Tag Archives: wotc

Why are we surprised that D&D Next is bad?

By now, the “D&D Next”  materials have made their way out into the interwebs. I spent a good ten hours participating in an all-day playtest of the system.

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. However, someone else made a point I think is important:

The game system we have in front of us is exactly what they told us it would be.

I can’t emphasize this enough. This playtest meets all of the stated design goals: it plays like an old-school game, it is ostensibly “modular,” and it has already been lauded among many players as a return to pre-3e design sentiments.

What this really speaks to is how isolated and unsupported the D&D team is at WotC. I remember stories from 5+ years ago where any team that wasn’t Magic had to go around begging for playtesters any time they released anything. With the growth of the Magic brand, this has obviously only become more of an issue. The reason this looks like the product of a couple old dudes in a basement is because it really is.

D&D is a drop in the bucket as a brand when compared to the $200+ million that Magic brings in. (Even generous estimates had D&D bringing in about 1/20 of that revenue per year.) In a sense, I kinda feel bad for Mearls & Co. They are working on something they love, but they have the dual burden of being under corporate supervision without any sort of support from the rest of the company. Somebody gave them the goal of “reuniting the editions” after Pathfinder has eclipsed D&D, and then gave them no money or time to do it in.

I remember opening the 4E PHB and my jaw dropping – not because of the rules, but simply because of the production values inherent to that book. Full-color 3/4 page illustrations for each class and chapter. Beautifully templated, color-coded power descriptions. It was the first time I’d felt that since I opened the GURPS 4E Characters book, and the only other time I’ve been so taken was with the Mouse Guard RPG.

That was the height of branding D&D for WotC. They released one of their flagship games in full force, and it still didn’t make a tenth of what Magic does. It’s over. They’re done throwing that kind of effort into a brand full of toxic fans and endless bickering about products that won’t get sold.

I’m not saying it won’t sell, or that it won’t get played. However, I can tell you that we aren’t going to see the support for D&D that we saw for third or fourth edition. D&D is officially a legacy brand now.

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Toxic Geeks: The Outspoken Customer is Always Wrong

Or Fallacy #5: You should listen to the naysayers.

I want to go back in time and fucking murder Harry Gordon Selfridge. Not only was he a pioneer of holiday deadline shopping (Only 40 days until Christmas!), he invented the worst phrase to grace any customer service counter in the last century. Fuck “The Customer is Always Right.”

Let me clarify here: I’ve spent a lot of time in customer service. I’m not that jaded guy who posts in the retail thread in GBS. I fucking love customers; they are amazing, and all 99% of them want is to be treated like people and have someone help them get what they desire at this moment. Most of the greatest moments in my past employment have involved helping really “difficult” people get what they need done. With a lot of motivation, a great attitude, and a dash of competence, you can make almost anyone happy that they stopped by your business today.

I further believe that customer service should absolutely be the center of any business that wants to be successful. If you can identify what your customers want, and give it to them, you will make it happen. What someone calls a “problem customer” is just an opportunity to create a loyal patron; that may sound corny, but I have found it to be universally true.

No, you can’t make everyone happy, but you shouldn’t want to. I’ve discovered this blog, which really echoes a lot of the points I’ve been making in this thread. Allow me to quote from a particularly fantastic article:

One of the first things you learn in any marketing program is that you not only don’t have to cater to everybody, but that you shouldn’t. There are customers out there who can faithfully buy from you and still run your company into the ground. Effective marketing includes making these people go away with a minimum of fuss. Smart folks avoid the temptation to poach from toxic segments.

Yes, that’s right: smart business practices involve saying no to customer segments. You’re going to hear a lot of shit about your business if it gets to any reasonable size; just look at the Paizochat above. Should you listen to these people? I mean, they’re your customers, right? You should be responsive to customers, right?

Wrong. Absolutely, completely wrong. Especially in the gaming business, you are going to find a direct correlation between how much a person protests things and how disconnected they are from your primary customer base. That’s right: you shouldn’t listen to the people who rant and rave. It seems contradictory to a customer service mindset, yes; but it’s good business sense. Here’s why:

Toxic customers drive away business.

This happens most visibly in game stores, where a single arduous “customer” can drive away dozens of potential paying patrons. They can do this in a lot of ways: cheating at tournaments, running abusive or arduous ‘events,’ shit-talking and edition warring, or just plain being creepy. It spreads across the hobby (and across all customer bases, really). That guy who trolls the newbie who asks a question on your message boards is literally ruining new business.

