And now for something a little controversial: where 4e went wrong, and the mistakes WotC made.
This is a long one, be warned.
Now, this blog is not to bash the edition (much) or be unfairly negative to Wizards of the Coast. Instead, I’m viewing this as a way to establish what not to do the next time round, or at least what I think shouldn’t be done. It’s a “those who do not learn from history...” and such. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about WotC and their potential mistakes (as seen by the territory my review of the Chaos Scar blog meandered into) and looking at where the last edition failed seemed like a good idea and worthy of blogging.
But did 4e Fail?
Without sales numbers this is impossible to quantify.
If you count 3.0 and 3.5 as one edition, then 4e is certainly the shortest edition ever, which doesn’t speak to strong sales if it’s already being replaced. And even if you could 3.5 as a separate edition, the two editions have identical lengths (2003-08 and 2008-13). But doesn’t that mean 4e did as well as 3.5, if it lasted as long? Not necessarily, as there are two other factors at work.
First, there’s division on whether or not this actually reflects sales or just a market shift requiring constant change and new sales. Core books sell better than accessories, so regularly releasing new core books, revisions, and updates should sustain the company.
Second, the change over from 3e to 4e has shown that new editions risk fragmenting the player base. This is something not to be attempted lightly, with Pathfinder already stealing some of the player base and the looming potential of someone kitbashing the 3e OGL to produce a 4e retroclone.
The Ryan Dancey articles on ENWorld have also reminded everyone of the realities of the publishing industry. While core books are the best sellers in the product line, the realities of publishing costs mean that it’s better to sell fewer copies of one book than many copies of two books. It’s in the best interest of a game publisher to have fewer core books that sell really well and remains continually in print, thus consistently selling and making a profit.
There’s also development costs. WotC is planning the new edition, which means they need to support a development team producing no sellable content for two years (or more) in the hopes of eventual profit. And the resulting core books don’t only have to sell well enough to recoup their printing costs, but their entire production costs, which include the 24+ months of developers writing and testing. This is a very pricey and potentially needless expense compared to feeding the sales of a core book set and reaping continual profits.
So if we’re getting another new edition already, 4e must not be performing as well as WotC believes the brand can and should perform.
So, without further ranting, let’s get to 4e’s mistakes (in no particular order):
1) Can’t Make Him Drink
Or, in other words, you can lead a gamer to game books, but you can’t make him play.
This used to be easier; TSR could just stop producing products for a new edition and it would go away, as no one could make compatible products or new accessories. This all changed with 3e and the OGL whose very intent was that 3e could never go away, and that future editions would have to be better – to be inarguable improvements – or players would stick with 3e. And one thing you can say about 4e is that its improvements were arguable. Oh boy, were there arguments...
4e also came too soon. There was a lot of life left in 3e, as seen by its continued sales and success. It’s last couple years were marked by pretty poor products, but that might also be related to the A-talent being busy working on 4e while freelancers did filler books. Not enough people had grown tired with the edition or finished their campaigns or had gotten enough use from their products. Because of the OGL, there was a LOT of 3e to go around, so there was a metric tonne of content. More books than could be used in an elf’s lifetime.
Loosely associated was the single playstyle. 4e is great for heroic high fantasy in the style of action movies. But if you want to do crazy epic fantasy or low-magic fantasy or gritty fantasy then the edition grinds a little. It lends itself to tales inspired by Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, or Elric but not A Song of Ice and Fire or Conan. If you cannot convince people this is the game they HAVE to play, that it does everything they need and everything they want, then they’ll simply go elsewhere.
The era of games being limited to what can be brought in by the owner of the small dedicated gaming store (or small gaming section of a non-dedicated store) are loooong over. Instead of relying on stock of a couple game a FLGS knows will sell, gamers can find a game that caters directly to their needs – regardless of how niche – either as an electronic copy of a small press product or larger game modified ‘n’ kit bashed by a dedicated fan community.
