RPG Evolution: The Dragons Come Home to Roost

Thanks to the game's surge in popularity, D&D's brand plans are coming to fruition.

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.

hasbrobrand.jpg

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

talien

Community Supporter
Unfortunately, Brand is the thing that sells.

A wise man once said "Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made!" And that's been the truth at least all of my life (I'm about as old as Star Wars, the first real lifestyle brand that paved the way for Endless Childhood). Comics, TV shows, games, T-shirts, stuffed animals, backpacks and lunchboxes, the very notion of "brand loyalty" or "completing collections" all stem from the idea that you are interacting with your favorite brands all the time. Its absolutely not a surprise that D&D would eventually get leveraged as a lifestyle brand; the bigger question was "what took them so long?"
More to the point, brand has no physical limitations. D&D can only sell so many books, but it can sell an endless array of branded product (digital or physical) that is D&D-branded.

Hasbro (and at this point, every major company with any sort of narrative brand) wants to be Marvel. It's hard to imagine that before Marvel was monetized, it was just comics. Then they started selling Twinkies (Earth-51914). Not surprisingly, any major corporation is going to want to untether itself from physical product and sell ideas, which can be spun into anything.
 

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Oofta

Legend
Again with the "5E is trash!" comments? I think a lot of people look back at older editions either with rose colored glasses or don't realize how imprinted the old rules are in their brains. I was just trying to teach some friends how to play cribbage recently and I didn't realize how complex the phrases used and rules are to someone who is brand new to the game for me it's second nature. A lot of D&D, especially older versions, is the same. The cost of entry with many of the older versions of the game was quite high for most people.

But even when the rules were simpler, the older rules varied greatly in quality. Some things were good, some awful and contradictory or just plain ignored. Don't even get me started on Gygaxian prose. We still had a lot of fun playing the game but we ignored a bunch of stuff in 2E and older. In 3.x accepted the we just rebooted if we hit level 14 or so and started over. Then 4E came along and even though some of us jumped at the new game while for others it was just too different, it felt like a different game than what people had played previously.

When I hear these "D&D was cool and better before it went lamestream" comments I'm always reminded of people that loved a certain band before they released an album that had broader appeal. Yes the game has changed. No, it's not as much of a niche product as it was at one time. No, I don't think older editions of D&D were better or significantly higher quality. There was a lot of lore published over the years, some of it good some of it not. People can always pick and choose to find those diamonds while forgetting about the rubble.

Nothing is perfect, every edition has and will continue to have issues. But making the game more popular and expanding the products for sale isn't an inherently bad thing, even if it's not the D&D you imprinted on when you were in high school.
 

Again with the "5E is trash!" comments? I think a lot of people look back at older editions either with rose colored glasses or don't realize how imprinted the old rules are in their brains. I was just trying to teach some friends how to play cribbage recently and I didn't realize how complex the phrases used and rules are to someone who is brand new to the game for me it's second nature. A lot of D&D, especially older versions, is the same. The cost of entry with many of the older versions of the game was quite high for most people.

But even when the rules were simpler, the older rules varied greatly in quality. Some things were good, some awful and contradictory or just plain ignored. Don't even get me started on Gygaxian prose. We still had a lot of fun playing the game but we ignored a bunch of stuff in 2E and older. In 3.x accepted the we just rebooted if we hit level 14 or so and started over. Then 4E came along and even though some of us jumped at the new game while for others it was just too different, it felt like a different game than what people had played previously.

When I hear these "D&D was cool and better before it went lamestream" comments I'm always reminded of people that loved a certain band before they released an album that had broader appeal. Yes the game has changed. No, it's not as much of a niche product as it was at one time. No, I don't think older editions of D&D were better or significantly higher quality. There was a lot of lore published over the years, some of it good some of it not. People can always pick and choose to find those diamonds while forgetting about the rubble.

Nothing is perfect, every edition has and will continue to have issues. But making the game more popular and expanding the products for sale isn't an inherently bad thing, even if it's not the D&D you imprinted on when you were in high school.
I totally agree with this, but I will say it's possible that even with this all being true, it's reasonable to be concerned that WotC's move to make D&D a lifestyle brand, and to push people into the digital subscription space as much as possible may have effects on the design and on what products are produced that may not be what a lot of people here want to see. They may not even be what the market as a whole wants to see (wouldn't be the first company to make that mistake).

