Saturday, 31 March 2012

Stop Acting Dead*

Warning: content-free opinion piece on Teh Industry and Its Woes follows. 

* Acting dead: a Bruce Sterling coinage that means "...being irrationally averse to spending money where it matters, in a misguided attempt to “save” money to the point that the behavior paralyzes you." (source)

Doing a little window-shopping on ebay, amazon, etc. recently, I noticed the prices that old D&D books can potentially command in the second-hand market:

£60 for a "buy it now" BECMI Rules Cyclopedia,
£70 for a Champions of Mystara boxed set,
£99.99 for a used copy of X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield,
£104 for a copy of T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil!

Call me an old skinflint - but even with the value of money being what is it today - those are crazy prices for decades-old second-hand books.

And then it occurred to me - once again, and with renewed force - that the company which currently owns the rights to the D&D brand name and to nigh-on 40 years of archive material, are being fools to themselves by not supplying the market demand embodied in these numbers.

The plain fact is that a lot of the people interested in 'the old stuff' are simply not going to buy the shiny new One Game to Rule Them All currently being developed. Chances are that said shiny new toy won't offer the kind of gamer who like out-of-distro games anything that they want or need. These long-standing participants in D&D-as-hobby want support for the games they play; not another New Coke experience. The occasional fake scarcity sop to the alienated base fools no-one.

It's a dazzlingly simple equation:
  • There are people out there who have money - real money - to spend on their gaming. Some of these people will provably put $1,000 dollars or more behind a project they believe in.
  • WOTC own a great swathe of out-of-print IP of proven value.
  • Technologies to put this out-of-print product into the hand of paying customers at little up-front cost to the company actually exist.

Yes, I know that that the HASBRO/WOTC coprophage corporate department consider the internet beyond their walled garden to be the source of all evil. And that they look on pdfs as naught but a license to steal. But the market has shown (again and again and yet again) that people will pay real hard-earned cash to have physical access to Not Brand X approximations of the buried treasures gathering dust in WOTC's hoard. Heck, D&D4E's biggest competitor product was a retro-clone.

This is the second decade of the 21st century and - thanks to the internet, and a lot of very clever technologies being developed by some very clever people - the genie of abundance is out of the bottle. Torrents, print-on-demand, ebook readers, tablet computers, and honest-to-goodness freaking replicators are things that exist in the real world. Last spiteful thrashings of broadcast monoculture dinosaurs notwithstanding, ETEWAF (Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever) is practically within our grasp as a culture.

A sane corporate strategy would acknowledge that we are no longer living in the 1950s and would exploit the potential of these new technologies to give the punters what they want. To do otherwise is to set yourself up as a future case study, rather than a viable business.

A company could potentially make a lot of money supplying pent-up demand for their archival material, rather than insisting that their (stubborn, willful, famously unappeasable) hobbyist market consume the latest de haut en bas brainwave from the bunker. This applies to the movie industry, the music industry, the games industry: any business where the main product is brain fodder rather than physical products.

Making money off Classic D&D is - or should be - a trivial problem in 2012:
  • WOTC already owns the content (art, text and trade dress).
  • Half-decent layout monkeys are cheaper - and work quicker -  than game designers.
  • Print-on-demand obviates the problem of unsold stock.
  • Even in a world of free, people will happily pay for stuff they want.

WOTC is in the 'selling D&D' business. All that old out-of-print stuff in their archives - OD&D, B/X, BECMI, AD&D: it's all D&D! Is there no-one in the Renton silo who can work out that the necessary "2. ???" that leads to "3. Profit!" is something different from the tactic they already tried - with dubious success - in 2008 and 2010?

Tl;DR: WOTC needs to stop acting dead and start acting like a 21st century company. Fr Dave makes a similar case in more measured, less grandly sweeping terms.

Edit (2nd April 2012): So Wizards only went and hired odd-but-lovable Zak S (Vornheim, DNDWPS, you may have heard of him) as some sort of consultant/alpha-tester/ambassador to the hobbyist diaspora. This could be awesome if they don't screw it up.


  1. Well, more specifically, WotC is in the "Selling Magic and maybe some other random crap" business. D&D only seems like a big fish in the small pond of the tabletop RPG.

    Explains a lot about why Hasbro suits can so casually ignore what seems like a huge deal to OSR bloggers.

  2. @Will: Yeah, I get that D&D is only one WOTC brand, and not even their biggest. It just bewilders me why the company shows such a lack of imagination in inexpensively exploiting the value inherent in such a pop cultural touchstone. It's not like Hasbro can say there's no market for 25+ year old franchises.

  3. Agreed. Hasbro/WotC are doing a terrible job managing the "Long Tail" of the TSR catalog.

  4. WotC sold old TSR books in PDF at one point, but stopped entirely in April 2009, citing piracy. If you want old D&D rules now without paying collectors' prices, you have to either pirate it or go with a retro-clone instead.


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