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An Outsiders Look At What D&D Is Doing As A Brand

dd-imageSo What Is WotC Doing With D&D?

We all think of D&D as a game, but I don’t think that’s how the people over at Wizards of the Coast are looking at D&D anymore. They’re treating it as a brand and are focused on storytelling. The game is not intended to be the prime money maker, but the promotional piece that creates some money and sets up everything else. This came up through a conversation when a listener over on Misdirected Mark Productions, I believe Rob Whitaker, asked about WotC creating a book that helps with world building and would have examples in it for how to do Dark Sun or Dragonlance, for example. I thought it was an interesting idea, but because D&D is focused on the brand of D&D and storytelling they don’t necessarily want other people making stories in their worlds, they want people to buy into their stories. Lets take a look at why I think that.

Product Creation

cosFirst let’s look at their strategy of product creation. They’re looking to sell the customers stories and facilitate the ability to play the game, not give the customers ways to make their own stories. Since the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual came out the majority of books have been campaigns: Rise of Tiamat (2 books), Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, and Storm Kings Thunder. The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide seems to be the only book that doesn’t fit that plan and wasn’t all that great anyways in my opinion. It’s fine as a FR gazetteer but I don’t think we really need it to re-familiarize ourselves with the Forgotten Realms. Doing so creates a sense of community. If everyone plays Curse of Strahd then we can all talk about our Curse of Strahd experiences, both the differences and the similarities.

Licensing

Spell cards through Gale Force 9, mini’s via Wiz Kids, board and card games through various publishers. Comics through IDW. There’s more, but they’re letting other people who are better at making those things and marketing those things create those things, and are still getting a cut of the money.

kobtob1001_500The DMs Guild

They created the DMs Guild on Drive Thru for scouting talent and letting people throw up whatever they want so there is a constant flow of content. Plus there is the SRD, so publisher’s like Kobold Press can now make 5e versions of things. Have you seen the Tome of Beasts? It’s a beautiful book and probably a better monster manual than the Monster Manual, and I really like the most recent iteration of that book. So when it’s not a story WotC is trying to tell with D&D they’re not bothering with it.

The MMO

Oh yeah. They farmed out the licence to an MMO that is free to play with in game stuff you can buy, but every update to the game is right in sync with whatever story line is going on in D&D. More synergy. More storytelling. More focus.

Actual Play
 We all think of D&D as a game but I don’t think that’s how the people over at Wizards of the Coast are looking at D&D anymore. They’re treating it as a brand and are focused on storytelling. 

They’ve thrown money into APs, both streaming live and highly edited ones. The Force Grey Giant Hunter’s series and Acquisitions Incorporated series are prime examples of this. Let’s not count the numerous APs, both video and streaming, that are all over the place that have people playing D&D. Critical Role is the most famous of those with Matt Mercer who is also the DM of Force Grey. YouTube, podcasting, internet celebrities, and in a bold stroke, live streaming the Acquisitions Incorporated game at Pax Prime in movie theaters across the United States via Fathom events have all been storytelling opportunities and marketing moments for the brand of D&D using new media. The APs are also showing people how you can play D&D so we can see it and mimic our favorite styles instead of just trying and figure it out on our own.

The Novels

So there are rumors that the novel lines for the Forgotten Realms are going away, that Bob Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden is about to wrap up his possible final story, that Ed Greenwood is done with Elminster, and we know Erin Evan’s Brimstone Angels series is done. How is that a focus on story? They’re cleaning up their continuity. They want the characters we focus on to be the ones of their choosing that are coming in the future.

Virtual Table Topsroll-20fantasy-grounds

WotC now supports both Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds with licenses and content.  You can buy Storm Kings Thunder on either of these platforms to get all the stuff you’d need to run them, maps, tokens, stat blocks. They’re pushing their story through them and giving more people ways to play.

The Dead Zone

Here’s my last thing. Why have a play test that went on for years without putting out anything new? You’re not making money on the game. The answer is they probably didn’t need to because it wasn’t costing WotC that much in the grand scheme of things while the game lay fallow. It gave them time to create a game that would sell well initially and then become a moderate to minor money making line and promotional tool for the brand of D&D.

So Why?

Why all this? Why focus on storytelling? Because they’re building a fan base for the new movie that’s coming out and storytelling is a more universal way to draw people in than game mechanics. While we as gamer’s tend to enjoy mechanical systems and how we can build things, storytelling is a much more universal idea for people to latch onto and still includes us gamers.

