Wizards, PDFs, and the value of open communities

tl;dr: I start off with a post about Wizards of the Coast's marketing of Dungeons and Dragons, and somehow wind up with the grand unification theory. Sort of...

Recently I saw Michael Wolf's post pleading with Wizards of the Coast (Wizards) to please reconsider their PDF policy. The post is a fan's wish for Wizards to return to the PDF market that they abandoned a while ago. His concern is that games like Alternity (which he would love to play) will only be left as the playthings of collectors and those who managed to snag a copy when it was available, and that PDF sales might revitalize some of these games. It's a concern that I share deeply with him; I hate to see things go out of print.

Before Wizards decided to pull all of their PDF products from the market, it was legally possible to pick up a copy of a good number of D&D products. I remember reading my cousins' copy of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons first edition, and fell in love with the system. Mind you, I never picked up my own copy at the time, but being able to take a virtual trip back to my youth was worth the price of a few PDFs, so I picked them up, along with a few other products they were selling.

When Wizards pulled their PDFs off of the market, I was left with some virtual collectors items.

Wizards claims that the reason for pulling their PDFs from the market was because of piracy. While that may be true to a certain extent, I think there are more issues at play with the timing, and the fierceness of the actions used to pull the PDFs from the market.

At the time that Wizards pulled the PDFs from the market, the much praised and maligned Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons (4E) was released. 4E was a major release of D&D; it had new mechanics which were incompatible with previous releases, and it sported a new license. Prior to 4E, Third Edition D&D (3E) was released under what's known as the Open Gaming License (OGL). This was a license created by Wizards to allow third parties to use the D&D system in their own products. The license also included the concept of Open Gaming Content (OGC) which allowed folks to use the mechanics in other products. This was huge. Prior to 3E, the company that previously owned D&D, TSR, spent large amounts of money jealously protecting their content from anyone who would dare try to use it. It's telling then that Wizards managed to purchase TSR and the D&D brand after TSR went on their IP protection binge. With the OGL / OGC, Wizards gave permission for publishers to use the D&D mechanics in their products, and even published a System Reference Document (SRD) to help them. Wizards opened up the system, and publishers started converting their products to use the d20 system (as the 3E rules became known). OGL / OGC created a wealth of d20 content, and with it came the rise of some great publishers who created excellent content.

Unfortunately, the converse is also true. The old adage reads that given enough monkeys and enough typewriters, eventually one will create the works of Shakespeare. The d20 system had some excellent content, but there were also some publishers who created some amazing dreck. The market quickly flooded, and it became difficult to determine the wheat from the chaff. And I'm sure at some point someone in Wizards realized that they created something in which their own products would have to compete with other publishers creating similar content.

I'm sure someone in marketing mistook an ecosystem as a huge mistake.

When 4E was released, Wizards decided to take a different route, and restrict the license they used. The new license is the Gaming System License (GSL), and it gives more control back to Wizards. The GSL is more restrictive, in that Wizards may update the terms at any time, and holds those who infringe on the license liable for Wizards legal fees. In essence, it gives Wizards the control over the 4E D&D ecosystem that they previously gave away in the 3E ecosystem.

Unfortunately for Wizards, the 3E horse was already out of the barn.

Publishers had a choice to make: either follow Wizards into the new 4E ecosystem where they would be treated as sharecroppers, or stay with the known 3E ecosystem, which no longer had Wizards support. It would have been a tough call had Wizards maintained that you needed to use their material in order to produce a 3E game. After all, if the game goes out of print, then you have to rely on the used market to get your fix. It's easier just to buy new product, right?

It is easier to buy new product, and wherever there is a void, some enterprising persons will fill it. After Wizards abandoned d20, other publishers released their own versions of d20. Some folks even went so far as to clone older releases of D&D using the SRD and OGC. Where Wizards had abandoned an ecosystem, enough of the seeds had been planted so that Wizards was no longer needed in that ecosystem. Just because you move doesn't mean your garden stops growing.

Wizards decided to remove their PDF files in 2009, telling the community that they were being removed because of piracy. They own the content, so they're well within their rights to remove it from the marketplace. I think the bigger reason for removing their PDFs were to try and kill off 3E. Wizards removed the ability for folks to use the d20 system trademark, so folks either had to reprint their material (expensive) or let it go out of print. Fortunately, some publishers chose instead to republish via PDF with their own notation for OGL / d20 compatibility. And while Wizards has sold D&D 4E, the ecosystem around the game is not nearly as well developed as it was during the 3E era. Publishers are adopting Paizo's Pathfinder as a replacement for Wizards' own D&D 3E offering. One could argue a comfort level with the mechanics of the game, but I think there's a subtle message that Paizo is giving people vs. the message that Wizards is sending. Paizo is encouraging people to participate, and released their own game mechanics as OGC, whereas Wizards tries desperately to control the market and the message. Paizo welcomes publishers and players, while Wizards pushes players to it's own online experience, and treats the publishers as just another means of generating revenue. Some publishers are even thinking of switching to the more open platform.

Publishers like Wizards need to understand that choice drives markets. Creating healthy ecosystems where there is competition can create amazing products. Wizards needs to understand that by pulling their PDFs from the market, and by closing up 4E, they've alienated a good number of customers who either want the old material, or would like to use the new material. Steve Jackson Games is in the process of producing PDFs of all of their GURPS content, both 3E and 4E. Posthuman Studios took the radical step of releasing their Eclipse Phase game under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, so their fans can copy and remix the system however they like. By offering content, and having liberal fan policies, they create an ecosystem where folks are not hindered with their imaginations. When one of the reasons people play your game in the first place is to use their imagination, the last thing you want to do is to hamper their imagination.

Wizards of the Coast, you lost a customer when you pulled your PDFs off of the market. For the sake of those who are still your customers, please reconsider. I promise that I'll reconsider being your customer if you do.