I got into an argument on the message boards a few weeks back. I know, I’m shocked too. A disagreement on the internet? Scandalous!
The basis of the argument was the possibility of a new D&D video game. I’ve thought about this before and always been somewhat in favour, although increasingly sceptical as to the viability given the increasing development time of video games compared to the decreasing development time of pen-and-paper editions.
I’ve come to the conclusion the days of games that are direct and faithful adaptations of the Pen and Paper game are over. The reasons are three–fold: time, audience, and expertise.
After forty years, RPG designers and companies have a good grasp on which books sell best: core books. New editions will generally sell better than even big accessories, and as an edition and game ages, sales will decline. The solution is shorter editions with multiple and regular revisions throughout. The lifespan of editions shrinks. In contrast, video games are taking an increasingly long time to design and release.
Most of this lengthening is technical. Games systems are increasing in complexity, and customers expect a higher level of graphics. There’s also a great desire for lots of content: long play and lots of replay value. The popularity of sandbox games also does not help, greatly increasing development time.
A good looking game will take years to design and create, possibly longer than the lifespan of a TRPG edition. Games being released this year might have been started in 2006 or ’07 or as early as 2005, depending on the graphical engine used. At this rate, a game started right now would be released for Christmas of 2016, assuming development time does not increase in the future or the next generation of new video game consoles is released (or other changes in technology). For example, games being released this year would have been started prior to the rise of motion control and prior to the release of 3D TVs, so compatible for that would had to have been added in the middle of development.
The associated problem is money. With longer development times, the financial cost increases. To make a game, you need to pay the salaries of a team of dozens of people for half a decade in the hopes of selling enough copies to make a profit. Budgets for games rival blockbuster movies and moderately cheap games cost millions of dollars.
This is not hypothetical. The planned NCSoft game was in the works in 2008-09, although work was potentially started even earlier. We know that’s about when R.A. Salvatore met with NCSoft and was asked to write a Drizzt book set near Neverwinter (the first book in that series was released in 2010 and they have to be written a year in advance). They announced Neverwinter in 2010, and planned for a 2011 release, but now that’s been delayed to 2012. And NCSoft is not a company known for their large game with modern graphics: they released a MMO that can be played though in a fortnight with technical specs exceeded by a moderately priced five-year-old computer. And it’s still taking them three (plus) years to make the D&D game.
Now, time is not universal. Good graphics do not denote a good game, and I think console manufacturers are realizing that the technological arms race paired with increasing development times does not ensure quality products. Nintendo definitely turned heads with the Wii, which has sold almost as many copies as both rival systems combined. And even this accomplishment is dwarfed by the massive, massive sales of the Nintendo DS. And even that appeal is crushed by simple online flash games, easily the most addictive digital entertainment since the heydays of Atari. None of these are particularly hard to design or develop. There’s a reason the Facebook flash game was able to be released almost on time to promote the Book, despite being secondary to the NCSoft game.
But I doubt very much a Wii-quality game will appeal to the type of player than enjoys D&D. Like Facebook games, they’re designed to appeal to casual games who are normally not the target of video games, let alone D&D. It might increase knowledge of the brand, but wouldn't satisfy D&D players.
Game designers know how to design games. That’s their job. And, often, they enjoy designing games. They get a kick out of solving problems, thinking of new improvements, and generally tinkering. This applies to video game designers and Pen and Paper designers alike.
Look at D&D Essentials. It was supposed to be a slightly simpler tweaking of the game with easier language, but the designers couldn’t resist toying with the classes.
Most requests for a D&D game are for an authentic experience, a close adaptation that closely follows the PnP game. But, that’s asking video game designers – people who professionally make video games, whom you’re paying to make a video game – not to do their job. That’s not going to fly. Video game designers going to want to make changes, to make the game fit the medium and play better: they’re going to feel a burning, uncontrollable need to tweak. If they feel bound to a foreign rule set they’re just not going to feel a passion for the game and not going to do their best work.
Strict adherence is easier with game that have never had alternate editions or major rule revisions, such as Settlers of Catan or Monopoly. The rules define the game as much as the content and lore. It's not possible to make a true Catan game if the rules are being bent, but it's possible to make a D&D-esque game (like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance) which are almost more "inspired by the game" than adaptations. And when making a video game of a classic game, those situations you’re making and an adaptation of something beloved, with pedigree and longevity and a strong and numerous fan following. D&D on the other hand…
Who D.A. Man?
Video games rival movies for money. It’s a billion dollar industry. They have prime time TV commercials. Some have had commercials during the Superbowl. Video They’re big business.
D&D… not so much. WotC doesn’t even manage commercials on YouTube any more.
For an example, let’s go with something comparable. Skryim. It’s not a pop culture phenomenon like GTA, and isn’t racking up controversy and thus media attention. It’s a fantasy RPG game that requires mental investment in the character, whom you imagine a backstory and personality for as none of that is in the game. Skyrim shipped 10 million copies and set a Steam record for most users at a single time (280,000 players). That’s likely more players on a single system (Steam) than copies of the PHB WotC sold in a year. Skyrim is likely outselling 4e by 100:1.
With that in mind, why would a company like that make an adaptation of D&D? They should be throwing WotC a bone and asking them to make an adaptation of Skyrim for the tabletop. Asking name video game companies to make a D&D game is asking them to voluntarily commit financial suicide. It’s asking them to pay to make a game for a small, niche audience.
Only small video game companies still trying to make their name will bother with adaptations. It’s a proving ground. It helps the company get recognize, attracting an audience so they can go off and do their own stuff. It’s a launch pad. Most established game companies would rather use their own IP, something they themselves could license for money. And the problem with relying on small gaming studios is that they’re by definition untested. It’s a risk, a gamble.
BioWare made their name from WotC’s IP, but once they did they went on to create DragonAge. Now, DA has spawned its own popular RPG, which is throwing money back at BioWare. Why would they design a new D&D game when they could set more games in Fereldan, continue to build that brand, and eventually spawn something like a movie or TV show or other adaptations? (And not some made-for-TV movie on a network renowned for its terrible, terrible TV movies.)
Wake Up Call
D&D is small potatoes now. If you ask a bunch of fantasy fans what they think of when you say the word “dragonborn” there are going to be more Fus Ro Dah jokes than reference draconic humanoids.
It’s not that D&D has become less popular. It’s just that video games have lapped D&D and other role-playing games. D&D has gone from the more experience and popular form of entertainment that served as a source of inspiration to something trying to ride the coattails of its successor. A little like the older brother of a friend who seemed super cool and mature when you were in High School but never changed and is still living at home while you’ve grown up, found a career, and settled down.
That analogy makes D&D seem less fun than it actually is. I still love me some D&D and other RPGs, but the time of solid, quality video game adaptations have passed. Just like a big budget Hollywood movie it’s not going to happen. The best we can hope for is quality fan-made products: D&D mods for existing games, and continued fan support for Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2.
But that's not the worst case scenario. It's been pointed out on the three part "State of D&D" articles (here, here, and here) and in Ryan Dancey's follow-up (here) that D&D might not be in a healthy place. And there's the fears WotC might be forced to retire or sell-off the under-performing brand. One of the potential buyers would be a video game company. Now, I still believe most companies would prefer to create their own IP than license it (with some exceptions for truly large brands), but buying IP is different. This would likely lead to a scenario similar to the HERO System, who licensed their IP to Cryptic, resulting in Hero Games opted to release a new edition to coincide with the release if Champions Online. If this happened, we'd likely see a new edition of D&D based on the video game rather than vice versa. The TRPG becomes complementary, secondary to the video game, a tie-in product for the genre it helped create.