Friday, September 30, 2011

There's No Money in D&D

So on Google Plus the other day, in a discussion of why I don't read comics and maybe other people don't too (short version: they're bad, and they're bad because of artist/writer churn), I made the following comment:
I feel like DC/Marvel have the same problem that WotC has, or at least a similar one, in that they own this thing that everyone loves and knows about and looks like it ought to have all kinds of money in it, but in reality is fantastically hard to make money off of because they don't own the part of it that people really care about. They own the names, but they don't own the DMs or the artists or the writers.
This is something I've been thinking about and talking about with people for a long time. I don't really know how serious of a "problem" this is for WotC at the moment -- the internet wisdom is that their corporate masters are desperately unhappy with the level of profit they're generating, but the internet wisdom, generally speaking, isn't.

Still. I think it's interesting that, with the rise of Paizo and Pathfinder, we're getting a look at just what it is that Wizards owns in "D&D." Fundamentally, it's not much.

They don't own the concept of roleplaying, or any of the fundamentals you need to run a game. At one point maybe they owned the rules, but even that's kind of dodgy given the way U.S. copyright law handles game mechanics. They clearly don't now. They can't own the vast majority of what you need to run a game, because that basically comes down to a particular set of skills and talents that aren't all that hard to pick up, if you're willing to work at it.

They don't own dungeons. They don't own dragons. They don't own most of what makes up "standard D&D fantasy" what it is, because most of that was based on older sources to begin with. They claim ownership of illithids and yuan-ti, but it's not like you can't easily make your own without referencing their versions. Which leaves... what, beholders? Rust monsters?

These days, what they own is the ability to put "Dungeons Ampersand Dragons" on their books. What they own, really, is the ability to sell a particular set of tribal signifiers to geeks. They own the best way to sell something to someone who's never played an RPG before. They can sell the stuff that says "D&D" and makes you a part of "D&D." As Zak put it:
I;d say--they own the part that people who will buy shit whether it's good or not want, but not the part that matters to people who actually want it to be good care about.


  1. Mental note: When my ship comes in, don't buy D&D from WotC/Hasbro.

  2. @ James: Ha! Yeah!

    @ Odd: You see, this is the problem with deregulation in general. D&D should be a public service (or public treasure) open and shared by all, helping to build communities and imagination across our nation not hoarded for small, mean profits.

    Power to the people!
    ; )

  3. The shorter version is that they own a Brand. Not a product, but a Brand.

  4. Odd, thanks for being more good at words than I was when I was trying to say why I think D&D Is Dead.

  5. And if I had D&D I could make a buttload of money off of it.

  6. What you say certainly rings very true, and the truth of it seems somehow sad, like the story of D&D (by that name) is the story of a has-been.

  7. What WotC does own is the rights to a bunch of art, and increasingly it seems like that's what they want to sell...
    You've summed this issue up very nicely; I'm particularly fond of "tribal signifiers for geeks." RPGs in general are hard to make money with, since the basic idea has been out there for nearly forty years now and, once you have a rules set, you don't need much else. It's a bit like trying to make money selling the rules for baseball.

  8. Don't forget that what may appear to be the main product for a company may not be at all.

    I'm sure that DC, for example, is making a LOT more money off their merchandising of the characters (toys, cartoons, movies, clothes, etc. etc.) and don't really need the comics themselves to be huge sellers. Those are practically a niche item for the die-hard comics fan only these days.

    In the case of D&D, well, they have almost no merchandising to speak of, especially compared to the early 80's when D&D-branded "stuff" was everywhere.

    Great post though, and you certainly do have a point about there being no money in D&D anymore.

  9. @anon,
    That is a very good point, but it makes you wonder why a toy company would not try and capitalize on a brand that they own. With all the mainstream fantasy out there right now,(LotR, Game of Thrones, Adventure Time, et al.)you would think that Hasbro would be tripping over themselves to get a line of Dungeons & Dragons toys out-and maybe a tie in cartoon as well. It appeared to work once already(as you pointed out).

  10. A good post and it reminded me that a couple of years ago I did a post called "D&D is Doomed (But Not Just Yet)" about D&D the brand and how ultimately, all brands fail. You can read it here -

    It was written before D&D Essentials was released and before Pathfinder became so firmly entrenched as a major product and brand rival to D&D.

    What is interesting looking back is the bile aimed at me for suggesting that D&D (the brand) would not live forever. All were from 4e players. Looking at your comments, I see nothing of that sort.

    This is a big indication of how D&D (the brand) is losing value. After all those books, the essentials, the new basic set and now the re-hiring of Monte Cook, even the loyal fans are losing heart in the brand. Whether WotC can create a 4.5/5e the reinvigorates the brand remains to be seen. They could do it but they have a long road ahead of them.

  11. I looked through the 3.5 Monster Manual a while ago, and I was surprised how little of it was original. I noticed six-armed Barsoomian apes for example. But I wonder how many players would know the source.

    Gothic anti-elves, multi-coloured dragons, the beholder, treasure chests with teeth and the gelatinous cube (at least it being a cube) are about the only things that are both original to D&D and sellable that I know of.

  12. Chris Tregenza: I suspect much of the reason you're not seeing any blow-back in the comments here is because Oddysey doesn't have many readers who are loyal to 4e. She gave it mixed reviews when she tried it. Most of her readers, I suspect, are OSR types who fell out of love with the commercial aspects of the game back when it was still owned by TSR, and 3.x fans who have been competently wooed by Paizo's exceptional customer service and marketing. In another venue, I'm certain you'd get the howls of anger and denial.

    anarchist: And how sellable, exactly, is the beholder? Especially since it's easy enough to capture the same idea without infringing on the copyright. This makes monsters weak sauce as IP.

