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The Ghosts of D&D: Past

Greg Tito | 26 Dec 2011 09:00
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Of course, not every module or supplement created using the OGL had the same level of quality and polish. "Plenty of distributors and retailers assumed that all d20 stuff was of a similar quality," said Andy Collins, who was a design team lead for 4th edition under Bill Slavicsek and Rob Heinsoo before taking over as Design & Development Manager around the launch. "Which is a little like expecting that every new book with a vampire on the cover will automatically sell as well as Twilight, but hey, these were exciting times." The swell of new products with a somewhat "official" D&D stamp on it led to a boom period in the industry with hundreds of new products suddenly on hobby store shelves.

"Wizards has a $100 million brand - Magic: the Gathering. It tried to convince Hasbro that it could have two, by amping up D&D to that level."

With every boom, there is a bust. The glut of unsold d20 products from the early 2000s began to weigh down those same store shelves, as did the core D&D products that supported them, such as the Player's Handbook. Wizards of the Coast added to the 3rd edition rules with product lines like the Complete series, but, with only a few exceptions such as Psionics, it never again released its content as open source, nor took material others had developed using the OGL and incorporated it into official D&D products.

"D&D had to support itself through the sales of secondary books - such as the class books, or the setting books, or additional rules supplements. As more and more of these become available (over the life of any edition of the game), the audience gets closer and closer to a saturation point," said Ed Stark, a creative directors from the 3rd edition era of D&D. "Eventually, the individual consumers start buying every new book and become pickier about what they add to their collections. Sales drop off - not necessarily because of book quality - and a new edition becomes necessary to 'reset' the knowledge base and introduce a new influx of sales to the support products."

As much as fans of the game were impressed with 3rd edition and its modest revision of 3.5, market pressures began to build. Wizards of the Coast, at first emboldened by the corporate resources of Hasbro, suddenly felt the need to make D&D more profitable. In the mid-2000s, "Hasbro restructured itself internally to focus on its most successful brands," said Dancey. "Brands that did $50-$100 million a year in revenue were considered 'core,' and smaller brands were going to be marginalized. Marginalized businesses get downsized in headcount. They may also be mothballed, or sold."

The sad truth was that D&D was in danger. "Wizards has a $100 million brand - Magic: the Gathering. It tried to convince Hasbro that it could have two, by amping up D&D to that level," continued Dancey. "D&D was not a $50 million a year business, nor was it likely to ever become one on its then-current trajectory. So the reaction of the folks working on RPGs at Wizards is totally understandable - they felt their jobs were at risk."

The desire to grow roleplaying games and D&D into a bigger business is a noble goal, but the executives at Wizards were divided on how to make that happen. The obvious success of fantasy MMOs like World of Warcraft in 2004 suggested there was an as yet untapped audience for fantasy RPGs. A new edition of the beloved game that catered to these folks might push growth of D&D players to new levels. The OGL and its degree of success was also a hot topic of debate, and many of the people in charge when it was implemented - including Dancey and former Wizards CEO Peter Adkinson - were no longer employed at the company. Executives' confidence in giving away content for free began to wane as the company invested time and money in having young, eager game designers develop a new edition of the rules. Even to fans, an update to the D&D rules seemed like an exciting prospect, but unlike how the OGL and 3rd edition united audiences, Wizards' handling of the release of the 4th edition of D&D in 2008 splintered roleplaying gamers into violently opposing groups.

Find out what happened, and the current state of the RPG industry, in the next installment as we welcome a visit from the ghost of D&D Present.

This series of articles continues with The State of D&D: Present and The State of D&D: Future.

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