Stopping the RPG Cycle of Dysfunction

Commentary Crowd Funding Dysfunction Industry Kickstarter

The ScreamAbout a month ago, Steve Winter, formerly of Wizards of the Coast and TSR, wrote a post about the dysfunctional relationship between RPG companies and their customers.  I read it some time ago, and it’s been percolating in my brain ever since.  It left me wondering, how can the problem be solved?

A Cycle of Dysfunction

I’m going to paraphrase Steve’s argument here, but I can’t cover everything in the depth it deserves.  For more, see his article, linked below.

In brief, it goes as follows.  RPG companies need to make money.  The bigger the company, the more money it needs to make to support its infrastructure.  The largest percentage of RPG customers are players, as opposed to exclusive GMs.  Thus, the most money can be made by releasing products aimed toward players.

Products that players want to buy tend to expand the game options available to players: classes, equipment, spells, etc.  Unfortunately, as these player options accumulate, it places increasing strain on the rule set.  It becomes ever harder to maintain game balance, and similarly more difficult for new players to pick up the game.

As you project out the path of the game’s ever increasing complexity, it becomes a death spiral.  Eventually, the game becomes so broken, and so dense to new players, that it’s essentially infeasible to maintain.  Thus, a new edition is born.

 Stop the Madness

Anyone who has been a gamer for long has watched that process happen.  It’s not the only cause of edition churn, but it’s a big one.  How could the cycle be short circuited?  I see a couple ways.  You can hit it on the game side, by making the expansion parade less toxic to the game, or you can look toward the financial aspect, making those expansions less necessary.

Unbreakable Mechanics

Long time readers know that I’m a software guy.  In my field, we know that bugs are essentially inevitable, given enough complexity.  I would guess that the same is true of games, so “Unbreakable” is probably an impossible goal.  Let’s say, instead, “Forgiving.”

As it happens, I think this is something Wizards of the Coast was going for with Fourth Edition, and especially it’s Powers/Power Source mechanic.  It’s a pretty darn elegant design that makes for a player expansion goldmine.  Unfortunately, I think it also leads directly to some of the things I didn’t like about the system, such as option overload.  The system also struck me as being a bit too regularized.  This makes me wonder whether it’s possible to produce a game that’s: designed well enough that it can be expanded safely, open enough that it’s still fun, and yet doesn’t create an overwhelming quantity of options.


It’s no secret that D&D 3.5 mechanics were open to exploitation.  The success of Pathfinder, which has been referred to as “D&D 3.75,” would seem to indicate that the existing customer base wasn’t especially bothered by that fact.  Hell, finding D&D hacks was practically a feature of the game for a lot of players.

Still, I admit that I was feeling weighed down by the sheer mass of the expansion books by the end of D&D 3.5.  Did we really need both a Manual of the Planes, and a Planar Handbook?  While it did successfully iron out some of the wrinkles in D&D, however, Pathfinder also created a breakpoint.  It was by and large compatible with the hoard of 3.5 literature, but GMs didn’t feel quite so compelled to honor all of it.

However, I don’t know how easily this strategy could be replicated.  If Wizards of the Coast had released a D&D 3.75, I would bet that they would have been accused of a cynical plot to get gamers to re-buy all those books.  Pathfinder had the advantage of having the new D&D as a foil, and simultaneously being the David to 4E’s Goliath.  Also, I wonder how many new players Pathfinder has brought to the hobby versus D&D 4E.  Is it really just scratching an itch of curmudgeonly veterans?

Other Revenue Streams

Another way the problem could be avoided would be to diversify the income of RPG companies, so they’re not so reliant upon player expansions.  Again, this is something that Wizards of the Coast was trying hard to accomplish, and for which they were widely criticized.  There have been novels, board games, and even wood burning kits since the TSR days, and WotC has utilized many of those (minus the wood burning kits).  However, they’ve also tried introducing D&D Insider, Power Cards, and minis.

This strategy certainly isn’t the purview of the gaming industry behemoths either.  Evil Hat has been branching out into card games and novels.  It would seem that this is a necessary tactic, but the fact that it’s been in use almost since the inception of the industry would seem to indicate that it’s not sufficient to stem the tide of dysfunction.

Reducing Cost

Once again, the recent departures from WotC have shown that they’re utilizing this strategy as well.  However, I wonder just how much overhead it’s possible to eliminate once a company reaches a certain size.  When you’ve got buildings, equipment, cleaning staff, security, etc, how much can you really cut?

A New Model?

Instead of all that, what if the future of the gaming company took the shape of many modern small game companies (and small tech companies too for that matter)?  A virtual entity made up of a few employees spread across the world, working remotely.  Tied together through the magic of the internet, they no longer have quite the infrastructure cost of a bigger corporation.  With crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, these small companies have access to the sort of start-up funds that were formerly the domain of their much larger cousins.  This reduces risk, lowers costs, and allows the company some gauge of the popularity of the product before it’s produced.

