Friday, January 14, 2011

What is WotC Up To?

Lots of happenings recently over in Seattle. Yeah, I don’t play their games, but I do find what they do interesting. They’re still the big fish in this pond, and they still make the big waves.

So let’s take a look:

Bye-bye Minis
That 4e is a vehicle to sell expensive, pre-painted minis is an article of faith among some. They’re going to need to get a new religion, because WotC ain’t gonna be in the miniatures business much anymore:
We have made the decision to depart from prepainted plastic miniatures sets. Lords of Madness stands as the final release under that model. We will continue to release special collector’s sets (such as the Beholder Collector’s Set we released last fall), as well as make use of plastic figures in other product offerings. Check out the Wrath of Ashardalon board game next month for the latest example of this.
From now on, if you want a bunch of critters for your dungeon, WotC will sell you die-cut tokens, but not actual miniatures. Apparently, there wasn’t much gold in them thar hills. I can kinda understand why that didn’t work. It works for Games Workshop, but they are very up-front about being in the miniatures and models business. Everything they do is about selling those plastic and metal bits.

WotC isn’t quite like that. They’re into selling books, primarily.

Um, well, maybe…

And Bye-bye Books?!?

The Heroes of Shadow product, originally scheduled for March and presented in digest-sized, paperback format, is moving to April to accommodate a change to hardcover format. Additionally, three D&D RPG products have been removed from the 2011 release schedule—Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, and Hero Builder’s Handbook. While this means fewer books, we plan to deliver just as much great content for players this year through other formats, including board games, accessories, and digital offerings.

Honestly, I don’t have enough of a finger on the pulse of their publishing schedule or their player base to really understand what this means. Clearly, the paperback format of the new Essentials books isn’t a winner, but that’s fine. It was intended to make the books cheaper and friendlier, and I can only see the shift to hard-back as a promotion for the line.

Cancelling three books is harder to wrap my brain around. Were these also-rans in their publishing schedule this year? If so, we might simply be looking at a cost-cutting move, the results of past or potential layoffs. Or were these core offerings, books that were highly anticipated by players? In either case, it’s obvious the brand is diversifying into “board games, accessories, and digital offerings.”

Stepping back and looking at this as a whole, it really looks like fewer resources are being devoted to D&D as an RPG. More are being disbursed towards managing the wider brand. The best example of this is probably the latest iteration of Neverwinter:
Neverwinter for PC is scheduled to release in Q4 2011 and is part of a multi-platform event, including a book trilogy from New York Times best-selling author R. A. Salvatore and a tabletop roleplaying game from Wizards of the Coast.
I’m assuming the “tabletop roleplaying game” is simply going to be some 4e setting info, adventures, or maybe splat books for the Neverwinter setting. If it’s an actual boxed-set like what they did for Gammaworld, well, that’ll be a whole ‘nother story, won’t it?


Wyatt said...

IIRC Neverwinter is just a splatbook for the city of Neverwinter, which barely got mentioned in the 4e Forgotten Realms books.

Also, the books that were cut were going to be pretty huge. One was basically the year's "here's a whole book of random powers guys" and one was the year's "here's a whole book of magic items guys."

jgbrowning said...

IMO, I think they're transitioning further towards a digitally-delivered game.

James Maliszewski said...

The difficulty for a RPG publisher (of any size, though bigger ones find this more of an issue) is that RPGs as traditionally published are open-ended products that don't require any supplements. So, once the basic set or core collection of books is purchased, there's no need for anything else. Only a handful of players will buy supplements of any sort, so it means most RPGs are doomed to a downward spiral of sales, unless you have a steady stream of new players -- and that hasn't been the case in the hobby in a long time.

So, I suspect that WotC is trying to find a way to keep down their costs and ensure a steady revenue stream from the existing player base. DDI and other digital delivery schemes might be a way to do this. Notice too that WotC said they were working on other products and games. My sneaking suspicion is that D&D, as a tabletop game anyway, will become an increasingly smaller part of their focus and offerings in the years to come.

