The Alphastream Game Design Blog
The D&D Summit featured a session entitled “D&D Beyond and Beyond.” Wizards presented their vision and asked attendees how that vision resonated and what they may have missed. For some of us, the discussion points continued throughout the day. This is the fourth part in my blog series covering the D&D Summit. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Wizards dove right in to introduce new hires and discuss where they are headed with D&D Beyond (DDB). But let’s back up a bit. All of this has to be held in the context of the OGL fiasco, the impact DDB has on the industry, and how Wizards of the coast is reorganizing and setting goals.
D&D Beyond is the digital (web and mobile app) platform where all of the RPG books are sold in digital format, plus character building and encounter building (forever in beta), plus a few other benefits all potentially requiring or encouraging a membership.
Unrelated to the D&D Summit (and likely related to new hires at the top), Wizards of the Coast has reorganized (again). Three broad pillars capture shared services (things like HR), the TCG business (Magic the Gathering), and Tabletop (D&D).
Within Tabletop, there are pillars covering marketing and business development, and then we have fun names for what basically comes down to three pillars for RPGs, D&D Beyond, and the VTT. This is very important, because a typical gamer might think of DDB and the VTT being part of (and under) D&D. Nope. Reflecting the business needs and goals, each is a different pillar within the tabletop business.
Further, the OGL fiasco highlights that even when you have cross-team representation at the table, big mistakes have been made. Separating into pillars is all about business focus, and it can result in problems. Would I advocated D&D manage these pillars differently? Not necessarily. But, I hope they have connection points to prevent huge mistakes such as the OGL, or even the less dire but still critical historical divide between the RPG designers and marketing. And, I hope that the voice of the D&D “Imaginative Play” team is elevated, because I truly think that will be better for Wizards as a whole. Historically, D&D’s RPG team has done best when it is either listened to or ignored, and it does worst when it is held under a microscope and forced to dance to someone else’s tune.
Of course, this rests on the D&D team itself being a healthy place to work with creative teams allowed to work together in a healthy way. Their creations can then propel the DDB and VTT teams to greater heights.
So, when we talk about D&D Beyond, or when I covered the VTT initiatives last week, we are talking about big points of emphasis within the company – organizationally even with the RPG products and potentially having a greater revenue goal.
Dan Rawson, the Senior VP heading all of the Tabletop pillars, introduced us to Marjory Laymon, the VP of D&D Beyond. She has been in the role for about a month. Like several recent top hires, she comes from Amazon (reflecting the CEO and SVP’s Amazon and Microsoft backgrounds, many recent senior hires come from one of the two). We also met Elliot, a project manager who has been at DDB 6 years, Jerod, a PM who has been there 5 years, Pat, a more recent Senior PM, and Sarah – a Community Manager for almost a year. I enjoyed my conversations with all of these folks.
DDB will of course continue to provide digital copies of RPG materials, and the expectation is for paper books to continue to be printed. An early issue that came up was one of the project managers sharing that localization (translations into other languages for specific countries) has proven difficult. I have colleagues who do localization, so I understand the challenges, but there are many companies that manage timely software and content localization. This is likely a question of resources and priority.
Several attendees discussed this with Wizards, and it became clear that the assembled group did not seem to have a strong understanding of the issues impacting accessibility. That’s unfortunate, because there were many capable and senior people in the room. Localization efforts should rest on an understanding of the markets and the prices they can support. Changes in D&D’s localization for Brazil have raised prices of printed books by 35%, which makes them unaffordable. Many economies don’t support a $50 book when that price is directly converted to the local currency. Books are normally far cheaper in these countries, reflecting those economies.
Improvement Area – Understand and Prioritize localization: To achieve international growth, Wizards must understand the economies outside of the US, Canada, and EU. Localization can provide tremendous growth, if Wizards can develop specific approaches and fair prices.
Action – Translate the Basic Rules: We suggested that DDB start with the Basic Rules, which are already free. Localizing the Basic Rules to several regions would serve as a great starting point to attract global audiences, while providing a good learning opportunity for the DDB team.
As I’ve covered previously, WotC are considering special ways to encourage purchasing digital and print bundles. Bundles began with Dragonlance last year.
Improvement Area – Keep Special Products Fair: I am not a fan of products I can only get by turning my back on my local gaming store. Stores play a vital role for D&D and the larger industry, and for organized play and community. It’s one thing to get a fun set of digital dice or character background. It’s another to have exclusive products that should be otherwise available. WizKids has made this mistake, offering miniatures that can only be obtained by purchases at their store, and it can turn long-time fans away.
The DDB team noted that the digital medium can result in a faster response from the audience. A book cycle is very long, adding a short digital product can create fun engagement. Therefore, we can expect more frequent free supplements such as the Vecna Dossier, the Prisoner 13 excerpt, the D&D movie Thieves’ Gallery, and the Spelljammer and Dragonlance compendiums.
Improvement Area – Return to Digital PDFs: I asked the team to please consider also providing pdfs that facilitate readability and printing. The Spelljammer compendium was provided in both a beautiful pdf and the DDB format. The Dragonlance compendium is only available in DDB format, limiting how we can use it. This is also an accessibility issue.
Marjory Laymon is still reviewing the development roadmap, but there are stability and performance improvements planned. The team is looking to make play and prep easier, to create a better mobile play experience, and to do a better job with new player onboarding (more things such as the new pregens we recently saw). And more one-click content, where you can easily dive in.
The team wants more parity between mobile and Web. Currently, changes are rolled out to Web first and then slowly make it into the mobile device. I couldn’t help hear Adam Bradford, now at Demiplane, mention in his recent stream that Demiplane is hesitant to offer a mobile app because he knows it is a ton of work to maintain things twice and have two development cycles with different requirements.
