Free Culture Failage: Wizards Of The Coast

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the original and still the most popular role-playing game. At the end of the 1990s the original publisher of D&D collapsed and the game was bought by a new publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WotC). Part of their strategy for rescuing the game was a mixed copyleft-with-uncopyable-sections licence called the Open Gaming Licence (OGL) that allowed people to copy the text of the rules of D&D and to produce and sell their own work using it. The OGL gave the game playing public and publishers of third-party tie-ins for D&D the confidence to invest in the brand without fear that it would disappear if the new publisher failed to make a success of it. It also made those gamers and publishers drivers for sales of D&D products by WotC.

The mixed copyleft of the OGL was controvercial and WotC’s relationship with third party publishers was not always an easy one. But the strategy of using alternative licencing to build confidence in and network effects for the D&D brand was a success.

WotC have just released their latest new edition of D&D. It is excellent, with improved game rules, writing and graphic design. But what may not be improved is WotC’s licencing strategy for the game. Months after the launch of the new edition, the replacement for the OGL has not been released and there are rumblings that it may be restrictive and exploitative, destroying the trust and network effects that were the core value of the OGL to WotC and the gaming public.

Whether by accident or design, the new GSL (Game System License) the replacement for the 3E OGL (Open gaming License) is incredibly restrictive in that it has a few provisions that when combined together create a legal nightmare of potential Intellectual property loss.[…]
Necromancer has apparently backed out of the d20 biz. And now a bunch of the second and third tier d20 companies are quickly moving in to take their place. And at least one of them is playing with fire by putting out books early under fair use laws before switching to the GSL on the starting date everyone else is being held to (October 1st.)

To produce a more restrictive replacement for the OGL will destroy the very value that it trying to avoid losing. The stakes are not low, it is possible that the D&D community could “fork” over this. This would lose WotC far more money than just continuing to support the OGL and the strategy that has made their new versions of D&D such a success.

If what AICN are saying is true then Wizards of the Coast are not facing an external marketing problem or a public perception problem with the GSL, they are facing an internal catastrophic failure to understand the OGL strategy. They should not be looking to correct the flaws in the GSL. They should tell their legal team, their management team, or whoever is driving this that the GSL will not stop people making money by selling cheap replacements for the core D&D rulebooks to people who wouldn’t buy them anyway. It will just stop the people who would buy the core D&D rulebooks from WotC to run games with those people from having a reason to do so.

When a company is more focussed on stopping other people making money than making money itself, it’s time to start worrying. And unless they place the new D&D back under the OGL, it will be time to start worrying about WotC.

Posted in Free Culture