I view this with a great deal of *meh*. It’s not just that I don’t play D&D, it’s that this seems to me to be a great example of corporate overlordism. Wizards of the Coast was formed in 1990, bought out TSR, the creators of D&D in 1997, and sold out to Hasbro in 1999. I’m sure WotC was very appealing to Hasbro because of Magic: The Gathering CCG, and I’m sure the owners of WotC made a lot of money in the transaction.
But now they’re owned by a major corporation. To quote Wikipedia, Hasbro “… is a Multinational toy and boardgame company … It is one of the largest toy makers in the world.” They are a component in the Standard & Poor’s Index. In 2009 they had income of $4 BILLION dollars. That’s a big company.
Companies have to make profit. Major companies, such as Hasbro, if they don’t make quarterly profit expectations, they are punished by Wall Street. They are legally obligated to make profit for their shareholders. And that means every division within the company needs to be profitable.
This puts WotC in a bind. They must appease their corporate overlord, the Hasbro Board of Directors. They have to be profitable. They have to come out with new editions of product. Think about Microsoft for a minute. How often do you buy a new computer/operating system/version of Office? Did you really need to? Did the new spiffiness really improve your productivity and life? Most of the time you really don’t need those upgrades, but we’re conditioned that it contains the latest bug fixes, it’s more reliable, etc. So we buy them. And I’m not immune to this, but I am very selective about buying upgrades. If people held on to their computers for five or more years and did not upgrade their version of Office, Microsoft could be in serious trouble because a major portion of their revenue comes from upgrades and new licenses. There aren’t that many new users to computers these days, it’s usually people replacing a 3 or 4 year old computer because it’s slowed down, and they could extend the life of that computer for another couple of years by investing $100-200 in it to do some upgrades and cleanups, but a lot of people don’t want to mess with it so they buy a new system. And that’s money in Microsoft’s pocket.
WotC is in a similar bind. They need you to buy new rule books, new expansions, new modules. They want you to buy 5E and forsake all previous editions/expansions/modules because those purchases are not on-going revenue for them. Unfortunately WotC has made some mistakes over the years, one was releasing new editions too soon, leading to a fractured fan base. Another was inconsistent product quality and failure to deliver on promises. Not everything you publish is going to be 100% fantastic and a best-seller, and us a result, Paizo is flourishing with the Pathfinder RPG, which has been the #1 selling RPG for the last two quarters.
So what’s my take on this? I think game companies need to be very careful releasing new editions, I don’t think they should come out more often than every five years. And companies need to be exceptionally careful when considering selling out or merging with larger companies. Smaller companies have more freedom, but also have a lot more financial risk. If they screw up a big product launch, it can be the end of the company.
One thing that I find very interesting is the Geekdad article says that WotC will be doing open play-testing, they’ll be taking suggestions from pretty much anyone who cares to offer their $0.002 worth. I think they will discover that down this path lies madness. In my opinion, a new edition requires a person or a small core group with a vision on how to improve the game. They produce a revised edition, give it to trusted friends to playtest and provide feedback, do more revision, rinse, repeat, and eventually do a more public beta to reduce problems of confirmation bias and to ensure that you’re not just preaching to the converted. And Wizards is doing this. But if you’re going to take input from thousands, perhaps tens of thousands people, that input is going to have to be read and filtered to determine if it’s a crackpot suggestion or if it has genuine merit and should be passed up to the developers. I pity the fool(s) that have to be these filters.
I wish Wizard of the Coast all the luck with the new edition, they might need it.