Monday, April 20, 2009

WotC's greatest foe?

Trying to figure out what the heck Wizards is up to has become a sort of cottage industry among the roleplaying blogosphere. Whenever the chatter reaches a certain pitch I sometimes think about these lines from the film Other People's Money:

"This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies makin' buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future."

Larry the Liquedator (played brilliantly by Danny Devito) may come off as a jerk, but he's not acting illogically. Within the corporate paradigm, he makes a helluva lot of sense. Does anyone seriously doubt that there's at least one guy just like that at Hasbro, waiting to pounce? If I was a Hasbro stockholder I'd want a cutthroat guy with Larry's attitude on the team. Even if I didn't follow all his advice, just to keep the organization more grounded in economic reality.

I think that's why sometimes WotC's decisions seem so opaque. Some moves have nothing to do with us. A perfectly rational response to the Larry the Liquidators could look like utter nonsense to actual participants in the hobby.


  1. On a tangent of trivia, there's actually more companies making buggy whips today than ever before.

  2. *Gah* It's a funny feeling when what you know to be right about the way market forces work collides with something you love.

    Thanks for the perspective Jeff. Mind. blown.

    PS: Are we - pen-and-paper gamers, let alone retrogamers - the Amish of gaming? \0_o/

  3. @Chris: I learned how to type an ASCII character and all I got was this crummy attempt at an Amish emoticon


  4. And yet Wizards' strategy seems to be to try to grab as much of the existing market as they can. Or at least jealously cling to what they already have.

  5. This is reminding me of things I have read in a completely different context, about how the model where a company is owned by its investors and its investors are only interested in profit - usually short-term profit, even - is really not a good one. Which already sounded pretty convincing, but it certainly hits home even more when I think about it in terms of a favorite hobby.

  6. Hole in one, Olman.

    If we're playing DeVito's Advocate and following Larry's advice, then the rational course of action for Hasbro is to liquidate WotC's intellectual properties and invest those funds elsewhere, in a more vital gaming market (or the indirect variant, where instead of liquidating the brands you migrate them to those other markets - MMORPGs, for example).

    It's what Larry the Liquidator would do, Hasbro. Are you going to say no to such wisdom? There's a good lad.

  7. The may know something we don't, but the object of PR is to make sure we understand it the way it is (or at least the way they want us to see it).

    If they don't communicate, then people like Olman make up their own minds.

  8. Possibility:

    Wizards crashes.

    DnD dies as a saleable commodity.

    RPGs shift to all-internet distribution cottage industry. It's all totally DIY.

    People like Jeff and James Mal become respected tastemakers.

    Lion lays down with lamb.


  9. rcarbol wrote:

    On a tangent of trivia, there's actually more companies making buggy whips today than ever before.Umm, bro... I don't think that those whips are meant for buggies, or horses, for that matter....

  10. L Beau... but the stockholder's don't care *why* you buy the buggy whip, just that you do buy it...

    This sort of thinking occurs at an even bigger scale when you look at government. The factors that presidents or senior government officials calculate when making decisions are so divorced from the average person's experience and so opaque that you get policy that bears no resemblance to life on the ground.

    Of course, companies have to make money to stay companies (except car companies, I guess), so that calculation is usually at the bottom of every decision - no matter how they tart it up.

  11. WotC convinced Larry the Liquedator at Hasbro that rather than cut them they should invest in the new Digital Initiative. That was reported as negatively affecting profits in last year's Hasbro annual report - something stock holders will be aware of.

    Today the news is that Hasbro 1st-quarter profit has fallen 47%.

  12. My suggestion? Wizards needs to release the D&D rules into the wild. Declare that EVERYTHING they ever published for D&D is open content and offer PDFs of all of it on their website for free.

    Then they can proceed to make their money by selling Miniatures, Map Tiles, Dice and other physical gaming accessories (that can't be pirated) and by licensing out the D&D brand for Toys, Books, Movies and TV shows.

  13. "PS: Are we - pen-and-paper gamers, let alone retrogamers - the Amish of gaming? \0_o/"

    Yes, yes we are. The amish will weather the oncoming economic apocalypse quite handily. They are self sufficent and can do without the support of a corporate machine. Just like Old Guard Gamers. Do it yourself.

  14. Zak: some of us already live there. WotC hasn't published anything relevant to my gaming table since the last printing of Robo-Rally (and before that, any prior printings of Robo-Rally). Jeff and Jamie Mal have a much bigger impact around here than they do.

    D&D will, for the forseeable future, be a saleable commodity ... but it WOULD be nice if it dropped in value below Hasbro's notice, and they sold it off to someone a bit more interesting (and a bit more interested). On the other hand, the big (and very real) risk with that scenario is that they maybe wouldn't sell it off at all - just shelve it and ignore it.

  15. Thank you for dredging that up. You sir, have made my day :)

  16. Flambeaux8:22 PM

    The Amish will be fine in an economic collapse provided nothing that they depend on the outside world for breaks and large bands of crazed, starving people with no objection to violence don't descend on their food-rich farmsteads and lay them waste.

    For better or worse, the "Amish of Gaming" don't have this concern, unless the slavering hordes of latter day barbarians crave 35 year old book binding adhesive.

  17. Red Cardinal2:43 PM

    Mmmm, book binding adhesive...


    Ahem ;)

  18. Stuart:

    I suspect you're right. I've long had the impression that the Digital Initiative was someone's promise to teach the sultan's horse to sing, and now the year is nearly up. Actually, it might have been a reasonable promise before the failure of Gleemax, but repeating it after Gleemax failed smacked of desperation.