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The State of Dungeons & Dragons: Future

Greg Tito | 30 Dec 2011 09:00
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Mearls believes that if he produces games that people want to play or written content on the online portal D&D Insider that people want to read, then he has done his job well, but the problem is that - more than ever - that is a difficult proposition.

In order to serve each customer well, WotC no longer jams one square-shaped edition or format into a round audience-sized hole but instead offers different games for each potential player.

"People have no time for bullshit," he said. "People have less time than ever to do stuff that engages them. You take roleplayers, who are by nature creative and engaged, they're not just passively watching something. They have standards of what they want, they're persnickety. They want what they want, and if you don't give it to them they'll tell you very loudly and clearly, 'Screw you buddy, I don't need this!'"

There is no lack of feedback on the web or at convention panels for what WotC is doing wrong, but Mearls said he is paying close attention. For example, statistics gathered internally show that more than two thirds of D&D players choose to play one of the four major races - human, elf, dwarf, halfling - so there's been a shift to focus on the core of what people expect from the game. Mearls intended the Essentials line - essentially a repackaging of 4E rules into easier-to-digest books - to get back to the shared language that unites all D&D players. "You don't want a situation where someone comes into a room and says 'Hey guys, I'm playing a Shardmind Seeker' and the response is 'What the hell is that?'" he said. "I know what it is because I worked on it, but it's not even in the Player's Handbook. If you [publish] too much, that shared language, it just evaporates."

WotC has also realized in the last few years is that not all D&D gamers are alike. There are some who love 4th edition's tactical gameplay, while others simply want to participate in epic stories with their friends every week. Some gamers don't have a lot of time to devote to game sessions, while others would gladly spend all their time playing and reading about D&D. In order to serve each customer well, WotC no longer jams one square-shaped edition or format into a round audience-sized hole but instead offers different games for each potential player.

"D&D isn't one game, it's a range of games," said Mearls.

The current strategy of WotC is diverse. For players who want a quick structured experience, WotC now offers three board games designed to be completed in an hour or two, using a simplified version of 4th edition rules. The Legend of Drizzt came out in late 2011 and uses R.A. Salvatore's iconic character to attempt to attract new players. D&D Encounters is a weekly program that brings players into game stores for newbie-friendly sessions designed to teach them the full role-playing game, and the recently launched beta of the Facebook game Heroes of Neverwinter aims to get friends playing D&D together as easy as possible.

The other side of Wizards is the cash cow of Magic: The Gathering, and it's hard for Mearls not to want to emulate the profitability of that game. Magic has seen a boost in popularity from the success of the Xbox Live game Duels of the Planeswalkers. A large percentage of players will get hooked on the digital game and then be inclined to purchase a booster deck of cards - or twenty. "One of the big questions facing the medium now is what is the Duels of the Planeswalkers for D&D?" said Mearls.

The problem with developing such a game was, until this year, Atari held an exclusive license to produce all digital representations of D&D, and Atari had no interest in making games other than what was already in the pipeline. As of August 2011, the two parties have settled that dispute, and D&D is now free to either develop games itself, or hire other videogame developers to make the game WotC hopes will be as successful as Duels is for Magic.

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