Ages ago I read the book Blue Ocean Strategy, and while I’ve never found any practical use for its core message, it contains a section on what’s called “fair process” that I’ve found incredibly useful. Fair process is basically the idea that when you make changes, even clearly beneficial ones, people are more likely to accept them when you clearly explain why you’re making them and what the benefits will be. The book talks about fair process in terms of convincing factory workers to give a new manufacturing system a chance, but I’ve also found it to be a useful way to approach things like pitching an RPG campaign to your friends. I mention it because the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast provides some examples of failures of fair process.
For fans of D&D 4th Edition, the Character Builder was a downright essential tool, which made it vastly easier to navigate the game’s ever-growing array of options when making and updating a character, and for that matter (thanks to the ability to print character sheets with pre-filled power cards) in play. It had a bit of a rocky start–which isn’t a big surprise considering that we’re talking about a tabletop company producing and maintaining a fairly sophisticated software tool–but it grew into a cornerstone of their D&D Insider online service. Then at some point, probably because it cannibalized books sales and was pirated a fair amount, they decided to switch to from an offline tool with online updates to a purely online service. We have no way to know whether or not it was a good idea in terms of getting more D&D Insider subscription dollars, but it’s pretty clear that they handled the launch of the new tool pretty badly.
From a fan’s perspective, what happened was WotC stopped updating the Character Builder without any explanation, even as they were hyping up the release of the new 4E version of Dark Sun. They went completely silent for a while, and for my part I initially only heard about the new CB version through rumors on forums. It turned out that it was going to use Silverlight, an application framework from Microsoft similar to Flash, but which most people either didn’t use, or used only for Netflix. Silverlight doesn’t enjoy a great reputation, and Microsoft themselves started phasing it out after a final update in 2011. On launch day, the new CB was buggy and barely functional, and while it had the new Dark Sun character options, it was missing the Inherent Bonuses option that the setting book strongly encouraged using.
Switching to a Silverlight-based online-only service, especially mid-stream with an impressive subscriber base, was not a great idea, but months of radio silence followed by a buggy launch was about the worst approach possible to selling it. While some people would’ve undoubtedly been unhappy regardless, WotC needlessly burned a ton of goodwill with the abrupt and forced change. It’s incredibly easy to plot out a better strategy for the exact same piece of software, where you let people know in advance, and let the old CB continue updating until the new one is definitely ready so that users can make a smooth transition.
More recently, with the launch of 5th Edition, WotC had been totally silent on the matter of foreign language editions of D&D. It varies a great deal by country of course, but a lot of publishers all over the world have put in a lot of hard work to bring D&D to other markets. Where in the U.S. D&D can be the dominant RPG in part by virtue of saying “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover, in many other markets it takes a lot of work to make it a success. In Japan it has to compete on an even playing field (possibly even at a disadvantage) with Japanese games like Arianrhod and Double Cross, but Hobby Japan made both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition a success there. Hobby Japan eventually received word that there would be no foreign language licenses for the foreseeable future. Japanese fans made fan translations of 5e, and HJ eventually decided to license and publish Pathfinder instead. Similarly, the Brazilian publisher that had put out previous editions of D&D in Portuguese picked up the licenses for Pathfinder and The One Ring to fill their fantasy niche.
Wizards of the Coast has been licensing Gale Force Nine to produce various D&D accessories, and more recently they announced that GF9 would be handling licensing foreign language versions of D&D. Licensing different aspects of D&D to other companies has a long tradition dating back to the early days of TSR (when they gave Judges Guild a handshake license to make various D&D play aids), but from what I can tell this arrangement meant that the previous licensees that WotC had build up relationships with got left in the dark for something like 2-3 years, and then a new partner came with the offer to let any publisher apply to negotiate a contract from scratch. The press release from Gale Force Nine states that “The first translations will be French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese, with more to follow,” and from what Andy K has told me, the Japanese publishers he knows are all scratching their heads wondering who exactly is supposedly doing the Japanese version.
So again, even if you’re dead set on the plan to let a partner set up totally new foreign language licenses, going totally silent on business partners who’ve invested a massive amount into making your game a success in their market (and by extension, ignoring the fans in those countries) is a pretty blatant failure of fair process. The D&D team has an unfortunate tendency towards opacity, and while there’s the distinct possibility that at least some of it is what the corporate culture of Wizards of the Coast and/or Hasbro forces on them, it’s nonetheless a detrimental way of handling things.
I wound up thinking about all of this because of the current situation with the Brazilian version, which has created a bunch of industry drama that you can read about in this Medium post. But basically, three Brazilian companies formed a partnership to publish a Brazilian Portuguese version of 5th Edition, and one of them broke ranks to get an exclusive contract with Gale Force Nine, screwing over their partners.
With a lot of Brazilian fans declaring a boycott and generally raising a stink about it, yesterday Gale Force Nine put out an announcement saying:
Currently, we are speaking with all parties involved in Brazil to sort out the situation. Our goal is to ensure fans can enjoy the products in their local language of choice and we are committed to supporting those fans and their community. As such our product release plans for this market are on hold until we fully investigate and hopefully resolve this issue. We apologize to D&D fans in Brazil for any delay this may cause but we’ll do our best to have a solution in place soon.
Going by the dates, the Medium post came out on March 23 and GF9 responded on March 24, which would make significantly them more responsive than the D&D team.
Personally, I kind of feel like after more than a decade I’ve just done enough with D&D, and don’t particularly feel the need for more when the medium offers such tremendous variety. But I’d rather the people who want it are able to enjoy it, so I hope that the international versions get sorted out before too long.