Of course the nice thing with TTRPGs is that for now, they largely don't need any hardware/software but brains and dice, so if we don't like the future versions we can largely ignore them.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
Pathfinder 2e felt to me like they were just trying to be 5e (a game I don't like) but somehow did it worse. I was sad I couldn't get into it because I love Pathfinder 1.
This is a really weird statement. PF2 is nothing like 5E at all. In fact, its designed to be about as different from 5E as possible. However, I also didnt get into PF2 as a person who loves PF1. 🤷‍♂️
 

Oofta

Legend
I totally agree with this, but I will say it's possible that even with this all being true, it's reasonable to be concerned that WotC's move to make D&D a lifestyle brand, and to push people into the digital subscription space as much as possible may have effects on the design and on what products are produced that may not be what a lot of people here want to see. They may not even be what the market as a whole wants to see (wouldn't be the first company to make that mistake).

Of course the nice thing with TTRPGs is that for now, they largely don't need any hardware/software but brains and dice, so if we don't like the future versions we can largely ignore them.
Well, in theory anything could happen. :) I'm just taking a wait-and-see attitude.

In some ways HASBRO expanding D&D to other venues could be good for the game side of things because they'll want to keep the core gamers happy even if the game products aren't directly the biggest source of income. They don't need to flood the market with splat books or keep half the dragons out of the next monster manual so they can sell the monster manual 2 because that's not the focus of the profits for the brand. If done right, it just means they'll spend more money on making the game the best they can because the game itself becomes a gateway not the destination.

Of course it could all go to heck-in-a-handbasket as well. Maybe they'll forget all the lessons they've learned over the past decade or two. If they make moves that make the game too costly I can still go back to my old books and spreadsheets.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Again with the "5E is trash!" comments? I think a lot of people look back at older editions either with rose colored glasses or don't realize how imprinted the old rules are in their brains. I was just trying to teach some friends how to play cribbage recently and I didn't realize how complex the phrases used and rules are to someone who is brand new to the game for me it's second nature. A lot of D&D, especially older versions, is the same. The cost of entry with many of the older versions of the game was quite high for most people.

But even when the rules were simpler, the older rules varied greatly in quality. Some things were good, some awful and contradictory or just plain ignored. Don't even get me started on Gygaxian prose. We still had a lot of fun playing the game but we ignored a bunch of stuff in 2E and older. In 3.x accepted the we just rebooted if we hit level 14 or so and started over. Then 4E came along and even though some of us jumped at the new game while for others it was just too different, it felt like a different game than what people had played previously.

When I hear these "D&D was cool and better before it went lamestream" comments I'm always reminded of people that loved a certain band before they released an album that had broader appeal. Yes the game has changed. No, it's not as much of a niche product as it was at one time. No, I don't think older editions of D&D were better or significantly higher quality. There was a lot of lore published over the years, some of it good some of it not. People can always pick and choose to find those diamonds while forgetting about the rubble.

Nothing is perfect, every edition has and will continue to have issues. But making the game more popular and expanding the products for sale isn't an inherently bad thing, even if it's not the D&D you imprinted on when you were in high school.
It's not an inherently bad thing, but it might be a bad thing for you. Everyone has their own perspective, and it's unrealistic to expect a person to advocate for a point of view that, while it may be generally positive, is not so personally.
 

It's not an inherently bad thing, but it might be a bad thing for you. Everyone has their own perspective, and it's unrealistic to expect a person to advocate for a point of view that, while it may be generally positive, is not so personally.
Sorry, but the 1E rules were objectively bad. There was a certain legitimate charm to the learning curve and a magic to the purple prose of Gygax and a rush of adrenaline from unknotting some of the more complex and sometimes contradictory rules (whose details were to be found in wildly unlikely and not co-located parts of the rulebooks).

But they were still really terrible rules. Improved by leaps and bounds by each successive edition, and by derivative games. Which is only natural... the first attempt at anything is going to result in a few mistakes. But still, 1E... made ridiculous by the standards of modern game rules.
 


Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Sorry, but the 1E rules were objectively bad. There was a certain legitimate charm to the learning curve and a magic to the purple prose of Gygax and a rush of adrenaline from unknotting some of the more complex and sometimes contradictory rules (whose details were to be found in wildly unlikely and not co-located parts of the rulebooks).

But they were still really terrible rules. Improved by leaps and bounds by each successive edition, and by derivative games. Which is only natural... the first attempt at anything is going to result in a few mistakes. But still, 1E... made ridiculous by the standards of modern game rules.
The rules may have improved, but there are still things lost by changing to a modern standard that had and have value. That charm meant a lot to me. Being exposed to that prose encouraged me to expand my vocabulary and reading comprehension immensely. The 1e DMG, I maintain, is still the most useful version of that book ever made IMO. It was formative, and it helped a great deal to make me the person I am today, a person I generally like.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
When I hear these "D&D was cool and better before it went lamestream" comments I'm always reminded of people that loved a certain band before they released an album that had broader appeal. Yes the game has changed. No, it's not as much of a niche product as it was at one time. No, I don't think older editions of D&D were better or significantly higher quality. There was a lot of lore published over the years, some of it good some of it not. People can always pick and choose to find those diamonds while forgetting about the rubble.
I wouldn't say that D&D was 'better' before. I like 2e over Basic, I like 3e over 2e, I didn't like 4e and 5e is just a step up from 3e (rules wise). I would even say that readability of the rules have increased drastically. But that is mechanically.

'fluff' wise things have been (re)written to get that broader appeal, that means changes, sometimes drastic changes. That can easily move something from 'love' to 'detest' for people. And I suspect the longer the period of time you've been exposed to D&D and the less flexible/adaptive you are from a personality perspective, the sooner the 'detest' hits. When you change the point of a product across the bar into a region that more people might like it, you will almost certainly move it out of the region (a large part of) your previous customers liked it in.

My biggest issue with 5e isn't the mechanics, it's a lot of 'else', mostly the direction the settings have gone towards, the subject matter or all the 'noise' around that subject matter (in the news)... Kicking your settings a 100+ years into the future and making drastic changes makes the new stuff virtually incompatible with the old stuff and I see that as a HUGE problem. The core of 5E makes it pretty agnostic of what setting exactly is used or in what era, so for me 5E as a game system (mechanics wise) is perfectly acceptable for D&D, but I see very little reason why I should buy anything else in 5E. I'm a BIG Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, Planescape, Darksun, etc. fan. But I see no reason to buy any of that stuff for 5E. Initially I get excited, but then details appear that I just don't like, significant changes from source, political correctness for PC sake (instead of actually educating people), etc.

Let me add another example: The Windows operating system. We use it because almost everybody uses it, we generally stay with it because it's the only OS that runs the software we use (or have collected over the years), including games. Imagine a new version of Windows that absolutely won't work with software/games from previous versions of Windows. Suddenly we have a point where we have the ability too choose freely again, without many years of baggage... Why doesn't Microsoft do that? Because they would loose a TON of customers and market dominance. WotC lost a ton of D&D customers with 4E, and regained a TON of customers with 5E, many of which are new customers. That is pretty much what WotC/Hasbro did with D&D, they gave us an unintended choice, leave behind an ungodly amount of material, that has cost a pretty penny and buy another ungodly amount of material, that will cost a pretty penny. With all expectations being, that what has happened before will happen again... We can totally just pick the mechanical stuff and just use the old setting!

And I don't think we're forgetting about the rubble, anything but. How TSR/WotC/Hasbro has handled their online presence and tools in the past is the reason why we should 'fear' the new direction of D&D. How WotC/Hasbro has handled their other IP (like Magic: The Gathering) is the reason why we should 'fear' the new direction of D&D. I'm not a big M:TG fan, but I do like Magic: Arena. But how many other long forgotten M;TG games/platforms have there been and how well supported were those... When big time business analysts are saying that WotC/Hasbro is mismanaging their M:TG property, something is VERY wrong! D&D is in that same updraft that M:TG was in a couple of years ago... “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.”
 

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