Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics Beta, a different view

As everyone is throwing about their opinions on the beta edition of DCC I thought I’d provide my own take.  Mine will not be as game play focused as most others, instead I want to look more at the market potential: 

The D&D based fantasy rpg market:
D&D is still the 800lb gorilla, but they have vacated the throne, at least for now.  Most popular and retail selling games use the OGL, thus serving to further its system dominance as the default RPG game engine. Pathfinder (using an OGL 3.5 engine) is the current king with D&D 4th behind it in terms of sales.  Castles and Crusades remains a solid alternative and quietly goes about its business of replicating an old school feel with modern OGL rules.  The video game based Dragon Age continues to sputter along and seems to be gaining in acceptance.  In terms of the current retail fantasy market, these represent the bulk of D&D based game play sales.

OSR Influence
The rise and influence of Old School Renaissance gaming (OSR) has spawned numerous games based on early D&D rules: Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Delving Deeper, and a host of others seek to replicate in their own way the spirit and game play of the earlier D&D editions.  Each in their own way appeals to a specific edition fan, but only a few have broken into retail, and none have created a critical mass necessary to sustain a full line of products.  Of these OSR editions Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and OSRIC seems to be the front runners currently, but none has the broad brand recognition necessary (yet) for critical mass appeal, interest, support, and fan identification at retail.

In addition, an attempt to latch onto the OSR influence and appeal to older gamers, D&D attempted a series of 4th edition boxed sets harkening back to the “Red Box” era of the basic game. Certainly the nostalgic and others picked up these boxes, but it did not appear to resuscitate nor enliven interest in a steadily decreasing consumer base of 4th edition D&D products.

Summary
D&D 4th and the RPG market in general are in decline.  The decline is a combination of being overshadowed by pick up and play electronic gaming, declining retail market access, graying of player base, and barrier to entry.  Barrier to entry can be construed as difficulty to pick up and play, need for items outside the basic book, time investment necessary by more than one player, and the need to create content and adjudicate rulings on your own.

Into this market, DCC sallies forth!

Art
DCC seems decidedly set to appeal to established or long term fans of fantasy literature and gaming.  In appearance it looks more like the art from books or magazines in the 70’s or earlier.  One might term it classic sword & sorcery in appearance.  Interior illustrations further the retro product feel.  While this will appeal to gamers who grew up with that art, will it appeal to the broader current Pop culture market? I am talking about fans of anime inspired art from comics, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, or other well known electronic gaming?  Probably not.  So this (from an art perspective) seems to appeal to older and current RPG fans.  It does not seem to have much potential to inspire pick up and buy interest from a current pop culture fan or non-rpg player who passes it on the shelf.  That may further limit its ability to get placement outside hobby stores.

Game Design
DCC Uses a modified and somewhat simplified/house ruled version of D&D 3.X,  This twist on 3.X rules may appeal to fans of the current RPG leader Pathfinder as well as reaching out to OSR fans.   Without a doubt it is the best “bridge” product I have seen trying to appeal to both fan bases. In trying to serve two masters though, will it end up pleasing neither?  Too early to tell, but it seems safe to think that it will create a fan base pulling from both established player pools.  Can it bring new people in?  Only if it reaches a buzz level of coolness like D&D and Pathfinder did.  Will it appeal to 4th ed. D&D fans?  I am not a 4th edition player and my limited experiences with it do not lead me to believe this will convert them…unless, Hasbro continue to let D&D slide then something will fill the gap.

A major hurdle is the use of Zocchi dice.  I understand the “street cred” this may seem to give the system, but is the decision to create an additional barrier to entry to playing (for both current gamers and any potential new ones) really the right thing for a new game system in a declining market?  I can understand having bonus charts that use a d30…maybe…but the reasons to use these from a business standpoint is beyond me.  They are not widely available at retail nor distribution, nor common in a current gamer bag…and no way anyone outside the industry even knows what this means? This seems like an absurd business decision and could torpedo the system before it leaves dock for the open sea. 

Beta Delivery
Offering the beta PDF beta free is great advertising and buzz building, but why not get betas printed and out?  Pathfinders option to let you buy the beta in physical form to switch people was a brilliant move, sad DCC is not following this.  If it were me, I’d leave the PDF free, and offer the printed beta at cost or cost +$5 or something similar.  Get people walking around with it, bringing it to the table to play, pass around, and lend.  Guerilla gaming! PDF’s are great for yourself but a physical book is free advertising to people who do not go to your site or know about your game.  Second the printed beta clearly did not impede sales of the full edition Pathfinder book so I don’t think it would be a financial issue.  This is a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Support
One of the benefits DCC has it’s the vast range of potential support material.  Goodman Games has created a wide range of settings, modules, and boxed sets especially during the 3.5 glory days of D&D.  I think it will be relatively easily to recycle this support material into their new DCC format.  That means boxed sets like Castle Whiterock could easily be updated and made available again.  The costs for Goodman being limited to printing and updating.  New cover art or at least layout/design would probably help establish the brand identity better. 

Secondly this vast back catalog makes the line instantly supported.  There should not be dead months or quarters while awaiting new material, it just needs editing and republishing.  So the line should have good support to give players the sense it will be around for awhile, and this should allow DCC to create a retail presence at launch.  This is a distinct resource advantage no other burgeoning line currently has available to it.

The downside of the back catalog is the potential for distributors, retailers, and players to think “I already have that” and some may avoid purchasing revised or updated items.  I believe by using a range of items based on previous sales data DCC could safely come out with revised or updated materials that would be picked up. 

The possible pitfall in putting these revisions out as “value priced” editions.  Once you head down the discounting or value priced road, you are setting expectations for what anything from the line should cost.  Second you are now causing consumers to set up value comparisons for your products like “both modules are 32 pages, but the revised one is only $10 while the new edition is $15.” Why should I pay $5 more?  When you get people into questioning you pricing instead of valuing the content, you have lost them.  DCC may consider a 2 or 3 for one “adventure path” scheme where you get two or three revised modules in one campaign book for $20. 

Now you would get more content than a new edition, but you are paying more for it too. This also makes it easier (cheaper) to do one new cover for multiple revised adventures.  The key is adding value to revised editions at a higher reasonable price point without sacrificing or derailing your frontline new offerings-both must have value to a consumer. 

Overall, the amount of product support and potential profit here is staggering in a declining market.  More so because any missteps learned from the DCC line (such as bad module sales, or poorly received series) are instantly avoidable. 

In the end I see the pro’s as:
1)    a current void in the market
2)    a bridge product to appeal to the two biggest gaming circles
3)    a grass roots pre-launch “buzz edition”
4)    a back catalog of readily available support material

I see the con’s as:
1)    focused appeal artwork may not reach outside current market
2)    decline in retail space for product
3)    creating new barriers to anyone playing: Zocchi dice
4)    revised products/pricing could be seen as negative by buyers, retailers and consumers.

Only time will tell.  

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