Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Prediction

I have a minor sideline in the prognostication of future events. Normally, I confine myself to US presidential and papal elections (the last two of which I got right -- I even successfully predicted what the new Pope's regnal name would be), but this is a gaming blog, so I think I should confine myself here to gaming predictions.

Fortunately, I have one and it's this: Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, will not be an open game -- at least not in the usual sense of "open." The mysterious GSL (né OGL 2.0) has still not appeared and my guess is that it never will. Much more likely is that WotC will partner with a small number of select third party publishers (such as Necromancer and Goodman Games), granting them limited use trademark licenses. Heck, WotC might even call the license they grant to such companies the GSL to save face. They'll almost certainly come out with a press release saying that they're "working with the finest companies in the gaming industry to produce the best 4e support products imaginable." But there will not be an open game license for 4e that anybody can use to make their own 4e-compatible product.

Now that I've said it here, feel free to laugh and make fun of me when it turns out I'm wrong. I don't think I will be, though. The reality is that the guys at WotC who pioneered open gaming and who really believed in it are long gone. Their successors possess neither the zeal for nor the understanding of why the OGL/D20 STL was so successful and so official support for that movement will die. I've said it elsewhere but it bears repeating: the advent of 4e is not so much about making a better D&D -- though I don't doubt that its designers firmly believe that's what they're doing -- as about shoring up the value and profitability of the D&D trademark and IP. By bean-counting metrics, D&D is hugely under-performing compared to similarly well-known IPs and 4e is intended to fix that, which is why 4e won't be "giving the store away for free" this time around.

6 comments:

  1. I have the sneaking suspicion that, should D&D continue to under-perform, or D&D Insider fails to hit a certain revenue mark, D&D could very well be put up on the auction block.

    If that does happen, it's probably safe to say that the conventional wisdom will lay the blame on 4th edition moving "too far from the game's roots". Sound familiar? Yeah, I suspect a lot of people would then start projects very similar to your Pulp D&D.

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  2. I agree that the success of 4e will be determined not so much by the sales of books so much as subscriptions to DDI. I can't shake the feeling that WotC is banking on finding a way to adopt the subscription model of MMOs in order to make RPGs look less like the niche hobby that they are. There's an outside chance they might succeed, but I doubt it. If I'm right, then I suspect D&D might be reduced to being a brand name used for a variety of non-RPG products, like board games, minis games, toys, and (of course) computer games. Personally, I think that's a far more likely outcome within the next, say, 10 years than a resurgence of RPGs or even the acceptance of the subscription model by most gamers.

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  3. I hadn't considered they might hold on to the brand and just it for other merchandise. I had some of the old official D&D action figures when I was a kid, so I really have no excuse for the lapse. ;)

    I'm not going to write off D&D Insider just yet, but the poor showing of Dungeon and Dragon since going digital means WotC has really lost their best chance to convince all the old subscribers to transfer their loyalties to the online initiative.

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  4. I think, ultimately, DDI, despite being touted as proof of WotC's "forward thinking" and "looking to the future," is in fact a tacit acknowledgment of two things: that roleplaying remains a hobby that you can play successfully without buying tons of expensive supplementary books (hence WotC's desire to hook players into a micro-payments scheme) and that a lot of the people who "play" D&D probably don't play very much at all, because they can't find anyone who locally does so (hence the creation of online tools to facilitate play).

    All in all, DDI looks to me to be a last ditch, desperate move on WotC's part to show that RPGs can be profitable to Hasbro. I think, ultimately, they will fail to meet their expectations (and Hasbro's), but here's another prediction for you: I expect within 12-18 months that DDI will cease to be an "optional extra" and 4e will become increasingly tied to it, such that, to be a D&D player, you're pretty much assumed to subscribe to DDI. If I'm right, game over.

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  5. There were plenty of "file the serial numbers off" third party supplements in the old days.

    The d20/OGL system, however, did raise the reputation of third party material. (Especially if you subscribe to the "there is no bad publicity" idea.) Despite the bad parts of the d20-era, I think more gamers & more companies take the idea of third-party supplements more seriously.

    Then OSRIC showed that you could combine the "file off the serial numbers" and "unified third-party brand and terminology" bits. (Plus, the d20 SRD and OGL gave away access to some key D&D terminology.)

    I'm predicting we'll see an open, OSRIC-esque 4e clone.

    Perhaps Wizards will be smart enough to leave it alone, but I'll predict they'll sue.

    I predict that Wizards will ultimately lose the suit. In fact, it probably actually be about some technicality rather than the general legalness of the clone.

    I predict that most people will think the suit WAS about the legalness of the clone and that Wizards won even though they lost.

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  6. The possible OSRIC-ing of 4e is almost certainly why WotC is delaying the GSL. They're trying desperately to find a way to close the barn door after the cows have already stampeded away. I don't honestly see how they'll be able to stop something like this without resorting to simple legal bullying, much as TSR did back in the day. This time around, though, it could be harder, since the OGL was built very much in imitation of other open source licenses and an attack against the legal status of the OGL is an implicit attack against the whole open source movement. I'd find it absolutely hilarious if open source software advocates and the companies who benefit from their work appeared to take up the cause of anyone WotC tried to bully in this way.

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