As the flagship brand in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons (and its publisher, Wizards of the Coast) sets the pace for the industry. The business model really hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years: sell the core books to everyone, sell the splatbooks to players, sell the adventure modules to dungeon masters. Sure, each edition has changed the product mix a bit, but the only major departure was 4th Edition’s introduction of the D&D Insider online tools, which gave online access to all of the published splatbook content for a monthly subscription. 5th Edition looked poised to be the first edition of D&D to offer true “digital copies” of the books through the DungeonScape app (née Codename: Morningstar), but that plan ended after a rocky beta test.
Then, Wizards of the Coast surprised us all by giving away the “Basic Rules” for free online in PDF form in advance of the Player’s Handbook release. Granted, the Basic Rules are extremely basic, but it seemed a step in the right direction for Wizards to lower the barrier to entry into the game and generate interest with a new, younger audience.
With today’s announcement on the product line for the Elemental Evil campaign, though, Wizards has taken the D&D business model in another new direction, scrapping the previously planned Elemental Evil-branded Adventurer’s Guide splatbook, merging it into the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure module, and releasing the player content for free.
Princes of the Apocalypse is available on April 7, 2015 and includes an epic adventure for characters levels 1–15 as well as new elemental spells and the element-touched genasi as a new playable race. In addition, a free download will be available in mid-March that includes more new races plus the player content available in Princes of the Apocalypse
I’ve reached out to Mike Mearls on Twitter to clarify if this approach is unique to the Elemental Evil products, or if it represents their plan going forward.
I haven’t heard back I’ve appended the post with his response below, but that won’t stop me from making some assumptions and reckless predictions going forward.
Reckless Prediction #1. Wizards doesn’t have a firm plan for 5E digital content yet.
Whatever happened between Trapdoor Technologies and Wizards of the Coast, there were a lot of eggs in the DungeonScape basket. Before the beta, there were discussions about selling both splatbook and adventure modules on the DungeonScape platform. One legitimate concern after DungeonScape was shuttered was that Wizards would return to the D&D Insider subscription-based model for digital content. It’s safe to say that this is the nail in the coffin for that model. It would be tough to see Wizards attempt to charge a subscription fee for content they had previously released for free.
Reckless Prediction #2: This approach indicates a problem with the Elemental Evil Adventurer’s Guide, not a change in the overall splatbook strategy.
I was initially skeptical of the Adventurer’s Guide because it was specifically focused on the Elemental Evil storyline. It seemed unlikely that they could get enough content together in one book to justify the $30+ price to most players. I think player-edition campaign settings and setting-focused splatbooks make more sense going forward, similar to older editions.
Reckless Prediction #3: Wizards sees Adventurer’s League as a major growth driver across its brands.
Adventurer’s League is a huge opportunity both for Wizards of the Coast and the Friendly Local Gaming Stores that host events. Having an active, thriving AL community is contagious; people are more interested in trying an RPG if they have people to play. For Wizards, this means more players getting into D&D, sharing it with their friends, and buying books. It also means bringing more players into their FLGS, where they are introduced into similar tabletop hobbies ( board games, card games, miniatures, etc.) where Wizards sells products.
For the FLGSs, I mean, that’s the point. At a time when Amazon is undercutting them on price, foot traffic and in-store, impulse purchases are the key to business. If you can get a couple people to buy a book and another person to buy a board game and a few people to pick up some new Magic: The Gathering cards, all while projecting the image of a thriving, social RPG community, then you win across the board.
Reckless Prediction #4: Adventurer’s League storylines will consistently release free player content going forward.
This is the giant leap forward. Stale content is boring content, but with each round of new materials that Wizards release, they increase the perceived cost of entering the hobby. It’s a double-edged sword; Wizards wants the game and brand to remain fresh for new players, but needs to continue selling content to existing players. How do you balance that?
Wizards will balance it by tying in free content to Adventurer’s League. It’s a one-stop shop: If I’m a new player, I can use the Basic Rules to make my character, play with the character at an Adventurer’s League game. I decide I like the hobby and purchase the core books. In previous editions, I would find a bunch of races/classes/rules in play that I’ve never had access to with the core books. It’s discouraging; I’m $50-150 into my new hobby, and I’m way behind the curve.
By releasing player content in step with each Adventurer’s League storyline, Wizards will now be giving something to those players to bridge the gap while keeping the free content fresh and up-to-date. I don’t care if you own every splat, when a new League story comes out, we’ve both got the new options. Experienced players will still end up collecting lots of these books, but new players won’t be hampered.
If this really is their plan to take 5th Edition forward, then it’s brilliant.
Update, 4:30pm EST: Mike got back to me while I was finishing this post. Looks like I was right about my first prediction, at least, and the other three are still firm possibilities.
Here’s his response:
@Mundangerous it's evolving – there's no model, yet
— Mike Mearls (@mikemearls) January 20, 2015