Wednesday, January 19, 2011

D&D's Demise Would Be GOOD for the Industry

I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the people crying, "He's nothing but a WotC-hater!  What does he know??"

First things first: I'm unequivocally not a WotC-hater.  I'm no fan of fourth edition, and I've made no bones about that.  But that's neither here nor there, and has absolutely nothing to do with this blog. This particular blog is not setting out to bash D&D or WotC or any group of fans.  It is, however, going to attack an idea that has somehow come to be commonly accepted as a Great Truth(TM): that the demise of Dungeons & Dragons would somehow mean the End of Days for the RPG industry.

Why?  Why is that?  Can anyone give me a good, coherent reason that goes beyond, "Well, they're the big dog on the block"?

Not only do I disagree with this sentiment, I believe that the death of D&D as a roleplaying game would actually be beneficial to the role playing industry as a whole. And again, it has nothing whatsoever to do with my feelings about the current iteration of the game.  Nor do I actively want WotC to fail. I do my best not to wish harm on anyone--person or industry (with notable exceptions being folks like mass murderers and genocidal fascists).

But I digress.

D&D, as a brand and an RPG, has held an inordinately large piece of the RPG pie, pretty much ever since its inception.  If folks like Ryan Dancey, the fine reporters over at icv2, and numerous other industry insiders, are to be believed, Pathfinder is now outselling D&D.  If so, bully for them.  The point is, D&D has forever been the Big Kid on the Playground.  The chunk of quiche devoured by that game is about ten times the size of that devoured by any one other game (Pathfinder, possibly, notwithstanding).  I don't think there's anyone out there who would bother even trying to argue that point.  It's an accepted truth, and for good reason.

Now, in a very broad, general sense, there are two types of consumers in the RPG market.  There are those who play one game, and one game only, the so-called "One True Wayists."  These are the people who are into a specific game, not necessarily into role playing in general.  Then there are those who dig a number of games, be it two or twenty.  Now, let's say your favorite game goes away.  If you are a One True Wayist, this is a moment of truth for you: either you will quit playing altogether, or you'll find another game whose gospel you will follow.  If you are more of a twenty-game-player, the loss of even your favorite one doesn't change much--you might be a little depressed for a bit, but in the end you'll just dump more money into the other games you play.

Do you see what I"m getting at?  If D&D were to vanish tomorrow, those gamers who only play D&D and never look at anything else would have one of two reactions: they would quit role playing altogether, or they'd latch onto a new game that's as much like D&D as possible.  Those who quit role playing are not a loss to the industry at large in any way whatsoever, because they only ever put money into a single product line.  Just like if I only play Rifts, and Rifts goes away, my quitting gaming does not in any way affect Catalyst's numbers for Shadowrun.  However, what if Rifts goes away, and I decide to latch on to Shadowrun becuase it's as much like Rifts as I can get?  Suddenly Catalyst gets a meager influx of cash from a new fan.

Now, what about those players who play D&D and other games?  Well, when D&D goes away, suddenly they all have a bit more cash to dump into those other games they play.  It's unlikely that many of them will go, "Hmm, I should diminish my gaming budget to match the loss of a game."  No, they will simply redirect that money into other games.

Here's where the rubber meets the road: there are a shed load of D&D players.  A holy TON.  That is a LOT of money that's going to get redistributed to other games in the industry. Chances are that Pathfinder will swallow up a lot of them, sure, but given the sheer numbers we're talking about, if a company like Troll Lord Games lands even one percent of disenfranchised D&D fans, suddenly those guys are rolling in cash.

Some people might be worried about game stores and distributors.  What if they lost the D&D cash?  I still say the redistribution of funds would make up for it, and you'd see game stores with more variety of product on the shelves.  A lot of D&D-only players these days order from Amazon, which is partially what's causing FLGS's to feel the hurt these days anyway.  You might actually see more indie games become major, or at least moderate, players on FLGS shelves.  Some game stores might go out of business before the adjustment happened, which would be sad, but we are talking long-term effects, here.  I feel certain we would relatively quickly enter a new era where it was again possible to make a living as an RPG designer, because there would be so much cash going in so many directions.

And again, those players who quit gaming altogether because they only played D&D?  Their money wasn't helping the industry as a whole, anyway.  It was only helping D&D and WotC.

The one area that I can see might feel the bite, at least at first, is conventions.  Especially ones like Gen Con, which get a LOT of money from WotC sponsorship.  Ticket prices would soar, which might result in lower attendance...at least until someone new stepped up as a major sponsor (or several).

In any case, sure, I guess there would be some initial backlash in the retail and convention sectors, but I don't think it'd last very long, nor be as huge as the doomsayers like to claim.  And I think after it passed (which would happen quickly enough) the industry would boom as a whole in a way it hasn't since the mid-80's to early 90's.

