D&D (2024) RPG Evolution: What is the Reach of an 800 lb. Gorilla?

WOTC's recent moves with the OGL demonstrated the company's influence on small publishers. What will they do now?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

We're All Creators Now​

Part of Dungeons & Dragons' popularity is how it propagates itself. D&D is a machine that makes more D&D, prompted by dungeon masters and shaped by players everywhere. A thriving fan community isn't just part of what makes D&D popular, it's required for play: D&D needs dungeon masters and players willing to join them. That need to find players drives DMs to share their work, on an amateur and professional level. In the early days, TSR had a love/hate relationship with this community, relying on its fandom to buy their products and attempting to quell rivals who published compatible content.

It wasn't until the debut of the Open Game License that D&D finally embraced the community in a way that was beneficial to both the D&D brand and the pro-am community. Ryan Dancey, VP at Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) leading Dungeons & Dragons at the time, called it the Skaff Effect:
All marketing and sales activity in a hobby gaming genre eventually contributes to the overall success of the market share leader in that genre.
With that in mind, the OGL drastically reduced the cost of entry for new creators to develop new gaming content compatible with D&D:
The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.
This ecosystem has thrived, encouraged in no small part thanks to virtual tabletops like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds and content distribution platforms like DriveThruRPG and DMs Guild. With a critical mass of customers in one place, WOTC has guided but not completely owned this movement.

The downside for WOTC is that they do not have much control over these creators. The company used their licensed worlds as a carrot to encourage participation in DMs Guild, but the other platforms are not bound by any other constraints beyond the OGL. For a company that increasingly defines its licenses as brands, this lack of control is an existential threat. While tabletop D&D is unlikely to bring anywhere near the level of income as a movie or other brand channels, it can potentially harm that brand.

Where Customers Roam​

Selling to customers is a lot like hunting: finding customers where they're at requires businesses to figure out what those customers have in common and where they congregate. In the tabletop gaming world, one of the major factors in determining a customer base is determined by their interest in a rules system. And one of the biggest is the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Most of those customers congregate in a few key places: crowdfunding platforms (e.g., Kickstarter), distribution platforms (e.g., DMs Guild and DriveThruRPG), and virtual platforms (e.g., Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds). They also gather on social media and web sites like EN World, but that's one step removed from purchasing a product and less prone to WOTC's influence.

On Kickstarter alone, there were nearly 1,700 5E campaigns launched. On Roll20, the last ORR Group Industry Report in 2021 listed 55% of campaigns and 60% of accounts affiliated with 5E. Roll20's user base doubled from 5 million in 2020 to 10 million 2022, which means 6 million accounts are affiliated with 5E. At DriveThruRPG, there are over 8,500 5E OGL products for sale.

Collectively, this is an enormous footprint, and the ecosystem to feed it is filled with small and large OGL content producers. It takes a lot to disrupt a system this massive, but as WOTC has demonstrated, it can be done.

5' or 10' Reach?​

The first and most influential group is the current D&D brand owner, Wizards of the Coast. The recent OGL kerfuffle demonstrated how dependent the ecosystem is on the interconnectivity of the license and the distribution platforms which are not (currently) owned by WOTC. It's also a roadmap to what WOTC might try as it pushes D&D Beyond as the primary digital distribution and virtual tabletop platform.

If the company attempts to lock down their products on other platforms, their first targets will be the largest. Putting aside Kickstarter (which was mentioned in the leaked draft of the OGL), Roll20 could conceivably be ordered to remove their support and limit virtual play to D&D Beyond. This would create a devastating cascade, as players would no longer be able to play on their favorite virtual platform with licensed material. Similarly, DriveThruRPG could wipe out entire businesses simply by removing the ability to designate content as 5E-OGL compatible.

The next most influential group are the mid-size RPG publishers. Paizo is launching an Open RPG Creative License (ORC) for future products, and several other companies are launching their own game systems, including MCDM Productions, Kobold Press (Black Flag), and EN Publishing (WOIN and Advanced 5E SRD).

