From Divided Answers

The Incompetence and Competence of the Gaming Industry

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has announced that they are no longer providing any of their products as electronic downloads. DriveThruRPG.com and RPGNow.com have already taken down all the WotC products they offer – including for the people who already purchased them under the belief that they would have multiple downloads if necessary…

WotC haven’t issued a press release explaining why they’ve blocked all pdf sales, but it seems likely to be related to the news that they’ve launched legal action against 8 individuals for copyright infringement (source). Allegedly, these individuals purchased copies of the pdf of the supplement and then made said copies available for download on the net.

I can appreciate being angry that people are stealing your product, but punishing your entire consumer base for this is stupidity incarnate. Many of the gaming events I’ve been to have utilised multiple LEGAL pdf copies of the books. Having the laptop out with the handily bookmarked pdf speeds gameplay nicely.

Why punish us all for the actions of a few?

I’ve always been dubious about Dungeons & Dragons. I outright hated the previous edition, though I’ve taken to the current one with gusto. I own a legitimate hard copy of more than half the supplements (not counting adventure books), but I mostly play with pdfs. Whilst I prefer the hardcover books, it is not practical to lug six books to town and back again for the weekly Arena matches. Pdfs solve this neatly.

I buy gaming books for two reasons – research for my own gaming developments and to have fun playing the game. Beyond the first rule-book released, D&D is of no use to me for my own game design. When it comes to my buying the books for having fun, that is dependent on my playing the game regularly.

Several years ago, Games Workshop ran a weekly gaming event (Veteran’s Night) at their Tea Tree Plaza store. I went most weeks. I bought product most weeks.

Why?

Because I had fun and because my interest was constantly maintained.

A couple of years ago I stopped buying Games Workshop products all together.

Why?

Because GW cancelled my beloved Veteran’s Night and turned their monthly hobby magazine, White Dwarf, into little more than a glossy brochure for their product.

There was nothing that held my interest anymore – the game was still fun (though ridden with stupid ideas that seemed to be implemented merely to boost sales), but so are other games. Veteran’s Night and White Dwarf kept me constantly interested, constantly considering new ways to play. They kept me playing and tinkering, and that kept me buying.
After Veteran’s Night and White Dwarf, I started playing less, I started tinkering less, and then I started buying less. Eventually I decided that Games Workshop products weren’t enough fun for the dollar and wandered over to mainly playing White Wolf products.

So, why do I buy D&D products?

Because we play the game regularly and I have fun.

But if the pdfs are no longer available and I have to lug my hard copies everywhere I go, I’m going to have less fun. If it becomes a choice between playing D&D and playing something where I don’t need to carry 20 kilos of rules with me, I’m going to play the something.

And if I start playing something else, I’ll start buying something else.

Wizards of the Coast have hurt me as a legitimate consumer and I am likely to turn my attentions elsewhere.

The likely source that I’ll turn to is White Wolf.

Why?

Because White Wolf is awesome.

If for no reason other than their response to WotC’s stupidity.

They made the current version of Exalted available as a free pdf download (go and get it now from DriveThruRPG.com). They’ve also dropped the price on their entire Exalted range by 10% for the weekend – check out the news on the White Wolf site.

Why is this smart?

Exalted is a direct competitor to WotC’s flagship Dungeons & Dragons. It’s also an easy gateway between the stark mechanics of the D&D system (and it’s predecessor, the d20 system) and the wonders of the narrative-driven Storytelling system used by White Wolf.

Pissed-off D&D fans will, no doubt, hear about the free download of Exalted. Those that have thought about playing it will take this opportunity to do so. Some will enjoy it more than they do D&D. They’ll stop playing D&D and they’ll start playing Exalted (and maybe other White Wolf games). They’ll stop buying from WotC and start buying from one of their major competitors.

White Wolf have stayed true to their fans and customers, and they’ve managed to do it in a way that makes them look principled and reasonable (here’s hoping they are and it isn’t just a marketing ploy).

There are many things you need to have in place to be a great gaming company – a quality product being at the forefront. But you also need a player base. Playing an rpg is a social exercise, without other willing players the game never gets played, no matter how compelling the story, no matter how awesome the setting, no matter how intuitive and fun the system.

Once you get the basics of a role-playing game down, it takes something extra to make it a success. I have long believed that those that are successful are those who act in the same way as players and storytellers do. It’s those who love their hobby and still treat it as a hobby and not a ticket to financial success, that write the best books, make the best games, and craft the best stories.

I stopped playing Games Workshop games because it stopped being my hobby and started being a faceless cardboard cut-out. Previously when I looked at GW, I saw a living and energetic being that loved our hobby. You could see the arguments about the direction to take on the latest rule changes, the thematic decisions for the new races, and the the loving joy infused in every product by the hobbyist come games developer. Then it all turned faceless and shiny. The personality disappeared as the developers seemed to become focused on creating a product that would sell, rather than one that would entertain and engage. Myself and a number of other long-term gamers I know walked away.

I fear that Wizards of the Coast are doing similar. The articles in WotC’s monthly hobby magazine, Dragon, still read like an old White Dwarf article. Written by someone who is a hobbyist first, a businessman second. This is heartening, but with the decision to punish every WotC customer, I see no hobbyist and merely a businessman plagued by short-sightedness.

Being a hobbyist is good for business. Nurture your players, don’t punish them. It’s playing the game that sells the books.

Update: EN World has published the following comment from Ryan Dancey, former WotC Vice-President:

This is a classic example of Death Spiral. As things go bad, the regressive forces inside the organization (lawyers, commissioned sales people, creative folk who feel stifled by history, precariously tenured executives) are increasingly able to exert their agenda. It always makes a bad situation worse, but there’s no magic bullet that would likely make the bad situation better so you get a rapid unbalance in the Corporate Force towards the Dark Side.

> OGL? Risky (someone might make us look bad, steal our ideas before we print them, or create a competitive brand that siphons off sales), and lack of faith in network marketing devalues ROI assumptions. Kill it.

> PDF? Causes endless problems with hardcopy partners creating pressure on sales team they could really do without, and revenues are so small as to be non-strategic. Cut it.

> Online? Every time you talk about it someone produces a $10 million minimum cost estimate to “do it right”. After spending 3-5x this amount in a series of failed initiatives (lead by utterly unqualified people), executives assume Online is plutonium. No qualified lead or team will touch it.

> Evergreen? Sales of each unit are going down and few products have any staying power. The only (seemingly viable) solution is to put more books in production – make up for the revenue hole caused by lack of evergreen sales by getting more money out of each customer. The Treadmill.

The next things that will take hits are the RPGA (costs a lot to operate – slash it’s budget), then quality (put fewer words and less art on fewer pages and raise the price), then consistency (rules varients generated by inexperienced designers and/or overworked developers start to spawn and cohesion in rulings breaks down leading to ad hoc interpretations as the de facto way to play).

Meanwhile sales just keep going down, the gap in the budget keeps getting bigger, and no matter how many heads roll, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.

Wizards is about to be forced into the D&D end-game which is something that many publishers have gone through but none ever with a game the scale and impact of D&D (TSR walked right up to this cliff but WotC saved them from going over the edge). There are 3 outcomes:

1: A total collapse, and the game ceases meaningful publication and distribution at least for one gamer generation and maybe forever.

2: Downsizing until overhead matches income; could involve some kind of out-license or spin off of the business – think BattleTech in its current incarnation.

3: Traumatic rebirth, meaning that someone, somewhere finds some way to cut out the cancers that are eating the tabletop game and restarts the mass market business for D&D.

Note that 2 and 3 can be mileposts on the road to 1.

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