Monday, January 23, 2023

Attempting To Tighten Control is Leading To Wizards' Downfall

Anyone that's sat in the big chair as a Game Master has likely heard the advice that you should work with your players to create a cooperative environment whenever possible. Nothing spikes the game harder than the GM keeping a white-knuckled grip on the reins, and taking away the independence and creative autonomy of the rest of the table.

We already know that the higher-ups at Wizards of The Coast who've been largely responsible for the current crisis don't play the game. Because if they did, then they would know that the harder you try to control the players, the more problems you make for yourself.

What do you mean they'll just make their own games?

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Capital Doesn't Create (It Simply Tries To Control)

I know we're all sick of this OGL talk, so I want to draw everyone's attention to something that a different gaming company did in the recent past. A year or two back there was a big kerfuffle with Games Workshop, a company that's rather notorious for having a contentious relationship with its own community. They were leaning hard on fan creators who made video content, they were sending out rather angry messages to third-party mini makers and 3D printing folks, and generally being even more snappish than usual.

Why were they doing this?

First and foremost, GW was trying to clamp down on control of the minis market regarding its IP. It was getting a lot stricter about requiring players to buy official products for participation in events, but more than that it wanted to try to build walls to keep 3D printing away from anything that might look vaguely like a space marine, tyranid, or tau. Secondly, though, the company had plans to build its own streaming service, Warhammer+, where it was going to put out multimedia content to those willing to pay a monthly fee.

Short answer, they wanted to make sure there wasn't competition who was doing it better than they were.

Now, if we were to Monday-morning-quarterback this whole thing, we can see that this approach was a massive mistake. Games Workshop coming out swinging, particularly against smaller companies and fan creators, made them look like a bully who was trying to crush other people's livelihoods, steal content that took a lot of work to make, and generally just take things away from fans. This left a particularly bad taste in the community's mouth, and it's a big reason why so few people signed up for Warhammer+ when it was announced, and it led to a lot of fans out and out abandoning Warhammer 40K as a game, moving over to games like Mechwarrior instead.

So what could they have done differently?

Well, if you have fan creators who are putting in long hours of work to make passion projects, and they have hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube, that shows there's a thriving community with a big interest in your IP. Each one of those people represents a doorway into your hobby, and a way to expand your community. So rather than kicking in their front door and demanding they kiss the ring, a smarter move would have been to offer them some kind of sponsorship deal. Get them to help move figures, get eyes on upcoming games, or recruit them to make content for the company without the underlying threat that if they don't say yes you'll force them to remove their channel from YouTube. Be magnanimous, and show the community that you support them, and you want them to keep talking about how much they love your products.

But what about those 3PP minis producers? Surely they need to go, don't they?

Let's get one thing straight here; Games Workshop only produces miniatures for a small fraction of the forces and factions that exist in the grim darkness of the far future. There are hundreds of space marine chapters, thousands of imperial guard regiments, dozens of orders of the adeptus sororitas, and that's just the human faction. You throw in the diversity for the eldar, the orks, the tau, the tyranids, chaos, and more, and it would be impossible for GW to ever make full runs of minis for every option someone might want to play without losing a massive amount of money. As a company they need to move minis in bulk in order to justify the cost of doing a particular run, which is why they tend to focus on the units with the broadest possible appeal.

Those other companies, though, could create stuff for the parts of the game that GW isn't going to run. Whether it's offering unique head sculpts for space marines, or making unique armor additions, or putting out weapon modifications, bases, or insignia, they have the flexibility that a bigger company doesn't. This goes double if they're selling digital STL files for users to print out at home for their own use. Games Workshop could have approached these companies in good faith, and worked out a deal so that they could produce more obscure sets of minis and parts as they wished, provided they gave GW a small cut of the proceeds. They could even have sweetened the pot by allowing content from official partners to be used in tournaments and events. These other companies get more customers, the community gets more diverse, and GW makes more money overall.

That wasn't the approach they took, however. Instead they simply tried to clamp down on control, bullying and intimidating people not on their payroll. At the end of the day this burned bridges, alienated a lot of known talent in the community, and drove off a lot of people who were active participants up to that point. And, last time I checked, Warhammer+ has been plugged in to a golden throne and has to be fed a dozen GW employees every day just to keep it breathing.

