Roleplaying industry predictions

If you follow gaming at all, you know that the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released. As I suspected, the rules are, essentially, the rules that govern a video game captured in book form. As I did not suspect, the result is actually pretty good. It’s still very crunchy (i.e. rules-heavy), but it is pretty well designed crunch, with a lot of design focus given to keeping what is fun and ditching what is not.

page imagesThe effort is helped quite a bit by some interesting layout choices. In particular, their use of white comes as welcome change from their 3E design and somehow looks modern and slick. After years of role-playing products designed with ink on most of the page, usually with some kind of pale or gray image as the background, the open style used in 4E might change the way a lot of books get designed. I remember noticing the use of white in the gorgeous Ptolus and wondering why more RPG books didn’t use it. Fourth Edition’s color and font choices (mostly a family called Mentor) are also an interesting break from their past and, I think, well selected.

A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast finally unveiled their new Gaming System License (GSL). Not so good. It’s many shortcomings are being debated in forums all over now, but a thread on ENWorld is particularly notable, as it includes several publishers of 3E supplements using the Open Gaming License (OGL). Posts from a user named Orcus are worth reading, in particular, because he is a lawyer as well as a game publisher (Clark Peterson from Necromancer Games). Even though Necromancer’s page currently claims certain products will be ported to 4E, this forum indicates that at least some of the books mentioned (something called the Tome of Horrors, in particular) will not be, now that the details of the license have been unveiled.

One of the main issues is what some are calling the “poison pill” clauses (even though it isn’t really a classical poison pill). Essentially, it makes converting a “product line” (whatever that means) from the OGL to the new GSL a one-way process, and contains language that essentially would put a publisher’s future into the hands of Wizards of the Coast. I’m not a lawyer, but from how I read the GSL (PDF here), it seems to me that publishers would be fools to sign it as it is presently written, particularly if they already have created OGL content. It also pretty much shuts down any fan-based computer tools, like character trackers, reference tools and the like (though there will supposedly be a “fansite” related policy released later).

So, unless the license is changed, you can bet that not many publishers are going to fully embrace it, though many will probably make a few books for it. I’m guessing that most of the following will occur:

  • Well established product lines (that is, those who could claim a measure of brand recognition and loyalty) will continue to publish these lines under the OGL. They will eventually be forced to remove the d20 logo from them, but it will probably not matter.
  • Well established companies, if they publish for 4E at all, will do so with entirely new product lines. They will be able to leverage their name, but not their brands.
  • A few new companies will arise that make only 4E products, but will focus more on adventures than anything else. At least one of these companies will, in fact, be owned by another established company that is still publishing OGL-only material.
  • After realizing that the GSL won’t let it follow its current plans for 4E integration, Pathfinder will remain 3.5, and will become something of a flagship product for those still using the OGL, mutating into the semi-official mechanism by which the 3.5 rule set evolves.
  • Because of this, friction will be created between Wizards and Paizo, Pathfinder‘s publisher. Since Paizo has a very close relationship with Wizards, the result will be that Pathfinder will be sold before the year is over.
  • More than half of newly created companies that enter into the D&D related publishing business will publish under 3E rules using the OGL.
  • The amount of shelf space given to 4E products in gaming stores will not exceed that given to 3E products. Ever. In Borders and other large book stores, however, you won’t be able to find 3E products at all.
  • Numerous fan sites will emerge that convert third party OGL content into 4E. They will be constantly under threat from Wizards of the Coast, who will pay a lot of legal fees to continually fight them as they shift around.
  • Wizards will become more vocal about copyright infringement on p2p networks.

I’d love to see some other open source game take off in the wake of GSL backlash. Unfortunately, if this happens, it is likely to be Pathfinder, rather than a better system, such as FATE (also available under the OGL license) or Wushu Open (released under the Creative Commons). Even more unfortunately, there aren’t that many other viable alternatives. There are certainly a number of free RPGs out there, but few of them are open source.

Burying the dragon

Unsurprisingly, after canceling all of its licensing agreements, publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is releasing Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition.

While a forum thread seems to be tracking all the details, one thing strikes me about their announcement: it doesn’t make any mention of the Open Gaming License (OGL) or the d20 System. Since WotC has the power to revoke the latter, I’m assuming that they will soon do so, probably as quietly as possible. So you may want to download the SRD while you still can. Update: Evidently, during a press conference, Wizards did state that 4th Edition would use OGL and a new SRD. This still doesn’t prevent them from revoking d20, however.

