Killing the Golden Goose: Wizards, Open Source Gaming, and Software as a Service

Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast have a problem. It’s a “problem” that has always existed for the owners of Dungeons and Dragons: once a player has learned to play the game from the basic books, they do not need to ever purchase another D&D product ever again. A player with the basic books has all they need to create all the content they could ever use with their friends. Supplement books, campaigns, adventure scenarios, miniatures, game aids, etc., are all nice to have, and many will buy them from WotC, but they don’t HAVE to.

So the temptation occasionally arises for whoever owns D&D to find ways to creatively “lock in” the player base by doing things that require recurring payments to the owners. A software tool that the next version of the ruleset depends upon is an obvious way to do this. Aggressively defending the intellectual property surrounding the game is an attempt to “control” the community of gaming as well.

But the problem with any solution that seeks to “control” a game like D&D runs into, well, that same problem! If the player base doesn’t like being controlled, they can walk away without their gaming experience changing one iota. They still own the books they bought. They can still create their own monsters, adventures and worlds. But now, instead of occasionally buying supplemental material from WotC, they change to NEVER buying from WotC again.

Trying to control D&D is like trying to control the game of tag. Or trying to control kids playing “make believe”. Or trying to control the telling of campfire stories. 

This is where Ryan Dancey’s concept of the Open Gaming License was so brilliant. The idea behind the OGL was to accept this basic truth of a game like D&D, and rather than try to fight the lack of control, lean into it. Accept that what a loosely organized community of creators (not just “publishers”, CREATORS–since EVERY PLAYER is a “creator” of this game) can do to bring in new players, to improve the gaming experience for everyone involved, and to increase the amount of time, money, and energy invested in the particular system of D&D (over other RPG options that are out there), will always FAR exceed what one corporation could accomplish while maintaining total and exclusive control of the game.

And now they are looking to change the OGL. They look at how revenue works for other systems, like Magic: the Gathering, and even more so, like with Magic Arena. And they want some of that predictable recurring revenue. But they’re playing with fire.

If ever there was a modern day example of the dangers of “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”, this is it, right here. Hasbro and WotC have a good thing going, but they are in danger of shutting down all future growth in an attempt to grab up “money left on the table” here and now.

One more thing: this is part of a larger trend that has been increasingly disastrous for the average person: the shift to “product as a service” is terrible. The short and medium term economic incentive is obvious, and so it’s no wonder that the world is increasingly being taken over by this idea. I’ve run a company. I know how hard it is to be constantly chasing after the next sale, or the next client, and wishing at least some of the revenue needed to keep things going and people employed was coming from a source that didn’t require creating something entirely new every time.

But not everything should be a service. Sometimes that approach can make things better. But it often creates perverse incentives. Free to play online games that put constant but subtle pressure on the players not just to buy “golden tickets” to improve the experience, but also to log in, to “grind”, to not miss events and achievements for fear of falling behind, are predatory. And today they are the norm.

But it’s not inevitable. Lasting and powerful value can still be created by other means. In fact, the increase of “software as a service”, “product as a service”, and “customers as the product” ways of doing business is creating an environment that is increasingly ripe for contrarian entrepreneurs to step in and offer something players, users, consumers, creators–and people in general–are yearning for: a thing that is good because the thing itself is good. No grind. No ongoing parasitic relationship. No gaming of systems or hacking of psychological reward systems. Just: here’s a thing I made, that you can enjoy as long as you want, so long as you pay for it up front.

This trend is not unending. People will hit a point where paying for things up front becomes far preferable to “free” to start, followed by a never ending tug-of-war over tiny slices of attention and wealth.

WotC sees the recurring revenue that games structured as services make, but they are failing to see that they already have something much better. And more enduring…at least so long as they don’t hack it up trying to squeeze out marginal gains for the next quarterly report.

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Recently I saw a tweet that asked, “How do you journal?” There were all sorts of interesting responses, describing the many different styles of journaling that people practice. But when I read the question, I didn’t initially think, “What are the ways in which one might journal?” so much as “How on earth am I supposed to ‘journal’??”

I find “journaling” hard. It’s difficult for me to write without an audience. But something feels weird about writing a diary entry with the intent of someone some day stumbling across it and reading it. Like it would compromise the honesty of the process. Not that I lie to audiences, but, honestly, I hold back. There are things I think that I would never say to another person without editing. I assume that’s true for you, too. It’s common sense. It’s common curtesy. Plus, many of the thoughts that come into my head I end up rejecting. And I don’t want to be held accountable for ephemeral nonsense that I toss out after examining. But isn’t that what journaling is? Writing your thoughts? Without care for how they are presented to someone else because no one else is going to read them?