I've kind of run myself out and lost my train of thought, but there you have it.  Just something to chew on.

18 comments:

  1. There's another aspect of WotC dropping out of D&D the RPG entirely that might be good for role-playing. People usually defend the continued existence of WotC D&D as the highly-visible entry point for new role-players. It's pretty well recognized that late-edition D&D focuses heavily on tactical combat. But very few other RPGs do. So, WotC D&D is recruiting the wrong kind of new player, from the hobby's standpoint. WotC D&D tends to bring in people who become the kind of One True Wayist who will quit the hobby entirely when their game vanishes.

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  2. I posted a similar sentiment this morning myself. Couldn't agree more.

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  3. But if D&D went away and another game filled its niche (say Pathfinder or whatever), what would stop WotC/Hasbro from buying that one once it became successful enough?

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  4. My intital reaction to this is that it's spot on, but not for the reasons you discuss. I would like to see the end of D&D primarily because it consumes so much creative energy. Granted, much of this comes as a reaction to the OGL, which (as I understand) no longer exists for 4e. We'll get to my distaste for 4e in a moment.

    Prior to the OGL, the industry was full of creative little games. The Whispering Vault. Little Fears (which came out on the cusp of the OGL). Noir. There were a whole bunch of games that covered a wide range of settings and genres and concepts. I would walk around GenCon with Kenneth Hite, scoping out the cool little gems out there. A clique of us game designers would meet over drinks and talk about what we should look out for ("you should go to aisle 3, there's a little game called Blue Planet there. It looks cool.").

    After the OGL, all this stopped. Ryan Dancey has a lot to answer for, IMHO. He wanted to take the Linux model and apply it to the hobby games industry. He wanted to co-opt the industry, and get them to either produce D&D products or go out of business. He said that in so many words. So after the OGL, everyone who wanted to make money jumped on D&D's coattails. Even if someone had a great, unique, intersting idea, it was done in D20; this had the effect of making every game seem the same. Even if I was playing a 6-foot tall panda marshalling all the other animals in the zoo to rebel, I was still using feats and rolling a d20. In the future, all games were Taco Bell. I left soon afterwards.

    Now that the OGL turns out to be the Chimera it is, we've really lost the tradition of the cool, funky game. I don't see them as much any more. I go to my game store, and there's a narrow slice of product available -- Fantasy RPGs. You can have it Swords & Sorcery, or Medieval Realism, or Dark, but it's primarily guys with swords and spells. (And don't get me started on the giant section of D20 shovelware still on the shelves. How many variant monster manuals did you guys think we wanted to see?)

    Which brings me back to 4e. I've never read it. I've never cracked a spine in my game store. It doesn't interest me. Why? Who needs 24 hardcover player's handbooks? Are you kidding me? It's like no one remembers the trouble splatbooks created for the industry in the first place. And everyone else in the industry has jumped on board. I have a question: Did the Dresden Files RPG need to be two books, hardcover, full color? It's not like they were pulling screen grabs for art. Those books could have been one book, rag stock, softcover. So WotC is teaching the industry some bad lessons. As if the reason no one's buying a game is because there aren't enough hardcover books in their line.

    What if D&D died? It would be picked up by someone who really loved it. A consortium of game designers would band together, resurrect it, and restore it to greatness. It would be D&D, by D&D players, who loved D&D. Which is precisely why Pathfinder is doing so well.

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  5. In general I find the logic correct.

    The issue, and this is a great unknown, is what is the ratio at this point. You said what if Troll Lord got 1% of the D&D base but what if only 1% stayed total.

    I think this is where Pathfinder's success rears up. I suspect it has already taken up a lot of the "what if my only game is D&D and it's discontinued" people. For a significant part of the player base their game was discontinued and Pazio brought it back into print.

    That said, I think in the medium term we need to prepare for whatever will happen to the industry and the hobby with the end of D&D as a pencil and paper game. Hasbro sees it as a brand and I doubt they will continue to keep it in a marginal (for someone Hasbro's size) much longer. Already, one of the most reliable locations outside games stores, chain book stores, have units that no longer carry D&D as I learned at the Buckhead Atlanta Barnes and Noble.

    I'm also interested in effects on the hobby. D&D has cultural presence which provides a quick explanation of what we're doing and helps new people decide if this is the kind of thing they might be interested in or not even for other games that even Vampire: the Masquerade didn't have in its heyday. Would we lose that over time if we lost D&D.

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  6. I think it could be a good thing if D&D is dumped by Hasbro and the license picked up by a die-hard grognard (i.e., doesn't play the editions published from 2000 onward, but is aware of and enjoys quasi modern games like, say, Savage Worlds and Earthdawn).

    I'm not going to hold my breath, but miracles can happen...

