Wizards of the Coast
|Wizards of the Coast|
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|Notable Games||Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons|
Wizards of the Coast (Abbr: WotC), like so many luminous icons of the tabletop industry, was founded in a dingy basement in the rainy city of Seattle in 1990. Originally, they developed Magic the Gathering, and, after using their patents on various cardgame staples like "tapping" and "counters" to strangle literally every other competitor but Legend of the Five Rings out of business, they made so much goddamn money on the sucker's market that is the CCG scene that they were able to fulfill every nerd's dream of buying the dying Dungeons and Dragons property out from under Lorraine Williams, then revitalizing it with its most popular edition. Since then, they've been themselves bought out by the cold, emotionless, alien beings taking the form of corporate suits at Hasbro,
but in recent times the corporation has adopted a more "hand-off" approach to Wizards, to mutual benefit. LOL NOT ANY MORE.
They are a source of civilized and respectful debate on /tg/, but while the old guard will probably never forgive them for changing literally anything about the game from the Chainmail days, general consensus is that, as evil megacorporations in the tabletop business go, they really could be much worse. Besides, they got a bit better, so that's good I guess.
Early History: Oh~ Oh~ Oh~, It's Magic!
Wizards started out as a small-time game publisher, releasing new editions of defunct old niche games and small dribbles of their own material. They'd probably have gone the route of Iron Crown Enterprises or be languishing in obscurity today, if not for a stroke of good luck. Some math major with an eye towards game design walked into their office and pitched a board game to them. They liked it, but they didn't have the cash to produce it, so they asked him to come up with something cheaper to produce, something portable and quick to play. Well, to make a long story short, he went home, ran some numbers, and the rest is history.
Magic: The Gathering was (and, if you're into the Skinner Box of CCGs, still is) a damn fine collectible card game, the first commercially successful one of its kind in the world... which isn't actually that impressive, considering the only other CCG at that point was a baseball card game from the early 1900s. Still, it started an industry, won shitloads of game-design awards, and led to Wizards using its patents on various basic card game mechanics ("tapping," counters, etc.) to ruthlessly crush all competitors. Sometimes, they were justified in protecting their IP against hacks and shovelware imitators. Sometimes, they just went after people they didn't like. Let's just say there's a reason L5R used to make you lose points if you accidentally said "tap" instead of "bow."
It also made them more money than can easily be imagined, not least because the 90s was the age of know-nothing idiots speculating on "nerd shit," a trend started in the comic-book industry. (Humorously, the cards from this time have sometimes ended up being more valuable than the pointless comics bubble ever would be.) Rather than blowing it all on hookers and blow, in the tradition of the 80's, they funneled it back into their RPG business, buying up various old games and refurbishing them, including Ars Magica from fellow swaggering new kid on the block White Wolf. Most of them had enjoyed only moderate success at best, not least because the market then was smaller than it had ever been following the fundamentalist-o-caust of the 80's purge and the company was putting its fingers into too many pies and failing to support all its games, but eventually, they managed to land the biggest fish of all.
As a cash-strapped and internal-politics-crippled TSR was folding and dying, Wizards bought them and all their stuff, including the famous and venerable Dungeons and Dragons property, for a paltry $25 million. They gave all the old TSR guys jobs, called off the lawyers and openly allowed fans to release stuff for poorly-selling but much-beloved campaign settings, and put various designers from TSR to work building the most popular and successful edition of D&D ever. Then paid to do it again when it needed a shitload of patching, leading to the silliest D&D edition name of all time (3.5). They also held a contest to design a setting that was weird and new for the new edition, ultimately settling on Keith Baker's Eberron.
Along with that edition, they put out the Open Gaming License, offering free reign for other companies to use their rules and produce supplements. While this had the unfortunate side effect of sometimes putting their tacit approval on complete fail, it is generally held to be one of their smartest and most fan-friendly moves ever, generating huge amounts of content for their game without paying a dime for it. Whether you want uber-minimalism, hard sci-fi, or erotically-charged sexventures, you can generally find it somewhere in the library of OGL content, in varying degrees of quality.
