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Gaming in the Wild: Expansions and Editions, Fun at a Profit

The world we have created for ourselves is rife with complexity and confusion. After millennia of civilised society we have a plethora of systems and states, hierarchies and red tape, and almost everywhere you go in the world, there is a monetary value placed on almost everything, even things that are labelled as “free…”

Perusing social media as I do, and keeping abreast of the posts and comments in a variety of groups and lists, I have come across a couple of items which inspired this week’s subject. And all of them took me back to a letter I saw in an old issue of GamePro magazine. The letter was written by someone who wanted to know why gaming consoles no longer came with two controllers, as they used to do back in the golden age of television gaming. This was a time where twenty-five digit passwords had to be written on scraps of paper and not misplaced, should you wish to continue your eight bit adventures at a later time. Even in the previous generation of Atari and Colecovisions, your controllers were hard wired to your console, and you only had one button to mash. And it was good!

Of course, once we hit the age of the Xbox, it was harder to find consoles with two controllers, and ultimately they became “bundles,” and were finally phased out in good time. And this reader wanted to know why. The short answer is money. It is also the obvious and most correct answer. The companies that produce these consoles finally figured out that they could get more money out of their customer base if they sold a minimal amount of attachments with the base unit, and then boxed up the rest for sale as “peripherals.” Cha ching!

Which leads me to my main observation involving a couple of posts and comments I have seen lately. Dungeons and Dragons has been around since roughly 1974. That’s forty two years. Since that time, there has been Original D&D, D&D, Advanced D&D, AD&D 2 edition, 3E, 3.5, 4E, and now full circle back to Dungeons and Dragons (which we collectively call 5E, no matter what they named it).

Somebody on a 5E facebook group I am part of posted the idle question of “What would you like to see in the next edition of D&D?” And there were a bunch of comments. I glazed over them, but focused on the one that said “No more editions.” This reply was obviously from someone who plays fifth, which struck me as amusing.

First because they weren’t still playing their favourite go to edition of the world’s most popular role-playing game, whatever edition that might be. And secondly, because thinking from a business standpoint, we never would have made it this far if TSR had stuck it out at just one edition of D&D.

I could point out motor vehicle models or console generations here, but those don’t really apply. That fact is, technology and wear and tear play a big role in those industries. Books however, last almost forever, especially if you look after them. I have many different books from a variety of editions of D&D, and they all work just fine. There might be some pen in the margins, and some pages may be falling out, but I could whip any of them out and study a little, roll up some PCs and start a session without much work. Just the same as fifth edition. Or third. Or Cyberpunk 2020, or d20 Star Wars.

However, if the company only produced one edition of D&D, they would have folded years ago. Why? Because after a while, people would have lost interest, and you can only produce so much content for a given system before you either completely break the game, making it unplayable by the vast majority of people, or you simply can’t cram any more parts on to the whole.

You might argue that Pathfinder is still kicking it’s 3.5 boots all over the dance floor, but even die hard devotees are starting to cry foul at the sheer volume of uninspired and reskinned rules bloat plaguing the system and setting. Keep watching, they are going to be forced to make a fundamental shift soon, based on the fact that their world has grown so large it will soon consume itself.

And this is where we are at with the current tabletop gaming model.

I am an X-Wing player, and I have bought into various collectible card games in the far past, including Magic, Star Wars and Spellfire. Smash Up markets itself as a series of small two player games that can be combined with each other to form larger games, but it is an expansion game for sure.

Role-Playing Games are largely expansion based, though they try not to appear as such. You buy the core book or books, and according to them, that’s all you need to start months and years of continuous and fresh adventures in a variety of settings. But if that’s all you did need, that’s all they would sell, and then they would fade into ignominy, at the bottom of the dustbin.

Except they are companies, and they need to make money. So they put out adventures. Pre-written stories for your group to play in. They take the work away from the gamemaster and provide an example of how their system is supposed to work and what you could create, if you feel so inclined. Yet still they are a company that has employees to pay, and so they must produce more. Supplements and campaign guides, map tiles and miniatures, race and class books and weapons guides and additional monster manuals. Book upon book, product upon product.

Many say that D&D died with the end of 2E. That it was the definitive edition and that TSR was doing the least profiteering and exploitation of the games’ history. They blame Wizards of the Coast for taking the street cred out of D&D’s soul.

The truth is that TSR was doing it’s best to make as much money as possible in those days, with cartoons and video games, novels and so many “Complete Guides” of varying colours, you could start an encyclopedic museum of make believe. All on the backs of it’s loyal consumer base. Like me.

And that hasn’t really changed today. If anything, Wizards’ is slow rolling their new game, letting the stew simmer, finally making an attempt at giving the people what they ask for, using playtest groups and “Unearthed Arcana” test marketing.

Board games are just as bad, and I see a lot of hate thrown in the direction of Fantasy Flight Games, one of the big guys in the board game publishing world. There are those in the competitive X-Wing world who are starting to speculate on X-Wing 2.0, and what it will look like. Why? Well, because you can only make a game for so long before it eats itself, and needs to be reborn. I am a big fan of FFG and their products. And I also feel I understand that people want to play the amazing games that they and other companies like them are putting out there. Except you can only play the same game so many times before you want something more, something new and different. Look at Carcassone. One of the original “Euro-Style” games, and winner of many awards. It still enjoys high sales today and occupies “classic” and “must own” status among most tabletop gamers. It’s easy to learn, fun to play and accessible. It also has reportedly the most expansions for games of it’s kind. Why? I already said. Money, and renewed interest to make the money happen.

These are companies, and there are only so many ideas to be had in a given year that can be developed into viable game seeds. So you take what is selling well and watch it. And you look at what is selling OK, and see how you can improve it. And you take what isn’t selling and you shelve it until a change can be made to make it one of the other two.

This may seem bitter, cynical and capitalistic, and that’s probably true. However we have all of these great games coming out because these companies do their business and do it well. How many kickstarters have you backed where they put out an awesome product like a game or game aid, and then that’s it? That’s all they had. One great idea, and the drive to get it out there. And then nothing. Six months later and you have gotten everything you can out of it, and you find yourself wanting more. What’s next?

Except there isn’t anything else. That’s it. The Designer/Artist/Publisher did their magic, and went back to being a truck driver or a dentist or whatever, and life is good again. They are making a living, and that’s what we all need to do.

So what if game publishers did that? WotC publishes this edition of D&D, and then closes the doors. No adventures, splat books or peripheral board games, just three books and sayonara. No Volo, no Storm King’s Thunder.

After a year or two we would all be buying another fantasy role-playing system and remarking on how awful or amazing it is.

I know a secret, though. Strangely enough, you are in control. You don’t have to buy every single thing that any given company publishes as soon as it hits the shelves. You can pick and choose. You can wait weeks or even months to buy expansions. You can not buy them at all!

I’ve been playing X-Wing for a couple of years now, and I only just started to invest in the Scum and Villainy faction. I know I have missed out on certain cards and things that have been very powerful, but I have persevered. I have placed reasonably well in local tournaments, and had a blast no matter what list I was flying or flying against. I have had fun, and not complained about FFG flooding the market with constant expansions.

I have also been thoroughly enjoying Dungeons and Dragons with minimal expansion purchasing, and I look forward to enjoying the cycle of this edition and seeing what they do with the next one.

How else are they going to make their money otherwise, and keep providing us with so many ways to adventure through the universe?

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