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An EL 20 Conversation with Joseph Goodman

An EL 20 Conversation with Joseph Goodman

Like many gamers, I first “met” Joseph Goodman, the owner of Goodman Games, through a Dungeon Crawl Classics module. For me, it was DCC #17: Legacy of the Savage Kings by Harley Stroh, which like all DDCs, begins with:

Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don’t waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.

Though I didn’t know it until recently, there is a whole lot of Joseph Goodman in this paragraph.

A couple of weeks ago, Goodman did something he doesn’t usually do—he directly addressed the business side of Goodman Games in a Goodman Games forum post.

“I really like gaming, game stores, and playing games,” said Goodman on June 19th, “and it is for these reasons that I traditionally do not discuss the business side of the industry in public forums.”

It was his love of games that prompted him to talk openly about the business, but it was his talk about the business that garnered a strong—often volatile—response from thousands of gamers across the internet. Responses to the content and style of Goodman’s post ranged from “thanks, Joe!” to “who does this guy think he is?”

Joseph Goodman is a businessman. By day he works in management for a Fortune 50 company.

He is also a long-time gamer.

“I wrote my first RPG at the age of 10, self-published my first work at 17, had my first professional contract at 18, had my first staff writer job at 21, and have been involved professionally in the gaming industry ever since,” said Goodman.

Seven years ago Goodman started Goodman Games, and he did using the same skills and strategies that he uses every day in his other job.

It was a joy chatting with the guy whose product line brought me back to D&D after many years away. And, just as it is a delight to discover that the most exciting encounters are more about thinking that hacking and slashing, it was a pleasure to hear that it is the love of a good challenge—in gaming and in business—that drives Joseph Goodman and Goodman Games.

Jones: First, I have to ask whether, as an experienced player of RPGs, you like the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons?
Yes, it’s a fun game, but I personally prefer earlier editions of D&D. I’m not really the target market for 4E. I also recognize that my personal preferences are not the way to run a business. Goodman Games will always publish old-school products because that’s the most fun for me, but it’s 4E that pays the bills. Take the market for 1E and add a couple zeroes to get to the people who still play 3E, then add several more zeroes and you’re up to the 4E market.

When I changed the look of the Dungeon Crawl Classics brand, I was surprised at the intensity of the reaction. A number of the grognards seemed to take it as a personal betrayal. I am still honored and astounded at how attached they became to the original DCC look. There were many good reasons for changing the DCC look, most importantly that retailers needed a clear differentiation from the 3E DCC modules on their shelves and the 4E DCC modules on their shelves.

By now we’ve announced the Dungeon Alphabet, which includes art from Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, Jim Holloway, and Jeff Easley, with an introduction by Zeb Cook, and the licensing of 1E Dungeon Crawl Classics modules. There are more fun products like that on the way.

Jones: Can you outline the main points of your post in the Goodman Games forum for folks who haven’t read it yet or who might need as reminder?
My post generated several thousand responses throughout the various message boards and blogs, so I hope this interview serves to address some of the concerns raised in them.

The main thrust of my post concerned sales of D&D 4E product. Speaking as a 4E licensee, I’m satisfied with the sales of my 4E products, and I wanted to share that fact. That’s the main point.

Jones: What buttons did your post push? Why such a spirited response from so many?
Remember when the camera industry switched from film to digital a couple years ago? That seemed to push similar buttons to the 4E switch. Fans dislike it when you change their favorite hobby. This is a perfectly understandable reaction. I don’t fault anyone for disliking the change; that’s totally normal. But it’s important to distinguish one’s personal dislike from the macro issue of whether the new edition is selling well.

Jones: You are outlining your argument as a business man, do you suppose some of the heated responses are coming, in part, from a sort of language gap?
That’s an interesting question, and I think it could be true. That’s part of the reason why I have avoided this kind of conversation for eight years. Discussing the business side of things definitely takes some of the gloss off the fun part of the hobby.

Jones: Why speak directly and publicly about the business now?
Well, I’ve been tempted to do something like this repeatedly over the last year. The 4E launch certainly could have gone more smoothly from a couple perspectives, and the bumps on the road to 4E caused disappointment and heartache to a number of groups. Some of them have been very vocal about that fact. I generally consider my business dealings to be private affairs between me and my business partners, and I think it’s poor form to “kiss and tell” – whether results are positive or negative, I don’t expect my business partners to publicly discuss my arrangements with them, and I expect the same in return.

Unfortunately, some of the business partners to the 4E license have been very vocal in their disappointment with the affair. In contrast to that, my own personal experience has been a productive, positive, rewarding relationship with the same people and same company that others have publicly criticized. After hearing so much negativity, much of it very different from my own experience, I decided it was time to tell the other side of the story. I’m breaking my own rule by “kissing and telling,” but I think the situation warrants it.

Jones: Anything you’d change or rephrase about your post after having read the responses?
Yes, definitely. In order to establish that my opinion on 4E sales was qualified, I listed my credentials. Some readers interpreted that as a sign of arrogance. If I were to rewrite the post I would have been a little less forceful about the credentials, and more clear that I was listing them simply to establish the basis for my opinion.

That said, credentials do matter. There really is an information gap between the general public and industry professionals, whether it’s related to sales numbers or things like Dave Trampier’s real location. That’s the point of credentials: to establish that I have access to information. Some readers may choose not to believe my claims, which is their prerogative.