As the decade wound down, they also got the license to make a CCG for Pokémon, and while we scoff now, it was a pretty good game that wasn't a complete Magic rip-off, and it probably made them about as much money as Magic for a while there. The Pokémon craze was at its height, and children everywhere begged money off their parents, worked menial lemonade-stand jobs, and, in some truly fail-tastic cases, murdered each other in cold blood for the next sweet, sweet hit of booster pack fever.
New Management, or the Road to the Great Mistake
At the turn of the millenium, terrible, alien intelligences examined our realm of existence. With minds too different from ours to comprehend their motives, and the cold, unfeeling calculations of inhuman thoughts, they reached out their slick black tentacles into our plane and acquired Wizards of the Coast. They also paid nearly ten times as much for the privilege as Wizards spent for TSR, so suck it fanboys!
What happened next is hard to conclusively prove, since nobody involved wants to stop working in the business forever by getting a rep as a fuckin' snitch, but over the course of a decade, most of Wizards' upper management was quietly replaced. Various minor aspects of the property, like GenCon and the Dragon and Dungeon magazines were portioned off and outsourced to other producers (notably, Paizo). Keeping a low overhead meant firing all the veterans to hire newbs with lower asking salaries, draining the company's talent pool. Whether these cutbacks were the fault of Wizards, a company run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts with a history of mediocre business sense, or Hasbro, a corporate giant with a history of undermining their acquired brands with needless executive interference and anti-consumer bullshit, is probably never going to be openly known. Either way, eventually, the decision was made to build an entirely new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
In theory, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Third Edition and 3.5 had always had their flaws (Monte Cook's traditional caster-dominance, weak martial classes, incoherent high-level play that turned into a maze of magic item abuse and extra turn stacking, a cesspool of bad character options left over from the ill-thought-out "ivory tower" game design, etc.) and the latter was starting to show its age. Furthermore, they decided that this edition wouldn't just be a revamp of the old, but a complete rebuilding of the entire D&D system from the ground up, intending to fix long-running problems and set a bold new direction for the future. No more would martials announce "I make a weapon attack" and throw a d20 round after round: they would have access to cool techniques and a varied playstyle just like the casters. No more would casters break the game over their knee and don their robe and wizard hat to fuck its corpse: their power would be drastically scaled back, with magic now divided into limited-application combat components and longer-and-more-involved ritual spells.
Unfortunately, this well-intentioned and high-profile project was destined to go horribly wrong...
Schism and Competition
Despite what the butthurt fanboys will tell you, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was (and still sort-of is as they sell off the backlog) a financial success. And the hatred for it was never uniform. Even people that hate 4e will admit that it's not a terrible game, but even its fans have to admit that, in many ways, it is utterly unrecognizable from the game that preceded it. The sad truth is that 4e was worse than a bad game: it was a flawed-but-good game which just happened to have a lot of stupid drama to deal with.
To make a long story very short:
The people who love 4e love it for its tightly-defined rule set, tactical depth compared to 3.5 (no more martials flanking and power attacking every turn while the casters fly out of reach or teleport out of sight and spam save-or-die rays from their familiar), strong support for the DM via online materials, ease of play compared to the frequent RULESRULESRULES problems of earlier editions, giving every class, even former low-tier sad-sacks like the monk a fair shot at being as awesome as the previously-dominant full-casters, and for introducing some genuinely good new ideas to the lore. (Ex. The Raven Queen replacing the evil death gods as an iconic neutral death goddess, some great new books and campaign ideas for Eberron, adding lots of off-beat, niche races like githzerai and goliaths to the core rulebooks, and a new, wonderfully revamped version of Dark Sun for the first time in two-and-a-half editions that not only brought back all the best parts of that gameline but sanded off all the worst ideas, like the biomechanical halfling empire and the DM taking over a character during the Dragon transformation.)
