Tuesday, 4 January 2011
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.
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.