Tobold's Blog
Friday, April 12, 2013
 
Should D&D Next be Free2Play?

The Free2Play business model has gone from "you can't do that in the West" to one of the dominant business models for MMORPGs in a few years. While it certainly isn't a panacea, it certainly can get more people to try out your product than other business models can. That makes me wonder whether this could be a solution for pen & paper roleplaying games as well. Dungeons & Dragons has a rather unfortunate business model in which every few years a new edition comes out which is largely incompatible with all the books you bought before. The currently worked on edition, officially "D&D Next" is sometimes also called 5th edition, but if you consider that there was an edition 3.5, and some editions of D&D in parallel to AD&D, the total number of Dungeons & Dragons editions is in fact even larger. That understandably pisses a lot of people off. A part of hate spewed on various forums in the "edition wars" is in fact people trying to justify what fundamentally is a good economic decision, sticking with what you have instead of paying hundreds of dollars for a slightly different version which might or might not be "better".

Understanding this it becomes obvious that the attempt of Wizards of the Coast of winning old customers back by making D&D Next play "more like" previous editions, while still forcing everybody to buy new books, is not necessarily going to work. If they look at people's sound economic reasons for not buying a new edition of D&D, it becomes clear that game design is not a solution. WotC has to work on their business model. And Free2Play might just be the ticket.

How would that work? Easy, the basic rulebooks of D&D Next should be free: Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual, maybe with a little booklet on how to play with one solo adventure and one real adventure thrown in, like in the Red Box. Players would be able to download that package as PDF for free from the Dungeons & Dragons website. They could even inscribe themselves on that website to receive a softcover version of the material for just the cost of shipping. For people without internet, game stores would sell pre-paid postcards priced at the cost of shipping, which you fill in, send to WotC and receive your basic D&D Next books.

Wizards of the Coast would then make money by selling everything else at the usual prices: Deluxe hardcover versions of the PH, DM, and MM; all further rulebooks with new classes, monsters, and the like; adventures that come in nice boxes with maps, handouts, tokens and everything else needed to play the adventure; and so on. Just like in every other Free2Play model the idea is to get a lot of people playing your game for free, and then trust that a good number of them will get hooked and pay for your non-free parts of the game.

Of course this would be a rather daring and novel approach in the pen & paper roleplaying business. But it would be a logical extrapolation of previous attempts of making the basic product relatively cheap. Wizards of the Coast could really make a high impact here, beating both their big competitors like Paizo and the various indie RPGs which rely on cheaper online distribution. Ultimately a lot of these products are rather similar to each other, and it could well be the best business model which wins the day here.

Comments:
If they were to make the three core books free, they would lose the profits on those books, which would mean they would have to lower their quality in order to produce them. That doesn't sound like a good business decision for drawing people in.

On the other hand, D&D is basically already running on the F2P model. For many gaming groups, one person or a couple of people buy all the books, and everyone else just borrows them. This is exactly what F2P is all about. You've got a whale or two spending money, then you've got a bunch of players who get all the joy without any of the cash.
 
Makes you wonder if maybe the Wizards are currently in this 'doomed' model not because of the economic sense, but because it taps into their strengths.

Depending on the type of mind you have, creating rulesets might be easier and more enjoyable for you than coming up with adventures and stories.

What if WotC is full of guys who'd rather make structure than content?
 
It is a good idea, and it actually reminds me of how the Infinity war game works. They have made their base rules available for free online. You can download it as a PDF and a few players from the community have even made an edited, concise version as well. Which is promoted on the official forum. There is even a community created iPad app.

However they still send the books, as hardcover with images and background. They also have a campaign book and sell the miniatures. It seems to be working for them.
 
This reminds me of the Hypertext d20 SRD. I don't know when it was first created, but the 3.5 license allowed a large amount of the information to be available for free, and only limited a very specific (and fairly key) set of information: How to create a character and how to level a character.