Parallels to The OGL

For those who saw the parallels, you know where this is going. In case you don't, though, let me go through the details.

Prepare your symbols of disapproval!

We have to go back 23 years ago to the creation of the Open Game License. The short version is that, though you cannot copyright game mechanics any more than you can copyright math, you can get contentious with the language used to describe those mechanics. So the OGL was proposed by Wizards of the Coast as a kind of peace treaty between themselves and third party publishers. It was meant to be a perpetual agreement that said while their intellectual property was not open to all (unique creatures they'd made, settings for their games, etc.) that anyone who wished to use this license could use both the mechanics and the language to describe those mechanics without fear of reprisal.

This agreement is what made Dungeons and Dragons' d20 system the most popular basis for dozens of RPGs out there. It wasn't the only option, obviously, but DND became the lingua franca of gaming. Because Dungeons and Dragons was already a popular game, so making your own supplements, settings, etc., that didn't require players to learn a whole new language just to try your product out made for an easier transition, and it netted smaller publishers more fans, and more sales. Not only that, but this allowed publishers to make smaller, niche books and products that Wizards simply wouldn't print because they wouldn't sell enough copies, or they were considered too risky.

And what did Wizards get out of this? Well, folks who wanted to try those other games usually bought the base books from Wizards of The Coast. It allowed Wizards to act as the kind of first-among-equals when it came to DND, and it ensured that a lot of the gaming world thought of them as the default game. So while there were always going to be people who preferred the World of Darkness, or Call of Cthulhu, or Warhammer 40K, DND was something a majority of gamers were going to at least be familiar with. As an RPG creator myself, I can say that up until the end of last year if I wanted to write a module, supplement, etc., for a fantasy RPG, it needed to have a 5E port for the simple reason that if it didn't it simply wouldn't sell.

Some estimates claimed that, for online play, DND 5E was about 85% or so of the market. I can't speak to the accuracy of that number, but I would be surprised if it was too far off.

Seriously, it was the DEFAULT fantasy game until three weeks ago.

As you can see, Wizards of The Coast was in a similar position to Games Workshop. They were a huge brand, their games had a really active fan base, and they were poised to grow even bigger in the near future. And while both companies had dips in profits just before this move, let us be clear, they were not going bankrupt. They were both still hugely profitable companies.

But like Games Workshop, Wizards thought the best way forward was to put up paywalls, and to cut off as much of their competition at the knees as possible. What they didn't realize, though, is that their "competition" was basically creating the rich ecosystem they needed to make money, and remain king of the heap. Because without all those third party publishers putting out fresh adventures, and new subclasses, or unique species guides, Wizards simply wasn't producing enough books, figures, and accessories to keep itself afloat.

And then there's this digital product it's apparently shoveling money into... something that didn't work when Games Workshop did it either.

DND Shorts broke it down above, but it's looking like what the folks in charge of DND were planning was to create a proprietary virtual tabletop that would act as their primary money maker. People would pay a subscription fee to use it, there would be microtransactions for everything from outfits for your mini to effects from your spells, and it would finally be the answer to how you could get money out of everyone at the table, not just the Game Master who was the one that bought the majority of the rule books, campaign guides, etc. in the past.

The result of all of this, of course, has been a massive backlash straight to Wizards' knees. Players have cancelled their DND Beyond subscriptions en masse, and there is a large boycott of Wizards products. Companies that were using DND as the default rules system for all their products have cut ties completely, and won't be going back. YouTubers, digital play platforms, everyone it seems is abandoning Wizards.

Because they tried to force their community to do something, rather than innovating and providing them something of value.

Second Verse, Same as The First

This might be a controversial opinion, but I think that all of the stuff Wizards has talked about is stuff that, in another context, we really would have been super excited about. Expanded digital tools for making our games better? More options using digital tabletops? The ability to run through modules with a robot GM? I'm sure that a lot of us would have at least signed up for a free trial of that kind of program, if it was presented to us as a cool new option for playing the game.

That's the key, here. Option. Freedom. Choice.

