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.