Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Marvel Should Own Dungeons and Dragons

With my recent interest in Heroclix I've been on something of a crash course in superheroes to try and find out what out what's what because basically I've always been a comic book refusenik.

Something interesting I discovered relates to Marvel. They aren't a comic book company. They are an intellectual property licensing company, licensing out their back catalogue of comic book characters. The comic books help develop the characters and have done so for 50 years but that's incidental to their real business which is getting Spiderman and The Hulk on t-shirts, in the cinema and into computer games.

(You may well already know this and be accusing me of instructing you, or possibly your Grandmother, in the art of sucking eggs).

It struck me as obvious when you think about it whilst blessed with the benefit of hindsight and is similar to Games Workshop's recent approach - their top man has turned them from being a games company (which is where you think they would be placed) and pointed out that they need to become a miniatures-selling company. The games support and develop this aim. A subtle yet important distinction.

Marvel don't sell The Incredible Hulk comics as their main activity, they sell The Incredible Hulk.

This leads me on towards thinking that a games company, a company that identifies itself as producing and selling games is the worst place for D&D to reside.

But it's a game!

Well, yes it traditionally is. But if you remember the 1980s and 1990s you may well remember a time when TSR accidentally became a large and successful fiction publisher, first with Dragonlance and then all that Drizzt stuff, packing out the NY Times bestseller list. Where's the successor to all this success? Nowhere.

Opportunity missed.

It's been misused and neglected since but when WOTC bought out TSR the phrase "Dungeons and Dragons" still had huge pull. Prior to the Lord of the Rings films I'd say it was still the descriptive phrase for fantasy of all forms amongst people who were not fans of the genre nor particularly well informed. The Hoover or Biro or iPod of heroic medieval fantasy if you like.

Under the stewardship of somebody like Marvel, we'd have seen D&D with it's long history of sub-creation (worlds, imagery, creatures etc.) as a carefully nurtured and possibly even mildly fashionable brand with a plethora of supporting revenue streams. Comics, semi-decent-ish films, computer games, t-shirts, toys and action figures and a development of the brand so that it has proper, recognisable characters - something D&D hasn't had since Drizzt. Maybe even a Saturday morning cartoon...

They'd recognise that a revenue stream from a game is only a small fraction of it's worth and probably outsource an RPG to someone decent as well, rather than just sitting inhouse and focus group developing it to appeal to people who didn't like D&D. Can you imagine Marvel redesigning the X-Men to sell to people who hate X-Men comics?

The problem is that much of this is hindsight and refers to events nearly fifteen years ago. Since then we've seen the huge popularity of the LOTR film trilogy, a gargantuan fantasy/juvenile book series that is this generation of children's "got kids reading" thing (also in hugely successful film form), the Japanese console RPG scene becoming huge in the west from Final Fantasy 7 onwards, something called World of Warcraft which I believe is mildly popular, professional videogaming leagues in the US and South Korea, three Star Wars prequels and retro - a movement that has been huge in everything from automotive design to computer gaming culture to ironic fashion. (Nintendo controller, Atari Fuji and Space Invader t-shirts for example).

And against this background, a culture that would have been fertile for D&D if handled well we simply had it in the hands of well-meaning gamers who got jobs in the industry and agonized instead about Feats and Prestige Classes and Daily Powers and selling to a tiny hobby culture.

What a shocking waste.

It comes to something when it appears that Pathfinder is the real, modern AD&D. But then again I suppose Velvet Revolver is the real, modern Guns n' Roses and Beady Eye might yet become the real, modern Oasis.

Come on Stan, make it happen. It would have more legs and be a bigger success as a Marvel-style property with games bolted on than as a minority game on it's own.


  1. Well, bear in mind that Marvel -- the comics company -- was appallingly mismanaged throughout the 90's went bust, and only started pulling itself into the black when the films started doing well.

    I know that this doesn't disprove your general point, but it's worth noting that they were going down the tubes at around the same time TSR were.