As a side note, there are many other people in the industry who have more or different or better information than I do. I’m not the only one with credentials. As many readers noted, it is possible for my claims to be simultaneously true with other contrary claims from other publishers – each of our experiences is different.

Jones: Some people have said that you are merely trying to protect your company’s decision to convert to 4e.
The internet audience that read my post is meaningful in a number of ways. I consider the message boards and blogs to be something like the think tanks and academic institutions that influence American politics. They are engaged in ongoing national debates about certain key issues which influence understanding of policy at the highest levels. But the average voter has an opinion that’s already formed from other sources, and is largely unaware of these debates. To that extent, I’m interested in the ongoing debate on 4E, and I myself follow a lot of the agenda items covered because they do sometimes reveal percolating trends or new perspectives.

But as far as influencing sales numbers, or in some way affecting my decision to convert to 4E, the online segment is not the channel I would be most focused on. There’s a reason I spend more time marketing my products in game stores than online.

So if I were desperate to protect my company’s decision to convert to 4E, online posts would be low on my list of strategies to drive more sales.

Jones: Why is 4e doing well? What is it about 4e itself that is selling well?
Good question. You can answer this question in a thousand different ways, depending on your perspective as an active fan, a grognard, a retailer, a publisher, a creator, or someone else entirely. I can relate something of my own experience as well as that of many retailers I’ve spoken to, which is that 4E truly seems to be reaching a new audience.

Maps are more important. Stats are a totally different ballgame. You have to consider the digital side more. There are new graphics, new game play, and new support structures that are all intended to connect to a generation whose sense of mythology is influenced not by reading J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, but by viewing movies and playing video games several steps removed from that original source material.
I see that in the fact that Goodman Games has new customers who didn’t previously play D&D – which is exactly what 4E is supposed to be accomplishing.

Jones: A number of folks have suggested that sales figures are skewed by the fact that a good many people are buying 4e product but not playing them.
People are definitely buying 4E and not playing it, just like they did in 3E. Readers of the Acaeum and my own forums will know I have voiced my concerns about this for years, well into the 3.0 and later 3.5 eras. This is nothing new.

Jones: How unique is Goodman Games’ experience compared to other companies who are perhaps having less success with 4e products?
When asking this question it’s important to keep in mind the frame of reference for the speaker. The best sales period for 3E was August 2000 through roughly mid-2001. This was the time when most of the current third party publishers were established, and for many of them their frame of reference is colored by the staggering sales numbers of that period.

Goodman Games released its first product in November 2001, and that was a weird dinosaur game; it was not until September 2002 that Goodman Games released a core fantasy product. By then the 3.0 era was half over. Being a late entry to the scene, I missed the early sales boom, I didn’t get the retail penetration that came from the time when retailers had standing orders for “anything with a d20 logo,” and I missed out on a lot of the early relationships that forged between d20 publishers and other institutions (whether it was Wizards staff, the early third-party RPGA living campaigns, or distribution deals). For me, it was a long, slow climb.

I am not unique in this latecomer position, but when discussing perspectives on sales numbers, it’s important to understand the frame of reference of other companies. Most of the remaining d20 publishers released their first products in 2000 or early 2001. Their point of comparison is the single best sales period for D&D products in nearly 20 years.

My point of comparison is very different.

For a very long time, I’ve seen 4E as a chance to hit the “restart” button on the timing advantage possessed by companies founded in 2000. This seems to have happened. That is why Goodman Games was extremely aggressive about having product available at the very launch of 4E. Many d20 publishers credited their 3E success to great product or excellent game design or outstanding art or their own good business plans. Some of that is definitely true in every case – there’s a reason they still exist while other first movers have vanished – but an equally significant factor is simple timing.

All game designers know what “first mover advantage” is, and it’s true in the business world as well. Why has Goodman Games done well in the 4E era? For the exact same reason many other publishers did well in the 3E era: great product, excellent game design, outstanding art, good business plans – and first mover advantage. First mover advantage established a host of companies in 2000, and it has helped Goodman Games in 2008-2009.

Over the past several years, as many of the d20 publishers with brand recognition from the 2000-2001 period slowly went extinct, I offered to buy their companies and/or brands, solely because those brands would have value again when 4E relaunched. Without “kissing and telling,” I can tell you that there were several such deals under negotiation, and in every case the owners valued their companies based on their 2000-2001 sales figures, not a more reasonable time period. As a result, I considered the asking prices too high, and none of these deals went through. One of the companies simply disappeared, another transferred its IP then faded away, and a third still “exists” but hasn’t released a product in years. In every case, I believe that what the owners considered “insufficient” at the time now looks like a pretty good offer in retrospect. In these deals I encountered what I believe is still a pervasive opinion, which is that the sales figures of the 3E era are a reasonable predictor of future sales. They never were and never will be.

Jones: Did the handling of the GSL cause significant problems for third-party publishers who want (or would’ve wanted) to produce 4e products?
Apparently. I’d been planning for a new edition of some kind for many years, so I had already worked out a general plan for whenever it happened. Some of the specifics and timing of 4E weren’t what I expected, but in general I was able to do most of the things I’d planned to. Based on what I’ve heard from other publishers, I had a better experience than most. The GSL rollout definitely wasn’t a smooth process, and even though I had a “better experience” it still caused a lot of problems. We had to make decisions on very short timelines, and the back-and-forth of the license required a lot of rework internally. I’m kind of a “glass half full” kind of guy, though, so I saw a way out of the maze.

