This is a response to a post on Erik Tenkar’s blog, about WotC’s recent announcement that they don’t plan on doing any licensing for third party publishing (specifically, by “fans”) until long after the completion of the launch of the actual game. For third edition, Wizards allowed many third party publishers to launch products virtually alongside the 3e core books; one even beat the Monster Manual onto store shelves.
It's worth pointing out that 3e was a smash hit, which is what they are hoping for here, and up until now have programmed the launch of D&D Next pretty well. But players have options for what they actually play, and with Pathfinder out there as one of the options, the D&D offering is going to look awfully thin on the ground without third party publishers. WotC isn't competing with 3rd party publishers who publish for D&D, they are competing against Pathfinder and the 3pps who publish for Pathfinder. If this fact isn’t grasped, then it’s a serious risk, and we who have watched the “market” dynamics of the OSR are well placed to see it. I’ll get to that later; first I’ll point out what my reasoning is, and then I’ll point out how it’s supported by the events of the OSR’s history.
We start with the concept of variety. A lot of people might be interested in 5e but not in the Tyranny of Dragons series. Not everyone likes that type of adventure. And what it does is to co-opt third party publishers as competitors, forcing them in the Pathfinder camp -- even the ones who might otherwise have backed D&D -- continuing to promote and write material that competes with D&D. Or they could just sit around. Not likely. This approach probably isn't a disaster, but it could be a very significant rock in WotC’s shoe over time.
Now a comment about the fact that they only mentioned “fans,” without actually saying anything about for-profit publishers. If the idea is to have no third party publishers at all other than fan material, then the game is dead. Sorry, that’s strong language, but I’m about to back it up. We have a very good control experiment, the OSR. If you look at the timeline of publications for "AD&D" before OSRIC (when it was a no-third-party-publishing system) there's very little other than Footprints magazine (at Dragonsfoot). After OSRIC, there's an explosion of material for “AD&D.” Not all of it is good, some of it is awful, but there's a hundred times more good material in total than what the pages of Footprints produced. More bad stuff, but also more good stuff. The OSR (which I’m identifying here as ultimately generated by the OGL version being released, which is admittedly simplified but works for the purpose of this comparison) spawned blogs by the hundreds, modules (hundreds? Probably by now), cottage-industry game companies, etc. I can definitely say that if WotC tries to set things up by seeing D&D third party publishers as the competition, instead of Pathfinder with its legions, D&D's survival as a game won't go long beyond its novelty value. It depends on every fan liking the WotC trade dress and adventure style. They won't. Some will prefer something that has a different design focus, or a different writing style, or – let’s look at ourselves – even a different font. And the gamers that don't like the WotC adventures will migrate or return to other systems that are better supported. Fourth edition was panned as a bad game, and there were other problems with the 4e launch that don’t exist here, but 4e proved one thing very solidly. When gamers are not happy, they can migrate away from even a big brand name. Part of the dissatisfaction with 4e, although it wasn’t the biggest part, was that popular third party publishers wouldn’t sign on to the restrictive GSL license.
WotC, for all that it appears to have produced a very good game that can be played at different complexity levels, and is giving the basic rules away for free, would be making a very bad mistake by attempting to force every for-profit third party publisher to support any system as-long-as-it's-not-D&D. It isn’t the way to claw back into a dominant market position. Times have changed since the 1990s, when intellectual property could be kept well bottled. TSR’s demise corresponds to the rise of the internet, which they failed to survive, and WotC’s success with 3e corresponded to the OGL.
Our own experience with the OSR shows a before/after scenario with an even better control group, since it’s essentially the same rule set before and after, with the only change being the application of the OGL to an AD&D clone.
It’s not science, but it’s the best we can do in terms of observing the effect of third party publishers on a system, and the value of a supportive relationship between the publisher of the system and the third party publishers. Paizo supports third party publishers, and utterly crushed the first WotC system that tried to keep third party publishers out (4e).
There are lots of good games out there that go unnoticed – it’s not enough for a game to be good. It’s also not enough for a game to start with lots of sales of rulebooks, which 4e did. In the days of the internet, a game requires long term support from a broader creativity base than one company can achieve, even a big company. And the D&D division inside WotC is not a big company compared to what it was in the 3e days.
This is the first thing that I’ve seen in the launch that’s a potential problem, and I’m on the record that I thought the slow rollout of books and the dribble of initial information was pretty brilliant marketing and use of social media. And I’m certain that the sales of 5e will be good; the question is whether they will be enough to regain market share – over the longer term -- from Paizo, with its fleet of third party publishers.
I think 5e lives or dies in the long run by how many third party publishers it can attract to its side, not how many it can force into the role of reluctant competitors.
I'm a big fan of a relatively simple, free basic set that's targeted at younger gamers and creates a strong network for a simpler game than Pathfinder. I really don't want to see it drop onto shelves with no support on the internet, because for "kids these days," the internet is where it all happens. You've got to win the air war before you can win the ground war.