I’ve been following what WoTC has been doing with the Next Iteration of D&D with a great bit of fascination. I think somebody there has been reading in the last couple years, somebody who either has some control, or is persuasive enough to influence others. It has been obvious from the information put out in various columns that the next iteration has been in development for some time. You see it most notably in “Legends and Lore”, but also in “Rule of Three”. There have also been hints in “Dungeon Master Experience” and even “Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress” in comments about playing through older editions and handling of rules.
When the announcement finally comes it comes a number of reporters and blogger reveal that they play tested the game at WoTC a number of weeks early. Many of them revealing that they went there at WoTC’s expense. Interesting. And the reports of the new edition, minus all the crunch details, from the media and blogosphere falls right with the WoTC announcement. So they lit up a whole lot of interest all at once with a bunch of notables in the community that have inside knowledge all orchestrated at once. I have to note that WoTC own announcement was underwhelming, but getting some much knowledgeable commentary allow with the announcement was a great move.
And then WoTC opens up new forums seeking input immediately. There is a huge influx of forum users and activity. This is exactly what they are looking for. Interest can lead to sales. But that’s not the level of sales they are looking for. It does necessarily lead to favorable reviews. We’re talking about a market of fickle and reactionary people. Nerd-rage is dangerous thing when trying to market a new version of anything to an admittedly geeky market.
So the real issue is: how do you turn that interest into favorable review rather than nerd-rage? You take some lessons from change management and psychology and you apply them to your marketing efforts. One of the prime tenants of change management is that if you change something, good, bad or indifferent, people will rebel against it. Always. However, if you get can get people invested in the change and make them feel like the changes are theirs, they will have a very favorable view of the changes. If you want people to view anything in a good light, all you need to do is apply a little cognitive dissonance. You see, the human mind does not react well to conflicting views and values and will change the way people think to eliminate those conflicts. I’m paraphrasing here and may get this wrong, but I believe it was Ben Franklin who said that if you want to turn and enemy into a friend, ask them for a simple favor. You see the mind cannot handle the conflict of doing a favor for someone you dislike, so when you do something for someone you dislike your view of that person must change.
So, you want buy-in, and the resulting sales from a new edition, then you need get the fan base to “feel” invested in the development, to “feel” like they have made a contribution to the development. You want them to “feel” like this is their edition. I put the quotes around “feel” because the reality is not important. It’s all in the perception of it.
The large open play testing is a big step toward this. Paizo did this with Pathfinder. And my understanding is that even after play testing they changed very little, but the fan base (who were blindsided by 4e) felt that they we’re invested and the game sold very well.
But to my thinking, play testing is not the whole thing here. WoTC has a lot of bad blood to overcome. How they react to the feedback is huge. The first step is to acknowledge all feedback, good and bad. They need to make the fan base “know” that the comments has been heard, and they need to make this as personal as possible in the large group environment. That’s kind hard, not impossible, and I bet its already in the plans. The next thing would be to make changes based on the feedback. They might be really small things. They might even be set up. Knowing beforehand what people might want (go back to the internet forums) and making something slightly different might not be a bad thing. Then when they ask for something a little different and you give it to them, they are invested in that change.
They might also include things that are a distraction so they can deflect from other changes they definitely want to go through. Kind of like how congressman hide funding for unpopular pet projects inside the fine print on popular pieces of legislation. It’s like a game of chess, and right now all that is being moved are the pawns. And the overall strategy is very complex and in the end no one will know if it was the queen, the knight or the rook that was the main point of attack.
The fact that they are very quiet about anything really makes me wonder what’s going on behind the scenes. There are really only 2 ways they are going to be successful: 1. Create the most brilliant thing ever, 2. Heavily involved marketing in the design process and make good marketing and business decisions along the way. Now, as fantastic as the design team may be (and I have heard opinions both directs on many of them, but I don’t have enough person information to judge), I got to go with number 2 as being the surest way to success. Until then, I’m loving 4e and will continue to play. I will continue to watch the process unfold and withhold any judgments.