Monday, April 13, 2009

What Would Google Do? - the Wizards of the Coast Edition

Over the weekend, I read Jeff Jarvis' "What Would Google Do?" - a treatise about how Google's business model and overall philosophy are changing the way that many think of not just their workplace but also the world itself. 

  • give control over to your customers
  • pursue your own niche well and support others who fill in your gaps
  • be transparent and open
  • provide elegant solutions
  • free is a business model
  • trust the people
  • make mistakes
  • and don't be evil.
Now, as I read the book, and I reviewed Jarvis' examples of how these tenets are being applied to many industries (think: the Android cell phone, better ways of managing health care documents, better ways of managing energy consumption), I kept coming back to Wizards of the Coast.  As early peeks at 4th edition started to roll out about a year ago - with the hype machine telling us what to expect, and playtests of the early edition of the rules appearing at gaming conventions - it would seem that WotC was off to a very promising and "googley" approach to their craft.  The scale of playtesting - involving actual end-users on convention scale, instead of just in isolated groups - was tremendous compared to any other RPG roll out that I am aware of.  The lurking on and other message boards by the designers and staff was apparent.  WotC was so bold as to roll out a few versions of the rules through convention sample games before the rules were done - to let us see what they were cooking in the kitchen before it was even done.  And perhaps most of all, the open game license was reported to be alive and well.

And now here we are a little over a year later, and I'm kind of confused.  For all the promise of those early days, and the continued promise of "join dndinsider and playtest the new barbarian class" and other steps that seemed intended to take the players into consideration, how did we end up here?
  • PDFs of Wizards products - even old school d&d ones that can't be assumed to have tremendous marketshare against 4e - have been yanked from PDF vendors like
  • The GSL - open gaming license of 4e - has gone through a tremendous amount of examination by the industry.  Products compatible with 3rd edition may no longer be published if a publisher wishes to create an identical 4th edition flavor.
  • Additionally, third party products that were common during 3rd edition as game aids - things like spell cards that put the Player's Handbook spell lists in index card format for easy reference at the game table - have been banned as WotC starts to roll out its own versions of those products.
  • Gleemax - the social networking site for d&d fans - has been abandoned, with no clear image of a social medium of choice for d&d fans to fill the void.
  • Similarly, while WotC is clear that it is not dead-in-the-water, the online support for d&d through dndinsider has become little more than a web-based version of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, with little more than a few other gadgets to round it out.  Not - yet - the online gaming table with craftable player minis that was promised well over a year ago.   
The above is just an anecdotal summary based on the news shared on the news page over the past few months.  My goal is not to beat up on the big dog in the gaming world.  But I am wondering, after reading Jarvis' book, if some lessons might be applied here to make WotC a company that more clearly serves the needs of its customers (and would likely turn a nice profit in the process).  

A few suggestions:
  1. Yanking PDFs from the market over a handful of pirated copies that replicated out quickly into thousands of pirated copies is understandable on one hand - free is a business model, but letting others bootleg your work with no remuneration is not a business model.  On the other hand, it really seems like a baby-with-the-bathwater situation.  It can't be assumed that the first PDF that showed up on a torrent site was the Player's Handbook II, which prompted last week's decision.  Why didn't WotC put together an amenable alternate plan before all of a sudden nixing e-books as a viable platform for their gaming products?  Without this kind of foresight, I'm admittedly concerned that whatever platform they do pick may not stick and I'd be again stuck with having an online edition with no platform to support it.  This lack of trust of the overwhelming majority of their players is a PR mistake.
  2. WotC needs to find its niche.  Part of what made 3rd Edition's open license so compelling for me and many other players who returned to the hobby was the fact that there were all of a sudden lots of creative individuals and companies churning out adventures and support materials.  While we've seen a few publishers dive into publishing adventures, companies seem less actively publishing products that extend the hobby beyond just scenarios.  I almost wonder if the aforementioned power cards scenario may have an impact.  Is WotC really going to make a break even on power cards?  Was it worth pressing the issue and preventing others from releasing these, albeit leveraging WotC's intellectual property?  No, but is it likely that there were folks who bought the 3rd party power cards without having first purchased the core rules from WotC?  The same line of thought applies to Dragon and Dungeon magazines.  Paizo had been doing a great job with them - probably the best gaming writing since the mid-80s Dragon magazine.  Why take that away from a company that was doing a skilled job with it and turn it into part of a yet to be completed online initiative?  I'm all for staggering the roll out of features, but if Dragon and Dungeon were to be the cornerstone of something else, where's the something else?  The other whiz bang features (aside from some tools that are not whiz bang) have yet to arrive, essentially leaving us with online editions of publications not up to their former glory.
  3. Likewise, why was Gleemax chloroformed?  Not that creating a platform to compete with Facebook and MySpace was a wise idea to begin with, but now that it's gone there is a void that the players themselves will fill on their own.  By the time WotC gets around to a stronger Facebook presence or finds a creative way of connecting with their players through social media, the players will have created their own niche groups on Facebook and obviated the need for something generated by WotC itself that would have reportable metrics and added value for the consumer.
All told, I think WotC is a much more progressive company than many consumer-product-driven companies out there.  But there have been some missteps lately that adversely affect the image of the company to the players who are expecting more for their gaming dollar than just a book and a game to play with friends.  Dungeons and Dragons is a cult classic, and the affinity we players have for the game and for one another is a tremendous opportunity for WotC to create long lasting relationships with its consumers, not just for the feel good story, but for building onto those relationships to make the product even stronger, and one that we'll continue to expend our ever decreasing expendable income upon.  Come on, WotC - be Googley.

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