Toxic customers are not interested in buying what you’re selling.

Let’s laugh at Gau’s experience as he tells an anecdote from fast food management! I worked for Carl’s Jr. for some time, and if you’ve ever been in a Carl’s Jr., you know that they don’t have much for a dollar menu. This seems stupid at first; every damned fast food place has a dollar menu, why don’t they? Why am I paying $1.40 for a basic hamburger? That’s bad business! I’ll just go to McDonald’s!

You know what? I hate to say it, but we didn’t (and they don’t) want you. Carl’s Jr. has made an intelligent decision by not having a dollar menu. They’ve designed their business model around the image of everything on the menu being huge, delicious, and satisfying. Having a tiny burger for a buck would undermine that. On the other hand, you can get a quarter-pound charbroiled hamburger for $1.40, and it’s fucking delicious. If that’s too much for you, you are welcome to go to McDonald’s and get a 10:1 patty on a piece of cardboard.

There are ancillary benefits, as well. By not having a lot of super-cheap items on the menu, you are saying no to the stoners (mostly), but saying yes to people who will pay a decent price for something that tastes a cut above Burger King. Sure, we didn’t get as many of the dudes who are counting change to pay for their tacos, but we get a lot more of the soccer moms who don’t even listen to the total and just hand you their credit card. (It was pretty routine to get forty or fifty dollar cars during dinner rush.)

Toxic Customers are, often, not even customers

Let’s get back to gaming, now. For Magic 2010, Wizards announced a sweeping list of rules changes, most commonly remembered as “the day damage stopped going on the stack.” If you read the article, they make the goal of this clear:

As we set out to create the forthcoming Magic 2010 core set—which is a completely new approach to the core set ideal, as announced earlier this year—we opened up everything about how we make Magic cards to scrutiny in an attempt to make that set, and the game as a whole, more accessible.

Wizards is the king of customer feedback in this industry. They spend a metric fuckton of money to determine what their customers, the average, normal customers at the core of their base, are saying about them. In 2008-2009, a choir of players, new and old, sang a simple message: “This game has become too complex.”

This couldn’t have been easy for R&D to handle. Complexity is a double-edged sword: too much, and you can’t teach it to new people, and some people stop having fun (and hence stop playing). Too little, and the game can seem simplistic, boring, and unappealing. They did a brilliant job of balancing this in the 2010 changes.

What happened, though, of course? Thousand of voices rose from the hellish parts of the internet, decrying the changes as “ruining Magic.” The backlash was, to be honest, impressive in its scale. A smaller publisher, or one with less direction, might have gone back on their announcement. Wizards didn’t, because they knew what I could have told them, too: most of these “players” aren’t customers. They aren’t the ones shredding packs of new sets. They aren’t showing up to FNM or Pro Tour qualifiers. They’re embittered, old-school players who wouldn’t buy new sets anyways (since “new cards suck”).

Magic 2010 made Magic an objectively better game. More new players are picking up the game than ever before, and these changes are directly related to that fact.

So, what do you do about a toxic customer?

Spokane is really blessed to have an awesome and successful local bookstore. They root out a lot of their “bad” customers through simple marketing. They don’t do the big events with the huge, doorbusting authors that Barnes & Noble might; instead, their authors and events cater pretty specifically to their target demographic. It is really shitty to be a locally-owned bookstore in the twenty-first century, and they have only survived by literally building an identity around it.

In the case of a game store, I once had a conversation with the owner of Merlyn’s. John is an awesome guy, and he has a simple strategy: they run positive, inclusive events, like D&D Encounters, FNM, open Warhammer, and Clix. Sometimes the grognards come in droves, but the easiest way to keep a bad player out is (in his words) “to fill the store with dozens of good players.”

All of the good publishers are moving in this direction, too: actively pushing products out the door that “good” customers want and “bad” customers will hate. The previously discussed Beginner Box, the Dungeon Fantasy and Action modulesOpen Fire!, all of these are made to bring new, good customers in. The different companies have various strategies for how to “support” (read: ghetto-ize) the negative, toxic customers, but this is certain:

If you’re not interested in moving forward, you are going to be left behind.

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Fallacy #4: I should start a game business (Part 1)

It is the dream of many a prospective gamer to make money doing what they love, and rightfully so. Game designers are the rock stars of our business, and everybody wants to be rock star! Well, maybe not Meatloaf, but definitely Slash. The most common question I get as a business major is “should I start X business?” Should I open a game store? Should I start writing RPGs and publishing them myself?