    The comics side is still a mess, but it's allowed to be when the films, games, toys and other merchandise are making money.

    Also, Marvel is now owned by Disney, and I'm not sure I'd want Dungeons & Disney.

    All that said, your general point is a good one, and whoever holds the keys to D&D could do worse than follow the Marvel model. It all started going right with 1998's Blade, so if they can do something similar, I see no reason why they couldn't enjoy a similar benefit.

  2. I would have so liked D&D minis to become like Heroclix. Oh wait, they did. The mistake was leaving mini choices random. As a DM, when I want 20 orcs, I want to buy 20 orcs. Or skeletons, zombies, etc.

    They could even have come out with a cool boxed module that provided the minis with it! What's a $50 module box set with minis when their rulebooks are already $30 a pop.

    Anyone doing a Marvel rpg? I actually liked the TSR version (not the SAGA one). Heroclix is a perfect match for that.


  3. "Well, yes it traditionally is. But if you remember the 1980s and 1990s you may well remember a time when TSR accidentally became a large and successful fiction publisher, first with Dragonlance and then all that Drizzt stuff, packing out the NY Times bestseller list. Where's the successor to all this success? Nowhere."

    That's partly because the "successful fiction publisher"/IP juggler business model crashed and burned after its initial successes. TSR management seriously overestimated the demand just because the Drizzt/Dragonlance novels were going like hotcakes, and ended up getting crushed by (among other things) enormous book returns on novels that weren't selling.

    Coincidentally, as they were going down, there was a possibility that some of the still valuable IPs like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance might be picked up and used in the way you are suggesting, while the rest - like AD&D - simply written off. That didn't end up happening, but it could have.

    WotC itself has been a poor steward of its IP in many respects - D&D computer games built on the 3.x rules never approaching the successes of Baldur's Gate etc. - but the 90s model was a bubble that ended up like bubbles tend to do. There is no successor because there is no inheritance.

  4. Its all about icons and toys and how we play with them in our heads. Marvel sells heroes, Games Workshop sells toys, Paizo sells adventures and the OSR sells you the rules of the game. WotC really screwed up the D&D IP but its not over for them yet. All they need to do is produce some good fantasy books and adventures, put out something like a Fantasy HeroClix, wrap a simple ruleset around it and slap the D&D logo on it. All this effort to emulate MMOs is just trendy business suit talk.

  5. This was a very interesting read, both the OP and the comments. I've never thought about this in this context, but there are certainly many good points in this.

    The way I see it, D&D's problem is that it was sold to a company who allready has a license to print money (M:tG). RPGs, bu their very nature, will never generate the same amount of profit. In the WotC-household, D&D is the red-headed stepchild. There's money in it, but in the hunt for profit, the market analysts will tweak the merchandise.

    I do not know if there is much of a market for films, tv-series, books, what have you, in D&D. As Melan said, TSR tried to ride that wave, and sank.

    RPGs is a niche-market, and for that reason I believe it is best marketed by smaller (relatively speaking) companies. A game produced by someone who doesn't love the game sucks.

  6. @ Grendelwulf
    I read a statement by someone at Marvel on Newsarama or CBR, a while back, that they were continuing building a stronger relationship with Hasbro. In the list of items they were licensing to Hasbro the Marvel rep making the statement mentioned roleplaying games. Since Hasbro owns WotC/D&D I figured that meant WotC will be producing a Marvel RPG to try to compete with Green Ronin's awesome DC Adventures RPG.

    Of course this was just a comment made by some suit at Marvel and plans could have changed by now, for all I know. However, that's the last thing I heard about the topic of a Marvel RPG.

  7. As for D&D being treated in the same manner as Marvel treats its various properties, I agree and disagree with many of the comments.

    I think the actual RPG should be handled by a smaller company that can focus strictly on the game itself. That way it can remain somewhat unmolested by the corporate need to meet unrealistic goals for a niche product. However, I think the brand name does need to be handled by a forward thinking, larger company like Marvel.

