The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Prior to the creator summit, online rage suggested the attendees were sellouts or shills for Wizards of the Coast and its corporate overlords. The events proved otherwise. They also showed how deeply WotC wanted to engage with the community and their willingness to overcome serious planning mistakes.
Note: in this series I am not sharing the names of attendees, and usually won’t name staff. If you want to be named, post a comment and I will make the update.
The online rage likely has several sources. First, most of the rage took place on Twitter, a platform that has become increasingly problematic as it rewards rage algorithmically. I would like to suggest that folks move to other places, such as Mastodon, well-moderated Reddit communities, EN World, Email lists and private Discord servers, or really… practically anywhere else. But, many are not ready to do that or feel they can’t do so – that moving is a privilege they can’t afford. I get it. Still, it is important to note that rage is happening disproportionally in certain places.
Second, in the wake of the OGL, many (not just those who always bash WotC) wanted the community to move away from D&D. It can be very frustrating to those folks to see the community continue to engage with Wizards so soon after the OGL fiasco. I understand how folks can feel this way, even if I respectfully don’t share that perspective. To me, now is the best time to engage.
Third, news that the event was happening broke via YouTube videos that fed off of jealousy. While YouTube’s algorithm is currently better than Twitter’s, people do tend to click on sensationalistic videos and this resulted in a lot of folks upset that they had not been invited. I empathize. There are amazing people who were not invited in-person, despite being far more accomplished and having much greater reach than I do. No attendee list can be perfect, and WotC’s ability to perfectly weigh influencers and creators will always be limited. It probably didn’t help that the Critical Role anniversary event and the D&D movie premiere invitations (both in LA) were also providing folks with lots of FOMO (fear of missing out). There isn’t a creator I know who at some point hasn’t felt left out – including Matt Mercer.
Improvement Area – Our Community: We get to decide how we interact with algorithms and platforms. We get to decide how we treat each other. How much of a clickbait title should we use? How carefully should we consider what we write or film and how it impacts others? Will we stand up to help improve our online communities? We have a role to play here, especially when we have a role as influencers, mentors, team members, and advocates.
Imagine two trains headed for each other. One is Wizards of the Coast, oblivious to the importance of communicating an agenda. The other is the attendees, increasingly frustrated as the day plays out without speaking to the issues they thought they had come to discuss. This was a spectacular crash, and here’s how it happened.
Wizards meant well. As I wrote last time, they devoted tremendous staff and money to this event. Staff asked questions and solicited feedback on the topics they presented. Each session had several staff devoted to taking notes. They were clearly gathering issues to work on after we left.
The in-person attendees arrived skeptical. There was little information telling us whether this would be largely PR, or how much time we would get to speak about issues important to us.
This was far worse for virtual attendees, who struggled to hear the CEO’s opening remarks, wrestled with chat rooms and virtual office hours, and then tried to hear about D&D Beyond’s future while their video showed them a large table covered in swag for the in-person attendees. One virtual attendee said to me something along the lines of, “if I can’t ask questions, why am I here? I might as well read about this on EN World later.”
Improvement Area – Agenda/Virtual: I spoke to these in the first article. The agenda should have been shared. Virtual sessions should have been separate from in-person ones.
Improvement Area – Virtual Q&A: Online attendees had no good way to provide questions ahead of time. For virtual attendees, WotC couldn’t see the questions ahead of time to make sure they were appropriate and actionable.
As the morning events wrapped up, attendees began to wonder if this event would ever speak to the concerns many had come to discuss. When lunch was followed by another VTT discussion, the questions began to shift. One after another, the attendee questions were about equity, accessibility, creator support, localization, hiring and promoting marginalized staff, trust, and problematic content.
Wizards tried to get back on track, as the presenter was there to talk about the VTT, and the next session was about the 2024 Rules Update. A brave in-person attendee raised their hand and emphatically said they had come to discuss the community issues. Attendees spoke up, agreeing.
Wizards gave some extra time, then tried again to get back to their agenda. Nope. The attendees again spoke up. A vote was held, with a bit over half the attendees wanting a bit more time. Dan Rawson (D&D Senior VP) and Kyle Brink (Executive Director for D&D) fielded the questions. These ranged from rebuilding trust, to requesting help with online harassment, to sensitivity reviews, to the use of AI.
