It happens in all industries, sooner or later the creators of something good revise what they’ve created and re-release it. It makes sense – you have a readership, the products have been sold, and you’re looking to maintain a customer base and a revenue stream. Like a shark, you need to keep moving forward, or you’re dead.
But the detail is hard, it may frustrate the consumers, especially as the game ages. DnD in particular has had so many revisions that it cannot have a “core” player base anymore, it has a variety of community cells, each who value a different flavour of what was once mainstream and current system. The Pathfinder success indicates that there is a huge population of people who didn’t think the dnd 4e change was good. They buy the Pathfinder (dnd 3.75e as its sometimes called) because it has most of dnd 3.5 in it, with fixes and tweaks. I know other gamers who loved what dnd 5e did for the game, and think it was one of the best systems developed. In fact a very astute friend said that if the same mechanical system was published without the DnD label, it would have probably been hailed as a revolution in an RPG system; and I think he’s right.
Assume for a moment that the offerings in the market are actually worth buying for some segment of the community (I don’t want to get into a holy war on editions, or to suggest what may or may not be effective as a product). Instead I’m interested in looking for parallels between different entertainment types, and what they might have in terms of long tails through version or release updates.
D&D: Lets take the range of debates, anger, and speculation about dnd5e that is around. If you scratch an RPG nerd you’ll find that they have been exposed to and have an opinion of dnd. Some love it, some wax lyrically about the past, and others love the current incarnations. Trying to estimate when the largest proportion of the audience are ready for a new edition, without killing current books or alienating the market is nigh on impossible.
Everyone has a different appetite and curve for roleplaying product consumption too, and predicting it is harsh. Some groups only ever use the core rules, others use every bloody optional book printed, and make further changes. In the early days it seemed that d&d 2e lasted a very long time, and 3e seemed to last a lot less; regardless of the truth, that is how it felt to me. The designers and owners of the IP can watch blogs, news, and purchasing to get their measure of the curves, but in the end sometimes you’ll be refreshing a product that is already dead (Traveller d20) or changing something that was not ready to be changed yet (a product escapes me, but then maybe that is because I’ve stopped watching products).
The long tail for DnD is already here, with miniatures, supplements, and such all still being produced. As the biggest game in the RPG scene it has a vary large gravity for sales, but also a huge body to move. The long tail for the game is something that I almost ignore – if I can’t play the game with the core rules, then I won’t play. As a long tail potential customer, I’m one of the hardest sells that they have.
Another of my favourite systems suffers a similar fate, except it has a far smaller player population, that of Ars Magica. It is at best a niche game, played by a devout community, and I think Atlas Games (the publishers) know that. Atlas do an outstanding job of creating new content and source material, but have not yet broken any major fundamentals in the current edition. The current books are darn expensive for an aussie to buy, and are still tempting. That said, its the 5th edition now, and that is a lot of change for a small community to absorb. It can be seen openly in the forums and web pages that many players are still using the 4th edition, especially as Atlas gave away a free version of the 4th edition rue-set as a pdf.
When we discovered Ars Magica it was mid way through the 3rd edition, and the books ranged from out of print to brand new. The feel was very gritty dark (Vampire/Whitewolf style) and I loved it. The 4th edition changed major aspects of the game, and the 5th ha further refined it. I am still a fan of many of the styles presented in the 3rd edition – something about the way the demonic and angelic aspects were handled really resonated to me. The rule-set is far better now. Combat makes a bit more sense, and the book keeping side of the game has been highly simplified and stylised.
Was it the right time? It seemed to be. I remember it being early, and not being ready, but then I can also understand that 4th had been out for a very long time, and some of the changes in 5th edition would never have meshed with the 4th edition rules. So overall, yup – it was good.
Should they be thinking about a 6th edition within a year? No, I hope not. The material being covered is still being consumed, and they have a ways to go to cover the range of source material needed. Atlas have many products, and thankfully this means that the ArsM material is produced steadily and consistently. I’m not sure what 6th edition would bring either, as the generations are improving and refining, rather than radically altering the system. Should they stop altogether on new edition thoughts? Nope – perhaps 2013 might be a great year – and the value offering of such a book would need to be high to gain uptake.
The long tail for Ars is both the source books and the peripheral products created by others. The Sub Rosa magazine is excellent from what I’ve seen, and I’m thinking of grabbing a few to really see what the quality is like. Long tail seems to mean repeat book/pdf buyer in this case – Ars suffers from the cost of the print run making the books out of print very quickly. This means that some material is only ever going to be available now as Pdf, and that is both an economic reality, and a shame.
Most game software suffers a similar fate. You see a single purchase box with a hefty fee, followed by either nothing (GuildWars), a subscription fee (WoW), or you just start with a cost per month and create revenue via transactions. After a range of time from 1 week to 12 months most people who were going to buy the product, have done so, and you’ve got to offer something new to them to keep the revenue stream open.
The pen and paper RPGs don’t have a micro-transaction style yet. Perhaps there is a revenue model there which is serviceable too. I didn’t take to DDI at all, and would shy away from anything that professed value without demonstrative substance. I’d consider modules via Pdf as a way of generating revenue, but you need to move a very high volume of sales to do that, and you’re fighting some seriously high piracy levels, and consumer resistance in the RPG market. Which RPG player is not literate enough to use a bit torrent client to find shared versions? Not many I’d guess. That kind of kills the long tail very quickly.
So the creators either produce or perish. The right time for a new edition might be when the customers want it, but will certainly be when the creators need it. Is that bad? Maybe, but I’d rather they tried to continue to develop material, than close up shop.