Debating the OGL

Over the weekend there was a bit of a brouhaha at ENWorld because of a quote from Liz Schuh, the Brand Director of D&D; (and one of the better marketing folk at WotC in my experience). People were asking after the Game System License and Liz gave the following quote:

“We’re still vetting our final policy regarding open gaming. As soon as that process is complete, we’ll make an official announcement. Stay tuned for more information.”

This raised some eyebrows because previously statements had been more along of lines of, “We’re working hard to finalize the GSL.” If you look at this as a carefully worded bit of PR, you might suspect that WotC is rethinking its whole open gaming strategy. Some people began to wonder if this might be the prelude to an announcement that there will be no GSL or OGL of any kind for 4E, effectively closing the game off from third party development. That could be, though it’s also possible that Liz was trying to make a neutral statement and didn’t realize how it might be interpreted.

It’s not the statement I want to talk about but the ensuing debate. What I found fascinating was the almost religious zeal of open gaming advocates. Over and over people would assert highly debatable things not only as facts, but also facts so obvious that a drunk blind man on an acid trip could see them. The upshot of these posts was that if WotC did not embrace open gaming for 4E, they were not only betraying the community but also cutting their own throats.

Now look, the OGL has certainly been good to me, and probably only Monte Cook has benefited from it more, but many of the oft-repeatedly claims of the open gaming advocates are theories, not facts. No one, including WotC, has done the market research to confirm these suppositions. At best people offer anecdotal evidence. I think it might be useful to run through a few of the open gaming theories and see what the facts support.

Third Edition D&D; was a success only because of the Open Game License.

This is the easiest one to debunk because I was at the epicenter of both the 3E launch and the beginning of open gaming. When 3E came out, open gaming was a new concept and barely anyone knew about it. The game debuted after an intensive year-long marketing campaign. It was the first new edition of D&D; in over 10 years and people were excited about it. By the time the first d20 products, Death in Freeport and Three Days to Kill, were in stores, there were already at least a quarter million Players Handbooks in retail channels. The brand power of D&D; at 3E’s launch was enormous; that of the OGL was nil. I think it’s fair to say that 3E would have been a hit OGL or no.

The OGL created a safety net to catch gamers who otherwise would have left the hobby.

The theory here is that gamers who previously would have left roleplaying altogether when they got bored with D&D; were kept around by various OGL offerings. The sheer variety of stuff available and the fact that the rules of many OGL variants were close enough to D&D; that they were easy to pick up kept these gamers in family. In many cases this led folks back round to D&D;, ultimately offering WotC income they would have lost. I’m sure there are folks who fit this pattern. What we don’t know is if the number of them is statistically significant.

Without the OGL WotC would have had no talent pool for recruitment.

It is certainly true that the OGL created a pool of people who garnered a lot of experience working with the D&D; rules. That idea that without the OGL WotC would have had difficulty finding talented designers to hire is pretty ludicrous though. The industry has always had more designers than it knew what to do with and TSR and WotC after them never had any difficulty finding talent. Those D&D; books that came out for 25+ years before the OGL didn’t write themselves.

The OGL made WotC money.

I think this is the most highly debatable belief of the open gaming advocates. The argument from the beginning has been that the OGL would help WotC sell their core books and the PHB in particular. I must admit I always found this idea dubious. It is entrenched gamers–folks have PHBs in other words–who buy third party products. Were there people who bought D&D; core books so they could play Dragonstar or Broncosaurus Rex? Maybe a few but there is not proof that this happened to any great degree. When complete OGL variant games like Mutants & Masterminds hit the market, this clouded things even further. If you like M&M;, I’ve got plenty of books to sell you and none of them require you to own or even be familiar with D&D.;

You can argue that third party products kept people playing D&D; when otherwise they would have moved on to another game and I think that’s a fairly reasonable assertion. The question is whether the revenue generated by those people was enough to offset the money spent by D&D; fans on third party products? Again, evidence is lacking. What we do know if that at the height of the d20 boom, an enormous number of books were sold to D&D; fans and WotC saw not one cent of the revenue generated. Green Ronin alone sold books in the hundreds of thousands. Now add in Malhavoc and FFG and Atlas and Necromancer and Privateer and Goodman and how many books are we talking about (never mind the booming business of PDFs)? People love to say that WotC has no real competition in the RPG field, but I think it’s easy to see how the aggregate effect of the OGL might be perceived as detrimental to WotC’s bottom line.

For the folks at WotC trying to figure out a strategy for open gaming, that is a serious decision. They have to weigh the sales of well over a million books to their fans under a royalty free license vs. a bunch of theories that claim this was of benefit to them but have never been tested by real market research. Then there are the PR implications and the possibility of market fragmenation to worry about. It’s a tough spot to be sure and the longer this drags out the more difficult it becomes.

I’ve said before that I was surprised that WotC was going to continue with open gaming in the 4E era. If they come through with the GSL and open gaming in some form continues for D&D;, great. If they are rethinking their strategy and they do decide to make 4E closed, I wouldn’t blame them either. The OGL has indeed been good to me, but WotC doesn’t owe me or any other publisher anything more.

9 thoughts on “Debating the OGL

  1. Good points, raising interesting questions.

    I can say with absolute certainty that I am one of those folks who stuck with D&D;/d20 a lot longer than I otherwise would have due to the huge and varied profusion of third party content. But I really don’t know if I’ve given Wizards of the Coast more money than I would have without the OGL. Honestly, I’ve given Green Ronin a lot more.

    Still, I think the OGL has had a few other positive effects (from WotC’s perspective) that are worth thinking about.

