Although I haven’t actually played D&D or d20 at all for years, I have been keeping up with the news regarding those subjects.
(For those who came in late, d20 means two things: in game terms it’s a twenty sided die, and it’s also the name of a game system that uses that sort of die a lot. Specifically, d20 is both the game system that Dungeons & Dragons uses and a game system extrapolated from D&D for different settings (such as d20 Modern, a modern action variant) that is designed to be compatible with D&D.)
Recently Wizards of the Coast, or WotC for short, have announced a 4th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. By itself, this would not be a problem, but there there are some major issues with the way WotC has chosen to deal with third party licensees of the d20 system that already are leading to much tension among the fans and could eventually lead to a serious backlash. A little history is needed to explain this, but I will keep it brief:
2000: WotC releases D&D 3rd Edition. Along with D&D3e, WotC institutes the Open Gaming License and the d20 System License. (Note that the people making the decisions at WotC then are not the same people making the decisions now.) The d20 System License allows third party publishers to create content for D&D without WotC’s direct oversight. The OGL allows third parties to create content that includes rules similar to the d20 system but can be compatible or otherwise.
Despite the occasional product that made WotC quite unhappy and resulted in the d20 SL being tweaked (such as “alternate” Player’s Guides that essentially were just copy & paste jobs), the d20 System and License was largely a huge success. OGL products were generally unsuccessful at first, because most customers wanted products that were directly compatible with D&D and later d20 Modern when d20M came out. Third-party D&D settings ranged from the relatively uninteresting rehashes of various homebrew settings to almost-too-revolutionary settings like Dragonstar to remakes of existing non-d20 games like Deadlands d20 to new settings that were unrelated thematically to anything seen before. Almost all of these flourished breifly before failing spectacularly thanks to D&D 3.5.
Up until 3rd edition, the normal course of AD&D had been to release a new edition no earlier than once a decade. (The “A” had stood for “Advanced”, which originally was to distinguish the hardback consolidated rulebooks from the box-and-booklet “Basic” editions. “Advanced” was dropped for 3e because “Basic” D&D had not been published for quite a while.) This resulted in minimal disruption to the fanbase (despite a 1e/2e split for a while resulting from unwise omissions from D&D2e) each time a new edition was released. Mostly due to pressures from Hasbro who had recently bought WotC at the time, D&D 3.5 was released just three years after 3e.
Because 3.5 was mechanically very similar to 3e, it was easy to learn the differences and a cinch to convert characters and monsters over to the new system. 3.5 had various subtle tweaks and reorganisations and generally made for a better game. However, nearly all third-party d20 books were suddenly no longer compatible with the established rules, and the financial effect was more like a tsunami than a ripple. Quite a few small publishers went under or came close to going under. Even worse: retailers found themselves with shelves full of unwanted d20 books and many game stores went under or were forced to no longer support RPG books at all.
Almost five years later, the wounds were mostly healed. Those who survived the original fallout from 3.5, or started up after the 3.5 fallout are mostly fairly successful and have the market pretty figured out (such as Swords & Sorcery Studios with their excellent WoW RPG). RPGNow and DriveThruRPG were thriving. OGL spinoffs such as True20 and Mutants & Masterminds found their niche. Other companies had gone on to create their own completely original systems (Savage Worlds being one of the best examples). Paizo Publishing, primarily because of their close relationship to WotC, had prospered. In all, things were looking pretty good up until late 2007.
The announcement of 4th Edition D&D had the predictable effect of causing third party products based on D&D 3.5 to plummet. That, by itself, might not have been so bad, since all the third party publishers could prepare for another edition change if it was like last time. However, recently WotC have made several announcements that are akin to shooting the third-party publishers in their feet.
1) According to the new D&D 4e Game System License, publishers who license D&D 4e cannot also publish OGL material. This is not at all unlike Microsoft saying that software developers cannot develop games for the Nintendo Wii or Sony PS3 at the same time as the XBox 360.
2) The d20 System License (for 3.5) will expire in July just as 4e is introduced. This is not at all unlike Microsoft saying that software developers can no longer develop software that runs on Windows XP once Vista comes out.
(I’m only using Microsoft for illustration purposes because Microsoft also makes products that entire industries are dependent upon. I’m not a Microsoft hater, I’m just making them wait until they fix Vista completely before I upgrade.)
Even before WotC made these two announcements, they had completely estranged Paizo Publishing. That, in itself was a bad sign. But on top of that, the terms of the 4e GSL are freaking ridiculous. The publishers that survived the 3.5 upgrade were at least allowed to sell their old d20 books.
Now, the World of Warcraft RPG (as one example of a successful d20 product line) has less than 2 months left before the d20 license runs out. When it does, S&S Studios have to either get rid of all the old stock (not to mention all the unsold books that the retailers are going to be sending back to them) or slap an OGL sticker over the d20 System logos and try to keep selling them (and that’s being optimistic). Either way, it’s going to hurt S&S Studios A LOT, and to a far worse degree than the 3.5 fiasco. If S&S Studios weren’t essentially a mildly successful side-branch of White Wolf, S&S would be facing imminent extinction. As it is, because of S&S’s backlog of reasonably successful d20 books, WotC’s tactics are making it financially unfeasable for S&S to go with 4e.
If WotC had any sense, they would be seeking to minimize the damage by allowing their licensees to try and recover some of their investments during the transition period. Instead, WotC isn’t even allowing a transition period. This is so ridiculously awful of a scenario I doubt most sane WotC haters thought it would happen this badly.
At first I was paying attention to 4e news with mild interest, like watching the trains slowly moving in and out and around a train yard on a sunday afternoon in late summer. Then all of a sudden one of the trains, one which happens to have the CEO of that rail company driving it, begins accelerating straight towards a dozen others (obviously the tracks cross each other in this analogy) and just… Doesn’t… Stop…
Now everything could turn out all right. But I don’t think so. This is the sort of behavior that wars are fought over, and can WotC still make a profit on D&D4 in the long run when they’ve pissed off / killed so many of their former allies?
EDIT: See Lee Szczpanik’s take on the same subject.
EDIT 2: Good news! WotC are giving d20 licensees until the end of the year to sell their existing books. Well, okay, that’s not really “good” news so much as “sucks significantly less” news. But it does show that WotC aren’t acting as badly as I accused them of doing so above.
P.S. I may be bashing WotC quite a bit in this post. However, I do still genuiniely would like to see them succeed with 4e for a number of reasons. But the fact is that not only should they not succeed at the expense of the entire sub-industry they created, they cannot succeed at the expense of an entire sub-industry they created. I am just trying to be a constructive critic.