RPG Evolution: The Dragons Come Home to Roost

D&D has long striven to be more than a game, but a brand. Thanks to the game's surge in popularity, those plans are coming to fruition.

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Hasbro’s Strategy​

Hasbro’s association with the movie industry has long been a mutually beneficial relationship, in which toy sales surge with each new movie. Star Wars and Transformers are both examples of how Hasbro’s bottom line is impacted by the release of the latest film. Unfortunately, this strategy means Hasbro is reliant on third party schedules to produce revenue, and the pandemic highlighted just how much can go wrong with the complicated process of releasing a movie. No wonder the company wants its own intellectual property that it can monetize for movies and streaming.

This is why Hasbro's strategy has moved well beyond just producing toys and games. Hasbro divides their new approach into four quadrants: Toys & Games, Digital Gaming, Licensed Consumer Products, and Media (TV, Film, Digital Shorts, Emerging Media). Hasbro previously announced plans to execute on this four quadrant strategy with all of its licenses, including My Little Pony, Transformers, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons. Some of those Media plans have been easier to execute than others, with Transformer movies running out of steam, the My Little Pony series winding down, and a Magic: The Gathering series yet to launch on streaming. That leaves D&D.

WOTC’s Strategy​

Wizards of the Coast has always struggled to justify its revenue goals for Dungeons & Dragons amidst high revenue brands like Magic: The Gathering. At one point, each division was given a goal of $100 million in annual sales, a number that was not reachable through tabletop gaming channels.

The solution was digital gaming. D&D tried several times to mimic the Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) space, which it inadvertently spawned dating all the way back to Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and Interactive Fiction (IF). The idea was that if the company could own a slice of that digital engagement dedicated to off-brand D&D, they could reach at least $50 million.

It didn’t work. WOTC never had enough resources, the right partners, or the technical know-how to effectively launch a digital ecosystem that would last longer than a few years. Then something surprising happened: D&D became more popular than all the other Hasbro brands combined.
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The Dragons Take Over​

The passing of the previous Hasbro CEO created a power vacuum quickly filled by the staff shepherding D&D into the new age. The twin factors of the pandemic and streaming made D&D uniquely suited to a much wider audience, and it didn’t take long before WOTC was responsible for 72% of Hasbro’s total operating profit. In a very short period of time, WOTC went from a barely-mentioned division on Hasbro investor calls to the darling of the company, with CEO Chris Cocks taking the reins as Hasbro’s CEO in February 2022.

So what’s next? Sure enough, WOTC is executing on Hasbro's four quadrant plan for D&D. Let’s break it down:
  • Media: The juggernaut most likely to influence the other three quadrants is the upcoming D&D movie. There have been many attempts at making D&D movies that have all been commercial failures. This time around feels different, if only because there was a legal battle waged through proxies on behalf of movie-making behemoths (Universal Studios vs. Warner Bros.) for D&D’s film rights. It’s clear they think there’s a lot of money to be made with a D&D movie. Unlike other movie launches, Hasbro is supporting the movie with the full force of its license. For an example of what this might look like, see the above picture of the D&D Advent Calendar. Speaking of which...
  • Licensed Consumer Products: Advent calendars are interesting products because they can contain just about anything, but that thing has to be small. They also require a lot of creativity to produce, as 25 different items is a lot to put into one package. If the D&D advent calendar is any indication, we’re going to see a lot more of beholders, displacer beasts, mimics, owlbears, and gelatinous cubes. There are stylized, iconic images of each monster repeated across everything that’s in the calendar, including stickers, gift tags, pencils, and ornaments.
  • Toys & Games: D&D is a game first and foremost, so the release of the next edition (an edition that requires playtesting but holds out the promise for backwards compatibility) is the obvious prime mover in this space. In addition to the aforementioned licenses, D&D toys are starting to show up in the wild. Egg Embry wrote an overview of just some of the D&D action figures available. We can expect a slew of monster toys too.
  • Digital Gaming: The big news here is One D&D, which uses D&D Beyond as its base. With 13 million registered users, WOTC is banking on D&D Beyond as a base for propagating One D&D to the masses. For better or worse, this includes changes to the OGL with the likely plan to defragment any digital content that currently resides on third-party platforms. There has been several failed attempts at establishing a digital home base for D&D, so it’s really important they get this right.
Cocks has never hidden his digital ambitions for D&D, and now with the company’s full resources at his disposal, we’re about to see a four quadrant D&D plan in action. Hasbro and WOTC are all in on this plan, with the future edition of D&D, the D&D movie, and its reinvigorated digital platform all unified in an attempt to make D&D not just a game, but a brand expression.

Will it work? Perhaps the more relevant question for current D&D fans is ... what if it does?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Vincent55

Adventurer
Like many others, i am tired of the "new" version that is "compatible" with the "new" version so they can repackage the books in a slightly better or worse version of the game. The 5e was the last straw for me, and with the new generation of players who i have tried to DM, i have no interest in bending to accommodate their lack of intelligence, mind you a slim portion is not bad, but the bulk of them are. Also, the stuff they are releasing has very few rules or crunch and does little to help me as a DM. Now it is about collectable covers, and dividing the stuff up between many different areas so you can't just buy one book and be done.
 

