterating what I have already said. There’s a couple of things that are new that I feel the need to comment on:

        1. Thanks for the writing advice.

        3. I’ll give you the observation about card-flippers not being in our demographic. That’s valid, certainly. But this is all a side point and not actually really relevant to the original article, other than you didn’t like my title. 😉

        4. Well, neither are the new school types keeping them in the black, or there would be no need for D&D Next. And the new school failed them faster than the old school.

        5. First – when was the last time a new 3E or 3.5E product was produced? That’s probably when I purchased it. 😉

        Second – No actually, you’re mistaken about 4E’s lifespan. According to Google, it was published in 2008. That’s only five years ago. The playtest for D&D Next was initially released in May of 2012. That tells me they took only 3-4 years to figure out their plan wasn’t working. By comparison:
        * The first appearance of D&D was 1974 and what we would actually recognize as the 1st edition rulebook appeared in 1977. AD&D appeared in 1978. So I’ll even be generous and say that 1978 was the publication date of 1st Ed.
        * AD&D 2nd Ed. was published in 1989. So even assuming we take the 1978 date as the 1st Ed. publication, that means that 1st Ed. had a running time of 11 years.
        * Wizards purchased a near-bankrupt TSR in 1997 and released 3E in 2000. That means that 2nd Ed. had a running time of 8-11 years.
        * 3.5 E was released in 2003 as an update to improve existing rules. The 3E stuff was still compatible.
        * 4E began development in 2005 and was released in 2008. No matter which sets of dates you choose to acknowledge, that’s a lifespan of 8 years for the 3E-3.5 E system, but without giving 3.5 a chance to work.

        Now here’s the thing. My hubby and I own more than 50 3E and 3.5 books, and I’m not even talking about 3rd party publications. At an average of about $30 per book, plus tax, that’s more that $1500 we’ve invested in our hobby (never mind 2nd Ed., 1st Ed., and so forth – and I do own one 4E compatible book, the one on Menzoberranzan, because it’s a flavour thing). I’m not willing to throw that out once every four years and start over. I could buy a car for that. And that’s the bottom line.

        I suppose stating that you “can’t” roleplay in 4E is a little strong. Truthfully, I’ve enjoyed numerous games without any system at all. But I think 4E was limiting rather than helpful. Perhaps I would have been more favourably disposed if it had been introduced as “Basic D&D” and the 3E and 3.5E stuff had still been supported. But it wasn’t, and they weren’t. It was introduced as a *replacement* for the 3E system – and that was bad form.

        I respect your right to disagree with me, though, and I thank you for a most thought-provoking and intelligent debate! There’s a great conversation happening in the Google+ community “Roleplaying Games” now about this, with comments both for and against. if you want to join the party. 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. great blob post. I am in an similar situation (Red Boxed Set at 9, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Edition plus Next playtester). From an edition defining perspective as a GM I -loved- 4th edition as I am no longer able to spend the time it takes to balance out combat due to limited time (work and family). 4th edition was a brilliant help in that I could whip out a set of encounters that I needed for a vague idea I had for a campaign and wing the rest (role-playing, etc) and the encounter would be perfectly acceptable from a TPK perspective 🙂

    As a player I REALLY dont like 4th edition. The whole powers thing just got to me.. everything was a power.. even a simple “Hold the line and fight with a sword” fighter was nearly impossible to play purely because all the damage capability was tied up with powers. It also made the combats drag on and on and on and.. you get the picture. With 4th edition you really cannot play with more than 5 players and expect anything to move along quickly. I liked that in the Next playtest I could successfully play with my group of friends (7-9 in any one sitting) for 4-5 hours and feel like we accomplished something

    anyhoo – thanks for the read

  3. Wow. WOW. I am sorry you didn’t like 4E, but you would be wise to restrict yourself to just voicing your opinions instead of demonstrating your lack of understanding about corporate structure and how the new edition was developed. You should really spend some time researching the claims you’ve made. There is ample information about how Hasbro manages its brands and how much involvement Hasbro has in its brands. There is plenty of information about how 3rd Edition and 4th Edition were developed. Some former WotC employees have been pretty open about it. Sorry you don’t like the rules, but you are wrong about how they were developed.

    Here’s the thing that you and everyone else on the Internet needs to learn. It is okay to not like something. It is okay to say “this is a thing I don’t like and here is why.” You don’t have to prove that a thing is objectively bad and developed by evil to do so. It isn’t just “I don’t like 4E.” It is “I don’t like 4E because it was developed by evil greedy corporate masterminds who were out of touch.” Just have an opinion and own the opinion. Especially if all you’re going to do is demonstrate your ignorance. Here’s a thought: talk to people on the inside. Talk to Mike Mearls. He’s pretty open. He talked to me on Twitter about how successful 4E was compared to 3E, 2E, etc. The guys writing the game? Big freaking shock: they love the game. And they love talking about it.

