It's time again for the contract-mandated Doom 'n' Gloom entry for "Jester" David's blog.
5e is coming closer and closer with the first playtest done and the second due "sometime". Last I heard the second round was the end of summer, so late August or early September, meaning it might be the last playtest before the books have to get finished and out to the printers. So there's still time for WotC to royally F-up D&D Next, producing instead what more cynical people have called "D&D Last".
But just how could WotC turn such a hyped and positive experience built around a framework of crowd sourcing and open playtesting into a poor edition and commercial failure?
I'll tell you.
Not Enough Testing
Despite the mass public playtest, this might happen. While WotC is being silent regarding the release date of 5th Edition, it's going to be 2013. I'm sure they'd like to have it out by GenCon 2013, so they can move beyond the Core books rather than continuing to hype the same product they've been hyping for eighteen months. And there's no way they'll miss two Christmases without new shiny products.
With a five-month lead needed before books hit stores, that means they need to be finished by mid-March for GenCon. It's been almost a month since the survey closed and it sounds like we won't see the results for another month (word being the next round of playtesting is "late summer" i.e. after GenCon). With that turnaround time they'll be unlikely to get more than three rounds of playtesting in, meaning higher level content could not be vigorously tested and all the rule modules might not have received as much testing.
But, if the testing packages open up a little and the focus changes to increasingly high levels it might still work. Even then, if the next round is 4-9 and the round after is 10-16 (twice the level range of the initial tests) that still leaves 20% of the game unseeen for mass consumption.
WotC might also run into problems by listening to the wrong groups of people. The surveys are nice but don't always ask all the questions you'd like and there are few places to put miscellaneous information. They also had some pretty unforgiving deadlines; I wonder how much great feedback they missed by releasing the survey less than a week after the package released and closing after less than two weeks, well before a group that meets monthly might have been able to arrange a playtesting session.
We're already seeing the first signs of this. In the build-up to 4e, the developers spent much of their time insulting 3e. "Insulting" might be too hard of a word, but, when you love a game, that's what it feels like. At best it was a mocking and at worst an open criticism.
It comes from needing to sell the new edition, from having to create a need where none exists. WotC keeps producing books, but a new edition is spurred from dropping sales, which is problematic: people aren't buying books, a new edition requires people to buy more books, thus people need to be convinced that they need to buy new books and that they're unhappy with their current books.
In a more broken edition (1-2e, 3e) this is easier as you can just promise a better game. With a more balanced and stable system like 4e this becomes trickier, because it's hard to promise a better game, especially when so much of the edition promises to ease up on the unyielding balance of 4e.
In both 4e and currently for 5e, the tactic for convincing people that they're secretly, unknowingly dissatisfied with their current game is to point out the places where 4e doesn't shine – the problem areas and proud nails – and claim that those problems are being fixed. 5e will provide options for the non-combat experience, fix combat length, increase DM narrative control, encourage player creativity, cure your gout, and the like. But it's really hard to sell those features while not making 4e seem like it's all-combat that takes forever where the players have all the control but are bound by limited powers. You know, all the stuff 4e players have been trying to dispute for years, but now WotC is now saying is a problem.
It feels like WotC is throwing 4e players and fans under the bus.
It doesn't help that WotC couldn't increase D&D Next staffing without decreasing 4e staffing, thus reducing the 4e content for Dragon and Dungeon and reducing the number of books. (The reduction of books and "focus on quality" from last year coincides with the initial start-up of 5e, when there was fewer staff members to produce content.) Likewise, it feels more and more like DDI isn't worth the cost any more, and if subscription numbers drop because there's not enough content, then content will be cut even more and DDI will quickly die.
Similar to the above is the tendency to go too far in the opposite direction when reacting to an imbalance. This doesn't fix the imbalance: it creates an overcorrection, an oscillation.
4e does certain things very well. It's a great game for high magic heroic fantasy. The combat is fun and tactical, with choices each turn. But that comes at a cost, so, of course, there's going to be a backlash leading the designers to push away from that design. Much like pushing away from 3e's hard choices of flavourful options versus combat effectiveness lead to characters where your only choice was between damaging powers useful in combat. You can see the vicious circle at work.