2) Sidelined 3rd Party Products
3e brought Open Source ideology to TRPGs. This works because every sale of a 3PP requires (or should require) a Core book to play. This means WotC doesn’t need to do the esoteric books on small play styles or cater to absolutely everyone. A 3PP can fill the gap while still fuelling sales of the core book. The more core books that sell the more profits are made.
3PP were kneecapped in two ways. First, the GSL was incredibly restrictive, preventing changes to the core rules, reflavouring of core content, and use of later books (anything published after mid-2009). There was also the delay in the release of the GSL until after the launch of the edition (and subsequent prohibition on releasing content until after GenCon 2008); this pushed many companies to blindly choose whether or not to support 4e, only to have this decision burn them, as the best time for 3PP sales is early in the edition, when people are desperate for content. Blocking GenCon sales hurt 3PPs. Likewise, the licence also prohibited companies from releasing split content that supported both 3e and 4e: they had to pick on or the other. A hard choice for an unproven edition.
Then there were the digital tools. This was accidental and took some time for the effects to be felt. As many players grew to rely on the Character Builder, it became harder and harder to incorporate 3PP into one’s games. There were some ways of adding homebrewed content to the offline Builder, but it’s still tricky for the online Character Builder.
3) Digital Mistakes
Another unintentional problem was the D&D Inside fiasco. They built the hype of 4e around the digital tools: character builder, character visualizer, virtual table, and dungeon builder. Plus the magazines. But the planned tools fell apart and they had to bring it in house at the last minute, starting from scratch. The Character Builder was six months late and the visualizer never appeared. The Virtual Tabletop is still in beta, which evokes memories of the first Adventure Tools, which never made it out of Beta before been broken then replaced.
While the memories have faded, there was quite an initial uproar over the lack of promised tools. Then there was dissent over WotC charging for Dragon and Dungeon after six months of free content. They didn’t have a lot of choice, as they’d been banking on being able to tie charging for content with the release of tools, but likely couldn’t afford to keep giving the magazine content away for free.
Then there was the actual Character Builder / Monster Builder problems. With the vast majority of player and monster books being crunch, the online tools also made it easy to get all the content WotC was releasing for a single low monthly fee, or, as too many people did, one payment every six months to get a wave of new content. WotC reacted they only way they could, by cancelling the downloadable tools and switching to an online model that took time to rebuild. Only now, when the tools are rapidly becoming obsolete, do we actually have all the desired features.
4) Sidelined the Core Books
The online tools just aggravated an existing problem of the edition, the marginalization of the core books. Being an exception-based system, 4e had very simple core rules. So you seldom needed to reference the core rule book, everything you needed to know about your character could be learned from the Character Builder or a quick lesson from the DM.
The “everything is core” philosophy also hurt sales of the core book. Again, as it was possible to learn the rules quickly, secondary books could be relied on for characters, such as the PHB2 or campaign books. This means sales were spread out over multiple books, meaning less straight profit after recouping production costs. WotC also deliberately spread out content over multiple books, holding back monsters, races, and classes for future books. This seemed like a sound strategy for increasing sales of secondary books, but encourages fewer sales of the first PHB and MM.
On top of the above problems, there were the continual errata/ updates. While mistakes and problem powers needed to be fixed, the sheer number of changes made early books unusable. While the majority of content remained mostly unaffected, there was no way of knowing if any given power or feat or feature had been changed.
Ryan Dancey gave an excellent interview on a recent episode of the podcast 3.5 Private Sanctuary, where he talked at length of the purchase of TSR by WotC, creation of the OGL, and cancellation of under-selling books. This is a great listen, very informative, and really emphasises how a company like WotC or TSR has to be careful not to release too many books, talking about how TSR was splitting its audience and releasing too much content that wouldn’t sell. But in the late years of 3e and early years of 4e WotC released book after book at a breakneck pace. Content for the sake of content. We had books like Dragon Magic, released not to fill a need but because books with “dragon” or “magic” in the title sold well.
