Archive for category Opinion

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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If Work Had Mandatory Homework, I’d Quit

The school I work with and that my youngest son attends is resuming in-classroom teaching today for the first time in over a year. (Well, only in some grades to start with.) For the past year, students have been doing online schooling, which to be honest is not that great. I have huge admiration for what the teachers I know have accomplished with very difficult circumstances, but it seems to me (and this is about all schooling, not this particular school) that online school is missing out on the best of both worlds of traditional and home schooling. Home schooling allows for a great deal of flexibility. Traditional schooling has very clear boundaries.

Oh wait. Maybe not. Now that I’m thinking about it in these terms, I find a renewed dislike of “homework”. When one of my children complained about the arbitrariness, the difficulty, or the tediousness of their education, I would remind them that its purpose was to prepare them for adulthood. Yes, there are parts you don’t like; but if you don’t develop habits that allow you to tackle tasks you don’t like, you will be miserable as an adult. I would also say that everyone needs some useful purpose in their life. Adults have (among other things) careers. Children are not equipped, yet, to pursue careers, so going to school to prepare to be useful is their use in life, at least temporarily.

But thinking about how school normally works, it occurs to me that we are now asking kids to put in something quite close to a full day’s work at school, and then come home and do more work. Every day. In my adult world, sometimes I bring work home. But it’s a choice. And in a lot of jobs, that never happens at all. When you’re off the clock you’re off the clock.

Why can’t schools just get their work done in the time already allotted to them? I hear it when teachers argue that homework helps concretize lessons, that it is important for students to have time on their own to process and work through learning. Great. So let’s carve an hour out of the instruction that’s already happening and instead designate that “work alone time”. And put it somewhere in the middle of the day, when their brains are still working optimally.

Maybe homework made sense when students were only spending mornings in the classroom. But these days the average student is spending close to seven hours a day at their school, and then coming home to do three or more hours of homework that same day. This is dramatically up from twenty years ago. Not many adults would put up with work conditions like this. I know I wouldn’t.

Now, I’m happy to say that my child’s school is actually fairly good about their attitude towards homework. But even here I sometimes wonder if we are asking too much of the kids.

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I Don’t Hate the Super Bowl, But It’s Not Great

That headline was intentionally constructed to increase clicks, by the way. I’m playing a dumb game with my blog post titles right now, so if I come off as a bit more inflammatory than you’d expect, that’s probably why. However, it is true that I’m not super excited by the super bowl. But I’m not trying to tell you that your enjoyment of it is somehow bad or wrong. Far from it! And no, I’m not making yet another dumb sarcastic “Go sportsball!” type post that is so common this time of year every year on Twitter.

In fact, I think football is a very entertaining sport. I played it for most of my high school years, and a bit in elementary school as well. I grew up in the household of lifelong Eagles fans (insert obvious joke here), and never thought my parents’ season tickets were a waste of money for them. I saw how much fun they got from going to games for years and years. And when the Eagles themselves won recently, I loved it!

But most years, I only halfway pay attention to the super bowl, even if I watched some NFL games leading up to it. So you could say I’m kinda neutral on professional football in general. I can take it or leave it. When I do watch it, I have fun, but I often don’t bother. (Ice hockey, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether…)

Thinking about this got me wondering how much of a minority I’m in, here. I mean, I know that on the global stage the American obsession with the super bowl annually irks lots of people who think football is played without using your hands on a “pitch”. But here in the U.S., what percentage of people, like myself, didn’t watch even the half-time show?

As it turns out, about 42%. Or rather one can say that about 58% of TVs were tuned to the game. (Increasingly I wonder how much TV ratings diverge from actual percentages of homes engaged in something as more and more turn to other methods of consuming video content.)

Anyway, this is interesting and also not that surprising. And it’s a smaller number than it once was in years past. In fact, total viewership of the annual championship has been down for a few years, now. It peaked in 2017 at 172 million total viewers, and in years since has faded below 150 million. Still, that’s the majority of America. But here’s my real question:

How many cultural “touchstones” do we still have today? Is the Super Bowl one of the last ones standing? And will it, too, some day be something a majority of Americans do not experience?

And I have a follow-up question:

Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a meaningless bit of trivia good for blogs and think pieces but not much else?

I honestly don’t know. I have an instinct that immediately offers me answers to these two questions, but I don’t know that I trust my gut on this one.


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Dealing with Social Distancing During the Pandemic

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