You don't know me. You probably wouldn't want to know me. If I was at a meeting of your #DnDNext development team, I would probably be there to help you decide who to fire and who to keep. This is a job I've trained for, and I job I won't do. I'm not one of the venture capital guys, I'm one of the ‘problem solving people.’ I'm one of the "we are deadlocked and cannot fix it, please help us," people. I could show you the degrees, I could show you the résumé, I could give you recommendations from the top problem solving professionals in the country. They’d tell you I scare them and that if you could get me to work for you you’d be damned lucky. Of course, I’m busy dying right now (or not, depending on what the specialists say today) so I’m not working for anyone.
You don’t have any reason to believe any of the above. This is a public letter, in an open forum, and I’m not stupid enough to attach any of the documents above to it because I believe in a wall of separation between public and private spheres in life. Role playing games are my hobby, something that has kept me sane between stays in the hospital. When I have been too sick to eat, I have still cracked a gaming book and prepped for my Saturday session of Dungeons and Dragons. My 20 year old son plays with us, and it has brought us closer together. I, myself, am a second generation gamer. I don’t like mixing my pleasure of gaming with my business of problem solving. I like to keep things in neat little boxes that do not spill over into each other. I am many things: A niche publisher, a problem solver, a scientist, an ethicist, an author, a mother, a wife and also a DM. It is from most of these boxes that I’m bringing you this urgent plea:
This is an attempt at an intervention. One of the things I am supposed to do when I problem solve is give you unconditional positive regard towards all the ideas you are generating. I’m supposed to encourage you towards divergent thinking…you need to have a quantity of ideas, not a quality of ideas. Quality comes later, through refinement. Right now you are running your playtest and gathering all sorts of data, you should be trucking along just trying out new things…you should be in the idea generation phase. (Technically, back into that phase.) A good facilitator doesn’t intervene unless the idea generation goes off the rails…some of the things we’re trained to recognize as ‘going off the rails,’ are things like when a development team starts blaming an employee (current or former) for all of their problems, when the team starts to get cynical (or even nasty) about their target audience, when the team gets defensive about criticism from other teams, even things like racism and mental illness are things a facilitator needs to keep an eye out for. I’m not going to tell you what message some of your employees sent out that was like a “help me, Obi-Wan,” to the Jedi masters of problem solving because my job isn’t to assign blame. My job is to get you guys to work together. That’s why this letter is addressed to the whole company, not to the development team, or even the one who screamed out for help.
I’m going to break almost every rule of problem solving in this letter except for the one about letting any one of you assign blame for the situation you’ve gotten yourselves in. In part it’s because I honestly believe some of you can’t see what you are doing, and some of you say you’re doing one thing and are doing another. It’s not a good thing however you shake it. Your messages, either intentionally or not, are projecting a type of desperation and dissention that makes your company look bad to people in the know and makes your company look like you’re indiscriminately trying to offend people to that segment of people who want to be offended. I don’t think you can see this. I think you are so deep into consensus-building that you’ve lost your heads. When problem solvers are drinking at their conventions after having saved companies like yours, they call the phase of product development (or more accurately, product destruction) you’re entering right now ‘having your head up your ass.’ Since we are paid to not be profane, we use more acceptable phrase “consensus building for the sake of consensus.”
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, consensus building for the sake of consensus, but when it’s called by its third name people realize it’s a big deal. Its other name is groupthink, and when it happens in medical product development, or in engineering, it gets people killed. You don’t have to worry about exploding o-rings on your Player’s Handbook, or that the hidden side effects of your Dungeon Master’s Guide will cause a ten-fold increase in heart attacks, but you still have a potential here to still commit brand suicide, and people like me don’t want that. People like me are invested in the Dungeons and Dragons brand. We’re actually more emotionally invested in the brand than other brands that have had these problems because some of us have literally been ostracized for our commitment to the brand. I know people who had their books burned by their parents because of Jack Chick’s malfeasance, for example, and one of my close friends briefly chose homelessness as a teen rather than give up gaming as his fundamentalist parents demanded. Most long-term gamers know at least one such story personally. You have people who fought battles for women’s equality and civil rights within the microcosm of their gaming community. You have three generations, maybe four, of people whose identity was defined as “gamer” at a time when they had some (real or imagined) personal risk in gaming.
