Real Talk About Wizards
Wizards broke radio silence and released a saccharine, disingenuous statement on the leaked OGL 1.1 and the public response to it. Time to talk about the reality of Wizards, and the reason behind the OGL.
The release of the OGL by Wizards way back in 2001 for 3e, and its restoration in 2014 with 5e weren’t actions done out of love for the community or to make the industry more vibrant. It was a calculated move by Wizards to choke out the competition in 2001, and to restore D&D to its pre-4e position in 2014. Why? How? It boiled down to the information and academic heavy planning culture in Wizards during and after their takeover of TSR in the 1990s.
Wizards of the Coast in the 1990’s was a sharp and focused company that was bringing data and theory driven decision making into the tabletop RPG world, which had largely been driven by creator interest and vision prior to that. When they built the OGL, it was based on the principle of Network Externalities. This is an economic principle that states that value is not intrinsic to a product, but imparted by the number of its users. D&D under TSR had been a fractured affair, with BECMI, 1e AD&D, and 2e AD&D all being in active use; resulting in a situation where there was a large user base that wasn’t always buying new products. D&D was the most popular game in aggregate but had majority minority status by all other metrics.
To turn this around, they developed the OGL and SRD. The idea behind it was simple. They’d release the d20 system into the wild, and everything that was made would point back to them and increase the perceived value of their product and increase their sales while pushing non-d20 system games out of the market. In effect, they created an artificial tide to raise their own boat while making sure that all the other boats had short anchor lines. And it worked. The d20 bubble led to an explosion in creativity in their garden and pushed other games out of it, then they made their next move, 4e D&D and the GSL.
The Last Attempt
OGL 1.1 was not the first time that Wizards tried to rein in the cottage industry they created. As 3.5e neared the end of its lifespan, Wizards looked at the results and figured they’d achieved their primary goal. D&D and its d20 system were the most popular, top selling game in the market. Their competition from the 1990’s, White Wolf, Palladium Books, GDW, Chaosium, Steve Jackson Games and others had been crushed to the point they weren’t even really competing. So with 4e, they changed the deal.
4e has been reviled and criticised, rightly and wrongly, for a number of things by many people, but its GSL (Game System License) is almost universally condemned by everyone, even the fans of 4e. It contained several restrictions, pointed 3rd party products back to the 4e core books harder, and prohibited companies from making material under the previous OGL. This led, unsurprisingly, to several publishers going their own way and the lack of 3rd party content helped to hasten the demise of the edition. It was a naked attempt to exercise control over external companies and creatives, and so it was back to the drawing board.
Conditioning a User Base
Wizards learned a lot as Pathfinder outpaced 4e and during their D&D Next playtest period. So it was time for a new plan, and the new plan was a multi-pronged operation that, frankly, no one was ready for. So, let’s break it into phases and goals, and bear in mind, this is my speculation.
Prong 1 Condition the user base to play the game “properly” and get used to a seasonal campaign release pattern. Goal? To move the user base away from purchasing practices of the past to one where they’re more likely to buy every product; they largely achieved this via the Adventurer’s League.
Prong 2 Restore the OGL system. Goal? To re-establish a creative community to point as many people back to D&D as possible. Released with the DM Guild, this pushed a 5e boom like the d20 bubble.
Prong 3 Partner with external companies to build online support capacities. Goal? To capitalize on a population already comfortable with online only resources. They achieved this with VTT partnerships and through D&D Beyond.
Prong 4 Shift OGL to a more restrictive model once support and adjacent industry are dependent on Wizards owned resources. Goal? To break down the barrier between Wizards and the money flowing exclusively in the third party product circles.
Prong 5 Release “living” edition of D&D, linked to the new OGL, to slowly strangle out any 5e remainers or force them into One D&D. Goal? To avoid a Pathfinder scenario where one or more companies use the previous edition to compete with the new one.
Now, all of this is part of a plan to condition a user base that’s already been prepped by the likes of Steam, Netflix, and other online services to shift their tabletop purchasing habits and practices from physical ownership to a licenced use digital model. Why? Because monthly subscriptions, online book licencing, and micro-transactions are better for the bottom line than a onetime purchase of a physical book, or a pdf or epub. Wizards has wanted, since probably 2005 when work on 4e started, to close the loop and build a self-perpetuating and expanding user base that’s a consistent flow of money. The user base wasn’t conditioned coming into 4e though, so they played the long game.
Creators as a Resource
Through my own experiences with working with Wizards, and observations of other times they’ve drawn on the external creators and influencers for a project, I’m comfortable saying that they see us as an exploitable resource. And one that’s not being exploited to its optimal level at the moment. Right now, even if you’re part of an official project, there’s a lot of free labour involved and expected. Wizards wants you to act as “organic” advertising and reach amplification; to do interviews, to advertise your excitement about the project, and better yet, to keep expanding on it in their official content farm, the DM Guild. And in doing the latter, they could expect zero assistance from Wizards and took on all responsibilities and debts to make it happen while pointing people back to a Wizards product.
