On the surface, it's a straightforward combination of cynical marketing and absolute creative bankruptcy. But I'm not so sure.
I was talking with a friend of mine recently who works in the videogame industry. He told me downright harrowing tales behind some of the worst games of all times. No kidding. Several of them actually received awards for it.
These are projects that span the spectrum from "'gritty' reinvention of beloved cartoon mascot" to "is that even, technically, a game?"
And one pattern emerged: A few people (sometimes only one) with way more money than sense and a whole lot of well-meaning, talented people who know it's a bad idea, say it's a bad idea, and still finish the project because they can't afford to quit their jobs instead of putting work unto a bad idea. There's also no small amount of throwing good money after bad ("We've already sunk millions into this turkey, we can't stop now!").
So that brings me to D&D. It's no secret that they're a subsidiary of Hasbro and that Hasbro wants the D&D "brand" to be making more than it is. It's not hard to imagine WotC's designers, who are, we can assume, RPG gamers with some respect for the form and reverence for a classic like D&D, being told by some executive at Hasbro who wouldn't know Dungeons & Dragons from death & dismemberment insurance: "What about that Magic thing? That makes money. Just make it more like the Magic!" Right before he adjusts his snappy Gordon Gekko suspenders and snorts a three-foot rail of coke off a naked $5000/night escort before bellowing his best Al Pacino "Hoo-ha!"
So what's my point? I mean, for all I know, this might not be the case at all. Maybe so, but armed with these new insights into exactly how ugly game design in a corporate environment can get, I'm going to be hesitant to assign blame for this one. At least for the time being.
Certainly somebody has masterminded a forehead-slapping affront to a great game, but we may never know exactly who or why. At least not until one of us buys the right ex-employee a beer in the years to come and gets the full story.
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