If the world of media, going all the way back to the first inexpensive media that people could record at home, has taught anyone who pays attention one lesson it is this: customers and would-be-customers and will-never-be-customers will get what they want whether you like it or not. And the more you tell them “no” and try to make it difficult for them to get what they want, the harder they will fight to get it. Hell, Prohibition taught that lesson.
I’ve watched WotC make post-4E decision after decision that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, seem aimed at one thing: attempting to thwart the spread of their intellectual property through digital avenues. At a quick glance, the goal is admirable. You own something, someone wants to steal it, you try to stop them. If my shiny new MacBook Pro was sitting on the table at the coffee shop and someone tried to take it, I would do what I could to prevent them from doing so.
The problem is, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a laptop. It’s not a thing at all, but rather a vast and murky pool of things. And many, many people are deeply passionate about those things. They like them and they want them and one way or the other, they’re going to get them.
When 4E was first released, WotC sold PDFs of the 4E books through legitimate avenues. Now they don’t. When they first stopped selling them, there was at least a chance they made the decision because of some impending New Thing they were going to release to fill that void. But it has been so long now that the only conclusion one can realistically draw in restrospect is they did it out of fear that the PDFs were too easy to pirate and spread around for free. Now, instead of purchasing 4E PDFs from legitimate companies (such as Drivethrustuff.com, among others) some number of those would-be customers are merely finding their 4E PDFs over bit torrent streams.
What did this decision change: The people who would have pirated the PDFs before are still pirating them, and now some number of the people who were purchasing them before are pirating them. People are getting what they want.
After over a year of delay after delay after delay with D&D Insider, WotC released a character builder that exceeded all expectations. Frankly, it was extraordinary and I was blown away by how smooth, flexible, and useful it was. It was followed up by a monster builder that was every bit as good as the character builder, and those of us who waited patiently month after month (paying our D&D Insider subscriptions all the while) let out a joyful and heartfelt hallelujah.
Many unauthorized third-party applications came along subsequently (e.g., Lone Wolf Development’s 4E plug-in for Hero Lab, Masterplan Adventure Design Studio, DnD4E Combat Manager, etc.) that could take advantage of people’s D&D Insider subscription in one manner or another. WotC followed up by migrating their programs to a more-controllable web-based platform, releasing versions of the character builder and monster builder that are the vaguest, palest shadows of the triumphant versions they originally released.
What did this change: Some number of customers are cancelling their D&D Insider subscriptions because there is no longer even close to the value in that subscription as there used to be, and those customers are turning to third-party applications created by designers whom they perceive to “get it.” People are getting what they want.
WotC is stuck in the publisher-vs-pirate tailspin that so many great media giants have gotten trapped in before them. It’s an endless dance of 1.) create something, 2.) that something gets exploited in some way, 3.) change it to something new, 4.) that something new gets exploited in some way, etc., etc., ad infinitum.
All the while, if they would simply keep innovating and driving forward and creating reasons why customers would *want* to keep paying attention — and keep paying subscription fees — to what they’re doing they would be moving at a pace that would make the pirates who get stuck in their wake irrelevant. Instead their limited resources are being aimed at fighting a war that has been proven again and again and again to be unwinnable.
I’ve watched this happen in many industries, but now it’s happening to my beloved Dungeons & Dragons. And it makes me a little sad.