The Dangers of Going Digital for Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast are the makers of my favorite tabletop RPG game, and the grand-daddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons. They’re owned by Hasbro, in case you didn’t know. They’re also up shit creek without a paddle when it comes to digital offerings. This post is the result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine about digital RPG content, and it represents my opinions and outside assumptions on the business of D&D. A lot of this is speculation, so feel free to argue with me and tell me I’m not just wrong, but also dumb. Anyway, here we go.

The Dungeons and Dragons Insider monthly subscription program (in which I participate) leaves much to be desired by anyone even remotely aware of available web, content management, and cloud based technologies. The bit torrents are rife with pirated copies of every D&D book ever made in multiple languages. And whenever they try to make a change for the better with their digital initiatives, they enrage neckbeards and grognards from here to Helsinki. And everyday, more and more folks are discovering completely serviceable alternatives like Pathfinder or DriveThru RPG. But why is that? Why would the company with the most to lose be so slow in going digital? The answers may surprise you.

Firstly, who do you think the primary customer for D&D is? When Wizards of the Coast counts up its D&D recipts at the end of the day, what demographic is their biggest spender? Believe it or not, it’s not gamers. It’s retail stores. Be it local mom-and-pop stores, or retail giants like Barnes and Nobles or Books-a-million. And it’s been that way for a long, long time. Wizards of the Coast has only recently gotten into the racket of direct customer sales, much to the chagrin of their best customers, the retail chains. In the eyes of the people who cook the books at Wizards, going fully digital would lose them their best customers.

Secondly, when it comes to D&D, Wizards of the Coast is in the business of making and selling physical books. It’s how they measure success and brand health, and a meaningful percentage of their workforce is dedicated to the process of acquiring physical materials, printing the books, performing book QA, and physical shipping of product. If they went all digital, that portion of their workforce would either become unnecessary or need to learn new skills in a hurry.

Finally, there’s the expectations of the majority of their secondary audience, us. As much as I would love digital content, books are easier to pass around a table. Plus, I like seeing them sitting there behind the glass in the gaming room. I guess I could put a USB stick in there, but it just wouldn’t look the same, call me an old softy. So what can Wizards of the Coast do? Honestly, I think they just need to keep on trucking. They may be slow with the digital initiatives, but they have a precarious and unenviable balancing act they need to keep up. And we should wish them the best of luck.

Until next time, Good Gaming!