Essentials really highlights this mistake. The idea of a mid-edition reprint is a good one: once sales of the core books have really tailed off you release a slightly revised version with some new art, some updates, and add a few options from accessories that have pretty much become core or must-have. But this only works if you keep the changes minimal, otherwise you’re playing for development and playtesting again. You should really be playing for editing and revision. That way it’s cheap to produce that should sell well. Instead, in 3e we got the heavily revised 3.5, which almost killed the industry. And in 4e we got Essentials, which split sales from one Core book (the PHB) to three different books (the two Heroes of Adverb Noun books and the Rules Compendium). WotC forgot the lesson of TSR!
5) Limited Testing
The aforementioned updates were the result of another problem: limited playtesting. It’s been acknowledged that WotC did limited playtesting of 4e and often did not listen to feedback. This is a pretty huge, egregious mistake. It led to the hundreds of pages of errata-updates as well as some of the other problems of the game, such as the math getting soft at epic levels, the almost immediate changes to the Skill Challenge rules and the continual struggles with skill DCs. Not to mention the problems with monster math and damage that plagued the game for two years.
I’m pretty sure the lack of playtesting was also partly responsible for the combat length problem.
This was not limited to the initial release of the game. Many later books had to be errated weeks after release to fix glaring problems. In 2010 I remember asking my players to hold off adding options from PHB3 and Martial Power 2 until after the first errata on the book.
There’s a second aspect to this problem. Back when the game was being developed the designers were continually changing the rules, adding new ideas and revisions. The rules were in a continual state of flux. For example, things like the resistance/ vulnerability rules were not solidified until late in the process so not every monster that should have a vulnerability or resistance has one, because there was only time to add it to unwritten monsters and not revise existing monsters.
This is really the result of trying to get 4e out the door in time for a deadline set a year in advance, which was itself mandated by the managerial side of the company in response from higher corporate pressure.
Frankly, 4e was rushed.
6) Changed Too Much Too Fast
A hastily produced edition is bad enough, but might have worked had they built heavily on the existing framework of 3e, if they had just overlaid hard math on the existing d20 system and changed the numbers.
But they didn’t. Instead, we received the biggest change to the game ever. Classes were completely redesigned and virtually unrecognisable. Mechanical elements were similar in name only. And on top of that, there were vast changes to the story: the planes were rewritten, races renamed or refocused, history revised, and more.
Because there were so many changes all at once and so many things seemingly removed outright, it was jarring. People don’t react well to change. Changing the mechanics is fine when there’s old comfortable story to immerse yourself in, something familiar to latch onto.
Now, all of this is not inherently bad. The flavour changes can work if the change is for a very, very good reason and is inarguably superior. I stand by most of the fluff changes, but feel sometimes they went too far. Instead of eliminating something, it’s always a good idea to make it fit, find a place or way for it to work. For example, the Great Wheel and daemons/ yugoloths. Both were eliminated, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have been worked in as an option or addition. Instead, all the yugoloth flavour was completely removed and they just becomes regular demons and devils (because we needed more demons and devils). Daemons were “needless symmetry” back in 1e (ugh, I’ve grown to hate that buzz term) but after three editions they’ve grown and developed a wealth of lore. Why throw it all out just because there’s no Neutral Evil in the game?
Mechanically, the change also meant people needed to relearn the game. However, because there was so much change, it also meant the writers needed to relearn the game, relearning their job. Suddenly, new skills had to be honed: writing a good 4th Edition power is very, very different than writing a good spell. Balancing a good encounter or designing a monster became very different. Planning Skill Challenges had to be learned from scratch.
This goes hand-in-hand with the prior problem (limited testing), as the game had been continually in flux prior to release. Ideally, the designers would have had a six months or so of hands-on experience with the game prior to release, so they’d know how to write the books and know how to write for the game. Instead, there was a stumbling multiple-year-long learning process. The books we’re getting now are fantastic, but they’re coming because of three-plus years of less interesting books. They’re finally feeling comfortable enough with the system.
