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Nobody could dethrone ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ except Wizards of the Coast — and it may have done just that – GeekWire


(GeekWire Photo / Thomas Wilde)

Dungeons & Dragons is, by most standards, the tabletop roleplaying game. There are hundreds of other pen-and-paper RPGs, but D&D was the first to hit store shelves and has by far the most name recognition. It’s on a short list of brands, like Jell-O or the Game Boy, where the name is often used as a synonym for its type of product.

Further, D&D enjoyed a period of “explosive” growth that spun out of the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. Going into 2023, it looked like D&D had everything going for it, including an upcoming live-action movie, Honor Among Thieves, and one of the most anticipated video games of the year in Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.

Now, D&D might be about to hit a downturn, and it’s due to simple brand mismanagement. No company could realistically have gotten in D&D‘s way except its owner, Renton, Wash.-based Wizards of the Coast, and this month, it very much did.

Critical failure

Kirkland, Wash.-based Kobold Press has used the Open Game License to publish material for D&D 5th edition, such as 2016’s Tome of Beasts, shown above. (Kobold Press Image)

As previously reported, a Jan. 5 leak via io9’s Linda Concerga indicated that Wizards had plans to deauthorize its Open Game License (OGL), a public copyright notice that the company adopted in 2000. Under the terms of version 1.0a of the OGL, other companies were free to create, publish, and even monetize original material that’s based on or compatible with D&D without Wizards’ involvement.

Over the ensuing 23 years, the OGL led to the creation of a robust industry based on D&D, which ranges from spin-off games to live-play shows and podcasts to tie-in products like blank gaming journals.

It’s generally assumed that D&D enjoys a majority share of the tabletop gaming audience, although accurate play data has been difficult to come by until relatively recently, thanks to the rise of independent virtual tabletop spaces. A 2019 report by Roll20 indicated that just over 51% of the games being played on its service in Q3 2019 were based on D&D.

D&D has built a big part of that market dominance off the back of the OGL for three editions and two decades, by allowing Wizards of the Coast to effectively outsource a lot of game material, especially weird niche stuff, to third-party creators. There’s always a lot going on with D&D, but Wizards doesn’t have to be responsible for or even aware of most of it. Even companies that are ostensibly Wizards’ competitors, such as Atlanta’s White Wolf Publishing (Vampire: The Masquerade), have produced material for Dungeons & Dragons under the OGL.

What Wizards’ current management didn’t seem to understand or appreciate was that messing with the OGL had effectively become a third rail. As early as November, the rumor that Wizards would repeal or replace the OGL as part of its current One D&D initiative was enough to cause its own quiet controversy.

That discussion came at roughly the same time as Wizards of the Coast’s parent company Hasbro had its stock downgraded, on charges that Wizards had oversaturated the market for its collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Hasbro had also previously reported a 15% loss of revenue in its Q3 2022 financial results.

Then, in early Dec. 22, reports emerged that Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams had attended an investors’ meeting where she described D&D as “under-monetized.”

That set the scene for the D&D community to expect some naked money grab from Hasbro, if not Wizards of the Coast directly. Then the Jan. 5 leak hit, which confirmed many fans’ most cynical thoughts.

As per the leak, Wizards had considered an update to the OGL that would put much more power in Wizards’ hands. Under the original OGL 1.0a, independent creators don’t even have to tell Wizards they’re making a D&D product. Under its replacement from the leak, OGL 1.1, the same creators would have suddenly owed Wizards royalties, earnings reports, and at least partial licensing rights on any published D&D work, past or present.

Wizards took a full eight days to react to the leak, which was more than enough time for things to start to explode. To put it simply, this appears to have been the road-to-Damascus moment where players, analysts, and competing developers have all simultaneously realized that it might not actually be healthy for Wizards and D&D to occupy this much of the tabletop gaming space.

Reactions to the OGL 1.1 leak have included:

  • A boycott of the official D&D digital storefront, D&D Beyond, has been organized under the Twitter hashtag #DnDBegone.
  • A second hashtag, #OpenDND, was built to encourage game designers to not sign onto OGL 1.1 and demand that OGL 1.0a be kept in place. At time of writing, an associated petition has over 77,000 signatures.
  • Redmond, Wash.-based Paizo Publishing, creators of the Pathfinder tabletop RPG, has organized a coalition of independent game developers to develop a new OGL, the Open RPG Creative License (ORC). As of Jan. 19, Paizo’s ORC coalition reportedly includes over 1,500 companies.
  • Kobold Press, headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., announced a new fantasy RPG under the working title of Project Black Flag that will be compatible with Paizo’s ORC.
  • Swedish game publisher Free League issued a press release on Jan. 16 that it would develop two new Open Game Licenses of its own, which cover its licensed Year Zero Engine RPGs (Alien, Blade Runner, The Walking Dead) and the upcoming English localization of the fantasy game Dragonbane.

