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.