D&D (2024) RPG Evolution: The Brand Risks of Infinite Compatibility

Backwards compatibility comes with a lot of baggage.

The upside of backwards compatibility means retaining old fans while welcoming new ones. It also comes with a lot of baggage.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Value of Backwards Compatibility​

Wizards learned a tough lesson when it transitioned between editions. The transition of Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons to 3.5 blew up the industry as consumers grew confused as to what products were compatible, and companies became concerned about publishing content at all when the license owner could issue a new edition without warning. The transition from 3.5 to Fourth Edition was even more traumatic, as WOTC attempted to leave 3.5 behind only to discover that Paizo filled the gap with Pathfinder.

Before a new edition comes out, the existing edition takes a hit: D&D gradually lost market share to Pathfinder, dipping to third place according to ICv2 in 2012 (when Fifth Edition was announced). The drop was not solely attributable to D&D's edition change of course. The issues with Fourth Edition and Pathfinder's popularity certainly had something to do with the shift in positions, but it seems likely the steep drop to third place was accelerated by the edition announcement. We have further data that bears this out in Pathfinder's Second Edition launch, in which Pathfinder First Edition slipped to fifth place in Spring 2019, just before the Summer launch of the new edition.

In short, radically new editions are disruptive: to supporting businesses, to customers, and to the market overall. No wonder WOTC is insisting that "One D&D" will be backwards compatible and therefore not part of the edition cycle. There's just one problem.

Bringing the Baggage​

If the latest rules iteration of D&D is truly backwards compatible with Fifth, it means that all the content produced for the game is still relevant. This includes the rich tapestry of content created under the Open Game License by thousands of small game companies, all taking advantage of being "brand adjacent" -- unable to declare being a D&D product but compatible with it. And yet, judging by WOTC's recent noise around the Open Game License, the company is much less comfortable with that compatibility:
We can't use the protective options in 1.2 if someone can just choose to publish harmful, discriminatory, or illegal content under 1.0a. And again, any content you have already published under OGL 1.0a will still always be licensed under OGL 1.0a.
Given the fact that WOTC only wanted to deauthorize the OGL for new products, it seems the company was less concerned about the existing product base. WOTC's worst fears already happened with an older version of the OGL, when a former WOTC employee published The Book of Erotic Fantasy:
When gaming company The Valar Project, under former Wizards of the Coast brand manager Anthony Valtera, attempted to publish the d20 Book of Erotic Fantasy (BoEF), which focused on sexual content, Wizards of the Coast altered the d20 System Trademark License in advance of publication of BoEF by adding a "quality standards" provision that required publishers comply with "community standards of decency." This subsequently prevented the book's publication under the D20STL. Wizards of the Coast said this was done to protect its d20 System trademark.
The damage was done. That book's debut triggered a movement away from the D20 System Trademark License (STL) to the Open Game License. Twenty years later, that risk aversion reared its head once more, as Kyle Brinks explained in multiple interviews that the faster the D&D audience grows, the bigger the risk that hateful content or scams might arise.

And yet there are plenty of ways to manage risk using the existing tools that don't require guardrails built into the license, not the least of which being the standards of conduct established by distribution platforms (DriveThruRPG, DMs Guild, and D&D Beyond, among others) that manage the bulk of the content.

Given that WOTC recently issued injunctions against certain publishers, it's understandable why this is top of mind. Even in those cases, the OGL was not at issue. And yet WOTC seemed more concerned about an existential threat, future-proofing D&D against the possibility of something that has yet to happen.

In part, this is because the future of D&D plans to not have editions at all, such that older versions will be indistinguishable from the latest iteration. And that's a problem from a brand perspective, because a perpetual brand that's not fully owned or controlled by a company is a vulnerable brand.

The Sideshow Returns​

Hasbro has been transparent about its desire to mimic Disney's success with its Marvel licenses, spinning massive movie franchises out of comic books. And yet, the enormous mainstream popularity hasn't translated into an equally massive number of comic fans. This became particularly apparent when there was pushback from comic book stores around the diversification of superheroes. While the movies had the full force of Disney's support in rolling out these diverse narratives, the comics were left to flounder:
For all of the cultural preeminence of Spider-Man or The Avengers, the superhero-comics industry remains a sideshow. The media conglomerates that own DC and Marvel use both publishers largely as intellectual-property farms, capitalizing on and adapting creators’ work for movies, television shows, licensing, and merchandise. That’s where the money is. Disney has very little incentive to invest in the future of the comic-book industry, or to attempt to help Marvel Comics reach new audiences, when they’re making millions on the latest Marvel film.
It's disappointing for fans when they don't benefit despite their hobby going mainstream. It's worse when that popularity eclipses the hobby itself, such that it's seen as more risk than benefit:
The only real explanation here, aside from office politics, is that, to Disney (and perhaps to Marvel itself), Marvel equals superheroes sold to superhero fans through comic shops, full stop. They are the legacy story platform for MCU properties and an occasional source of PR headaches, getting just a small enough slice of the Star Wars pie to avoid embarrassing questions.
If tabletop games are now being seen as "an occasional source of PR headaches," WOTC's failed attempt to deauthorize the OGL was all about future proofing not the D&D game, but the D&D brand.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