Instead of producing a core set of rules and a hundred smaller expansions, perhaps the industry will have to move toward the model of a core book, and maybe four or five larger expansions.  Personally, I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to buy all the gazillion expansions put out for many of the big games anyway.  Then, if there’s output capacity between expansions, they could produce other games, which would allow for increased revenue without threatening the stability of the first game.  Here again, crowd funding would fuel the development and initial print runs.

A lot of that could be describing how many small game press companies operate now.  The rise of crowd funding opens the door for a lot of would-be game developers who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to follow their dreams.  It would seem that we’re in for an explosion of new games as technology allows niche communities to fund the games that suit them.

Rework the RPG Industry?

While writing the last couple paragraphs, it strikes me that I’ve heard many of these ideas before in another context.  The book Rework advocates keeping your company small, your products focused, and not always giving the customer what they want.

As it happens, the book is written by the guys from ’37signals,’ a web applications company.  Many of the same concepts apply though.  Large organizations increase overhead and reduce efficiency.  Kitchen sink products tend to be unwieldy and difficult to maintain.  The behavior that customers reward doesn’t always have healthy results for the product (just look at reality TV).


After all that, I’m left with a few questions.  Without the gatekeeper of large presses, how do we sift the gaming wheat from the chaff?  While it seems to be a win for small companies, would the same strategy could work for marquee names like D&D?  Would D&D fans (for example) be satisfied with fewer, more significant releases of game material?  Hopefully we’ll either learn the answers, or they’ll solve the problem in a way I haven’t anticipated.

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  1. Posted 04/27/2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    You talk about the problem being the game’s own expansions causing it to break. I saw that with 3.5 & the Star Wars CCG, but not with 4e. You mention that the issue was 4e was less about brokenness & more about having too many options. I don’t quite see the issue there, as that’s easily controllable as an individual or a game table. Because the rules are robust, it’s not hard to trust that even powers & rules the DM isn’t familiar with won’t break the game.

    The key point you make above is “not always giving the customers what they want.” Most really elegant games are niche. The people who want that kind of game form a cult around it & most others never touch it. That’s great. Unfortunately, it’s just not how to make the money a large company needs. Which I guess is your point.

    It might be that large companies can’t sustain themselves on roleplaying games or gimmicky extras. Unfortunate for WotC, if true, but I bet D&D will live on.

  2. Posted 04/27/2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    4E has had the issues, though to a lesser extent. Interrupts, for example, can dominate play because there are so many options for them and they are strong. Magic items extend the power of class builds in ways not anticipated. But, the game scales well. A DM can take simple steps like adding some damage to all monsters and increasing their level by one and it all works… if they know to do that.

    Fundamentally, a new model is needed. But I don’t think it is about crowdsourcing. Instead, something must be found to change the nature of one DM owning everything. The game has to work with everyone paying their share and doing so regularly. Gamers that say they like RPGs more than video games should not be paying constantly for video games and not paying anything for RPGs. A possible model is one where the game is not provided in complete form. You get levels 1-x and basic stuff, and you pay more to get more. And yet, you need more feats/powers/etc and pay for them. At the store level, maybe you have to pay to play as gamers do for Magic, but get something in return. This model won’t be about Fortune Cards. It has to be larger.

    OR, we accept that this is our hobby and the larger companies need to work harder on branding. They publish traditionally but make their money with the video games, the movies, the T-Shirts, etc. Licensing then covers the shortcomings of the typical RPG model.

  3. avatar Chase
    Posted 04/27/2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    @pdunwin: I agree, 4e was really robustly designed, overall. However, I think that also affected the feel of the game. If 3.5 was a knife, 4e felt to me like safety scissors. I’m certain D&D will survive, but I wonder if there’s a way to get off (or at least slow) the edition treadmill.

    @Alphastream: That’s a good point about spreading the funding load across the gaming group. Just about every group I’ve ever played in has had people who never buy the game. I just don’t see a way around it, though, as long as people are willing to share books. The game companies can’t charge admission to a table top RPG.

  4. Posted 04/27/2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Great article Chase.

    Teos, I like the idea of pay to play. WotC for example could do something like if you want to play in Encounters, you pay the store and that money goes to continuing Encounters. And the player gets a limited version of the Character Builder for One Encounters character. If they already have DDI, then they can choose some other Reward, perhaps a pdf of an out of print book.

  5. Posted 05/06/2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article. I do think product overload is the point at which each edition of D&D “jumps the shark.” However, I think it is more of a symptom of what ails the game at that point than an actual cause of it. In a somewhat related topic I would like to invite you and your readers to read “Game Designers Seek the Impossible in D&D NExt,” an article published in my blog at this specific page:

    The article points out that game designers, in order to make an the next edition of D&D more successful and to increase its appeal and longevity, need to focus on finding ways to provide personalized publishing as a way to end to the editions war. Personalized content, if it can be done, I believe, will also help to prevent the “product overload” you are talking about.

    But can personalized publishing even be done? That is the question.