One other interesting bit is their on-line strategy, which really does look a bit like they are trying to pull a Steve Jackson and become the central, perhaps only, online hub for the game, all built around the horribly named Gleemax. Though I can’t find a more official link, in another forum post, something called “D&D Insider Fact Sheet” is reproduced, claiming this is “one community to rule them all”.

You can bet that non-WotC publishers of d20 games will be scrambling. Perhaps they will move to Green Ronin’s True20 license, which seems to have been constructed specifically to deal with this eventuality.

Wizards is clearly betting that their fan base will follow them. I’m not sure that’s true. It’s not clear to me if the Third Edition succeeded on its own merits, or because the OGL and d20 gave players a much larger and more diverse product line. I suspect the latter.

Slaying the dragon

A little part of my childhood was killed last week. The first magazine to which I subscribed, Dragon, will no longer be published as a magazine. It, along with Dungeon, rely on a license from Wizards of the Coast (WotC), which Wizards is evidently eliminating. My fond memories of pawing through the issues I got in the mail each month (from around #70 to #125) already took one blow, when I gave the issues to a fellow gamer during a move, content in the knowledge that I had PDF versions of them. Even though I haven’t read the magazine for years, its cancellation now makes me irrationally sad.

It is also the latest in a line of such cancellations, as Wizards appears to be attempting to pull all intellectual property rights back to itself. It chose not to renew the Dragonlance license to Weis & Hickman a couple of days ago as well. White Wolf reverted its license to Ravenloft last August. Even Code Monkey Publishing, who writes d20-related software, was refused an extension to their license last November. According to them, Wizards said this was “because of future product considerations”.

What this means is not clear. Comments from the soon-to-be-former publisher of Dragon indicate that both magazines will continue to be released electronically on the WotC site. It’s possible that Wizards is just trying to be the lone nexus of all D&D related information, much in the way that Steve Jackson Games is for their own games.

Reading the tea leaves more closely, however, suggests that Wizards, after opening the content of some of their Dungeons & Dragons product with the hugely popular Open Gaming License (OGL) and the d20 System, may be looking to close it again with their next edition. The d20 System radically altered the economic landscape of role-playing games, for better and worse, and serves as an interesting case study of open licensing in a real economy. I’m not much of a fan of the d20 system, but very much like the idea of open gaming. One interesting facet of this is that, while the OGL is not revocable, the d20 license is, which may be bad news for a lot of gaming publishers. Add to that the fact that much gaming content might not even be copyrightable, and it looks like the RPG economy is going to be shaken again in the near future.

While all this is happening, Shadowrun‘s license has been sold again. The new company is (ironically, if you know the game) based in Seattle, which puts them close to FASA Interactive, a Microsoft owned company that owns the electronic rights to the game, which they are using to make a multiplayer shooter video game to be released Real Soon Now. I’m not sure the proximity will be relevant, but could be interesting. It also implies that SR will probably have a Fifth Edition before too long, even though it is the same staff as it was under WizKids.

Regardless of what games you play though, dice will likely be getting more expensive. At I-CON, I talked with one of the guys at Chessex, one of the largest dice vendors around. All of their product is made in Germany (often using machines that no one builds anymore), so they are getting nailed by the Euro-dollar exchange rate. As of this writing, buying 100€ worth of goods costs about 136USD. At the start of 2006, this same 100€ worth of goods cost only 120USD. The Chessex guy claimed they’d been resisting passing this onto the customer, but couldn’t continue doing so. This will probably make feeding my dice addiction at least 13% more painful.

So, taking all this in, I suspect role-playing, economically anyway, will get worse before it gets better, and a lot of gaming companies (and probably retailers as well) are going to get nuked. At the same time, however, companies like Drive-Thru RPG, which sells watermarked (but non-DRM) versions of role-playing products in PDF format, seem to be gaining steam and micro publishers based around electronic publishing seem to be springing up all over. Many products from these authors are extremely innovative, either thematically, mechanically, or both. I suspect that, within three years, most current paper RPG publishers will have either folded or been bought out, regressing us back to WotC, White Wolf, probably Steve Jackson Games, and maybe a half-dozen smaller players. At the same time, the electronically published RPG market will heat up a lot. It will also be where the cool stuff is happening, as the talented authors become more inclined to innovate once outside of the d20 realm. We might see one or two print-on-demand attempts, which will likely fail. In this environment, I expect open licenses to fade to nothing in the printed world, but catch on a little in the electronic micro-publisher world. Someone coming up with a good, open system, might be able to capitalize on the closing of d20 to build a big community of authors, if they time it right. I wish I had such as system, or a better oracle. Anyone know of good candidates?