WotC cannot succeed financially through trying to lure back lapsed customers while forgetting 4e customers. This is trying to win the sale of potential customers at the sake of actual customers. This was the whole problem with D&D Essentials, where they banked on a whole line of products (and two quarter's worth of income) on new players, ignoring current players during that period, many of which abandoned the game and have dismissed every product since as "Essentials". There weren't droves of would-be fans waiting in the wings for a newbie friendly version of the game to be released
Too Many Lay-Offs/ Staff Changes
This one is sadly inevitable. With the announcement of 5e, there are many, many Dead-On-Arrival products. Many people will look at Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, Into the Unknown, and Menzoberranzan and decide they just don't need those books, that they'll never get a chance to use them and get their money's worth before 5e drops. This means many quarters of poor sales. WotC is doing their best to pad their books, with the 1e and 3.5e reprints, hoping those will keep them afloat while they design the new edition. But WotC has been regularly laying off D&D staff even when they had as moderately successful edition, so reprints are unlikely to be enough.
The problem with staffing changes is that the newcomers don't know lessons learned earlier, do not know the full intent and thought behind decisions, and are often not part of "the plan". The loss of staff involved with the creation of 3e lead to the creation of 3.5e, where a planned reprinting with errata grew and snowballed into a whole revision of the edition that almost killed the industry.
Losing staff also reduces the number of voices on the team, the number of people to look at a problem and offer a different solutions or new mechanics. It can lead to a very narrow viewpoint, as a small minority in the designers make assumptions that may be unfounded or un-representational, or all try and fix a problem the same way and miss and innovative solution.
Even if the D&D team focuses its losses on people not working on 5e, there could still be problems. If the DDI or 4e teams are cut that could leave a void in content until the release of 5e, further hurting sales between now and then. And, again, if DDI dies that's a regular income stream being lost and more 4e fans who feel betrayed.
Just Being Retro
There's a lot of complaints about "WotC looking backwards" in the design of D&D. Which, of course, is bunkum: they're looking "backwards" in time but game design is not linear; new ideas are not inherently more fun or better. "Innovate" and "progress" are just buzzwords. A good idea is a good idea regardless if it comes from an MMO or an indy game or an older edition.
For example, weapon speed. Dismissed as an archaic element of 1-2e that only slowed down play. Okay, but let's actually look at it. The idea is lighter weapons strike faster, which is a tactical element that would work nicely with 4e. In a fight with an opponent with a strong attack it makes sense to hit first, so you can strike twice for every attack it makes. Switch to a faster weapon. In a fighter with a less damaging opponent where speed is less of an issue, or where you want the rest of the party to act first, then a slower weapon makes more tactical sense. That could have been a really interesting part of the game that would have fit with the design goals of 4e nicely.
That said, D&D cannot only look backwards. If they make a single edition that is your all-in-one retroclone edition that's all well and fine, but if fans of older editions want to play a game that feels exactly like an older edition they will play an older edition. After all, they already have the books and know all the rules.
Yes, the intent is so you can play a character that feels 4e alongside a friend's character that feels 2e, but... how much of an issue is that? How many groups are divided among edition of preference? A few, but are divided tables so prevalent that you need to design an edition around bridging them? In theory, the plan is to have everyone playing the same edition so fans of 4e will play at the same table as fans of 3e and 1e, but there are also tonal changes that separate fans of editions, variances in the type of campaign and adventure.
There needs to be some change, some new ideas, some new ways of playing, and some emulation of the direction every non-D&D RPG on the market has gone. Just being retro is not enough, even if that retro includes 4th edition.
This continues to plague WotC. As the sole power in fantasy RPGs they fell into the habit of telling the consumers what they wanted and making decisions of books to be released based on what they, WotC, wanted. Books that were good for them.
For example, when is the next playtest update? I'm said "late summer" above because another poster elsewhere confidently says it's then based on something they read, which is like saying "a friend of a friend saw somewhere that 'late summer' was said by someone official". On the Tome podcast Mike Mearls implied it was sooner, but this hasn't been echoed anywhere I've seen.
WotC got all secretive with the build-up to 4e and hasn't quite stopped hiding behind the curtain and acting like if the audience knew the full truth they'd abandon the game.
As another example, it was recently announced that the Virtual Tabletop is shutting down. They announced this via a community e-mail to subscribers letting them know a full twenty-days in advance – less than the minimum renewal period – likely catching some people right after they had renewed. And as the message only went to subscribers and isn't mentioned on the website, there might be new people signing up in the hopes of VTT play at this moment. There was no news post, nothing on the main website, and many fans had to find out via ENWorld. Why did the VTT fail? The reason cited is "lack of support". This could mean lack of WotC which is fairly true, making it the third digital initiative from WotC that never made it out of beta, languishing away without regular updates (Adventure Tools and Gleemax being the others). But "lack of support" could also mean "lack of usage", which was also likely an issue: few people were actually using the tool. Part of this is the overestimated audience for a VTT, another part is the cost when so many other VTT are free, but a large part is lack of updates, fixes, and listening to suggestions from the users. The last is the big problem: not reading feedback from the users, absorbing their suggestions and requests, and implementing them.
