When Your Cute Little Game Business Suddenly Explodes
One indie designer's summary of the Dungeons & Dragons debacle.
The big, fun news in the gaming world recently was that it looked like Wizards of the Coast (WotC for short, owned by Hasbro) was going to drastically change the Open Gaming License for Dungeons & Dragons.
WAIT! COME BACK!
Yeah, I know. It's a really incomprehensible, inside-baseball story, but it's also really interesting if you're into games or business.
First I'll try to summarize it. Then I'll ramble about what might be learned.
The Story So Far
It's a complex story with a lot of moving parts. When I get something wrong, yell at me in comments and I'll fix it.
1. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D for short) is a very old game, popular among oddballs like myself. It's great because it provides socially-awkward, nerdy people a comforting structure in which to get together and hang out. In this game, you sit at a table and communally make up a fantasy story about murdering people and taking their stuff.
2. The current edition of D&D is very popular. Importantly, it has a set of rules that are pretty put together and easy to use.
3. A few years back, WotC created an Open Gaming License for D&D. This means, if you want to make your own game using D&D's rules, go for it. You can even sell it. You just can't use D&D's existing names or stories. (So you can't use D&D spell Magic Missile, but you can make up your own identical spell called Missiles That Are Magic).
4. This really caught on. A bunch of people made successful businesses selling board and video games using this license. D&D grew much more universal and successful. (By the standards of the tabletop game industry.)
5. WotC got new management. (When you hear this phrase, you should always brace for impact.) They decided that they weren't extracting enough money from D&D fans. (NB: One of the key reasons for D&D's enduring popularity is that it can be a very cheap hobby.)
6. Some insider at WotC leaked a new version of the Open Gaming License, which basically took away all the good stuff. You may not own your own work anymore. Having to start paying royalties on products and also streaming (!). Some feared that the old license they depended on would vanish. All this info came from a leak and traveled via rumor, so all of this is very vague.
7. Everyone who makes a living selling these products or who likes to use them (a fair number of people for this industry) got very mad.
8. WotC backed down with a kind of mushy-mouthed statement. Status quo continues for now, but now everyone knows how they feel and what they want.
This is where we stand, until a few months from now when things quiet down and WotC does whatever they want.
The Results Were Predictable.
When someone leaks something vague that affects your ability to stay in business, a lot of freaking out happens. And when all you have to go on are rumors and a leaked document that may be out of date, the freaking intensifies.
Suppose this change happens. What happens to products released under the original license? Can they still be sold? Can they be expanded? The answers seem unclear. They can only be made concrete with the sort of expensive lawyers most game developers can't afford.
Suppose you're making your money selling books of monsters for D&D. What is your plan? Think about it. Assume you can't afford a full-on lawsuit, but you have another book in the works now. What is the plan for the future?
I don’t have an answer. I get the shivers thinking about it. It’s really tough, and I wish everyone in the path of this juggernaut the best of luck.
It's a mess. At least they have a reprieve, for now.
What have we learned?
The Open Gaming License was a Good Thing. Once.
When I first heard of the Open Gaming License, I couldn't believe something so cool could exist. (Apparently, it couldn't.)
It's a great idea, because it's good for everyone.
It helped WotC by turning the rules for D&D into the default thing everyone learns. It makes D&D into Windows 10. It created many independent developers who make content to make D&D more fun and interesting. I can't say this is why D&D shot up in popularity over the last few years, but it sure didn't hurt.
It was great for game creators who had a great idea but didn't want to do all the grinding work of designing and testing their own ruleset. I mean, I can do this because it's my full-time gig and I enjoy it and am decent at it. However, this isn't in the skill set of a lot of smart people.
(The license has also been used to make computer games. The legality of this has some questions, but the games in question, like this one, have not gotten super-sued.)
Finally, it's great for players because a lot of cool products have been made using this license over the years. Products that don't require learning a ton of new rules to enjoy them. A healthy industry with easy to access games is good for all of us.
Anyway, that's all gone now lol.
There's Now a Stink On the Whole Business
WotC backed down on these changes. Maybe they meant it. Even if they keep the old license, there's a stink on it forever.
Seriously. Who is going to start a business based on this license now, knowing that WotC despises it and wants to monetize it? Running a game company is already near financial suicide as it is. Now any investment in Open Gaming License products is done with a pistol held to your temple.
Trust takes a long time to build up and moments to destroy.
But It's Still a Good Idea, For Someone
Having a general, generic game ruleset everyone knows and can use is a great idea.
WotC rival Paizo is making their own open source ruleset run by a non-profit. This is a great idea, and it already has some serious backers. Honestly, it's been proven this is something that should exist, and it'll be a month of Sundays before anyone trusts their business to WotC's tender graces again.
Personally, I hope there’s also a route to using the rules for computer games. Indies need all the resources they can get.
Also, regular board games should have something like this. There should be one set of rules used by all board games, and buying a new game just means you get a new set of plastic components. Kids would learn these rules when they are four, and a lot of time would be saved.
The Main Rule To Learn From All This Mess
Whenever you run a successful, small business, you will be at someone's mercy. A supplier. A distributor. My business depends on Steam, for example. Everyone gets a gun held to their head at some point. No man is an island, and all that.
So whenever you can, make your choices to minimize the number of people who can destroy your business. When you use something like the Open Gaming License, you are vulnerable. Hasbro is a big company with lots of lawyers, and anyone can sue anyone at any time for any reason.
If you based your business on the Open Gaming License, you seem safe for a while. I really hope you are safe forever. But ... I’m glad that many are looking for escape routes now. At least you got a warning. Not everyone does.
It's a fascinating bit of business, and I'm sure some prospective MBAs will study it in future. Best of luck, game makers!
We make really nifty indie fantasy RPGs with our own eccentric rulesets. We’re doing a Kickstarter for our next big title soon. If you want to learn about it, follow this Substack or join our mailing list.