The attitude from Wizards of The Coast has been to take away as many options for their players as possible, while attempting to ram through their own decision. It is, in a lot of ways, attempting to turn Dungeons and Dragons, a game based on imagination and innovation, into just another mobile game filled with microtransactions that reliably earns a profit for the company who holds the rights to it.

It's not working out too well so far.

And I think this could have been done in a way that was beneficial to the community rather than turning it into the firestorm we're seeing now. Wizards could have partnered with popular virtual tabletops to ensure they had multiple digital storefronts to sell to the widest range of players possible. They could have cultivated connections with more live play YouTube channels, and opened the doors for those who wanted to focus more on digital content by giving them a suite of publisher's tools, and taking a cut of what was made just like with DM's Guild. Most importantly, though, they could have left the OGL alone so that even if they didn't want to focus on making print books anymore, other companies who wanted to fill that niche would keep their brand on top by filling that need.

But instead of building bridges and cooperating, polishing up their reputation and growing the community (and thus increasing the number of people who might buy their product) they opted to try to burn down everything they deemed too close to their borders. They chose to share nothing, and to alienate everyone... which is why they'll likely end up ruling over a kingdom of ashes.

So, as a reminder, we cannot let up the pressure if we want Wizards of The Coast (or the next big-shot games company who thinks they can get involved in a land war in Asia) to learn a lesson. Keep supporting third-party companies, and if you have a subscription service to anything Hasbro does, cancel it. Because while they appear to be trying to mollify the fan base, they seem set on forcing through as many poison pills as we'll let them.

For Folks Who Want To Help Me Get Through This

If you made it all the way through this post, and you want to help me haul myself up a rung or two so I can get off this sinking ship and to a safer harbor, here's a handy list of the places you can go where your efforts would be much appreciated!

The Azukail Games YouTube Channel (where I contribute video content)
My Daily Motion Channel (longer videos that won't show up on YouTube)

And if you happen to have some spare dosh lying around, consider become a Patreon patron, or leaving a tip by Buying Me a Ko-Fi!

Lastly, consider checking out my Sundara: Dawn of a New Age setting. The more sales I can eke out before decisions come down on this OGL situation, the more likely it is my publisher will work with me to convert it to a new rules setting instead of just writing it off as a loss going forward.

Cities of Sundara

The setting first began with the Cities of Sundara splats. Self-contained guides to some of the larger and more powerful centers of trade, industry, arms, and magic, these unique locations provide plenty of fodder for character generation and plots. Not only that, but each one comes with unique, mechanical goodies for players and GMs alike to take out for a spin!

- Ironfire: The City of Steel (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Built around the Dragon Forge, Ironfire is where the secret to dragon steel was first cracked. The center of the mercenary trade in the region, as well as boasting some of the finest schools for teaching practical sciences, Ironfire is a place where discovery and danger walk hand in hand!

- Moüd: The City of Bones (Pathfinder and DND 5E): An ancient center of trade and magic, Moüd was lost to a cataclysm, and then buried in myth. Reclaimed by the necromantic arts of the Silver Wraiths guild, this city has once again become a place teeming with life. Despite the burgeoning population, though, it is the continued presence of the undead that helps keep the city running, ensuring that Moüd is not swallowed up once more.

- Silkgift: The City of Sails (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Built on the cottage industry of Archer cloth (an extremely durable material used for sails, windmills, etc.), Silkgift is a place that prizes invention and discovery. From gravity batteries that store the potential of the wind, to unique irrigation systems, to aether weapons, the city positively churns out discoveries... and then there's the canal they cut through the mountains that makes them a major center of trade across the region.

- Hoardreach: The City of Wyrms (Pathfinder and DND 5E): A center of power across an entire region, Hoardreach is ruled over by a Cooperation of five different dragons. A place for refugees and outcasts of all sorts, Hoardreach boasts some of the most unusual citizens and creations from across Sundara. Infamous for their sky ships, which require the cast-off scales and unique arcane sciences of the Dragon Works to take to the air, one never knows just what they'll find in this city built atop a mountain.