Below mid-tier publishers are the smaller publishers, who are being courted by the above group. With multiple game licenses competing for their allegiance, some small publishers may choose to move entirely away from the new OGL, or engage with some or all of those licenses. More likely, they'll stick with the games they know, a personal decision determined by the company owners and their peer groups.

But the most important group of all are players. D&D's brand share is enormous, almost synonymous with tabletop role-playing. And yet as the OSR and Pathfinder's success demonstrated, there's a significant market of players who like older systems. Convincing players to play something else will be difficult. As Scott Thorne put it on ICv2:
...I do not expect demand for ORC licensed products to account for single digit sales by the end of the year simply because players, for the most part, do not care who produces their game products. They want to play D&D and the first products they will buy are those with the D&D logo on them. Other OGL 1.0 products sell but not with the frequency of a D&D-branded product. While the publishers making materials either under the ORC or another open license do have a fan base, they do not necessarily command customer loyalty or demand at the same level that D&D does.
For the vast majority of D&D players, where the game is sold and who supports it may not be a concern. But for small publishers, where the herd ends up will determine who they support ... or if they continue publishing at all.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Nathaniel Lee

Adventurer
I disagree. Won’t be a great fall in my opinion. The remaining part I won’t get into cause I again disagree with the characterizations put forth.
Agreed. The overwhelming majority of DMs and players had no idea about any of this, and undoubtedly many of them wouldn't care even if they knew. It was a very loud and vocal minority of the market that protested this and forced Wizards to back down, but ultimately it was still a minority. Don't get me wrong, the cancellations of subscriptions and boycotts still did (and will) have an impact, but I think a lot of people significantly overestimated just how big a deal this was to the broader, general audience.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
They seem to be too focused on appeasing some woke crowd and alienating the ones who really buy their stuff.

Mod Note:
And, here we have an example of someone who has missed or forgotten the site's inclusivity policy - please don't go slinging around the word "woke" as a way to dismiss people's positions. It gets you removed from conversaions.
 

It was a very loud and vocal minority of the market that protested this and forced Wizards to back down, but ultimately it was still a minority.
Probably true, but if 30% of your market says "not just no, but hell no" that is significant. It's not like 2% of the market rebelled. And I would wager that being negatively mentioned in major press, or at least business press outside gaming circles, made an impact. If it was just "still a minority" then nothing would have changed.
 

Those charts only report the sales ranking of outlets that ICv2 surveys - the specialty store market and distributors that serve it. This would include places like hobby game stores but not major chain bookstores or online sales. So it's an incomplete picture for viewing the entirety of PF1 vs 4e sales - though it's a very USEFUL picture if you're looking at it from the perspective of a game store and deciding what the trends are in the types of customers that come to YOU. Which is exactly what ICv2 says it's for.

Presumably, the insiders who have worked with both WotC and Paizo, like Owen, have broader information that incorporates the portions of sales that ICv2 doesn't survey.

Note: This doesn't mean that PF1 wasn't a big issue for 4e - because it clearly was in the game hobby store market. And, from a hobby shopper perspective, that was a hard blow and in a very public way at the heart of the game community.

You also need to remember those charts likely do not include the all the copies sold directly through the Paizo store or their subscription model. Just the sales of the PDFs of their books in the early days of PF1 might have outdone sales of 4E. I remember back then, when PF1 games played at all the conventions and game stores far outnumbered 4E tables.
 

antiwesley

Unpaid Scientific Adviser (Ret.)
Keep in mind that if the OGL kerfluffle would have happened, not only Roll20 but Drive-Thru RPG would have both been arms of enforcement. But have deals with WoTC that involve their material, so it would be very easy for WoTC to 'sweeten the pot' for enforcement, or invoke the removal of their materials, and sue to get the rest taken care of if the two refuse to play WoTC's game. In that case, it's cheaper and easier to give the baby it's bottle and comply with the requests.
 

Almost off topic: If we are talking about gorillas from the real world, we should say the stats of the animals as D&D creatures are wrong. For example gorillas are stronger than humans, very much.



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Hasbro not only has to sell their products, here the prestige of the brand is a strategic key, and they need us to promote the hobby. If they ask too much, then they are killing the goose of the golden eggs. We don't want to feel tricked and unrespected because we have to pay more really necessary.

