The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

Borders is gone

Blockbuster Inc. is gone

What do Apple, Netflix, Playboy, and Marvel Comics all have in common?  We will come back to this question a bit later.

What do these guys have in common?

For Love of Dead Trees

In 1966 the publishing industry was making record profits with sales increasing every year.   When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first published D&D in 1974 their route to fame, power, money and success was publishing game books.   Photocopying entire books was not yet cost effective and the idea of a digital book was not even a glimmer in the eyes of Larry Page and Sergei Brin.

Ultimately, it would be people like Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Jeff Bezos who would bring the great publishers down.  In the mid 1990s, Page and Brin were working on the Stanford Digital Library Project.  These two men are significant because they later founded Google.  Jeff Bezos founded in 1994.

In 2000, Wizards of the coast released Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  The economy was roaring, paper books were still the kings of the world, and digital piracy was in its infancy.  The paper business model generated enormous success for Dungeons and Dragons as a brand and took Wizards of the Coast into windfall profits.  It was perfect storm for the industry and perhaps nobody has a better perspective on that storm than Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games who called that period a “boom” with “staggering” sales.

The Digital Floodwaters Rise

But, there were already hints that the book publishing business model was in danger.  With the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Napster (1999), Gnutella (2000), the Pirate Bay (2003), and others it became possible to download gigabytes of pirated role-playing game data in a few hours.  Most gamers who had longingly fantasized about the possibility of owning every single D&D product ever published realized that thanks to a community of pirates this dream was being fulfilled.  Unfortunately, it was happening without the authors ever seeing any benefit for their work.  As the gaming public became more aware of the possibility of pirating the content, the foundation of their success began to crumble and Wizards of the Coast had to respond or die.

All your books are belong to us!

It was clumsy at first and even ham-handed.  They ended their relationship with Paizo Publishing and migrated both Dragon and Dungeon Magazine into an online model in August of 2007.  On April 6, 2009 Wizards suspended all digital sales of books, adventures, and prosecuted several individuals for piracy of their intellectual property.

The sole remaining place to buy any legal digital content is Paizo’s run of Dragon Magazine and Dungeon  Magazine.

You can imagine what fans thought of that.

Wizards had initially created digital tools for managing the game, but they had promised much more than they could deliver.  Their tragically named Gleemax forum never took off, their virtual table top was missing in action, and their unreleased character visualizer was almost comic.  Within that there were small pockets of success with the Online Rules Compendium, the Character Builder, and the Adventure Tools.

The quality and length of the magazines began to degrade as custom cartography was often replaced with cookie cutter maps made from dungeon tiles.  Dragon magazine was routinely padded with marketing-style product previews which were only more egregious when you considered the smaller page counts.

Imagine a Better and Brighter Future

Change we Can Believe In

I’m looking at you here Wizards of the Coast and your big daddy Hasbro too.  Look me in the eye and hear what I’m telling you.  What do Apple, Netflix, Playboy, and Marvel Comics all have in common?

All of them are wildly successful at providing media as a service in a world in which internet piracy is a fact of life.  Like Wizards of the Coast, all of these companies are sitting on large library of media content.  Unlike Wizards of the Coast, these companies have created a viable business model which undercuts the pirates by offering their large media library as a cheap subscription service.  They have turned the tables so that the laptops, iPads, and smart-phones are their greatest allies instead of their hated enemies.

I want the producers of Dungeons and Dragons to be original when it comes to their content, but when it comes to their business model, I want them to steal every good idea that Amazon and Netflix pioneered and pour that right into a healthy profit.

One: Imagine every TSR/Wizards of the Coast game product and magazine ever published from every edition at your fingertips for about $5-10 per month.  Announce it with big fanfare and roll out the content slowly with a loud trumpet blast sounding for any special content like some of the Gygax classic adventures.  Not only will you see an end to piracy in your lifetime, your subscribers will see their subscription continuously gaining in value.  You will make a new profit on out-of-print material.  Your subscriber base will rise from solely Fourth Edition fans to gamers from every edition of the game.  My advice would be to start with the core books for every edition and then slowly build content once the essentials for play are in place.

Two: Create a  rating system put into place that allows you to rate your favorite media and find the best material quickly.  Amazon, Netflix, Google… all of them allow you to rate things you like and don’t like.  Wizards will gain marketing information about their userbase that most companies would pay for.  The new user will be able to quickly find content that is popular which makes Wizards look better again.

Three: Create tools that allow you to support your play of the game’s current edition online with friends.  Eventually this could add support for older versions as well if it is feasible.  How these tools are used will provide you with even more information about your user base.

Four: Add social networking tools that allow you to easily recruit other gamers for long or short term games.

Five: Some books still need to be published.  D&D nerds are also collectors by nature.  The occasional 2-book campaign setting and splat book should show up to provide a little juice to my bookshelf.  It doesn’t have to happen often, but it still needs to happen.   It is possible these books might incur an apparent loss, but these are an expense that further drives the success of the online model until the day when paper books are completely gone.

Six: Restore and maintain the magazines as online content with real quality.   These magazines are part of the D&D gamer’s sense of self and history.  They simply must endure and, as witty as she is, Shelly Mazzanoble cannot carry an entire magazine herself.  Wizards has already began shoring up the brands with initiatives that are cleaning up their digital offering by listening to their readers, being more careful with the content, and restoring features like comic strips, and the beautiful original cartography in Dungeon magazine.  That is a good start and they need to follow through on it.  My advice is to mercilessly loot Paizo’s writing staff and reintroduce some more long term campaign arcs written by some writing all-stars like Monte Cook, Eric Mona, Margaret Weiss, Tracy Hickman, and Chris Perkins.  When you do that, you should blast some trumpets about it so people know enough to look for it.

Gygax wrote S1, B2, and all the rest because he was getting paid to do it.  We cannot and must not forget that simple fact.  Some of these things appear to already be in the works.  Some of them seem like inevitable conclusions in our newly forming digital age.  Whatever the final outcome looks like, all gamers should want Wizards to succeed financially because we are the ultimate beneficiaries of that success and the next Keep on the Borderlands might be just behind the next door.

The alternative?

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