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  7. Ross, I have to disagree with your estimation of the OGL killing creative games...the indie game market is thriving now in a way it never has before. The OGL just opened up a new world of options fo...r people to take mechanics (and they're NOT all d20 anymore) already established and build their creative works around those. I am a hearty proponent of the idea that so-called "innovative" die mechanics are smoke and mirrors, and irritating and infuriating smoke and mirrors, at that. A die mechanic exists for one reason and one reason only: to generate a random result. Anything else is just showing off or missing the point. So the OGL lets people release established core mechanics for anyone to use, and then you can put your creativity where it belongs: the creative end of the spectrum. The OGL was a good thing, in my opinion.

    Herb, it's HIGHLY unlikely that only 1% of D&D players are of the "one true wayist" variety. HIGHLY unlikely. And I think you're right about Pathfinder. At this point there's no question they are poised to snatch up the number one spot in a second. However, in that case--assuming D&D's money is not redistributed but goes entirely to Pathfinder--D&D's disappearance from the industry is a complete non-issue. Everything trucks along exactly as before, but with one less recognizable brand.

    D&D as a cultural presence will linger, even if the RPG vanishes. It's like Kleenex or Xerox. When people use a tissue, they call it a "Kleenex." When people make a photocopy, they make a Xerox. Heck, MAC machines no longer exist to my knowledge, but lots of people still call ATMs "MAC Machines." D&D will probably remain a generic title for fantasy RPGs to the uninitiated.

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  8. I have to agree with Jason. I really am glad the OGL exists. I've been gaming off and on for 20 + years and before the OGL the only games I picked up were D&D and the occasional Marvel Superheroes book.
    When the OGL game out I began expanding more and more into other gaming areas, as did many of my friends. Part of this was because we knew, as 3e fans, if it had the d20 logo we not only had a grasp of the core rules, but we'd probably like it.
    Once the OGL went beyond just d20 branded products we became exposed to more and more publishers and systems that we likely never would have tried. I went from having a dozen, or so, rpg books in the pre OGL days to having literally hundreds of physical rpg book in multiple systems and that doesn't include the all of the pdf books I have also bought. The OGL helped expose the rest of the rpg industry to a lot of people who had never played much more than D&D.
    Everyone has different experiences and opinions, but for myself and all the gamers I personally know, the OGL is second only to the actual creation of D&D as the best idea in the history of the hobby.

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  9. Ross, you're purposefully ignoring one very important elephant in the corner, and that's the economics of the industry.

    OGL had a few stated purposes.
    One was to drive sales of the big core products that WotC published.
    A corollary of that was to leave more niche product development and publication to smaller third parties who were more suited to them, because such items could not be done profitably by a large company like WotC.
    A third, and major, point was to help combat market fragmentation.

    It was a very true fact that while most gamers are happy playing a variety of games, few of those would be eager to learn a new game on a regular basis, and (due to inertia), would stick to the games they already knew.
    By proliferating d20, this meant that players could pick up entirely new games, without having to learn a completely new system. Even though the game was new, they still knew how to play.

    This also meant that a product wasn't affected by a fragmented market. One d20 product could be used in a dozen different games, instead of just one. It's like how you can sell gasoline to "All Drivers" but you can only sell Ford Taurus Bumpers to Ford Taurus owners. OGL is trying to replace all cars with Ford Taurii, so that anyone who makes Taurus parts can sell to the whole market.

    Say what you will about "all looks same", that was the only way for small press to actually be financially viable (until PDF-stores became mainstream).

    You may like weird indie games (I do!), but there is no way 99% of them can make it in the hardcopy market because that market is inherently fragmented. Using OGL and d20, these indie productions were able to tap the largest segment of that market and actually sell something, whereas if they had gone completely new, they'd be lucky to sell 20 copies ever.

    Economics are the factor you ignore. RPGs are no longer a major growth industry like they were 20 years ago. There is very little room left for new market players in print (they're doing awesome in PDF).

    Of course, then you continue by denigrating games you have never seen, like 4E and Dresden. Is that how one becomes an expert these days? By knowing NOTHING about your subject? You seem to think so.

    Ergo, you're no expert on D&D or OGL and have no business commenting

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  10. I think Jason makes a lot of good points, but I'm concerned about one thing: name recognition. The phrase 'Dungeons and Dragons' has a cachet that is attractive to a large segment of the 'nerd' market. Lord knows that's how I got involved in RPGs – I was a high schooler who wanted to play 'Dungeons and Dragons'. If D&D hadn't been around, it's quite possible I wouldn't have gotten involved in RPGs as a whole.

    And the one guy who wants to play D&D tends to be the guy who rounds up a few of his friends who've also never played to form a group. The prestige of the name brings not one person into the hobby, but five or six.

    Now, I'm not claiming that all gamers get their start this way – far from it. But I am claiming that some do. And it would be a shame to lose this.

