4th Edition was sold with the digital tools. Much of the initial hype was predicated on the suite of digital offerings. The initial presentation had demos of the tools. WotC cancelled the printed copies of Dragon and Dungeon so as to tie them into their electronic offerings. The print copies of all of the Core rulebooks advertised the existence of the e-tools & magazines wrapped up in a package known as "Dungeons & Dragons Insider" or DDI. The little red DDI logo is pretty synonymous with 4th Edition, being attached to users and articles.
But DDI had troubles before it even launched. While WotC continued as if nothing was wrong, months before the launch they scrapped everything that had been done and started again. When the tools were released they were good, but two never made it out of beta and a couple were replaced with online equivalents.
Now 4th Edition is over. The last 4e book has been released and we can look forward to months of edition neutral content. However, DDI is still heavily mired in 4e, with adventures and content still exclusively using that system, and the tools still exclusively 4e (the one edition neutral tool having been cancelled). There's very little draw for the lapsed gamer or fan of older editions, i.e. the people WotC are currently trying to attract.
As the fans start pulling their funds away from 4e and saving or thinking about 5th Edition, can DDI survive?
We've already seen a couple bits of DDI vanish. One of the early selling points of DDI was "exclusive content". There would be DDI-only playtests (such as the barbarian) and DDI-only classes and races. Sadly, much of this content has been republished. There was the Dragon and Dungeon annuals and Heroes of Shadow that republished a race and class. Powers from the various online products have also found their way into published books.
While DDI subscribers were once the go-to playtesters, even this was abandoned in the lead up to 5e. In an effort to cast a wider net and make the playtest more accessible, the D&D Next playtest required no subscription and subscribers didn't even get an earlier sneak peak.
The problem with exclusive content is the lack of support. The goal behind 4e was "everything is core" with no side classes or races that wouldn't have content in later books. Like the Warlock in 3e or the ninja in 2e. However, since an option was exclusive to DDI it couldn't be supported in later books. There were no gnoll feats in Divine Power and no assassin options in PHB3. Which would be fine if there were regular updates on content, but WotC is really good and forgetting options and focusing on new content and ideas (which is good for a gaming company but less good for a publishing company where selling-out larger print runs is good).
The Virtual Table
The biggest selling point of DDI was the Virtual Table. Initially envisioned as a 3D game space it was released as a 2D version three years late. Then it was cancelled after just a year.
It wasn't really a surprise as it had languished over much of that time with few updates, and with many of the updates removing options and features. At the end, there was no way to easily share content (as that feature was removed) making it hard to learn and slow to start-up, and only featured cloud storage with a hard cap on the amount of content that could be saved.
For over half a year nothing was done with the tool. Which was sadly typical: get the project to the "good enough" phase and then move staff to other projects.
The VTT was finally cancelled for "lack of support". A curious phrasing that might mean "lack of updates" (suggesting WotC could be blaming the outsourced company that made the VTT) or alternatively might mean "lack of users". Of course, the diminishing users can also be partially attributed to the lack of regular updates & fixes.
There's also the transient nature of WotC's marketing pushes: if someone were offline for a two-week period last year they likely wouldn't have heard of the Virtual Table unless they went looking for it. Like much of D&D, the VTT it wasn't promoted after the initial hype. While books can manage with significant build-up followed by nothing – as they're visible on shelves or as suggestions on Amazon – a digital offering has to be continually in the public mind. And there is an upkeep cost that makes continual interest and demand necessary.
Thankfully, it sounds like the company that helped make the VTT is taking up hosting, as described here. (No word from WotC on the matter, so I'm hoping it's not a scam or elaborate hoax.)
Dragon and Dungeon
I don't foresee the magazines lasting long.
With 5e not ready to be released and not generating any funds, WotC is likely haemorrhaging money on staffing: too many paycheques and not enough profits. There have been layoffs every year for the last half-decade and 2012 is likely to be nasty. When looking at the people on staff there's going to be a hard choice between the people generating content that makes some money (DDI) and the ones generating content needed to make money next year (5e). Likely both will see cuts, but cuts to DDI will likely hurt the magazines the most. The e-mags are an easy thing to lose, as WotC can dump the editors, the people doing the PDF layouts, reduce bandwidth costs, and shrink the costs of having to maintain & update the server. That's a lot of money saved without diminishing the quality of any physical products. And with the magazines gone, the staff needed working on the other tools will spend less time having to update to match the online content (or will also be reducable).