I’m not the only one to find a silver lining. Pathfinder is a perfect example of “making lemonade out of lemons.” Paizo has also turned a potentially negative GSL experience into a very positive situation. When 3.5 launched, I remember publisher lamentations similar to what happened later with the GSL.

Matt Sprange of Mongoose Publishing commented at the time that he saw 3.5 as a gigantic opportunity. I would agree with him, and with Paizo’s attitude in response to the GSL situation. I respect businessmen who see the opportunities that come with any changing of the game rules.

I definitely wish the transition to 4E had gone smoother, but I was never concerned with 4E failing. This is, after all, a huge marketing push from a division of Hasbro on a brand with 95% recognition.

Jones: Yet there still seems to be a good bit of negativity surrounding 4e out there?
What’s interesting is that the “negativity” exists on the internet, but not in stores. I visit a lot of game stores, and while there are definitely some for whom 4E isn’t moving, the vast majority of them are selling 4E. Between D&D delve nights, Worldwide D&D Game Day, RPGA nights, and Free RPG Day, my visits to game stores are consistently filled with conversations with store owners who are satisfied with 4E and lots of happy gamers who are enjoying the game. I grant that there is definitely a storm of negativity on many of the internet forums. But that’s not a reflection on the true market for D&D 4E.

My biggest challenge in marketing 4E right now is the exact opposite scenario – dealing with the excessively positive response to the RPGA under 4E. The RPGA is so strong now, with so many gamers playing RPGA events, that it’s limiting my ability to sell “unofficial” third party supplements. Endgame and Black Diamond Games are two high-volume game stores in California which should be selling a lot of my product. Instead they sell my 4E titles at a much lower ratio to their core book sales than smaller retailers. Why? Because they have enormous RPGA contingents who are gobbling up all the official 4E material. I’m currently strategizing product and marketing offers to deal with this unintended side effect of 4E success.

Jones: Earlier today my daughter and I went out to buy D&D minis. Our local game store has them for the suggested retail price and the local chain bookstore has them at 10% member discount. The bookstore also has a bigger selection… Aren’t I being silly if I go first to the game store, buy one box of minis, then to the bookstore and buy another… which is, I might add, exactly what I did! I guess that’s not really a question.
The question in your example is, why did you go to the game store in the first place if you knew they charged more? You just explained why game stores will always prosper. They are fun.
I love visiting game stores. There is a sea of product that interests me. When I’m bored I go to a game store and browse. I invariably find something I’d overlooked before and want to try out. So, no, you’re not being silly. You’re doing what we all do with our favorite hobbies!

Jones: What if I don’t have a local game store? Is there anything wrong with shopping online?
When I was a kid, I went on a family trip to visit my uncle in Florida. I wanted to buy the new Battlesystem supplement for D&D (their mass combat rules at the time) so my parents took me shopping in this small Florida town. The only place that sold D&D books was a craft store. I distinctly remember buying Battlesystem and Ral Partha miniatures in the same aisle as the knitting needles and yarn. D&D was shelved next to the yarn!

This is the legacy of D&D retailing: it’s an unusual product line that has been sold over the years at a very eclectic assortment of retail outlets. Use the Wizards of the Coast retail locator for many Midwestern cities and you’ll find coin stores and newsstands listed. In the last couple months, I’ve personally visited three sports collectibles stores that also sell D&D. One of the stores that participated in my recent DCC sale was a movie rental store.

If online sales have any impact on game sales, I see it in these marginal, low-volume accessory outlets. A local craft store that formerly sold a trickle of D&D product may find itself selling none because the six local gamers and the kid who occasionally visits his uncle are now buying online. In this case, shopping online probably offers a better assortment, better stock levels, and a better price, so it’s probably the better solution for that customer.

Many full line game stores offer products that aren’t available online, and this is where the selection difference comes into play. Frankly, I’m amazed how often I find collectible D&D products in stores or at cons which were never listed online. People online will pay up to triple the retail price for a mint copy of DCC #35: Gazetteer of the Known Realms, but just in the last couple weeks I’ve found three copies selling for regular retail price at game stores. I saw a copy of DCC #17.5: War of the Witch Queen, one of our rarest convention modules, at a store last week. I’ve answered probably 100 emails from collectors trying to find that module online, but there it was sitting on the shelf at a game store!

This isn’t to say that retail is better than online, but there genuinely is a different experience, and the selection in a good full-line game store really is astounding. It’s not always better organized, but it is often broader and deeper.

I wish we were all lucky enough to live near such stores.

Jones: Do you think PDF or electronic texts will ever replace actual, hold-them-in-your-hands paper products?
Wasn’t the paperless office supposed to arrive by 1990? For many individual customers, electronic products will definitely replace physical books; everyone has a “laptop gamer” in their group. But for every laptop gamer there are a couple others who prefer hard copy. Electronic text definitely impacts print, but I don’t see a complete replacement ever happening.

The PDF argument is one of the reasons some online nay-sayers claim that “game stores are doomed.” Not quite. RPG’s typically make up 10% of a full line game store’s volume. In specialty shops (such as comic or collectibles stores), it’s even less. Even if the PDF market caused a 20% reduction in RPG sales for the typical game store (and, trust me, that is an extreme scenario – my PDF sales are much, much less than 20% of my print sales), the game store’s sales volume would drop 2%. That’s far from a doomsday scenario.