Azzy

ᚳᚣᚾᛖᚹᚢᛚᚠ
Like many others, i am tired of the "new" version that is "compatible" with the "new" version so they can repackage the books in a slightly better or worse version of the game. The 5e was the last straw for me, and with the new generation of players who i have tried to DM, i have no interest in bending to accommodate their lack of intelligence, mind you a slim portion is not bad, but the bulk of them are. Also, the stuff they are releasing has very few rules or crunch and does little to help me as a DM. Now it is about collectable covers, and dividing the stuff up between many different areas so you can't just buy one book and be done.
WAH! NEW PLAYRS DMUB!! 🙄
 

Will it work? Perhaps the more relevant question for current D&D fans is ... what if it does?
That is absolutely the question, Michael, spot on.

I think it will probably work, at least in the short-to-medium term. Because I'm 44 and thus ancient, I don't think anything will work in the longer term, I think as cool as D&D might be right now, the pendulum will swing, and maybe kids who are happily playing it with their parents and cousins aged 10 will be like "Lol that dumb game" when they're 18 or 22 or whatever. We certainly saw a bit of that with '80s D&D/AD&D fans after the boom. Whilst some "kept the faith" and still loved D&D, many others saw it as a game they played as kids, and they then grew out of.* One day Matt Mercer is going to 60, y'know, and will the kids still be so keen on his show? Hell all the kids from Stranger Things will be 30 before we know it.

I suspect media oversaturation of D&D will also occur in the next ten years, which contribute to any uncoolness. I do note one smart thing with the D&D movie is that whilst they have some older stars likely to appeal to "grown-ups", most of the leads are in their twenties. You could probably have guaranteed success a little more by using a mostly 30s through 50s cast of bigger stars, but his has a better longer-term profile, maybe it will work out.

But in the short-to-medium term I'm fairly confident WotC can make their "digitalization/lifestyle" strategy will work. I know a huge number of 30s/40s parents who are buying D&D merch, are or want to play D&D with their kids, and so on, and a lot of them have a lot of disposable income. They're also mostly very tech-friendly so using digital tools, especially well-designed ones, is unlikely to be an issue.

My bigger concern if what this does to TTRPGs. If WotC are really successful with this, they may "raise the bar" so high on what people expect from a TTRPG that D&D becomes something entirely different to other TTRPGs, and with little/no transfer audience. Some would argue this is already happening, but I'm not sure I'd go that far myself. But it would benefit WotC (or so WotC think) if it did, because it means you have a captive audience, who have only your brand or "nothing". Of course if D&D is ultra-successful, it may be that another company gets investment to try and challenge that, but we'll see. That would still not be good because all it would be doing would be confirming that you need all this digital bling and so on to compete.


* = I will note that there's a generational issue where "growing out of" stuff is less of a "thing" for Millennials as compared to Gen Xers, but it remains to be seen if younger Gen Z and beyond follow the same pattern.
 

The Movie needs to be a hit for this to work. Then spin off some streaming content. Eventually you build a base where people love D&D but have never played the game.

Either way sign me up for the ride. Even if it ends up ruining D&D nothing stops me from using my B/X books and running whatever game I want.

People act like it's a operating system and that once they stop supporting windows 7 you have some mighty struggle to run the old system..
 

Oofta

Legend
I'm just glad I can find players when I DM and games when I want to play. If there's a good movie and television series, all the better. Meanwhile I'll just continue playing a game I enjoy and wish WOTC the best. As with all things there will be an ebb and flow of popularity, but the game isn't going anywhere anytime soon and that's all that really matters to me.
 



Even if it ends up ruining D&D nothing stops me from using my B/X books and running whatever game I want.
Yeah, somewhat similar for me. I’m a hard core D&D fan, who’s introduced dozens of players to the game (5 of whom became DM’s of their own games).

But I’ve been off WotC current editions, for the most part, since dropping 4e after trying it for a year - since about 2008. Currently where WotC gets money spent on me (more often by gifts for me than my own purchases) are merch and non-D&D “merch games” like Dungeon Mayhem. That and DriveThruRPG sales of previous edition materials. Third parties, like Noble Knight for old stuff I collect and small independents like Raging Swan on DriveThruRPG, get far more of my $ than WotC.

I will stream the new movie, though expect it to be bad (“D&D: Wrath of the Dragon God” is the only D&D movie I appreciate, and it’s clearly a B movie at best). I’d be shocked if it’s as good as the Willow series, or the Witcher series. Seems like D&D should be a series, not a one-off movie …

If they have a decent D&D PC or Xbox game with real 6e rules, turn based for a whole party either single player or multiplayer, and showing me the dice results so I can see how 6e works - a game like Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Solasta but for 6e - I’d definitely buy and play. Even more so if the UI is solid (like PD:KM).

But if it’s “D&D brand not D&D rules” like Dark Alliance, not buying. I gave Dark Alliance like 3 hours of multiplayer time on Xbox Game Pass ... I assume that level of “meh, gave it a shot, hard no” can’t be profitable for WotC. I assume that product was a commercial failure, but who knows?
 
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