Wizards of the Coast, publishers of fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, faces a unique problem. The game goes back to 1974, but has gone through many iterations since. Every four or five years D&D is either revised or updated with a whole new edition, and every four or five years some of its fans stop playing. People drop off because they don’t like the changes in rules and the style of play that results.
When the fourth edition was launched in 2008, the changes gave the game more of a war strategy feel and a video game/MMO sensibility. As a result, some players dropped off, disliking what they perceived as a game anchored in statistics. In 2000, the launch of third edition caused a similar reaction—rules emphasizing characters’ skills and powers seem to detract from the creativity of the game. And fans said the same thing about 1989's second edition. Today, there are groups of gamers that play first, second, or third editions, eschewing the later rules of their favorite game. For a new edition, D&D Next, set to launch in 2013, D&D’s creators are going back to a simpler core game with optional add-ons, and opening up the design process to players.
"If you want to play D&D, you need to find people to play with," said Mike Mearls, Senior Manager, D&D Research and Development. "Would the game even survive if every five or six years it just splinters into smaller and smaller groups? We’re trying to bring everyone together." By creating D&D Next (as it is currently codenamed) with a simple base, akin to the original D&D from the '70s, and then designing optional rule modules to support more complicated systems akin to the additions that came with each new version over the years, the company is hoping to appeal to fans of each edition. Mearls says, "We are entering into this design with a real sense of modularity, letting people pick and choose what elements of D&D to use." A simple set of base rules also achieves another important objective, making the game approachable to young gamers and new gamers.
But the company won’t just design the rules for all different types of players—it will get those players to contribute to them. Recently, the company held its first playtest of the D&D Next rules with about 500 fans at a small convention called the Dungeons & Dragons Experience. "The playtesters were given pre-made characters and then played through an adventure," says Mearls. "It was very positive, but we are very acutely aware that this is just beginning." With the announcement in January of this new D&D edition, there was also the announcement of a public playtesting program.
For previous editions, Wizards of the Coast (and previously, original D&D publisher TSR) would do internal playtesting with employees to work the kinks out and some closed playtesting at game conventions. And with D&D Next, the company will do all that once more. But Wizards will also do public playtesting, getting the rules out there for fans to try out and share suggestions and concerns. "If we want to create a version of D&D that encapsulates the best of the past versions, it’s really important to have D&D players as part of that process," says Mearls. "Obviously for their feedback, but also to make sure that it is a legitimate expression of what D&D is to people."
And others in the role-playing industry agree. "I think it’s really important," says Erik Mona, publisher at Paizo Publishing. "Tens of thousands of brains are better than even the best RPG design studio." Mona would know: Paizo’s game Pathfinder is a competitor to Dungeons & Dragons, and has found success by appealing to disillusioned D&D fans. So back in 2008, Paizo, then a publisher of supplemental content for third edition D&D, decided to keep that edition going. Using Wizards of the Coast’s own open license, he would republish the now-discontinued game. Mona said, "On the day we announced we were not going to fourth edition, we said, 'We’re going to stick with 3.5 edition. But if we are going to go through the hassle of reprinting it, let’s fix the stuff that we think needs help.'"
The company began a public playtest, with all the suggestions that the players made on Paizo’s message boards helping to shape the updated rules. By the time Pathfinder was finalized a year later, over 55,000 players had downloaded the rules. "It gave the audience a sense of ownership over the material before the material was even published," said Mona. "So by the time we put out the actual game, it wasn’t just, 'Paizo is putting out this Pathfinder game.' It was, 'Paizo is publishing this game we worked on together.'"
So it is no surprise Wizards is looking to emulate Paizo. "The main thing was we brought the audience along with us," said Mona. "There was no better way to launch it." Wizards needs D&D Next to have such a vocal fanbase to launch the new game, to bring back fans and to counter Pathfinder's recent sales success. "Pathfinder has overtaken Dungeons and Dragons," said Milton Griepp, the publisher of ICv2, a hobby trade publication. According to ICv2, since the 2nd quarter of 2011, Pathfinder has been outselling D&D. Some retailers have also told ICv2 that below top sellers Pathfinder and D&D fourth edition, number 3 in their rankings is out-of-print editions of D&D. "It just shows what a powerful set of ideas that D&D was and all the different ways it has come to the marketplace," said Griepp. "And Pathfinder has done a fantastic job of taking something that D&D had moved beyond and making it really successful."
With D&D Next, Wizards wants to capitalize on those old edition players and to turn around sales. Even their competitor Mona—who worked for Wizards before being one of the founders of Paizo—wants to see them succeed. He believes they need to manage the playtest correctly, and put the new rules online for everyone to see. "If there isn’t an easy way to get at those rules, then they are still fighting the same battle," said Mona. "I think they would have a tremendous success with an online approach."
Sometime in the spring, Wizards will launch the public playtest, though eschewing Paizo’s exact model of online feedback. "If we were to rely on a forum for feedback, it’s very easy for a few very active, loud people to dominate that discussion," said Mearls. "Things haven’t been finalized yet, but it could take the form of surveys or outreach, to make sure we are getting data from everybody, meeting the needs of people who are playing the different editions of the game."
With the company’s product lineup already announced for 2012, D&D Next will likely launch August 2013, to coincide with the biggest game convention, Gen Con—which has been the launch location for past editions. This would give the company about a year for public playtesting. "Right now, we have created a first draft of the core rules. Some of the feedback will go to the core rules and help us make changes to them," said Mearls. "And we haven’t really built the character options out yet, so the feedback gives us a good direction for the kind of options that people want to see."
Of course, the more cynical consumers may think the public playtesting may just be in the service of marketing buzz and little of the fan feedback will actually be used. "If it was just a marketing ploy, I wouldn’t have so much work to do this year," says Mearls. "The proof is going to be in the pudding. People are going to see how the game is changing based directly on their feedback. The plan is to not just have a single playtest. We want this to be a conversation with D&D players."
[Dungeons and Dragons Experience image by Greg Bilsland]