Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Go ahead. Get peanut butter in the chocolate."

So sayeth Bill Slavicsek, WotC's R&D Director for Roleplaying Games, Miniatures, and Book Publishing. He's talking about campaign settings. It is a widely held notion that one of the things that torpedoed TSR in the '90s was the fracturing of their customer base with the many different campaign settings that TSR put out. Campaign settings are popular and useful. Unfortunately, people who play in the Forgotten Realms are likely to ignore a release for Dark Sun:

You wouldn't believe how many times over the years I've heard people say "I play in [insert favorite campaign setting here] so product X is of no use to me," or "I only play Core D&D (whatever that means) so I can't use that [insert campaign setting here] product." I plan to change that under 4th Edition by getting the word out that it's okay to mix and match. Go ahead. Get peanut butter in the chocolate. Some of the best campaigns I ever ran or had the pleasure to play in had a little bit of [insert campaign setting here] mixed with a smattering of [insert other campaign setting here] and combined all that with homebrew ideas to create something totally new and different.

This is, of course, a very common idea to the grognards. Products like The Original Bottle City and The Original Living Room, while set in Greyhawk, are designed to be easily dropped into any campaign setting. I've discussed before how the lack of identifying information in Keep on the Borderlands makes it very easy to tailor to even non-standard fantasy settings.

This means we won't be producing campaign lines, per se. For the Forgotten Realms, for example, you'll get the Campaign Guide, Player's Guide, and an adventure as physical products, as well as our ongoing line of bestselling novels, and plenty of ongoing support via D&D Insider. If a product idea comes along later that makes sense, we'll do it, but there won't be an ongoing regular release schedule of Forgotten Realms game products. Why not? Because every D&D product we do is a Forgotten Realms [or insert your favorite campaign setting here] game product. This is a subtle but significant change in philosophy geared toward making all players D&D players. It just makes the products and the brand stronger if every player is using the same material.

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. On the other, well, WotC is still a book publishing company, and I assume their business model is based on getting out one book per month. Let's do the math: 12 books every year. Two will be a new PHB and Monster Manual every year. Add on the three setting books (a campaigns book, a setting-specific PHB, and an adventure), and that leaves seven more months and seven more books.

If we assume (for no good reason) that only three of those are rule books, that's a heck of a lot of rules products every year. Will you be expected to buy the five or six books that are non-setting, non-adventure to stay current?

I think my wallet just whimpered...

Of course, the yearly PHBs might also be compilations of the previous years rules books, a sort of "Best of" collection. It'll be interesting to see how they decide they want this to work, how it will intersect with D&D Insider, and what sort of pattern they choose to settle into this time around with 4th edition.


James Maliszewski said...

It's much too late for WotC to take this stance. They're as guilty as TSR in creating and promoting distinct "sub-brands" within D&D. In this case, it smacks of a rather desperate appeal to buy more book. WotC is discovering, much like TSR before them, that once you establish distinct sub-brands, people become loyal to them and them alone. If WotC were serious about this, they'd drop the concept of distinct pre-packaged settings entirely, but they aren't and they won't.

trollsmyth said...

I honestly think this one of those damned-if-you-do,-damned-if-you-don't situations. WotC is in the book-publishing business. They must publish a new book every month for D&D. If they publish core rule supplements, they risk inducing (or, rather, accelerating) rules-bloat and fatigue in their market. Setting books give the players a bit of a breather. "Ah, ok, it's FRealms this month. I can skip this one."

But they don't want their customers skipping too many books because that defeats the whole purpose of putting something out this month.

The solution, I think, is D&D Insider. If they can make that their primary revenue stream, then they can reshape their core business towards service and away from publishing. But before that can happen, they need to convince people that D&D Insider is too cool to pass up, and they're a long way from that right now.

- Brian

James Maliszewski said...

WotC is in the book-publishing business.

And that, right there, is the root of the problem. WotC should not be in the book-publishing business. They should be in the game-publishing business. Now, I think you're absolutely correct that WotC is in a tight spot, but it's a spot they themselves created, so my sympathy is rather limited. 3e, in its early days, had a much less prolific release schedule and part of the intention behind the D20 STL/OGL was to "farm" some of the minor products off to third parties, so WotC could stick to fewer, bigger, must-have releases that all D&D players would buy. Somewhere along the line, that plan got axed and here we are today on the hardbacks-as-periodicals model of publishing. Phooey on them.

trollsmyth said...

Oh, I absolutely agree, though I think the real problem is in the word publishing rather than book. Yes, trying to sell games is closer to the needs of the hobby than trying to sell books, but let's be honest, here; there's little that's been done in the last quarter century that I couldn't do with my Moldvay/Cook D&D (and most of that didn't come from either TSR or WotC). That's why I'm rather supportive of the whole D&D Insider thing. Anything that better aligns the goals of the industry with the goals of the hobby (which is more people having fun playing games) is a good thing in my book. I just wish D&D Insider looked more like the killer ap it really needs to be.

- Brian