And WotC needs rivals, the reason to try to create better products.

And 3PPs with ther new and fresh ideas help to the innovation of the game.

And this is not only about the roleplayers, in the digital market also the gamers are starting to open the eyes and they aren't too happy with the videogame studios when these ask more and more with season pass and other nonenses.

There are lots of roleplayers who aren't using VTT. And I have said some time if Hasbro can make money with the VTTs then the videogame studios could try to follow the same path with their own VTT.
 

Almost off topic: If we are talking about gorillas from the real world, we should say the stats of the animals as D&D creatures are wrong. For example gorillas are stronger than humans, very much.



---
Wow...

I remember visiting the Antwerp zoo (right downtown, next to the train station...). The gorilla there... super intimidating. His head looked like it was quadruple the size of a human adult's. His chest was the size of a major appliance. Our eyes locked. It was chilling. He appeared outwardly serene, but his eyes told a different story. Dude wanted to be back in the jungle (which is where he should have been... I find zoos a bit dark). If he was outside of that cage... woe betide anyone between him and his destination.
We don't want to feel tricked and unrespected because we have to pay more really necessary.
A corporation (or any company really... even your favourite 3PP) in a capitalist environment is trying to maximise profits. They may do this ethically (good) or unethically (bad). At no point, though, is this about you, personally. No one is tricking or disrespecting you as an individual. Attaching that sort of emotion to what is essentially a machine is not productive.
And WotC needs rivals, the reason to try to create better products.
True.
And 3PPs with ther new and fresh ideas help to the innovation of the game.
Same point as above, really.
And this is not only about the roleplayers, in the digital market also the gamers are starting to open the eyes and they aren't too happy with the videogame studios when these ask more and more with season pass and other nonenses.
You lost me here. Video gamers aren't happy with season passes? A discounted set of a game's DLC? You're going to have to do some fast talking to make this make sense. Maybe if the DLC was all sub par. But any game studio that gets into this mode is going to lose its customer base pretty quickly. Do you have any specific examples?
There are lots of roleplayers who aren't using VTT.
Yup. Your point?
And I have said some time if Hasbro can make money with the VTTs then the videogame studios could try to follow the same path with their own VTT.
Why would they? The resources a game studio spends on a so-called AAA game I would think have a much bigger return on investment than building a VTT. Especially if there are already VTT competitors in the fray.
 

Nathaniel Lee

Adventurer
Probably true, but if 30% of your market says "not just no, but hell no" that is significant. It's not like 2% of the market rebelled. And I would wager that being negatively mentioned in major press, or at least business press outside gaming circles, made an impact. If it was just "still a minority" then nothing would have changed.
I would be very surprised if it were anything near 30% of the market. Millions of people play Dungeons & Dragons. Granted, it's not millions who buy Dungeons & Dragons stuff, but I'm skeptical we're even looking at double digit percentages here. On Roll For Combat a week or so ago, Ryan Dancey surmised that probably 98% of people playing D&D had no idea there was even an issue (or if they did know they didn't care). If you want to check it out, it's entitled "Ryan Dancey discusses the stunning OGL outcome" and the timestamp is at 56:45 (don't know if I can post links to YouTube here so I'll just leave it at that for now).
 

Von Ether

Legend
My advice is WotC should work in a no-fantasy d20. It is a serious challenge for the game designers, but I am afraid it is necessary. And wouldn't it need a lot of playtesting and feeback? Of course, but here D&D-One could be an useful tool. If WotC doesn't it, then some videogame studio would do it before, and the digital market is mercyless.
3PP have already done that. Their main issue is not being WotC to get the word out.

 

Clint_L

Hero
I miss TSR and early WotC D&D days is all I'm getting out of this. Game should have never gotten too popular. Look at the results. A mere shell of lore, game material, and setting material of what it used to have.

Oh if only the days of boxed sets and poster maps would return. And adventure CDs like "Light in the Belfry" from Ravenloft or "The Mimir" from Planescape. Back when D&D was actually cool and not just trendy/hip.
Plus the kids playing it just won't get off my lawn!
 

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