Lots of people have blogged about how your business model affects your game design. Here's yet another way of looking at it. This may sound like a slam on 3rd Ed but it's not - all I'm doing is pointing out that the nature of D&D fundamentally changed with the release of 3rd Ed, and the business model made that happen.
3rd edition D&D was almost completely open source - so much so that Paizo has been able to effectively re-release it as Pathfinder. Of course, the people at Wizards of the Coast said, "If we make this free, so that everyone can download most of it off the internet, how are we going to make money?" Every way they could think of: selling books (effectively merchandise at this point, something you buy because it's more convenient than looking up the rules on the internet, or because you're in a store and it's there and tempting, or because it looks good on your coffee table) and add-ons (splats, modules) and miniatures.
And, of course, they wanted to encourage their players to buy these things. The problem, as I see it, lies with the modules and miniatures. Moldvay's edition of Basic D&D - I believe the most popular D&D product in terms of units sold - said, on the back of the box: "This is a game that helps you imagine." Miniatures weren't required. Even modules weren't required - you could get a whole evening of play by rolling up some encounters on random tables.
But now they want to sell pregenerated modules and miniatures - so they design a game that's heavily about tactical combat, about moving your playing pieces around on a board, so you'll be encouraged to buy miniatures. And they design a game that's complex enough, that takes enough time to block out encounters, that it's almost foolish to design your own adventures, or make up what happens on the basis of encounter tables, so you're encouraged to buy modules. In comes the railroad. Out goes the imagination - instead of imagining whatever we want, we're constrained by the minis and modules.
Obviously, a lot of people - probably even most people - like their D&D that way. The minis and modules bring a huge amount of clarity and rigor to the game, and make it a more consistent product. And while the old Red Box Basic D&D may have been the single most succesful D&D product, certainly much, much more money was made off of 3rd edition in all.
But it had now become a different game. A game I enjoyed some for what it was, but never got the same sort of awesome out of as I did with Basic D&D or Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu or Space Opera or the new school of indie rpgs like Apocalypse World - games where it's all about the imagination.
So - am I suggesting we avoid free-to-play? No, of course not, I'm planning on making sixty second shooter free-to-play. I'm just saying I'm going to tread carefully on the path and try not to lose my way.
As I recall it, the move to open up D&D with 3rd edition was based on the fact that Wizards (or TSR before them) only really made money off of the core books: the Player's Guide, DMG, and Monster Manuals. Other products such as modules and source books weren't nearly as profitable, or even lost money in some cases, but were important nonetheless because they drove sales of the core books. So the strategy was to allow other publishers to make and sell those modules and sourcebooks, thus driving sales of the core books, which Wizards reserved for themselves.
EXCEPT you could basically publish a core book based off of the SRD as long as you did't say it was "D&D" or "Compatible with D&D," but of course instead publishers would just say "This book is compatible with the world's oldest and best selling role playing game" or some such. So that didn't quite work out.
From the perspective of digital games, the D&D3E/D20 model is almost the opposite of free-to-play. It's as if you were to charge for the basic game but have an item store that's open to anyone to publish items in. Come to think of it, it's more like the model of Neverwinter Nights in which the mod community kept sales of that game going a lot longer than would have happened otherwise.
Posted by: MuseHill | November 17, 2011 at 05:48 PM
Reality check: Modules, splat books, and miniatures were all being sold for years before 3rd Edition or the OGL appeared.
Comparing 1990 to 2001 to 2009 (each the year after a new edition was released):
1990: 3 rulebooks, 2 splats, 4 monster books, 29 modules, 7 campaign setting supplements
2001: 5 rulebooks, 4 splats, 1 monster book, 6 modules, 2 campaign setting supplements
2009: 5 rulebooks, 4 splats, 2 monster books, 8 modules, 3 campaign setting supplement
The only really huge shift I'm seeing in any of these numbers is the shift AWAY from pre-packaged modules (exactly the opposite of the trend you claim exists).
If you want to compare to Moldvay, then we're looking at 1982 (the year after Moldvay's Basic Set): 11 modules
If there was a shift in the game that can be evidenced by a shift in product support, then it happened long before 3rd Edition arrived on the scene. (And has pretty much zero to do with the availability of pre-packaged modules.)
Posted by: Justin Alexander | November 17, 2011 at 10:12 PM
I wasn't so much talking about the availability of modules but that the rules themselves make it harder to play without them. They could sell fewer different modules as long as more people are buying what they do sell.
But really I'm on about the minis. You don't need them for Moldvay D&D. Whereas 3rd edition insists they're part of the game. That's where the game mechanics take over and imagination and asking what happens in the fiction goes away.
Sure, they were available before (and I bought a lot of them and hardly used any of them - what was I thinking?) but they were a nice-to-have, not an almost-must-have.
MuseHill makes a good point, though, and I don't have a pat answer to that, except that I think there was some multiple personality disorder at Wizards - some people open-sourcing because it was noble and cool and would generate some types of business, but with others looking to rewrite the game to sell more merchandise.
And I have to admit, even if they hadn't open-sourced the rules, it would still have been good business to rewrite the rules the way they did. But it's an interesting coincidence, don'tcha think?
Posted by: Jamie Fristrom | November 18, 2011 at 12:03 AM
While it's not the entire focus of your post, I just wanted to add that I feel similar about game mechanics. I played Steve Jackson Games' GURPS for years and loved it, then slowly realized all the technical detail in combats and other scenarios weighed it down, took me too much time to create an adventure (and GURPS never had much pre-built). I really want to take a look at the indie RPGs you mention that are lighter-weight and more focused on narrative & imagination.
I do like the shift to print on demand for RPG materials, which sometimes can't be profitable in a printing run. SJG moved this way with GURPS and started creating more material then when they just printed up & sold the books.
Posted by: Bobby Lewis | November 19, 2011 at 07:23 AM