Thoughts on Platforms, Monetisation and the D&D Community

So, last week news began to leak out about an investors’ conference call at which Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks and Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams commented that while D&D is a popular brand with loads of fans and a ton of active engagement, “the brand is really under-monetised”.

This has apparently sent very online D&D nerds into a bit of a tizzy as people have started catastrophizing about what this judgement will mean for the new generation of D&D that is due to drop next year. For example, Williams added that while only 20% of D&D players run games, those that do account for the vast majority of D&D-related spending. People have taken this to mean that WOTC might be looking for ways to include player-facing micro-transactions in their online gaming platforms. The range of hypothetical player-facing products range from dice skins, improved character animations, and higher-powered character creation options all the way through to in-game buffs, magical items, and additional gold pieces that you can buy straight from the platform.

As someone who has minimal investment in the D&D5 ecosystem, I don’t really care but I think that people’s fears are genuine because the move that Hasbro is preparing to make has already been made a number of times.

I first became aware of this tizzy because I follow Questing Beast on YouTube and he put out a really thought-provoking video about how D&D players do not ‘need’ WOTC.

I am old and I have been around a long time. In fact, I am old enough to have lived through four separate market crashes in which the legal owners of the D&D brand managed to crater their own sales. Each time the legal owners of D&D fucked up, third-party publishers went under, RPGs disappeared from shops, and it became noticeably harder to find games. Each time the people in charge of the D&D brand set their own business on fire, D&D was handed to a new bunch of people who put out a new edition resulting in a more-or-less lengthy boom in sales and a tentative return to the visibility of the past. People invested in the health of the RPG industry will talk and talk about how successful 5th edition has been and how much more visible the hobby has become but here is a picture of the opening of the first Games Workshop retail outlet (from Ian Livingstone’s book Dice Men). This dates from the time when Games Workshop was the sole publisher of D&D in the UK:

Look at the length of that queue and consider the fact that these days you’re lucky if you find a bricks and mortar shop that sells even the D&D core books.

The point I am trying to get across is that being into RPGs does not require a close relationship with RPG publishers. In fact, given the cultural and economic history of RPGs, the wise decision is to adopt a position of detachment from both the marketplace and the businesses participating in it. At the end of the day, what you need to run a game is friends, dice, and a set of books. It does not matter when the books were published.

The fact that you do not need to keep spending money on RPGs explains why, since the 1970s, D&D sales have always operated on a cycle of boom and bust. Regardless of who owns or manages the D&D brand, the cycle is always the same: People discover or re-discover the game and fall in love with it. They start buying books but there’s always a limit on how many people you can reach with a product like D&D and so eventually companies wind up having to work harder and harder to bring in new people. Meanwhile, the people who are happily playing will happily pay for new books but there comes a point at which the market for D&D books becomes saturated and then you get the crash.

Intriguingly, the recent documentary about White Wolf’s World of Darkness makes it clear that their business followed the exact same cycle of boom and bust: Books are put out, people love the books, people start buying books, eventually everyone who was going to buy the books has bought them and the market becomes saturated with additional materials causing the entire edifice to come crashing down.

As the Questing Beast video points out, Gygax himself spent a number of his years trying to further monetise the brand by making contacts in Hollywood. The need to monetise the brand also explains the explosion of first D&D novels and then D&D-themed games like Dragon Dice. At this point, I would argue that a boom-and-bust cycle is an inherent part of the market for RPGs and we are approaching the point when we are due some form of bust. In fact, I suspect that the new edition of D&D is an attempt to ward off precisely this future.

To Hasbro’s credit, the current boom has lasted a really long time and current attempts at vertical integration have been a lot more successful they were under the Blooms, Williams, and pre-Hasbro WOTC. This is partly a function of Hasbro being a proper company rather than a group of weird nerds who unexpectedly hit it big and decided to give jobs to their friends or relatives. It is also a function of improved technology as Hasbro has been in a position to monetise not just access to books but also the act of gaming itself by luring people onto digital platforms and their associated subscription models.

However, it is this act of luring people onto digital platforms that really gives me reason to worry as it is part of a much broader and darker pattern.

When Elon Musk took control of Twitter, there was considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth by people who wanted to leave the platform but felt that they could not for reasons both professional and personal. Joel Goodwin’s excellent videogame blog Electron Dance recently gave eloquent voice to an associated quandary as Joel spent years building nurturing his online visibility and then

“Realised Twitter had switched everyone over to an algorithm-driven feed. Many of my Twitter followers had little idea I was still tweeting”

I left Twitter before it shifted over to an algorithmic feed but I have spent some time on Instagram and I am acutely aware that it takes effort to avoid having the algorithm actively hide people from you. I’ve been on there for a little over the year and I’ve lost count of the number of times I have connected with someone, engaged with them for a few days, and then lost sight of them because the algorithm decided to show me something else. Instagram is particularly galling in this respect as it will routinely try and introduce suggested posts into your feed despite the fact that it is hiding the posts of people who you have actually chosen to follow.