Now before you get all grognardian on me, hear me out. We still have the game. The game is being supported. Material is coming out from WotC and other locations, so it’s not like they don’t care about the game. It’s still a pretty important part of the plan because it’s a major avenue they have to deliver story to us. There’s also another benefit. If you hate game iterations this is great. Because the focus on storytelling mean the games life will be longer. We’re not getting splat book bloat because just selling books isn’t the whole plan or even a profitable one for them.

Now what do you mean it’s not profitable? They sell tons of copies of books every time they put one out.

Armchair Financier

Ok. I’m gonna armchair finance this thing for a second and please feel free to disagree with me in the comments below if you have a better understanding of how corporate financial structure works. It won’t be hard. I’m not a corporate guy, but I know a bunch of them. Is that like staying at a Holiday Inn last night? Not sure but lets go with it.

Yes, D&D sells a bunch of copies of a book every time they put one out, but they’re Hasbro. D&D does well but doesn’t make Monopoly money or even Ticket to Ride money. Their profit margins are way different for what is successful and not successful and in the past that splat book a month process didn’t meet their profit margin requirements. If they wanted to keep making D&D stuff they needed to do something different with it and decided to use D&D as a promotional tool for a movie and expand D&D from an RPG to a brand because a successful movie, and all the licensing and exposure bumps from said movie, will also kick up sales across the board to everything and make all their licensing deals in the future more profitable. The nice thing about the process they’re going through — the books they are releasing, the DMs Guild, and the licensing agreements — is they can maintain the money streams without wasting a lot of capital. I mean how much do you think a 100,000-unit book run costs, and I’m sure that’s probably on the low end of what WotC actually orders, when they order books? If you do that once or twice a year and don’t sell enough books it doesn’t hurt that bad when you’re looking at a giant paycheck from a movie and all the residual benefits that come with it. If you do that once a month and have three bad months’ in a row corporate starts firing people.

So that’s what I think the brand of D&D is up to with the best evidence I can garner to support my thesis, where they’re aiming at, and why they’re aiming for it. I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject and see why you believe them. Also, have a great day.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "An Outsiders Look At What D&D Is Doing As A Brand"

#1 Comment By Marc Windahl On October 7, 2016 @ 8:15 am

“Ok. I’m gonna armchair finance this thing for a second and please feel free to disagree with me in the comments below if you have a better understanding of how corporate financial structure works.”

Actually, I am going to agree and pile on with a few facts:

1) Its well documented that what killed TSR was making a bunch of books that cost more to produce than the sales. (aka Losing Money)

2) WotC was very clear that some previous versions were built based on feedback from sites where people argued about how to build characters rather than understanding how the game was played at the table. Now, I loved the earlier editions and have boxes full of books. But the reason I decided 5e rather than Pathfinder was PF had TOO MANY books. If you like to DM (or play) a good story, having people constantly bring things in from books you have never seen that break the story sucks! 5e lets you get access to ONE book and you can start as a player. 3.5e needed multiple books bought, read, and understood to be able to step into a pick-up game at the local store. Simple means lower entry and it is a lot more profitibile to sell more copies of a book with writing and art already paid for then a few copies of many books.

Stepping outside the dollar discussion, I think you overlooked the “simple” nature of 5e. AD&D had the hundreds of charts from its wargame roots. 2e had THACO, etc. 5e has a system that lets even new players play an entire encounter without once reaching for the book. Easy to learn, easy to play, easy to grow the game.

Overall very good article, but I do think you underestimate the value that building the story has on building the brand independent of the movie. It amazes me how many articles from a whole slew of non “gaming’ media sources I have seen in the last 30 days on the “renaissance” of D&D. Much of what you list above like Acquisitions Inc, Force Grey, and I will add Dice, Camera, Action, have helped with this, but it is the story, low entry costs, and profits from selling many copies of a few books that makes 5e a winner.

Again, very good article. Thank you!

#2 Comment By Chris Sniezak On October 7, 2016 @ 10:01 am

Thanks Marc for the kind words and for the add ons. I’m right with you on the dice camera action and the ease of entry the game provides these days.

That ease of entry is pretty huge in the grand scheme of things. I just for get sometimes because of a lot of the other games I play and didn’t think about 5e D&D as compared to other versions of D&D so thank you again for hitting my blind spot.

