Even before the rise of Kickstarter, electronic publishing, print-on-demand, or desktop publishing, RPGs were a thing that lots of people tried to do. Even back in the hoary days of paste-up in the ’70s and ’80s you had TSR, FGU, ICE, and several other companies that weren’t three-letter acronyms.
Not everybody who dreams of professional football or going to space gets to do it. But everybody who dreams of RPGs has a shot at being a roleplaying game designer/publisher. That has led us to 5th edition in a painful way.
One of the particular geniuses of the Open Game License for D&D was that it channeled everyone who wanted to be a game designer/publisher into just making more D&D. Everybody wins in this scenario. The little guy gets more potential traction for his germy little idea. Wizards gets rid of meaningful competition and can co-opt anything better that comes up. Buh-rilliant.
But d20 did not change quickly or thoroughly enough. Many people, including Wizards of the Coast, started running out of things to do with the game around 2006 or so.
(By the way, plenty of life remains in d20, even if you discount the obvious torchbearer of Pathfinder. It’s embarrassing how nearsighted the RPG crowd has been about the whole thing. This huge swath of people who pride themselves on creativity could keep evolving d20 forever into newer, stranger shapes, only hinted at in permutations like Mutants & Masterminds or True20. Why is no one else besides Green Ronin trying? WTD Dire Prediction #1: In 6-8 years, the second wave of d20 will bloom. People will be doing crazy stuff with d20 that will make it seem strange and new again.)
Anyway, as I was saying, anybody can make a game. And when they’re not having fun anymore, everyone will. You could make several cases for who started this indie kerfuffle (as if every RPG didn’t start out “indie”), and it would be very indie to argue about it. For my purposes here, I’ll call it at the launch of Burning Wheel c. 2005. That’s around the time that admitting that you were sort of done with d20 started being fashionable.* The rise of the old school movement happened around the same time. Neither one of these was a big deal initially, but indie and retro were twin harbingers of discontent.
So you see how those overlap? No one knew what to do with d20 any more, and lots of people had ideas of what to do without d20. And so they started producing competition completely outside the OGL.
When all your eggs are in that OGL basket, you’d best do something about that. This is the moment that OGL proponents might have seized on to improve the game. This is when, if someone was going to hustle with d20, it shoulda been done.
And in fact, Wizards of the Coast did. Their sales line had been delving to old, familar depths. And they did try to hustle–in the wrong direction. They tried to make the RPG more like an MMO, which was wrong because it simultaneously played to the weaknesses of both tabletop AND electronic games. Worst of both worlds. (Paizo’s hustle didn’t come for two more years. At the time, they were still doing a whole lot of 3.5 compatible stuff and pushing D&D magazines.)
Seeing this coming, Wizards not only failed to shut the door for defectors, they opened windows. (And knocked a few holes in the walls when they produced a gutpunch 4e version of the OGL a couple years later.) So more and more customers went to play weird new games or weird old games. This slow leak, especially to the retro games, was of more concern than they let on at the time. Here’s how you can tell: Look at some of the Internet postings from back then. Even inside the building, people were playing retro games.
In the short year I worked at TSR during 2nd edition days, the R&D people played lots of games. Star Wars (D6) and Call of Cthulhu were popular choices. Almost nobody played AD&D. At WotC, during the development and early days of 3rd ed, everybody played it. All the time. Voluntarily. It was fun. We really liked the game. It showed in the products.
By 2006 what were the few remaining people in R&D admitting to playing? Indie and retro games.
Hips don’t lie. The landscape changed and D&D needed something done about that.
Next time I’ll talk about 4th edition some more–not to further damn it but to show who besides Pathfinder walked into the chicken coop–and what Wizards learned from it for this new D&D coming out real, real soon.
*Although I remember Matt Forbeck saying this waaaaay early, like, in 2001 or so. And listen, Matt Forbeck is a savvy pro. If Forbeck won’t write your thing, you need to think about what corner you’re in.