The other negative claim I hear bandied about concerning game stores is “poor management.” Have you ever been to my local Office Depot? The place is terrible – the copiers are always broken, the staff knows nothing about any of the product, and their UPS shipments mysteriously disappear. I had to rent a U-haul recently and the place was excruciatingly inefficient. Did you ever wonder why Taco Bell has that 1-800 customer service number posted outside the drive-through window? It’s not because they can rely on all their locations to be perfectly managed.

Game stores are no better or worse managed than any other retail institution. I don’t believe all Office Depot locations are terrible because my local branch is, but for some reason there are gamers who believe all game stores are terrible because their local one is. Frankly, I’ve been to a lot of phenomenal game stores, and that’s why I recently announced that I’ll donate $1,000 in RPG’s to America’s Favorite Game Store, as decided by online voting. There’s a thread on my forums where gamers are extolling the virtues of their favorite game store.

In my initial post I talked a little bit about my experience outside the gaming industry. To cite a specific example, I was in the luggage business when the FAA changed the maximum dimensions for carry-on baggage. As another example, I was in the cosmetics business when a major new competitor began rapidly opening new stores. And as yet another example, I was in the suit separates/dress clothing apparel business as casual Fridays (and later “business casual”) became the norm. Business has challenges. That’s what makes it fun.

Some people are scared of the challenges, or see only the risks. I’m not one of those people.
At the luggage company, we organized a huge sale on the “old-dimension” bags. At the cosmetics company, we re-launched our core brands with new packaging and new fixtures, and in doing so we drove a 40% sales increase despite the competition. At the apparel company, we made dress clothing our #1 category for two years in a row, by focusing on eco-friendly dress clothing, the basic “marry and bury” suits, and a few other strategies.

The 3E launch was an EL 1 encounter. That’s why you had first-level publishers releasing product. The 4E launch, on the other hand, was an EL 20 encounter. Not all publishers made it through that challenge. Goodman Games had a good adventuring party and some good die rolls, and we made it through and earned some good XP. Whatever challenge the future brings, I’m now one level higher thanks to 4E, and looking forward to some more interesting encounters.

Got a designer, publisher, or artist you’d like interviewed by our Kobold Diplomats? Let us know in comments.

34 thoughts on “An EL 20 Conversation with Joseph Goodman”

  1. Superb interview, and a bracing reminder that the deepest divide in the RPG hobby lies between fan/gamer self-perceptions and the financial realities of (this bizarre variant of) bookselling. (The same dynamic obtains in TV/media fandom.)

    That said, the hidden term here is that D&D 4e is a better-designed game system than any previous edition (for all its shortcomings in terms of flavour, adventure design, implicit storytelling limitations, relentless juvenilia, etc.). Most 4e play is combat, and the 4e combat system is superb; it’s different from what’s come before, to be sure, but it’s lovely piece of design, playable and well-balanced. And young players in particular – for whom ‘game design’ means something their parents could never have understood – respond to that. Indeed, the change in game-mechanical expectations brought about by complex simulation gaming, the improved feel for elegant game design, is one of the most important changes in gaming culture since D&D came out.

    It seems that a strong product, well-marketed, and with no well-known competitor, will sell. This disturbs fans and hardcore gamers, who don’t think in terms of ‘products,’ despite their obsessive collector/commercialist tendencies. I admire Mr Goodman’s ability to bridge between discourses. Again: excellent, authoritative interview.

  2. This is by far my favorite interview of the past few months. I think it benefits from the fact that the interviewee isn’t asked to reminisce about the past or sell us future products, but simply wants to inform the reader about things he or she might not know.

    I think the relative irrelevance of .pdfs is something that’s been forgotten since WoTC’s “pdf-Gate” broke a few months back, and it’s refreshing to see a publisher simply explain why this is the case.

    But yeah, this is seriously good stuff. I really enjoyed reading this.

  3. Well!

    Frankly, I was disgusted with Goodman’s original post (likely in the wake of Clarke Petersen’s post).

    In this context, and with much greater opportunity to explain himself, I admire his honesty and thoughts.

    I also am impressed that he didn’t once use “corporate speak” unlike the interview with Greg Leeds on ENworld.

    To Mr. Goodman, I’ve long admired your products, but I now admire your clarity and shared thoughts.

    Kudos, and a really great interview Mr. Jones.

  4. Although I am not a fan of 4E (I’m a 3.5 & Pathfinder fan) I also found this to be an interesting read. The man certainly has strong opinions!

    Regarding Aberzanzorax’s post … can you tell us what Clarke Petersen post you meant? Can you provide a link? I’d love to read it.


  5. Really informative interview. I for one always realized that the internet group was something of a minority, though we at time tend to forget the fact. It is too easy for some fans of the game to become convinced that their opinion is the same as “everybody’s”. That being said, I understand the reasoning of some companies getting on the 4e bandwagon. I am not a 4e fan, so I most likely won’t be buying any of your 4e products. I like the system okay, but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like D&D to me. I have been in the game since 1984, so I am not basing my experience on 3e alone. Each edition of the game has had it’s on feel, but something about 4e strikes me as wrong. I feel that the balance factor is too high & every character is essentially the same, just with different names for the core powers.

  6. Phillip Larwood

    As a person who has written for both versions of the game (4e and 3.5) I must say that the differences between the systems are less obvious and profound than you might realize. In fact, I was playing a 4e game the other day and it didn’t feel much different to the 3.5 game I played a week or two earlier. Sure, the mechanics were different, but everything else (character interaction, player jokes, deciding how to get past the gate guards and other strategizing) felt pretty much the same.