“But Mac,” you say, “Just write it for yourself. YOU are your audience.” I hear you. But I don’t get it. In school I never read my own notes from lectures, and now I’m going to go back and read old journal entries some day? Seems unlikely.

So how do you journal? Like, what is your goal? What is your process? How do you decide what to write? When to write? How much to write? I know I’m probably overthinking this. Help me out.

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Everything Is a Habit

Our regular output is more a product of our habits than of our decisions. Or so they say. So pick something you wish you did well, and start by doing it frequently. Don’t worry about the quality. Don’t worry about the product. Habituate the process, and then once that machine is up and running, go ahead and make adjustments, add gears, and pour in more power. But first, get rolling.

Are We There Yet?

From time to time I get lost in my mind
When thoughts let go of now and turn to meaning:
A peek above the hedge to seek and find
A bigger picture of life's path so fleeting.
At times my passions mapped a path quite bold
Across the landscape seen by eyes so young,
But more and more now that I have grown older
My visions of horizons come undone.
For forty years my future was so certain;
The path would blur but the compass point stayed clear.
But now all roads are hidden by rain curtains,
And far as I can tell my goal's no nearer
Than when I first set out so long ago.
Are roads and maps and trips an empty show?

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“A Labonza!”

We’re all dying.

From the moment we’re born, we’re all terminal cases. Of course. And shortly after attaining adulthood, parts and systems in our bodies start to break down, if ever so slowly at first. Metabolism slows. Repairs to damage happens slower and slower over time. Cells eventually start to make errors when reproducing. Our vision dims, tinnitus may show up, and we discover the weird and annoying consequences of “sleeping wrong”. Eventually we develop aches that seem to have no specific source at all. This is all very normal. And for most of us, it takes a very long time for one of these systematic breakdowns to lead to actual death.

But there’s another way we are all fading from this earth. Our memories are slowly dying, you see. Not just in our own minds, but really long before any mental issues might kick in, the constantly growing collection of stories and experiences overwhelms our ability to share them with others. At first this is no big deal, as most of the things we experience and then later remember are not really that significant.

But a point comes in life where our specifically cherished memories also begin to lose purchase on the world.

I remember when one of my uncles passed away. It was very sad for me; he was one of the very small collection of adults I had looked up to from my earliest memories. He was a smart man of integrity with a great sense of humor. But as hard as it was for me to lose him, it was a thousand times harder for his two siblings, my mother and my other uncle on that side of the family. And I remember my mother saying something to me that has really stuck in my mind in the many years that have gone on since then. She said that one of the hard parts about losing a brother like that was that the circle of people you shared a very large collection of memories with suddenly shrank. There were things she and her two brothers experienced together that were really just theirs and no one else’s. And now half the people she shared those memories with was gone.

And over time, that shrinking of the various circles of people you share particular memories with continues, a rising sea of human entropy slowly washing away the little islands of shared experience that we build up in the first half of our lives. A few years ago, one of my three best and earliest childhood friends died, well before his time. I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours wandering around our small town, just him and me, playing all sorts of imaginary games, having all sorts of conversations. Whole summers spent with mostly just him. We built up a huge canon of inside jokes and “do you remembers” and weird shared experiences. The time he flipped his bike end over end at the bottom of Cathedral Hill and a woman jogged up to us announcing she was a trained nurse. Weirdly, we laughed about that for years. The complex fantasy world we built up over several summers, in which we were characters in the Star Wars universe.

There were also hundreds of more hours we spent together in shared company with other friends. Playing dungeons and dragons with his older cousins and their friends. Hanging out with other classmates of ours. Getting into pretty serious trouble with adults for various things we did.

And then he died.

I believe in a life after death, but I also really cherish this life here and now. And here and now I am no longer able to connect with my friend. I haven’t for years and years. And that makes me the sole earthly guardian of those hundreds of hours of cherished shared memories, now.

What do you do with that burden? I can share those memories with others, like I am now, or maybe in much more detail. I can tell my kids about him. I can reach out to his kids and tell them about their father’s goofy childhood adventures. But honestly? I’m not sure these memories I hold will really bare any meaning to anyone else.

When I was a teenager, my father took me fishing for bluefish off the New Jersey coast. He did it once a year for many years. It was a trip that he had started doing just with some friends, and I would hear about it but never go. Then one year, I was old enough. We woke in the dark of night and drove to Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. He, a couple of very good friends of his, and the oldest sons of each of those friends, who also happened to be friends of mine. Six “men” off to do a “man thing” at dawn.

Every year was basically the same as that first time. We would arrive in Barnegat Light around dawn after a two hour drive from Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. We’d eat breakfast at a diner, there, and then go find our little chartered fishing boat, and climb aboard with coolers full of hoagies bought the night before, and plenty of cold drinks.

