When Brands Play Games

Wendy's recent foray into tabletop gaming has been controversial, but it's not the first time a brand has ventured into our gaming space. What's changed?

wendysfeastoflegends.jpg


Tabletop gaming's popularity has increased to a point that it is now considered a viable market for big brands to advertise. With rise of role-playing games creating luxury products retailing for hundreds of dollars and crowdfunded games netting millions, it was inevitable that mainstream brands would take notice. Three examples illustrate the differences in what leads to the brand being embraced, ignored, or reviled.

Vin Diesel's Witch Hunter Class D&D 5E

The movie actor Vin Diesel has proclaimed his love for 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and how he was fond of playing a witch hunter before in his home campaign. But what was different is that Vin Diesel is both a brand and a person -- he played a D&D game with Matt Mercer, voice actor, gamer, and DM for the web series Critical Role.

This game (and the debut of Vin Diesel's D&D character in The Last Witchhunter) resulted in Mercer creating a witch hunter class for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The class was released for free but not under the Open Game License. Despite this, it was generally well-received. That reception likely had much to do with the enormous good will generated by Mercer and Vin Diesel, who are both outspoken advocates of tabletop gaming in general.

Did it succeed? Given that Mercer and Vin Diesel's fandom is enormous, the class didn't make much waves. It was well received but not particularly controversial and didn't generate nearly as much buzz as our other examples.

Old Spice's Gentleman Class for Pathfinder 1E

Old Spice -- the deodorant company -- released a class for Pathfinder 1E called the Gentleman. This class was more of a joke but it garnered enough attention that fans (and detractors) noticed that the product was not released as part of the Open Game License. Old Spice followed up on that feedback to offer a revised version.

It's important to note that Old Spice partnered with Paizo to get things right the second time, which likely helped mitigate criticism somewhat. The class also didn't take itself too seriously and it wasn't a heavy lift -- just a few pages that generated interest in the topic.

Did it succeed? Old Spice generated buzz with geeky players and reissued the class after getting feedback, so it seems the company was vested in the marketing effort's success. It certainly generated some buzz about the topic that likely wouldn't normally have happened without the class' launch.

Wendy's Feast of Legends Role-Playing Game

And then there's Wendy's. Wendy's is a chain of restaurants known for its burgers and its sarcastic social media. Wendy's has been working towards this for a while now -- I noted that Wendy's was including RPG elements in their kids meals back in 2017 -- but they went full blown geek recently with an entirely playable tabletop role-playing game, Feast of Legends.

It's a 97 page, full color PDF, complete with Wendy's-branded dice roller. There was a (very limited) print release at New York Comic Con. Gnome Stew sums up the first impressions about this effort:
This is not some low-quality meme any half-baked corporation would generate in a week tops. This took time, effort, and plenty of deliberation. They brought in industry names that have likely worked on other, top quality products. For all its flaws, there are legitimate traces of solid game design smattered throughout the meme. Chicken nuggets made of solid gold that had to have come from a creative mind.
And yet...Wendy's, like Old Spice, didn't embrace the gaming community with its launch. The credits only mentioned illustrators (Alex Lopez) and cartographers (Collin Fogel), not authors. It took Daniel D. Fox (of Zweihander fame) to explain who created it:
Here’s the skinny on #FeastOfLegends: it was marketed by @VMLYR, the agency I worked for before leaving to @AndrewsMcMeel to make #ZweihanderRPG full time. It was designed by @smugkeck, @tonymarin & several talented co-workers:
Also of note is that although the game is clearly inspired by D&D 5E, it doesn't use the Open Game License.

Was it successful? Yes -- almost too successful in fact. Feast of Legends didn't feel like a fun launch, it felt like a corporate behemoth throwing its weight around to produce a high-quality game...without crediting authors or leveraging the open game license to do so. The game's launch coincided with a play through on Critical Role:
It’s understandable if you’re unsure if this was real news or some kind of satire about the pervasive nature of advertising in everything we do. But it was all part of a partnership with Critical Role, which led to last week’s episode: a one-shot session, sponsored by Wendy’s, featuring the cast of the show, DM’d by Sam Riegel, Critical Role’s director of marketing (and an emmy winning director), who donned the traditional garb of a Wendy’s worker to run a product-placement session.
The response on the Internet was vociferous:
In the ensuing days the discussion that the Wendy’s RPG created in the community helped to illustrate how the conversation has shifted. Many fans were upset about what Wendy’s represents–they have come under fire in recent years for not treating their farm workers fairly, among other things, and this goes against the ethos that the Critical Role community espouses.
The backlash led to Critical Role donating their profits:
We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: Farmworker Justice | Empowering farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions since 1981 <3
Notably, there wasn't a peep from Wendy's on the subject.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We're at an inflection point in tabletop geekdom. The barrier to entry to create a tabletop game is low enough that a brand can, using significant marketing muscle, make a slick role-playing game and get it seen by thousands with the right sponsorships. But even as the tabletop community continues to become more diverse, the gaming community has strong enough opinions that doing so carries its own risk -- and large companies can't avoid bringing their baggage with them wherever they go.