Improvement Area – Feature Parity: I asked the team to please consider adding to the web the search functionality found on mobile. In mobile we can select a source and then inside of it search just that source. It’s a great way, for example, to find the encounter where an NPC shows up and provides information to the party. On the web, you can only do a search of all sources and it’s nearly impossible to find such details.
Concern – Quadruple Platforms: I raised the concern that currently the team has to worry about errata to a paper book, the DDB web site, and the DDB mobile app. In the future, the VTT may be a fourth separate platform. If the digital side could all be one common repository, the team would be in a better place to handle a change to all digital offerings at once, instead of three separate digital changes (and one on paper). As I raised in my coverage of the VTT, I think this lack of integration is a real shortcoming with big impacts for the team and customers.
Improvement Area – Change Logs and Errata: Attendees asked for better change logs and clear errata documents, so it is easier to see what has changed. As noted here, I requested that Wizards share the recent changes they made to the Web (and now in mobile) for inclusivity, so that designers across the industry can learn from them.
Perhaps the biggest news for most was the confirmation that Wizards will allow third-parties to sell their D&D products on the DDB marketplace! They are in the early stages and many questions remain.
For example, if you wrote a product on the DMs Guild, can that be sold on DDB? They didn’t know. It’s unclear what the agreement between Wizards and OBS/Roll20 would allow. Would a setting that is open for designers on the DMs Guild, such as Ravenloft and Spelljammer, also be open on DDB? Not known.
It is unclear how closely integrated offerings will be. If I write an adventure, it’s presumably something a customer can find in a marketplace section of their DDB library. But if I write a subclass, will it be integrated such that someone can build a character with that subclass?
And, of course, there is no information on what the cut might be to the creator vs D&D. It’s only 50% on the Guild, but OBS is taking a cut… if this is just Wizards, could creators see a better cut? And what about the agreement? The Guild locks you in on that platform, such that you can never sell the product anywhere else or use it in other products. Might the DDB market be friendlier to creators, and more like DriveThru, Itch, and other marketplaces? Could it be possible to crowdfund a project we then put on the DDB marketplace?
I noted that back when DDB was including Unearthed Arcana, the team had trouble keeping up with the workload and fell behind. The workload of incorporating a third-party marketplace should not be underestimated, and should not be allowed to derail the larger goals of D&D Beyond. This is not an easy technical challenge. There was discussion of possibly adding older editions, though any official older edition material would go through the inclusivity review. I can’t see that this is worth the effort, to be honest. It’s not as if there will be a new character builder for the older editions, or any other tools. My preference would be to let these products exist on DriveThru/Guild and focus DDB on the new edition.
Action – Enable DMs to Control Campaign Sources: Currently, a DM can choose which sources to share with players who don’t own the material. I might just select the PH and Eberron and share that with you, and those are you sources. But if you own everything? Then you can use everything when you build the character. DMs have been asking for a way to create a campaign and limit the sources for it. This will become even more critical if third-party material is added.
Action – Build an On-Ramp: I suggested that this would be a great time to provide an on-ramp for creators. Many D&D staff got their start by writing for Dragon or Dungeon magazines. This process involved pitches being rejected and learning from that, and then finally being accepted and working with editors and developers. The new designer learns how to write for the particular way Wizards writes and designs. This creates an on-ramp both to the marketplace having fantastic products and to WotC having a stable of up-and-coming freelancers to choose from. The whole hobby benefits. This also allows Wizards to try out new ideas that aren’t quite ready for a hardback product (for example, mass combat rules) and to create awesome content for the DDB site to draw people there repeatedly. A magazine allows for easier searching and creates community (as we saw with MCDM’s Arcadia).
Wizards has experimented with programs in the past, such as the Guild Adepts (incredibly problematic history) and Dragon+ (too focused on advertising to offer value/community). The best programs are ones run like a professional magazine, with professional standards and practices. The content is best when it complements official products, rather than supplanting them. Look to DDI for an example of far too much mechanical content, overwhelming the printed products and the player base.
The D&D web site will be shut down, as most visitors go to the DDB site. That’s fine, but I requested that Wizards not delete everything on that site, as they did when they shut down the previous D&D sites and Dragon+. I asked that they move articles, errata, D&D Studio blogs, and organized play information.
Action – Migrate DnD Articles: I hope Wizards will migrate that information so we don’t have to rely upon the Wayback machine. Just think about what we have lost over time, such as the amazing Chris Perkins how-to-DM articles from the 4E era! It would be great to see Wizards protect useful and historical information.
Remember when Monsters of the Multiverse released? Monsters changed from one version to another. For Multiverse, Wizards chose to keep the old version (marked as deprecated) and also display the new content. You got only the content you paid for. I asked the DDB team if this would be the approach… and they weren’t sure. But as I followed up, this seemed to be the likely approach. For example, the One D&D playtests have changes to the barkskin spell, as well as to subclasses. Can I use either version of the spell? Can I make (as they promised) a 2014 5E cleric with a 2014 subclass and then my friend makes a 2024 cleric with a 2024 subclass? Can a third friend make a 2024 wizard, but take a subclass from the 2014 PH (which will have school of magic subclasses not present in the new rules)?
Action – Clarify Approach: This is an item for the DDB team to communicate clearly and maintain internally. For true and full compatibility, DDB will need to provide both versions to those who purchased them.
D&D Beyond will function best as a pillar if it is focused on highlighting print products, creating community, and offering tools that make life easier for new and established audiences. DDB will truly shine if it can become a hub for global play and for creators who are up-and-coming.
I’ll close with two great questions asked by attendees. The first: what is a reason why a store would have and use a D&D Beyond account? The second: do the community teams need more support?
What do you think? What questions would you have for the Beyond team, and what do you want the future to hold?