The ship was the Dan Rick, and it’s captain was Joe Burt. The first thing I remember Captain Joe saying was a question to my father, “Did you tell them I yell?”

And yell he did. Once out on the sea, this ancient mariner seemed hell bent on scaring bluefish up from the depths by the sheer power of his temper. I loved fishing, and he hated missing a catch. He cursed and swore but he also hollered and celebrated, as the occasion called for it. When the fish began seriously hitting our lines, he yelled out, “A labonza!” which he gleefully explained to us meant “Gut them in the belly!”

A couple of weeks ago I was back on Long Beach Island. My mother has a beach house, there, and my extended family takes turns vacationing there. I got to thinking about old Cpt. Joe and the Dan Rick, and wondered if there was any way to figure out which diner I had gone to as a kid on those trips, decades ago.

The thing is, Joe Burt is dead. My father is dead. The fathers of the other boys on that trip are also dead. I could call my childhood friends up and ask them about it, but they too had been young teens and after tens of years, the odds that any of us would know where the diner was was pretty slim. Really, the diner probably doesn’t exist any more. Certainly the Dan Rick is gone, I would think.

But I fired up the google machine anyway. I figured if I could find an old reference to the Dan Rick in a newspaper, maybe in an advertisement for Joe Burt’s charter fishing services, then I could figure out where exactly the ship had been berthed. And from there I could maybe begin a search for the old diner.

What I found, instead, was a memoir. Joe had a son. He had been mate on the Dan Rick at one point, but moved on in life long before my father ever sailed with his father. He eventually went to Oxford, and to Yale, and became a lawyer. He moved to London. And now he’s a poet. And he wrote a memoir that had a lot to say about his old man.

I had known Joe Burt as a wild character. The stories he told while we chummed and fished were colorful and fascinating, especially to a young teenaged boy. But they were just a tiny sliver of the man. He had been a boxer as a youth. His family had connections to Jewish mobsters in Philadelphia on his mother’s side, and the previous generation on his father’s side were all wiped out in a single day in revolutionary Russia. And he was a difficult man to be the son of. The Cpt. Joe I knew was an elderly shadow of the violent tempered man that had come before.

Joe died taking with him many more memories that were never captured in his son’s writing, I’m sure. And I have my own personal memories made with the man that are not in the slim book, that I share with a couple of friends, at least so long as they continue to live. And myriad swirling jumbled-up recollections and experiences live in my mind, unshared, even now. And I now understand what compels older people to push their stories on the younger generation, even when the audience seems politely bored at best.

What do you do with them? They are treasures, in a way, but they hold no currency with most of humanity. Some I value because of what they represent, but many more I value merely because they are mine. A part of me wants to share them with my children, an endless stream of remembered hopes and dialogues and feelings and events. But to what end? And who has time for the past when the present is already so full and insistent on being lived? I think allowing the past to crowd out the creation of the future is a mistake. And so my past, like everyone’s, is slowly dying ahead of me.

John Dunne wrote that “no man is an island”. But Matthew Arnold (one of my favorite writers ever) took issue with that notion. Read his “To Marguerite: Continued”, or (even better in my opinion) “The Buried Life”. Arnold beautifully and sadly shows us that each person is a vast realm of thoughts, feelings and experiences that we only ever catch a bare glimpse of. Only with great effort do we share a small piece of our true selves with another person. Read James Joyce’s The Dubliners, especially its final story, “The Dead”: the dramatic stories that unfold just in one person’s mind, unshared and maybe unsharable with the world around them, despite a desperate need for connection, are a very real part of the universal human experience.

All that we are is constantly fading away. We forget so much ourselves, and so much more is never known to any but a few, and they too are passing, as Roy Batty said in Blade Runner, “like tears in rain”.

And so I write.

Like I said, all adults are dying. Of course we are. Cells don’t repair and reproduce as quickly and as well as they did when we were kids. Memories fade. Eyesight dims and eventually we start waking up with little aches every day. But that’s not all. Our stories are slowly dying, too. Memories of special times that have not faded from our minds are nevertheless fading from the world. Slowly, the characters who were there are themselves dying. The diner where we had that memory no longer exists. The person we could always say, “Remember that time?” to, is gone.

And the things we once thought would be important are perhaps still important, but also so unreachable that we slowly let go of their importance because…what else can we do? Dreams of our childhood were not all significant, but some were.

I have a million private joys and hopes and dreams, and a bare fraction of them have been shared with my children. I’m not at the age, yet, where I feel compelled to tell stories of my youth to the uninterested generation that follows me, but I can now feel where that comes from.

We all contain worlds. And those worlds are forever disappearing.

And perhaps that’s because those worlds are not what matter.

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