No, no you should not. You also shouldn’t open an espresso bar, a restaurant, advertising agency, business consultancy, or a head shop. These are saturated markets with a high probability of failure and that require a lot of industry-specific, hard-earned knowledge to be successful in. Essentially, it’s a question of “if you have to ask, the answer is no.”

This isn’t an elitist thing, and I don’t mean to crush your dreams. It is a gatekeeper rule, and it’s also based on a lot of analysis of the market and the industry. Here are some reasons you should be apprehensive about getting into the game industry.

1. You need a killer business model. Wait, wait, you say, I’ve got this great game, it will totally sell, and I’m going to do some interesting trickery to get people to buy it (like give the core rules away for free or make a blog or something). The only problem is that is not a business model. That is (probably) a marketing plan, which is part of a business model, sort of.

I mentioned this earlier, but a lot of the models for releasing RPGs, and most of them suck. I think it can be summed up nicely by defining a spectrum between the TSR model and the GURPS model. (Note that these are my own designations.)

As many of you may be familiar, TSR owned D&D for most of its lifetime. In the late eighties and early nineties, they literally ran D&D into the ground by adopting a publishing model that has, against all reason, been copied by most small press games! The basic idea is this: you release a core game, and then you release a followup supplements for that game, expanding existing material and introducing more of it. Maybe, if your system is big enough, you release a setting or two, and then some splatbooks and adventures for that setting.

The problem with this is one of diminishing returns, essentially. The tenth splatbook for Professor Cirno’s Wild and Crazy Penguinland is going to sell a LOT less than the core book did, because a certain (likely large) percentage of people are going to be happy with just supplements 1-9 or fewer. You also run in to issues with segmentation of your customer base and decreasing quality, as TSR did. The common solution is to either a) release new games and stop supporting the old ones or b) release a new version of the game and only partially support old ones.

On the other end of the supplement-based model is GURPS. GURPS releases its core rules, which cover damned near everything (there are GURPS rules for how much damage you would roll for a nuclear explosion). Then, they release setting and themed books, like China, Steampunk, Magic, Mysteries, or Discworld. The huge difference here is that very few of these are dependent; the entire line is modular. You can run GURPS China with out GURPS Martial Arts (although the latter book may enhance your experience). Discworld doesn’t really require Magic. Now, the really good part is that you CAN combine stuff from all of these together and run GURPS Magic Steampunk China Mysteries (drawing things from all of those books, if you have them).

Additionally, the books are fucking good. I would hand GURPS China to someone who just wanted a good background on Chinese history and culture. The High-Tech book has a lot of great information about modern technology and weapons. Mysteries includes a lot of great information that can be useful in just writing a mystery story. Some of the settings are just brilliant (Transhuman Space, I’m looking at you).

You should not follow either of these. While it’s obvious that the GURPS model has enjoyed more general success, it’s important to note that it is not newer, or really, more sophisticated. These models are mostly bunk. Even SJG is finding that for the money it puts into a GURPS supplement is probably better spent making more Munchkin cards.

These models aren’t unique to RPGs either. Games Workshop essentially just uses TSR’s model: New edition, new codexes, more supplements, more models for those codexes! Oh, wait, we’ve done everything, time to revise it again!

One of the things that makes board games (even really geeky ones) more successful is that the expansions are fully modular. I can play Catan with any, all, or none of the expansions. When I pick up a wargame, I am automatically curious as to what core books and models I need if I wanted play Imperial Guard or Germans or Kzinti. What’s worse, most games are fucking awful at enumerating this on the cover, so I get to dive through the game and try to figure it out. Or, even better, put it back on the shelf.

Mind you, I am not discussing the behind-the-scenes parts of a business model, like whether or not you outsource any of your production process, how customer support is handled, or who owns your business. These are things that I don’t think are wrong with the industry.

What new models are there? Well, not many.

There’s Dungeons and Dragons Interactive (DDI), which is a set of online tools that Wizards has developed to bring D&D into the 21st century. It’s a brilliant idea, really: for $5-10 a month, you get access to every single rule, power, item, class, race, and whatall they’ve released. Additionally, you can use the online character generator to make and print off all of your characters, and the monster and adventure tools! As a bonus, you get all of the Dungeon and Dragon magazine you can download.