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  11. I don't think you'll lose it. As I said earlier, D&D will morph into a commonly used phrase for a style of play--high fantasy roleplaying. Just like all tissues are called Kleenex by most people, most call photocopies "Xeroxes," and a lot of people still call ATM's "Mac Machines." Or how in the South all soda pop is "Coke."

    So in the future when one says, "I'd like to try out this D&D thing; what is it?"

    Someone else will reply, "It's a term for fantasy role playing games. We play Pathfinder D&D. Come on over and try it if you like."

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  12. Hi,
    As an older gamer, who first intro was Basic D&D, I say if 4e or D&D as a brand vanished, it would be good for the industry.

    Indie games may be booming as PDF's, but you cant go to your local store, lok at book cover and say, "oooh, that looks interesting."
    You also cant take a PDF and go to your friends and say "Look at this cool new game I found!" and then sit around and leaf through pages.

    PDF's are good for mature gamers and established players, but they do nothing to lure new people into the hobby.
    You can buy model railroad cars on Ebay, but you cant touch them or talk to someone who knows about them like you could at the hobby store. Same with PDF's.

    D&D as a brand vanishing would be good for the industry, because if its not there people will look at other things. People will *create* other things.

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  13. I disagree. To bring new people into the hobby you need a perceived "safe" brand, which (noobs or parents of noobs) can buy into without feeling that they run the risk of getting screwed. Plus there is a huge market of D&D players who played briefly in their tweens, who have nostalgia for the hobby and might get into it again. No game system has the same potential to capture these people as D&D.

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  14. Why do you need a safe brand to bring new people into the hobby? That's a blatant fallacy. If it were true, no new product would ever take off.

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  15. If Hasbro dropped D&D wouldn't the license be picked up by another publisher?

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  16. Hasbro ceasing to publish D&D as a roleplaying game wouldn't necessarily mean they were dropping the brand. They have board games, novels and all manner of other ways to market the brand. It also wouldn't necessarily mean they were willing to reasonably license it if they ceased publishing it. They'd still own it, one way or the other.

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  17. Hi, folks. I just read this blog's post and your responses to it and noticed something. It sounds as if everybody thinks that D&D is too popular and hence, too powerful. That it somehow "weakens the industry". That it siphons off players who would otherwise play other games.

    And partially, you guys are right. But only partially.

    Yes, D&D *does* tend to keep the players it generates from the newbies who come to know this most wonderful of games. There's a reason D&D rules, after all. D&D, is simple enough that everybody can learn it, yet it is nigh-infinitely expansible. You can play in just about any genre, from Low Fantasy (Lankhmar) to High Fantasy (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms) to Cosmic (the IMMORTALS rules) to Horror (Ravenloft) to 1001 Nights (Al-Quadim)to any of the world myths (Legends & Lore) and so on.

    Meanwhile, what are we offered by the the indies? A new game system, usually chained to whatever happens to be any one indie game's designer's pet world, a supposedly necessary game setting.

    And this already would turn me off. With (A) D&D, I can play in *any* genre, any world, any story I wish to. I can even, with a minimum of fuss, create crossover battles between, say, Elric, Gandalf and Raistlin on the one side and Count Dracula, Mordred and Ares on the other side. Because even the Mentzner version of D&D was powerful enough a game engine to carry just about any fantastic genre, while being, at the core, deeply rooted in heroic fantasy. And lesser games simply can't compete with such a powerful game system.

    But you are deeply wrong about D&D weakening the game industry. In the first place, D&D created the RPG industry. Without D&D, there would be no Fantasy gaming.

    Furthermore,it is D&D which keeps Gaming still in vogue even among a niche. If D&D dies, so shall do the RPG industry itself. For D&D is not merely the biggest part of the RPG industry. D&D *is* the RPG industry, and always was. The other, lesser games are little more than variants of it.

    And finally, there is a third reason why D&D does *not* weaken the game industry but rather, gives it life. The lesser games are just not as interesting.

    Sure the designers and players of stuff like Runequest, I Nomine, Traveller etc. would argue furiously against the point. But only D&D created a whole Fantasy novel sub-genre (several, actually; it's not just generic "D&D Fantasy", and not even just Dri'zzt and Raistlin, but Planescapeand and Ravenloft, also). And only D&D can inspire a whole host of modern-day philosophers who spend their spare time with mediating the (rule) texts of (pre-3rd) D&D...

    Those other, lesser games are just that: "We, too" products; but little more. No wonder Gary Gygax was so dismissive of them.

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  18. For the record, I never said that D&D weakens the industry. Indeed, D&D has little effect on the industry at large in any way whatsoever due to its insular player base. I just said that it's DEMISE would be GOOD for the industry. There's a huge difference.

    Besides, D&D is now being outsold by Pathfinder, so much of this is moot.

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