That kind of brand loyalty is stuff you can’t buy, and, in fact, the so-called “edition wars,” have actually led to a group of people with their own emotional interactions with the Dungeons and Dragons brand, albeit with less risk than the earlier cohorts, and some of the unfair criticisms of #DnDNext are based on that brand loyalty. I cannot tell you, and hopefully someone has told you, how valuable that brand loyalty is. To give an example, there is actually a huge and apparently successful ad buy from Miracle Whip based on people feeling ostracism over mayonnaise right now, an ad buy that’s resulted in social media buzz…over people’s emotional relationship and group identification with mayonnaise. I challenge you to find someone whose parents burned their mayonnaise, but people are still willing to sort themselves into mayonnaise and Miracle Whip tribes gladly, and post their tribal status to social media, often with the company preferred hashtags and links. Miracle Whip and the second most popular mayonnaise are, of course, both made by Kraft foods, which get the money either way. I want you to keep that thought in your heads for a little while as I continue this letter. Kraft gets the money even if their Miracle Whip campaign increases mayonnaise sales, because brand loyalty within condiments is very consistent and Kraft Mayonnaise users aren’t going to switch brands as long as the product stays the same.
Your product development is stuck in the consensus-building for the sake of building consensus phase because you are problem solving the wrong problem. Remember when I said I was going to break the rules of problem solving for you? This is another example. A lot of the time, professionals who are helping a company solve their problems have to finesse and guide their group to an understanding that they are solving the wrong problem. Identifying the problem is step one of problem solving, but if a team comes in obsessed upon a problem (real or perceived) they are going to focus upon that problem until they make the realization that they are solving the wrong problem, no matter what the outside voice says. My own emotional interaction with the Dungeons and Dragons brand tells me that it’s too valuable a commodity to allow to be further damaged (at least without trying to do something), so I am willing to bend the rules of problem solving to get you to see you’re going the wrong way. You’re going to have to take my word for it, however, because I don’t have the time or physical presence required to allow you to keep problem solving the wrong problem until you realize that for yourself.
Currently, you’re faced with two major obstacles. One is the availability of your materials on file sharing networks, which is a problem for everyone who is in publishing of any kind–my own company included. The other is the fact that you’ve got nearly 40 years of materials out there and you want people to buy new things. One model for getting people to buy new things when old things are out there is planned obsolescence, which is the current model you are using for Dungeons and Dragons, whether you intended to use this model or not. The problem with planned obsolescence is that it can create huge feelings of ill-will towards a company. Probably the most famous long-term examples of planned obsolescence backlash have been in the automotive and kitchen gadget industries, and companies have profited from selling themselves to consumers as the ‘lasts forever,’ alternative to the brands using planned obsolescence. Volkswagen, Subaru, Kitchen-aid and Maytag have each sold themselves as alternatives to planned obsolescence with great results.
Immediately upon hearing rumors of #DnDNext, a significant number of fans of the current edition began to get confrontational and disheartened in social media. They feel abandoned despite repeated assurances by the WOTC social networking team and even some uninvolved third parties that continued new releases will happen. Their general view seems to be that there is limited point in investment in further books and materials when it’s going to be rendered useless so rapidly. As social buzz for #DnDNext increases, these voices continue to get louder. This is a classical planned obsolescence backlash reaction. As I said, whether you intended to use planned obsolescence as your prior model for dealing with decades of older material existing in garages, attics and lovingly kept collections or not, it’s the model you are using, and it is getting what should’ve been an expected reaction to planned obsolescence–the same backlash we’ve seen with everything from cars to shoes.
Remember as well that when the economy is doing poorly or is in recovery, planned obsolescence backlash increases dramatically. This is not going to affect young buyers, but it is going to affect the collectors and long-term gamers who are willing to give a new version of their old system a shot. If the social media reactions of the current edition crowd is any indication, your sales of the current edition have already peaked and if you didn’t anticipate that you need to hire better people. I don’t know how much more honestly I could put that. If no one saw a planned obsolescence backlash coming as editions have lasted less and less time, someone needs to lose their job.
According to your company’s buzz, the ‘goal’ of #DnDNext is to provide a comprehensive ‘Edition of Editions,’ to bring the people playing multiple old systems of the game into the fold of the new edition. This is the obvious solution to the problem of a glut of old material and the fact that almost all of it is available online for free, but it creates ill-will that not only makes some people less likely to purchase anything at all, but also makes a subset of people who would never usually post to file-sharing services angry enough to do so as a form of corporate vandalism. They feel you are screwing them, so why not screw you right back?
