In the introduction to his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey evokes the fable of the goose that lays golden eggs. While geese that drop eggs of precious metals are found in various Fairy Tales, in this version the owner – becoming greedy – decides he cannot wait until the next day and cuts open the goose to get an early egg. This kills the goose and he gets no more eggs. The moral is that sacrificing a long term investment for short term gain is a bad idea. Covey expands this to the business world, emphasizing a balance between your productivity and your production capability.
This is a topical discussion because of 5th Edition; there’s increasing talk of a new edition, a feeling in the air. While there’s always speculation, it seems to be increasing. So it seemed timely to really look at the “whys” of making a new edition and how it relates to goose eggs.
Striking a Balance
The balance between Production (P) and Production Capability (PB) can be tricky. An easy example is a logging company. If their production is too high, they defoliate a region and do not allow enough time for the trees to replenish themselves. But if their production is too low, they cannot sustain their business which goes under.
This lesson ties into D&D through the release of new editions. New core books always sell better than accessories, and sales of new books diminish as an edition ages. If a company waits too long to release a new edition, they might not have strong enough sales to support them through the design of the new edition. If they release it too soon, they’ll upset the fan base who will move onto other games, skip an edition, or find a retro-clone.
I was a reluctant convert to 4e, simply because I felt there was still life in Third Edition. There were some mechanical rough patches that rubbed me the wrong way, but once I settled into a nice homegame it became a little easier to overlook the problem areas and proud nails.
I stumbled into the group after Living Greyhawk began to atrophy with the announcement of 4e. We’d been playing for half a year when 4e was released, just getting into the story and campaign. Just hitting the sweet spot of 3e. As a result, that group never switched.
This problem is still relevant. People playing 1-30 campaigns might only be two-thirds through their story: it’s been 41 months since 4e was released, so a monthly game would have had 41 sessions (or fewer with delays or missed sessions). Leveling every two sessions puts players at level 20. Releasing 5e in mid-2013 allows another 20 months of play, or *just* enough time to reach level 30. A single campaign. This doesn’t leave much room for new characters, other stories, or really toying with all the released content. And it doesn’t account for games that started a little later or suffered delays or leveled more slowly than every second session. The given reason for little Epic tier content is supposedly because few groups are play that tier, which suggests it’s premature for a new edition: the more players who are still enjoying the game or in the middle of their story, the more who will decide to wait some time before switching editions.
Knowing this, I’d be hesitant about planning a long 5e campaign, worrying they might release 6e even sooner, well before my campaign could realistically finish. And many people might feel more tempted to skip an edition, knowing the next will be along shortly. There is an appeal to playing a “finished” edition, knowing you never need to worry about new content and can easily find what to ban, what to house rule, and what to tweak.
There’s a financial impetus to not switch editions. I have three or four 3e books I’ve still never used and barely read. And I’ll likely never get a chance to really use my copies of Heroes of Shadow or Heroes of the Feywild. The more books someone owns that they’ll never use the more pressure they’ll feel to stick with the old edition. Otherwise it’s wasted money. This is also likely a large part of why later releases drop in sales: people feel they already have enough content and don’t need more, so they stop buying.
I think the presence of fluff alleviates the feel of wasted money. If a book had content that was enjoyable to read it feels a little less wasted. This actually favours 4e a little, as the early books – the books most likely to be used – were crunch heavy, while the later books have more story.
So for an edition to succeed it’s not enough to be a dramatic improvement, it also has to come late enough that the majority of players don’t feel they have “wasted” purchases. WotC tried to avoid this late in 3e by promising free updates for some books (which took some time & fan protests to be released) and by claiming some books would be 4e compliant (such as the Magic Item Compendium), underestimating the changes of the edition.
Space is also an issue. RPG books are not small and can dominate a shelf. 3e was “my” edition: when it was released I was young and had a high percentage of disposable income; I could afford to buy most of the books. I opted not to be the group’s book supplier for my 4e games, but 4e might have greatly increased the shelving required.
