This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
Chris, over at 6D6 Fireball, has a recent piece called What if 4e was free? In it, he floats the idea of building long-term success for the Dungeons & Dragons brand by giving away all the core books as black-and-white PDFs. The idea is that this would make it easier for more people to get into the game, and would build a lot of goodwill, as well as providing a bunch of fans with the impetus to buy more non-core game books and merchandise.
Part of the reason something like this sounds like a good idea is the fact that WotC/Hasbro has burned a lot of gamer goodwill by reversing its position on open gaming. With 3E, Wizards of the Coast introduced the Open Game License, which essentially made the core rules of third edition Dungeons & Dragons into an “open source” game. While the contents of the WotC books themselves were covered by copyright, all rights reserved, WotC released the System Reference Document, which consisted entirely of materials subject to the terms of the OGL.
As pointed out in Dungeons & Dragons: The gamers are revolting! Rebecca Bryant points out what many of us already know — that, after years of declining sales, 3E and the OGL was a shot in the arm for D&D sales and for the RPG industry as a whole. Accompanying the rise of D&D, though, was the rise of third-party publishers of D&D compatible game books, and even of competing, nearly compatible systems, such as Green Ronin Publishing’s True20, all made possible by the OGL. Dozens of small, essentially basement-run publishers sprang up to create new gaming materials that would otherwise never have existed, producing a cottage industry that owed its entire existence to the OGL.
Well, darn. Rejuvenating the D&D brand also generated a whole new community of small publishers making money off of ideas inspired by, and usually dependent on, WotC’s D&D books. WotC/Hasbro decided things had to change. As Rebecca Bryant said:
But it didn’t last long. Perhaps threatened by the upsurge in competition, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast attempted to recall the open license and revoke the rights of third-party publishers, and supporters of the open license were fired en masse. When they found that the license could not be revoked, they began work on a new edition of D&D that would not fall under the open license. They banked on the brand name’s popularity forcing the industry to comply with their new standard and created an almost unusably restrictive “game system license” allowing minimal third-party support for their new edition.
Like many industry dominating corporations, the WotC/Hasbro collective decided it was in its best interests to make sure that nobody else got to make any money off its core brand or anything spawned by that brand. I keep seeing this sort of thing happen — in music, fiction publishing, online news, and other industries dependent on copyrightable works — and, pretty much every time, I find myself shaking my head in incredulity at the short-sighted stupidity of such business strategy. Fans and customers get alienated, and other businesses are destroyed, all for no real benefit in the long run. Getting all the profit for oneself doesn’t ensure you’re going to make more money. If your business dominates 90% of an industry, and you
decimate (literally, “reduce to one-tenth”) destroy a 90% majority of the industry, gaining total control of the whole industry means you’ll be left with a ninth of your previous profits.
(edit: as pointed out in comments, I had a brain fart in which I managed to reverse the definition of “decimate”, so I altered the sentence accordingly)
Decimation isn’t what’s happening to the RPG industry, of course — at least, not yet. WotC/Hasbro isn’t proving nearly that effective in destroying the competition. In fact, it seems to be increasing the competition with its actions, turning third-party publishers of materials that supported D&D in the past into first-party publishers of competing products in the present.
If 4E was as open as 3E, there may still have been attempts to create competing 3E-compatible game lines. They probably wouldn’t have been likely to get a chance at as much market share as they do get now, though — because third-party publishers wouldn’t have been effectively driven away from 4E by its restrictive licensing policies.
As someone who prefers the underlying system of 3E over that of 4E, there’s definitely an upside to WotC’s reversal of direction on licensing; Pathfinder RPG, my favorite descendant of the original D&D game, probably wouldn’t even exist without WotC/Hasbro attempts to drive third-party publishers out of business. Still . . . my ideal world would have both Pathfinder RPG and D&D 4E (leaving aside for the moment that 4E wouldn’t be called “D&D” in my perfect world), and both would be licensed under open terms (the OGL would do well enough).
Open licensing helped make D&D 3E the success it was. Restrictive licensing has only stood in the way of 4E’s success. This is the kind of lesson I’ll be taking to heart in the future, as I work on an RPG of my own for publication. It’s also the kind of lesson I don’t expect any industry dominating corporation will learn any time soon.