Since the announcement of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there have been continuing flamewars about the game all over the internet. This is to be expected, but what I find interesting is the amount of time that’s also spent discussing whether 4E is selling well or not. Every gaming message board I visit has some variation of this topic right now. For most gamers, you wouldn’t think it would matter. Either they are playing and enjoying 4E or they not. How many others are playing it would seem largely irrelevant, but some people who hate 4E want to crow about its failure and some people who love 4E want to exalt in its success. The trouble with the game industry is that companies rarely share their sales data, and at large companies like WotC accurate data is not necessarily passed down the chain of command. It is thus the executives and the sales people who know what’s really going on at a high level and they of course are the least likely to talk about it. You may see vague and qualified statements, but almost no one provides real numbers.
Due to the GSL situation, Green Ronin isn’t doing much with 4E. Our one planned product, an update of our d20 System Character Record Folio to 4E, just went to print. I am looking forward to its debut because it will give me some direct and measurable data. The original folio was Green Ronin’s best selling product of all time, going through six odd print runs. It will be informative to see how the 4E version stacks up.
Now the anecdotes I hear are sometimes interesting, but I try not to read a lot into them. I had a retailer at the Alliance Open House in Las Vegas, for example, tell me he stopped carrying 4E because his customers tried it, didn’t like it, and went back to playing 3E. I can believe that happened in his store, but I don’t think such an extreme reaction is common. The only commentary I have taken seriously has come from the two halves of the distribution system: the game trade and the book trade. In separate conversations, an executive in the game trade and the former RPG buyer for a major chain of bookstores both told me the same thing: 4E sold in well but follow-up sales were slow. One of them told me that 4E supplements were selling at the same level as 3E supplements at the beginning of this year (i.e. 8 years into 3E’s lifecycle).
That is interesting info if true. Even so the picture might change as more supplements and support material comes out and new organized play programs have an effect. I’ve said previously I don’t think we’ll know what kind of legs 4E has until next summer. A year after release gamers will have had a chance to put it through its paces and judge the development of the line. While brand power is important (and D&D; has plenty of it), it’s ultimately the play experience of the fans that will tell the story.
Yesterday’s layoffs at WotC add an interesting wrinkle, but it’s unclear what they signify (other than a shitty Xmas for the folks who were let go). It seems most of the layoffs were centered on WotC’s digital efforts and certainly their part in the 4E launch did not go as planned. It was surprising to see Jonathan Tweet and Andrew Finch, both long time employees I’d have thought immune to the seasonal layoff cycle, on the list. Their departure could be a cost saving measure, but it’s also possible they volunteered for the layoff. I’ve seen people who are ready to move on take bullets to spare others before.
What is unambiguous to my mind is that the third party market for 4E material is a shadow of its former self. By early 2001 you had publishers selling huge amounts of d20 product and more companies jumping into the fray every week. This time there is a trickle of product and no one is seeing the gangbuster sales of 3E’s heyday as far as I can tell. The GSL revision has yet to appear and the d20 diaspora continues to splinter. If WotC was serious about wanting the support of third party publishers, the GSL has been a strategic failure to date. If the goal was to cull the third party market though, mission accomplished.
Moving into 2009 the state of the biggest RPG in the industry is unclear, the RPG category in general continues to struggle in retail stores, and we are in a recession that may get much worse before it gets better. In this environment you can give up or look for opportunity. I have chosen the latter course and I’ll have more to say about that in the future.