Sunday, November 21, 2010


There is a tab in the Blogger interface called the Monetize tab, which would reconfigure my blog's layout so it will support advertisements placed there by Google. In exchange for a little money, I could add to the irritation of my reader ("readers" would be unwarranted optimism). I regard it as evil. And sadly, I think I'm in the minority.

Customers, consumers, and cash cows

I like citing Seth Godin. He is also in a minority: he could be considered a non-evil marketer. Among other things, he understands the difference between customers and consumers, and urges businessfolk to cultivate the former.

What's the difference? Customers and consumers are both people who buy things. But "customers" are individuals or groups which you respect. "Consumers" are aggregations and collections who buy en masse with little regard to what they're buying, so there's little reason to regard them as anything more than statistics in the "profit" column. For the former, you focus more on the issues they have and just a little less on how much those issues cost you, knowing that you're building loyalty and opportunities for future business. To the latter, you put stuff out there for the little cretins to buy if it's not too expensive to produce. You cater to customers. You pander to consumers.

Seems the decision to get customers rather than consumers would be clear-cut, right? Yes it is, but some business look only at one deciding factor: money. Customers are good for more money in the future, but consumers bring in the cash now It's instant gratification vs. long-term survival, and instant gratification seems to be the preference.

And the "cash cow?" That's what you call something from which you can (generally) reliably get money. It can be a secure investment, a plentiful and valuable resource, or a well-respected and built-up brand. I say generally reliably because that reliability can be damaged: the secure investment can be shorted and worked until it tanks, the plentiful and valuable resource can be strip-mined to nothing, and the well-respected and built-up brand can be torn down for quick profits. As I hinted earlier in another post, you can milk the cash cow for a moderate or steady stream of funds, or you can slaughter and grind up the beast for a much larger infusion of funds, after which you soon discover that it's very difficult to milk a hamburger.

If that metaphor seems inapplicable, remember that it's just that: A metaphor. A brand (that is, a recognized nameplate under which goods or services are provided) is not a cow, but it's possible to build brand loyalty and a steady income by supporting it responsibility, or you can take advantage of the brand, squeeze all the money you can out of it in the short term, and kill off the brand loyalty. In essence, you're trading the loyalty for a quick infusion of cash now. Let's hope you don't need that loyalty later.

What's this got to do with anything gaming?

Of course...

I'm talking about Dungeons & Dragons. More specifically I'm talking about Wizards of the Coast, the company that bought TSR (which had previously bought SPI) before itself being subsumed by Hasbro. And even more specifically I'm talking about some of the business decisions they made in the support of their brand.

Except that by "support of," I mean "attempts to squeeze additional money from." And by "brand," I mean a few different things.

Oh, I'm sure that there are quite a few clever, talented individuals who work there. But given their business decisions, it's become increasingly apparent from their behavior that management thinks they're dealing with consumers, not customers. And if the Invisible Hand doesn't thoroughly spank them for some of their recent decisions, I'm sad to say they may be right.

Honestly, who throws a shoe?

Let's talk character generating software. Great a topic as it would be for its own post, we need to talk about it here too.

GURPS has a character generator, the Character Assistant. It's $15 to purchase, and it will allow you to print as many characters as you want on your own computer. The software is PC-only, but SJG also has a fairly liberal policy on creating your own character generation tools, like spreadsheets and the like. (And I have one created in Apple Numbers that I would like to put to more use.)

HERO Games has a character generator called Hero Designer. It's $25 to purchase, and includes two years worth of updates. After said period, you still have the software, but you don't get the new versions, bug fixes, etc. unless you pay another $25. They also have a

Wizards of the Coast has a character generator, Character Builder, which until recently was available to D&D Insider subscribers to download. To receive updates, you had to continue to subscribe. However, someone apparently decided that this didn't alienate enough customers, so the download version and updates were discontinued and the generator software made available online to subscribers only through the D&D Insider web site. The cost: $10 monthly, or $72 for a year.

To recap:

  • Character Assistant: $15 for unlimited use.
  • Hero Designer: $25 to download and get two years of updates; after that, $25 for each additional two years of updates.
  • Character Builder: No download version available, $72 per year to use through a web interface or more if you pay by the month.
  • Exercise for the reader: Arrange these three deals in order from worst to best.

