RPG Musings

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.

9 thoughts on “RPG Musings

  1. Excellent post Chris. I always enjoy reading your opinions & insights on the gaming industry.

    To followup what you said, I one of my LGS' sold quite a number of core books at launch, and then picked up several of the followup books that have yet to move from the shelves. Personally I've been sticking with Pathfinder, and while I picked up the book there is not really a big demand for it here.

  2. Man, there’s a lot to consider, here.

    One thing I can’t help but think is that, as good as 4e might be, 3e didn’t beg for an update nearly as badly as 2e did (something I recall WotC copping to, in fact). So while 3e brought people back to D&D; in droves, 4e is competing with a still-viable edition of D&D;. (And then, of course, there’s the theoretical waiting-for-4.5 crowd. But I don’t expect that’s a very common position.)

    Anyway, I believe 4e has the potential to bring in hordes of non-3e players, if it gets the right marketing push. Have there been TV commercials for it? I saw a rather expensive-looking Magic: The Gathering ad running in a movie theater, recently. Surely 4e warrants similar treatment, right? If there isn’t any mainstream marketing for 4e at the moment, I’d bet money that WotC is waiting until they’ve finally got their digital component sorted out. Once that character visualizer and virtual tabletop are up and running, that’s the time to start poaching the MMORPG crowd.

  3. “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.”

    I have a thought here, they have culled the companies who were deadly serious and produced extremly high qulaity Rpg products (Green Ronin, Necormancer Games, White Wolf, etc.)

    Those that are, goodman games for example seem to be producing it under the OGL (as I recall that is what your current product is using, I could be wrong).

    It could be suggested that the people who are producing 4E products under the GSL have a lover level of quality, and that OGL products have gained. I can only think of two High quality 4E products (Open Design’s Wrath of the River King and Expeditious Retreat’s Advanced Player’s Manual)

    I wonder how many folks did not move over because a fan favorite products like Pathfinder, freeport or midnight did not convert to 4E. I know I am one and you can add my 8 players to that list as well

  4. Of course WotC wants to cull competition. They want the entire market share to themselves. Which is unbelievably short sighted. The OGL was one of the best things that ever happened to the gaming industry. Without it we wouldn't have (heck, I wouldn't have) dozens of cool and useful RPG books on our shelves.

    Without the OGL we wouldn't have the best superhero game ever made, M&M.;

    I don't like to see people lose their jobs. But I want the 4E decision to bite WotC in the butt like a great white shark. It wasn't needed and the GSL is a nightmare.

  5. If the goal was to cull the third party market though, mission accomplished.

    I think WotC saw how much money was made via the OGL by the 3rd Party market that they wanted to trim the license so that they could harvest a bit more of it…while still supporting the 3rd Party Market.

    I mean, the 3rd Party guys also drive up interest in the core products, so that works in their favor.

    I think part of this is the economy and every company is trying to get every last mile out of their dollar. I understand that. I understand WotC's need to be profitable: they have bills to pay, utilities, facilities, freelancers, overhead, lots of mouths to feed.

    I wonder if the annual "christmas time" layoffs (and WotC is hardly the only company doing this) are a matter of lowering overhead on paper so at the end of the year it looks like they are more profitable (on paper) to the shareholders, etc.

    As far as 4E, liking it or not…really…I hope it succeeds. I have no 4E hate going on. I've always thought "version wars" were stupid anyhow.

    My thoughts on that is that D&D; is THE BIG NAME in RPGs, and as it goes, to a greater or lesser degree so does the rest of the industry. I want D&D; to succeed because I want the RPG industry to succeed.

    Like many others, it's my bread and butter too.

  6. “while still supporting the 3rd Party Market”

    With the current state of the GSL, that comment is nothing but scathing mockery.

  7. I can tell you that at my store, follow-up 4E products have had much stronger sales than those from the twilight days of 3.5. Books like Martial Power and Adventurer's Vault have taken my by surprise, selling a couple dozen copies, while a similarly hot 3.5 product might have sold around ten. However, weaker products have had much lower than expected sales. This is true with the entire inventory of games in the store, and I think it's an indication of harder economic times, so direct 3.x comparisons may not be valid.

    Another element that's emerging as a big 4E sales driver is the revamped and much improved RPGA system. It has been re-designed more towards casual play, the quality amped up, and the venues widened. We went from no RPGA play in-store, after disappointment with the old system, to 15-20 people every week, and growing.

    Meanwhile, our stock of D&D; 3.5 books, many of which are new, are languishing on our shelves at half price. As a product, 3.5 is dead for us and Pathfinder has dwindled down to insignificance as 3.5 PF games end and new 4E games begin.

  8. I think 1 major aspect of the “Is 4E selling well or not” argument is a question of how long will it survive in its current form. 4E haters are hoping that either 4.5 or 5E arrives very soon, or that there are major changes to the direction of the 4E style/system in response to poor sales, such as more story and non-combat options rather than classes are by mandatory full of combat powers. People who are enjoying 4E’s style are hoping sales are good so that support continues in the theme it has been, and any 4.5 or 5E is a long way off, and when it does arrive, it will be heavily influenced by 4E rather than drawing on other sources. I think that this is the reasons for the debates… “Is 4E dead yet, or have WotC realized their mistake yet?” “No, 4E is selling like gangbusters and is the new gold standard!”

  9. My buddy runs a game store in Texas, and he continues to tell me that 4th ed is doing very well for him, and they are also playing it in his store. Its only 1 data point, but it shows that in some areas, 4th ed is doing well.

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