As long as there are players who love D&D, the game will endure. Furthermore, it will endure in many forms as there is a strong following for each edition. But what will it look like in the marketplace?
WotC book sales are down. Paizo is challenging them for the title of most popular RPG on the market. After an initial success, interest in the new Essentials line is waning. DDI subscriptions are falling. The internet is rife with predictions of doom and gloom for Wizards of the Coast.
Most of these predictions are (at least in my opinion) nothing more than knee-jerk reactions to isolated incidents. There are always fluctuations in any market. Right now, there are so many outside influences that it’s hard to map out any actual trends. Because of that, I think it is pointless to read too much into recent sales figures.
However, it’s a fair bet that Hasbro isn’t very happy with WotC’s earnings of late. Regardless of what the cause is for the drop in sales, I’m sure it’s been discussed already what (if anything) should be done. There is already a significant reduction in upcoming WotC products. That, more than anything, indicates they are reevaluating marketing strategies.
Where Is The Money In The D&D Brand?
WotC sells a number of different types of D&D products:
- Core Rule Books
- Expansion Rule Books
- Adventures (Modules, Delves, etc)
- Essentials Line
- Miniatures (discontinued)
- DDI Subscriptions (including the online Character Builder)
- Upcoming Virtual Table Top (sales path currently unknown)
- Licensing of Intellectual Properties (not currently pursued)
In the past, book sales comprised the lion’s share of the D&D revenue stream. But book sales are not what they once were. DDI subscriptions, on the other hand (despite having taken a hit in recent months), are a steady source of income. Beyond that, DDI subscriptions represent recurring business from the same customers, whereas book sales have to survive on one book per customer sales. Obviously, subscriptions have a much higher profit margin and are easier to sustain.
What Can WotC Do To Improve Sales?
Extend Their Market – The existing playerbase has already purchased the existing books. To sell more of those books, they need new blood.
Create New Books – A large portion of the existing playerbase has shown that they will buy most everything presented to them (to a point). The question is, have they reached the saturation point? 4e has already become quite bloated. What books are left to reinvent that will have the appeal of the existing books?
Expand The Essentials Line – Many see Essentials as being 4.5e and will probably buy new essentials products even if those products are basically just updated 4e books. I expect this will certainly happen.
Enhance The DDI Content – DDI subscriptions are, imo, the biggest cash cow WotC has going for it atm. Enhancing DDI content is probably the easiest, fastest, and cheapest move they can make. I expect most activity to focus in that area.
Finish The VTT – The VTT is probably the #1 most anticipated product and will most likely make or break any existing marketing strategy. If it’s a hit, WotC will see a huge addition to its revenue. If it fails, they are really going to suffer. Many people believe that access to the new VTT will be included with all DDI subscriptions. I suspect that will not be the case. My guess is that you will need to pay a separate monthly fee for the VTT in addition to a DDI subscription. Last I heard, the VTT did not access the monster database but surely that will be rectified very quickly. When that happens, you may be able to just subscribe to the VTT or subscribe to both in order to have the VTT directly access the DDI databases.
No matter how good or bad it is, no matter how it is sold, I expect that (after an overwhelmingly good start) the VTT will be a great disappointment from the sales standpoint. People who have never used a VTT (which I expect is most people) will probably find it to be overwhelming or just not as enjoyable as a face-to-face game. After a brief trial, those people will drop their VTT subscription. People already using a VTT will most likely try out this new one but, given WotC’s other online tools, will probably find it lacking compared to alternatives like Map Tools.
Further, I suspect that there are a great many people on the fence, regarding their DDI subscription, just waiting to see how the VTT turns out. If, as I predict, they find the VTT to be disappointing, they will drop their DDI subscriptions as well.
Produce a Fifth Edition – In the long term, this has to happen. I don’t think the timing is right for even a hint at the development of 5e anytime soon. But when it does happen, it will once again drive massive book sales. Even those adamantly opposed to 4e are likely to take a look. The biggest problem is that once the initial rush wears off, there will be the inevitable split between 4e fan boys and 5e converts. That will effectively cut their userbase in half again, reducing any future sales significantly.
1. WotC will sell off the D&D brand (not immediately, but within 18 months).
2. Paizo Publishing will buy it.