It’s possible it was never your intention to make an edition of editions. If that is true, I have to question the logic of the way it’s being currently sold to the public. Many people are aware of the corporate ‘failure’ that was “New Coke” in 1985. Coke made a change in formulation, people didn’t like it, and then the reformulated “Coke Classic” went on to outsell the pre-1985 Coke–this second effect has often been called the ‘real’ purpose of the Coke formula change, and there are entire websites dedicated to the theory that Coca-Cola intentionally took the hit in the pocket book of “New Coke” in order to get the end result. Executives for Coca-Cola have always aggressively denied this, and no company has ever replicated the result of changing from an old to a new to a “classic” product. If this is your intention, it’s boneheaded. Coke was able to scrap their product and get a new ‘old’ one in less than 80 days. Putting out a terrible edition to get love for a classic one intentionally is a very dangerous gamble. Your more furious critics would argue it’s already been tried with Dungeons and Dragons anyways.
Coke Classic is actually a good thing to keep in mind as I lead you to the real problem you should be solving. Rather than trying to bring players into the fold of a single edition of editions, you need to be cognizant of the fact that a chunk of players have resisted this exact action this three times now, with more falling off each time and a significant chunk ending up infuriated and giving up on the Dungeons and Dragons brand altogether. While these players are replaced by new players, you’re always going to have that happening generationally, as the people who go through phase-gaming (those who game for generally less than 5 years) come in and go out and while the lifetime gamers either stick to their idealized editions or slowly switch. Ideally, you can make money off of both groups, and that should be the problem you are solving:
How do we keep as many gamers as possible buying as many of our products as possible?
The old publishing model was based on having a high inventory of products and selling the same product to as wide an audience as possible. This may be hard for you to realize, but this publishing model is dying. In college textbook publishing, for example, a University may order only enough of a particular edition of a particular textbook to cover one class, and as Publish on Demand (POD) technology has improved, this is what we use to fulfill these small orders. [For example, my own company is able to make 45 copies of one POD book for a teacher with a change he wants for his class. It takes about 10 minutes to make his customized edition, which we get an extra $5 for per copy, and only costs the company a few cents more and 10 minutes of an employee's time...we end up with a very happy customer and a profit and a reputation for going the extra mile. In addition, we now have that edition in the machine if he wants to order more.] POD allows publishers, especially small publishers, to retain huge back catalogs that never go out of stock and never have to be retired. Entire back catalogs can be released and re-released, in hardcovers or soft, either by purchasing a POD machine or by contracting with a publisher/distributor that offers POD.
Once the POD files are created, when a customer orders a book it is created and shipped. For customers ordering through places like amazon.com, which our distributor has a deal with, there is no difference between ordering one of ours and ordering something from someone else, although in theory if 500 people ordered the same back catalog book at once we might end up having to add a day to their shipping. Using POD technology, you can create comprehensive versions of each previously existing Dungeons and Dragons rules system. Collect them into 4 or 5 different subsystems. If you're obsessed with using the old and dying publishing model, make the last subsystem the one you're going to market to game stores and hobby shops via old fashioned warehousing and keep all previous editions in print in POD. While you're at it, get them on people's kindles and ipads while you still have a chance to control that content. If you refuse to have them be available this way, players will always get them the way they are getting them now, illegally.
|Mock-up. Not an actual logo. Provided as an example ONLY.
You can use a simple consolidated logo to distinguish them. Your players will not be confused by this. AD&D rule books get branded green (or red, or blue, whatever), Rules Cyclopedia (including basic, expert, etc.) get branded purple (or yellow, or whatever.) New materials can be created either for a system or for a comprehensive system. A module can be labeled with the blue, green, whatever logo or it can be comprehensive, working for all the different versions. Create rules for swapping between the systems and make books of how to go back and forth. Then....
Get the hell out of the "making a new system" business. Stick with one of them (or all of them) and instead become a content provider for that system. Create modules, gadgets, computer programs, games, worlds. Sell monster supplements, new editions of old books with fixed-up artwork, modules, pre-generated characters, maps, rulers, minis, grids, movies, notebooks and lunch boxes. Stop trying to tell the people what they want and instead, give them what they want. If people are currently playing four different systems of D&D (and they are: Rules Cyclopedia (including Basic, etc.), AD&D (both editions), 3/3.5 and 4) then obviously what they want is four different systems.
You can do it. The same public that's making some of you so angry by not all going down the path you want them to can help....just ask them. If you ask them, they will help. We will help.