Dear Wizards of the Coast – especially Greg (CEO) Simon (CTO) and Jerome (VP of Marketing),
I LOVE Dungeons & Dragons. This game has been responsible for so much of the way that I was shaped as a teenager. I was a sad, lonely teen, suffering from a life of abuse at the hands of alcoholic stepfather when I discovered D&D. This game introduced me to people who would become lifelong friends, kept me off of the streets, and gave me something to channel my powerful imagination into.
D&D has had such a profound effect on my life and my work as a performer, that I actually wrote a 10 minute monologue about how D&D saved my life. Here’s a video of me performing this monologue at Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers show.
Yesterday you launched the playtest of DND Next. Well, rather, you tried to do so. I received an email at 6:00 AM saying it was ready. It’s now 24 hours later, and servers are still crashing. This makes me incredibly sad.
Don’t get me wrong. My professional career spans performing and technology startups. I get that technical issues happen.
Unfortunately, and it kills me to say this, today was just another incident that demonstrates Wizards of the Coast’s (ahem) poor handling of D&D’s transition into the Internet/Web2.0/Social age. Just a few other examples:
This has been my biggest pet peeve. When D&D 4e was being created, there was a lot of buzz around online tools. Things like storing your character sheet online, having all of the books and resources at your fingertips, and taking the old Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine digital were all met with controversy, but a lot of people also liked these ideas, myself included. Since Wizards was such a big company with so many resources, I was expecting a pretty slick offering. Instead, what we got was .Net and Silverlight apps.
The Character Builder was originally an interesting desktop app that could be hacked on a little bit, and some gamers were doing some interesting things, but it was really clunky and the first iteration was just so frustrating it was practically unusable. Then, to add insult to injury, Wizards (being so concerned about copyright infringement) took the Character Builder away from everyone’s desktop and made it online only. Built on Microsoft’s Silverlight, it’s a closed system that doesn’t integrate with anything and constantly crashes. There’s an extensive known issue list, and Microsoft looks they’re going to stop supporting it themselves!
Oh, and the virtual tabletop – where’s the virtual tabletop? This has been discussed for YEARS! Some guys with some spare time and a moderately successful Kickstarter project kicked your butt. Hard. I know there’s a Beta of the tabletop – but seriously, years? Don’t take this the wrong way Simon Blackwell, but your background in Banking industry technology is perhaps not the right fit for a contemporary gaming company that needs to operate on the open Web.
Think about it – your customer base has a huge number of highly skilled computer programmers and software engineers. Imagine what you could do if you were able to harness that enthusiasm on Open Source projects!
Oh, and what is up with letting some guy named Steven Hawley sit on the @Hasbro Twitter handle? There’s no excuse for that. Not your problem, I imagine. But somebody should ask the marketing folks at Hasbro.
The Rise of Pathfinder/Paizo
Arguably, Pathfinder is outselling D&D. If you read the message boards and the gamer forums, you’ll see that there is a lot of positive sentiment for Paizo and negative sentiment for WoTC. The Geeks are pissed at the constant revisions to the game. Pissed at not being listened to. Pissed that D&D is being turned into something a lot more like World of Warcraft and a lot less imaginative.
Paizo is taking advantage of this sentiment, and capitalizing on it. Go look for a game here in Portland. There are more open Pathfinder games than D&D 4e, and that doesn’t take into account the other games like Vampire or GURPs.
Paizo Online’s MMO is going to hurt you, Wizards. It’s going to wound D&D, perhaps mortally. Look at the enthusiasm for their Kickstarter project. At the time of this writing, there were 1,548 backers.
The lesson that you should have learned from the Open Gaming License is perhaps not that the eco-system cut into your profits, but that your team doesn’t know how to nurture an open system. You should look to WordPress, Java, and any number of additional technology communities to see how to grow an Open Source community around your product and make gobs of money from it.
The loss of Geek Culture.
Wizards owns a bunch of other games besides D&D. You own Duel Master, Kaijudo, a line of novels, and oh, yeah Magic: The Gathering. Each of these games grew out of a subculture that created the game based on their own sense of fun and make-believe. When these games were small, the people running the companies were the ones who created the games. They were the geeks. Now Wizards is full of executives with backgrounds in banking, consumer goods, and publishing. I don’t know why he left, but this culture shift might be why Ryan Dancey is gone. He’s certainly doing well at Paizo/Goblinworks.
Look at Paizo’s executive team. They’re DEEP in gaming history. I imagine the folks who run D&D at Wizards are as well, but do they have the latitude to create a culture and community that gamers will be enthusiastic about? It doesn’t look like it, from where I’m sitting.
I’ve been one to exercise restraint in my criticism of Wizards. I’m exceedingly loyal to D&D. The problem is that I can’t see where Wizards’ current course gets me excited. The previews of DND Next have been…underwhelming. After I finally accessed the play test docs, I was disappointed to see something that looks very much like you tried to go back to D&D 3e, with enough tweaks to remove the OGL. If the next stage of D&D is full of more technology mis-steps and corporatization of my beloved game, I might actually switch to another system myself – which would be a shame.
Do you guys play D&D? Do you play any of the games that Wizards makes?
I’m begging you guys to spend some time listening to what the fans are saying about D&D. The folks at Paizo are super-responsive. For crying out loud, they have middle school kids doing live theater based on Pathfinder.
All of this said, I’m a casual gamer. I play once a month usually, sometimes twice. There’s probably some nuance somewhere that I’ve missed. I only occasionally visit the message boards or blogs at Wizards.com, and I’ve never attended a convention – but from the limited perspective of a gamer/digital marketer/performer, this is what I’m seeing.
Please feel free to reach out to me directly. I’m happy to discuss my thoughts over the phone or in person – this seemed like a better way to be heard than your contact page. Or don’t. You’re busy guys, and this might just be one more point of feedback.
I’ll leave comments open. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong, but flamers & trolls will be flagged and blocked.