Before social media and the rise of monopolistic platforms, you had to work at finding stuff and being found. If you ran a blog, you would comment on other people’s posts and hope to be tagged back in a future post. The driver of community for Web 2.0 was the organic emergence of people aggressively talking at each other so frequently that those lines of communication cohered into a semi-stable network that other people could then attach themselves to.

What sucked a lot of people into social media was the idea that there might be an app that could not only manage your online social network, but lower the barriers to entry. In other words, rather than having to visit people’s blogs, manage a series of RSS feeds, and write a new blog-post every few days, you could use an app that would centralise information about what was going on in your network and allow you to participate in a quicker and easier way.

For a long time, this worked pretty well as people were encouraged to abandon RSS feeds and rely on social media platforms to keep them in the loop. In fact, the system worked so well that the social media platforms started sucking in people who didn’t really produce anything other than their social media presence. The arrival of people who existed as part of online social networks without ‘producing’ anything resulted in the emergence of what Venkatesh Rao memorably referred to as the Internet of Beefs; an online social structure where people attach themselves to ‘producers’ of social drama and then wage social warfare on their behalf.

The interesting thing about the Internet of Beefs is that while it was initially parasitical on the Hot-Take industrial complex that suffuses newspapers, blogs, and any other vector for disseminating half-baked ideas, it rapidly ceased requiring the existence of external cultural product. In other words, the mill no longer required grist and people stopped arguing about articles, videos, and blog posts in order argue directly about tweets and now you have internet shit-storms that rage for weeks and feature hundreds of people despite the initiating event being someone innocently tweeting about how they decided to make a home-cooked meal for a neighbour who appeared to have most of their meals delivered from fast-food restaurants.

While it would not be wrong to say that all of this is nothing more than layers of impacted rotting stupidity, if you look beyond the details of the cases you’ll notice a pattern:

  1. Communities emerge organically from human interaction.
  2. Communities develop a suite of tools to keep in touch.
  3. Tech companies develop a product that is marketed as an easier means of staying in touch with your community.
  4. Tech companies suck in everyone associated with a community causing the original suite of tools to degrade and cease functioning.
  5. Community becomes so dependent upon a tech company’s product that its individual members can no longer leave without abandoning their community.
  6. Methods of in-community visibility are continuously altered in ways that are completely opaque and unpredictable.
  7. Upon finding that their connection to a broader community has become unstable, members of the community become alienated.
  8. Alienation and connection instability destroys any incentive to produce stuff ‘off-platform’.
  9. The only content that remains systematically visible is on-platform beefing and drama.
  10. Communities that emerged organically around to support a particular form of activity cease to support any form of human interaction other than on-platform beefing.

The move from step 1 to step 10 is also affected by various attempts at on-platform monetisation including subscription services, pay-on-demand visibility boosting, and advertising.

Older social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have reached a point where they are struggling to grow because they have a) sucked in most cultural outliers and b) have advanced far enough that they can no longer use step 3 as a pitch for new arrivals: You may or may not enjoy your time on social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook but you would be hard-pressed to argue that these platforms support your pursuit of off-platform activities.

Writers who complain about not wanting to leave Twitter for fear of losing access to their audience know full well that being an active participant of the platforms by no means guarantees even basic visibility let alone access to new audiences. They may even have noticed that Instagram makes it impossible to link to offsite content while Facebook includes code that automatically makes your posts less visible if they dare to link to stuff hosted outside the platform. Now that you’re there, the algorithm has you and it will punish you if you try to drag other people’s attention away. People don’t stay because they know that social media works, they stay because literally every other means of growing an audience has been either deliberately sabotaged or neglected to the point of terminal collapse.

It is interesting to consider the RPG hobby through the lens of platform capitalism as the hobby has never been particularly good at steps 1 or 2. Despite being nearly fifty years old, the most reliable way of finding a regular face-to-face gaming is not seeking out other gamers in the hope of becoming friends but but attempting to turn pre-existing friends into gamers. Much of the recent growth in the hobby seems to have come from doing an end-run around steps 1 and 2 in order to skip directly to 3.

Given that the hobby has historically been terrible at steps 1 and 2, it is no surprise that step 3 has rapidly moved on to steps 4 and 5 as people talk about the hobby’s expansion being hampered by a chronic shortage of DMs while existing DMs start talking about their hobby in terms of being trapped in the role of ‘forever DM’ by players who are unappreciative and demanding.

This may all seem a touch melodramatic as the end-stage of platform monopolisation is that people abandon their attachment to the things that brought them onto the platform in the first place and instead adopt an interest in drama produced by the platform itself, albeit with the branded ‘flavour’ of their original interest.