It seems Wendy's got the buzz it wanted, but at no small social cost. Vin Diesel and even Old Spice knew (or quickly learned) the unspoken rules of our gaming community. Wendy's didn't, and by all accounts isn't going to apologize or otherwise alter its product. Wendy's literally created its own rules and expected us to play by them.

This is not the first time tabletop games have been part of a marketing effort, and it will certainly not be the last. The question is how much advertising the gaming community is willing to tolerate as the games get slicker and our streaming channels get more popular.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

Undrave

Adventurer
Yes.

Businesses may deduct all ordinary and necessary business expenses, including advertising expenses.

Huh.

I got curious so I looked into the Canadian rules out of curiosity. you only get the write off if it's...

in Canadian newspapers and on Canadian television and radio stations. You can also include any amount you paid as a finder's fee. To claim the expenses, you must meet certain Canadian content or Canadian ownership requirements. These requirements do not apply if you advertise on foreign websites.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
But eventually they, and lazy video game journalists, did drop the "C" to the the point that on the Internet many assume that RPG means (Computer)RPG.

So, ironically, we now add the "TT*" so people know we are talking about the original hobby that started it all but I'm all for dropping that and putting the C back where it belongs, thankyouverymuch.

* When did that TT thing even start?! I only found about it last year. And how do we kill it?
TTRPGs : $65m in 2018
CRPGs: ~$4700m in 2018 (11% of total sales of $43B)

When you are 2% of the sales of class X, it's going to be hard to say to the 98% that they shouldn't call themselves X, but only a subset of X. TTRPGs are noise in the combined RPG market. It's not unreasonable that the "default" RPG is a CRPG as more people play them and pay for them by far than any TTRPG. This is not a winnable fight.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Huh.

I got curious so I looked into the Canadian rules out of curiosity. you only get the write off if it's...
Lucky to be Canadian, I guess. I might come off as a Bolshevik with a business degree, which is partly true, I am not wholly against the deduction; except I am against fast food which is filled with salt and grease, leading causes of heart disease, which is on the rise here in the US.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It isn't a "write off" in the sense that a charity donation is a "write off".

In concept, a company gets taxed on its net income for the year. So, at the most basic: gross sales revenue minus expenses. Advertising and marketing are legitimate expenses, as much as the payroll for their workers and the cost of the meat for the burgers they serve you are legitimate expenses.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
There's a bit of a logic failure there ...
If most of RPG publishing industry was a traditional publishing industry.

Once you leave WotC, most "publishers" are fellow creatives who need to hire other creatives for their differing skill sets and usually on a shoestring budget. Hence the first cost cutting measure is that principal doesn't pay themselves until the book shows a profit while rightfully paying the others before the book even goes to the printer.


Hence the frustration.
 

talien

Community Supporter
One point that I think is important to note is that the "Wendy's considers it advertising and thus doesn't credit authors" issue is absolutely valid...until you contrast it with:
Once you leave WotC, most "publishers" are fellow creatives who need to hire other creatives for their differing skill sets and usually on a shoestring budget.
So in other words Wendy's is operating how big corporations operate (and I know this, as I've worked on plenty of ad campaigns with agencies). The issue isn't that they're behaving any differently than any other corporation, but rather they're not following the social norms of a smaller creative market. They blundered into a hornet's nest...are big enough to not care.

Since Critical Role relies on that creative market for its livelihood, they reacted accordingly. In retrospect, Old Spice's reaction is noteworthy for how they changed tactics after they got feedback.
 

Undrave

Adventurer
It isn't a "write off" in the sense that a charity donation is a "write off".

In concept, a company gets taxed on its net income for the year. So, at the most basic: gross sales revenue minus expenses. Advertising and marketing are legitimate expenses, as much as the payroll for their workers and the cost of the meat for the burgers they serve you are legitimate expenses.
Ah okay that makes sense.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Just to stir the pot a little...

Wendy's production of the RPG and sponsoring of the CR episode was a valid expense, for which they will pay less tax. Critical Role's donation of the profits means that everyone involved still got paid by greasy Wendy's dollars...except for CR's owners.

