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D&D (2024) RPG Evolution: The Art of the Apology

We have a template for what a good apology looks like. So how did Wizards of the Coast do?

Thanks to Patreon, we have a template for what a good apology looks like. So how did Wizards of the Coast do?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

A Best Practice​

When Patreon made a change that caused customers to flee the platform, Patreon reversed course and apologized, explaining in no uncertain terms that they screwed up. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) similarly had to reassess after their changes to the Open Game License (OGL) caused an uproar. So how did they do?

Was it Timely? (A-)​

Patreon announced its fee structure changes on December 6, 2017. Seven days later, on December 13, they reversed the policy and apologized. io9 reported on the Open Game License concerns on January 5, 2023. WOTC released their own statement in response eight days later, on January 13. It certainly seemed like an eternity in the world of social media and likely satisfied no one with how long it took to respond, but WOTC's response is in line with Patreon's. Overall, a week is about how long large organizations can take to get approvals, so this seems right.

Who Apologized? (D)​

One of the striking aspects of Patreon's apology is that it was released by its founder, Jack Conte, who didn't shy away from tough questions. In contrast, WOTC released a statement from "D&D Beyond Staff." The statement used the word "we" 37 times. A key component of an apology is transparency, and the fact that no one individual spoke on behalf of the company makes it difficult to engage with the message. It's hard to forgive an anonymous speaker on behalf of a corporation.

Did it Address the Issue? (B)​

Patreon reversed their implementation. Although they admitted payment terms still needed to be addressed, Patreon unequivocally reversed their plans. Similarly, WOTC never actually rolled out the new OGL and announced that they wouldn't roll out a new version of the OGL with some (but not all) of the issues to be addressed in the new version. Their statement did address most of the pressing concerns, but never rolled back one of the biggest worries: deauthorizing older versions of the OGL.

Was It Contrite? (C)​

Conte openly admitted:
We messed up. We're sorry, and we're not rolling out the fees change.
WOTC similarly said:
We want to always delight fans and create experiences together that everyone loves. We realize we did not do that this time and we are sorry for that.
The contrition is appropriate, but it's at the end instead of the beginning of the statement. Good apologies lead with "I'm sorry," not conclude with it. Weirdly, the last two paragraphs feel tacked on, like another voice (it's impossible to tell who, since there's no author) added more important info. It also includes this:
Second, you’re going to hear people say that they won, and we lost because making your voices heard forced us to change our plans. Those people will only be half right. They won—and so did we.
No apology should ever invoke winners or losers. It devalues the apology and it makes it sound like a game of one-upmanship. That statement seems like "making your voices heard" was a bad thing. Which leads to the next issue...

Was There a Plan to Listen Better? (D)​

Patreon changed how they were engaging with their customers as a result of their misstep, including open channels with leadership. WOTC's letter explains that their plan was always to:
...solicit the input of our community before any update to the OGL; the drafts you’ve seen were attempting to do just that. We want to always delight fans and create experiences together that everyone loves. We realize we did not do that this time and we are sorry for that. Our goal was to get exactly the type of feedback on which provisions worked and which did not–which we ultimately got from you. Any change this major could only have been done well if we were willing to take that feedback, no matter how it was provided–so we are.
And yet, there was no acknowledgement that one of the reasons the community pushed back so fiercely is that there is no single means of providing input to WOTC. WOTC seems to define the community as the 20 biggest RPG publishers using the OGL, as that's who received the first draft that caused the uproar in the first place. Those 20 publishers by no means represented the entirety of the very diverse community of creators. As a result of this lack of clarity on how to let WOTC know what they think, the company has been subjected to a swarming approach, with mass D&D Beyond cancellations, change.org petitions, open letters to the company, and phone calls and emails to their headquarters. Having a channel for garnering feedback would go a long way to at least let the community feel like their voices are being heard, but the apology letter provided no insight on how to do that or if it will change in the future.

Was There a Plan to Communicate Better? (D)​

Patreon made it a point of appointing a new Chief Product Officer and a newsletter to provide updates. WOTC claimed that they "love D&D’s devoted players and the creators who take them on so many incredible adventures," and a promise to not let the community down ... but no explanation as to what the next steps are or when. Currently, the OGL will be released with no explanation as to when and where.

Overall: C-​

Well, that wasn't great.

WOTC's apology had some important nuggets that could potentially go a long way to mollifying the community's frustration with the OGL rollout. But it came after a spotty explanation and included some false equivalencies that likely further antagonized a passionate community trying hard to preserve their game's future.

Nobody "wins" by getting a company to listen to them. That's just good business. As future companies and coalitions launch to take up the mantle of OGL's future, they would do well to remember that.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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