    One more thing (and this is where I strongly disagree with Dale). The starting classes for 4e were indeed very similar, but the true beauty of 4e is that with each new expansion, the differences between the classes escalates exponentially. Indeed, I’m actually facing the opposite problem. There are so many options for my characters that I’m being spoilt for choice and my 4e bard is completely different from my 4e warden, both mechancially and flavor-wise.

  7. You know, I saw a lot of people online who were “disgusted” or “outraged” by Goodman’s post, and I always thought those reactions were fairly irrational.

    It’s entirely appropriate to cite relevant expertise when making assertions, and I do think it’s pretty safe to say that Goodman has expertise that many (most) of the blogosphere/message boardosphere doesn’t have. I’d go further and suggest most of the people online criticizing his post had insufficient expertise to even do that with any credibility. It’s both factual and necessary to state “I’m Joseph Goodman and I know more than you” when there are tons of people online writing without expertise – and those who do have the expertise to write typically, like Goodman, chose not to do so.

    Blogging has, perhaps, obscured the fact that writing opinion pieces and critiques isn’t particularly easy – and that careful study and expertise (usually by beat reporting for 5 or more years) is required to write opinions on a given topic in a major newspaper. Though one can question the quality of the opinions newspapers produce – I do all the time – there’s no doubt that most of the quality people writing about a topic are at least qualified to be horribly wrong.

    Though no one likes being reminded that it takes a certain amount of expertise to critique another expert, I’m quite certain Goodman was a great deal more diplomatic in that post than I would have been. In fact, Goodman was a great deal more diplomatic than I have been when others have made incorrect and inexpert statements about art (my area of specialization is philosophy of art and aesthetics) or the craft of writing in my presence.

  8. Great interview! I’ve written for Joe in the past and have nothing but respect for his business knowledge and dealings. Anytime I get to hear his wisdom is a good day. Thanks to KQ for this.

  9. Insightful interview. However this interview nor the original post from Mr. Goodman answer the question I have in mind about the 4E product:

    Mr Goodman repeatedly says that 4E sales (his as well as all in general) have been good but one should not compare 4E sales to the “anomaly” of the 3E sales height in 2000-2002. Well my question is, if the sales of 4E have been “good” or “pretty good” or “very well” but not near the peak of 3E then wouldn’t Hasbro have been just as well served to release a “3.75” to achieve “pretty good” sales with that and at the same time NOT ALIENATE almost its entire 3E TPP support and a large percentage of its existing 3E and long time players? Was it wise for Hasbro to dismantle it’s organically grown d20 partner base AND fracture it’s core consumer base for “pretty good but nowhere near 3E peak” sales?

    Mr Goodman himself says converting his product line and company focus to 4E was a challenge and a bit of a trial by fire, yet he was forced to do this so Hasbro can get “pretty good” sales out of it’s new edition? I can’t imagine this kind of arrangement being acceptable in other businesses. I’m surprised Mr. Goodman would support it in his own.

  10. Tom, don’t be so bitter. You sound like a member of Necromancer Games. No one will ever know whether a 3.75E would have sold better then 4E. Grab Spock, slingshot around the sun and report back. I happen to like 4E and I haven’t played regularly since 1E.

  11. Tom has some good questions. The problem is he assumes no one can answer them, then commits the logical fallacy “appeal to ignorance” to justify his personal preferences.

    I’m sorry WoTC discontinued your favorite game, Tom. I still haven’t recovered from the cancellation of Planescape during the move from 2e to 3e, and sincerely hope Dark Sun is the next announced campaign setting from WoTC.

    Onto your questions. Per Goodman, the height of 3e’s sales were anomalous and also ten years removed from the present. Per other industry veterans interviews, the release of 3.5 provided a short-term spike, but didn’t create a second boom or even sustain the spike – which is natural, since rules tweaks aren’t really going to generate the kind of excitement a new edition would.

    There’s no guarantee or even reason to believe that a WoTC-produced 3.75 would be selling as well as a new edition – and lots of reason to believe that the new edition is doing better than people online want to believe.

    So to answer your questions: No, it likely wouldn’t have been good to announce a 3.75 and thus not alienate core fans, especially considering how well sales are now going; though the sales might not be at the 3e peak of 2000-2001, those numbers are anomalous. The 4e books’ presence on best-sellers’ lists and the amount of Internet buzz for the new edition – both good and bad – is pretty incredible, and the kind of PR that money can’t buy.

    And yes, it probably was wise for Hasbro to dismantle its d20 partner base and fracture its consumer base considering that even with a fractured base the company is doing very well in a troubled economy. Believing otherwise seems to me to be wishful thinking and destructive to the hobby – since (supposedly, at least) when D&D does well all RPGs do well.

    And this sort of thing actually does happen in other businesses all the time. Here’s a non-obvious example: professional wrestling.

    Professional wrestling is a very successful and sustainable product right now even though there is no Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin or The Rock on the horizon – and even when there was, there was nothing guaranteeing these performers would continue to perform at peak levels for sustained periods of time (history proved they couldn’t, incidentally).

    Merchandise sales, PPV buyrates and TV ratings aren’t anywhere near those peak levels – but no one can look at WWE’s quarterly reports and conclude that they’re not profitable because they’re not performing at anomalous peak levels. When the company switched its presentation from a racier, raunchier style to something more family-friendly they lost a lot of casual fans, but that’s OK – the great isn’t the enemy of the good, and the hard-core fans left combined with new fans have proven a good base to build from while waiting for the next big thing to happen.

