Five years ago, gaming industry veteran Wolfgang Baur decided to create an independent game company with an interesting business model. He called the company Open Design. Using the patronage model, in which customers pay into a fund to support projects they want to see go to print, Open Design has enjoyed five years of success. They’re celebrating this week with a huge sale, and we’ve got an exclusive interview with Wolfgang Baur himself about surviving in the eternally uncertain gaming industry.
March 20 is the official birthday of Open Design, marked by this blog post that got the ball rolling back in 2006. Since then, Open Design has resurrected the in-print D&D magazine with Kobold Quarterly, released dozens of RPG books for various editions of D&D and other game systems, and incorporated the ideas of hundreds of gamers who have become patrons. All this culminates this year with the massive Midgard project, the patronage design of an entire campaign world that’s already off to a strong start.
Wolfgang Baur took a few moments out of a very busy schedule to talk with Robot Viking about Open Design and the state of gaming today.
Robot Viking: Open Design was launched toward the end of 3rd edition’s life cycle, in 2006. What was the impetus to launch at that time?
Wolfgang Baur: You’re right, the end of 3rd edition was a couple years later, but I have to admit is wasn’t part of the calculation at the time. Launching Open Design was a bit of a shot in the dark. I was on paternity leave and sleepless, and I thought it would be entertaining to remove all barriers and middlemen between gamers and designers. I’ve learned a lot about the value of middlemen since then.
Apparently it was the right approach, as Open Design won the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in gaming in 2009. I’m very proud of how far it’s come.
RV: Sometimes it feels as if the gaming industry is in a perpetual state of transition. How does a company like Open Design stay agile enough to react to changes in the market and shifts in customer demand?
WB: Smart customers and smart designers both help. And unlike some of the larger game companies, we don’t have to plan out everything 12 months in advance.
Being small gives us freedom to move quickly, make mistakes quickly, and build on successes quickly. So far, it’s worked very well.
RV: Now that Open Design has five years under its belt, is there anything you’d do differently?
WB: Oh, sure, at least two or three things!
First ,the company used to do only limited editions, and now we do public editions of all our adventures. Some people still think that Open Design does only limited editions, but that hasn’t been true for a couple years.
Second, I think we would have dropped 3.5 sooner if I’d realized sooner that the people who play it (and there are many of them) are pretty much done buying new RPG books or adventures. We kept up the 3.5 banner pretty much to the end.
Third, I think I would have avoided Call of Cthulhu if I’d known how difficult it was going to be to pull off a patron project for that system. The results are awesome, but it’s been tough every step of the way.
Despite that bit of hindsight, I think we’ve actually been on track most of the time. Six ENnie awards and a growing audience every year.
RV: With Wizards of the Coast thinning out their 4E release schedule, what does that mean for Open Design? Is that a window of opportunity to fill unmet demand for more 4E products, or a sign that interest in it is fading?
WB: It’s hard to say, but yes, I’ve seen an uptick in 4E D&D interest in Kobold Quarterly and for the next 4E D&D adventure. I don’t know whether interest in 4E D&D is fading (only WotC has the numbers). From the outside, it looks a little bit like Pathfinder is gaining on them or may already be outselling 4E D&D, something I’m not sure I ever expected to see.
What I do know is that the D&D releases are moving away from pure RPG material into other areas, like the Castle Ravenloft board game. Perhaps this is a lull before 5th Edition. Or perhaps D&D is doing just fine and the grousing about the reduced number of releases is just Internet doomsaying. It’s impossible for me to know, but I very much wish them well and Open Design will continue to support 4E in Kobold Quarterly and elsewhere.
RV: The Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin has made a pretty big splash since its release. Were you surprised at the support that system got from the Midgard patrons?
WB: I was very surprised! Looking at it now, it’s clear that the AGE System is fun and playable, but it lacks a lot of supporting books. So any additional support for the game got a strong response from fans. By contrast, Pathfinder and 4E D&D have lots of publisher support every month, so there’s less need for anyone else to step up.
The patrons are creating AGE System versions of Midgard monsters from the last 5 years, building a complete Bestiary for AGE System. It’s amazing to watch.
RV: Did the launch of the Midgard project go according to plan? Can you give us any sneak peeks at the campaign world as it’s being built?
WB: The launch of the Midgard campaign setting went very well!
Project patrons are snapping up additional design assignments — adventures, bestiary, sourcebooks — all as paid and credited design work. The setting has some powerful momentum, and we’re really just at the start. If you’d like to join the project, come check it out!
Finally, here’s the official announcement of the Open Design birthday sale:
To celebrate 5 years, Open Design is running a sale at the KQ Store from Friday, March 18 through Thursday Mar 24. Our Kobold-in-Chief Wolfgang Baur says, “This sale is my way of thanking all of you for your support over the past five years. By definition, Open Design could only succeed with your participation. So to all the patrons who helped create our sourcebooks and adventures, and the folks who bought the finished products…thank you very, very much for this wonderful five-year ride. I look forward to continuing on with you to our glorious 10-year mark.”
Special Anniversary PDF: Spend more than $50 (US) in one purchase and receive a special free anniversary PDF chapbook that collects some of the best artwork featuring our beloved kobold mascot Jiro throughout the years.
For our sale, we’re offering 50 % off these items:
- Kobold Quarterly issues #1 through #15 and All gazetteers and adventure books in PDF
- Print copies (while supplies last) of: Sunken Empires (Pathfinder), Iron Gazetteer (4th Edition), and Dwarves of the Ironcrags (3.5 Edition)
- Print copies (while supplies last) of: The Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3
Also: Buy any print item in the Store and if there’s a PDF version, you get the PDF free.