It’s a been a tumultuous year for D&D. Last year’s Gen Con presentations were full of big ideas and a release schedule packed with ambition, including the beginner-friendly Essentials line. Eleven months later the release schedule has been trimmed, long-time Wizards’ employees have been laid off, and Essentials appears to have crashed and burned in the marketplace. Why is WotC having such a hard time selling D&D?
It’s terribly hard talking about this stuff because I know that the people who actually create and write D&D books love the game and put their hearts and souls into the work. They make some damn fine RPG products, and there are some things coming up on the release schedule that I’m very excited about. Still, I can’t help but notice that lately the D&D flag is looking tattered enough that it’s hard to tell which way the wind is blowing. That said, I’ll be talking here about business decisions and broader design goals. I’m not here to nitpick whether the Hexblade is better than the Avenger or whatever.
First, the evidence that D&D isn’t doing well: the layoffs are a fairly obvious signpost. Bill Slavicsek is the biggest name on the list, but everyone who was let go played a large role in the development of D&D books. You don’t generally lay people off when things are going well. The decimation of the release schedule is another clue. Some months after the Essentials books were released (and one might speculate long enough after that they had some firm sales figures), quite a few previously announced products were cancelled. It’s very clear that Wizards’ D&D wing is struggling, and this despite the fact that the overall RPG industry seems to be doing pretty well, with Pathfinder a success and other companies creating excellent, highly regarded games.
A few odd business decisions play into this impression that Wizards is having a hard time figuring out how to sell their flagship property. The end of prepainted plastic minis, or D&D minis of any kind, is baffling. The replacement pogs are nice, for pogs. But they’re not minis. When the plastic minis were introduced, it was at the height of popularity for collectible minis games, and with the competitive skirmish game, random distribution sort of made sense. Once the skirmish game was canned, collectible D&D minis made zero sense. Wizards dabbled in non-random releases, which is a great idea, but then they killed minis altogether.
Then there are the Fortune Cards, which are just terrible. That product feels so half-assed and lame that I genuinely think it was pushed by some accountant who saw that Magic has been doing gangbuster sales lately. “D&D sales are down. Magic sales are up. Magic is a card game. Why don’t you guys make D&D more like a card game?”
This brings us to Essentials. I don’t care about Essentials being 4.5, or not compatible with the older books, or any of that. The concept of redesigning the 4E books in a way that makes them appealing and easy to understand for new players is a great idea. The hobby needs new players, especially young players. But then Wizards went about executing that idea in the most haphazard, slapdash, half-baked way possbile. You might say they executed the idea perfectly, because that idea is clearly dead.
Look at the original three core books for 4E: Player’s Handbook, DM’s Guide and a Monster Manual. If you walk into a book store knowing little more than the name “D&D,” you can roughly grasp that you should pick up that PHB first. I’m not saying this can’t be improved upon, but it’s all right there. Three books. Simple.
Now look at the Essentials books. You’ve got Heroes of the Fallen lands, and Heroes of the Some Other Thing. Do either of those titles say to you, “I’m the first book you need to get to play D&D. I’m a basic guide and intro to the game.”? Not in the least. On top of that, you’ve got a DM’s Kit and a Rules Compendium. Where do those fit in? I’m still not really sure. People in book stores were utterly confused and had no idea how to shelve these, how they related to the other 4E books on the shelves, or, worst of all, how to sell them to customers. Imagine walking into B&N and trying to figure this mess out, particularly if there were still some old copies of the PHB lying around.
As if things weren’t bad enough, you’ve got the Red Box. Now, I love the idea of the Red Box, and as an independent product it’s wonderful. Well designed, beautiful nostalgia value, fun and easy to use. As part of the Essentials lineup? It’s a massive blunder. It’s supposed to be the intro to D&D for brand new players, one that would lead them into purchasing other products in the Essentials line. Great. Then why does it have a cover that looks nothing like any other Essentials product and is only recognizable to people who played D&D 25 years ago? Why are the characters you create using it mostly incompatible with the other Essentials products? Why not just sell people a small section of wall to bang their heads against instead?
There are some good things about Essentials. The master tile sets are great, despite the lack of minis to put on them. The Monster Vault is a nice alternative to the Monster Manual — I don’t love the pogs, but if they aren’t making minis, they’re nice to have and the design was handled well. But the bottom line is, Essentials fails miserably at its primary intended purpose: to provide a clear, simple path for new players to enter the game. And the result of that failure is playing out now for Wizards of the Coast and their employees.
How would I have done it differently? I’ll get to that next week, in part 2.