7) Conservative Design
The initial 4e books suffered from a fairly rigid design. The authors seemed terrified of imbalance and the mistakes of the past. Every class had to be built exactly the same and play very similarly.
This lead to the very conservative design philosophy: if it wasn’t fun in earlier editions, remove it. Very little effort was made to salvage old ideas or designs. If a rule was often ignored by most groups it was cut, even if “most” was only a small majority. The game focused on the narrow “sweet spot” of 3e, which marginalized the fans who preferred play outside that level range. In short, 4e made the mistake of telling people how to play.
The limited class design was easily the most noticeable problem. 4e classes play very similar. Get into a fight, drop encounter powers (unless it’s a boss, in which case you use a Daily as soon as possible). They all have the same number of powers and same recharge mechanic (short rest).
While, in play, differences in classes are noticeable, this is more a quirk of human nature than actual differences in the class. It’s a “spot the difference” picture; you always look for the variation, however small.
The more I play 4e the more I wonder about classes with different designs might truly play differently. Such as what a class that has to “unlock” their Daily power in a fight might play like, or other design aimed at making it so you don’t just charge forward in the first round of combat and throw down black cards and action points until everything is dead.
Then there’s the artificial reasons for martial limits on powers to make them fit the same design as magic, the justification that you can’t use an Encounter power twice because your enemies won’t fall for it twice or use a Daily twice because of the effort it takes. I wonder when a second wave of enemies comes why you can use your Encounter again, or why you can’t use a Daily again by burning healing surges? Or using a Daily a second time instead of a second Daily. But this is drifting off topic...
8) Secrecy and Poor Communication
Lastly, there was WotC’s secrecy. We found out about 4e during GenCon when they announced its release, revealing the three of four products suspicious posters had labelled “tests for 4e” had been... tests for 4e. We’d been paying to playtest material and beta ideas. Now, I don’t mind buying unfinished or barely tested content as long as I know that’s what I’m getting.
Even now they keep content close to their chest, seldom letting fans look behind the screen. Most of the information they end up releasing has tended to be as damage control after the fact. Everything we’re told seems carefully filtered and distorted through a layer of spin. Listening to WotC employees talk sounds very much like listening to politicians: they have their talking points, and they stick to them. It’s very unnatural.
In response to the perceived lack of communication, WotC started three new columns on the website, one to answer questions, one to talk about DMing, and one to discuss the game. The Q&A article (Rule-of-Three) has had its ups and downs, often being co-opted to serve as news releases. And Legends & Lore, ostensibly a discussion about the past and history of the game, has pretty much been revealed as a tool gathering responses on topics for 5e, both from polls and starting discussion on the forums and article comments. (They’re secretly using us for market research again way to be open and communicative.) And Chris Perkin’s series of DMing articles, while quite readable, is really more of a personal blog than communication between the company and its fans.
It’s rare to feel “in the loop” with Wizards. Their new book releases are usually announced via someone noticing them on Amazon. Information is usually released on ENWorld. And the developers never visit the forums (when they did, it was more often over at ENWorld).
This complaint is not universal. I was really impressed by Rich Baker’s Rule-of-Three columns because they felt honest and human. There were honest answers to questions, discussion of lessons learned, and even the admission of mistakes. And Steve Winter was one of the few staff members seen on the forums, replying to posts and commenting on blogs, and appeared on the fan chatroom over on the now-defunct At-Will Blog. As a reward for being living examples of the kind of communication WotC needs... both were laid off last December. Coincidence? Almost certainly. But still super-ironic.
Even the D&D Podcast seems to have faded away leaving a void where questions used to be answered and the audience was directly spoken to and real questions were answered.