- Archbliss: The City of The Sorcerers (Pathfinder and DND 5E): A floating city in the sky, Archbliss has been a refuge for sorcerers for thousands of years. It's only in relatively recent years that the city has allowed those from the ground below who lack the power of a bloodline to join them in the clouds. However, while there are certainly amazing wonders to behold, there is a darkness in Archbliss. Something rotting away at its heart that could, if not healed, bring the city crashing to the ground once more.

Gods of Sundara

Gods of Sundara (available for Pathfinder and DND 5E): In a world with no alignment, and where the gods are often genuinely mysterious forces that are far too large for mortals to truly comprehend, the divine feels genuinely strange and unknown... something that really does have to be taken on faith. This supplement provides a sample pantheon for Sundara, but also provides instructions on how to easily make your own gods in a world where you can't cast a spell and tell whether someone is good or evil.

Species of Sundara

Sundara is filled with creatures that many of us recognize, but I wanted to give greater depth to their cultures, and a wider variety of options. After all, humans always get 15+ ethnicities, languages, and unique histories, while elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings, etc. are almost always left with footnotes, or maybe with a handful of offshoots. So, in short, I wanted to give all the fantastical creatures the treatment that humans usually get in our games.

And there is no human book yet. If readers demand to know more, then I may sit down to pen one... but I figured that humans didn't need to be front-and-center in this setting just yet.

- Elves of Sundara (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Elves are one of the most quintessential fantasy creatures... but if you want to see more than just high elves, wood elves, and elves of the sun and moon, then this supplement has you covered!

- Dwarves of Sundara (Pathfinder and DND 5E): The children of the primordial giants who were meant to fill in the details of the world they'd made (or so the myths say) there are as many kinds of dwarves as their are kinds of giants... and possibly more, depending on who is keeping count.

- Orcs of Sundara (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Supposedly a creation of the elves, none can say for certain exactly how or why orcs have been made. What most agree on is that these creatures are far more than most may think at first glance.

- Halflings of Sundara (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Little cousins to the dwarves, halflings are tough, clever, and not to be underestimated. From living beneath the hills, to taking up residence in the deep forests, halflings in Sundara come in quite a variety!

- The Blooded (Half-Elves and Half-Orcs) [Pathfinder and DND 5E]: When orcs and elves mix their bloodlines with other creatures, the result is one of the Blooded. This inheritance takes many forms, and it can even wait generations before manifesting when the right combination of individuals come together to have a child.

- Gnomes of Sundara (Pathfinder and DND 5E): Gnomes are strange creatures, found in places where the spirit of the land has coalesced and made children of its own. The sons and daughters of the ancient nymphs, they are the stewards of these places, and they change as often as the weather and the land.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the Azukail Games YouTube channel, or my Daily Motion channel!. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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  1. They don't want us as customers. We are too labor-intensive and hard to please.

    The people they brought in for this are microtransaction experts. That means they're moving to a walled garden/app model. Games will take minutes, not hours. You will have to pay to win.

    There will also be a lifestyle brand. They want people to be a Fan of D&D, like it's an NFL franchise. They don't care if you play the game, they just want their logo on your clothing. And notebook. And stuffed dragon. And condoms. Etc.

    You and I are a nuisance and this is meant to get rid of us.

  2. I agree with Scott Anderson: we see TTRPGs as a lifestyle; they see D&D as a lifestyle brand.

    It's been pointed out that Wotc/Hasbro could have gotten everything they wanted by just making their VTT so good that everybody wants to use it. They even had a shot at making it that good, if the previews are representative of what they were doing. But all their new people are from Microsoft, whose business model has always been that they don't need to make a good product if they can just force people into their walled garden.

    And honestly, if the OGL 1.1 had been what WotC had originally said it was: compatability logo plus registration and a royalty, there might have been debate about what would be a reasonable royalty rate and whether WotC would have to approve your product, but it wouldn't have been the firestorm that actually ensued. They had a lot of room to accomplish their goals without alienating their whole existing fanbase, but they chose a different path.

    However, I think it will take a while before Wotc/Hasbro realizes what they've lost. They could very well get a short-term influx of players from the upcoming movie and TV series. It won't be until that cohort gets bored and quits the hobby or gets their mind blown by people doing what they do on the VTT, but sitting around a table and talking to each other, that the chickens really come home to roost.