    Or to put it in other words, the cool thing about beholders is that they are evil, creepy floating eyeball monsters, and nobody will mock you for creating a variation on creepy floating eyeball monsters. The cool thing about Batman is that he's the freakin' Batman, and imitation will get you mocked for a lack of creativity.

  13. "Tribal Signifier." That's brilliant and right on point. And when you look at it that way, that's actually pretty powerful stuff. I don't know whether it could be turned into money or not, but it might be worthwhile for WotC to look at it that way. I've got a suspicion that working with a "tribal signifier" might lead to a very different sort of business plan than they are following now.

    Hmm. In fact, Mike Mearles's recent comments that talk about sort of supporting all editions and bringing people back "into the fold" might actually indicate this sort of thinking. I can't see how it could possibly work as the guiding principle for a new set of rules, but maybe they're actually focusing on something different than that. Lots of successful internet things are focusing on community building, like FB, Twitter, etc. I wonder if they might actually be thinking in that direction at this point.

  14. James: My work here is done. ;)

    JB: That's sort of the "glass half full" way of viewing what I've talked about here, though. Everything important about D&D can't be owned, and can't be taken away from you once you've got it.

    Joseph Browning: Yup. When I say "no money in D&D" I mean only for a certain, very corporate definition of "money." I'd love to see an outfit like S&W get the rights to the name.

    Dr. Rotwang: You're very welcome. :) That post really resonated with me.

    Bard: Yeah, I find the idea that D&D-the-brand might mostly apply to board games and computer games in 20 years, if it's even around at all, really depressing. I am cheered mostly by the idea that RPG nerds are an incorrigible lot, and will likely propagate the original useage of the term despite what Hasbro wants it to be used for.

    Anonymous: Indeed -- the comparison to comics is by no means perfect.

    Chris Tregenza: Nice post, yeah -- I totally agree that every wound that WotC has suffered in this area has been self-inflicted. They created what I'd say is their most serious competitor.

    Matt Finch: I almost referenced "tribal signifiers" in the title, since I think that's the most important idea in this post. It shapes the way geeks interact with a lot of media -- look at how a lot of the big webcomics make money by selling, not explicitly branded goods, but t-shirts and other apparel that make sideways references to their product that can only be decoded by fellow readers.

  15. ...t-shirts and other apparel that make sideways references to their product that can only be decoded by fellow readers.

    Yeah, I think that's a vital component of nerd tribal signifiers. They don't want "Firefly" t-shirts so much as "Blue Sun" t-shirts and brown coats.

    When I wear my "Professional Troll" t-shirt I get people coming up to me all the time telling me, simply, "I really like your shirt." And we both know what they're really saying is, "Yeah, I love that show, too!"

  16. I think D&D's value is as a gateway game. Everyone knows about it, or knows someone who plays / played it. In my experience new players are more likely to want to play something they recognize.

    Second, people in general seem more comfortable with what they already know than something new. If you went through the effort to learn 4E, why would you want to start playing 1E? If your game is 2E, and you want to feel satisfied that you're not missing out, an expected reaction might be to argue that 2E is the best edition and by consequence the others suck. Since other people have the same opinion about their favorite game, arguments ensue.

    But it's all really meaningless. If I play Swords & Wizardry instead of D&D, the only difference is what I tell people I play. And maybe I just go ahead and tell them I play D&D just so they don't get that quizzical look. What if you make a rules set that's basically 4E minus the cruft? Would a potential 4E player be willing to sit down and play that for free vs. paying hundreds of dollars for the full array of 4E books?

  17. Being a fan of WotC's current run of products (as well as a strong critic of them), I'd agree that there's a lack of money to be made on the D&D "brand" as a series of RPG products. To old-school or experienced gamers, WotC/Hasbro's attempt to increase profits is ill-fitting, at best.

    The people I play with most often are younger gamers who've never touched an RPG product outside of "Fourth Edition". They're the ones who buy D&D "Fortune Cards", pick up every supplement, and have online "D&D Insider" subscriptions. They are the company's target audience, and rightly so from a business perspective. To them, buying stuff and collecting it just a normal part of the game, no different from how players of Warhammer or Magic: The Gathering will drop lots of money to increase their collection.

    It seems like fans who grew up with AD&D and other editions are disenfranchised with "D&D" as it exists as a brand. The more it has to change to accommodate a wider and/or new audience, the less it will go out of its way to connect with longtime fans.

    Plus, RPGs as a "product" in general can't make money the same way a TCG or online video game can. When the core concept of a game is "Use your imagination", and "Develop your own unique adventures, classes, and quests", it's difficult to incentivize players to buy expensive books and supplements featuring stuff they could easily make up on their own.

    D&D as an 'idea' is one that encourages creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit of DIY.

    D&D as a 'brand' is becoming something that requires a lot of money to play and get into, which is a shame. It's a direction a lot of fans aren't happy with (along with a great deal of WotC employees, who've loved the game from its inception).

  18. At one point maybe they owned the rules, but even that's kind of dodgy given the way U.S. copyright law handles game mechanics. -- an excellent point.

    Which is why the recent move to selling the cards to "enhance" games.

  19. Great post, but things have been too quiet for too long over here, Oddysey! I hope all is well.

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