The pleasure of business

The RPG business was always going to be an uphill battle. Some companies have made headway, and plenty more have fallen away. The reasons are simple.

  • The game is ridiculously cheap by any standards. I can’t think of many pastimes that come in at less cash per hour.
  • Gamers are ridiculously cheap by any standards. The only hobbyists I know with a bigger aversion to spending are gardeners, and even they like a nice magazine or shiny trowel every now and again.
  • The business is largely run by hobbyists, as a hobby. This means a lack of acumen, tenacity and common sense when it comes to business decisions.

Each of those reasons merits a post of it’s own, and I’ll come back to them later. For now, I want to talk about how the business of gaming has informed my hobby.

I play D&D, which has had two (three?) big owners over the years, TSR and WotC (Paizo?). All of these companies have had a tension at the centre of their gaming decisions: what would be best for the business, and what would be best for the game? Of course, the best answer hits both, but I submit that one the reasons D&D is still top of the tree is because when it comes right down to it, the business comes first. If it didn’t, then D&D would be at about the level Runequest currently finds itself. Maybe Warhammer. Maybe.

You see, D&D has to sell in order to survive, and it has to sell big. Other games don’t have to. The aforementioned Runequest will quite happily bob along with it’s utterly loyal fanbase buying what it can, from whomever it can. Failing that they’ll just produce their own stuff and everyone is happy. Same for Legends of Anglerre, Earthdawn, Dragon Warriors, whatever. (Games Workshop had this worked out years ago.)

But D&D must have higher ambitions. Think about some of the subtle decisions you can see coming from WotC (and to a lesser extent, Paizo) these days. 4e is predicated upon 1 DM and 5 players. In 3e it was 4 players. That’s a 20% increase in the assumed customer base right there. Now look at the way the books are set up. At least half of the catalogue is for players, and the other half has plenty for them to buy into as well. Even taking Essentials, there’s two specific players books and the Rules Compendium is recommended too.

Then there’s what’s in the books. It seems to me that a rules light narrative game is a terrible business decision. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of such games, but they’ve had all the money they could possibly have from me. Our commercial relationship ended with the first purchase. D&D is nothing but options at it’s heart, and if you’re going to have options at all, you might as well have more than less. WotC knows this, and it’s good for business. It also knows that there is a law of diminishing returns. In the 2e days settings got saturated by an endless supplement treadmill. That was great for the hobbyists who were on board, but the business reality was that there was a larger section of customers who were not being served by the twentieth Dark Sun sourcebook. In 4e, the campaign settings get two books, one adventure, and that’s that. They even dress it up as a positive for the hobby (“do it yourself!”) and I believe them too. Better to go onto a new setting, or a fresh look at another, than to wring out the dedicated DMs.

Then there’s the peripherals. D&D uses all the polyhedrals. A coincidence? I think not. Tiles, minis, both massively encouraged by the rules for what must be by now obvious reasons. Finally, there’s the new market: digital.

But first. What about the oft called for Basic set? The intro box that will sit on toy shop shelves forever? Well, WotC have done no more than flirt with the idea really, and that’s because there’s still a large hobbyist component running their business, and to the hobbyists it’s a no-brainer right?

Wrong. The business doesn’t need a starter set. Well, it does, but not in a cardboard box, not anymore. Take a look around you. People are online, and that’s where everything new comes from. All the real gaming is on Facebook, and it’s being monetised as we speak. Step forward Heroes of Neverwinter, a Facebook game that gives you D&D even when you don’t know you want it. It’s clever, it’s good enough, and it’s effective. This will always beat a traditional starter set hands down. Of course, you might not believe that, but I submit that’s because you’re already a gamer. You don’t need a starter set, you just want to see one, right?

The other clever market move is in cross sell and upsell. The big players do far more than stick with books in game stores. Even for D&D, of which I’ll buy almost anything, there are places I don’t go. There’s the novels (a big part of their business, just ask GW), the fortune cards, there’s the video games, and there’s the organised play. I’ve not played in Encounters or Lair Assault (not near me), but they exist for one reason alone, to drive business. Given that, the rules have to be tight enough to work that way (and they are, largely) and that’s a reason for not being all hand wavey like the vast majority of small press games. The business feeds the hobby, feeds the business. Can you imagine Dogs in the Vineyard run in leagues for cash prizes?

The point is, D&D is the way it is because it needs to be. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. But with all this talk of a new edition, us hobbyists have to understand something, all decisions will have to be good for business first, and the hobby second. As consumers we have the choice, join or opt out. The hobby will last forever, and will always be free if you want it to be. Or you can reap the very real benefits of a sound business model, and make business = pleasure.

1 Comment

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One response to “The pleasure of business

  1. “all decisions will have to be good for business first, and the hobby second” is a statement that needs clarification. Notably, the timeline you are measuring against and that by hobby, we are talking about the hobby of playing D&D, not RPGs in general.

    WotC can take a variety of short-term decisions to boost profits, e.g. release a new version in the next 18 months, but that might not be good for them if you measure it over the next five years. They risk alienating some of their fans, something they already did with 4e. I’m not sure they can afford to do it twice within five years.

    All this only refers to the health of the playing D&D hobby. The larger playing RPGs hobby is in fine health and would probably benefit from WotC falling on their arses. Personally, I think the 4e/Pathfinder split was great for the hobby of playing RPGs. It injected a lot of energy into the businesses. It got people frothing at the mouth and engaged with their hobby. It made a lot of people consider playing a new game.

    Ultimately, the hobby of playing D&D and the business plans of WotC cannot be separated. If WotC only think of the bottom line, the hobby of playing D&D will die. If they only think of the hobby, the business will die. It is not unique for a business be so interdependent with their customer base but it is rare. The people who make tin-openers or digital cameras don’t have this problem.

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