Keith S said...

My guess is that they're transitioning towards D&D as a brand, rather than a single game. You can get D&D in board-game form now, in addition to the various (and up-coming) console and pc-based digital forms. If you look at the D&D forums, the char-op section is pretty active. Just like the constructed deck-builders section in the MtG forums. So, why not a deck-based form of D&D?

The core of D&D is a group of friends sitting around and imagining a fantasy setting. You can accomplish this on a board, with cards, with dice, or with minis. Try to do it all together, and you please no one. Split it up into different forms of that same core, and you might be able to build a whole industry out of that one core idea. Makes sense to me.

trollsmyth said...

Yep, board games, card games, novels, computer games...

I'm pretty much in complete agreement here. And I've said before, I won't be at all surprised if, when they release 5e, the books aren't treated as loss-leaders for the digital subscription service. So I see a lot to agree on with all of you here.

Wyatt: I believe Neverwinter has long been set aside as the preserve of computer games since at least the early '90s and the original Neverwinter Nights (on AOL, I believe). It getting even a splatbook is new.

That the cut books were big deals is both surprising and not. WotC's attempt to make all books "core" and overcome the dwindling sales spiral James mentions was never seen as really viable. I guess it's finally caught up to them.

I suspect 5e is going to be even more integrated, not just with the digital subscription products, but also with Anarkeith's broader brand products. James' "D&D, as a tabletop game anyway, will become an increasingly smaller part of their focus and offerings in the years to come" will result, I think, in two or three RPG books released a year, plus a boardgame or card game or two, plus whatever other supplements and toys look promising at the time.

Seriously, D&D as brand seems to be what grabs the attention of the folks with the money. I'd not even be too terribly shocked if they licensed out the actual tabletop RPG part of the property for 5e.

redbeard said...

The amount of time the OSR blogsphere spends on WotC has always seemed odd to me.

Lately it is reminiscent of coldwar era Kremlinology; reading WotC press releases in ways similar to how the CIA guessed events in the Soviet Union based on the seating order of the old Politburo farts on Mayday.

Unlike this post, in many the similarity extends: predicting simultaneously both the imminent demise and all powerful corrupting influence of the evil empire. They're destroying our game but they're obviously going bankrupt!

Dr Rotwang said...

Wait a second...what is WotC?

Seriously, though -- to me, Wizards of the Coast has not been relevant to role-playing for...I dunno, a few years, now. OK, so they're the D&D IP holders. And D&D is synonymous with role-playing.

But does it have to be?

See, 'cause I don't care, period. Not only is there an OSR and a ton of retroclones to satisfy my (and, evidently, a lot of people's) FRPG jones, but there are also a ton of other great games out there that'll satisfy me, that I can play with my friends, and that I can drool over any time I want.

It's easy to think I'm just being flippant. Maybe I am. In the end, though, one thing stands: I no longer think of WotC as publishing D&D, but rather doing...I dunno, something else with it. I can't change it, so I let it go.

trollsmyth said...

Red: Yeah, I don't really see WotC as the enemy. I'm not a fan of 4e for my RPG needs, but I can enjoy it as a tactical minis game, and it scratches similar itches to Warhammer 40k and its ilk for me.

As Dr. Rotwang points out, they haven't really been relevant to how I game since they published The Book of Vile Darkness and even barely so then. But I do enjoy keeping up with what they big dogs in the industry are up to, if only to find cool art or neat ideas for inspiration.

Knightsky said...

Take it for what it's worth, but my local game shop owner is convinced that the miniatures line is being canceled not because they were unprofitable, but rather because Hasbro perceived that the line was a form of internal competition with the Heroscape games.

Word verification: hangrag - a strip of cloth enchanted to wrap around your neck and suffocate you when you're sleeping.

thekelvingreen said...

Haven't they also cancelled Heroscape?

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