#3 Comment By Andy Warcoholic On October 17, 2016 @ 2:58 am

For me, what I think killed TSR off was the evil hag (I don’t need to name her, you know who she is) in charge of the company ordered more than twice the usual number of novels per year that had been done before, even though she knew the novels didn’t sell that great or very fast. Then she blew all the company capital on that idiotic dragon dice (or was it dungeon dice?) game and something like 90% of it was returned unsold…

Personally, I think she did it on purpose. It was no secret she held gaming and gamers in disdain, and there are rumors she was once heard remarking that selling TSR was going to be her retirement. I think she purposefully tanked TSR to sell it off, and that she planned it from the beginning! Okay, rant over. 😛

#4 Comment By RogerDalton On October 7, 2016 @ 10:55 am

I think you are right on the money with this article. Hasbro has made a ton of money by combining toy lines with media lines (Transformers, GI Joe, and My Little Pony, obviously, but even Battleship and Monopoly are getting movies). The modern movie strategy is to find something in the public consciousness, and use it as a source of evergreen story content. Marvel has been wildly successful with this strategy and everyone wants to replicate it. Hence the DC movies and TV shows, and the new release schedule for the Star Wars franchise. Even if D&D were wildly successful, it would make only a fraction of what a movie would make if it ends up being a breakout hit that starts a film franchise. The first Transformers movie made $700 million box office on a $150 million budget. The entire hobby games market is only $880 million per year. So if they can turn D&D into a film/TV franchise a la Marvel, it is a many-fold increase in the value of D&D as a property.

D&D is definitely more in the public consciousness now more than ever before (see Stranger Things [I am surprised that I couldn’t find any reference to WotC/Hasbro being involved in production], Big Bang Theory, Community, etc), so its just to the level where they think they can steward it into the next mini-MCU. It’s already been announced that a D&D movie is in the works at Warner Bros, obviously, and with how hard they are reaching with Battleship, Ouija, and Monopoly movies, D&D must seem like a slam dunk.

#5 Comment By Erik Schmidt On October 8, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

Chris, I really appreciate this piece.

There’s been a fair amount of tooth-gnashing about WotC’s current D&D strategy, often based on the notion that the company isn’t doing enough to “support” the game. The implicit assumption in that line of thinking is that the way to keep D&D alive is to continue to sell supplement after supplement after supplement. As Marc Windahl alluded to, this actually makes the game more intimidating to newcomers. D&D can survive if existing players buy more books, but it won’t expand and thrive if pushing out more supplements raises the perceived complexity of the game and makes it so intimidating that newcomers won’t give it a try.

The long term value of a well-managed transmedia property is, as RogerDalton pointed out, impossible to ignore. WotC appears to be carefully building a balanced transmedia D&D brand. You can involve yourself in D&D in a variety of ways – through computer games, novels, actual play video, board games, movies, and yes, tabletop roleplaying.

And if the overall brand is profitable, it will be in WotC and Hasbro’s best interest to keep the tabletop roleplaying line healthy. The boxed set is by all accounts selling quite well, as are the core books, and the story-focused approach to supplements is tailored not just to the overall brand strategy, but to how many people actually prep for and play tabletop RPGs these days.

It looks to me like WotC really stepped back and got away from the myopia that hurt them in the past. It’s exciting to see them building out this new and expansive vision of D&D.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On October 13, 2016 @ 10:35 am

As Marc Windahl alluded to, this actually makes the game more intimidating to newcomers

Amen. Or returning-to-the-fold White Box players. I loved 3.5 for the ease of use, not so much the pile-on bolt-ons that arguably broke more than they fixed (what I call the Games Workshop Design Approach). Pathfinder came with a whole game world that had to be assimilated in order to attract players and so I won’t be running that thank you very much. D&D 4E was a desperate attempt to make RPGs look like CCGs (which Wizards understood well). 5e is a delightful return to form from where I sit.

As an aside, WoC did the vendors no favors with 4E either, announcing a nebulous new edition more than a year out, stalling 4E sales – and lumbering the vendors with yards of unsellable books – and all but killing the encounters movement in my neck of the woods. I may not have played D&D in those days, but I sure as heck watched carefully. Your vendors are your vanguard in building a brand.

As for the profit in books, PEG shows the way forward on that front: Re-using artwork cleverly and having an intelligent attitude toward PDF sales has meant they are wildly prolific wrt books of extremely high quality, color-rich content. Refusing to sell PDFs and needing new art are two really big ways to push people away from your printed products, first because people simply do not consume print the same way they did in ’76 and second because art is expensive.