Thankfully, my wife is also a gamer and has permitted me to turn our basement into a “gaming hole”, so I have the space to store my books. For less fortunate gamers – those trapped in apartments small suites – space might be a premium. A new edition might lead to a hard choice: buy the new books and throw-out or box your old books, or skip an edition. There’s always the old joke that WotC won’t dispatch their 4e ninjas to tear-up your old books, however, a new edition might inadvertently do that only much more cruelly by pushing players to junk their own books, haul them into storage, or sell them to a used book store (or eBay).
I’m safe. For now. But eventually my son comes of age and starts looking at my basement as a possible friend hang-out location. Then comes the inevitable teenaged son eying my basement “office” as an alternate bedroom separated from “the Man” by an entire floor. I might have to fight tooth and nail for my man hole, and failure might greatly reduce my RPG library.
Catch Them on the Way Back
When I was outlining this blog (yes, these are planned; I’m surprised too) I named this section “Waiting Too Long”. I was going to discuss how, if an edition lasts too long it loses all relevance and the game cannot muster the fanbase to reinvent itself. Then the company struggles, shrinking and dwindling and finally dying.
But I don’t see this happening. There are examples, but I kept thinking of companies like Palladium, which haven’t changed in thirty years. Most failed RPG companies died because they had one product: the RPG. More than likely, if D&D stopped selling, WotC would cancel the product line (like Dreamblade and Heroscape) and move onto other projects. But WotC won’t die with D&D. It’s not a huge company, but it has other sources of revenue, and it could use the D&D brand and Intellectual Property in other ways, such as board games or a D&D CCG (either stand-alone or compatible with Magic: the Gathering). And the D&D name would still be licensable a movies or video games.
Paizo couldn’t do this. They have other products, but Pathfinder is a huge part of the company. Remove that and three-quarters of their staff is redundant. In contrast, WotC can afford to sit on the D&D brand, renewing it when the time seems right. Heck, they could even design and plan a 5th Edition and not release it for years, waiting until the fans and community were ready then launching under ideal conditions with tones of fanfare. Look at other large multi-generational product lines: Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, etc. In all cases, the line has all but died, diminishing until only the truly hardcore continue to purchase products, until a renewal started. Joseph Goodman wrote about the cyclic nature of gaming and D&D, how there is a once in a generation spike of attention. This happened during the heyday of gaming in the early-eighties and again in 2000 when 3e launched. These are periods when the game captures the attention of a new generation, who has finally come of age and can embrace gaming. 4e came too soon to really trigger a new surge of popularity. I postulate that there’s a second factor: returning players. This wasn’t a factor in the first boom, but was vital in the second. A longer gap between editions allows gamers to get tired of a game, move onto other games, and eventually return to D&D out of nostalgia.
A short-lived edition followed by a new edition would prevent the above cycle, as gamers would just be burning out from D&D when the new edition arrives. Some players might upgrade to the new edition opposed to trying alternate games, but others would likely find any new edition too similar and still go elsewhere. This makes the edition upgrade a risky gamble, trying to capture all the revenue rather than letting another company (or several small companies) share the market share during the repositioning and restructuring.
There has to be a balance between Production (what you make) and Production Capability (how much you can make). If you exploit your audience, either with too much product or product of dubious quality, they will stop buying.
To really have a new edition explode, the game might have to languish for some time, so the news of a new edition would be greeted positively. It has to both attract new gamers that just came of age and draw back other gamers who are just tiring of their replacement game systems. And at the same time with a single concentrated effort. The question becomes: is offsetting sales for several years worth creating a touchstone event, an edition that might dominate the market and produce record sales? Or is it better to settle for a quicker edition with adequate sales but less lasting impact.
I think it might be too soon for 5e. Maybe in a couple years as gamers are burning out a little faster than I might have expected. But even then it’s debatable if people are ready, and if gamers will return.I wonder if D&D is slowly developing its own “big Pop, little Pope” or “odd-even Trek film” rule in regards to edition, with the odd-numbered editions having a larger impact than the evens. Time will tell…