The Transformers were a relatively almost dead franchise, until they recovered popularity thanks Michael Bay's movies. And Hollywood is perfect to open doors in the international market. When I was a child before the first Tim Burton's movie, Batman was totally unknown among the no-geek people, at least in my land. And only Hulk and Spiderman were known among the marvel superheroes.

Critical Role - Legend of Vox Machine is now an animated show for adults, and nobody says this to be wrong. Dragonlance is famous thanks novels.

If Hasbro talks with LEGO and this starts to sell boxes of Spelljammer, what's the matter?

And there is other reason for a multimedia franchise: to avoid economic damage by piracy. For example you can get copies of Vampire: the Masquerade, but if you want a pin of your favorite vampire clan, then you will have to pay to get it. Don't put all the eggs in one basket.

* Let's remember now several big megacorporations are firing a lot of people. This is not only those lost jobs, but also we can't know the possible mergers and acquisitions. Big empires could fall, for example Disney, and being acquired by other. This could affect possible partnerships, licences or even crossovers.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
A couple of things set our situation apart
  • The situation with Pathfinder and 4e had little to do with Paizo taking advantage of a change from 4e to the next edition. It has to do with the fact that D&D 4e was its own unique system that happened to be branded as D&D. In terms of design had as much to do D&D as Runquest or Palladium Fantasy 1e had to do with D&D. The new system failed to have the same legs as D&D 3.X and market turned to Pathfinder as the successor.
Maybe leave the edition warring rhetoric out of your analyses next time? Because this is where you not only lost me but turned me against your argument.
 

Maybe leave the edition warring rhetoric out of your analyses next time? Because this is where you not only lost me but turned me against your argument.
The fact that the D&D 4e system design shared little in common with proceeding editions has nothing to do with whether it is a fun system on its own merits. I have a long history of outlining both the strengths and weaknesses of D&D 4th edition in an evenhanded manner.

If you have a specific point about why Pathfinder 1e overtook D&D 4e prior to the announcement of a new edition then make it.
 

mamba

Legend
Maybe leave the edition warring rhetoric out of your analyses next time? Because this is where you not only lost me but turned me against your argument.
pointing out that 4e was very different from previous versions is not edition warring. You should agree or disagree with an argument on its merits / the facts, not on whether it says anything (not even negative) about 4e.

If the bolded part had just been “It has to do with the fact that D&D 4e was its own unique system that happened to be branded as D&D.”, would you still object? because that is definitely true.
 

Here's my favorite part of the article.

Kyle Brinks: you're either with us, or you're with the terrists.

Talien: actually, we know that's not true.

They are just so paranoid about losing total control of the brand. It really shows just how much they don't understand the hobby that D&D was built for.

Matt Colville talked on stream a few weeks ago about working on Decipher's Star Trek RPG (2002). At one of the meetings with the Star Trek owners, they were explaining that each player uses the rules in the book to make their own character in Star Trek.

"Do we have to do that?"
"What?"
"Let them make their own characters. Can't we supply the characters for them?"
"Uh... why would we want to do that?"
"Well, they might make the wrong kind of character. Something that we wouldn't approve of."

This is how corporate execs that manage IPs think. They want total control and ownership over everything associated with the brand. They don't get that RPG rules are meant to be toolkits, not board game experiences where everything is out-of-the-box or commercial-off-the-shelf.

That's why they keep bringing up the nothingburger that is The Book of Erotic Fantasy and the specter of extreme right-wing D&D. Those are two things that their customers might broadly agree would be better off not associated with D&D, and not coincidentally they would need the same level of dominant control over the brand that would also all

Of course, neither one is really an issue. The BoEF could exist totally independent of D&D and still use D&D compatible rules. As for hateful content creators, they don't like Hasbro's game because they already don't like the politics in the books they've published. They pretty universally seem to reject D&D, and instead choose to play D&D-adjacent games.

Games Workshop has a much bigger problem with Warhammer 40K and Age of Sigmar because the default narratives for those games... no longer feel like the over-the-top satire they were originally meant to be. A frightening example of Poe's Law in action. I won't say anything more about it, though. This feels too close to forum rules on politics.
 