    You can’t plan a business model around boom years – and sometimes you have to take a short-term hit for long-term success. Perhaps you think Hasbro and WoTC could have gotten another ten years out of product support for an edition already boasting a decade of great supplementary material, Tom – but I think you’re pretty close to the only person who does think that.

    I love reading scholarship about marketing and sales, and based on what I know about this stuff I don’t really see a compelling reason why the market needs D&D 3.75 produced by WoTC – or even that there was a long-term demand for that. Many fans would, justifiably, have asked why they couldn’t continue playing 3e or 3.5 – after all, they asked the same question when 3e transitioned to 3.5e, and they were probably right to ask that question.

    But I can see a need for Pathfinder RPG (which amounts to 3.75), largely because you have a new company supporting a new iteration of the old standard.

    Now, I’d be happier if PFRPG had tried to fix many of the complaints about 3e that people on RPG.net have made – i.e., full casters making the rest of the party useless – but I recognize that this isn’t a bug to many players, it’s a feature. So it’s smart for them to produce something there’s a need for.

    And it’s OK that they didn’t try to fix this or even perceive it as a problem – it means I wont’ be running a PFRPG game, but my group prefers 4e anyway. I prefer to DM it, too, because the ease of DMing allows me to edit and help develop content for KQ. This is better for everyone involved, so Paizo doesn’t have to market their game to people like me.

    As an aside, allow me to say this. I value KQ’s customers and subscribers, and would never want to hurt their feelings by changing our format and system support.

    But though I don’t speak for Wolfgang, I can say that if Kevin Siembieda offered to turn KQ into The Glitterboy Gazetteer to be the monthly front line in the coming fictional PR Blitz heralding Rifts 2e – thereby making Wolfgang and the rest of the staff millionaires in the process – I’d say screw it and cash in.

    I personally wouldn’t be too concerned about alienating every single subscriber we currently have. I’d hope all of our subscribers are adult enough to be happy that RIFTS is going to make me, Wolfgang and Scott millionaires.

    So yeah, Tom, your questions don’t really make a lot of business sense, nor are your implied answers terribly compelling. Unless, that is, you believe WoTC and Hasbro have a moral obligation not to hurt your feelings – and everyone knows that isn’t a sustainable business model, or even the way the free market works when creating competition is at work.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  12. Wow! An intelligent interview and an equally intelligent (and spiky) response from Mr. Hebert!

    Because of some nasty internet forums, I sometimes forget that our hobby consists of above-average thinkers and gamers as opposed to biased-fanboys whose nostalgia cloud their oftentimes hate-filled comments, with no basis in expertise nor experience.

    Good times!

  13. To Tom:

    In regards to your question of “if the sales of 4E have been ‘good’ or ‘pretty good’ or ‘very well’ but not near the peak of 3E then wouldn’t Hasbro have been just as well served to release a 3.75 to achieve ‘pretty good’ sales…” You are completely ignoring the fact that 3.5 didn’t perform as well as 3.0 did. If 3.5 couldn’t perform at 3E levels, what makes you think 3.75 would?

    In my personal experience, 3E renewed my interest in D&D as a player. 4E has done this once, AND it has also made me want to DM more than I ever have since my first time cracking open my first D&D book back in the 80’s. I might also add that many of the criticisms and hyperbole trumpeted from from some of the critics is often completely contrary to my experience.

  14. Phillip Larwood

    Nice points from many people (especially Neal -which makes me wonder why he hasn’t served us up a 4e trap yet? ;-)

    Many of the people who disrespect 4e have never played the game, or tried it for a few weeks and decided it was terrible (which for some people I know was more about an inexperienced GM and the group’s social dynamic than the new mechanics or rules). It took me a couple of months to get over my dislike of the game because I knew it was rooted in an irrational resistence to change (one of the most common of human failings). Once I got over this failing I realized that 4e was no worse than 3.5 and in several key ways was a whole lot better. In fact, the only things that annoy me know is the absence of craft and profession skills and the niggling problems with skill challenges (though these are gradually being fixed).

  15. Well, Phil, the snarky answer is that I’m too busy messing around with your newest submissions to even dream about writing a trap of my own – but that wouldn’t be true because I really like editing your submissions and reading your stuff. You should PM me on the forum because I have a few questions/suggestions about one of your submissions.

    No, the real reason for my lack of traps is that I suck at traps, and haven’t run enough of them in my 4e campaign to be comfortable coming up with an original trap. I’m still at the stage where I’m so excited about all the cool monsters that it almost physically pains me to leave even one monster out.

    Once I run a few traps and get a feel for how they work in play I’ll probably write one up.

  16. This is again at Phil, but really should be open to everyone:

    How do we fix magical item creation in 4e? I like that the system is silent on the RP stuff enough to let me just mess around with stuff, inserting flavor and stuff from my favorite fantasy novels willy-nilly since the mechanics don’t have to model the stuff.

    But I really do wish there were ways to, say, make artificers put pieces of their souls in the items they create – I’ve always had a hard-on for the mechanomancers in Unknown Armies, but that aspect of the artificer is missing in 4e (and was perfectly modeled in 3e by the XP costs for crafting, though that was problematic).

    I feel like there’s only so much adding stuff in without system support before it gets kinda lame. I’m not quite asking for Social Combat a la Burning Wheel or Exalted, but some options for a neat subsystem presented by, well, anyone to make that stuff more than just crap my players and I add in the game randomly.