The magazines have been languishing for some time. Let's look at page counts by year(ish):
Dragon issues 364 to 375 had a highest page count of 103 a lowest page count of 66 for a median of 85 and a mean average of 83.
Dragon issues 376-87 had a high of 119 a low of 86 with a median of 85 and a mean of 83.
Dragon 388-99 had a high of 103 and a low of 66 with a median of 85 and a mean of 84.
Dragon 400-11 had a high of 156 and a low of 30 with a median of 93 and a mean of 61. However, if you exclude the extra-large anniversary issue the highest issue was 100 pages for a median of 65 and a mean of 52.
Dungeon issues 155 to 166 had a highest page count of 136 and a lowest page count of 79 for a median of 107 and a mean average of 112.
Dungeon 167-78 had a high of 116 and a low of 84 with a median of 100 and a mean of 105.
Dungeon 179-90 had a high of 93 and a low of 73 with a median of 83 and mean of 80.
Dungeon 191-200 had a high of 167 and a low of 47 with a median of 107 and a mean of 77. Again, there's an anniversary issue there. Remove that and the highest page count is 111 for a median of 79 and a mean of 69.
The average issue length (mean) of Dragon held pretty steady at the mid-eighties until the most recent year where the average page count dropped by twenty-five. Conversely, Dungeon has been dropping steadily since the start, likely due to its DM-focus which is difficult in 4e without having endless monster articles.
(Disclaimer: I'm only counting the PDF of similar type content for page counts and not all of the web-only non-subscriber content. I've apparently misplaced a few issues and articles as well, so this might not be 100% accurate and the averages might wiggle a bit depending on the page count of those months. As my 4e game is on hiatus – and I'm not currently collecting a paycheque – I'm reluctant to re-up my subscription to check my math.)
The frustrating thing is there's no reason for this. They have tonnes of articles just sitting around waiting to be published. I've written something for Dungeon which whose final draft was submitted almost a year ago and still hasn't seen print, and I'm sure there are many similar articles and pieces. And the submission period following that (the fall one) I had at least one submission rejected because a similar one had already been accepted, which I've set to see published.
According to the editorial, the last round of submission pitches were for next year, so the editors must have all the articles for 2012 already finished and awaiting formatting and publication. There were three Dragon issues in the last six months in the 30-page range and they couldn't pull from future articles to pad and just approve a few extra articles from the most recent submission drive? Okay, some of that is likely due to the limited time of the development team to tweak and polish mechanics, but, looking at my many back issues of the magazines, so many fun articles had very little mechanics or were larger concept or advice pieces.
Of course, there might be another reason at work. If DDI is set-up as self-sufficient, with the number of subscribers directly paying for the amount of content, then the shrinking magazines might reflect the dropping number of DDI subscribers. Fewer DDIers means less money to pay for articles. Which is a horrible vicious circle: DDI subscriptions drop so they have to cut magazine content which leads to more subscribers leaving. Scary thought.
The Character Builder has had its ups and downs. It was downloadable and adequate, before being improved to pretty-darn-good then cancelled for the online version that started more bare-bones than the original builder. Only now, at the end of 4e, has the Character Builder almost caught up and become fully functional.
Sad that it's very likely to go away with 5e. The edition seem very, very different and the code will have to be written from scratch. With that in mind, WotC would be very foolish not to move away from Silverlight to HTML5 and tools that can be used on mobile devices (especially smartphones and tablets).
While the upkeep cost of the Character Builder is likely negligible, and will get even smaller once they stop having to make regular updates, it won't work with their current edition and won't be making them money.
This will likely piss off pretty much every 4th edition fan and current player, really alienating the fanbase and is probably the worst thing WotC could do. At least until a year or so after 5e has launched...
The ideal thing would be to foist the Builder onto another company and let them take over hosting and operation. Much like the aforementioned GameTableOnline is taking over hosting of the VTT (eventually to be found over on www.rpgtableonline.com).
Oh, the poor, poor Adventure Tools, i.e. the "Monster Builder" as both times it never managed to branch out into other tools. Robust Encounter Builder, Treasure Parcel Generator, Map Maker, and Handout Helper tools would have been so very, very handy. Especially since WotC shut-down MapTools from doing much of that.
The first one didn't make it out of Beta and there's still speculation what the other buttons at the bottom would have been for. While those who downloaded the old Character Builder might still have a workable version of that program (mine lives on my laptop) WotC saw to it you couldn't use the Monster Builder by releasing a big update before its cancellation that half-updated the Builder to the revised MM3 formatting and math but also introduced numerous frustrating glitches that made the program all but unusable.
