Thursday, January 6, 2011

The D&D CCG debacle: Who's really at fault?

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.


  1. Or, the same Gordon Gekko-esque suit casts an eye on Paizo's Gamemastery cards (which are kind of cool imo) and says, "hey, wait a minute, we can do that too, just mo-better via our MtG stuffz. Mr Data, make it so."

  2. A friend of mine is a screenwriter. He has written a few really bad movies. He will admit as much. When I asked him about the process, he said, "You can't imagine how much work it is to make a bad movie." By extension, making a good movie must be some sort of freakish, Herculean effort.

    I wonder if game design is anything like that.

    In conclusion, "Fire BAAAAAD!"

  3. You can hardly blame the suits. They have no frame of reference in regards to classic D&D vs post Gygax D&D vs 4.5837 D&D or anything else having to do with roleplaying. Bottom line, they want Mo Money. If they have to piss all over the D&D brand name to do it, who cares. They've been whoring out the Monopoly game for decades now anyway, so this is just a piss in the bucket to them.

  4. Why exactly need blame be placed anywhere? Unless I'm grossly mistaken, fortune cards are just another optional thing like backgrounds and themes. I won't be using them, but I think it's a fun idea.

    Although I also think it would've been more fun to have thought of this idea at 4e's outset, and put all our original powers on random cards.

  5. "Why exactly need blame be placed anywhere?"

    Because of a little thing called respect. Respect for a great game, that is.

    Maybe there's a place in this world for an RPG/CCG hybrid game, but there's already a game called Dungeons & Dragons that has a long tradition as nothing of the sort.

    You don't add something like that and claim your game is Dungeons & Dragons anymore than you add 3D effects and Justin Bieber songs to a re-release of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and then dismiss your shenanigans with "these are just optional scenes; the viewer can skip over them by using the remote." That this may technically be so is not the point. For anyone with a sense of propriety/shame, it's simply an affront to a beloved work of art and something that's Just Not Done by decent folk. Period.

  6. I can see that this is something near and dear to your heart, so I'll just agree to disagree.

    Out of curiosity, what will you be calling it now that it's undeserving of the D&D logo? Right now I'm imagining you as a pop star saying "the rpg formerly known as 4e D&D." :)

    (For the love of sanity, I'll leave anyone who uses clever slang like '4fail' to the men in white coats.)

  7. At this point, WotC should just rebrand 4e to "Magic: the RPG". People who have fond memories of MtG would be immediately converted and it may even win over some RPG players who are intrigued by the concept of a CCG-RPG. The D&D brand can be sold off for a tidy bundle and everybody can forget all about the bad blood with D&D 4e.

  8. I wouldn't be surprised to see an official Magic: the D&D Campaign someday. Fans have done it, and WotC has done Diablo, so it's totally possible. I'd certainly give it a try, if I had a DM so inclined to run it.

    But I don't see any company selling off the D&D name, unless that whole company goes the TSR way. Besides, any company who bought the name would be no more or less likely to respect some fans' sense of propriety.

  9. On the surface, it makes sense, since Magic has already built-up a decade and a half of monsters, characters and other setting type material. There's plenty to work with.

    That it doesn't happen I think all comes down to the fact that the Magic "brand" doesn't need such a thing. It's very profitable already and a niche project like that is unlikely to add significantly to that, even if it was successful.

  10. Ahoy Mr. Mistretta! I'm mostly here to say welcome back, it seems like I've haven't seen your posts or comments so much recently (maybe I was just on the wrong blogs). Good to see that Groucho Marx-esque profile image popping up again.

    Rock on!

  11. I also worked in the video games industry for some years, during the period when developer budgets were outstripped by marketing budgets, and Walmart emerged as a major outlet for games that had to be appeased. It's grim, working nights and weekends on a game that's late and sucks, and knowing it would suck even if the 3d engine ran fast enough. It happens a lot. And when management get some business analysts in to tell them what they're doing wrong and rethink their product strategy it gets to suck in new and exciting ways, because the business analysts, who for professional purposes have to forget anything they might happen to know about games, will do exactly what you note: they'll say "make it like product x that made money (aaargh), or product y that is anticipated to make money (aargh but worse), or add this new technological bellwhistle which everyone seems to think will make Convergence (don't ask what this word means)."

    This is what was going to happen when Hasbro got D&D. It was only a matter of time. Breakfast cereal deals are next.

  12. Zounds. I mean, this move was predicted at least several years ago, but I wouldn't have known about it without you posting here. So thanks for that.

    The sense I get is that Hasbro is way, way in-the-clouds disconnected from WOTC to even care that D&D exists, never mind specific product offerings. My guess is that WOTC is capable of this product-line decision all on its own. Collectible material is the way all the big companies are going (including micro-transaction online video games).

  13. For some Wizards Play Network programs aimed at experienced players, Fortune Card purchase will be a requirement to participate

    That, of course, is a direct quote. Man, that is something ...

  14. I think one of your comments in this piece is clearly mistaken.

    Hasbro is a large and successful international company and as such they can obviously afford the $10,000/a night escorts.

    You get what you pay for.