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mamba

Legend
They are just so paranoid about losing total control of the brand. It really shows just how much they don't understand the hobby that D&D was built for.

Matt Colville talked on stream a few weeks ago about working on Decipher's Star Trek RPG (2002). At one of the meetings with the Star Trek owners, they were explaining that each player uses the rules in the book to make their own character in Star Trek.

"Do we have to do that?"
"What?"
"Let them make their own characters. Can't we supply the characters for them?"
"Uh... why would we want to do that?"
"Well, they might make the wrong kind of character. Something that we would approve of."

This is how corporate execs that manage IPs think. They want total control and ownership over everything associated with the brand. They don't get that RPG rules are meant to be toolkits, not board game experiences where everything is out-of-the-box or commercial-off-the-shelf.
I understand whoever owns Star Trek not understanding this, but I expected better from WotC. And even the Star Trek guys then approved it...

That's why they keep bringing up the nothingburger that is The Book of Erotic Fantasy
ironically I stumbled across this one yesterday

 

The Transformers were a relatively almost dead franchise, until they recovered popularity thanks Michael Bay's movies.
Huh? I think this says more about your age and what you were watching than anything else. Michael Bay's first movie came out in July 2007. In the five years before that there had been three entire stand-alone-ish series of more than 50 episodes (Armada, Energon, Cybertron). Before that there was the 39 Episode Robots in Disguise series. The late 90s had four seasons and a movie of Beast Wars/Beast Machines.

Before Michael Bay Transformers was already a relevant and relatively popular kids' franchise whose nadir had been the early 90s.
And Hollywood is perfect to open doors in the international market. When I was a child before the first Tim Burton's movie, Batman was totally unknown among the no-geek people, at least in my land. And only Hulk and Spiderman were known among the marvel superheroes.
I'm not sure whether Britain counts as the international market that way - but Batman was pretty well known over here. Part of his image issue, however, was that what was known was Adam West.
 

I understand whoever owns Star Trek not understanding this, but I expected better from WotC. And even the Star Trek guys then approved it...

So would I, if they had all been internal hires. That's not really the case anymore. Most Hasbro execs are general corporate executives. WotC's execs have tended to come from Microsoft, especially their Xbox division. The video game industry is a lot closer to the television and movie industry than it is to the tabletop industry. The toy industry is literally a widget factory to most executives.

Once again I'm reminded of Steve Jobs' comments on Xerox from 1995. (You can also see how Jobs waits to be asked "why?")
 

I'm not sure whether Britain counts as the international market that way - but Batman was pretty well known over here. Part of his image issue, however, was that what was known was Adam West.
Interesting.

When the original Batman '89 movie was coming out, I was 11, and wandering with a feral pack of similarly aged youths in the countryside, and we all knew Batman more from the comics than than as Adam West. We thought Adam West was dumb/lame (this changed by the time we were about 15 of course - we rapidly gained an appreciation of its campy awesomeness), but even those who hadn't read Batman comics had heard about them and so our perception was that he was more of a badass.

However, adults at the time definitely saw Batman as Adam West and were perplexed that us kids were particularly excited about it. And yeah, everyone knew who Batman was, it wasn't at all a nerd thing to know that. Or Superman. Or Spider-Man. Could they have named powers/gadgets? Maybe not but conceptually, for sure.

Still mad that it was a 15 not a 12 (they initially considered inventing that rating for it). We could definitely have got in to a 12.
 

mamba

Legend
So would I, if they had all been internal hires. That's not really the case anymore. Most Hasbro execs are general corporate executives. WotC's execs have tended to come from Microsoft, especially their Xbox division. The video game industry is a lot closer to the television and movie industry than it is to the tabletop industry. The toy industry is literally a widget factory to most executives.
I would expect someone like Chris Cocks to know though, he joined WotC in 2016, so time to learn, and with this thing being in the works for 2 years, there was plenty of time to find out that there are differences. I am sure someone pointed that out.
Heck, given the timeline I would not be surprised if he started this whole debacle.

Clearly whoever made these decisions was not listening to anyone and knew nothing about any of what they were doing. We would not had the OGL 1.1 in its abysmal form, or an attempt to revoke 1.0a which legally is on very thin ice to begin with, otherwise. Both are giant blunders that any competent person could have avoided.

So yeah, even if you come from gaming or movies or whatever, if you make important decisions in a field you are not familiar with, I expect you to first learn about that field, because what just happened is exactly what you would want to avoid. Hence my surprise. I mean, 'even' the Star Trek owners got it when it was explained to them... ;)
 

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