The people who hate 4e hate it for sharply segregating the game into combat and story sections, focusing heavily on the use of miniatures and battle mat combat rather than the "theater of the imagination," being hard to run without "power cards," sold separately, to keep all the abilities straight, nickle and diming consumers to try to force them to buy World of Warcraft-style subscriptions for access to character generators or other online materials, shoehorning all classes into the same sets of mechanics (Leaders heal and buff their allies, Strikers hurt things, Defenders tank, Controllers debuff and throw out area attacks), making a lot of gratuitous changes to D&D lore, from slaughtering the cosmology of Planescape to dropping a Spellplague on the Forgotten Realms, and releasing a castrated new version of the Open Gaming License for the game system.
Worse, it seems many of these problems were corporate mandated from above by Hasbro, seeking to create a more tightly-controlled IP and cut the Open Gaming License off at the roots. While 4e remained a modest financial success, many fans began leaving the oldest roleplaying game of all behind to go looking for other ways to scratch the itch. And many of the Hasbro-based marketeers, being, like most marketeers, dumb blood-sucking vampires who only vaguely remember what it is to be human, made the whole situation worse by emphasizing 3.5's flaws as much as they praised 4e's features in a vindictive way that hurt feelings and created a lot of bad blood.
Paizo, the former magazine publishers, took advantage of this to start fully promoting their own D20-based RPG game, Pathfinder, a sort of "D&D 3.75" that attempted to fix the problems without transforming so drastically from the 3.5 model. How successful they were is... debatable (read that page for details), but it drew in the fans like mad. Because it ran on the OGL, it soon had rafts of refugees publishing quality third-party material for its game. Riding that surge of popularity, Paizo began to become a true challenger to WoTC's former dominance over the gaming market, even outselling them at times.
This act, creating one's own worse competitor, was humiliating for Wizards and disquieting to Hasbro. The slimy, icy tendrils of the conglomerate began to withdraw. So long as Wizards did not become a financial liability, the interns through which Hasbro communicated sang (they burn out, bleeding from every orifice, after channeling a single communication and have to be replaced), it would now be free to pursue whatever direction it wished for yet another edition. But it must have another edition. The insatiable hunger of the otherworldly suits would not be satisfied with second place, no matter how profitable it proved.
Yet, in many ways, as Wizards scrambled to clean up the floors under the intern and move on, this whole experience was good for Wizards. Now that they had actual competitors, product quality could be an actual defense against the bizarre demands of their alien masters, since now they stood to lose customers if they fucked up. And they could dissect what Paizo did leading up to Pathfinder and take notes.
After seeing how much success Paizo had with its open playtests for Pathfinder, Wizards did something similar with the new edition of D&D, which got years and years of hard, careful work and testing put into it. Wizards promised to keep the best aspects of every previous edition, distilling a better product at the end. Despite a frequently-skeptical response, it helped rebuild community confidence, and the eventual result, many years in the making, was D&D Next, or, as it would inevitably eventually be known, 5e.
So far, 5e has been a roaring critical and commercial success. The game is fun, simple yet deep, streamlined without being dumbed down, and has combined the playability of the early editions with the mechanics of the d20 system and the best ideas from 4e. And with the monthy community surveys and Unearthed Arcana articles providing anyone with an Internet connection with quality, officially-sanctioned homebrew content and a genuine system of feedback, Wizards has begun to reclaim the reputation they nearly lost after the ill-advised attempt by their corporate masters to chase the MMO dollar. Even Paizo has begun to step up its game to compete, with positive results for fans of both gamelines.
No one knows, obviously, what the future holds, but it certainly looks bright from here.
Also, they were still making a mint off the cardboard crack through all of this, so don't feel too bad for them.
- Drive to Work, episode 40 (the Wizards of the Coast episode) ,.