For me the cost of PDFs has become a deciding factor as to whether I’ll even invest in a new RPG. I usually want both print and PDF versions of any book I’m going to use. The PDF gets used on my hour and more commute to plan games and the book gets read at home when it’s raining and I need cheering up and used at table when I don’t have to share (games are now populated by clods who will eat half a pizza then reach for my rulebooks before cleaning up, and grease and paper do not mix).

But when I look at a game and see fifteen shelf feet of supplements, I’m definitely in two minds about dipping my feet in the water.

#7 Comment By Wormys_Queue On October 9, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

I have two issues with the strategy as you describe it. First being that it kinda depends on the new D&D movie being a huge financial success. Now maybe I’m wrong (living in Germany, so my perspective on that may be skewed) but I don’t think that D&D as a brand has the same appeal to a mainstream audience than Warcraft or LotR has. So even if it will be a really good flick (and I don’t think that’s guaranteed either) it may turn out that the movie doesn’t meed Hasbro’s expectations which could speel doom for D&D as a brand.

The second thing is (and I’ll freely admit that this is a personal thing) is that I (as a customer) don’t care about D&D as a “brand” one bit. What I care about is role-playing. Now I like story-telling a lot, so I don’t mind WotC going this route in general, but I also happen to like rule options and campaign settings. So if WotC concentrates one of these aspects they better blow me away with the results and that just didn’t happen so far. I’m not saying they are bad, but at the moment I prefer the storys delivered by Paizo and other publishers and while I like to modify those stories to fit into the Forgotten Realms or Eberron there’s just no need for me to do this by using 5E rules.

In the end, I can’t see where the advantage of WotC’s D&D strategy for me as a customer is. Maybe they need to do this to survive in the Hasbro environment, but as far as that’s the case, I’m still better served by smaller publishers as long as those publish what I actually want to have. I could hope that a successful movie brings new people into the roleplaying community but I’m not too positive about that.

#8 Comment By Tomcollective On October 11, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

I recently played D&D with my young niece and nephew, my brother, and my stepson. So, 3 kids 13 and 14 in age, and another adult who hasn’t gamed in at least 5 or more years. Everyone had complete characters ready to go inside of an hour, and minutes later they were clearing out a thieve’s hide out having fun. WOTC, being a Hasbro company, probably wants an outcome like this as much or even more than anything we crusty old heads gripe about. Branding is about building a good association. You don’t care about the brand because you already know that gaming is fun. But the general public, who WOTC is selling to, still need convincing, and then need to be taught to play. Crunch complicates this process. New settings, to a lesser extent, also complicate this process. There are probably ways to build us old heads into the overall marketing of the game, but until that happens, this might be the lay of the land for some time.

Unlike with Star Wars, I think WOTC is doing a great job working with the community this time around. But that’s just me.

#9 Comment By Wormys_Queue On October 11, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

>> You don’t care about the brand because you already know that gaming is fun.

Nah, I’m not caring about the brand, because the past proved that it simply isn’t important for the hobby to survive. And as far as the general public is concerned: they will never be convinced and roleplaying will ever stay a niche hobby. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind having an easy accessible system out there, to ease newcomers into the process of roleplaying. But a movie won’t help anything with that, MMOs won’t help anything with that and every other medium which has nothing to do with roleplaying won’t get the job done either. It’s like with the Warcraft movie. Didn’t make the servers explode with new players either. In an age where people are addicted to instant gratification, roleplaying has no chance to get as popular as it might have been years ago.

Still I commend you for teaching kids this great hobby (I’m doing the same with mine, albeit with another system). In fact, I think that this way is still much more promising than everything else, because I truly believe that it’s on us players to bring new people into the community and that it’s nothing we can rely on the publishers to do for us.

#10 Comment By Lm Ef On October 11, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

What you forgot to take into account in your article was Unearthed Arcana .

#11 Comment By Stan Taylor On October 11, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

I agree, only a couple extras to add.

A rapid pace of publishing can really cut into profit margins when you’re a large part of the market. The books start competing with each other so the sales per book drops. Selling X copies of one book can make more than selling 2X spread across 6 books due to the initial production costs.

WOTC also seems to be keeping a small, consistent team for D&D, which is possible due to the low publishing rate and outsourcing some of the work (some of the books are in partnership with smaller publishers). Churning through personnel and waves of firing seem to be a thing of the past -those were costly, made them look bad, and led to inconsistent quality across products. Consistent quality and style leads back to better branding.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On October 13, 2016 @ 10:39 am

” The books start competing with each other ”

Very good point.