When WotC does talk, they seem honest and like they mean what they say, but invariably something comes along that casts aspersions on their motives suggesting the pure business reasons behind it. Last year they slowed down their release schedule, ostensibly in response to feedback asking for greater quality, but we now know they had started work on 5th edition and were unlikely to have the manpower to continue to develop 4th edition material at the same rate. They started three new columns to talk to the players, but one was quickly revealed as setting the stage for 5e and testing the waters for certain designs.
Not Finishing what is Started
Another big, reoccurring problem is WotC's changing of direction in the middle of product lines, shifting format or design to accommodate some perceived better way of doing things.
At the start of 4e, they promised books would be DM books or player books, so each wouldn't be stuck with a book that was half content they couldn't use. They also planned three DMGs, one for each tier. They hinted at monsters to come with "scourge dragons" and "catastrophic dragons such as "earthquake and typhoon dragons".
We never got the DMG3 or much of any Epic support. While we got catastrophic dragons in MM3 we never saw the "typhoon dragon" or any of the scourge dragons. Books quickly mixed player and DM information, most notably the campaign setting books, sacrificing world information for player content. Then there were the format changes, swapping to softcovers and books that look very different on the shelves from earlier 4e books.
There are also the other unfinished ideas. The Design-a-Monster contest where the monster ended up on the cutting room floor. The adventure design contest and updates of 3e books to 4e, where only protests on the message boards resulted in the content being released.
I worry that the initial D&D Next books will hold back content, much like was done for classes and races in 4e. To avoid having to balance all the modules (or levels) for launch, they might put some options aside with the intent of revising them later. Which never works out: the content gets forgotten, or changes in direction / design render it useless.
I'm not saying all the above to be mean or negative, I'm saying it so the problems are visible, so people know what to watch out for.
How do we prevent D&D Last? First, current fans need to be shown some love, shown that WotC has not forgotten them. The game cannot be left in a holding pattern, allowing players to drift off and find other games.
First off, WotC needs people regularly visiting their site, which keeps them up-to-date with the game's news and 5e. A strong DDI is good for 5e. A weak DDI and another year of sparse content means players are going to start new campaigns and try different games, then WotC needs to win back a whole other audience. People are not going to prematurely end games they've started and campaigns in progress just because the newest edition of D&D is released any more than they're going to patiently put their gaming on hold for a year or save the money they're not spending on gaming books until WotC releases D&D Next.
The onus isn't just on WotC. The fans of 4e need to be understanding that they won't get as much content, and that the content they like best might be a little less in 5e. There really, really needs to be less crunch for 5th Edition. 4e suffered from too much of a good game and quickly collapsed under its own weight. And more should be done to communicate this fact to the fans, explain why D&D Next is needed.
The marketing department also needs to step up and give D&D their A-game. They can't rely on slamming 4e, which just pushes away 4e players. Nor can they rely on gimmicks that require people visiting the webpage, as that's selling to an audience that's already buying the products. They need to find ways of reaching people who don't visit the website, former players who have drifted into other games, people who stopped playing but now have the time or money. All the while, the marketing department need to continue reaching out to new players and getting new people into the game. There are many gamers I see on campaign setting websites that have not heard of D&D Next. Just the other day on a Dragonlance site someone asked what "D&D Next" was, inquiring if it was a video game or something.
The edition also needs to be tested faster and more vigorously. Now that the initial more focused playtesting has occurred, WotC needs to suck-up their fears of theft and release more content, including character gen and a wider level range. There needs to be very clear plans and outlines for future products and plans to release them as soon as possible.
Honesty and transparency might be nice. For example, there could be playtesting goals or questions separate from the package (such as on the website) and update the testing goals every couple weeks, challenging people to try different things with the same mechanics. "This week we want to know what you think of X, Y, and Z." That way they can use the surveys to collect generic feedback from people on a monthly level while testing balance and how other mechanics work on a weekly level from people who can play more often.
Lastly, as always, WotC needs to actually listen to their fans. WotC needs to find out the content they want, the races they want, the options they want, and then give it to them. Looking back at 4th Edition, what surprises me most is that we had to wait four years for goblin and kobold PC races. WotC needs to acknowledge to consumer requests, and respond in a timely fashion. They need to find out the rules modules people want, the types of games people want, and what will get as many people as possible excited about 5th Edition.
With the collapse of TSR D&D faced death once before. 3rd Edition was really a "do or die" edition, and boy did they ever "do". But twelve years later we're back in a similar situation, only with a fractured fanbase, stronger competition in the tabletop RPG market, more competition from virtual RPGs, and a tighter economy. WotC cannot afford to make mistakes.