This is phenomenon is particularly visible in SFF-flavoured media as people are constantly complaining about how they no longer read and react with fury if you suggest that writers need to actually read the kinds of books that they produce: People don’t read the books, they might not even like them, but they are willing to argue about them until their fingers bleed and bully people into the psych ward if it means the possibility of elevating their social status.

Somewhat amusingly, this process of community de-coupling is noticeable in a lot of the articles that appear on Dicebreaker, the magazine that broke the story about the RPG community being insufficiently monetised. When I read the article, I scrolled down to the suggested pieces and found one recent article about a set of D&D-branded exercise routines, another article about  a D&D-branded advent calendar, and a third article with a list of vaguely RPG-related tat that you might want to buy as Christmas presents. All of these are about products marketed at the D&D ‘community’ and yet none of them actually involve or relate to sitting down and playing an RPG. It’s interesting to see articles about these kinds of products juxtaposed against a piece about how the D&D brand is supposedly under-monetised as I would argue that if you’re at the point where you’re using a tabletop game to sell exercise routines then you’re already through the bottom of the barrel and digging furiously in the direction of Australia.

Now… I realise that I have just performed a bit of a bait and switch in so far as I started out talking about social media and then expanded that to encompass a broader set of concerns about the hobby’s long-term viability. The reason I made this move is that funnelling gamers onto WOTC’s online D&D platforms is really only part of a broader move of sucking people into playing D&D. Indeed, one of the ways in which communities keep in touch and remain engaged is by diversifying the range of experiences that the community offers.

Traditionally this meant that while you might have entered the hobby to play D&D, you would then migrate to other games that might have provided a better fit both in terms of mechanics and subject matter. While a lot of hobbies are mindful of accessibility and recognise the need to keep up a supply of ‘easy stuff’ in order to lure in new people, D&D has grown progressively more complex and involved. Ask most D&D players why they will not try a different game and they will point to the complexity of the rules and say that they cannot be bothered to learn new systems despite the fact that D&D is unarguably one of the most mechanically involved systems in the marketplace.

Questing Beast’s video makes a difference between ‘Folk D&D’ and ‘Official D&D’ and he argues that ‘Official D&D’ is made up of people who are attached not just to D&D as a brand, but to this specific iteration of D&D as well as the products that surround it. ‘Folk D&D’, on the other hand, is made up of people who are committed to playing D&D but not necessarily to this specific iteration of D&D let alone the suite of products that surround it. Players of ‘Official D&D’ are wedded not only to D&D5 but also to the actions of Wizards of the Coast and so all of this talk about boosting monetisation must be terrifying as their sole connection to the hobby is through that corporate platform. ‘Folk D&D’ players are not platform dependent and so they are less worried by changes to the platform.

While I like Questing Beast’s distinction, I would like to suggest a further category: The Wild Gamer; someone who will play D&D but without being wedded either to a specific iteration of D&D, or to D&D in particular. I have been gaming (on and off) since I was a teenager and while I welcome new editions of old games, I am always aware that there are hundreds of other games open to me at any moment. I refuse to be locked in. I refuse to be corralled onto someone’s platform.

I’m reminded of David Fincher’s film The Social Network about the rise of Facebook. The film suggests that Zuckerberg created Facebook in an effort to replicate the real-world social networks that he was excluded from in college. One of the quieter ideas the film raises is that Zuckerberg was excluded from these networks because he was a dysfunctional prick who didn’t understand basic human principles like friendship and loyalty. In other words, Zuckerberg is a broken individual who created a platform for online social network management that was tainted by his short-comings and biases. To be frank, I think this gives people like Zuckerberg entirely too much credit: Facebook and Twitter do not dismember and devour communities because their founders are traumatised smol beans, they dismember and devour communities because subjecting people to certain sets of stimuli drives engagement and engaged punters are easier to monetise. If Mark Zuckerberg believed that getting punched in the balls made you more attentive to mattress adverts, he’d be finding a way to bully mobile phone producers into shipping their phones with enormous spring-mounted boxing gloves.

D&D fans are right to be concerned about the noises coming out of Hasbro and WOTC as we already know what platform capitalism looks like in practice: We know that it spreads by social capture, we know that it sabotages alternatives, we know that it lures you in and then deprives you of the thing that brought you there in the first place, and we know that the end point of all social media is likely to involve a landlord with a D&D-branded social media producing a professionally-shot two-hour apology video because they made a series of tweets that prompted dozens of death threats against someone who offered to cook dinner for a neighbour.

I’m exaggerating for effect but the moral of all this remains quite simple: Control your own platform and protect your social network. Start a blog, start an email newsletter, and start running games for your actual friends and family. If your community is dependent upon a social network that is owned and operated by a multi-national company then that social network is not real and neither is your community. RPGs are simple that way… the only people who really matter are the people who are sitting around your table. Everything else is clout-chasing bullshit because real community is not about branded merch and arguing over the internet, it’s about noticing when someone doesn’t turn up for a game.

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