DDNext: Doomed to Marketing Hell

The Great Edition Wars continue, and they show no sign of abating even though we have no idea what DDNext is even going to look like. But in the absence of solid information, I'd like to engage in some rumor mongering and theorizing about the type of product that DDNext will be, the type of people that they're selling to, and why unless a freaking miracle happens, DDNext will be a disaster.

I've heard that one reason WotC is working on a next edition is that D&D4e wasn't selling very well. And even if it was selling a lot better than it was, RPGs aren't terribly profitable, certainly not compared to cardboard crack like Magic: The Gathering. The corporate overlords at Hasbro wanted more money, and thought that a new edition would shake things up. Fair enough, but before we go deeper, what exactly is D&D?

The obvious answer is that D&D is a game. Games are good, games make money. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 had the single biggest opening of any form of media ever, we're in a boardgames renaissance, and CCGs like Magic consistently make money. This is obvious, but this is also wrong. WotC doesn't sell a game, the game happens at the table with the gaming group, WotC is selling books that help you game, and this is a business model that is dead on arrival.

Once you sell people the books they need to play the game, they won't buy any books, and you won't make any money. Selling to GMs (setting guides, monster manuals, adventurers) excludes 80% of your potential market. Selling to players with splatbooks introduces option and power creep. Worst of all, RPG books are inherently expensive to produce; they're glossy, large, have a lot of art, and drive editors insane. I paid $35 for the DMG2 recently, which was worth it because it's a good book, but it's definitely not an impulse purchase for most people.

As long as WotC tries to make money on D&D by selling books, they'll fail. The business model just isn't there. With D&D4e, they tried to transition to a service-based model with D&D Insider, the Character Builder, Compendium, etc, but I think they just wound up cannibalizing their own book sales and alienating traditionalist gamers. One of the players in my online game was talking about how D&D4e could have won him over with better computer tools, an actual working digital tabletop at launch, tablet integration, etc, but they didn't. There hasn't even been a real D&D4e videogame, aside from the Facebook Heroes of Neverwinter, which is a shame given how crunchy and awesome the battle system is. D&D4e and Final Fantasy Tactics would go together like chocolate and peanut butter. At the end of the day, WotC is a not a software company, and doesn't have the skills to put together a really amazing web experience.

So let's turn towards the marketing of DDNext. From what I've seen, they're really aiming at an Old School rules experience. This is not a good move, IMO, since your most likely customers are people who have good memories of playing D&D back in the 80s, and you need to convince them to buy new books and move to a new system when A) they already own the books they have, B) they like what they're doing, C) everybody wants different things in their game, D) a large number of these people are bitter internet trolls who will fight anything new and different just because, and E) there's only so many of them. It's like trying to get people to switch cigarette brands; they just don't do it. It's way easier to focus on new smokers, I mean gamers.

So what of these new gamers? Dungeons and Dragons has a really strong brand, but it's a brand with problems. To quote the totally amazing Becky Chambers:

To people outside of the geek community, there is one phrase that conjures up a stereotype like no other: Dungeons & Dragons. I think folks see it as the crystal meth of geekery. You start innocently, just experimenting with a bit of Star Trek, then get sucked into comic book conventions in search of a more powerful kick, and before you know it, you’re rolling polyhedral dice in a dank basement, all hope of sex and hygiene lost forever.

"The crystal meth of geekery." Ouch, but not inaccurate. The good news is that we're a more geek-friendly culture than ever before. Videogames are socially acceptable, along with Harry Potter fandom, Dr Who, and Felicia Day. But somehow, D&D completely failed to capitalize on these potential new gamers. It is an utter tragedy that there's not a Harry Potter RPG, aside from Jared Sorenson's Broomstix. I understand why JK Rowling would not want a bunch of grubby nerds crawling all over her precious universe (because it doesn't make any sense when you look at it with a critical eye towards the economy, politics, etc), but think about how awesome stacks of "The Harry Potter Adventure Game" next to the novels would be. If they sold even 1% of what the books did, it would be the best selling RPG of all time-easily. ((And this is going to be an aside, but Hogwarts is totally gameable. A group of student wizards with different backgrounds and skills has to balance school work and their social lives while investigating strange goings-on at the school. Include rules for the canon characters and ways to create your own, and you've got a great game.))

In closing, WotC is in a real bind. They can choose to double down on traditional gamers, which will never get them the earnings they want, even if everybody gaming today drops what they're doing to play DDNext. They can transistion from a company that sells books to a company that enables D&D play with more profitable tools, but I doubt they have the skills and imagination to pull that off (and it also puts them in direct competition with MMORPGs etc). And they're tied to a brand that is both their biggest selling point and also immensely toxic.

It is a tragic fact that DDNext will rise or fall by the quality of its marketing rather than its gameplay. So if you were Don Draper, how would you save Dungeons & Dragons?

1 comment:

  1. The issue I've always found with D&D's attractiveness is that it's an all or nothing affair. It draws you like a drug, but it's impossible to taste it bit by bit until eventually get hooked. Instead, as a prospective player you have to make a conscious choice to devote a large part of your time to D&D over the course of several weeks (if you want to get the real experience). Games like WoW or MTG have a clear advantage in that it is extremely simple to just "try it out" briefly without becoming "one of those nerds". Eventually you find yourself playing it more and more until you enjoy it. These games are like inching your way into a pool, while D&D is the imposing diving board, attractive but only to those who will enjoy what it entails.

    I think if WotC wants to revitalize D&D beyond the current crop of players, they need a way to open the game to a more casual setting. Bring it out of the basement, so to speak.