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!