    [insert Final Jeopardy music here]

    Crocodile Tears for the Devil

    Admittedly, I can think of a few resons for them to release their product in this manner. However, shortly after presenting those reasons I can shoot most of them down like so many clay pigeons.

    Look how many books there are!

    It's true; it can be argued that D&D is among the most prolific publishers of gaming books out there. With each new release, they have more information to add to the character generator. They can't just release free updates to Character Builder because players could get benefit from the new books without buying the new books.

    Except that's baloney.

    Consider the example set by Hero Designer. The base program contains all the character elements from the past two versions of the HERO system, 5th and 6th. This is the program's default configuration, which you get even if you have none of the books, because the character doesn't mean a whole lot without the context provided by the books. And the supplements and additional information presented in later books? Well, Hero Games found a better way to monetize it. Along with the later books and supplements (in both dead tree editions and PDFs, by the way), you can buy expansion packs for Hero Designer for a few dollars each which add in all the variations and benefits and extra nuggets of information from each additional book.

    Well, this new way's a multiplatform solution. And you don't have to worry about updates.

    Yes, it's true, the original Character Builder would only run on PCs, and to run it on a Mac you would have to have some form of Windows installed, which is possible but highly distasteful to most Mac users. The web version is accessible to both platforms. And they keep the web version up to date, so you don't have to download new versions each time they make changes.

    Except as of this writing, those "advantages" cancelled each other out.

    The web version, and I wouldn't be surprised to find the download version before it, is based not on Flash but Microsoft Silverfish Silverlight. There are reports that it was updated recently and has stopped working on some Mac users' computers. And that assumes they have Silverlight installed in the first place. They have enough problems with Flash, fershuck'sfake.

    It's convenient to any computer you can use?

    Yes, if you can get to the computer, and the computer is online... no, wait. that second part right there's the deal-breaker. If you're on your own computer and you want to work offline, you're screwed.

    But look how much other stuff you get!

    Um, yeah. A compendium of information from all books which I couldn't get good information out of when I had an active Insider account, a set of Adventure Tools which has been in near continual beta and so far only includes a Monster Builder that allows you to create variations of already existing monsters (not your own unique creations), and... oh, wait, that's it.

    You can't build your own character generator, so you might as well use theirs! Hah!

    This also is true; in recent history since D&D 4e came out, Wizards of the Coast has actively discouraged anyone from creating their own program for creating characters in their system.

    However, if you think about it, this isn't a recommendation for the character generator—it's a recommendation against the publisher. If you want to create your own helper, you're better off working in another system entirely, either one that doesn't need a helper or one that has a more laissez faire attitude toward user-generated utilities.

    Oh... Little help here?

    I'm out of reasons to subscribe. And admittedly, I haven't tried the online version yet. I have no plans to, either, because of the possibility that any characters I create will become unreadable without the program.

    If there are other reasons to consider using Character Builder, I'd love to hear them. Really I would. From where I sit, though, it looks like they found a way to squeeze more money out of their loyal fanbase and jumped in, feet first and heedless of any possible consequences because, hey, money.

    A long history of diminished expectations

    I'm pretty sure they were taking subscriptions to Gleemax before that part of the operation, promised support for 4e, folded like a wet paper towel.

    Wizards of the Coast was the first major publisher of PDFs to not only stop selling PDF versions of their books but to shut down the authorization server, thus turning any legitimately purchased PDFs of their books to useless data, because some people were sharing PDFs.

    The shift from 3.5e to 4e was a harsh one for the Eberron setting, as a dozen books were mashed unceremoniously into two books. Seem a little sparse? They said that to take advantage of the other details of the setting, you can refer to the old books. Complication: They no longer sell the old books.

    If these are wrong, I'll apologize for saying them. But they hint at a long history of treating gamers as wallets with legs.

    1 comment:

    1. Meanwhile, the Dresden Files RPG has eighteen pages of scenario design advice, and most reviews I've read say that's pretty much all you need. So far as I know, there's no plans to release any supplemental materials until such time as Jim Butcher has introduced any cool new concepts that can't be simulated by the existing rules (and given how flexible the Aspect rules are, that would take some doing).

      I'm going to be following the news on the Evil Hat website, and looking close at anything they release from now on. They deserve my money way more than Hasbro does.