This pivot was not easy. I know when I have arranged professional events, I put a lot of energy into preparation and I can be slow to pivot (something I am trying to improve). To their credit Wizards provided the extra time and worked through very difficult moments. Staff jumped in, covering blind spots – which speaks to how important it was that Wizards had dedicated so many staff to being present.
Improvement Area – Check In: Wizards staff should have checked in, a common event management step. “How is this session going? Are we covering the topics you expected?”
There were several cases where staff, particularly executives, had very little knowledge of a topic and no idea how to answer it.
For example, when discussing D&D Beyond and the challenges of translations, an in-person attendee asked them if they understood the global disparity in buying power. They shared that in India, a D&D book costs about 9% of a person’s income. It isn’t just about translating an interface or books. Wizards needs to examine pricing, in the same way that Valve provides regional pricing for some Steam games. I shared that many South American countries have similar issues, and that Baldman Games charges less for the games it runs in Portuguese.
Staff seemed unaware of all of this. In later sessions and at lunch, we proposed ideas on how to mitigate these problems. Translating the Basic Rules into various languages is a lower workload, and because they are free, pose no access issues. It’s a great way to increase international interest while keeping costs low and progress fast. Wizards can learn, international audiences benefit and grow.
Improvement Area – Localization and Basic Rules: Staff suggested that localization is proving overwhelming. There is no timeline for it. Wizards should test translating the Basic Rules into a few languages that are spoken commonly. Wizards should also develop a plan for what to do to replace the LatAm community team they fired recently, and look to implement and modify the model they have been using in Japan with local experts trying innovative approaches to growing community.
Improvement Area – Identify Internal Experts, Follow Up: Executives can’t be intimately aware of every issue. But they should know who can answer questions and be ready to have them answer. Where there were blind spots, executives should get a post-event follow-up briefing and make sure the right staff understand the issues.
Improvement Area – Follow-Up with External Experts: When an issue needs follow-up, there should be a note of which attendee raised the issue, as that person likely can share additional information in the future (should the attendee be willing) or point WotC to resources. Several of us said, “We are here willing to help you on these issues. Contact us.”
Here are some of the other topics I found interesting that took place in sessions, in hallways, in Q&A moments, or during meals.
There were several questions about what Wizards was doing to prevent problematic content, which perhaps reveals that the article where they talked about changes in practices and cultural consultant reviews is not easy to find on the D&D Beyond site. There was also great acknowledgment that any one staff cannot be expected to understand all issues, including PoC staff. It takes expertise to be a cultural consultant.
There was also a question about what could be provided to creators and even play groups to help avoid problematic content. WotC has said they would provide their internal guidelines and share them with us. I mentioned that there have been recent unannounced changes to D&D Beyond’s web site (but not the app) correcting problematic content in the three core books. Thanks to a supporter, I was able to review those changes and they really constitute an excellent how-to guide on making changes. I proposed Wizards share those so others can learn from the effort. (I plan on publishing a guide to these in the next two weeks, but it would be great to have this from WotC.)
Improvement Area – Studio Blog: We need a new place on D&D Beyond for a Studio Blog, similar to the one on the D&D Wizards site. Store all of the Community Updates, inclusivity updates, OGL communications, and copy the old Studio blogs over to this site.
Action – Share 2014 Core Book Updates: Wizards should share examples of the changes they made, such that other creators and gamers can learn from them and emulate them. Teach us what to do with problems such as “savage” and “civilized” and how to update “madness” and “insanity” and so on.
In a past conversation with a WotC employee, they seemed to not know of any benchmarks Wizards does to compare their staff diversity to national averages, or of any analysis of unequal gender pay. When this conversation took place during the summit, the executives again seemed to face a blind spot. The Director of Diversity fortunately was there and revealed that there are benchmarks for these, as well as practices to increase promotion and other important factors. I didn’t agree with everything they said as going far enough, but from what I can tell, this issue now sees a lot more attention at WotC than at most companies.
