The fourth part of the D&D Carnival – This time focusing on it the game’s future.

“On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero”

The simple truth is that D&D, the product and the brand, will one day disappear. Long before that, it will be unrecognisable to anyone who is playing D&D now. This is nothing to do with Edition Wars but it is the inevitable fate of all brands.

When a brand is launched it is new and exciting. This attracts buyers and if the product is good, they tell their friends about it. As the brand grows, the product is refined – the recipe is improved, the packaging made more appealing or the rules revised – until it reaches a critical point. The point when the product and the brand become household names (at least amongst its target audience). The brand will then remain fairly static with a large group of dedicated buyers.

Now the brand has a problem. Sooner or later a competitor will come along with a better product (Google versus Yahoo) or the technology will change (New York Times and all other newspapers) or a new generation will come along avoiding all the products their parents brought (Pepsi versus Coke, Levi Jeans). If the brand sits still and does nothing it is doomed but if it changes, it risks upsetting a large number of existing fans (e.g. ‘New Coke’, D&D 4e). Some brands manage to steer a path though this, adapting to the changing times but they are always on the edge. Sooner or later the product’s luck runs out and the death spiral begins.

When a trusted, reliable brand starts to fail, the first thing every marketeer does is to relaunch it and aim it at a younger market. This almost never works and only damages the brand further. Faced with a failed relaunch and declining sales, most companies will sell the brand on. Whoever buys the brand has to now relaunch it again, which again will fail. This cycle continues the value of the brand is destroyed.

Sometimes this process takes decades (e.g. the American car industry), sometimes just years (almost any fashion brand) but all brands, all products, follow this life cycle.

Where is D&D in the Brand Life Cycle?

Clearly Fourth Edition is a stumble. WotC / Hasbro made the decision that they needed D&D to change, to make it a 21st century product. If they had gotten this right it would of been brilliant and secured the brand for the next 10 years or more. But they got it wrong. The online tools were late and are still missing most of the promised features. The changes to the rules themselves were too radical, alienating a large number of fans and yet they have failed to attract a new audience in meaningful numbers.

This does not mean that D&D is now on a death spiral but if Hasbro work hard, they could kill the brand’s value in just a few years. If a bean counter at Hasbro panics and decides that there needs to be a version 4.5, not to make the game better (as 3.5 did to 3.0) but purely to make money then D&D is doomed. A new version within the next three years would alienate all the 4.0 players and won’t attract any of the people who stuck with 3.5. It would be a death blow for the brand.

A variant on this scenario is Hasbro selling off the D&D brand to a small, more RPG focus company. The D&D brand won’t be cheap to buy and whoever buys it will need to make a lot of money back quickly. This inevitably means a new edition with all the problems Hasbro faced except without the financial support of a major toy company. Bankruptcy is almost guaranteed.

The Worse Thing Hasbro Can Do

Strangely, the worst thing that could happened to D&D is for Hasbro to turn it into a hugely successful MMO like World of Warcraft. The revenue potential from a smash hit MMO dwarves that of D&D. The marketing and development of the computer game would be the number one priority and the tabletop game would be forced to fall into line. The tail would wag the dog and it is hard to see many fans sticking with the tabletop game in this scenario.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Most brands or products are not killed outright by marketing blunders. They are just repeatedly wounded and continue to struggle on with a slowly but surely decreasing fan base. There will be a day when D&D is no longer the biggest RPG. Another product will steel its crown and D&D the brand will eventually die. But all this is unimportant. As long as we have our books, our dice and our imaginations, we will keep D&D alive.