    Someone like that would be best suited to making the brand a powerful and financially lucrative IP that is widely accepted and recognized in various forms. Books, movies, cartoons, video games, comics, lunch boxes, T-shirts, etc is where the "suits" should be handling the licensing of the name D&D. They should never, ever be involved with or have any influence on the game itself.

    Since I am not the biggest 4e fan my opinion is slightly (i.e., extremely )biased. To me 4e is when D&D truly went corporate and now the name Dungeons and Dragons means more than the game. This is why I'd like to see the revival of AD&D.

    The D&D name can remain under the influence and direction of the suits and AD&D would be strictly for the niche market with no corporate taint. As a matter of fact I'd like to see AD&D be licensed to a smaller publisher and left alone. It won't happen by any stretch of the imagination, but that's what I'd like to see.

  8. Snag is, when your business is selling IP you have to have something that is brandably distinct. There's only one Spider-man, one Iron Man. There are dozens of Black Widow types, which is why she doesn't get her own movie.

    Let's face it, we're drowning in fantasy brands with green orcs, pointy-eared elves, clanking knights, loin-clothed barbarians... You get the picture. Dungeons & Dragons was once shorthand for that whole package; nowadays most people are more likely to know a brand like WoW. Any IP in that pseudo-medieval/Northern European/sub-Tolkien area is just another brand of soap.

    This may be why Pixar opted for a whole different fantasy tradition: the distinctly American science fantasy of Barsoom. Because that stands out (for now).

  9. Thanks for comments all.

    Dave Morris is correct really in that the term no longer has the pull it once did and doesn't stand out - but it did, once, and that's been lost and/or neglected.

    I didn't know that Marvel had nearly got bankrupt and had forgotten that TSR struggled with too much poor product in the fiction sector but TBH I still think a brand-orientated approach rather than a game-orientated approach _was_ the way to go. Today? Maybe but I don't have access to the figures.

    I use Marvel as an example, but really it could be anybody competent. Are Marvel competent? I dunno and I've read this morning in The Guardian that 70p has been wiped over the GW share price after they announced a profit warning and a bad December due to the weather.

    Mostly I wish that D&D was a property of Hasbro, not WOTC (I know it ends up in the same place but hopefully you get what I mean), and accordingly they'd outsourced the RPG to someone like Green Ronin.

  10. Re: GW, it's *only* a 4% on last year, and as we get up to the end of this year tens of thousands of council workers are being sent letters warning them that they face the sack (to be re-employed, possibly, on savagely cut wages), and while we all wait for unemployment to pass 3 million under a government that appears to have no intention of attempting to ameliorate this with anything other than wishful thinking and cuts to unemployment benefits. AND it was one of the coldest, snowiest Decembers in recent times.

    A 4% fall in sales might be a kick in the profits, but it doesn't look all that bad to me.

    Of course, I don't think GW is the model for (A)D&D - miniatures are like crack, they're very moreish. How, though, do you keep people buying (A)D&D books if, once you sell gamers the three core books you are encouraging those gamers to do the rest of the creative work? 'Products Of Your Imagination' indeed.

    Sure, you could release modules complete with (painted?) miniatures, but then you have Heroquest. Could go down the 'churn out junk to keep the brand and market active' route, but TSR did that in the late 1980s. Could go down the 'expand the rule system with a series of 'essential' handbooks', but TSR tried that in the early 1990s.

    The model for a good RPG, it seems to me, consists of a small number of excellent, essential books and accept that sales dwindle. WFRP 1e - 1 rulebook and 4/5 adventure modules gives you the Enemy Within. Pendragon - 1 rulebook and 1(enormous) campaign book. Perhaps, not a good business model, but then if you need to turn Pendragon into WoW (with involves no role-playing) in order to generate a heap of cash, then...

