Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Picture of Trouble

Recently, there's been a lot of noise about Kodak's threatened Chapter 11 bankruptcy. An article on The Conversation (linked from Slashdot) posits that this is not about any one device (cough*iPhone*cough) eating Kodak's lunch, but about Kodak grossly misreading the ways in which photography has moved from an archival to a social activity.

Meanwhile, I'm starting to hear noises about a 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and hell yeah I'm going exactly where you think I'm going to.

Deja Vu All Over Again

If you ask, "haven't we been here before?", I'd honestly have to answer: Yes. Yes, we have. I wrote previously (in two-thousand-fricking-ten) about what a pooch-screwingly bad mistake it can be to treat your customer base as little more than an aggregated source of revenue.

Yes, there will be a non-zero number of people who will look at the shiny new 5e books and say <igor>"I Must Have It!"</igor> But there will be those who suffered serial chronic disappointment as each old promise fell by the wayside. And each time new promises are made and broken, there will be more of them. They're going to be a tougher sell.

The online club that turned into a mere collection of downloadable utilities stuck in a quagmire of beta, which eventually turned into an online collection which you had to pay to subscribe to, the PDFs which turned to dust... "Once burned, twice shy," as they say.

Wells dry up, fields grow barren, wallets snap shut.

And if I cared more, I could probably turn that into a decent haiku.

Appletinis for the Blood King

Kodak's Chapter 11 convinced me that I had to write something about this, and I was sure there was a viable connection, but it wasn't going anywhere until seeing commentary from other people. Yes, it was on Facebook and Youtube, but that can still be valid commentary. Moral: Choose your friends carefully.

Kodak's problem, according to the article I linked above, is that they made assumptions of how people used their pictures and utterly failed to take them into account when planning their business, future designs, etc. In several metrics, they were still a solid company, but for what the rest of the world was doing, they were misaligned. Badly misaligned. Like, Meatball Sundae misaligned.

When Character Building, Don't Forget the Character

Therein lies a big chunk of what WotC did with D&D: In the early years, it started as a mix of social and tactical game, and became more social than tactical as time wore on. Players chafed under the notion of strict levels (and I was one of those), so in later editions characters became a little less about what abilities they got at each level and more about their own kind of growth, as they selected feats and effects that reinforced what the players thought the characters would train for and grow into; think of 3.5e as the heyday of that.

Incidentally, this ought to explain sufficiently to most why Pathfinder is eating D&D 4e's lunch.

With 4e, they shifted hard back into the realm of tactical, and there were repercussions and consequences. Yes, in 4e, you could still create a character with an eye toward his or her home town and upbringing and background, but you could just as easily discard all that foofy story stuff and get down to the all-important business of building the most efficient killing machine that you could. Why waste time on window dressing when the only reason for existing is getting through whatever adventure the GM has prepared?

I warned y'all! Okay, not very hard, but...

I'm pretty sure I've written about this danger in the past... oh, wait. Now I remember. "Thinking Outside the Power Description"—It was the very first post on this blog. (Wow. I didn't write much back then, did I?)

I talked about how in 4e you could play some with the description of the power, and "recharacterize" it to fit the demeanor or manner of the character who was able to use it. It was an opportunity to customize the character beyond name, race, class, gender, and in some cases where [$gender.pronoun] came from.

People could technically think outside the box, but most of them ultimately didn't. They were less about character and more about mechanics. And a lot of players got a nasty surprise when they realized either just how much they missed the characterization themselves or how little those people around them gave a flying Wallenda.

It's possible that Living Forgotten Realms hastened this descent. There, it was possible to play under a number of GMs, with a variety of players in rotation that, depending where you played and who you played with, either hinted at the problem or screamed about it at the top of its lungs.

Negative Feedback

Talk is being generated about 5e. Given the commentary I've been seeing online, the preliminary feedback is even more negative than it was for 4e. Why? Because they have the downward momentum of 4e to build upon. As I wrote in "Monetization," they've chosen to sell off their brand respect for a quick infusion of cash. They're going to seriously miss that respect come the next edition.

And yet, they're not doomed.


The fact that they have the resources with which to build, design, and publish a new edition means there's still a chance to redeem themselves. They may create a new social game instead of the next incarnation of "the bastard child of roleplaying and slot-car racing," as I've called it many times. They may manage to breathe new life into the brand, and enable it to come roaring back in hobby stores and "regular" retail outlets alike. And players would return, because they no longer feel disenfranchised by the play style encoded into the game.

Then again, this is Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro we're talking about. Hope for the best, expect the worst, as they say.

Final Note: And a symptom?

If anything else has emerged from this thought-experiment-gone-horribly-real, it's that there are a fair number of players who don't even know that they're rollplaying rather than roleplaying.

And while they're style is technically valid, it's stylistically dull. And the first step is admitting you have a problem, which most of them won't.

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