All at once, the Jan. 5 leak has damaged the D&D brand in the eyes of many of its most vocal players; led to at least one boycott of D&D‘s official digital storefront; and has given D&D‘s competitors a shot in the arm.

This includes the production and release of multiple new fantasy RPGs that are at least implicitly intended as alternatives for players who’re moving away from Dungeons & Dragons, some of which are being made by companies that were previously producing content for Dungeons & Dragons.

Damage control

(Wizards of the Coast Image)

Wizards of the Coast, for its part, does seem aware that there’s a problem. As a follow-up to its Jan. 13 apology, Wizards announced a new, significantly changed version of the OGL, 1.2 on Jan. 19 via the D&D Beyond website.

OGL 1.2, a “playtest” that Wizards claims is subject to change based on community feedback, explicitly walks back many of the more controversial changes in 1.1.

“What’s not in there? There’s no royalty payment, no financial reporting, no license-back, no registration, no distinction between commercial and non-commercial,” wrote Kyle Brink, executive producer for D&D. “Nothing will impact any content you have already published under OGL 1.0a. That will always be licensed under OGL 1.0a. Your stuff is your stuff.”

Under OGL 1.2, the core D&D mechanics will be “given to the community” via a Creative Commons license, which allows Wizards to maintain its copyright while also allowing others to freely copy, distribute, and build upon D&D.

That decision is tied to another feature of OGL 1.2, the explicit deauthorization of OGL 1.0a. This step is being taken, as per Brink, to allow Wizards of the Coast to use “protective options” that would be impossible under the terms of OGL 1.0a, in order to let Wizards act to address “offensive or hurtful content” published by third parties for D&D.

“We want an inclusive, safe play space for everyone,” Brink wrote. “This is deeply important to us, and OGL 1.0a didn’t give us any ability to ensure it.”

Other provisions in OGL 1.2 include a couple of unusual shots across the bow at independently-prodcued virtual tabletops (VTTs), such as Roll20 and Tabletop Simulator. The OGL 1.2 in its current state allows any VTT that simply reproduces “the experience of sitting around the table playing D&D with your friends,” but specifically disallows advanced features like custom spell animations.

This is widely seen by analysts (and cynical fans) as an attempt to preemptively stake out some real estate for D&D‘s own official VTT, which it announced alongside its One D&D initiative back in August.

Lawful neutral

Wizards’ insistence on deauthorizing the original OGL has led to an ongoing argument about whether or not it’s legally able to do so. This has given nerds, lawyers, and nerds who are lawyers a lot to talk about over the course of the last couple of weeks.

“At inception of the OGL, Wizards widely represented that OGL 1.0a was an irrevocable contract with obligations for both Wizards and participating publishers,” Azora Law’s Brian Lewis told GeekWire via email.

Lewis was the legal architect of the original OGL in 2000, and is currently working with numerous publishers, including Paizo, to develop the ORC license for the tabletop industry.

“Kit Walsh [senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation] argued here very persuasively that, viewed externally, this position has clear support under Washington law which holds that, unlike a license without consideration, an offer to contract cannot be revoked unilaterally once it has been accepted,” Lewis said.

As such, a legal argument can be made that the OGL 1.0a was a one-way trip. Wizards doesn’t have to offer the terms from OGL 1.0a to future third-party publishing partners, but it isn’t able to revoke that contract from anyone who’s already accepted it. Companies that have published indie D&D books in the last 22 years are theoretically clear to continue to do so under OGL 1.0a, but newcomers to the field are liable to have to abide by different rules.

What happens next

(Brent Roraback Photo)

It’s not really a question of whether or not the new OGL will change tabletop gaming, because it already has. Dungeons & Dragons is entrenched enough in the landscape that this isn’t likely to be more than a blip on its overall radar, but it’s now going to face a broad assortment of new challenges over the course of the rest of the year.

This could include a talent drain, as new publishers and indie creators opt to try to make their own games or work with other companies’ OGLs rather than deal with Wizards; the possibility of some real sales pressure from Paizo and its partners on the ORC license; and fans losing faith in the company and/or its current leadership.

Wizards of the Coast was already walking a tightrope with a vocal portion of its audience, due to its habit of provoking regular controversies. Its most recent issues involved the September revival of the Spelljammer campaign setting, where a race of monkey aliens called the hadozee were given a new origin with some unfortunate historical parallels.

It’s easy to write a lot of the OGL pushback off as just Twitter being Twitter, but at the same time, a significant portion of Wizards’ success in the last few years has come from content creators, many of whom have publicly split with the company in the last couple of weeks. It’s going to take some serious work for Wizards to win them back, if it’s even possible, and a management shakeup is not necessarily off the table.

The biggest change going forward is likely to be the new dominance of open game licenses in the tabletop field. With Paizo’s ORC coalition in particular, a lot of smaller games are now going to be compatible with one another, which could go a long way towards connecting some of their audiences. In the current state of pen-and-paper RPGs, no one company can realistically compete with Wizards, but 1,500 of them working together almost certainly can.


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