It was certainly a great help since it allowed the web to give you access to all the class information, all the spell information, all the monster information etc. You can't run a game off of JUST the information provided, but you certainly get a good understanding of the mechanics.
 
Paizo has proven that providing well written modules/adventure paths will sell. Instead of constantly churning out splatbooks, Wizards should focus on that.

If WotC makes the price of entry low/free, they'll generate a lot of initial interest that will in turn generate interest in adventures.
 
I went to Gencon a couple years ago and attended a WotC event there. They handed out pens, flash drives and t-shirts which was nice. Unfortunately, the t-shirts were all smalls, mediums and a couple larges, nothing bigger. 75% of the attendees were XXL, XXXL and larger. The average D&D player is probably a XXL, at least in the US. Makes me wonder if their marketing department really knows their customer base....or cares to know. I wouldn't anticipate anything innovative from them such as free2play.
 
This model does work. As an example, take a look at Posthuman Studios, and their (award-winning) RPG Eclipse Phase.

EP is released under the Creative Commons license online; Posthuman has even seeded it themselves to torrent sites in the past. They encourage their fans to remix and transform their work wherever inspiration strikes.

However, they still sell their rulebooks as physical products - very nice ones, too, with very high production values. And their books sell, and sell consistently well, because their players a) appreciate being treated with respect, and b) find that the products are worth paying for, even when they could get the same information for free completely legitimately.

Whether the business model provides enough profit for a more corporatised game studio like WotC (who themselves have to answer to Hasbro), I don't know, but it does work.
 
Again looking at the Paizo model, they have done something similar with the Core Book PDFs being $10. I may not need the new $40 hardcover this years ultimate whatever, but $10 for a PDF makes it almost a no brainer.

Once I have these books I do fun things like subscribe to Adventure Paths and Modules. I know I won't be dropping $100 for the new holy trinity of DnD Next. But I might drop $10 - $30 to take a look.

Tim
 
Maybe I'm missing something here, but this sounds exactly like what was already done with 3rd edition by way of the SRD and OGL, and is currently being done with the Pathfinder system and its OGL. All the rules are available online, and the only difference is that the actual rulebooks are sold by Paizo at modest ($10) prices in PDF. So it seems like a similar strategy has already worked and could work again.
 
Maybe I'm missing something here, but this sounds exactly like what was already done with 3rd edition by way of the SRD and OGL, and is currently being done with the Pathfinder system and its OGL. All the rules are available online, and the only difference is that the actual rulebooks are sold by Paizo at modest ($10) prices in PDF. So it seems like a similar strategy has already worked and could work again.
 
Tobold: "Of course this would be a rather daring and novel approach in the pen & paper roleplaying business."

No, it wouldn't be novel or daring. It is exactly the approach taken by Paizo for the Pathfinder spin off from 3.5. They provide the rules for free. See: http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/

These rules have been made available to be included in other commercial software. See: https://itunes.apple.com/no/app/pfr/id365514623?mt=8 That is just one example and there are several others.

I think the "freeware" approach to the basic rules was a significant cause of Pathfinder outselling 4e before Hasbro stopped publishing 4e material.
 
"The average D&D player is probably a XXL, at least in the US. Makes me wonder if their marketing department really knows their customer base....or cares to know."

Heck, they only need to watch The Simpsons or such!

Maybe they were afraid of being dissed for promoting stereotypes...
 
Maybe they do know that, and don't make shirts in that size so they won't reinforce stereotypes.
 
It won't work out for them if they did that. You don't need more than the basic books to have awesome adventures. In my house especially, it is very common to construct our own bits and pieces (places/monsters) using the rules just as the base building block.
 
Who are you kidding? A lot of people are downloading WotC stuff for free. *cough*torrent*cough* Who needs quality if nobody's buying anyway?

Because of this F2P, a lot more people who otherwise would give a shit about the game if it wasn't for the freebies, will be encouraged to play the game .

WotC can make money by selling deluxe books packs and campaign books.
 
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