  11. DrBargle, well that's the thing. The biggest selling comic in the US market sells around -- but often less than -- 100,000 copies a month. That's through the quasi-monopoly called the direct market, which is where the big comic companies work with a single distributor to get the comics to comic shops. You can still -- in the US anyway -- pick up comics in supermarkets, bookshops, and so on, but no one is really sure what the numbers are there. They're likely to be far less than the direct sales.

    So you have a specialised product selling to specialised shops, and it's no surprise that sales just go down and down.

    This doesn't bother Marvel too much, because as Coop notes, they make their money from licensing now, and there's much more money to be made in films and -- perhaps more importantly nowadays -- video games. The bubble may burst, but it doesn't look to be doing so, and when a character like Iron Man can support a franchise, it's clear that the well hasn't gone dry just yet.

    D&D could be like this, but the problem is that the licensing is cack-handed, so we get stuff like the D&D film, or that animated Dragonlance atrocity. It doesn't have to be this way however, and it may be that the D&D franchise is just in its Howard the Duck phase. They just need to figure out how to make the equivalent of a Spider-Man or Iron Man.

    All that said, I'd still bet on a Warcraft film making it big first.

  12. I missed part of my point there.

    The point is, if D&D followed the Marvel model, the property would sustain itself through licensing, and it wouldn't really matter what the game itself would be like. They'd continue to publish it for the aging, dwindling fanbase, but it would be an afterthought while most of the attention would be focussed on the video games, films, novels, t-shirts, bedspreads, birthday cakes, etc, etc.

    With the pressure off the games division, they might even revert to something like the aforementioned AD&D, if it would be more popular with said fanbase, or if it could bring back those who had wandered away.

    On the other hand, Marvel have this odd idea that in order to sell comics, the comics have to match the films, even though it makes no difference at all and the number of people who walk into a comic shop after seeing the latest blockbuster can be counted on one hand. So you get stuff like the X-Men suddenly wearing black leather outfits just after the film came out, or Spider-Man completely coincidentally developing organic webshooters in the wake of the first of the Sam Raimi films.

    So if D&D did go this way, you might see the game changing as a result of McG deciding that he really wants his wood elves to be eight foot tall and orange.

  13. WOTC tried to IP leverage D&D. As of 4E, you can see attempts to do the following:

    1) Sell randomized miniatures. (Trying to be GW crossed with a Magic: The Gathering business model.)
    2) Move to an online subscription system. (Trying to be WoW or the New York Times online model.)
    3) Computerise gameplay into an "electronic tabletop", and eventually turn D&D into an MMORPG, whilst somehow taking the player base with them. (WoW again.)
    4) Develop Gleemax, a social media site for gamers. (Trying to take on Facebook.)

    Problem is, any one of these, let alone delivering a decent D&D edition alone, would (and did) require more resources, luck and talent than WOTC had available. It probably made a great PowerPoint presentation, but taken together was incredibly naive. I mean, they were so stressed that even the release of 4E was botched from the marketing to the typesetting and editing to the art direction and the overall direction. As was pointed out, the books don't even tell you what they are on the back cover, and they are obviously aping other media. They say they were going for a younger audience but the books are a wall of text that even veterans to the game can be turned off by, if they got past the continuity disjunctions and lack of rules and setting resemblance to 30 years of what was considered D&D.

    Perhaps just the wrong people were at the helm. Dreamblade featured Heinsoo's quirky vision of avant garde fantasy, and sunk. That same element can be detected in 4E's quirky default setting, of dragonpeople and blink elves. The world was also a different place in 2008 with the financial crisis, and the success of 3E had seemingly emboldened the WOTC designers to think they could pursue personal hobby horses, when 3E's psionics and epic systems sort of proved that they were not quite capable of producing something watertight from whole cloth. Combine that with a culture whereby rules design is king, and they feel above "writing a tower of orcs" (I.e an adventure), and you have a recipe for disaster.

    Thank goodness for Paizo. At least they get basics like art direction and adventures right before trying to take on Facebook, Blizzard and Games Workshop.