  17. Thank you for the refreshing “business model” point of view.

    We can only rejoice that the 4E sales numbers are not catastrophic, and that WOTC still exists.

    One key to making money is innovation in answer to market desires/wishes (and making it known). 3rd Edition was innovative on many levels (rules, d20 licence, marketing). 4th edition is also innovative (rules, digital tools). Innovative does not necesseraly mean better. Here, it means different. The two editions aim at two different markets. In play (and in reading, preparing, DMing), they feel like two different products of a same product line, like “Classic D&D”, and “Standard D&D”. Or even two different RPG games.

    I suppose that supporting the two products was analysed as not profitable enough. We now have “Pathfinder D&D” and “WOTC D&D”, two different games for two different markets and fans. And two different business models. Each one will have their own lives, with their own upgrades and innovations. Is it not good for RPG ?

    My only regret : that the new game keeps the name of the “classic” product instead of a new name. It kept me confused for several weeks.

  18. I’m not a 4e designer, Mr. Herbert, but I think you could include a mechanic for something like that by allowing an Artificer or other magic gewgaw creator to invest healing surges into their creations, and thereby granting encounter long extras for said item. Less messy than an XP expenditure.

  19. Christina Stiles

    Good interview! Joseph Goodman definitely has a proven track record in this industry, so I value his opinions.

  20. I played the original version of D&D and stopped for 20 years; until about the time 4E was launching. I’ve since played both 3.5 and 4 E and own both sets of rules. I have a feeling that some people enjoy the vast rule system of 3.5, but I have to say, referencing rules constantly is horrible for gameplay. I definitely prefer the original D&D to 3.5 because of this. So far, 4E I find very playable for the same reason.
    Great interview and fun reading.

  21. Neal (and all others interested),

    I enjoyed reading your response, thank you. I would like to follow up on your post below…

    First off, you and others keep mentioning that Hasbro discontinued or otherwise hobbled my “favorite game”. This is most certainly not the case. I don’t play 4E and I never said one negative or positive thing about it or its predecessor, 3.x, as a game in my post. I’m not sure why you assume that my comment was some kind of pro-3.x and anti 4E crusade. It was not. Yes, I play 3.5 and not 4.0 but I did not extoll or villify either game in my comments. So lets take that topic out of the discussion.

    What I did comment on was the business plan that Hasbro followed for 4E and the damage it wrought to its existing 3.x customer base to generate what appears to be a slightly better then marginal sales bump. I argue they could have achieved this bump, improved their game, and NOT alienated a portion of their existing base by releasing a backwards compatible version instead of a wholesale and incompatible rewrite.

    Even Mr. Goodman mentions that adjusting to the 4E model was a challenge to him (I mention this before as well). In fact, to my knowledge, the vast majority of d20 providers either complained vigorously about or completely rejected 4e upon its initial release to the point where many of them went and developed their own game systems in lieu of 4e support. I fail to understand how this is a satisfactory way to support your business partners. In addition a substantial percentage of the consumer base (ie players) did not follow the 4e trail and instead went in other directions with their gaming interests. I doubt anyone that will be buying the Paizo game you mention is new to the hobby. I’m sure 95% of them are 3.x players.

    This to me is the crux of the problem with the 4e business strategy (not the game). Would Toyota make the 2010 Camry use all new parts that are incompatible with the previous model so that all their suppliers have to destroy the current inventory of alternators and solenoids while at the same time make it no longer fit in your garage? All this to increase sales say 10%? I don’t think they would. This to me is what Hasbro has done with D&D.

    Yes the 2010 model of the Camry can be redesigned but a substantial portion of the underlying drivetrain is identical to the previous models and any mechanical changes are done in concert with their parts manufacturers and after market suppliers not in direct opposition to them. Toyota does not want to “challenge” its business partners to keep up with their changes.

    I understand Hasbro would like to get more intellectual property into the game by doing things like removing Gnomes and Half-Orcs (in the core books anyway) and replacing them with Dragonborn and Warforged. Yes this makes the game potentially more profitable since Hasbro can put copyrights around Dragonborn and Warforged, but these types of things could still have been achieved without the rules rewrite and dismantling of the d20 partnerships. I believe.

  22. I think two things are in order here.
    1) I understood Tom’s post initially, before he corrected it, and I don’t see why he needed to.

    “3.75 would have performed as well at 3.0” (the point you addressed) is a completely different sentence from “A backwards compatible 4.0 would have performed as well as this 4.0” a point no one has addressed, and a point that is more important.

    2) I think I agree most strongly with Cyril Flament’s comment “My only regret: that the new game keeps the name of the ‘classic’ product instead of a new name”

    4.0 is barely recogniseable as DnD. It is not an evolution of the previous products, it is a new product. This is where you get a lot of nostalgic critics, and you are not addressing their concerns. You are merely restating your opinions, and ignoring what they mean.

    That represents “the death of DnD” to many players. Why would a game with only token relations to the game systems of the last 30 years, be considered DnD to fans? The game is over for those players because that is gone.

    It’s not about the sticker on the front of the book insisting this is what DnD is now. Even if the books sell, so what?

    Would you be making the same arguments if Hasbro scrapped it’s RPGs completely, started producing romance novels and put a DnD sticker on the front? No.

    “But look, DnD sales are up 7%, so your argument that DnD is dead is rubbish”. You miss the point entirely that they’re making. You’re not even arguing against it, you’re just missing the point.