This is what Wizards wanted more of. People willing to put all their own resources on the line to make them more money. And OGL 1.1 was primed to do that, and to move things to the point where Wizards could, at will, end a creator’s career or take from their work whatever they wanted. From their perspective, it was all wins. From a creative’s perspective, it’s an employment contract where the employer has zero obligations to you, but has full access to the fruits of all your labour.
Foremost, this was not an “early draft” as they are trying to portray it. You don’t go into negotiations with Kickstarter over royalty payments with an “early draft”. The original release date was supposed to be in the first week of January, and the wordage was revealed to the staff in late November, so factoring in Christmas holiday times, this was not an “early draft”. OGL 1.1 as leaked was likely either the final draft or very close at best. And it spelled out exactly the future that Wizards wants. And it’s on track with the path laid out in the 1990’s.
Wizards is not happy with dominance. Why? Because they’re a multimillion-dollar corporation owned by Hasbro, a multibillion-dollar corporation. They have stockholders to make happy and that means maximum exploitation of every resource. And that means that it’s not just enough to have that artificial tide lifting the Wizards D&D boat while drowning out the competition. It means that there has to be more money pushed up to Wizards.
I’m absolutely confident, given their previous business practices, that there were two realities they assumed were true coming into OGL 1.1:
1.) That they had sufficiently conditioned the user base to accept this as their new creative reality.
2.) That influencers and apologists would go to bat for Wizards to help mitigate the response.
Neither of these things were true however, and instead of a disorganized response they were hit by a wall of anger as they somehow managed to get the D&D and broader TTRPG fandoms to join together. And their influencers were silent the entire time, leaving them to deal with the fallout alone.
Crocodile Tears and Warm Fuzzies
This morning, Wizards rolled out their official response to over a week’s worth of PR damage and large third party publishers announcing plans to leave 5e and D&D in general. And it is, as I stated in the opening paragraph, both saccharine and disingenuous. Wizards had no intention of soliciting public feedback on this document, they hit up some major creators and influencers, locked them down with NDAs, and were already into the implementation of steps of setting up payments from Kickstarter. It wasn’t an early draft. It wasn’t designed to protect creators. And given their own recent (Spelljammer anyone?) releases, hiding behind “we wanted to prevent anything hateful or discriminatory” just comes off as them flipping off the people who have actually sweated to try to make D&D less racist and discriminatory.
The entire document is worded to appeal to the 5e fandom who were deep in the ecosystem and who, for the last week, were briefly shaken loose. Wizards wants them back. Wizards wants them creating. Wizards wants that money flow and artificial tide to start up again before anything too serious starts into motion. They want them back before they move to another community content program for one of the games large enough to make a living or a decent side-hustle from and take their fans with them. And it’s already working. People pronouncing this was a “win” for the 5e creator community and fandom and that they need to get back to work on their 5e content. Apologists already say that this is proof that Wizards is a friendly corporation that cares about its user base and that it won’t happen again.
But Wizards isn’t sorry. They’ve done this dance before. It’s the same after every “mistake” they make and remake.
Fool me Twice…
Wizards has done this twice now, first with the GSL and then with OGL 1.1. This isn’t an innocent mistake or a coincidence. It’s a long-term plan they’re trying to execute and that they’re getting closer and closer to doing each time. The mistakes they made this time was that they didn’t have One D&D and a full suite of creator tools for it ready to roll out the door at the same time, and they failed to put their biggest influencers (Critical Role, Dimension 20, and others) and publishers (Kobold Press etc…) in a position to support and push the new system and OGL. I have confidence that had they had that all lined up, the fight in the community would have been more fractured and less effective. But that’s the thing. Like any major corporate entity, Wizards doesn’t respect its user base or fandom. You don’t respect things you exploit. You exploit them and expect them to fall into line.
So this isn’t over. Wizards is going to continue towards its goals. My estimate is that the next attempt will come sometime around the first major update to One D&D. It’ll likely be a bit more subtle, and they’re probably going to move to a frog in boiling water approach. With major updates that push One D&D further away from 5e, they’ll do more to make creators and the user base reliant on their tools and their deals and draw more money from them. Meanwhile, said user base and fandom will continue to propagate their Network Externalities to artificially keep the competition down not through any level of quality in their products but rather through sheer weight of numbers of people using it.
This is the time to stop giving Wizards their Network Externalities advantage. Because they don’t care about their users, their fans, or the creators who sweat to make it all work. They’re big because they’re big, not because they make a good product, and they’re definitely going to do this all again. They’re not a mom and pop publisher. They’ve engineered their situation and want to achieve maximum exploitation of it. So now it’s time to try other systems. Because there’s still a new OGL coming, and the last statement they made about what it would and wouldn’t do was loaded with omissions and half-truths to calm the masses. So make the break. Start soon, because once One D&D drops, the pressure will be back on. So, protect yourselves, protect your ability to protest these kinds of decisions.
Unfortunately, I wonder whether their rank and file consumers are even aware of the drama.