Sunday, June 08, 2008

D&D and teh Interwebs

The big news in gaming this past week was the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4.0. The latest version of the original roleplaying game is quite a bit different from previous incarnations, but I'm not going to talk about all the rules changes here. Instead, I'm going to discuss the online strategy that Wizards of the Coast appears to have planned for the game.

D&D has a rather checkered past when it comes to the internet. Back in the days of TSR the company tried to ban all unofficial material from the net. I don't believe they ever sued their own customers, but they otherwise took an approach that is similar to the RIAA today. Eventually they loosened up a bit, but only after doing a great deal of harm to their reputation. Some argue that this was a contributing factor to their eventual demise.

After WotC took over things went in a completely different direction with the OGL opening things up for everyone, both online and in print. Unfortunately, the new edition doesn't use the OGL, and WotC has a new online strategy that involves turning their online presence into a direct revenue stream.

Part of this strategy involved the demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazines last year. By moving them to an online only edition they hoped to move a proven seller into the core of their online offering. Unfortunately, even WotC has had to admit that up until now what they've produced hasn't exactly been stellar.

In addition to the online magazines, they are also building a set of tools that combined will form a virtual tabletop for playing the game over the internet. A cool idea, but the information released so far indicates that the minimum system requirements for the tools are going to be pretty steep, and they aren't going to support the Macintosh. Not such a big deal for individuals, but this is a product that is going to be used by groups. The lowest common denominator of the group is going to decide whether or not all the members of the group use this product. If not everyone meets the system requirements, then chances are no one will subscribe.

I'm sure they're hoping that by bundling the magazines with the online tools that they'll get more subscribers overall. Even those that can't use the tools will subscribe just to get the magazine content, but that brings us to a couple of additional factors: their pricing structure and the nature of the internet today.

First, the pricing structure. Fifteen dollars a month, plus extra if you want virtual minis to use on your virtual tabletop. They need to pick a revenue model and stick with it. Either charge a flat fee that covers everything, or use a micropayment model where you pay just for what you want to use. The combination is too much and is, as far as I know, unprecedented.

Of course, if someone only wants access to the magazines, then the extra costs for virtual minis won't be a factor. That brings us to the issue of the nature of the internet.

I mentioned that the big news in gaming this past week was the release of D&D 4.0. The biggest news in gaming the week before was also the release of D&D 4.0: the leaked release of the rules onto the internet in pdf form. There was much moaning from the retail gaming sector about how this was going to hurt their sales. In the end, because the rules were solid, by getting a sneak peak at them it only encouraged fence sitters to go ahead and buy the game. Any sales lost were more than made up for by the increased publicity. Retailers had nothing to fear from the leak, but WotC is another matter.

WotC should be very afraid of the leak. This was a leak of a pdf version of a print product. It took someone some real effort to obtain the pdfs in order to leak them. Dragon and Dungeon magazines are pdf products. It will take people zero effort to post them as torrents once they have them. I'd be willing to bet real money that as soon as they lock up the magazine content behind a subscription barrier that I'll be able to download the content over a torrent on the same day they release it on their site. If they watermark it I might have to wait until the next day.

This is the nature of the internet, and why almost all other gaming companies release this kind of stuff for free. They see the value of doing this as a relatively cheap way to promote their print products.

Mind you, there are a couple of gaming companies that do use their online presence as a revenue stream. It's also no coincidence that those companies are becoming increasingly marginalized in the overall market. WotC doesn't need to fear that result, but they do need to re-evaluate their internet strategy if they don't want it to fail, possibly impacting sales of their core products in the process.

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