    3) “My only critics are nostalgics who would have been disappointed with anything!”

    Way to dismiss all your opponents without needing to contribute a single valid point. I bought all the 4.0 books because I was excited about the new system. I was really looking forward to it.

    I was disappointed. I continue to read (now without buying them) the books that come out in my local store to see if they’re anything I’d appreciate, hoping that something will come along to entice me, and so far, nothing. (Eladrin are cool though).

    It irritates me no end when I’m then told I wouldn’t have liked anything. It’s a cheap shot… from a commenter who probably eats babies. :P

  23. I am a “long time” DM and very occasional player of 1E, 2E, 3E and 3.5E.

    I have investigated the 4E resources, and they honestly don’t interest me. Would someone like to flame me for my opinion? My preference? Will you feel superior, self-satisfied, etc. if you tell me how “nostalgic”, wrong, etc. that you consider me to be? Do you think I really care?

    Maybe Hasbro, WoTC, independent game designers would have appreciated my $$$. I have spent thousands of dollars over the past years. I even bought $100 of 3.5E PDFs last month. But I anticipate paying zero dollars for D&D resources in the near and foreseeable future.

    I’m sure many snarky, smarmy souls will just say: “Your loss, you stuck-in-a-rut relic of a bygone era.” Again, a non-issue.

    I play what I enjoy. Even though I update my software systems with the very latest stable releases, and sometimes betas, that doesn’t mean I always crave the latest, greatest changes to my gaming system of choice.

    Software games often have upgrades, and those can be even better. Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is one, in my opinion. Fallout 3 is a tremendous example. But there are numerous follow-on titles that I never got into. The 2nd Deus Ex didn’t pull me in like the fantastically replayable 1st game.

    Why talk about software games? Because apparently the new and aging hip players want a D&D game system reminiscent of software games. All members of my gaming group play World of Warcraft online frequently. I played for a few months but burned out on the grind.

    A software game appeals to the reward response–numerous articles exist detailing that phenomenon and the perfecting thereof. And it is a system with rules…much simpler rules than many paper and pencil games.

    People can feel good about grinding for years (literally) to get multiple high-level characters who can go places and thrash boss monsters. And do it in a group setting. But there are very finite limits to “role-playing” and doing whatever you’d like in a fantasy realm.

    As a type of strategy and resource mgmt, software games can excel. But do they challenge the mind for creative approaches to situations, challenges, problems? They can’t. Too complex. I know. I’ve written software systems my whole life.

    But the flexible paper and pencil version is significantly and unquestionably slower. And to make it more than just a battle of wills between the DM and players, devolving into a “I shot you first” “No, I shot YOU first!” debacle there are numerous rules that the human mind—more than a software algorithm—can effect.

    As has been said many times in many places: The complexity is a double-edged sword. It makes the game infinitely replayable, but working through the complexity can bog down the game resulting in frustration and boredom in the face of a barely- or un-playable session.

    But I like the flavor of 3.5E, standing as it does upon the foundations of the venerable previous editions.

    And I’m completely uninterested in trying to convert and/or buy upgrades to my hundreds of print and GIGABYTES of digital resources.

    Perhaps the “new” edition could have been swappable like any of the other optional rules. Hex facing. Spell point systems, etc. I read the alternate paths and swapping of abilities for classes in Dragon. Some were interesting. They were optional. Take it or leave it. The changes were incremental, clearly spelled out, fully compatible, and absolutely optional.

    If speed of play (simpler mechanics) was the driving motive—then provide improved grappling approaches, etc., which could be swapped in incrementally. The “upgrade” path would be clear. There’s a reason why M$ is providing an XP shell in Windows 7. Cutting off millions of legacy apps in Vista back-fired. Counter-arguments would include the assertion that M$ OS versions are slow to release and buggy because of backwards compatibility. Who is right?

    In any event, I agree with speeding up play, but not with sacrificing the original flavor of D&D. There were expansions that could cater to the need to attract new players “not raised on Tolkien”. Of course, the blockbuster movie came out, right?

    So I will endeavor to develop tools which could keep the complexity of 3.5E but increase the playing speed to something within sight of software games. Plenty of tools currently exist in the market…virtual tabletops, etc. And yes WoTC was making a 3D one, but lately it’s not been touted on the site.

    I spent months creating custom content for Neverwinter Nights using their included toolset and ran a small persistent online world. Great fun. But there were limits. I had fun making the Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch, the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd and all manner of artifacts. Also, scalable monsters. It kept the flavor of D&D and the play was as fast as ever, as expected. [of course the monsters never stood still for a fireball or meteor swarm, unless you came in invisibly!]

    So that is what I wanted to say: The new direction doesn’t interest me. I’m uninterested in forking over $100’s or $1000’s more for another game system. I’d rather solve the problem of helping players deal with the problem of rapidly processing complex rules.

    And good luck and happy adventuring to all of the 4E community, and whatever the future brings to the D&D system!


  24. ReginaAraceliBaizaGutman

    Disculpe, yo estoy buscando un Joseph Goodman, no se cuantos años tiene usted o talvez su padre podría ser si se llama igual, sus hermanos son Sheila e Irene Goodman, hace muchos años tenían contacto con mi tío Abraham Gutman aquí en México, Chiapas. Si son ustedes nos gustaría ponernos en contacto, y si no disculpe las molestias por el tiempo perdido.


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