WotC seems to be their most communicative at conventions, like GenCon, where they can get in front of a big panel of people and talk about the future of gaming. Which is great for the few tens of thousands gamers that can attend the con (1% of the fanbase) or the few hundred fans that can fit in the panel (.001% of the audience). But bad for everyone else. They’ve done their best to add post transcripts of the panels online (now available as PDFs), but 3/4ths of the transcripts are comments and questions that will never really be answered making them very unreadable.
What Can Be Learned
1) D&D needs to be the best. It simply cannot cater to a vocal minority (or even a small majority) trusting everyone else will just accept the game they’re given. It’s hard to publish a printed gaming book but easy to releasing a digital product, and there are many competitors online. D&D cannot be the game for most and succeed, it has to be the game for all.
2) There needs to be a middle ground licence for 3rd Party Publishers, and a way for 3PP to get their content into digital tools. It is easy to see why WotC scaled back the OGL: the original d20 licence was far too open. The ability for competitors to publish their own core books should never have happened. But the GSL went too far and asked many concessions from publishers.
3) Little can be learned from the mistakes of the digital tools, as very little was the mistake of WotC. It’s easy to say that they should have more staff and start making the tools sooner, but without a solid edition the programers would spend more time reacting to new design changes than making progress. At this point, I might just dump that department and licence the character builder and digital tools to a company like Hero Labs and adopt their cost-per-book policy (Or, since more WotC products are coming in shrinkwrapped boxes, they could make that design universal and include scratchable codes inside the wrapped, sealed boxes.)
4) There needs to be a strong emphasis on the core rule books. The “everything is core” philosophy seemed solid on paper: it meant new classes and races would be supported, and there was the underlying assumption was making everything a core book meant every book would sell like a core book. Instead it had the opposite effect. People didn’t magically have larger budgets for books or more disposable income, but instead it spread out sales over multiple books. The core books have to be “must buy” products for every player and there needs to be fewer high-cost accessories and regular content should be lower-cost. Keep the focus on the Core book and keep pushing that as the centerpiece for most characters. No matter how many options are pulled from secondary books, players should always have to go back to the Core PHB.
5) Rigorous testing and responding to feedback is an absolute must. The playtest is a giant leap in the right direction, providing it’s long enough and isn’t a short two-week or month-long test like earlier 4e tests (barbarian, psion) or the new miniature game. WotC has thankfully opted not to provide a deadline for the release of 5e – although the easy money is on GenCon 2013 – so they can delay if things need more time.
6) Restraining the writers and limiting them to moderate change is a good idea, as is keeping familiar elements whenever possible. Especially story elements. Unless something is completely broken and unrepairable it should be kept and fixed/ revised/ minimized. Likewise, after a while the design team needs to say “enough is enough” and stop making major changes to the game and focus on fine tuning, really learning and playing the game, and also write for the game.
7) Being flexible in design allows people to make the game their own. It allows classes to truly be different. The more different people who can play the game the more copies of the book will be sold. The game cannot just have a single default assumption that trumps everything. And the developers have to acknowledge that they’re not the only people who play the game and that sometimes DMs have very, very different tastes and desires.
8) The staff at WotC needs to be visible and public. They need to make themselves accessible for interviews by podcasts and in chatrooms. A few official chatrooms advertised on the main page might be a good idea. They need to be encouraged to frequent forums, both official and ENWorld. It might be a good idea for WotC to adopt a forum tweak similar to Blizzard, where there’s a distinguishing feature to Staff posts, such as a different coloured name or very large (and noticeable) icon. Time needs to be set aside for staff to frequent the forums and talk with their audience. And, most importantly, WotC needs to lift the restrictions and stop holding tightly onto book revelations until bi-annual conventions or the thin period after one book has been released but before the next book is in the pipeline.
It's interesting to look at all of the above and think about how little was actually the fault of Wizards of the Coast or looked like a good idea at the time. It may have been playtested too little, and released too soon, and the classes might have taken a little too much from World of Warcraft but this is only obvious in retrospect.