Then, many months after, WotC released the first version of the new Adventure Tools. Aka the "Monster Renamer". Icky.
The design of monsters in 4e has made this tool more useless than the others. While there's so many powers and juggling the errata/updates has made the Character Builder pretty much a must-have, monsters are pretty easy to reskin. Size and type have very little bearing on a monster so you can turn a tiny insect onto a huge humanoid with no game effect. With 5030 monsters in the Compendium and over 1000 post-MM3 you don't really need to make your own monsters (unless you're playing in the Epic tier). Realistically, the way 4e is set-up, you only need 210 monsters (one of each of the 6 types from level 1-35) plus a handful of powers to drag-and-drop onto those monsters.
The Character Builder and Adventure Tools need to be rebuilt from scratch to work in 5e. The VTT – which was ironically largely edition-neutral – is already gone. Dragon has dropped to under half the size it used to be while Dungeon continues its steady decline.
This is not good.
From August to the launch of 5e, there seem to be very few products for fans of the RPG. While there might be "D&D" products out there, I'm a not a fan of the brand itself. I've picked up a couple of the board games but only really need those 2 (plus the forthcoming Dungeon!). I have no plans to get Lords of Waterdeep or Dungeon Command. There's no shortage of awesome board games on the market. WotC will have to work very damn hard to earn my money the next year.
This is where the looming death of Insider hurts. DDI is a continual revenue stream, a semi-guaranteed income as long as there's a reason to subscribe. Additionally, the articles keep people coming back to the WotC website every day, checking in semi-regularly and thus keeping informed of new developments regarding D&D Next. The importance of this cannot be understated. If DDI goes away much of the current fanbase will just stop coming to the website. Given that's the only place WotC seems interested in selling and hyping 5e, this pretty much puts them out of the game unless gamers trip while walking down the road and stumble into a game store.
Plus, so much of 5e is built on nostalgia and a respect for what has come before: the mutual shared foundation of the gaming experience that we all have in common. And do you know what many of us D&D players have in common? Freakin' Dragon magazine. You know what plenty of DMs nostalgically remember as the source (or inspiration) of some of their fondest adventures? Freakin' Dungeon magazine. If DDI goes away so does Dragon. And that would be bad. It hurts the very legacy of the brand.
What to Do
Things don't have to end badly.
To survive there needs to be an investment in DDI. Money needs to be sunk into the magazines to make the cost of DDI more palatable. And there should be more universal and generic articles to appeal to fans of all editions, if not outright content for all editions. WotC should start hyping and selling DDI to fans of D&D regardless of the edition, breaking that ground now rather then when they're ready for 5e to launch.
There needs to be content that keeps people coming back to the magazine every month. Paizo realized this with their Adventure Paths, which sold better than other issues. When there was an AP adventure in every issue of Dungeon it encouraged subscriptions as people wanted to see what happened next. It wasn't just the "next issue" it had the continuation of a story told in adventure form.
This could be done with a new Adventure Path (or two). It shouldn't be impossible to make it edition neutral and reference existing monsters, ala Living Greyhawk or Living Forgotten Realms modules where there's different monsters at different tiers (for 2e use X, for 3e use Y, and for 4e use Z). Fiction would be another option. A serial Salvatore or Greenwood story or ongoing tale (see the Voyage of the Princess Arc) or even a comic tale: I loved The Twilight Empire: Robinson's War back in the day.
A more cheap option would be to put the old magazines online. Most of them are already digitized, having been released on CD. When 5e does come out this will be a great resource for ideas. It might also be a good idea to get some interns and set them to work tagging the issues, especially Dungeon. They could put 20 issues of "classic Dragon" up each month and that would be content for a year and keep people coming back every month to see what was next. Heck, it would be possible to do an issue a day (including weekend but excluding holidays) and that would keep subscription numbers high until 5e content was ready.
Very shortly, the 4e tools are going to radically decrease in value. They won't be being updated or revised, and even fixing bugs will cease being a priority; there are already no new hardcover books with powers and monsters and options to be added. Asking people to pay the same price for DDI when they're getting less new bang is silly. If the Character Builder is static it's pretty darn easy to pre-level your character from 1-30, save PDF copies to your computer, and unsubscribe.
To skirt this issue, DDI needs to cut its price. A reduced rate, closer to what it was when there was just the magazines (with a dash extra for server fees for the tools, to be reduced if said tools go away). And, of course, announce the new discounted rate several months in advance so people don't get stung by paying for a year the week before the drop.