    The Escapist (which has some anti-4E tendencies) did an expose on the history of D&D a year and a half or so ago. They went through the history of the product development and talked to insiders and former insiders, including the notably outspoken Ryan Dancey. It paints a very different picture. You should check that out.

    Or just say: “I don’t 4E. Here’s why.” That’s cool too.

    • Oh hon, you can’t negate my opinion by claiming I don’t understand. And you missed the boat here. Whether or not I like 4E really isn’t the point. The point is: Hasbro’s business model was a bad call because it was not at all in touch with the existing Wizards’ demographic. D&D Next is trying to fix that (and I think it’s working.) If I were wrong about this, there would be no need for D&D Next.

      I am sure none of the game designers are bad guys. I’m sorry if that’s the impression I gave. I think they are employees like everyone else, and I think Hasbro’s business model was a bad call. And yes, I think it was motivated by a desire to rake in the profits that they saw going to MMORPGs and 3rd party publishers of the d20 system. I don’t begrudge a business making money. I do begrudge them trying to do this by throwing over their existing clientele. It’s like buying a tabletop game store and turning into a video game outlet. It’s a bad move, and it’s one that suggests that they don’t give a damn about their customers.

  4. Sable, you hit the nail on the head AND drove it through the board.

    For me I simply have to look at my gaming peers and my children as the next generation of gamers.

    When we walk into the local hobby store noone is playing 4E and there are no card tournaments anymore. Active duty military frequently stationed around the world; the first thing we do is find the local hobby store and it’s the same everywhere we go.

    Many of my generation of gamer has abandoned WoTC, in part due to them creating something utterly simplistic.

    Saying 4E has the same longevity as earlier editions speaks of bias and is really quite humorous if you look at the history;

    AD&D published between 1977-1979 lasted roughly 10 years before 2nd Edition came along in 1989.

    2nd Edition dominated until 1997 and the nearly bankrupted TSR; this is when we saw the rise of MMOs and the downfall of RPGs. This wasn’t as much a “money grab” as much of a group of gamers (they already had a deep investment in the industry) saving a beloved product that was being destroyed by bad business in the hands TSR.

    3rd edition was 8 years after 2nd Edition and under completely new management. They had to 1. wait for trademarks to expire and 2 planned all along to reinvent the world of the game that they didn’t like and who’s design was failing.

    It took them almost 4 years to revise the rules to 3.5 in 2003. Which still wasnt a major overhaul but a much needed fix to the system.

    Now you have the influx of the younger generation; complaining that the rules we have been playing with for 20 years are “too hard” to understand. Why do I have to keep track of so much stuff; and they release 4th edition in 08. In response direclty to such complaints. The company itself advertised 4E near it’s released as “streamlined.”

    So yes; for many of us “old school gamers” the rules were dumbed down; overly simplified; and the dramatic system changes brought nothing to the community and definitly drifted away from the RP mechanics we had already mastered.

    4th edition has barely been around 4 years; is a fractional market share at best and is already being replaced (completely revamped) and “fiend” tries to compare the previous generations as “Money grabs?” I think you need perspective. Because your post sounds like you have limited experience with the other systems as a whole.

    • I know an awful lot of soldiers who are gamers. One of my favourite local gaming buddies is in the Canadian Reserves and the majority of my fellow contributing editors of the now-defunct Fantaseum website were soldiers. One of them, Arcana, programmed missile systems for a living. 🙂

      My kids grew up listening to us play after they were supposed to be asleep and out of three boys, two of them are now active RPG gamers; one of whom plays in the game we’re running, and the third who does not actively play is working to become an RPG video game designer (so that’s what he does with his spare time!) None of them are whining that they have to actually think. 😉 Thanks for backing me up! I agree with your assessment of the dawn of 3E and 3.5 entirely.

  5. I think I want to emphasize here – so many people are taking issue with my statement about the move to 4E being a bad idea that they are missing my other point – I think D&D Next, and especially the crowdsourcing, playtesting element of it, is a GOOD move. I see it almost like an apology, really. And that impresses the hell out of me. Anyone can make a mistake; it takes a hero to admit it and apologize. Wizards is winning me back as a result. 🙂 And good on them!

  6. Pingback: A Take on the (Almost) Final D&D Next Packet | Confessions of a Geek Queen

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