    1) The arena of third party d20 development is a proving ground for new, D&D-compatible; ideas in mechanics and game theory.

    2) The experiments of third-party d20 developers and the RPG community’s reactions to them demonstrate the current zeitgeist and whims of D&D;’s audience.

    3) A larger and more varied world of d20 development helps the system (in all its many forms) gain and retain mindshare. I honestly don’t think I’d be particularly interested in D&D; 4e if I’d just played 3e, gotten tired of D&D;’s specific fantasy subgenre, and moved on to something else. It’s the vast world of third party and homebrew d20 development out there that really sold me on the system, and makes me eager to get ahold of more raw material.

    Does all this mean the OGL is more useful than detrimental to WotC’s bottom line? I have no idea. But they’re factors worth thinking about, and I hope WotC is aware of them.

  2. Actually, I don’t think Wotc likely benefited much at all. I purchased the PHB, MM, & DMG for the game–because I was playing it. But, they lost their revenue on all other Wotc books (the splatbooks) from me because I thought 3rd-party products were more interesting. Most of my money thereafter went to Green Ronin, Goodman Games, Atlas Games, etc.

    I’ve since purchased Wotc’s other Monster Manuals, but none of the Complete books.

    So, IMHO, they would be better off closing it–or limiting to a few partners and taking a percentage from them. And it doesn’t bother me one bit if they do close it. I’m not interested in it, and they can’t shut down the OGL.

    Christina

  3. With 250k PHBs in circulation at launch I suspect that the simple answer to all of this is that 3rd party publishers really made next to no difference to WotC at all, either in driving PHB/core book sales or in taking players away from subseqent books.

    I don’t know what the average print run of a GR book is or what the top selling one has been but I can’t imagine that most of this was even a blip. My experience is that most people who were buying lots of 3rd party stuff were obsessives like me who also bought lots of WotC stuff.

    The sort of arguments listed above by Chris are pretty self important IMO.

  4. I think you are rather missing the point, Nick. I’m not saying, “Ooh, look at how many books GR sold.” I’m saying I know how many books GR sold because it’s my business and that gives me an idea what other d20 companies were selling during the height of the d20 boom. You’re right, no individual GR book could go toe to toe with a WotC book. My point was that taken together the third party companies sold a number of books that was surely quite significant.

  5. Hi, Chris–

    Really great analysis. I’m sure it will get picked to pieces on EN World as well . . .

    Just yesterday, I found myself discussing the OGL in a professional capacity and having to answer some questions about the open gaming concept (my PR person is going on maternity leave and I was explaining D&D; to her replacement). As we talked about the history of D&D; and how the open gaming paradigm compared to how TSR dealt with 3rd parties, yet another advantage of the OGL struck me.

    There is an inexorable desire on the part of third parties to create D&D-compatible; material. Whether it’s fans or companies, there will always, always be people who try to publish (if only on their web site) material for D&D.;

    The OGL and d20STL created a transparent framework that allowed this without any interaction with WotC. All WotC had to do was create the license, update a few materials periodically, keep an ear to the ground for serious violations (which often were pointed out by other third-party publishers), and very rarely slap someone down. The system pretty much ran itself.

    In a closed system, the rules become murky (“is it OK for me to do this on my website?”), incidents of trademark misuse probably increase, WotC isn’t aided by a body of third-party publishers with an interest in the system, and the need increases to protect non-open trademarks more vigorously.

    In short, though running the OGL may seem like a legal hassle (setting it up sure must be), in the long run it may be much easier for WotC to retain an open system than to police a closed one.

    You’ve pointed out quite cogently that the evidence is scant that the OGL was a significant benefit to D&D.; Equally, the jury is out as to whether it was a detriment. Given that balance, it may actually be easier for WotC to stick with a system that has worked for eight years rather than return to a paradigm that in the past often pitted D&D;’s owners against the game’s community.

    –Charles

  6. Good point from Charles, there. I’d hate to see WotC fall into the kind of antagonistic relationship TSR had with its own fans towards the end. Man, remember when people were calling them “T$R” on bulletin boards and the early Internet?

    Thankfully, though, I think that’s a bit unlikely. Without an OGL or similar setting the boundaries on the new D&D;, it’s certainly a possibility, but I think the cultures involved have grown up enough that it’s a little unlikely. These days, even huge companies are learning that trying to dictate what customers do on the Internet is a losing battle and PR poison.

    Really hope I’m not just being optimistic, here…

  7. I have to wonder if it would be possible to quantify another sort of “safety net” — those who would have left the D&D;/D20 gaming system, if there hadn’t been OGL and D20 variants out there in other genres they were interested in trying.

    I mean, back when I started playing games 25 years ago, if you wanted to play a superhero game you played Champions or Villains and Vigilantes, both with completely different mechanics than D&D.; If you wanted to play a space game, you played Traveller. Even TSR’s own games used completely different systems than D&D; (Boot Hill, Gamma World, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, etc.)

    Now, a person wanting to try a spy game is likely to play a D&D;/D20 variant (Spycraft) or a superhero game (M&M;) or a space game (Star Wars or T20, I guess.) It seems to have further cemented D&D;’s role as the central source of all key gaming concepts. I suspect it is the default now, more than it ever was before.

    I have friends who have gamed for 7-8 years now, who are seriously spooked by the idea of playing a game that doesn’t have STR/DEX/CON, classes, feats and rolling high to beat a target number as key mechanics.

    After I had been playing for eight years, I probably had tried 15 entirely different gaming systems. They have played one, some variants of that one and aren’t that interested in trying anything else.

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