I asked the executives whether they understood what it is like to be a creator working for Wizards of the Coast, or to be a partner working with them. And, whether they are taking any steps to improve relationships with freelancers and partner companies. I think this question caught them by surprise, and it may be that very few folks at the company understand how difficult and frustrating it can be to work with Wizards. There is a tremendous power imbalance, and creators and partners jump through many hoops to try to stay in their good graces, often while Wizards fails to treat creators and partners like valuable and respected keys to success.
Several creators who used to have extensive work with Wizards in 3E and 4E have said to me that one day Wizards simply stopped calling them, with no explanation or response to their inquiries. Most experienced freelancers I hear from want to work with Wizards, but do so with trepidation. Wizards has high expectations for those they contract, but will change or communicate project goals poorly, with little regard for impacts to the freelancer or partner. A creator can be told to drop everything to start a project… and then the project lead stops communicating and the creator sits idle. A creator begins work, then has to redo the work when the actual project goals are finally shared. Top creators can be overlooked for opportunities, when staff choose people they favor for personal reasons instead.
Wizards may wonder why their closest partners are launching 5E variants right now, why the OGL discussions were leaked, or why they don’t know which influencers to trust. The above issues are the answer.
Improvement Area – Listen and Change Freelancer/Partner Practices: Wizards should be aware of how they have currently and historically treated creators and partners. WotC should work to understand these perspectives, treat creators and partners as valuable and respected, and institute changes to ensure professional working practices.
In side discussions, several attendees mentioned the need to help designers be in a position to write for Wizards. Wizards used to employ Dragon and Dungeon magazines as on-ramps, providing work to creators who began to learn Wizard’s practices. It’s how Chris Perkins and many others got their start in the industry.
During 4E, the digital magazines (called DDI) had both open calls and WotC staff picking up-and-coming writers. The process of writing for DDI trained these freelancers to understand WotC quality levels, language and style, and methodology and approaches. This was invaluable to everyone, resulting in a growing group of capable freelancers.
The magazines also create community and a framework. D&D Beyond has great articles, but they quickly fade into obscurity without a framework to gather them into themes and issues. The magazines also allowed WotC to experiment with new types of offerings, which could become products if successful. This was different than Dragon+, which was primarily marketing and formatted in a way that was seldom about useful content.
Improvement Area – Develop an On-Ramp: Finding an on-ramp for creators will help the community and Wizards to make better products. It will train creators and develop positive relationships, while creating great content useful to the community.
There were several ways in which attendees requested support from Wizards to protect them in online spaces. The discussion centered on how creators are often working for WotC, doing inclusivity work, furthering the brand, and so on, and taking on significant emotional backlash as a result. I took some time to reflect on this. Most companies don’t do anything for creators. What do we expect Wizards to do? If I decide to add a wheelchair into an adventure and then I get flack for it… what should Wizards be doing?
My initial thoughts are that Wizards has a choice here as to the role they want to play. They can act as most other companies would and separate themselves from creators. But, they can also choose to take a more active role. And it can be worth doing. Wizards could have, in planning the summit itself, thought through the impact this would have on invitees and made an announcement to set the stage for online discourse and thereby protect attendees. Just that communication, properly phrased, would have helped attendees.
Similarly, Wizards can choose to set the stage on projects and communicate support for creators and through actions and words insulate community members.
Improvement Area – Develop an Approach: Wizards should consider the role they want to play, as the overwhelming market leader, in having processes for projects and events, identifying communication strategies and other support for the creators involved.
It is hopefully clear that attendees did great (and difficult and professional) work at the summit. The greater community should be proud of this.
And also, Wizards staff were great. Yes, the lack of an agenda hurt. But the staff truly seemed blindsided by this. It wasn’t deliberate. Each session had staff devoted to taking notes. They wanted feedback and clearly were gathering questions and issues to work on them. On several issues, staff came up to me later, workshopping ideas on topics I had raised earlier.
Wizards had the willingness. They missed the step of getting feedback on the agenda before we ever arrived. Had an agenda been provided and feedback on it gathered, the result would have been far less painful to achieve.
Action – Next Steps: Wizards can demonstrate good will by following up on the questions asked and action items proposed.
We will look at all we learned about the VTT and what it holds for our hobby!