Thursday, May 08, 2008

Clouds on the Horizon

How's this for a collection of doom and gloom:

Wizards really needs to boost their art budget. The artists of late are certainly proficient, but they're not really exciting or dynamic. Bring back the likes of Brom and the earlier artists who conveyed emotion and action in their work. The current batch all seem to be based on mid-90's comic books with big dramatic poses that don't really say much. Just think of the Carbon Rod.
- Halvormerlinakyad

Before we began play we spent about an hour gossiping about 4e and looking over Pat's new D&D Minis set. You'd have been hardpressed to find an upbeat opinion at that table, which is pretty damning. The four of us may be all D&D players, but we're all over the map in terms of playstyle preferences. Not a man jack of us is convinced that Wizards can deliver a decent online product and no one seemed real enthused about buying the corebooks next month. Doug even discussed getting off the D&D train altogether. Grim times. I hope we're all wrong.
- Jeff Rients

As one of the people who works on the D&D website, I’ll toss in a few reactions.

First, this take on the website demonstrates what can be accomplished by a single person working toward a single vision. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the D&D site. It serves many masters, and they all get a voice in how it’s put together. The web team wants one thing, the brand team wants another, marketing wants a third, and corporate tosses in a fourth. Everyone knows what happens when an elephant gets designed by a committee. No one gets everything he wants; it’s all a compromise.

But second, yeah, we do pay attention to things like this. We (the web team) have looked at this build and tossed it around a bit. There are things we like and things we don’t, as might be expected. But no one dismissed it out of hand. We’re always open to good ideas.

- Steve

That last one, to my mind, is the real kicker. I've discussed before the apparently clumsy marketing put out by WotC for 4e. Now, of course, all of the above are, but for the last, anecdotal. And I can't prove that Steve actually does work for WotC. But I'm neither feeling nor seeing much passion for 4e. And if you've ever been bitten by the Games Workshop bug, you know exactly what I mean by passion.

Games Workshop is a monster of marketing. Their entire enterprise is built on it. They sure don't have the best rules for table-top wargaming. They sure don't have the best looking miniatures, either. But they are far and away the most successful, and that's entirely the fault of their marketing. Everything they put out is slick, polished, bright, and tempting. They know exactly what is "cool" about their product, and they highlight it without restraint or apology. Every publication is focused and clearly vetted with an eye towards tempting the consumer, and it works. I can't stand their rules, I think their miniatures are overpriced for what they offer, and there are a hundred things I'd rather do than paint their minis or play their games. But I can't deny that I feel a gentle longing when I flip through a copy of White Dwarf.

World of Warcraft isn't far behind. It's no accident that Blizzard's products share a certain visual "accent" with Games Workshop. WoW characters may seem simple by the standards of other MMOGs, but they are also iconic, easy to identify and identify with. The visual language is simple, and goes straight to the heart of gamers. Blizzard knows what their game is about, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of more visceral aspects, the look and feel of the world and how their customers interact with it. Blizzard has always been tops in knowing what they want from a game and delivering it to their audience.

So what is D&D? Or, to be more specific, what is D&D 4.0? It's admittedly a bit harder for a pen-and-paper RPG because the final answer depends a lot on what the DM and the players want it to be. But it's vital for marketing to be able to answer these sorts of questions. Paizo understands this, and lot of their success can be attributed to the easy visual identification that Wayne Reynolds has given their cover art and their iconics. They may never use another piece of Reynolds' art ever again, but because he did those first half-dozen covers, and because he defined their iconic characters visually, that look and style will forever be associated with Pathfinder to the hobby.

But you don't even need good art to do this. No one has ever accused the GURPS RPG of enjoying exceptional art (though I'll argue that a number of their covers have been very evocative). Yet anyone who's had even the most casual brush with the game knows exactly what it's about. Love it or hate it, you recognize what GURPS is and what its goals are. There is no mystery about its point-buy character creation, its deep, textured rules aimed at simulation, and it's broad palette, ideally suited towards a truly universal generic RPG.

So what is D&D 4.0? Wayne Reynolds did the covers, but unlike Paizo, they haven't thrown them up everywhere to advertise them, nor have we seen wallpapers from WotC using them or anything like that. In fact, 4.0's online presence appears to have stagnated, with the look and theme of the D&D web page being exactly what it has been for years now. Instead of seeing 4.0 when you go to the D&D web page, you see 3.5. I was just at my FLGS at the end of last week, and they had a little display up counting down the days till the launch of 4.0, but instead of having any 4.0 material there for advertising, they had an arrangement of 3.5 books. I remember before the launch of 3.0, that same store had a life-sized cardboard warrior from WotC, all done up in the brown-and-red palette that would come to define the visual theme of the game. What will 4.0 look like? If it wasn't for sneaked pics from GAMA, I probably wouldn't know.

And what about how the game plays? Gone is the Great Wheel and a handful of other, albeit minor, traditions of the game. Now we have healing surges and characters described as "strikers" and "controllers". How strong is the link between the game that was, the game that is, and the game that's soon to be? Gone also are the dead-tree versions of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, which might have told us. Instead, we must find the answers on an official web page that is still very much a legacy of 3.5, and ENWorld, the fan page that made a name for itself chronicling the launch of 3.0.

Now, I'm not going to go on record as saying that 4.0 is doomed. Far from it. Tons of people will buy the core books, and some of those who have pre-ordered don't even intend to play it, but only promise to "look it over" in order to "give it a fair chance". And the grognards will be the first to tell you that oD&D and AD&D managed to take the world by storm without a unified artistic vision or a marketing and branding blitz. Fair 'nough. But beyond having fun talking
about the release of 4.0, I really don't feel a hint of emotional investment in the game. It comes out less than a week before the Trollwife's birthday, and the core books aren't on the short list of presents I plan to get for her. Frankly, I just don't care, and in this case, apathy is far, far more disturbing than hate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written piece, and I agree 100%.

I think one of the problems of 4e (a phrase I suspect we're going to be hearing a lot of over the next few months!) was that there was far too much lead time between release and publication.

Even high profile movies get 8 months of buzz, and perhaps 2 months of full on marketing push before the premier. And that's big, big movies. 4th Edition D&D has had even more lead time, and that's without Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie on the posters. We're bored of it already, and without even getting as far as the launch.

That was a huge mistake, and one that Wizards will have to spend another 12 months recovering from. They have to convince us it's cool again.

I wish 'em luck :)