So, now you can get into D&D for $20 the first month (DDI doesn’t include the actual game rules, so you need to buy a Rules Compendium for the DM), and a lot less in subsequent months. While that may add up to $60-140 a year, that’s about what you’d spend on books (if not less). What’s more, you get all the convenience of an online tool, and you don’t have to buy 12-15 books just to get caught up with the line. It’s all right there, ready for adventure!

I don’t know if this is a workable model for a smaller-press publisher, but I do think this is the future (or one of the futures) of gaming. Trying to release books subsequently is a failing notion. Don’t do it. Find something better. If you can’t, don’t bother.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Part two will happen on Monday.

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Fallacy #1: Your market is small/shrinking/difficult to reach.

1. We wargamers (and I include RPG players in that honored group even if they reject the name) are a unique bunch, and a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the human genome. We’re people who get our fun by making our own decisions, and taking responsibility for those decisions. We’re risk takers. Most humans want to sit on the sofa, watch a TV show or read a novel or comic book, and be scared out of their minds that the hero is going to be killed (or sent to prison or kicked off the police force or reassigned to Toledo). But there is always the secret and secure knowledge that at the end of the adventure, everything will be right back where it was, with the hero in the same job he was in when the season or series started. Wargamers are perfectly willing to risk the starship captain’s life and career, and accept that we’ll be starting over as an ensign in the next game if we got it wrong. This has many implications, the worst of which is that the wargame industry is very small with very few customers. If a higher percentage of the human race were instinctive wargamers, the wargame industry would be as big as the comic book industry, and even small game companies like ADB, Inc. would have 20 or 30 employees and annual sales in the tens of millions of dollars.

– from the Federation Commander Blog

This is the most popular, fervently defended, and absolutely false truism of the tabletop gaming industry. It is often founded on the ideals that are seen above: that we gamers are a special breed, that it takes a special sort of person (a “nerd”) to enjoy our games, and this means that we’ll always be relegated to stinky stores and small-press publishing.

A corrolary that is often presented is that the gaming industry is shrinking in some way. This may be true (it would be difficult to collect data to disprove it without a lot of effort), but if it is, it’s not due to computer gaming, CCGs, or anything like that. Most market changes are cyclical or structural; I believe the current one affecting ADB is a little of both.

These claims are FALSE. Even a cursory glance at the gaming industry today will tell you that, if anything, we are living in the silver age of RPGs! There are more games, available to do more things, for more playstyles, than there ever have been in history. From Fiasco to Warhammer, from FATE to Magic: The Gathering, there is SO MUCH gaming to choose from, you can feel a bit inundated at times.

What’s more, there are a lot of game companies that are doing remarkably well: Paizo, Steve Jackson Games, and of course, Wizards of the Coast come to mind. Even smaller shops do well; this is the age of the one-man company, working for PDF sales and producing what may be some of the best (and worst) game work out there. These aren’t the signs of a failing industry.

As an aside, I love that he compares the gaming industry to the comic book industry, which is facing almost exactly the same issues as ours: an aging core fanbase which they feel the need to appeal to, which tends to alienate them from their new fans, and a definite sense that the loonies are running the asylum now. Sure, there’s more gross revenue in comics, but that means pretty much nothing to a small, indie publisher trying to get out there.

What are the issues for our industry? I can identify three, immediately, that work together to create a lot of the problems we see today.

1. Market Saturation. Seriously, there are a lot of games. A fucking lot of games, many without any real distinction between them, and marketed to increasingly small and alienated groups: hardcore miniature wargamers, old school revival fanboys, compulsive CCG purchasers. This is the observed effect: itlooks like there is very little market for your games, because it’s easy to get lost in a sea of contenders.

2. Single Dominant Brands. Despite the hand-wringing that occurs in this area, it’s true: Dungeons and Dragons is Roleplaying Games. No one even comes close. D&D had a brief retreat from its position of Level 20 Shit of Dragon-Turd hill in the nineties, but it’s back and here to stay for now. It’s hard to explain a roleplaying game without someone asking if it’s “like D&D.”

In other areas, it is much the same: Games Workshop (Warhams 4eva). Magic is TCGs. There’s no Pepsi to the Coke here. Every game looms under the shadow of its progenitor, and that leads me to the third point.

3. Reactionary Attitudes. It is often said that the last revolution in gaming was in 1993: Richard Garfield inventing Magic: The Gathering. It’s certainly the last time someone opened up a new market sector. That was TWENTY YEARS AGO. Of course the industry appears shrinking an cannibalistic; it would be like if automakers produced the same things for two decades and expected people to be amazed and motivated to purchase new cars.

Oh, wait, they did that.

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