My beef with Wendy's, well, with the whole shebang really, is that there are countless good indie games that CR could be promoting instead. But it's not exactly TableTop. It's not AngryGM or ShanePlaysRadio, so I don't know what (why) some people are expecting. Now, if the ENWorld podcast decided to take on Ronald McDonald as a regular guest...
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Hence the frustration.
I still... fail to see the issue. The creative person got paid.

If you want to say that it is frustrating that a large company can easily do a project because a small company has a problem making a similar project happen... I don't know what to tell you. We live in a world that is not yet post-scarcity. How much money you have to work with determines what kid of things you can pull off. You can't really expect a larger company to not do business because there exist small companies who would have issues doing that same business.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
well, whether Feast of Legends was a good idea or not... I have to wonder if the speculation on this will go anywhere.... is any other non-RPG business looking to do something like this? It's not like FoL really went anywhere or caused any great shake up in the world...
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
well, whether Feast of Legends was a good idea or not... I have to wonder if the speculation on this will go anywhere.... is any other non-RPG business looking to do something like this? It's not like FoL really went anywhere or caused any great shake up in the world...
Eh.

If you remember, there are numerous ways that, for example, video games have been used by brands/corporations. Whether it's creation of an entire game (Kool-Aid and the Atari 2600) or more subtle sponsorships, or placement of in-game items, it's there.

To paraphrase the great Dr. Ian Malcolm, "Money, uh, finds a way."

So long as TTRPGs continue to be played, and are played not just by grognard (who cares) but by EXCITING YOUTH DEMOGRAPHIC then expect to see more ways to monetize those eyeballs and dice-rolling hands.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
video games, sure... they are immensely popular. TTRPGs? I wonder if anyone will bother to follow in FoL's footsteps... FoL came and went and is done with, and had little fanfare before or after (hell, I work for Wendys, and I had no idea it was coming). It was pretty much a one-shot stunt.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
video games, sure... they are immensely popular. TTRPGs? I wonder if anyone will bother to follow in FoL's footsteps... FoL came and went and is done with, and had little fanfare before or after (hell, I work for Wendys, and I had no idea it was coming). It was pretty much a one-shot stunt.
Again, money finds a way.

Look at all those young 'uns who are into TTRPGs now. That watch, inter alia, Critical Role. HarmonQuest.

More importantly, look at how ENGAGED those people are. And they do stuff like TWITCH and DISCORD and put up videos on YOUTUBE and buy products affiliated with this thing that they are ENGAGED with.


Now that there isn't (much) of a cultural prohibition on "selling out" or "crass commercialism" expect to see even more.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
Again, money finds a way.
not sure if FoL actually did anything for Wendys sales... I suppose that would be the deciding factor. If yes, then lots of copying. If no, then it's doubtful. Considering that FoL was a free downloadable product with no associated merchandise, then it was pretty much a stunt. One thing... if anyone else does do something like this, then it's inevitably going to draw comments about 'Wendys did this first'...
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
not sure if FoL actually did anything for Wendys sales... I suppose that would be the deciding factor. If yes, then lots of copying. If no, then it's doubtful. Considering that FoL was a free downloadable product with no associated merchandise, then it was pretty much a stunt. One thing... if anyone else does do something like this, then it's inevitably going to draw comments about 'Wendys did this first'...
So .... that's not exactly how it works. At all.

It is rare for any single advertisement (or sponsorship) to drive an increase in sales; you would often look at advertising campaigns.

In addition, the purpose of many campaigns is to ensure that you have a certain level of brand awareness, or to propagate general ideas; the reason you see, inter alia, brands attach their names to sports stadiums isn't because it drives X amount of revenue, it's because the name then gets mentioned so much. The reason Coca Cola does so many "warm & fuzzy" nostalgia ads is because they need to keep driving home that point for what is, essentially, undifferentiated sugar water.

Think about the cost of producing a TTRPG like Wendy's did. Now, compare it to a similar 30 second ad-spot that they would make and have to broadcast; which was more effective in terms of reaching a demographic that is young and desireable? Which produced more conversation?

Quick- how much free press does an average Wendy's ad get? How much free press has this gotten?


... do you start to understand?
 

David Howery

Adventurer
Think about the cost of producing a TTRPG like Wendy's did. Now, compare it to a similar 30 second ad-spot that they would make and have to broadcast; which was more effective in terms of reaching a demographic that is young and desireable? Which produced more conversation?
in the end though, it has to generate more sales. A 30 second ad is reusable, can run for weeks. FoL was a one shot flash in the pan; it came, it went, it's done. I suppose if the goal was to generate some PR in the rather small TTRPG crowd, it did that. Now we'll see if anyone else tries something similar. I'm not holding my breath though...
 

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